Chicago – My Kind of Marathon

People have told me the Chicago Marathon was their favorite race. Other people have told me how much they hated that race. I ran the Chicago Marathon a couple of weeks ago so I now have formed my own opinion about the race. Of the big city races I have run, the Chicago Marathon is one of the best.  To put it another way – the Chicago Marathon is my kind of marathon.

First off, the location is perfect. Chicago is centrally located so it is an easy trip from the East Coast or the West Coast. Chicago is a great place to visit too. There are many excellent restaurants, plenty of shopping, and interesting museums. I didn’t want to walk around much before the race so I enjoyed the architecture boat tour on the Chicago River – a fabulous way to get a unique view of the stunning buildings that make up the Chicago skyline.

Yep, it was fun back in the L corral

With such easy access for everyone across the country as well as around the world (from over 100 countries), the Chicago Marathon is a big race. About 45,000 runners participated in this, the 40th anniversary of the race. At the start, runners were divided into three waves with multiple corrals in each. They staggered the wave starts so there were about 30 minutes between each wave. I was in the last corral in the last group – the L corral. Doesn’t get worse than that but I have to admit – it was fun back there.

Don’t see this kind of booth before a race too often

Since Chicago is located on the shores of Lake Michigan, I thought it would be at sea level. Surprisingly to me, the elevation in Chicago is about 600 feet – higher than New York, which is only 33 feet. The marathon course itself is pretty flat too – not many hills in Illinois. The course is a big loop through all the different neighborhoods of the city. The race is a great way to see Chicago’s rich ethnic diversity.

This was her first marathon

The race started in Grant Park behind the Art Institute on South Michigan Avenue and headed north to Lincoln Park, past the zoo. There were plenty of spectators holding interesting signs and cheering along the way. We ran past a senior citizen assisted-living center where the windows were plastered with motivational signs for the runners. Some of the residents sat by the windows waving at us while others sat in wheelchairs along the road, clapping and waving flags.

And this runner’s last marathon

In Lincoln Park I ran past a car on the side of the road with the windows rolled down. Its radio was tuned to race coverage. I could hear them interviewing the men’s marathon winner. He had finished and I was still at Mile 6. That was the most discouraging moment of the race for me – the winner had finished and I still had 20 more miles to go.

Just north of the park we turned back and started heading south towards the central part of the city. As we ran, we passed beautiful brownstone townhouses and many cheering spectators. It was definitely a lively crowd. This was also the section where I did my first (and, I hope, my last) face plant in the middle of a race. Fortunately, I was up and running with no significant physical injury (though my ego took a big hit).

When we got back to the center of Chicago, we made a right and headed west. This part of the race was very enjoyable. We ran through Greek Town and Little Italy. At one point, I smelled pizza baking. I was tempted to make a detour to find the source of that mouth-watering smell. I doubt I could have run another 13 miles after eating pizza but I made a note to look for Chicago-style pizza after the race.

Charity Block Party

The best part of the race was at Mile 14 where the Charity Block Party was set up. I was stunned by the number of charities represented. There were EZ-Up tents, side-by-side, one after another, lining both sides of the road, representing charities whose runners were fundraising for them. I have run more races than I care to admit but I have never seen anything like the Charity Block Party. It was amazing to see tents for Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, American Brain Tumor Association, Best Buddies, Muscular Dystrophy Association, Alzheimer’s Association, and The Organization for Autism Research (OAR) to name just a few. Each was manned by enthusiastic cheering volunteers. I was so overwhelmed by the sight of all these groups that I stopped just to look at them all. It is incredible how galvanizing a cause can be for people and in such a positive way.

The next part of the course took us through Pilsen, Chicago’s second largest Hispanic neighborhood. There were many mariachi bands and dancers along the course in Pilsen. It was the liveliest and friendliest part of the whole course and my favorite.

The last 6.2 miles of the course were the toughest. We turned onto Wentworth Avenue and ran through the huge red gate that welcomed us into Chicago’s Chinatown. There were plenty of cheering spectators here but once we left Chinatown, things were less exciting. This is typically the point where runners will hit the proverbial wall in a race – where there aren’t so many cheering spectators or interesting things to see. The only thing that kept me going was the realization that each step was getting me closer to the finish.

As I ran up South Michigan Avenue towards Grant Park and the finish, I could tell when I was getting close to the finish by the noise and the crowds.  The crowds got thicker and the noise got louder as I approached the first of two final turns on the course. I was not prepared for the little hill we had to run up after the first turn. I shouldn’t complain – I run longer and steeper hills on my training runs at home.  After the final turn, the finish line was straight ahead. I could hear the announcers reading everyone’s name as they crossed the finish line. Joan Benoit Samuelson was one of the announcers and I was hoping to hear her read my name. Honestly, when I finished, I only had one thing on my mind and that was getting my checked bag and taking a rest. If she said my name, I sure didn’t hear it.

I can see why people like this race so much – cheering crowds, beautiful buildings, unique neighborhoods, each with its own character and feel. I am a Chicago Marathon fan now too. I’d like to run that one again (without falling though). I didn’t get my post-race pizza so that would be a reason to go back. The Chicago Marathon should be on every marathoner’s to-run list.

This is my second post about the Chicago Marathon.  Check out my first post about my race – Chicago – How Bad Did I Want It.

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Chicago – How Bad Did I Want It

I just came back from running the Chicago Marathon, one of the 6 World Marathon Majors.  I know you want to read about the race itself but you have to wait until my next post  for that.  I first need to write about my race.

Last week before I traveled to Chicago, I picked up “How Bad Do You Want It?” by Matt Fitzgerald.   The book is about mastering your mental game in order to reach your fullest potential.   In the first chapter of the book, Matt wrote about Sammy Wanjiru, a Kenyan marathoner who won the 2009 Chicago Marathon.  Sammy returned the following year to defend his title.  He admitted at the press conference the day before the race he was only 75% prepared.  2010 had been a difficult year for him.  Sammy had suffered injuries to his knee and his back, and contracted a stomach virus that interrupted his Chicago training.  On race day, Sammy was up against tough competition on a warm day.  He went out too fast.  The last three miles were a battle of wills between Sammy and his rival who was in the lead.  When everyone else had written Sammy off, he dug down deep to keep going.  Sammy came from behind to beat his rival by 19 seconds and win the race.  Where logic might have said Sammy would be lucky to finish the race, he instead proved how bad he wanted to win it.

It was kismet that I happened to start reading the book a few days before I headed to Chicago.  This was the very question I had been asking myself as I trained.  It ended up being the question I asked myself repeatedly as I ran it.

My journey to the start line was bumpy to say the least.  I originally was scheduled to run the 2016 Chicago Marathon.  I broke my big toe in July 2016 and was unable to train in time for the race. I deferred my entry to this year.  While I struggled to recover from my broken toe, I developed ankle issues that required physical therapy and help from a rehabilitation fitness trainer.  In April I ran the Boston Marathon but didn’t quite feel 100% yet.

After Boston, I turned my focus to Chicago.  My training was going well until mid July when I experienced flashing lights in my peripheral vision.  A visit to the ophthalmologist revealed I had detached vitreous.  I was instructed not to run until the flashing lights stopped.  If I ignored my doctor’s instruction and ran, I risked developing a torn or detached retina, even possibly loss of eyesight in my eye.  I refused to let this latest challenge derail my goal of running in Chicago.  I knew how badly I wanted to finish that race.  For three weeks I found ways to maintain my cardio condition without running and jostling my head.  I rode a stationary bike.  I did water running.  I worked extra hard on strength training in my Pilates classes.  I bounced back quickly when I resumed running.

In early September I ran the Kauai Half Marathon.  It was the longest distance I had run since my last half marathon in July.  I felt like I was back on track.  Life, however, had other plans.  A week after I returned from Hawaii and the day after my 16-mile training run, I developed a cough that quickly deteriorated into bronchitis.  I was exhausted from coughing all night.  My allergies kicked in and exacerbated my condition.  I was unable to run for over a week.  When I finally resumed training again, I found breathing was more difficult and I was running much slower.  The marathon was only two weeks away and my longest run had been 16 miles.  For some runners that might have been enough to pass on the race.  But I am not most runners.  I was determined to run in Chicago.  I knew it wasn’t going to be easy but I was willing to endure whatever I encountered in order to finish.

Transverse Myelitis, injuries, illness – nothing was keeping me from going for my dream

On race day I felt good.  I followed my coach’s advice and kept telling myself I was strong and I was prepared. I didn’t allow my mind to be clouded by negative thoughts.   As I stood in my corral, I was confident, not nervous.  I chatted with the runners around me, reassuring first time marathoners who were questioning their own preparations for the race.  Finally our corral headed to the start line and my race began.

Although the course was crowded, I was running well until  mile 6 when I started to feel a twinge in my ankle, the one that had bothered me during my Boston Marathon training.   I knew I had to keep the pain in check or it would only worsen.  I remembered the marathon monk and how he meditates while he walks.  By focusing on his breathing, the rhythm of his walk, his mantra, or just emptiness, the monk is able to ignore his physical pain and quiet his mind.  I decide to follow the marathon monk’s strategy.  I visualized my ankle muscles relaxing.  In a short while, I no longer felt the pain.

The Chicago course was full of bends and turns.  I was advised by my coach to run the tangents, in other words, run the straightest line possible.  Around Mile 10.5 I began maneuvering myself in preparation for the next turn. I looked over my shoulder to ensure I was not cutting off another runner.  In doing so, I took my eyes off the direction I was headed.  I tripped over something in the road and fell.  Two male runners behind me quickly scooped me up and put me back on my feet.  My fall happened very quickly, which was probably a good thing.  I didn’t have time to try to catch myself or I might have broken my wrist or arm.  I had skinned my knees but otherwise I was fine.

After cleaning off my scrapes with a Wet One, I started running again.  My knee was throbbing from the pain and I could see it was starting to get swollen.  But I only had one thing in mind – finishing the race.  I kept asking myself “How bad do you want it?”  Did I want it enough to ignore my scrapes and knee pain to keep going?  I thought again about the marathon monk.  He endures pain and exhaustion in his quest.  I thought about Sammy in 2010.  I would not let my mind keep me from my goal.  I pushed myself and finished faster than I had planned, given the warm temperatures and my interrupted training.  I wanted it bad enough and I proved it.

I saw this sign at Mile 24 – it gave me the strength to make it up the hill at the end

I wasn’t the only one in Chicago on Sunday who proved how bad they wanted it.  Jordan Halsay, a young American marathoner, was running only her second marathon.  She finished 3rd in her first marathon, the Boston Marathon in April.  In Chicago, her coach had cautioned her about running too fast in the first half or she would not have enough energy for the second half of the race.  As Jordan ran, she realized she had a decision to make.  She could hang back with the pack and run for a personal record (PR) or she could stick with the leaders and compete for a podium finish.  She decided to compete.  We saw how badly she wanted it.  Jordan finished third in her second marathon appearance, knocking two minutes off her previous PR and putting her in second place on the all-time list of American marathon performances.  Yes, Jordan wanted it.

In his book “The Last Lecture” Dr. Randy Pausch talked about challenges – the brick walls that he ran into that prevented him from achieving his dreams.  He pointed out the walls were not there to keep him from achieving his goals but to show how badly he wanted to achieve them.  Because as Dr. Pausch pointed out, the walls are there to stop people who don’t want it badly enough.  They will quit trying.  I had encountered my own walls while going for my 5th World Marathon Major finish – injuries, illness, the heat on race day, and even a fall in the middle of the race.  Ultimately, I proved how badly I wanted to finish.  I am now just one race away from achieving my dream of completing all 6 World Marathon Majors.  No matter what – I won’t quit.

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

Chickens and The Sea

My most recent race trip took me to Hawaii for the Kauai Half Marathon.  I was never interested in visiting Hawaii.  For someone who lives on the East Coast, Hawaii is a long trip – over 10 hours alone on airplanes, not my idea of a fun time.  Then I saw the movie “The Descendants”.   The Hawaiian scenery was beautiful – palm trees, blue ocean water, white foamy waves breaking on sandy beaches with the mountains in the background.  I decided I wanted to see that Hawaii in person, not the “Hawaii Five-O” version I see on television.  Since Hawaii is one of the 50 States, I was obligated to run a race there anyway.  With “The Descendants” in mind, I picked the Kauai Half Marathon as my Hawaii race.

Breathtaking sunrises everyday

The first thing I noticed when I arrived in Kauai was the chickens.  There are chickens everywhere.  They were in the rental car parking lot.  They were wandering alongside the road on the way to the hotel.  They were outside the grocery store, at almost every scenic overlook, and at the beach on the south shore.  Wherever I went, there were chickens.  I joked to someone at the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge that the chicken must be the state bird of Hawaii.  They bristled at my comment.  The state bird is actually the Hawaiian Goose or Nene, the world’s rarest goose.  I saw a couple of those at the Wildlife Refuge but overall I saw many more chickens than Nene.

The other thing I noticed was the Hawaiian words, towns, and street names.  I recognized the letters but I couldn’t, no, I wouldn’t even try to pronounce the names of some of the places we went.  I visited Wales earlier this year and had a similar challenge with the Welsh language.  The official Hawaiian alphabet has only 13 letters – five vowels (which can be pronounced two different ways) and eight consonants.  Although the language was on the decline, efforts are being made to reintroduce it.  I hope they are successful because I find the language beautiful.

I was apprehensive about running in Hawaii.  Heat is the equivalent of Superman’s kryptonite for people like me with Transverse Myelitis (TM).  In hot weather, TM symptoms can flare up (referred to as Uhthoff’s phenomenon).  The air temperatures in Hawaii range from lows in the mid-60s to low 70s and highs in the 80s – perfect for people lounging at the hotel pool but challenging for endurance athletes with demyelinating conditions like mine.  I have to take extra precautions when I run in hot weather to manage my core body temperature.  I use a “Keep It Chill” gaiter made of a Xylitol infused fabric.  My gaiter has a cooling effect as long as it is wet.  In most instances, my gaiter has been able to help me manage my body temperature in warm weather races.  The race in Kauai was more challenging because the temperature was in the 70s at the 6 AM start.  My gaiter dried out quickly and stopped cooling me off before the race even started.  I realized I had to stay focused on managing my body temperature to finish this race.

This woman was handing out wet sponges around Mile 7 – My Hero!

The owner of a store I visited in Hanapepe the day before the race told me the race course was tough.  She said even some of the elite runners from Kenya thought the course was difficult.  I brushed off her comments.  She wasn’t a runner.  What does she know?  I have run hills and in heat.  I wasn’t going to have any problems.  But when I started the race, I realized she was not exaggerating.  Although the scenery was gorgeous and the sunrise as the race started was breathtaking, the first 7+ miles were all up hill.  It somehow seemed appropriate the music coming from the stroller being pushed by a male runner was Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”.  It fit the grind I felt running uphill in the heat with limited shade.  I tried to keep up with him just because I enjoyed his music but he sprinted ahead of me.

Tunnel of Trees

I enjoyed a respite from the sun between Miles 5 and 6 when we ran through the Tunnel of Trees, huge eucalyptus trees that formed arches over the road.  They provided welcomed shade.  About Mile 7.5 the course started a downhill to the finish by the beach.  I was able to make up some time.  While I didn’t have my worst half marathon finish, it certainly wasn’t my best.  I am just happy I was able to complete the course.

While I was in Kauai, I took a helicopter tour of the island with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters.  A helicopter tour is the only way to see Kauai since most of the island is inaccessible from the ground.  I was delighted to be assigned the seat in the front row next to the pilot.

View of the Na Pali Coast from the helicopter

Because of its perfect weather and beautiful scenery, many movies have been filmed in Kauai.  During the tour, our pilot pointed out places we might recognize from movies including Mana Waiapuna (commonly referred to as “Jurassic Park Falls”) and the nurses’ beach from “South Pacific”.   We flew over Waimea Canyon, the famed “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”.  Finally we flew into the center of Mt. Waialeale, the ancient volcano that created the island of Kauai.  Mt. Waialeale is also one of the wettest spots on earth, with an average rainfall of 450-500 inches annually.  Not surprising that we saw many waterfalls all over the island.  The helicopter tour with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters was the best part of my trip to Kauai.  I would do that again in a heartbeat.

In case you don’t know the song, here is a video of Led Zeppelin performing “Kashmir”.

My favorite version of “Over the Rainbow” by the late Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole, a famous Hawaiian singer.   The scenes at the end were filmed at his funeral.

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSave

SaveSaveSaveSave

SaveSave