The 3:09:33 I ran at Chicago last weekend just might be the running accomplishment I’m most proud of. I ran my first marathon in 2011, and for it and each of the nine subsequent marathons I’ve run, I’ve been chasing the “0.” The “0,” as in Three-o-nine. The Royal reference is to Jeremy Guthrie’s t-shirt! You could also say the “o” is a Skora “o”! Like this: I went out with the 3:10 pace group at my very first marathon. It wasn’t realistic, but I wanted to BQ in my debut, and there was no 3:15 pace group. I failed. Pace group or no, 3:10 has been the goal in every race since. I’ve come close in a couple – a 3:11 and a 3:12, but each time I found myself going out at or above pace, then slowing towards the end and holding on for dear life. What was the difference this time? I was really ready, and I really wanted it. The key to how both of those things happened was what I call “seeking the uncomfortable.” That’s my way of describing how you have to find that place where you’re uncomfortable while you’re running – both in training and on race day. Once you reach a certain fitness level, it’s not too difficult to go out there and put up miles. However, most schools of thought about training alternate hard days with easy days. A common mistake we all make is running the hard days too easy and the easy days too hard. It’s that middle ground of “comfortable” that some people call junk miles. They might not be totally worthless, but you get the idea. When you’re training, running several consecutive miles at your goal pace is uncomfortable. Intervals above your goal pace are uncomfortable. If you’re not seeking that uncomfortable during training, you’ll never find it on race day, and you certainly won’t hit your goal pace. I joke about being nauseous during the marathon . It sounds like something Pre would say: “If you don’t feel like you’re about to barf, you’re not trying hard enough.” Seriously though, nausea is your body’s way of telling you that you have reached the edge. I’ve felt it when going out too fast. I’ve felt it when trying to maintain a pace above what I have trained to. I was really mindful of seeking the uncomfortable during the training cycle leading up to Edmonton and Chicago. Knowing that Coach Kyle would be looking at my paces helped me to push harder during training. How many times have you slacked off during a hard training run because you knew no one would ever see your Garmin data? Running with talented friends (Nelson, John, Jeremy, thanks!) can also help you seek the uncomfortable. As a result of all that “uncomfortable” I was hitting target paces more often than not in training. I also threw down my highest mileage month ever in September – 191.36. I boldly tweeted before the race that I was ready to cash that check. I was more relaxed than usual for this race, knowing my preparation was so good. My travel plans threw a small wrench into the works – I couldn’t follow my typical carb-loading regimen because I was flying to Chicago the day before the race with the RHSW. That meant no gels or liquids through security, so I improvised. I decided I was going to load with candy. Smarties are good, but I decided on something a bit more seasonal. That’s right, candy corn! I took some inspiration from a very amusing twitter war . The details: 1 package of S’mores flavor (yum); 1 package of carmel apple (meh); about half a bag of “traditional” (yum). Twenty-four doses of 19 candy corns, spaced at half hour intervals. Locked and (carb)loaded. I also sprinkled in a few low residue/low fiber items throughout the day. I couldn’t resist a small piece of steak that my friend Spencer grilled up for us. I can’t say no to USDA Prime. We had great race support – my friend’s wife picked us up from the race expo after we took the train from Midway and a taxi to the expo. Planes, trains, and automobiles – check! In the morning, my friend’s wife and the RHSW dropped me off at a Starbucks just to the west of the course start in Grant Park. I hung out there to stay warm for about a 15 minutes before walking into the park, a runners-only restricted area. This part of the race was pretty well organized in terms of letting me know what I needed to do to get into my start corral (A!) and hit the porta-potties before. If you don’t think an empty colon is essential to race day success, you didn’t run behind the guy I caught up to around mile 17 or 18. Let’s just say white shorts were not a good wardrobe choice for him that day. Anyhow, I got to my corral with plenty of time to spare, and only a few runners clustered around the 3:10 pacers, a great group of guys who paced the whole race (!) – no halfway switch for these guys! Kenny, one of the pacers, had come in from St. Joseph, MO answering a last minute call. I became his “Mizzou buddy” thanks to my sweatshirt. I had plenty of time to warm up – so much so that I hit my Garmin too early and it timed out before the start, so a few aggravating minutes stripping my glove and getting it going during the first mile. I have been in some crowded races before, but nothing like this. I know they try to handle the volume with two waves and corrals, but there was still a crush of runners far past any mile marker I’ve ever perceived it at before. The first few miles were the worst of course, but it just never seemed to thin out – kind of like Boston. I witnessed two runners go down hard after getting their legs cut on corners. I also had a guy go down in front of me trying to get through an aid station. From his exclamation, I’m pretty sure he thought it was the other guy’s fault. The other guy really took off – perhaps fearing a confrontation, but who has the time or energy to throw down during a marathon? The pacers were talking about yet a fourth runner in the closing miles of the race who we caught up to – a girl with some serious road rash on her elbow and knee. I’m not saying I could design a better course, and I love the way this one comes through so many distinct neighborhoods. However, it has a lot of turns, and taking a few of those out in the first few miles might help. My perception of crowding was heightened by running with the pace group. I never really got a count, but I’d say they carried at least 20-30 people through the halfway point. Usually when I run with one everybody sorts out where they are going to slot into position. The pacers did their best, spreading themselves out a bit, but there was just far too much jockeying for position. I don’t want to worry about people throwing elbows when I’m at goal pace. The course is fun, coming through 29 neighborhoods. I won’t try to describe the whole thing – just a few highlights with pictures supplied by my chase team. The RHSW took the first set of shots from one of the many bridges over the river. However, I never saw the RHSW along the course. The crowd wasn’t as bonkers as Boston, but they were loud enough that she wasn’t ever able to get my attention. I’m fairly certain that these are on the Franklin Street Bridge, just past mile 12 coming out of the River North area into the Loop, just before the course turns west into Near West side coming over the Chicago River again. Even before this point, I had decided to get in front of the pace group because I was wasting energy with all the extra shuffling around. The course comes through Greek Town just past the halfway point. I wish I had worn a Greek soccer jersey to feel the love from my people. Instead, I ran through anonymously Greek, a little intimidated that if I self-identified, someone would speak Greek to me and I would be unable to respond! As to my other people, sadly, the course comes near — but not through — Polish Downtown near the Polish Triangle. Skora is a Polish word that means “skin” or “leather.” As long as we’re talking Skoras, I have to mention that my Skora FITs performed great at this distance once again. There is no shoe I’d rather run a road marathon in. I prefer their slightly thicker outsole and insole to the PHASE and CORE at this distance for two main reasons. First, big city marathons mean big city roads, which aren’t exactly virgin asphalt, i.e., they’re torn up! Second, although I am a forefoot/midfoot striker, there are times at the end of a marathon when I mix in a bit of heel striking, especially if there is a slight downhill. I found myself doing this unintentionally in this race, but I came back out of it when my energy picked back up and I could re-focus my form. I’ve also done it intentionally before to ease calf cramps, but I didn’t have any muscle cramping whatsoever on this course – calf or quad – which I attribute to the flat course and good training. It wasn’t too hard to identify the location of the second set of on-course photos, taken just before mile 20 on 18th Street in Pilsen, Chicago’s largest Latino community. You can see the Dia De Los Tamales storefront! Btw, Dia De Los Tamales has a pretty cool logo: Almost home. From here the course comes into Chinatown. At this point the pace group had caught back up to me, and I needed them. I was in mile 22, one of those final 6.2 hard miles that makes the marathon different than anything else. It was great to see a dancing dragon at the turn! I held on to the pace group as we came through miles 22 and 23 and finally made the turn on to Michigan Avenue. This long straightaway heads north for a little more than two miles. At mile 24 I decided I was going for it and dropped the pace group to make sure I hit my target. It worked, and I stayed in front of them through the finish, but around mile 25 or so I had a wave of nausea that had me wondering how long I was going to have to stop to barf, or if I could manage to barf and keep running at the same time. Thankfully, backing off for about 30 seconds cured it, and I was able to start running hard again. I just kept concentrating on what I had been doing the whole race when I wasn’t running with the pace group: picking off and passing runners in front of me. If you’ve never run Chicago before, and you’re like me and didn’t study the course map in too much detail, you should know that the course has one evil trick left up its sleeve for the finish. As I came down Michigan Avenue I kept wondering when I was going to see the finish line, especially since there was a “1 mile to go/25.2” sign on the straight. Cruelly, though, the course makes a sharp right turn on to Roosevelt Rd. just before you hit mile 26. Mile 26 is on a hill! Wait, I thought this course was flat! Well, it’s really just as bridge or overpass, but at that point in the race it might as well be Everest. They even have a huge sign (I think it said 500m or 600m) so you won’t get discouraged and collapse. That turn to the east is a short uphill stretch before you turn left and come north for the real final straight on Columbus Drive. I managed to run that stretch hard, but not anywhere near my usual kick, for fear of barfing again. I could see the clock in the 3:10’s, so I knew I had PR’d, but it took a pacer coming up behind me to reassure me that I’d broken 3:10 on chip time. The RHSW confirmed with a “you did it!” when I got through the finish chute to the reunite area. At this point I picked up a funny look on my face – I heard the RHSW call my name, but I couldn’t locate her! Of course she stopped shooting and let me off the hook, but you can’t see that moment here – I saw her face, not the camera lens! Here’s a few of the skyline – facing north: I was satisfied that I had spent most of the race seeking the uncomfortable. There were a few times when I let myself relax and just run with the pace group. However, once I left them the first time I spent the second half of the race pushing, trying to pass and not be passed. I think that this process of continuing to seek the uncomfortable is what led to my first ever marathon negative split – on my tenth try! Simply put, a negative split means you’ve run the second half of the marathon faster than the first half. It’s hard to do, as I can attest. I have a personal nickname for our Great Dane, Ellie: “negative split.” It’s because whenever I take her on a run, it seems like she’s always so eager to get back home that she runs faster on the way back after the turnaround. (“Running, my favorite thing!” “Home, my favorite thing!”) Anyway, the implication of a negative split is that you have trained appropriately to your goal pace, which you’ll be able to hit by running a negative split. Really, mine wasn’t much of a negative split – thanks to the flat course it was almost an even split – both were 1:34 and change. I’ll take it though. It’s a great feeling to know that I can still improve after running marathons for 3 years. I love the Olympic motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius. It’s Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” If I keep repeating it and seeking the uncomfortable, I’ll get that sub-3:00 yet. Now that I’ve got the “0,” I’d like to get rid of it!
Well done! It would be very interesting to know the finishing times of those 20-30 that where in the pace group with you at half way, to see how they all finished out.
Thanks! If I had to guess from my final encounter with them I’d say the attrition rate was about 50%. That’s been me before, but not this time!
Congratulations! I just stumbled across your blog and recognized you! I’ve crossed paths with you on the road a few times. My marathon debut is tomorrow!
Thanks! I must have missed your comment but just noticed it today. How’d your marathon debut go? Which course did you race?
My debut went really well actually! I ran the KC marathon. The goal was to BQ and I did by 17 minutes!
Congratulations, Tad! Great pictures!