Crushing it in Chicago: My Marathon Recap

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I sit in the grass in a park 800 miles from home, after running 26.2 miles through an incredible city with great sights and friendly people. It sounds just like my second marathon, in Belfast, but my fourth marathon, in Chicago, was different than any other I’ve run.

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My first marathon in New York was a life-altering challenge in which I barely made it to the finish, propelled only by the massive crowds and friends and family along the route. My second, in Belfast was less painful and more sparsely attended, but very welcoming. My third, in Philadelphia was disappointing due to my pace versus my expectations. Even though I got faster in each Marathon I ran, I really wanted to make a large jump in Chicago and break four hours.

Held in early October, the Chicago Marathon gets much nicer weather than New York in November or Philly in late November. With temperatures in the mid 50s at the start rising up to 70 for the finish, it is almost hot. For a city called windy, the air is relatively calm and serene. Unlike New York, an icy wind doesn’t propel or slow me down. The course is also incredibly flat, my watch measures only 112 feet of elevation change. Running at my house I typically descend 112 feet in the first mile.

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We road-trip from NJ to Chicago, a 12 hour drive, because of the nightmare of our last flight with our boys. We head out after work, thinking the boys will sleep the whole way and we can get them to bed when we stop halfway at a hotel. The first part goes well, but when we stop for the night in western PA, the boys wake up. Instead of delaying getting them back to sleep by setting up the pack and plays, we decide to try to get them to sleep in bed with us. Two nights before a marathon, a decent night’s sleep is important. I sleep well but am kicked in the stomach, face, or worse about once every 15 minute overnight. At least it helps us get an early start for the rest of the drive to Chicago.

Once in Chicago, a city that seems to just stretch endlessly along a highway where traffic also stretches, we immediately head to the Marathon Expo. Inside is a nicely organized expo where I pick up my bib, t-shirt, and some other small goodies almost immediately. Further into the expo are booths from seemingly every fitness apparel company including a massive full store sized Nike shop with a ton of customized Chicago Marathon gear. Only the incredibly long line keeps me from loading up on gear.

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At the back of the expo, talks are held including a panel with running superstars. I also spot Bart Yasso, the mayor of running, signing his new book at the Runner’s World booth. I also happen to grab one of the posters without really thinking, only to discover later when opening it up at work how awesome it is. By the end of the expo I’m pretty amped up for the race, still 40 hours away.

That night we arrive early to the AirBNB we found only a 20 minute drive from the starting line of the race. The house is a historic home in Chicago’s sprawling suburbs that is perfect for us since the boys have their own room where they can sleep undisturbed. We even enjoy a night of relative relaxation, sitting on the couch watching Hulu with pizza from a local brewery delivered via UberEATS.

The next day we decide to explore the city on foot. While using up a bunch of energy walking around and tiring out legs may not seem like the best idea, it does give me an expectation of what the run will feel like and helps stretch out the leg muscles after the long drive. We explore the parks downtown, head up the Lakeshore Trail along the lake to the Navy Pier, and back along the Miracle Mile, seeing a bunch of the city’s downtown quickly.

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Before my first marathon, I made the choice to eat spicy ramen the night before. I had to stop midway through the run for the porta-potties. I quickly learned that the food leading up to the race can make a huge difference. I even stop drinking for the week leading up to this marathon, especially difficult when staying a block away from one of Chicago’s most popular new breweries and in a house that is stocked with craft beer. To properly carb up for the marathon, we grab the food the city is perhaps most famous for, deep dish pizza, at Pequod’s.

Deep dish pizza is basically an injection of carbs with a bit of protein in the form of pepperoni, and it’s the perfect choice before the run. I unquestioningly credit the pizza with feeling well fueled throughout the entire race. The boys absolutely love the pizza too, each devouring almost an entire slice on their own.

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The next morning, I prepare for the race. After spectating in New York, I realize how hard it is to find the person you’re cheering for unless they are wearing something distinct. I don my neon green sunglasses and headband, certain that I’ll be hard to miss.

Unlike New York, in which I had to wake up at 4:00 to get to the bus at NJ’s Meadowlands at 5:30, and then sit around waiting in the cold wind for nearly four hours before starting, Chicago is a breeze.We book a parking spot right near the start ahead of time using the city’s parking app, SpotHero. While everyone else hunts for a spot near the park, we cruise right in past security like VIPs. I cruise up to the starting corral with just a short delay for security and only have to stand around for about 10 minutes before the race starts. I’m pretty sure the waiting in the cold led to the leg cramps I experience in New York. Getting an immediate start here leaves my legs feeling fresh.

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The race brings me through many parts of the city we walked through yesterday as well as a ton of new places. The course manages to take in a ton of the city while entirely weaving through downtown, so the entire thing feels like a massive tour of the city and has great crowd support. Because the course loops through downtown so many times, my wife and the boys can see me a half dozen times. I keep an easy pace for the first half of the race and take in the sights of the parks, skyscrapers, and the magnificent mile which feels like a giant red carpet.

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In the second half, I’m more determined on hitting my target pace and arriving at the finish line just under four hours. I somehow don’t even notice Wrigley Field or the hockey stadium as I run past them. Instead, I focus on my watch which shows just under a 9:10 pace, right on track for a 3:59:59 finish or better. However, at one point around mile 16, my watch registers a 5:00 mile and I know something go messed up. I never have problems with it, and this is the first time it misses distance. I do my best to pause it while I make up the distance missed, but don’t realize this reduces the time. I mistakenly think I’m way ahead of pace and relax a little.

As I approach the finish line, my watch ticks just over 3:55 and I think I’ve smashed my personal best. Indeed I have, but by less than I thought, and end up finishing officially at 4:01. While it’s a staggering improvement over my previous best of 4:15, that one minute kills me after a great summer of training hard and regularly with good speed.

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I still enjoy the post-race celebration, one I consider the best of the races I’ve done so far. After a decent walk from the finish line, probably a good thing to keep the legs from cramping, I reach the afterparty in the park. A large stage is set up with a ton of tables and food and drink vendors around as well. My bib gets me a free Goose Island beer, perfect for the day which has really warmed up, and perfect to replace lost calories and carbs. We enjoy a few more beers paired with some delectable tangy gatorade – perfectly accentuating the citrus bitterness of the west coast hops in the IPA – as we listen to the bands. New York has a celebration feel across the whole city as finishers in ponchos and medals are treated like celebrities. Chicago though, has this great party for finishers, making the day feel a bit more special and less anti-climactic like other marathons where it builds up and up, and then there’s nothing at the finish.

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After the party, we head over to Revolution brewing to celebrate and recover. I’m surprised at how many finishers are there with medals considering the decent drive from the city. I guess Chicago is more of a driving city than I realized. The beer is a great post-run recovery as is the massive burger. The one french fry I get before the boys grab the rest tastes pretty good too. Though I’ve finished a marathon, the boys get first pick.

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Even though I didn’t beat my moonshot running goal of beating four hours, I came darn close. Almost as close as Nike’s official elite runners did to breaking two hours. I did it without even having a custom Tesla pacing me or groups of other runners forming a windbreak for me. Thanks to the great weather and course of Chicago, I achieved my best marathon finish by far. Now it’s time to relax and get back to enjoying running just to run, without a specific goal in mind. Well, at least for the next month until I find out if I got into the lottery for London or Berlin next year. I might have a problem.