It was 1996. I was a young man living in Chicago and had started running again after being abroad for the past two years teaching English in Prague, Czech Republic. My training was going well – running pretty solid times in 5Ks and 10Ks. I decided to try something I thought I would never want to do – run a full marathon. I figured I was a fast local athlete, former Division I collegiate runner and that with some training I could probably get down to 2:30 without much of an effort. Having never raced anything longer than a 10K, I really had no clue how to train for a marathon, but I was brazen enough to think that by simply upping my miles a bit all would be okay…
You can see where this is going, so let’s breakdown my first marathon race ever in Chicago, 1996.
It was a beautiful fall morning in Chicago – no wind, sun was out and the air was crisp like a granny smith apple. I found a spot in the front of the first corral, just behind where the elite athletes were warming up and getting ready for the start themselves. I felt confident. Family and friends were there to support me and I saw glory a mere two-hours and thirty-minutes away. The gun went off and away I went.
Being in the front of the first corral, you luckily don’t have to deal with all the jostling and weaving through crowds like those runners who start further back. I was able to focus on finding the top elite women runners and latch on to them, so they could drag me through a 2:30 marathon. I figured they are professionals and know how to race a marathon effectively and usually run in the low 2:30s, which would work swimmingly for my plans.
Just as planned, I was running with the lead pack of women, taking in the cacophony of cheers and the smattering of colors that whipped past my eyes as we made turns throughout the city. It was electric – like being on a roller coaster, but more incredible because I felt I was actually steering it. My body and legs felt great. I had never before been in a race like this – so big it was intoxicating and I was breathing in every last puff of it’s sweet fragrance. Our pace was in the high 2:20-range and when we crossed the half way point I remember seeing 1:14 on the clock – perfect.
Now, while I had increased my weekly mileage for this marathon, I really didn’t feel like I had to put in that many more miles seeing how I was only going to be running just a smidgen under 6-minutes. I had been a runner most of my life, and a pretty good one at that. Heck, I ran a 3:52 1500-meters in college and was running low-5s right now for 5Ks and 10Ks! I could run sub-6 all day, baby!
As we passed 13.1 I noticed, just ever so slightly, I was needing to work a bit harder to maintain this current pace I was on. I wasn’t phased, but thought I’d just slow down for this mile, get my composure back and ramp up to my goal pace at mile 15.
Every mile was getting slower! How could this be? I went from running 5:40s, to 5:50s, to 6:00…to then 7s! I didn’t even run 7-minute pace on training runs and I was running 7-minutes now! This obviously was not good. Everything was getting sore and stiff all over my body. I thought to stretch just for a second at around mile 17; but when I slowed down I felt both my legs and calves wanting to lock up and decided it was better to keep moving.
Utter misery. Chaffing in my inner-thighs. Bloody nipples. I had at one point run a 10-minute mile – over 4-minutes slower than the pace I was running for the first thirteen miles. I felt dejected. I was in disbelief at this performance I was a part of. But even in this physical pain and mental agony I was going through, I thought to myself, “Oh, I’m doing this marathon thing again! I know I’m a better runner than this!”
After shuffling along for many miles, I was able to rally and run a pace a bit faster and held my head up high as I crossed the finish line in 2:52:42. Definitely not the race as planned. I went from running 5:40 pace for the first half to averaging 7:35 pace for the last 13.1 miles.
That is the day I realized that a marathon was such a different race than anything I had ever done before. I had to respect it, which I ignorantly had not done. It would take me another year to “figure it out” and run my 2:27:17 PR. To run your best in a marathon takes time, patience, dedication, miles, rest, proper diet, an appropriate training plan, race strategy and support.
Good luck to those of you who run Chicago this weekend, as well as the countless marathons others of you will be competing in this fall and winter.