The next race I have coming down the pipeline is the Illinois Half Marathon, at the end of April. It won’t be a new state or a new race, but it’s one of my all-time favorites. It’s so well-organized, the course is flat yet interesting with the numerous changes of scenery, and the weather at that time of year is usually pretty decent. All in all, it’s a great course for PR attempts. I’ve PR’d there the last couple years, but this year, barring illness or outrageously hot weather, I’m going for a big one: I’m shooting for my first sub-2:00 half. As my friends and I joke, it’s my “breaking 2” attempt, in a nod to Kipchoge’s efforts to do the same (for twice the distance…).
For me, sub-2:00 is within the realm of possibility, but I knew from the outset it was going to take some work. To take my training to the next level, I began adding an interval day to my weekly routine about a month ago. Not going to lie, at first it sucked in every possible way. The fast stretches felt interminable, I struggled even to break 8:30 for some of the later repeats, and I ended up sounding like a wounded water buffalo by the time I “sprinted” down the final stretch.
I stuck with it, though, and lo and behold, as my more experienced runner friends have assured me, it has gotten better. I’m now up to 7×400-meter repeats, and I’m starting to hit most of them under 8:00, which is ideally where I’d like them to be. Next step: improving at holding it together on the penultimate interval, which is consistently my slowest!
This year, I really seem to have had a knack for picking some really hot race days. Yesterday’s Chicago Half Marathon was no exception. When I signed up, I was expecting, oh, I don’t know, late September in Chicago? You know, 60-70 degrees, breezy, low humidity, maybe some rain if we got unlucky?
No. What we got instead was (in the mind of a Northerner) what can only be described as Hell with a blast of Satan’s steamy breath. When I saw the forecast earlier in the week, I had to do a double take. Low of 70?! High of 87?! 80 percent humidity in the morning?! Are you freaking kidding me?!?!? Never mind trying to PR, from that point on it was about survival. As if it weren’t clear enough on the face of it, the race organizers blasted out an email on Thursday essentially telling us to start hydrating yesterday, and “prepare [our minds] for the possibility of adjusting [our] goals and outcome expectations for race day.” No kidding!
Alas, there is no changing the weather, and one has to play the hand they are dealt on race day. With that, I spent Thursday, Friday, and Saturday chowing down on carbs and chugging water like I was about to cross the Sahara (“Lynx imitates a camel,” one of my friends ribbed me upon hearing of my prep rituals). Because the race takes place on the total opposite side of town from where I live, I made the trek down to the South Side the night before, where I stayed with a friend. There, I continued Carbapalooza 2017, and hoped to get a slightly better night’s sleep than I would have if I had needed to catch a 4 a.m. shuttle to the race.
Naturally, when my alarm went off just after 5 a.m. on race day, I awoke in a total panic from a dream that I was late to the race and didn’t make it to my starting corral in time. Desperate to avoid that scenario in real life, I quickly rinsed off in a cold shower in a last-ditch effort to pre-cool, prepped a bagel with peanut butter and frozen banana slices, filled up the water bottles on my hydration belt (one with water, one with Gatorade), and downed my remaining Gatorade and some water before throwing on my running clothes and heading out the door.
Outside, it hadn’t yet gotten uncomfortably hot. The sky in the east glowed a dim orange in anticipation of sunrise, and I followed a crowd of fellow runners about half a mile towards the starting line while noshing on my bagel. Once I got there, I had just enough time to stop at gear check before sprinting over to my corral way, way in the back of the pack (yeah, slow runners!) before the 6:45 a.m. corral closing time. I get why they needed us in place when they did, though being that far back, it was kind of annoying to have to wait around as long as we did in close quarters as the temperature started to climb. Just as I thought about getting cranky, though, my mom texted me. “Good luck today! Love you!” Aww. At least I knew she would be cheering for me from afar, and I looked forward to seeing my friends who I knew were coming down to cheer me on around miles 2 and 12.
Finally, the race officially started and my group gradually moved up to the starting line. I cranked up my Spotify playlist made especially for the occasion, and I was off! The first 3 miles sailed by. I jammed to my tunes, a mix of 80s classic rock and some contemporary pop/rock, felt good about my pace, and got even more pumped when I passed my friends waving their signs. Maybe this won’t be so bad! I thought. Then in a nod to one of my favorite comics by The Oatmeal, “The Dos and Do Nots of Running Your First Marathon,” There’s only like 10 miles to go! I totally got this! Ha! “Only”…
After making the turn onto Lake Shore Drive, I still felt pretty solid. Since I had my own water and Gatorade with me, I didn’t have to stop at the first few aid stations, which definitely helped me keep things moving along, even if a little on the slower side of my usual pace. For the most part, it felt like a typical weekend long run, with the exception of running in the middle of what is typically one of Chicago’s busiest roads. At this point, I decided my strategy would be to run steady to mile 8, which was just before the turnaround to head back south, then mentally break the last few miles into a 5k + 2 extra miles. That would get me through what I assumed would be the worst of it, based on my previous half marathon experience where miles 7-9 felt like an endless slog through no-man’s land.
I hit the 8 mile mark still feeling good, even though by that point I had stopped at a few aid stations just to grab cups of water to dump over my head in the hopes of cooling off as much as possible. Gotta hand it to the volunteers…they killed it given the weather. Even by the time we slower folks got there, they still had plenty of Gatorade, water, and even the occasional cups of ice or garden hoses, both of which provided a glorious respite from the beating sun.
But speaking of the beating sun, the real struggle began for me after the turnaround between miles 8 and 9. Facing south, the sun was now angled almost right in our faces. I was SO glad I had decided to wear sunglasses that morning…it was almost dizzyingly bright even with them on. By now, the mercury had also risen into the 80s, the humidity hadn’t really dissipated, and since we were on Lake Shore Drive, we had very little shade save for shadows cast by the occasional trees in the median. The last few miles became all about survival. I didn’t care how slow I had to take it, I just wanted to make it to the finish line without fainting, puking, or otherwise requiring medical assistance. To that end, I stopped at every single aid station on the final stretch for water, ice, and whatever other means they had for cooling us off. A few times I wanted desperately to walk, but I knew if I gave in, it would be that much harder to pick up the pace again. Plus, when I hit mile 11, I felt I had enough left in me to gut out the last couple of miles, even if I had to shuffle-jog them. It also helped that I knew my “cheering section” was going to be near mile 12, and seeing them (and their fantastic signs!) definitely gave me a much-needed boost going into the final stretch.
At last, we turned the corner off of Lake Shore Drive and I could see the finish line in the distance. Normally I like to kick it up a notch for the final stretch and end strong, but this time when I tried, I just ended up doing an awkward hobble-run, so I let it go and cruised as comfortably as I could to the end, raising my arms in a victory pose as I crossed the line. Sweet relief! All I wanted to do was sit and get some fluid and salt in whatever form. I stopped to get my finishers medal before grabbing a bottle of Gatorade Endurance, a bottle of water, and a bag of chips, then I shuffled with the crowd of runners into the post-race party area, where I sank onto the grass at the first possible opportunity. I had made it! Slower than I had wanted to by a long shot, but I was alive, had managed to stay reasonably cool, and hadn’t even had to walk! It was a feat deserving of Chicago deep-dish pizza, and that, dear readers, is exactly where my friends and I headed for a post-race victory bash.