26.2 Magnificent miles in the Windy City
It’s 6.45am and I’m standing on an empty six-lane highway staring down a river of tarmac at a cluster of Chicago’s famous skyscrapers.
I’m awake brutally early, feeling the pinch of a nippy Chicago Sunday morning, for one reason. I’m here to run the Chicago Marathon – in under 3 hours. That’s the plan at least.
This cityscape backdrop to the start of the race is an inspiring sight. The proud scrapers piercing the navy darkness of the Chicago night skies are a fitting setting for a race I’ve been building up to for eight months, and as their watching windows light up the horizon I can’t help but feel the occasion gripping at my guts.
This isn’t going to be like other marathons. It’s not just a race. This is me striving for my best performance ever in a city waiting to explode with pride and perspiration.
I enter the Start Corral B - virtually alone - and take a moment to compose myself. As music pulses from trees of speakers lining the start corrals, I gaze down at some code scribbled on the back of my left hand. Three important lines I’ve been reading repeatedly for the past hour.
I read them over again.
This jumble of numbers is my pace equation. I must follow this to the second to break the 3-hour mark.
Somehow I’ve convinced myself that saying it again and again in my head will make it more possible.
Written down like this it looks straight forward enough but these digits hide whole world of potential pain and struggle, elation and deflation, belief and doubt and ultimately success or failure.
An hour earlier, right before I branded my hand with hotel biro, I’d been sitting on my hotel room bed shovelling piping hot microwave instant oats into my face with my fingers wondering what this moment would be like. (As a runner, you’re forced to do these kinds of things, particularly if you stupidly book into a hotel that doesn’t do breakfast, does have a microwave in your room but doesn’t have spoons.)
As the apple and cranberry sludge slipped down I knew this had the potential to be the best race I’ve ever run. Not only in terms of being the fastest, but also the most epic.
The walk down the Magnificent Mile - Chicago’s main shopping stretch - in the darkness underlines this. All the way down runners join from the cross streets, swelling our numbers. A rising tide of multi-coloured dreamers shooting nervous looks and sinking last-chance gulps of Gatorade.
It’s always slightly odd being alone in that sea of runners and supporters. But on this occasion I’m happy to be able to pop on some music and focus on the job in hand. I only have myself to worry about.
For this race I’m travelling light. Everything I’m wearing or carrying reflects a lesson learnt from previous races.
I ditch my Camelbak, opting to rely on the course drinks.
I’ve got two small running belts on. The first is filled with five Strawberry Banana Powergels that I’ll take every 30 minutes to maintain steady energy. The second has my phone complete with playlist.
Other than that, the only other thing I plan to carry during the race is an Innov8 Elite Windshield racer jacket that’s currently shielding me from a sharp breeze. Oh, and a Chicago Bears cap that I bought a day or so ago in the hope it’d rouse some local support.
Travelling without a bag makes getting to the start corral super fast. I bypass the extra security checks that have been put in place post-Boston. So I arrive a on the start line a little earlier than planned.
That gives me a little too much time to think.
It’s amazing how small things can make or break your race. You shouldn’t really let them but they do. As I’m standing in the start corral I find myself obsessing about not having a water bottle to carry on the course.
I have a belligerent hatred of cups and the panic starts to set in that failure to deal with this will mean losing time or not getting enough water on board.
Luckily I spot a security guy giving his co-workers a bottle and he’s kind enough to go and get me one. In that moment, my mood shifts. I now have everything I need. No excuses.
Then comes the Star Spangled Banner. I’m not American. I’m not even a patriotic Brit but it’s impossible not to be roused by that song, in that moment.
Minutes later the race starts and what happens next is a complete blur. More than any other race, this one flashes by, melting into almost a single moment of perpetual movement.
I do remember the crowds. Very quickly I realise that Chicago does marathon support turned up to twelve.
Around mile two my Garmin goes to shit throwing my careful pace plan into jeopardy. For the first 10km I’m forced to use the course clocks to get to 6 miles in 42 mins. As it turns out running by feel works well and I get there in just under 42.
I dig in for the next section, a 14 mile slog at a slightly faster pace. My Garmin starts to play nice and I hit mile after mile almost bang on 6:50 pace as planned. I sink my gels with ease and I even find a technique that kills off my fear of cups.
Everything is going well which is a worry. It makes me start to wonder when the wheels will come off. I get my answer around mile 18 when it starts to get tough.
It’s at this point you start to wonder if you’ve gone too fast and you’re about to find yourself going backwards for the final eight miles.
But I manage to dig in. When the bad thoughts come I bat them back with three words: YES. I. CAN. It works, dragging me over the 20 mile mark with the sub-3-hour marathon still wide open.
'This is where the race starts,' I tell myself. 'Let’s see what you’ve got.' Unfortunately the answer was “not enough”. Mile 21 turned out to be my slowest of the race. The demons were out.
I always say that during any run, you know there will be a period when things turn bad, where you’re in pain, mentally and physically. It’s all about what you do when that moment comes. If you give in to it your race can fall to pieces. But if you refuse to listen to those negative voices and push on, you often come back stronger.
I decide to make a tactical 20 second stop at the next water station. Get some fluids down properly and hit the reset button. It works and I pull my pace back down closer to 7 min/miles for the next two.
It’s not enough to hit the sub-3 and by mile 23 I realise that’s gone. Then I hear a shout from the crowd. “Keep it up Kieran! You got this man. You got this. Boston’s yours.”
I realise that one of my goals for 2013 is still wide open. London and Boston Marathon qualifying times are within reach if I can just kick on.
I latch onto the 3:05 pacer for all it’s worth and from nowhere I pull out a 7:07 min/mile at mile 26. It’s all looking good. Then Chicago plays its cruellest trick.
With 300m to go it appears – the hill. Now compared to some of the hills I’ve run this year, it’s not particularly steep or indeed very long. What makes this so punishing is the timing. At the point where I’m running on fumes, having run an almost entirely flat race, there’s a bloody hill. Forget the legs, this climb is all about what’s left in the mind. Willpower.
As I crest the hill I can sense my stomach deciding whether to reject my last gel. I’m forced to rock back a little bit and slow down. Then I see the big red banner with that word we runners love so much ‘Finish’. I can see I’m inside 3:05 with a bit to spare so I decide to enjoy the moment.
The arms go out, the face turns into one big smile and I realise that what I was thinking on the start line was right. This is the best race of my life.