Five years ago I completed the London Marathon - my first ever marathon - and I am sure like many, I had no real intention of doing another. It was my sole bucket list item and also my chance to prove to myself what I was physically capable of after some challenging years prior. I now sit here reflecting on my 10th marathon, completed across the seas in Chicago. I never imagined I would reach this milestone and it takes a lot for me to say it, but I am proud of myself. I was 23 when I crossed my first marathon finish line, and I have since devoted a large chunk of my 20s to running and marathon training. I am dedicated to my training; I work hard, I learn, and I also try and have as much fun as I can along the way. I have barely missed a training run in all these years and I have also religiously kept this blog up virtually every week (is that actually more impressive!?) I wanted my 10th marathon to be special, and thankfully Chicago Marathon did not disappoint...
Chicago Marathon was a big deal for me - I never take running 26.2 miles for granted regardless, but it was more the fact that this would be the first time I would be running and travelling to a marathon alone. It scared me a little, and I think this impacted me slightly during my build up. I trained just as hard, but mentally I was quite reserved about the race, only telling a few people I was running or only when I was asked outright what I was training for. Going by myself made the event feel like quite a personal thing, but also when people asked the inevitable question - 'So who are you going with?' - and I answered - 'Just me...' - their reaction sometimes scared me even more! I am quite an independent person, but marathon running is not a low risk activity, and the fear of being abroad alone if something did happen to me was something I had to try override!
Physically my marathon training could probably be split into two halves. The first 8 weeks flew by and I was running really well. However, after the half way point, things became a bit tougher and in particular longer runs really became a challenge for me. Some of the tests were down to my own lack of self care, others were just losing a bit of confidence in my ability to run longer at a good pace. Compared to my Brighton Marathon training earlier in the year, I knew I was not in the same shape. Prior to Brighton I was sharp and running very strongly, and this showed in my performance on the day, when I do not think I am being unreasonable to say I may have been able to dip sub 3:40 if it wasn't for the headwind in the final miles. I therefore was realistic about my time expectations for Chicago, and I was also mindful that I did not want this race just to be all about a time; Brighton was my 'racing' marathon, this was the 'experience' marathon of the year. I know my own body too, and I felt I should be aiming for sub 3:50 in Chicago, and the closer I got the the 3:45 marker the bigger the bonus it would be. I wanted to do myself justice, but I also wanted to have an experience to treasure.
My trip to Chicago was to be a short 4 days in some senses, but also long in others. My scheduled time in the country was quite intense, leaving for the airport at 4am Friday morning to land in Chicago shortly after 10am the same day. My flight back was then on Monday afternoon, which would see my land back into London at 5am the next day. Throw into this mix a Sunday morning marathon start time of 7.30am and you can see how it played a bit of havoc with the body clock! I had planned my weekend fairly well though, and I knew what I wanted to see in Chicago, as well as ensuring I did not over do things prior to the race.
After landing and checking into the hotel, Friday's mission was to go to the expo and collect my all important race number, as well as spending far too much money on Nike merchandise! Saturday I woke stupidly early so was out first thing exploring Chicago and its notable landmarks on a beautifully sunny and fresh day. I really liked Chicago; it had that American feel of the hustle and bustle city life, but at the same time with the beautiful Lake Michigan within walking distance there was also a sense of tranquillity and escape from the city life. As the day grew on I felt eager to run, as well as starting to feel a little bit nervous. I got prepped and took myself off to bed early, ready for my 4.30am Sunday race day alarm...
You know you are a little bit crazy when you are sat in full running gear eating breakfast at 5am... and I felt even more mad leaving my hotel and walking to the race start soon after in an eerie darkness. There was literally only marathon runners around, wrapped in layers and all heading to one focal point at the race village in Grant Park. The morning was very fresh and I was thankful for packing a few layers and the very glamorous bin bag which I wrapped myself in. It felt very surreal but also slightly magical as I entered the race village to see the sun rising on the horizon over Lake Michigan. The less magical part of this early start was having to use my phone torch just to be able to see to use a portaloo!
I joined the group of runners huddled around the bag drop, waiting for the last possible moment to relinquish extra layers before heading to the start pens. I felt emotional as I found my spot in the masses; I was shaking a little, possibly a mix of being a little chilly now and also nervous/excitement. Over the tannoy the commentator kept us jovial in the typically friendly, welcoming and passionate way you come to expect from an American. The American national anthem was also performed, and I will admit it made me a little teary; the passion was apparent and I just could not believe I was actually stood here as part of it. Finally the start countdown began and any remaining layers were strewn to the side ready to race.
After crossing the start line the first mile was a blur of just trying to warm up and feel my hands again! During the second mile I began to feel my body a little more, and it was then I became more conscious of what I had been warned about - the shocking GPS signal. Chicago's endless skyscrapers play havoc with it, and I was not even two miles in when apparently I had logged a 5 min/mile. From then on all of my splits were out, as well as my distance; there was not much point referring to my watch and I did not have the capacity during a marathon to do mental maths calculations of my own! I just had to run to feel.
I felt pretty good in the first half and was massively enjoying the Chicago course for a number of reasons. Firstly, the American supporters and their sheer enthusiasm and at times randomness (men on a stage doing majorette style routines with guns anyone?!) Secondly the lovely, long straight roads on the course which just felt a joy to be running down; and finally the space on the course to actually be able to run freely in, which I had not expected in a World Marathon Major event.
I passed half way and the positive thing in my mind was I distinctly remember thinking - I know I can run this distance again. I just knew I would complete the marathon. In fact although I think I slowed a little as a few muscles started to twang, I felt fairly strong up until the 20 mile point. 20 miles is my big goal in a marathon, from then on its a 6 mile countdown to the end, just ticking the miles off. I knew I had it left in my legs, however it was my stomach that had different ideas.
I had practiced drinking Gatorade at home on my training runs, but I guess nothing truly prepares you for the strain of a marathon. After 20 miles I knew I needed to take in some extra fuel and my 'Shot Blok' sweets were no longer going down. I took regular sips of Gatorade, but I could feel it not sitting well in my stomach. I tried to ignore the sensation, but it got to the point where I felt like I was actually slowing down, not because my legs could not go on, but because my stomach did not feel right. It is also not very enjoyable running lacking confidence in your GI tract! I had to remind myself at this point - this is a race for you Alice, do not hate these final miles for the sake of a few seconds lost using a portaloo. I was not on for a PB at this point, so what did it really matter? With about 2 miles to go I therefore darted to a portaloo and did ultimately lose probably about 60-90 seconds worth of time. However, as I dashed back onto the course I felt so much better. Despite its inaccuracies, glances at my watch and using the course markers now told me the sub 3:50 was still on, I just had to dig deep.
I ran strong up to 25 miles and as I entered the final 1.2 miles I gave my absolute all. I felt like I was sprinting, gritting my teeth and fighting the seconds on the clock. It was hard but equally I loved that determined feeling in my body. One thing that did shock me a little was an almighty gust of wind which came through one of the street blocks; it was so strong it nearly took my feet from beneath me! The 'Windy City' had actually been very kind to us runners; the temperature had risen from the very chilly start, but to nothing unbearable, and there had been some wind in some sections, but nothing to affect performance dramatically. That gust was just seemingly freak! Gathering my legs again I now drove for the finish, and with the archway tucked around a couple of corners, I just had to keep pushing until I literally crossed the timing mat. 3:49:50 on the clock - mission accomplished!
My instant emotion when I stopped running was happiness - as well as the obvious pain in my legs! I then stopped for a moment just to take it all in and suddenly almost froze; physically and mentally I did not know what to do with myself. It seemed almost fate at this point that a fellow female runner tapped me on the shoulder and broke me from my trance. She had been following me as a pacemaker and what had drawn her to me was we were wearing exactly the same running shoes - somehow it was just meant to be. I am gutted to have completely forgotten her name, but she was from London and was so lovely. We made our way through the finish area together, collecting our medals, posing for photos, and admiring the customised beer we were given (which I couldn't quite drink and had to tip away, but saved the can!) I think what I was least looking forward to about running on my own was having no one at the end to look out for me, congratulate me, or to just be there in some capacity. Unknowingly this woman filled that gap - thank you.
Whilst the wind may not have been overly noticeable whilst running, as I stood waiting to collect my bag it was very strong and I fought to try keep my foil blanket wrapped around me. I was shaking in the cold again now and could not wait to find some layers! Eventually collecting my things, I found a sheltered spot tucked behind a kiosk back in Grant Park where a few other runners had also huddled. Warming up I sat there for a while taking in the scene - it felt crazy to think a few hours previous I had been here in the darkness, and now here I was again, a marathon under my belt and a stunning medal around my neck. I also was able to reply to some messages on my phone, pleased to have some signal. Every time I had crossed a timing mat out on the course I had thought of people at home tracking me, and I guess I never felt truly alone out there. Pre-race it was really quite heartwarming to read some of the good luck messages I received from family, friends and the running community. I hope I did you all proud.
My notoriously painful quads did not seem to hate me too much post race; I was stiff but I could walk. I therefore stuck with my plan and took my medal out for the evening to see the city lights from Willis Tower, one of Chicago's skyscrapers with an observation deck and glass floor viewing platform. The staff there treated us runners like royalty, letting us jump the queue where possible and congratulating each of us on our achievements. This kind of response continued as I flew back on Monday afternoon. The flight attendant upgraded all runners to better seats on the plane with more leg room - much appreciated! - and shook our hands as we boarded. As the pilot gave the flight briefing he also congratulated and specifically welcomed aboard all marathoners, which was met by applause and cheers from the plane. It just all felt a bit special.
When I say Chicago Marathon was a memorable experience from start to finish, I think that is what I truly mean; it was not just about those 26.2 miles I ran, but it was the whole weekend that I shall never forget. I also challenged my own comfort zones and explored and ran in a fabulous new place. Marathon number ten will be one to always remember.
Alice's Adventures In Running Land
Read about my adventures in running land...