Chicago Marathon 2010: Postmortem

All training before before the 2010 Chicago Marathon, and every line I’m thinking here to describe the marathon now that it’s over, centers on one thought: three hours and ten minutes. 3:10–that’s the Boston Marathon qualifying standard for my age group.

No suspense: my time was 3:21:46. Eleven minutes and 46 seconds too long. 706 seconds too many. 17 seconds per kilometer over budget.

Well, damn.

Before the race I thought I had 3:10 in the bag. I even entertained some delusions of breaking three hours because training had gone so well. I had the summer distance training in my portfolio, including personal records of 98 km in a week and two consecutive months of over 300 km. I finished a 50 km trail race three weeks before the marathon. (A marathon is 42.195 km). The length of the marathon itself was no longer intimidating. It seemed only a matter of lining up at the start and doing the thing.

So: let’s take it from the start.

From the start, the race progressed beautifully. I started too far back in the pack, about eight minutes off the line. I meant to start farther up, near the 3:00 pace group, but Dad and I had some difficulties parking that morning. I tried to lead us to the parking lot under Millenium Park, but the only entrance to Lower Wacker Drive that I knew–I am not a Chicagoan, no, no–was blocked by construction. We tried to improvise, but with the city streets closing down, block by block, we managed to only trundle through Downtown like rats in a maze. We found a place near Monroe and Desplaines, where I sent him ahead to the start line while I parked the truck–in part because I knew I could get to the line faster than him, but mainly because I didn’t want him to see how far I was going to drive his truck in reverse the wrong way down a one way street to get to the lot entrance. Better that he collapses during the race, not during parking.

Anyway. The first quarter was slow, as expected. It’s a big herd and it takes time to disperse. Keep to the sides where there is room to squirt around the pack. Don’t screw around with weaving through the middle.

At the half marathon mark, I was at 1:37:49. I needed a negative split for the final half, 1:32:11, but I anticipated this and was not worried. Nevermind that my best (only) half marathon time was a 1:43:07. I was in control.

I increased my pace slightly through the third quarter of the race. This is, as I’ve mentioned before, my favorite part of any race, the stretch where a runner’s mind starts to crumble under the combined weight of effort exerted in the first half and the finish line still so far away–an aura of suffering radiates from the plodding crowd.

The inflection point, the crossover from rising to falling, was near 34 km, just 8 km from the finish line. After that my legs began to shatter into pieces. It started as an inconvenience in my left calf muscle, which steadily became a problem–the functional equivalent of running with a slab of meat for a lower left leg instead of the well-tuned machine it had been for the first two-and-a-half hours. I started to fall back from the sub-4:30/km pace I was holding, and then began to punctuate that pace with bouts of hopping in the middle of the street.

Did you see a guy in a white bandana and yellow shirt, jumping up and down on one leg while yelling obscenities at the cramps in the other leg? Yes. Well. Hmm. Nice to meet you.

Later my hamstrings began to howl. I have never experienced that. My pace slackened further. I walked at the Mile 21 aid station, understanding that this would make finishing under 3:10 mathematically more difficult, but hoping that the brief quiet period would let me recuperate for a final attack.

I did not attack.

I could regale you with more details about pain and cramps and heat and other external factors–external in the sense that I could not control them as they occurred–but I don’t think they were the culprits. The truth cuts closer to the bone: (1) I trained hard, but wrong; (2) I stepped away from The Edge.

All of my long training runs–longer than 15 km–were trail runs. I enjoy running trails better than sidewalks and roads. I worried about combining high mileage with too much pavement–it seemed like a recipe for stress fractures.

The result is that I was trained for distance, but not the right kind of distance. Trail running is slower than road running. I think trail running is more difficult–more elevation change, more accelerating in and out of turns, more high knee running due to obstacles–but it does not prepare one mentally and physically for road running. My hamstrings weren’t trained for roads, and when those muscles began to behave badly–a novel experience for me–my brain responded with panic.

I am still incredulous of the end of the race. I was not exhausted by the marathon. I could have run another 10 or 20 miles–if, of course, I could have bent my cramped, ugly legs, something I couldn’t do with any facility until the next day.

I didn’t do enough fast training runs. I don’t mean track running, 400m and 800m intervals, I did those, but running more 8 km and 10 km and other distances at marathon pace or faster. A related mistake, perhaps, was not competing before the marathon. I ran the Escarpment Trail Run, the Bradford Bruiser, and the Pisgah Mountain Trail Race, but those were competitions versus myself, not against a fixed goal. Completing a distance and the blood instinct of racing the clock are different animals; running versus racing. Racing is running, but it is running with an edge–the conviction to get in the ring with fear and uncertainty and pain and just whale on the bastards until the clock runs out.

The second one, The Edge, is delicate. I don’t know, truly, how much I could have pushed those last 8 km. How uncooperative were my legs, really? Did I panic when the atypical pain arrived? Two days later, and seated in front of an air conditioning vent, I can’t accurately recall. Having survived, I know there was space between where I was and The Edge. How much? How much could I have pushed the preceding 34 km?

That line of questioning will stop now.

A more interesting question is: What’s Next?