In honour of everybody who found out if they got into the Chicago Marathon today, I decided to finally post this blog that I wrote after running it in 2018. It’s been sitting in my drafts folder for over a year (with a few reflections over time), so I thought it was time to dust it off and share. I’m also working on a post for this year’s race, which has made me rethink road marathons (or think more about why I want to run road marathons, if I even want to run them. More on that later). As usual, it’s very long.
“Can you call my mom?” That’s what I wanted to say as other runners kept asking me if I was ok. I was walking, trying to get over the shock of my hands and knees hitting the pavement. Even if I’d only been on the ground for a few seconds, I was shaken. It was my first Chicago Marathon, my first world marathon major and slipping and falling in the middle of the race was only one of the many things that had gone wrong. Was Chicago out to get me? Was I going to be able to finish? I choked back tears and started walking.
The Best Laid Plans
When I first signed up for the Chicago Marathon I had big dreams (or big for me anyway). My running was stronger than ever and I was getting ready to start training for my first 50k race, which I would run five weeks before Chicago. Things were going well and then the first setback occurred. I had an injury in March and started physio. It turns out I have a muscle imbalance and my right side (which is my dominant side) is actually weaker than my left. It got to the point where it caused sciatic pain. Every time I took a step, even when I was walking, I felt pins and needles go all the way up my leg and into my back. I got this under control with physio and was able to run my first 50k race (which I’ll post about one day). Afterwards, I decided to do the smart thing and give my body a break. I took two weeks off running and intended to get back into a regular routine soon after that. But then I had a terrible head cold followed by many late nights at work and before I knew it, all of my previous fitness was gone and Chicago was just around the corner. To add insult to injury, three days before the race I rolled my ankle and it started to swell up. I took it easy and iced it and it seemed to help. With all of this going on, I honestly didn’t feel very confident going into race weekend, but I’m not one to pass on a challenge.
When your bus hits the wall (literally)
We arrived in Chicago on Friday night after the expo had closed. It turns out we were on the same flight as Peter and his wife. We ran into them in line at customs (the only time we would see them in Chicago). On Saturday morning we had breakfast and then walked to The Bean to say hi to Maria and Kate, who had just run the 5k. It had poured rain during the race, but now the sun was out.
After some pictures and a quick catch up, Dan and I hopped onto the free shuttle bus to get to the expo. This was the start of a very interesting bus ride.
Our driver didn’t seem to know where he was going. He took a wrong turn, ended up in a dead end and had to make a three point turn to get out. We were near the front of the bus and somebody skeptically asked him “Do you know where you’re going?” At first I thought that was a little rude, but by the end of the bus ride I agreed that it was an appropriate question. This is because he made another weird turn and as we were driving up I could see stone pillars blocking our way. Upon realizing this, he had to back out between two pillars. Everybody looked out the window nervously as we barely fit between them. Then he made a right turn only to realize that we had hit another dead end. He backed up to turn around and there was a loud boom as the entire bus shook. He backed into a pillar! The woman who had asked if he knew where he was going promptly got off the bus. Our driver also got off and I wondered if he was leaving us behind. But then he got back on and attempted to make what was basically an 11 point turn out of a very tight space. People were saying that he would have been better off reversing out (I agree!). Inch by inch he would back up and creep forward in one of the slowest turns I’ve ever seen. As he backed up, we heard the slow beeping of the bus. Everybody looked out the back window as the wall of the building creeped closer and closer. Then everybody screamed “Stop! Stop! Stop!” And there was a boom as the whole bus shook from hitting the building. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I texted Nicole and Kate to let them know. Meanwhile, someone got off the bus and helped direct the driver. This seemed to help as he only hit the building one more time. Finally we were free and eventually we were on our way to the expo. I think it took us an hour to drive to the expo because of his wrong turns. As we were getting off he asked us not to tell anyone that he’d gotten lost because he didn’t want to get in trouble. Personally I’m more concerned that he hit things with the bus than with him getting lost! I was glad we survived!
The expo was unsurprisingly crowded and made me grumpy. Picking up my bib and race kit was easy. I was hoping to do some shopping but everything that I liked was sold out in my size. Fortunately there was plenty of official race merchandise, so I bought a jacket. I love my jacket and have been wearing it regularly. We also picked up my Ventra transit card that I had pre-ordered. This was useful during our visit for when we rode the El and the subway (Dan also ended up using it a lot to get around while spectating during the marathon). I left the expo at least happy that I hadn’t spent too much money.
Meb Keflezighi, Peter Sagal and the BibRave Podcast
After the expo Dan and I attended a live recording of the BibRave Podcast. I enjoy this podcast and listen regularly (though I haven’t really checked out the BibRave website). Tickets were only $5 and they also provided snacks. More importantly, their guests were Meb Keflezighi and Peter Sagal – Two people who I admire!
The show was both informative and entertaining. I didn’t want it to end. Dan said it was one of his highlights of the weekend. They also did a draw and Meb randomly selected the ballot and read out the winning number. He paused before reading the last number and I just had this feeling that it was going to be me. And it was me! I won an AfterShokz prize package (they were a sponsor of the event that day). It included a pair of AfterShokz Trekz Air, a cooling towel, buff, water bottle, BibRave hat, advance copy of Peter Sagel’s new book (The Incomplete Guide to Running) and a waist pouch to carry your stuff while running. We also bought a copy of Meb’s book Meb for Mortals and then he signed it. He was really nice. Dan and I had a quick chat with Peter Sagal and also got his picture and autograph.
That evening we had dinner with Nicole, Kate, Maria, Lilly and Katherine. Our table appeared to be inside a little closet. It was cozy but kind of like we had our own private room. Dinner was fun and soon we were carb loaded and ready for bed.
Race Day – Pre-race Bounce and other thoughts
I got up early, ate breakfast (my usual oatmeal) and made my way to the start area. I was in the last wave and even though we didn’t start until 8:35 a.m. I got to the start area for 6-something so I could participate in the November Project bounce.
I started going to NP in June (thanks to Rebecca) and knew that a pre-race bounce would be a great way to get hyped up. I saw Kuang from DC (who I had met in Milwaukee when I was there with Rebecca for NP Summit in September. I met Kuang through some of my Toronto tribe members who had met him in New York. This is how small the NP world is!). I also chatted with Henry from Vancouver. We did the bounce and for the first time in a while I was excited to run this race. The bounce ended with instructions to turn to the person next to you and hug them and wish them luck. I really appreciated the hugs and well wishes.
As I headed to my assigned gate to enter the starting area, the officials told me to go to a different gate since they didn’t have a line. When I got there, I was surprised to discover that you couldn’t bring any liquids in with you at all (including my liquids in my fuel belt). I hadn’t read this anywhere in the rules and it really threw me off when they made me dump my Nuun Performance. I ended up chugging half of it, figuring I’d have plenty of time to use the washroom and that at least it wouldn’t all go to waste. This ended up being a bad idea. When they checked that my bottles were empty they said “sorry about that!” They also made people dump their cups of coffee, and leave behind recovery drinks that were packed in their gear check bags. Later on I saw people in the start area carrying all the things that we had been forced to dump out. I talked to a friend later who entered the same gate as me and did not have to empty her fuel belt. At the time, it made me wonder if there was some confusion (2019 update – I saw in the rules this year that they now explicitly say that runners may be asked to empty their bottles etc. So I’m glad they’ve made that clear now).
I’m glad I went through the gate early. I get nervous anticipating getting to my corral at races, so this took all of that nervousness away. I also had plenty of time to use the porta-potties while there were no lines! I asked someone if there was a line and he said no, so I opened the nearest porta-potty to find a girl sitting on the toilet. Oops! The funny thing is, this isn’t the first time this has happened to me and I always anticipate people on the toilet when I open porta-potty doors now! I quickly closed the door and moved to the one next to it, which thankfully was empty. When I left the porta-potties I headed over to the bag check and hydration area where I’d be able to refill my empty fuel belt. On my way I noticed a man wearing a STWM shirt and as he got closer I realized it was Richard, who I’ve trained with at the Beaches Running Room! Richard gave me a hug and we both said “I didn’t know you were running this!” We talked about how excited we both were, how perfect the weather was and wished each other luck. It was great to see a familiar face.
I checked my bag and then filled one of my fuel belt bottles with Gatorade Endurance. Fortunately for me I don’t have any dietary restrictions and I can usually tolerate Gatorade. So while I had never tried Gatorade Endurance before (the on-course sports drink. Gatorade Endurance isn’t sold in Canada yet) I figured it would be ok. I filled my other bottle with water and as I was standing around somebody called over to me “Hey NP!” I was wearing a November Project shirt and glanced over to see three other people wearing NP shirts. I walked over and met Max, Adam and Matt from NP Boston. All three of them were running their first marathon, so we chatted for a few minutes. Then they went to check their bags and I went to my corral to wait.
I was pretty relaxed during the wait. My poncho kept me warm and it didn’t rain too much. I found a place to sit and people watch. Eventually our corral started to move ahead as we got closer and closer to our start time. At around 8 a.m. I started to feel like I had to pee, but at this point there was no return. The corrals were closed and if I left now, I’d have to start at the very back of my wave. I decided I could hold it. At 8:25 a.m. I tossed my poncho in anticipation of our start time. It rained a little bit and then the announcer said we had 10 minutes to go. I realized that I had gotten confused, thinking that we were starting at 8:30 and not 8:35! I was a little cold and cursed my forgetfulness. I knew that once I started running things would be ok again.
I had originally hoped to get updates on my watch about my friends running Chicago, but I think I disabled the updates when I was running my 50k race and forgot to set it up again. I saw on my phone shortly before we were starting that Kate and Nicole, who were in wave 2, had only started 23 minutes before me. I started promptly at 8:35 a.m. and ran slowly to give myself a chance to warm up. The roads were slick from the rain. I desperately searched for a porta-potty on the course but didn’t see one. We ran underneath the first overpass and to my left were dozens of men peeing. They were everywhere. They were peeing onto the building, peeing onto the street, peeing in corners, all like animals. I had to pee really badly at this point but there was no cover anywhere, and I didn’t want to be like them so I pressed on.
A woman near me asked what pace I was running and mentioned how her watch was off. I started to tell her and then realized that mine was in kilometres and she was looking for miles. I thought I saw some porta-potties ahead, but it was a sea of people. There were spectators everywhere. Despite the rain they were lining the streets with their signs, cowbells and cheering. I couldn’t believe it. We reached the first water station and I kept my eyes peeled for porta-potties. I didn’t see any (I discovered a year later that they were hiding behind a fence). I wanted to cry. I started thinking about ducking into a Starbucks or another coffee shop en route to see if I could use their washroom. As we ran past the theatre, Dan ran up to me and said I was looking great. I smiled and then said “I need to pee!” With more than 40,000 runners I don’t know how he spotted me, especially since he didn’t have data in the US so couldn’t track me on his phone. I wondered if this would be the last time I’d see him until the end of the race.
Finally, I found some porta-potties and jumped into the line. It added another 10 minutes to my time but it was worth it. I felt so much better and could finally concentrate on taking in the sights and sounds of the race. As I was heading back onto the race course I heard a woman in line say “Come on people! Go as if you’re running a marathon!”
A couple minutes later when I was back on the course I heard somebody cheer “Go Mei!” I looked over and Max and Adam were running by. They looked great and I cheered for them too. I settled into a groove for the rest of this part of the marathon and felt pretty good. I high fived kids whenever I saw them, I tapped the “tap for power” signs and screamed thank you as people cheered “Go November!” to me (since they could see my NP shirt). I had originally meant to run with my GoPro, but left it at the hotel, so I didn’t take any pictures on course. I was having fun but found the race course very crowded and that I frequently had to zig zag around people. There were a lot of World Vision runners in orange shirts, walking seven abreast. I don’t know if it was just because their shirts stood out, or if they genuinely didn’t know that you shouldn’t walk all in a row, but they were making me mad. (I’m sure there were others doing it too, but the World Vision runners stood out the most to me because of their shirts. And I recognize that not all World Vision runners were doing that. Just a few groups that I happened to end up behind).
Fall down seven times, get up eight
Things were going well and then I reached mile 11. It went around a curve and I remember looking at the blue line and thinking about how the elites had just run there a few hours earlier. As I took the curve I felt my feet slide out from under me and the next thing I knew I was on the ground. I couldn’t believe that I’d slipped and fallen in the middle of a marathon. I was shocked. My knees hurt, my hands hurt and I couldn’t look down at them. I imagined that I was bleeding everywhere (I wasn’t. I was fine. I was being dramatic). Within seconds of falling, three other runners had stopped and grabbed my arms and helped me up. They all kept asking me if I was ok. They didn’t want to leave until they knew I was ok. I love how caring runners are. Other runners who had seen me fall stopped and asked me if I was ok. This included some World Vision runners. My previous annoyance at seeing the rows of orange shirts disappeared and they all immediately became my heroes.
I walked for a bit as I tried to shake it off. I really wanted to cry, but I knew that if I started crying I wasn’t going to be able to stop. So I took some deep breaths and tried to keep it together. For a moment I thought “My race is over. I’m not going to finish. It wasn’t meant to be. Somebody call my mom.” But then I shook it off and thought “Shut up brain! You did a 50k race with 2500 m of elevation in poor air quality five weeks ago! You can do this! You’re stronger today than you were at your last two disastrous marathons. You finished those. You’re going to finish this too. Go!” After a few minutes, I knew that I had to get running again or else I wasn’t going to finish the race. I told myself to go and just went. Don’t think about it. Just go. Just run. A few minutes after that Dan cheered for me and said “You’re looking strong!” I thought about telling him that I fell but decided not to. There was nothing he could do about it, and he would only worry unnecessarily for the last half of my race. I’d tell him later.
As I approached the halfway mark I saw the 4:30 pace bunny and ended up running with them for a bit. The pace wasn’t ridiculous and it gave me something to do. Then I saw two ladies run past me with the BRC logo on the backs of their shirts. I didn’t know them, but since I had my BRC hat on I ran over and yelled “Hey BRC!” and they both turned and said hi. It was Joanna and Jolene. They both looked pretty good. We had a quick chat and then I wished them a good race before I slowed back down. I also lost the 4:30 pacer, but that was ok. At this point all I wanted to do was finish so I could eat some deep dish pizza.
A little after the halfway point I saw a Oiselle singlet and then realized it was Leanne. I tapped her on the shoulder and we ran together for a few miles. I can’t tell you how happy I was to see a familiar face. We talked about how our races were going so far (she had just finished running the first half with Erin before they had split up). I told her how I’d fallen and she said “That sucks…good thing it wasn’t 1k in!” She made me laugh. That was also a really good point, considering I’ve fallen much worse at less than 1k into a race recently and it was not pretty. We reached the 16 mile mark and both talked about how we “only” had ten miles to go. Easy-peasy right? I also said to Leanne “Marathons are hard. I keep asking myself how, knowing how hard they are and how I feel right now, I keep doing them.” She agreed. At one point some runners passed us and one had a whistle that she kept blowing. She was driving us both crazy and we were so happy when she finished running past us. At some point my ankle that I had rolled started to bother me, so I knew that I’d have to slow down some more. I reluctantly told Leanne, wished her a good race and let her go.
The rest of the race is a bit of a blur. I loved running through all of the different neighbourhoods and the energy of the crowds. At some points, people were handing out food (candy, fruit, beer, you name it!). Somebody even almost ran into me trying to get to the beer. The cheer station in Korea Town was doing the Gangnam Style dance, while the cheer station in Chinatown was dancing to the song Jai Ho from Slumdog Millionaire (I don’t think this has anything to do with Chinatown. I think it was just the song that was playing as I ran through). I followed a runner with the name Lilly emblazoned on her back for several miles. Sometimes when I slowed and sped up again I’d wonder if I had lost Lilly, and then I’d see her in front of me again. I have no idea who she was or how she did. I just kept looking for the back of her shirt. At mile 22 I ran through the NP cheer station where I high fived everybody. It was awesome. Then I knew I only had to hang on for another 4 miles.
I saw Dan at mile 23 and he cheered for me. He told me that Nicole was just ahead of me, so I started to keep a lookout for her. At around mile 24 I heard someone cheer “Go Nicole!” and I immediately turned to find Nicole beside me. We cheered when we saw each other. She said she was having an amazing time. We ran together for a little while but I couldn’t hold on. My ankle was sore and I knew I had to slow down. I wished her luck for the rest of her race and watched her go. At this point I knew I was going to finish. I just had to hang on. I kept moving. When we reached one of the final straightaways I heard somebody scream “Go NP!” and I turned and waved. I told myself to push. I told myself I could do it. As we approached the end we turned right and had to run up a ramp. It’s a hill that usually wouldn’t give me too much trouble, but seemed like a mountain at the end of my marathon. I refused to walk. I reminded myself that I had done Squamish, at the very least I could run up the hill. So I did. At the top I made a careful left turn (so as not to wipe out again) and then I could see the finish line. I was overjoyed and ran to the end. I finished in just under 5 hours. It was the first time since 2015 that I’d finished a marathon in under five hours. It was less than a minute faster than my first marathon ever, and still 30 minutes slower than my PB, but I was happy with it, given everything that had happened.
After crossing the finish line, somebody put my medal around my neck. They also draped a mylar blanket around my shoulders and helped tape it shut. I thought all of this was such a nice touch! I always get tangled trying to get my foil cape on. It was nice to have someone do it for me. They also handed me a bottle of water, a bag full of snacks, and a Goose Island beer that was made specifically for the marathon. I stopped to take some pictures, finish my beer and then take the long walk to the friends and family meeting spot.
The walk felt like forever, but I eventually made it to Dan, who had even bought a congratulatory balloon for me! Dan told me that while he was waiting for me, a woman asked him “Is this your husband’s first marathon?” Dan paused before answering and said “It’s her fifth.” The woman then tried to backtrack a little at her question and told him how proud he must be etc. We’re not really sure why she assumed he was waiting for his husband. Was it the rainbow? Was I the jacket Dan was wearing? Who knows! We’re still laughing at the conversation.
On our way back to the hotel, Dan bought me the most delicious sandwich of my life (perfect for after the race). That night, we all went out for a celebratory deep dish pizza dinner.
The next day, Dan and I visited the outside of the Art Institute of Chicago so I could recreate some pictures that my grandfather had taken when he was a student living in Chicago.
We then headed to the airport where we ended up on the same flight as JP and Mary-Anne. The flight hope was uneventful and just like that, the trip was over. I knew the moment I got home that I wanted to run Chicago again.