I was lucky (or unlucky - matter of perspective) with marathon major ballots this year. I bagged 3 of the 6 majors for 2023 - Tokyo, Chicago and New York City. I put my name in the hat thinking I would perhaps get 1 of 3. Especially, I wouldn’t have run Chicago and NYC just 4 weeks apart but at the time of applying I didn’t have the results of the other ballots. Since the prospect of completing all 6 majors suddenly brightened, I decided not to miss any.
I followed a 17 week training program that picked up from where I was already at, rather than assuming no foundation and low volume. I was already running 5 time/week and doing 2 hour runs in my “down time” after Tokyo so my long training runs started at 2 hours and went up to 3 hr 10 mins a few times. Sometimes there were races included in the long runs and sometimes long goal marathon pace efforts at the end. Weekday intervals and tempos weren’t exactly short or easy either. Safe to say, this was the hardest I ever trained - both in terms of intensity and volume. Also did strength training twice a week. Most importantly, this was the first time I started marathon training without already being seriously injured and stayed injury-free throughout. Yes, I had a few niggles but who doesn’t?
Race Day Logistics
I prefer races that start and end in the same area, preferably central, as opposed to point-to-point races. For the last couple of nights before race I moved to an AirBnB with friends. In hindsight Uber to the start wasn’t the brightest idea - road closures around the start area, we circled around several times before deciding to be dropped off a bit far and walking to the start. In our defence, we chose this option because Chicago has the earliest start time of all the majors - 7:30am!
Clearing security took a while. Thankfully bag drop was quick. Finding the entrance to my wave was a bit of a challenge because I was late and could only see people from the later waves. Eventually found it just as it was closing. Noticed the next wave was already moving forward!
It starts and finishes in Grant Park in downtown Chicago. By the time I got to my wave it was 7:37am. I quickly got rid of my warm layers while moving towards the start line. Certainly made for a very stressful start (also evidenced by my HR) but on the plus side, I didn’t have to wait in the cold. It was somewhere between 6 and 8 ºC (a big drop from the 26 ºC when I arrived just 3 days prior) and “The Windy City” wasn’t living up to it’s name - just a gentle breeze. And it was dry. In other words, the perfect race weather I could have hoped for. This, combined with a flat-ish course and extremely disciplined training should set me up for a big PB. Or so I thought!
Started running within just 3-4 minutes of entering the wave. I had printed a pace band for 2 reasons: 1) Can’t rely on GPS in a built-up city; 2) I prefer kilometres over miles but obviously they have mile markers at US races (except at major distances). Plan was to try and stay at even pace throughout. At mile 1 I found myself 11 seconds behind schedule. Due to having to re-tie shoe laces that had come undone, the gap extended to 20 seconds by mile 2. Didn’t panic, knowing there was plenty of time to catch up. Very gradually picked up the pace and at mile 8 I was bang on target, down to the second! I am not good at pacing so was really happy how I took my time to get back on target rather than going too fast to cover the gap. By mile 10 I was 11 seconds ahead of schedule so decided to slow down on purpose in order to avoid problems later in the race. Kept checking my pace band at every single mile marker. My strategy of walking while drinking Gatorade at every station, 2 cups at some, was working well by giving me a bit of rest and ensuring I hydrated properly. I was still hitting or was very close to my target mile to mile.
The course was living up to its reputation - mostly flat, a few bridges and inclines but gentle, nothing too troublesome. The aid stations were very frequent (every 1 to 2 miles) and apart from 2, all had Gatorade electrolyte drink in addition to water. The lines of tables were long and on both sides so no crowding. Large number of volunteers to hand out cups. Enough for me to drink twice at some aid stations. Crowds were very good and other than a few quiet sections, there were loads of people cheering the runners on throughout the course. Some of my favourite signs included “Rats don’t run this city, you do” and “You run better than the government”. I saw a guy holding a sign “I’d rather be in London” and had to him where I had traveled from!
Around halfway, I noticed I was about 40+ seconds behind schedule but was getting a bit tired too so decided not to attempt chasing my ambitious target of 3:20. I had a good chance of getting 3:22-3:23 which would still be a 6-7 min PB, something I would have been very happy with. Kept my focus and tried to stay on pace, hoping to avoid the problems I had faced at every single marathon, bar one. I was feeling my left calf tightening up a bit, an early sign for a cramp later on. So I took a cramp shot - something that a friend had recommended just before the race and I managed to source but not try. It was a false alarm so I endured that awful taste for nothing!
I was keeping an eye out for a supporter who was going to be at mile 14. Ended up being closer to mile 15 but I managed to spot her. A familiar face and an energetic high five was much needed. At some point I passed a guy from Wiltshire who recognised the QPH vest and wished me luck.
I had taken my gels on time and drank lots of electrolyte drink along the way. I would like to think I carb-loaded and hydrated well in the days leading up to the race. Tapered with discipline too. Weather was cold and nice for a marathon. So I was hoping may be I would avoid the cramps this time. But with 10 or so km to go, the dreaded indication that my left calf could get a cramp came on. I quickly took the second cramp shot - just as advised “when you start to feel it, don’t wait”. Sadly it didn’t work on me. Still got a cramp a bit later on. Then the right calf too. Quads were also giving me the wrong signals. I think I was still on track for 3:23-ish by that time but had to revise the target to 3:25 because I knew it would be walk/run from then onwards. Otherwise I would immobilise completely. I would run a few hundred metres then the cramped muscle would “pop”, I would try not to let a scream out, then walk for a bit, repeat. Been there many times and at that point the goal becomes just to manage it so I can keep moving. I can feel I have the energy, know my HR is dropping so I am not actually super tired. Just physically unable to run continuously. Constantly revising targets, 3:27, 3:28, ok just a PB - any margin would do. A very demotivating but sadly familiar feeling for me.
Finished in 3:33:54 - I reckon I lost about 10 minutes to the cramps. I have a race picture which shows me walking with the “300m to go” sign in the background. No one walks that close to the finish but I had to. What could have been a 6-7 min PB became my second best marathon by 4 mins. Disappointing, especially because although I had NYC marathon coming up in just 4 weeks, that’s no PB course. People told me it was still a good time, especially given my first ever race was only 2 years ago. However, knowing I was capable of better and had followed my plan religiously for 17 weeks, that wasn’t much of a consolation for me, unfortunately.
Got to move on and keep trying - that’s the most important thing. In any case, I had ticked off my 5th marathon and 4th distinct major. Knowing that after NYC in November, I would only have Boston left of the 6 majors was a good feeling. Another positive was that by drinking and not spilling at every station, I had ruled out water/electrolytes as a potential reason for cramps.
I was really impressed with how well-organised it was from expo to the flat course and hydration stations - liked it all. Unfortunately it was a nightmare to collect my bag after the race. A very mismanaged crowd, couldn’t tell which was the correct “queue”. Waited an hour and a half to get to the front - not a great experience especially given the state of my calves and quads! If it wasn’t for this, Chicago would have been my favourite race. But for now, Berlin retains that title for me.