Chicago Marathon 2016

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“Oh no…” Those were the first words that I uttered when I realised that my application to run the Chicago Marathon had been accepted, my name picked out in the ballot amongst thousands of applicants, having entered some months previously when I was sure that I didn’t have a hope of being successful. Previous entries into the lotteries for London (several years in a row) and New York marathons had resulted in rejection emails, and I was certain that the entry for Chicago would go much the same way.

In fact, I half hoped that I WOULD be one of those who didn’t get picked; it was early April and I was training for Edinburgh, my second marathon in 2016 after completing Dubai marathon in January. The thought of training for a third marathon in ten months and, what’s more, doing so during the stifling heat and humidity of a UAE summer, was not something I particularly relished the thought of doing. But I was in, and there was no going back. After all, it was to be my first marathon major, and the thought of a flat, fast course with plenty of crowd support appealed to me, outweighing the doubt and reluctance in my mind. I pushed away any thoughts of Chicago until after I had completed the Edinburgh Marathon in May, had most of June as a recovery month, and began training for Chicago in July – just as the temperatures and humidity made their annual leap from ‘hot’ to ‘unbearably hot’.

Thankfully, during July and August, I was able to make use of the indoor track at Dubai Sports World. Although only 600m long, the air conditioned environment was a welcome relief, and I was able to complete my long runs (up to a distance of 35km) successfully, albeit suffering from a huge dose of boredom. I was fortunate enough to visit the UK and Germany for a week in August, which gave me the opportunity to train outside and see what kind of pace I was capable of without the heat and humidity factor. As I was comfortably running at around 5:03/km, I set a goal to complete the Chicago Marathon in 3 hours 40 minutes, meaning that I would need to run an average a pace of 5:12/km for the duration of the race. My previous marathon time in May was 3:45:14, and I did doubt whether I would be able to knock so many minutes off in a matter of months. However, I decided to go for it and consoled myself that I might at least get under 3:45 if my race didn’t go to plan.

Training with my club, Desert Road Runners, was a real confidence boost, as was logging my runs on Strava and Instagram. The rise in temperature at the end of August also coincided with the peak of my training, and the closure of Dubai Sports World. Begrudgingly, I took to the treadmill, now known as the ‘dreadmill’, to complete
my interval sessions and long runs. Two mind-numbing 36km runs and countless other sessions later, I found myself escaping the heat and heading to California in September. This was a belated honeymoon for my husband and I, and the plan was that I would stay in the USA until the marathon.

The cooler temperatures of the States brought with them other challenges. The first was to continue running on an almost daily basis whilst on honeymoon, and the other challenges included altitude and hills. Staying at Lake Tahoe, the altitude was almost 2000m above sea level, and I could definitely feel my lungs burning as I ran through beautiful forests, struggling to maintain pace. Then came the hills. Yosemite National Park is by no means flat, and it was impossible to get close to marathon pace. I began to doubt myself, thinking that this represented a loss of and lack of fitness. It was not until I found a fairly flat track on which to do intervals in San Francisco that I began to realise that perhaps those few weeks struggling to run might actually have done some good.

Staying with family and friends in Vancouver and then Connecticut, I entered the ‘taper’ phase and worked on self belief and trusting in my training. My final long run through Central Park was an hour at marathon pace, during which I felt unstoppable, despite the fact that it was, unknown to me, pretty hilly.

Travelling to Chicago five days before the event, I stayed with friends who ensured that my nutrition was on point. Plenty of salmon, quinoa and sweet potatoes, as well as the odd dish of pasta, were served. By race day, I felt light, nimble and ready to go. Even more importantly, I felt confident and relaxed, despite convincing myself that I had every injury possible; I knew that this was just anxiety.

On the day of the race, conditions couldn’t have been any better; clear skies, not too much wind, and a high of sixteen degrees. This was perfect running weather and I was determined to make the most of it! The race started at 07:30, and I had planned to run with the 3:40 pace group. However, due to a last minute ‘pit stop’ I was unable to reach them in the crowded corral, and they started way ahead of me. As I waited to start, silence descended and golden autumnal leaves floated towards the ground like confetti. It was the perfect moment for stillness and contemplation, before Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’ flooded the speakers and energised me for those first steps.

My aim was to start slowly and try to speed up as the race progressed. I realised immediately that the GPS on my watch was completely off thanks to the tunnels and tall buildings en route, so I focused instead on ensuring that I was on track every time I reached a mile marker. Thankfully, I had saved myself from having to do maths by buying a temporary pace tattoo.

The first half passed uneventfully, just as I had planned. After a ‘too fast’ first kilometre and then a bit of congestion in the crowd of runners, I had settled into a comfortable pace that would bring me in at 3:40. Spotting the pace group up ahead, I slowly caught them up and ran with them for a while. But something felt wrong. Not only was it crowded around the group leaders, but to me the pace felt slightly too easy. Or perhaps not hard enough. For 5km I thought about slowly overtaking, knowing only too well that speeding up too early could be a big mistake and result in me blowing up and missing all my goals entirely. However, I felt good, and thinking to myself, ‘trust your training, you can do this,’ I slowly made my way past them, increasing my pace a fraction.

At about 30km, there was a quieter section of the course, which again allowed for a moment of calm and reflection. Yes, I still felt good, but there was a lot of work to be done. Visualising the finish and how good it would feel, I pushed on and soon entered China Town, which was an incredible, almost raucous experience that was just what I needed.

The last five miles passed by surprisingly quickly, and I found myself overtaking people who had begun to suffer. One man shouted about how strong I looked as I passed him, giving me an extra boost. By now I was tired, but not in any pain apart from (surprisingly) feeling that my toenails were bruised. Whenever I felt my pace begin to slow, I did a 10-20 second surge as I had practiced in training, and I remember feeling amazed at how much that helped me keep going.

In the final mile, I knew that there was a small hill, which I had prepared for in training. Seeing it in reality was demoralising (it was actually only a bridge but may as well have been a mountain at this point), but I told myself, “you trained for this, and it’s nearly over. Don’t give up now!” Somehow, I managed to increase my speed in those last miles to under 8 minutes per mile. The crowd and the fact that I was nearly done pulled me through. Hill conquered, the sign read 400m to go. I pushed, telling myself that someone would take care of me if I fell over the finish line…all I had to do was get there, and afterwards I could be ill and in pain. I had to make it worth it!

In the final straight, I looked at the time on my watch. With 200m to go, I realised I could cross the line in under 3 hours 38 minutes. That was more than I had confidently hoped for, and enough to spur me over the line in a very undignified ‘sprint’. Official time: 3:37:43. I couldn’t believe it. Not only had I beaten my PB by over seven minutes, but I had qualified for Boston 2018 and run a negative split, meaning that the second half of the marathon was over a minute faster than the first half.

I revelled in the atmosphere and took it all in, before having a well deserved shower and meeting my friends for a much anticipated Chicago deep dish pizza. The high I feel is still present, and I’m so glad that I pushed through. If only all races could feel like this!

Words by: Rachael Bruford
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