– Steve Prefontaine
Pre definitely knew what he was talking about. In fact, I have been running marathons and ultramarathons for a couple years now, and I still haven’t found an everlasting joy quite as sweet as thrashing myself through hours of self-inflicted punishment.
But why do I do it?
Do I do it to prove just how tough I am? Do I do it to see how much I can improve on past performance? Do I do it to impress my friends and family?
No. I do it because in all instances — whether good or bad or somewhere in between — nothing else makes me feel more alive.
Sunday, October 7, 2012 offered me yet another golden opportunity to truly LIVE while zooming through my beloved city, in all its glory, with a million+ spectators cheering me on from start to finish. I would make it count.
– – –
Race Morning, 4:30 a.m.
Rise and shine! The alarm goes off but it isn’t really necessary because I’ve been up every hour on the hour since midnight. Who can sleep the night before a big race anyway? I’ve learned to overload on sleep all throughout race week, so despite this bit of restlessness, I’m feeling great.
I go through my regular pre-race routine of having a bagel, banana and a half cup of coffee while I check the weather and start going over the race in my mind. Because of the perfect weather lining up, I know some lofty goals are going to be possible, but mental focus is going to be the key. In the last six months I have brought meditation and breath control into my training, so I spend some time focusing on the breath, acknowledging the anxiety, then quietly forcing all negativity to get the hell out.
But what exactly is going to be possible today is still somewhat of a mystery. Originally, I lined up the Chicago Marathon to be a fitness test en route to my sub-3 hour attempt coming in January 2013 at the Houston Marathon; but after a long summer of ultras, I have started to surprise even myself.
After Howl at the Moon, I took a couple weeks off to recover before jumping into four hard weeks of dedicated speed training, and what I discovered was that my summer of ultras had tuned my big endurance engine so well that I was now able to hold faster paces longer, purely out of being more fit. In fact, I ran my 20 miler three weeks out from race day at a very comfortable 7:00 pace.
With all of this in mind, I know that today’s success is likely going to depend on my ability to pace myself, and, of course, how much I can dig deep in the last 10K. So I have a game plan:
1) Catch the 3:05 pace group
2) Stay with them through at least the halfway mark, then, based on how I feel, decide to speed up, slow down or stay put
3) No rest til Boston
That’s right. I want to qualify for the prestigious Boston Marathon, and the qualifying time for my age group is 3:05 or better. I need a hard yet achievable goal for this race and with today’s temps lining up so perfectly, this is the one. Beating my 3:15 PR is almost a given, barring any sort of catastrophe. But beating it by more than 10 minutes is going to take some guts.
I crank WHAT TIME IS IT?, put on my game face, and head to Grant Park.
While huddled among the masses in my start corral, I am surprisingly calm. My pulse is at resting rate. I feel no anxiety. I’m all smiles and ready to run to the raucous roars of the crowd.
Indeed, of all the races I have run to date, nothing quite compares to the enormous “epicness” of the Chicago Marathon. Here, crowd support is as plentiful as it is deafening. I also know that this can sabotage one’s race if he isn’t careful. It is way too easy to bolt out at an unsustainable pace while being cheered on by the masses. And after a proper taper and plenty of rest, that bolting pace is going to feel easier than it should. I make note of this and remind myself to run as evenly as possible.
We pause for the National Anthem.
Then there’s the introduction of the elites (Go Ritz!)…
Oh, chaos, sweet chaos.
It helps if you know it’s coming, but it still never makes sifting through the first few miles of a mega-race insanity much fun. For some unknown reason, the running gods still allow swarms of people who should not be up front to plug up the streets, making swift passage nearly impossible. In some ways, this is good, as it allows me to not go out too fast. But all the dodging and jumping and clipping necessary to get into a good groove is not my favorite part of racing.
One defense mechanism I use for getting through this difficult beginning is to stay as far to the left as possible. The Chicago Marathon starts out with two left turns followed by two right turns; and by the time I’m cruising up State Street, I have finally escaped the insanity and find myself surrounded by folks in my speed zone.
The crowds are immense. And they are loud. I look around, taking it in, finding an unbound love for all these strangers who have sacrificed their morning to cheer us on. Today is going to be a good day.
Now, down to business.
I come across the first 5K in 21:31, right on target. And I feel fine. But I still haven’t spotted the 3:05 pace team. In a perfect world, I would have started with them; however, they began in Corral A and my previous time of 3:15 wouldn’t get me in there, so instead I had to start back in Corral B, a whole minute and 13 seconds behind at the start. They are running even splits, so I know that in order to catch them, I’m going to have to exert some more effort in the early goings.
Do you really need the pace team though? I ask myself.
I don’t know. Maybe I don’t. But I want to join them anyway. When I ran my last fast 20-mile trainer, part of what made it so comfortable was that I ran it with a pack. Running in a pack is a great way to relax the mind. It also helps conserve energy. No longer is the focus on splits and tempo and mile markers, but rather it boils one’s effort down to one, singular task: sticking with the group. Stay on the heels of the guy in front of you. That’s it. And the benefits of drafting and being part of a social dynamic also make the pain of running so hard disappear.
I need that group. I will get there.
And there, just as I hit the aid station in Lincoln Park near the 5 mile marker, I see a beautiful band of runners in step, bouncing among them three small “3:05” signs. That’s my team. Let’s catch up.
One little burst of speed and now I’m tucked in behind, at the back of the group. Everyone is focused. There are probably close to fifty of us. I don’t know. It’s hard to count when everyone is moving so quickly. The guy to the left of me smiles and says, “Well, hello. Nice of you to join us. What took you so long?”
We both laugh as I comfortably turn off my mind and go into zen mode. There are two blue-shirted pacers up front, Mike and Tony. Twenty feet or so back is the pace leader, Chris, who is shouting out words of encouragement and detailed instructions on course maneuverings. He is the pace maker. If Mike or Tony get too fast up front he directs them to slow down. Everyone is on point, focused on nabbing that Boston qualifier; and after a couple of easy miles inside the peloton I’m grinning ear to ear because it feels so effortless.
And we are in good hands.
I overhear Chris mention he’s run over 20 marathons under three hours, with a personal best of 2:37 and paces an average of 12 marathons a year. Our current 7-minute pace is so easy for him that he has no problem conversing with those fit enough to do the same and I love the fact that he like totally has a surfer-dude accent, man. I’m feeling good, but this is not conversational pace for me, so I just dig in and focus on being one with the pack.
I am one with the pack.
Wow. This is so fucking cool.
We’re hitting mile markers evenly, on the dot. It’s scary how evenly this team is clicking. And that’s exactly what it is: a team. As we zoom through Lakeview and into Wrigleyville, the spectator cheering reaches insane, deafening levels.
“Use the crowds to keep the same level of intensity”, says team leader Chris, “but don’t let them push you beyond. We have a lot of race yet.”
In contrast to last year’s race where I seemed to live and die by the level of crowd support and the visuals of the course itself, this time I’m just running smooth and easy, controlled and strong, completely oblivious to the chaos around me. It’s almost like I’m on a treadmill because I’m surrounded by the same people throughout — a stationary unit, an even paced machine — and we’re all on the same team, working for each other.
Mile 9, Mile 10, Mile 11. Mile 12. Nailing splits. All of them.
And the best part about it, for me, is that because I started a minute and 13 seconds behind the group, each time we hit our 3:05 splits I know I have a minute and 13 second cushion. Time in the bank, as small as it may be, is always comforting.
“20K, bam, doing great, Team!” says Chris, “We’re doing great work, guys. Tony, just a touch slower up front. Boom. That’s perfect. Keep it right there. Okay, guys, aid station coming up. Keep drinking. Don’t skip it. Get your carbs. Meet back in the middle.”
We hit the aid station heading south on Franklin, and just as we have at all the others previous, we all come back center into this beautiful, swift peloton of awesomeness. I look around and it looks like everyone who was here at mile five is still here as we creep up on mile 13.
Heading west on Adams, we come through the half marathon mark and I look at my watch to see I just PR’d for the distance: 1:31:20. Bam! I did that!
“Okay, guys, we’re doing awesome,” says Chris. “Remember to run strong. From your core. Focus on getting in that oxygen. We’re going to be coming up on Mile 14 soon and we’re right on pace with about 30 seconds in the bank. Stay strong. Use each other. Stay together.”
I love this guy. I love this group!
So… do I leave them? Do think I can negative split now and run off on my own?
I take a few minutes, mulling over the possibilities in my mind. Fatigue-wise, I’m pretty tired right now. My heart rate is fine, breathing is normal. Legs are on automatic. Nothing is aching too terribly, but I feel like it’s easier because I’m focusing on sticking with the group and that is all. I’m on Boston qualifying pace, with time in the bank, and in order to break 3 hours I would have to run 15 seconds per mile faster than I am going right now, for another entire 13.1 miles.
Too risky. Let’s not sabotage one goal for the sake of another right now. Just keep doing what you’re doing and we’ll see where we are at 20 miles.
I’m happy with this decision. I’m happy with everything right now. I’M ALIVE! I’M ALIVE! I’M A-LIIIIIIVE!
Mile marker 14 comes and goes at 1:37:20 by my watch and I’m ecstatic. I can’t wait until we hit the turn onto Damen and start heading back towards the lake because that means we’re creeping up on my regular stomping grounds: Greektown, Little Italy, University Village, Pilsen, Chinatown, Bridgeport…
I get ahead of myself.
“Run with your core. Stay focused within the group,” says Chris, “Take in that oxygen. Everyone looks great. Doing great work here, 3:05!”
Miles 15, 16, 17, 18… all on point. 7 minute splits, boom. Bam. Done.
Except… now, as we turn south down Ashland and Gangnam Style blasts repeatedly from all directions, I feel like this effort is becoming more and more difficult. At the 30K mark, I even start to fade a bit before pulling myself back in with a much-needed gel and mental kick in the ass.
You have to stay with these guys, Jeff. You’ve worked too hard to dog out now. Focus. Just focus! This is BOSTON we’re talking about. No one gets into Boston without feeling like shit at some point. Stay on Chris’ heels.
Stay on Chris’ heels, stay on Chris’ heels, stay on Chris’ heels…
Mile 19… BAM. Right on target. And now, we’re on a part of the course I run weekly. The stretch from 18th Street to Halsted, south until you reach Archer, and east on into Chinatown, is part of my regular training route so I am encouraged by the idea that from here on out it’s all familiar territory.
Not only that, but I also know my buddy Omar is waiting for me at Cermak and Halsted and that once I get to Chinatown, my friends from my New Leaf running club are waiting with free high-fives. Time to boil the race down into “just get theres”.
Just get to Omar.
Just get to Chinatown.
Just get to Sox Park.
We get to Mile 20, there is Omar and he is cheering my name loudly. Next to him is a woman I’ve never seen before who says, “You are one sexy runner!”
And now, with that extra boost of confidence, I’m running on somebody else’s legs.
“Okay, Team, great job staying strong through 20 miles,” says Chris, “We’re right on target with time to spare.”
He’s not kidding. We hit 20 miles at 2:19:40 by my watch — my fastest 20 miles to date. We make the turn left onto Archer and for a brief second I think about how I could just bail and go home from here (it’s only a couple blocks away) but then I realize how ridiculous that sounds and I let Chris’ instruction bring me back present.
“20 miles in now, Team, so let’s talk about some things. This is where the crowd support is gonna die down. We’ll get a boost through Chinatown but after that it’s gonna be quiet until we hit about the 24 or 25 mile mark. Now, if you feel good and you think you have a lot left to burn, think about going off with Mike and Tony ‘cuz they’re gonna go up ahead a bit.”
They do. I try to match the burst but I can’t. Instead, I feel my legs start to burn (prior to now I couldn’t feel them period) and… ohhhh shit! I start to panic! This all happens in a matter of seconds. Then, Chris continues:
“If you feel like this is max effort right now and you don’t want to risk it, man, just stick with me, right here. We’re gonna take it in. Nice and steady. Nice and strong.”
Let’s do that, Jeff. Let’s stick with Chris.
I ease off a hair and watch as most of the peloton blows forward with Mike and Tony. There is a scattered group of about 10 of us who stay back with Chris; but after that quick burst of mine, I’m starting to hurt. I trail off a bit. I keep them about 20 feet ahead of me and just hang on. I know Chinatown is coming, so I’ll try to recover through this quiet spot until we get there.
I can hear the beating drums and roaring crowd build in volume as we make our approach. Surprisingly, the anticipation of seeing more familiar faces is enough to bring me back from that low patch and now I’m right back on the heels of Chris and the gang. The faster portion of our team is in front of us by about 40 or 50 feet.
We make the turn right onto Wentworth and I break off from the pack to gather energy from the crowds.
“Go, Jeff! Nice work, Jeff! Stay strong, Jeff!” I hear a familiar voice scream. It’s Brandi, from my running club. I can’t see her but I hear her and I get a nice burst of energy from the encouragement.
Further down the street, near the old Chinatown post office, I see my friends Tara and Jennifer and Craig on the east side of Wentworth. Yes! So happy to see them!
I speed up and get high-fives from each of them, along with some encouraging, raucous cheers and before I know it I’ve tucked back into the Chris-led mini-peloton and I realize: Holy shit, I’m almost done.
It’s only going to hurt for a few more miles.
Just… stay… focused.
This is that part of the marathon I dream about most — that part where you really have to dig deep inside your brain to find out what you’re made of.
Are you tough? Can you stick with it til the end, gaining strength through adversity? Or are you going to give in to the pain and let all that you’ve worked so hard for disappear into the dark abyss of complacency? How… much… do you care?
I stick to Chris’ heels, drafting off of his tall build, sucking it up and convincing myself the pain and mental anguish won’t last long.
You’re almost done, Jeff. You’ve killed this course today. And you’re going to get your wish ‘cuz you’re gonna qualify for Boston.
We hit the 25 mile marker and for the first time in my marathoning life the clock has yet to strike three hours at this spot. I come in at 2:55:40 and I think to myself:
The last 1.2
“Okay, Team. This is it,” says Chris. “One and a quarter mile to go and you’ve earned it. We’re coming in hot! Ahead of schedule. If you wanna go take it in, go for it.”
I’m going for it. In fact, I could run this stretch (from 16th and Michigan to Roosevelt) in my sleep, I’ve done it so often.
I take off. Can’t even feel my legs. Pumping with my arms. Pushing with my core.
For the first time all race I’m breathing hard. And it feels great.
I hit the turn to Mt. Roosevelt and lean in hard on the left side, soaking all the energy from the crowd as I let them carry me up the one and only “hill” the course has to offer. Before I know it I’m turning left on to Columbus — the last furlong — and up ahead is that glorious, GLORIOUS finish line.
I kick it into high gear, throw my arms up in the air and come across the finish line in 3 hours, 3 minutes, 27 seconds.
Pain never felt so good.
Here’s a marathon first: I didn’t cry this time! Not even one tear. Instead, I sought out my 3:05 pace teammates and embraced them with sweaty hugs, high-fives and a barrage of hoots and hollers.
We did it! We really did it! Boston, baby!
I get my space blanket, don my medal, then I approach Chris, Mike and Tony, individually. I hug them all, look them each straight in the eye tell them “thank you”, from the bottom of my heart.
I had the race of my life today and I know I couldn’t have done it with such ease had it not been for their impeccable pacing (and people) skills.
I refuel with a well deserved 312 brew and do the Frankenstein walk back to gear check. I change into my warm clothes and make the trek back to the Orange Line train at Roosevelt, receiving high-fives and congratulations from passersby along the way.
My smile must be contagious. Everyone’s wearing one.
And as I slip onto the crowded train and head back home to ice my battered posts, I look back out onto my beautiful city from the elevated tracks, comforted by the knowledge that 40,000 other folks are truly living life today in the most exhilarating way possible.
The 2013 Boston Marathon still had spots open…so, of course, I’M REGISTERED! See ya in Beantown, April 2013!
October 8, 2012 | Categories: Philosophy, Race Reports, Training | Tags: Boston Qualifying, Chicago Marathon, Dad, Long run, Marathon, Meditation, Mental toughness, New Leaf Ultra Runs, Philosophy, Psychology, Race Reports, Speed Work, Steve Prefontaine, Training | 25 Comments