I applied for the Chicago Marathon in the final week for applications. A couple of weeks later I got the, “Hey we’ve billed your credit card — you’re going to Chicago!” email.

 

Chicago is a big deal. Far and away the largest marathon I had ever participated in. One of the six World Marathon Majors (Tokyo, Berlin, London, New York, & Boston round out the field). So there was a bit of an intimidation factor at play. But I knew that Chicago was a famously flat course and that setting a personal best — and maybe a BQ — was a definite possibility.

By happy coincidence I was scheduled to start co-leading a marathon training clinic at my local Running Room a few weeks later. I knew having a cadre of other runners — some of whom were preparing for their first time at this distance — would be an ideal environment to ensure that I was keeping my training on track.

Chicago is a big deal…but I knew that Chicago was a famously flat course and that setting a personal best – and maybe a BQ – was a definite possibility.

Flash forward to October.

We arrived in Chicago just in time for rush hour on Friday resulting in a 2-hour drive from the airport to our hotel. But a friend had gotten us the “Friends and Family” rate at a super swank place — thanks Michelle!

I always find that it’s better to be active the day before a big race. So on Saturday we did some touristy stuff, finishing up with amazing ramen for my carb-load dinner. Back to the hotel for some obsessive re-checking of race gear, setting multiple alarms, and trying not to think about the nagging upper-hamstring knot I’d been carrying around for far too long.

Usually Stevie — one of our cats — wakes me up before my alarm. But we didn’t bring him with us so the alarm ringing coupled with the 2 hour time difference made for a very early 5 AM wake up.

Oatmeal for breakfast, more obsessive gear checking and I was out the door by 6 AM. I figured it would take me about half an hour to get to the start and then I’d have an hour. You know the saying, Better late than never? I prefer to live by Better early than late. I loathe being late. I’m not very comfortable with being on time. But a little early? There’s the sweet spot.

It’s just before 6:30 when I arrive at Grant Park where the security is very tight. Snowplows are blocking the roads, there are metal detectors, ATF, Homeland Security, Chicago PD, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Seal Team 6 were up on roof tops with spotter scopes. A few people have asked me if all the security made me nervous. Nope. Maybe it’s because my father was in the Air Force, but being surrounded by people in uniform doesn’t faze me at all.

The hour lead time I had flew by, and pretty soon the corral was filling up. Just as the sun was starting to rise an opera singer sang the US anthem. About half-way through a trio of Canadian Geese flew over and I took it as a sign that things were looking good for me. We were off. Almost immediately we entered a tunnel and then popped out to cross a bridge. I glanced back over my shoulder and caught a glimpse of our hotel where Siobhan was watching the tens of thousands of runners streaming past. I knew it would be impossible for her to spot me, but I knew she was there. My plan for the race was to run with the 3:25 for as long as I could, with the hopes of not falling apart too severely in the last 10k or so.

Aid stations on both sides of the street were a wonder to behold. There were at least a dozen toilets and most had a medical tent. I was worried that in a race this size there might be an issue getting hydration on the fly but everything was smooth and efficient.

Better early than late. I loathe being late. I’m not very comfortable with being on time. But a little early? There’s the sweet spot.

The route takes you through dozens of Chicago neighbourhoods. From downtown you head north up to Lincoln Park, back downtown then west out to the appropriately named West Side, then down as far as Bronzeville before heading north again back to Grant Park. It was shortly after 30k that I started having trouble keeping up to the pacer and he drifted away. I knew this was inevitable (ok, ok, there was a small voice in the back of my head that thought I could keep up with — or even ahead of — the pacer, but I knew that was a long shot) and I’d run enough marathons to know that it’s the last 10k or so that really matter.

There were a couple of pretty rough kilometres toward the end as my calves were getting crampy and I had taken my only electrolyte tablets a good half hour ago. Do you know how hard it is to try and stretch your calves while maintaining race pace? Yeah, pretty hard. But after a short stint with what I’m sure was the most awkward looking gait ever, the cramps were easing off, and soon enough I could hear the announcer and the crowd. I rounded the last two corners and saw the finish line. Done. 3:27:49. My fastest marathon by a little over five minutes. My first time going under 3:30 and my first Boston Qualifier.

But would it be enough? These days there are so many applicants for Boston that you need what’s known as the BQ minus. In 2016 you had to be 2:28 under. 2017 is 2:09. I have 2:11. Registration for 2018 doesn’t open until September 2017. Before then I hope to be able to squeeze in at least one more flat/fast marathon and hopefully shave another minute or so off my time – just to be on the safe side.