Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Race report: Chicago Marathon 2013 (The Comeback)

MY ROAD to Chicago started almost exactly a year ago, on a lonely stretch between Toronto's Beaches neighbourhood and the finish of what would be my slowest marathon. 

It hurt in the last 8K of that course, the spurts of running after a walk break. Why was I out there? It was the place where I both wanted to be and yet maybe not.

That marathon was the most emotional of my life -- not because of the race, but because of the events around my life. My mom was on her last days, I had not trained for much of the summer but I had felt a need to run that race on 10/14/12. I wanted to reclaim something. Just wasn't exactly sure what it was back then -- that the final step of the marathon was just the first in something coming.


CHICAGO, 10/13/13 -- Somewhere in the dark passage within the recesses of an overpass, a hand reached for my left arm midstride. Instinctively, I tried to help keep the runner upright, but within three strides he went down with a thud, me having no option but to keep on going. Runners streamed around him, jumping to avoid a mishap. A minute later, another man fell right in front of me, his shades sprawled around him, him on his back like an overturned crab.

Those two moments briefly changed the race from a "wow this is a big city marathon" to "this is a survival of the fittest." Being back on Chicago wasn't so fun after all.

Chicago has always been a special place for my running -- being my first marathon back in 2006. In 2011, I returned for a second time, thinking that my then-veteran status would allow me to destroy my debut marathon time, which never happened.

We arrived on Friday and did the usual touristy stuff. Shopping, the expo, eating pasta and getting in some light sight seeing. Outwardly, I was the 24 time marathoner confident for his next. Inside, I was a bundle of nerves, this might as well have been my first.

A FEW DAYS after running the Toronto marathon a year ago, my mother passed away. I wrote this post in the first lonely hours after getting a call from my brother -- before I headed home to plan our final goodbye.

Running, and writing about running, helped in a way to shield me from the pain but also embrace it. It helped me deal with it and bury the loss. Any bottled up grief could be expended with a short burst of strides. I wrote at the end of that post.

After getting my medal, my 21st marathon, I knew it was the most important one i’ve done. It was for myself but somehow for her. I cried while walking past the post-finish line area, eyes shaded by sunglasses, tears covered by sweat and the bill of my running cap. I thought about how I’d lost the mom others have had for a very long time. I couldn’t share my greatest accomplishments -- work achievements, qualifying for Boston, forging that adult relationship with my parent. I thought about the marathon and how it draws out supporters for runners and how she’d never seen me run.  
Later that day, I wore my marathon shirt and went to the hospital, helped feed mom dinner. My legs were burning, my body exhausted. Her right hand was as strong as ever, gripping my hand, her thumb stroking my finger. Four days later, she was gone.

A week after she died, I found myself in Washington, DC, toeing the line of my sixth Marine Corps Marathon. I ran it with all my heart, hurting, but not broken, to a 3:52 finish, my second slowest marathon a few weeks after my slowest. As I accepted my medal from a Marine, among the many thoughts was, "I can get some strength from this." Another was, "what now?"

CHICAGO - So what got me to this point?

My marathon state:
I had just completed the best summer of training since 2009, but was sidelined in early August as a result of knee pain brought in by IT band issues. I decided to run through the pain while stretching, rolling, icing, not wanting to lose my fitness. Still, in August and September, I was able to fit in strong pace runs, a 30K race and a half marathon race both run at faster than marathon pace. But yes, a month ago, walking up stairs exposed the severe weakness in both of my knees. My right knee, that had been compensating for a weak left knee, started to be inflammed. The taper had remarkable results in helping to heal it, but also new pains emerged.

From a training standpoint, I've always found it advantageous to train for faster than your marathon goal pace. The early season had me going at paces closer to a 3:15 marathon, with some workouts going for even faster. The lack of trackwork and many missed tempo runs in the last eight weeks of the program meant I couldn't really get as aggressive. So I wasn't in top marathon shape and my knees were still weak. The plus side was I'd dropped a significant amount of weight in the 20 weeks between marathons -- about 18 pounds, while firming up with strength training. So it was weird -- I am in the best shape perhaps in my life.

The strategy:
My goals were much more straightforward than my state. I had wanted to use this fall as a springboard to a strong 2014. I see all the gains I made in the 20 weeks but what I wanted to do was to go 3:20 or slightly faster. Once I hit that, then I can set the stage for a sub 3:15 or faster. It worked for me in 2008/09 so I felt that rushing back to where I used to be in one season was a little crazy as I was stepping up the mileage.

Race prep:
Pretty much kept the same routine. Lots of carbs and some protein starting Wednesday night (let me tell you, I was dying for a salad by Sunday post-marathon.). I rolled out the knees and legs, took an Advil on Friday and Saturday mornings. We had an early Saturday pasta dinner (yum!) and I had my lights out by 9:30 p.m. A night of sleep in spurts had me alert but rested enough when I was getting ready at 5 a.m. We were out by 6:10 and only had enough time to walk to the race site a mile away, line up for a portapotty break, and into our corrals. I found the 3:20 pacers, and waited for the race.

Lean, mean, ready for race morning.

SOMETHING CLICKED over the New Year. I remember the day well, a day I spent miserably sick in the first few days of January. I was in a funk and something had to change. I ventured outside and ran. Then I ran again. And again. Snow, darkness, cold, ice were nothing but friendly sparring partners and I jabbed at them. I hit two, four, eight then 10 weeks without a rest day. By the time I had finished pounding out my own issues, snow came and went and it was March and spring was almost here. I had run outside for the bulk of the winter. A 30K race went better than expected, then I was excited to run a  marathon. A late February email from friends who wanted to run Chicago asked if I was interested. Was I?

Yes, I was really excited to RACE a marathon. I signed up for Goodlife, then Ottawa and now Chicago. Two marathons and I wasn't going to content with anything but a solid effort. But the winter of some discontentment wasn't enough to bring me back.


CHICAGO - The Race

Corral B.

0-5K 23:43 
5K split: 23:43 / Pace: 7:38 mile / 4:45 km
The first 5K was a little chaotic, with swarms of runners trying to get up to speed. I saw two runners go down, a guy run into a pylon (he hadn't seen it). I won't lie, it was crazy shit, and I promised myself to find a way to survive it. I had done a few pace runs in the last week to really remember the correct pace (7:39 miles or 4:45 kilometres). It was really a lot harder to do in a vacuum that is the start, so I just tried to stay calm.

The first kilometre was a big test for my legs. Almost like a systems check. Amazingly, all of the soreness on my knees or legs did not manifest, so I had one big thing off my mind. The next was to test my cardio, cadence and striding at marathon pace. That seemed to be okay, though I did feel like I was working. I usually need a 5-6K before I get comfortable and get into my 'run forever' mode. The first 5K featured four turns, then we were heading up N. Lasalle Blvd, and only then did I start to really enjoy the massive crowds. Hit my 5K pretty much on pace.

5-10K 47:21 
5K split: 23:38 / Pace: 7:37 mile / 4:43 km
With wider streets, had a lot easier time finding my pace. My watch was all over the place for the first 3 miles so when I finally got a clear GPS signal, I could finally track. I had my watch click over every mile, but show me my average kilometre pace, which should have showed 4:45. I was doing a lot of 4:38-4:43s so I was adjusting on the go, really careful not to surge with the crowd.

I kept on reminding myself to not race during the first 20 miles, calm and steady is the way to pace a marathon correctly. We hit Lincoln Park and I was hitting my splits okay, thought about hitting the washroom but it wasn't urgent. The sun was full on, but it was still cool -- the temp as I remember was around 13C within the first hour.

10-15K 1:10:51 
5K split: 23:30 / Pace:  7:34 mile / 4:42 km
With my pace settling (I was hitting my splits consistently at this point), I was starting to really enjoy the race. Didn't feel as boxed in as earlier, and the trip past Wrigleyville, Boystown, Elvis and the amazing crowds were really nice diversions. I took one corner wide to pump up the crowd. My fuelling plan -- vetted through 24 marathons -- had me taking gels every 8K or so, with sips of Gatorade and water at other waterstops.

In the back of my head, I was thinking about whether I needed a potty break to pee, and started to eye a good opportunity (ie. open bank of portajohns) at every aid station. Otherwise, I was continuing my steady pacing, checking the average pace indicator on my Garmin.

15-20K 1:34:20 
5K split: 23:29  / Pace:  7:34 mile / 4:42 km
Running back toward Chicago's downtown, I was careful to do a systems check every few miles, thinking over my form and whether my knees -- weakened by IT band issues over the last two months -- would decide to flare up today. I took corners wide but overall the course's pancake flat elevation (for the most part) was kind to my body. Trying not to let emotion overtake me, I was hopeful no aches would manifest.

20K-HALF 1:39:29
1.1K Split: 05:09 / Pace: 7:35 mile / 4:42 km
I spotted the 3:20 pace group somewhere near the half marathon mark. They were a big charging force, and I wondered why it took me half the race to find them. By the half marathon mark, I was pretty much within one to two seconds per kilometre faster than pace, which is a perfect place to be. I glanced down at the watch at this point, seeing I had 30 seconds on the 3:20 pace, I was thinking that today could be a good day indeed. I flashed by the 2006 and 2011 marathons and how I felt and figured today, I felt strong, as I should.

THE BOMBS hit us all hard. That April day when the Boston Marathon's finished was marred, I was home sick but after being woken up, I sprung to action -- working, reporting, calling friends who had just finished the race on Boylston an hour earlier.

RUN NOW band with my 3:20 goal
We did a solidarity run around Queen's Park in the days after Boston, and I put on my 2011 Boston long T-shirt. It was tight, my paunch added on in the years after 2011 showing through the lean middle section. I talked with another runner about paces I used to consider easy, that was now hard. 

A friend who does Boston handed me a wristband he'd picked up. It said RUN NOW and Boston 04.15.13. I've worn it every day since.

I knew what I wanted. I wanted to get back there. I wanted to run fast. I wanted to conquer the distance, respect it and figure out if I could do it again. I went to Ottawa unprepared for a strong paced run, but I threw down my first strong marathon in two years, a 3:32:30, targetting where I wanted to be. Happy with the result in Ottawa, but I knew it would take yet another leap before getting back into the 3:20s, maybe even dream a little faster.


21.1K-25K 1:57:41 1
3.9K split: 18:12 / Pace: 7:31 mile  / 4:40 km
We're all headed out on the first of many out and backs, and I pulled slightly ahead of the 3:20 pace group, not liking the traffic jam nature of the pace group. Really paying attention to my form; taking in my gels; water and Gatorade at the stations. All in a morning's work.

25K-30K 2:21:26
5K split: 23:45 / Pace: 7:39 mile / 4:45 km
Good idea to pay attention to my 5K splits, I was coming in between 23:30 and 23:45. My decision to go 3:20 felt like a pretty good one at this point, and as I reached the 16 mile mark (26K or so), I started to picture a 10 miler ahead of me, and it wasn't that bad. We were passing by Little Italy and I was by this point zoning out the crowd, focusing on other runners and making sure I wasn't slowing as more people started to take walk breaks. The temperature was still at a good place, but I knew I had more than an hour of racing yet.

THE DAY AFTER the Ottawa Marathon 20 weeks ago, I started training. I tore apart my diet, put in new rules for myself, did more strength exercises and brought back advanced training. In those months, my mileage crept up while my weight went down with the kale smoothies and strength training playing supporting roles. I ran an 8K race that conjured memories of my 2008 self. Long runs were clicking and I had regained my stride.

At Midsummer's 30K

Training happened, and so did injuries, but I was fully committed to the program. A 30K race put me in the ballpark of where I wanted to be: I was, by my standards, a strong runner again. But those knees.


30K-35K 2:44:50
5K split: 23:24 / Pace: 7:32 mile / 4:40 km
So this is kind of the longest I've gone in recent memory in a marathon without a washroom break. I always tell myself that the 30 seconds or more of time in a portapotty will bring myself relief so I wouldn't be 'holding it in' or at least the sensation. Around 18 miles in, I saw a bank of portajohns in the distance, and made the split decision to dash in. Thirty seconds or so later, I was back out there, hoping that the dead stop wouldn't make my legs want the rest. The 3:20 group had passed me in this time, so I booted it back up to pace.

In my mind, Chinatown was a lot earlier, but by the time we were in the 21 mile mark and not there yet, I tried to shorten the race in my mind. Hitting that mile marker was key to me because of the way I felt -- good, with strength. After Chinatown, with 22 miles in, I started to reset my mind to count down instead of up. It was four miles to go. I could do this.

35K-40K 3:08:15
5K Split: 23:25 / Pace: 7:33 mile / 4:41 km
The last six to seven kilometres of the course gets pretty lonely. Also, that back 5 miles is known to put runners at a stop, with runners pausing to stretch, walk, or to cool off against a warming day. I've fallen to that temptation the past two times, and I knew a 3:20 could easily become a 3:35 in this stretch. I'd say 65 per cent of runners I was with were slowing or walking, so I retreated within myself before finding a few runners who looked strong. One had her name on her back, and I silently thanked her as I hung on behind her, then beside her, as we powered through. The sun had heated the course to 16C or 17C and there wasn't enough shade, but I continued to race. As we rejoined Michigan for the final turn back up toward downtown, I thought about whether I could have a few slower kilometres.

CHICAGO HAD HAUNTED me in the years since I made my marathon debut there. In 2006, I started at 3:20, a pretty crazy time to shoot for at the time, but was schooled with a 3:35 and a new respect for the distance. In 2011, I couldn't even beat the 3:35. Would it teach me another lesson? That's what scared me. In the final training runs for Chicago, I thought about race strategy as I started to research the paces I'd need to do to finish with a 3:20 but I was worried about an implosion.

Then I decided, my training would get me to mile 20, my heart would take the next four, but I needed the last two miles for myself. Mile 25, I decided, would go to mom. And Mile 26? Who was that for?


CHICAGO - Kilometre 40

The march up to 39 kilometres or with two miles to go, seemed to take forever. I was by now breaking up the race into kilometres, thinking it'd take me less than 5 minutes to cover each. So if I reached 39, I would have 15 minutes to run -- I could do that. The walking wounded were ruining my mojo, but I had a lot of other things in mind.

It took forever for the final mile marker to appear. I was wondering where the wall was and why wasn't I hitting it. I wondered if I'd walk up the final hill, as I did in 2006 and 2011. But that didn't happen. I wanted that 3:20. I wanted that sub-3:20. 

I ran the final mile. I ran up the hill. I ran around the corner and I ran with both my arms up high passing the finish. 3:18:52. I had run the second half 9 seconds faster than the first. How did that happen?

40K-Finish 3:18:52
2.2K split: 10:37 / Pace: 7:47 mile / 4:50 km
Final time.
WHAT DO YOU think about during a marathon? A lot, enough to cram in a full year's worth of pent up memories and emotions and somehow let it propel you. I'm as proud of this finish as I have been of my best. It was the culmination of a year's work of training, of a career full of experience and a dose of just enough heart when it all mattered.

I've been describing this season and this race as a comeback -- to friends and to strangers who ask about marathon times at airports. The comeback means getting back to where you were. The comeback means revisiting a lot of the same ground, relearning some painful lessons and getting schooled on new ones. The comeback -- like a marathon -- is almost as much as about the journey -- 3:18:52 worth, or one calendar year when you go from your worst to one of your best.

I'm glad to be back, and yet the question remains: where to next?

Marathon No. 25


Canadian Runner said...

Congratulations, I realized reading your report this race was very important. Your reports always inspire me. Congrats again on a great time.

Marky Mark said...

Gripping as always and congratulations! Your training paid off and 25 marathons-whatever the time-is pretty special.

macnic said...

Fantastic report. Really well written giving us all a lot to think about. I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see if you'd slow, or walk even though I knew the result. You should look into writing professionally. ;-)

Robin said...

Fantastic race and fantastic race report! Congrats to you. Your mom would be proud for sure. What a great way to celebrate her.

Patrick Voo said...

fantastic job! makes me want to be part of the chicago marathon even more. congrats!

Ririnette said...

Amazing report and result. You always inspire me.

Emma said...

Dang, Nicole beat me to the writing professionally joke :) Great stuff Kenny; it makes it clear how much this race meant to you and what a fantastic accomplishment!

Anonymous said...

Great job, in spite of grief, injuries, difficulties. This is marathon running at its best!

Lee said...

Great job in Chicago and an excellent recap as always. Congrats!

Patrick said...

Congrats. Great race!