Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Marathon Day!

Wow, it's finally over. It's hard to believe that it's been 7 1/2 months since I registered, and now the spring and summer have come and gone and the 2013 Bank of America Chicago Marathon is done.

So first the particulars...I went into the race hoping to run 5 hours, 20 minutes and I ran 5:23:39. So I didn't miss by much. And I have a medal to add to my collection, which is always good!

It's been such a great ride -- as I've said before, this has been the most fun I've ever had in training for a marathon. Which actually makes it hard to decide what to write about and where to start.

I guess I'll just start at the beginning of the weekend. I had Matt and Kevin with me this weekend, so I picked Kev up and we headed over to my place as Matt had decided to go with some friends to a football game. Carb loading and hydrating began as I made a big bowl of rotini -- actually two bowls -- and started drinking down some Powerade.

Most marathon experts say that the night to get sleep that counts is on Friday, and thankfully I was able to do just that. I got right around nine hours, which was very, very nice. We had all stayed up a bit late so we didn't head downtown to the expo until close to noon, but thankfully had a pretty easy trip in.

I grabbed my number, shirt and bag and the boys and I looked around the expo for a while. The expo is pretty cool as it's the first chance to really see the magnitude of the event. The hall was packed with people from all around the world who had converged on Chicago for what to them might be a once in a lifetime experience. The energy in the building is just so electric as people are getting ramped up for the big day.

I was also waiting for my friend Noah to show up so we could say hello. Noah and I go a long way back -- he also ran the marathon in 2000 and when he moved to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California in 2002, I went out there the next spring and we ran the 2003 LA Marathon together.

He had just recently moved back to Chicago and I had caught up with him a few weeks ago. He had been struggling with IT band issues but had bought some new shoes and nursed himself back to health, only to hurt his back while moving a week before the marathon.

When I saw him at the expo he said he was feeling better but thought he was just going to run to try and finish the race. I suggested meeting up Sunday morning to see as if that were the case I'd drop back into his corral and we could run together.

Here is a fun picture from the expo. Outside of the huge Nike display they had a screen that put up your name and a sort of motivational word. I got "Mike owns 26.2". Loved it! I was in a great state of mind leaving the expo.

Later on it was time to carb up some more. I made the boys and I some chicken Alfredo on top of rotini, and it was really good, I must say! It was actually the first time I had made it myself, and it is now in the dinner rotation from now on. I'm not much of a cook, but I can hold my own with a few dishes.

I made it to bed around 11:30 and to my surprise slept really well. I woke up a couple of times to go to the bathroom (I had been hydrating, after all) but in between slept pretty hard. I was actually pretty startled when the alarm on my phone went off, so I kind of laid there until the clock radio started playing five minutes later.

One thing that is important on marathon day is to keep in the routine. I always make sure to eat the same thing (bananas, bagels and a Power Bar) that's worked before, and the great thing about the marathon is you can eat pretty much up until the race starts, which is what I do. I even carry some stuff to eat in the car on the way down.

The boys and I headed downtown at about 5:15 to get time to get parked and go through any of the extra security measures. For many years I had ridden the train but two years ago I found a parking garage just off the expressway that always seems to have extra spaces. It's actually kind of nice to drive because then you aren't at the mercy of the train schedule, or have to rush to the train station or anything like that. What also can be bad is that cabs are hard to find and it's close to a mile walk to Union Station. After running 26.2 miles, that's not much fun.

We met up with Darcy in front of the Hilton about an hour later. We waited a while for Noah, but saw no sign of him, which in the end turned out to be a good thing because he felt great and ran 4:21. A rock star as always. Once 7 rolled around, it was time to get going, and we walked the four blocks to the entry to the corral. That was when I said goodbye to Darcy and the boys and headed to my corral for the 7:30 start.

Darcy had secured us tickets into the Bank of America hospitality area, and with that came a spot in the last corral (Corral E) in the first wave. Though I was a bit worried that I would be the slowest person in the first wave, I was happy for the early start -- the second wave starts at eight -- because it meant finishing early, which was huge if it started to warm up in the early afternoon.

What happened next was kind of weird, but in a good way. All week long, I'd been feeling so much stress about the race. But when I got in the corral, all of that went away. I looked around and just felt like "I've been here before".

And I had! Between running the marathon, spectating and covering it for the website, I had been a part of 10 Chicago Marathons. I've also run the springtime Shamrock Shuffle four times, the Chicago Half in 2005 and the Hot Chocolate run last year. Which means I have either run or looked up that start up Columbus Drive some 15 times. I've also come up to the finish as many times too. When I talk to my Mom about running races, she always talks about my "experience". Until now I didn't feel that way about myself, you know? I'm not fast, I haven't always trained the way I should, I've never won anything...but at the same time, I've done this enough that nothing is new.

I decided that would be what I would use to get through the race. Once you get to the starting line, what matters is the race in front of you. There are no such thing as race day "miracles". What you take to the line is what you brought with you. So for me, it was the nearly 75 races I have run. I decided to make that my asset.

There was a real energy in the corral, that's for sure! You get a lot of people who have worked so hard for a goal, and add in the fact many of them had traveled thousands of miles to be there, and it's a pretty amped up situation. I love it!

After the pre-race festivities, the horn went off right at 7:30 and it was on! Being at the back of the first wave, it was going to take a while, but soon we started to slink towards the starting line. With so many people in the first wave, our corral actually swung around the corner of Columbus onto Balbo, so when we reached the corner and took the right to head to the starting line. I took a long look back at the second wave peeps.

There must have been 15,000 to 20,000 people squished together, so many people you couldn't even see the end! We all started waving back and forth to each other, further proof how awesome the running community really is.

It took 11 minutes to reach the start, and while other people began to run before the starting line, I resisted. After all, the race was long enough! But by the time we reached the line, I was nice and relaxed. Maybe a bit too much! My goal heading into the race was five hours, 20 minutes, which is a pace of 12:12 per mile, and I ran the first mile in a quick 11:13.

Whoa! Need to slow down a little. I had a pace band on my wrist and was only worried about elapsed time, so I didn't worry about each individual mile split. I tried to slow down and I felt like I began to settle in. Much to my relief, I wasn't the slowest person in the corral, so there were a smattering of people behind me.

Still, by about 2 1/2 miles it wasn't all that crowded, which was nice. I hit the 5K mark at 35:33 (an 11:27) pace, and that's when the second wave began to hit! Wow, talk about getting freight trained! The first corral of the second wave included peeps who could run under four hours, so they were flying by me. I tried my best to hold my line (using the paint on the pavement as my guide) and tried to think thin. Still, I was probably a moving chicane (a racing term explained here if you are so inclined) but people were polite, some even had some encouraging words as they came by.

No doubt the adrenaline was pumping, and the people coming by me -- not to mention the crowd support -- probably carried me a little faster than I wanted to go. By the time we reached the most northern part of the course on Addison at about 7 1/2 miles, I was ahead of my expected pace by close to five minutes. And that included three bathroom stops. Did I mention I was a little pumped up?

When you make that turn onto Broadway, wow. The crowds are 2-3 deep on the sidewalk and everyone is really loud. Mile 8 is smack in the middle of Boystown, with its male cheerleaders and massive team spirit. They go all out at their water stop, and their energy is much appreciated.

A little further south is Old Town. The crowds get even bigger and start crowding into the street, which makes the going a little narrow. It's all fun so long as everyone is patient, and at the 10 mile water stop I ran into someone who wasn't. As I slowed to grab a cup of water, I felt a forearm in the small of my back and an older woman elbowed by me. I was kind of pissed, and did something a little out of character when I threw a cup of water at her.

Really? We were on a narrow, two-lane street in a race of 40,000 people. Sometimes you just have to bide your time. When you are out there for four-plus hours, a few seconds here and there are not going to make or break your day.

I pushed it out of my mind, and continued on. At that point I was looking towards the halfway point, where Darcy, Matt and Kevin would be waiting for me. As we run towards downtown, the crowd gets massive. From about 11 1/2 to 14 miles it is just crazy! People five or six deep and they cheer for EVERYONE. Man it's a lot of fun.

Just before the halfway point we made a right onto Adams St. in front of the Sears (I'll never call it the Willis) Tower, and a block later we were at the 13.1, which I hit 2:33:29. Darcy and the boys were waiting, and I gave them all a hug and whispered into Matt's ear: "jump in, I need you for a while".

I haven't mention Matt very often, but he is a senior at Aurora Central Catholic High School and is a state qualifier in both cross country and track. Needless to say, he is hella fast. Originally I had hoped to have him with me for the final three miles, but with heightened security that wasn't going to happen. But at the midway point of the race I hadn't seen anyone checking bibs, so I told called him in from the bullpen.

It's nice to have company on that part of the course, it goes out west for two miles, and two quick lefts at the United Center heads back through downtown. It's concrete, little crowd support and lots of sun. It's one of many places on the back side of the course that is a little bit of a grind.

It was great to have Matt with me, and it's something I will always remember. We made some conversation and he mentioned that Kenyan Dennis Kimetto had won the race in 2:03:45, a new course record by almost a minute! As a fan of the sport, it was awesome, but I also realized at that moment that Dennis had run the race and was probably hanging out and getting a bite to eat while I still had 13 miles to go! Those elite runners are crazy amazing.

Darcy and Kev were waiting as we got back to Halstead, so Matt jumped off the course and I was back on my own. By now we were closing in on Mile 17, and I was going through a bit of a bad patch. It happens, so I didn't stress it too much, but just put my head down and tried to get through the next couple of miles.

No matter your time, ability or experience, every runner has to make a deal with themselves at some point during the race. Mine came at Mile 18 and it was pretty simple...I could walk all I wanted in the water stops, but I was going to run in between each one. That made it doable, the race was down to one-mile segments.

By now it was getting about four hours into the race, and it was getting a bit warm. The bad thing about the course at that point is that there isn't a bunch of shade, so it's important to keep drinking. I was taking a lot of fluids at each stop, and they were also serving bananas, which was a big help too.

At Mile 20 I had a nice surprise as my good friend Scott jumped out in front of me! He was there with his very-pregnant wife Lori and his daughter Sophie. It was so good to see him, I stopped and gave him a huge hug. If you ever watch a marathon, you'd see that when runners find peeps in the crowd their first instinct is to hug them. I don't know why, I think it's just that seeing a familiar face in the midst of a million people is just comforting or something.

Scott has been a huge part of my life for the last five years, and has helped me get through a lot of tough times. He means more to me than he will ever know (unless he reads this of course!) and it was big to see him there, especially since I wouldn't see Darcy and the boys until the finish.

So I continued from there. The one thing about the last few miles of a marathon is that each one seems so long! I've run as fast as 4:07 and as slow as 5:45 and make no mistake, they just drag by. I kept with my plan of walking through the water stops, and that was helping me keep a good pace when I was running.

We turned north on the final stretch up Michigan Ave. and I ran through the Mile 24 stop. By then I was feeling pretty good but a small part of me was wondering if I would regret it! But the great thing was that it was about that point that I realized I was going to finish the marathon!

When I hit the last water stop at Mile 25, I took a loooonnnnng walk through it and gathered myself for that last mile home. Because once I started running I wasn't going to stop!

I could feel the adrenaline pumping again, and the crowds and music began to get louder. I had been listening to techno music all day long (thank you Judge Jules and Paul Oakenfold!) but like I do at the end of many runs I switched over to the song "Dreams I'll Never See" by Molly Hatchet. I don't know what it is about that song, but I heard it driving back from Matt's state cross country meet and it just resonated with me. So it's my closing song.

I made the right on Roosevelt Road and went straight up the hill. It's weird, when I run or walk up that hill or drive it any of the other 364 days it's small and no big deal. But after 26 miles it seems like a mountain! But I put my head down and kept rolling.

But there is plenty of incentive -- Mile 26 is right at the top of the hill! Then it's just a quick left onto Columbus and the finish line is less than 250 yards away. I picked up the pace and headed towards the finish line.

It was so great! Darcy's brother Adam was the first familiar face I saw, followed by Matt, Kev, Darcy and Darcy's dad. No one had ever done that before for me, and it was wonderful. I was all smiles when I crossed the finish line in 5:23:39! I did it! After five years of so many ups and downs, of so many days loving running and hating running, loving and hating everything in life, actually, I was home.

I was so proud when they slipped that medal around my neck. Now that I've had a couple of days to think about it, the medal represents more than running 26.2 miles, it represents hitting the finish line to a chapter in my life that there were times I would wonder if I would get through it. I'm happier now than at almost any other time in my life, and the 18 weeks I spent training for this race was special, and I think will eventually change my life.

After all, isn't that what it's all about?

Three days later, I'm still sore but also still on the high of what I did. Well, what me and 40,000 others did. I have already decided I want to run again next year. Yeah, I loved it that much!

I'm so thankful for everyone who helped me get through this. Here's what I posted on my Facebook page:

"Thanks to everyone for the kind words and encouragement this past weekend and over the last few months as I've trained for the marathon. I've really been touched by all of the likes and comments I've had to my posts. Sorry to have constantly filled up your timelines with marathon stuff (I promise I'll only have one more after this) but it's a long process and you need all the help you can get! :--)

I'm so thankful to my friends, family and everyone else who in some way or another helped get me to the starting line, and eventually the finish line. I enjoyed this process a thousand times more than I ever had before, and it was also special to have raised close to $1200 for the American Cancer Society in my Dad and my sister Joni's honor.

Thanks to Darcy for her love and never ending encouragement, not to mention the great idea, Matt and Kev for their inspiration and to Mom and other members of my family for their love and support. Thanks also to my shoe sponsor, Asics, my apparel sponsor, C9 (pink socks rule!), Gatorade, Powerade and GU for the energy, and Judge Jules and Paul Oakenfold for the awesome mixes that provided the soundtrack for my run. Also thanks to my CARA training group friends who made the long runs easier. And all thanks to God for giving me the ability to do this. I told someone today that they key to having success at anything is to have a love for it...I've really re-discovered my love for running, and have already decided I'm doing it again next year! Can't wait!"

So no, this isn't the end of my marathon quests, or of this blog! I hope to keep on going with both, so please keep reading, and thanks so much for being part of this journey. Mike's Project Marathon 2013 was a huge success!

Friday, October 11, 2013

It's Marathon Weekend!

Wow, can it really, finally be here? I just put the finishing touches on my training with a 2-miler this morning -- all that is left it to line up and run the race.

It's a bit of a weird day as I'm usually downtown covering the elite athlete's press conference. I have done that several times when I was working for the Beacon News and the last two years I had been a correspondent for the website It was actually covering the race the last two years that got me motivated to run one again.

It's fun being a part of that. Elite runners are great people who are (mostly) accommodating with their time. I've had some great conversations with lots of runners who have won marathons or run in the Olympics. More than any other athletes in other sports, they respect and appreciate everyone who runs. In years where I was running the race, they seemed genuinely happy and supportive if I brought it up. One runner, Deena Kastor, even said she hoped she saw me at the finish line

She might just be the nicest pro athlete I have ever spoken to. When I interviewed her in 2005 (she won the Chicago Marathon that year) she was so nice and even sent me a follow-up e-mail to thank me for taking the time to talk to her. We went well over the designated 15 minutes I was supposed to have -- and I wasn't the only interview she was doing that day -- but she couldn't have been nicer.

That's what is so funny...people love to talk about running! I once did an interview with a guy named Roger Craig, who was a running back for the San Francisco 49ers in the 80's and 90's. No lie we were on the phone for 45 minutes and I couldn't get him off the phone.

And at the end of the interview, we somehow got onto the subject of Body Glide -- which everyone who runs knows it is a necessity to live, and running -- and he delivered the greatest quote I have ever gathered in my years as a sportswriter.

"Gotta have the Glide, baby."

Yes indeed, you do, Roger.

But I digress. If you read this often you know I do that a lot.

Anyway, after the press conference I would usually head over to the expo if I were running to pick up my stuff. There is something exciting about finally having your number in your hands. Then it becomes super real. You also get an idea of the scope and enormity of what you are about to get yourself into. There are a lot of people speaking a lot of different languages, but they neat thing is that you are all in this together.

I won't be going to the expo until tomorrow, but the carb loading begins in earnest tonight. My kids are going to hate me by the time the weekend is over. More than anything, I just want to focus on eating fairly well and keep my hydration level up. If I do it right, I won't have to swig a boatload of Gatorade on Sunday or anything, which is my hope because last year for the Hot Chocolate run I overdid it and had to jump out of the corral four times to use the bathroom!

You can do that for a race like that because there aren't many spectators, but with the marathon, not so much.

Lots to think about and lots to plan...can't believe it's almost here!

Monday, October 7, 2013

Getting Closer!

As I expected, Saturday's run was a lot of fun. There was a real sense of celebration among all of the pace groups. Everyone was in a great mood mingling around before we started, and when groups passed each other on the trail there were a lot of high-fives and words of encouragement.

It was a nice change, as the last few weeks I had been running we had all been grinding so hard on the 16, 18 or 20 milers that everyone kind of kept to themselves. Which is OK, it's hard work. But now that we are at this point, the hard part (except the marathon of course) is behind us.

It's been a good summer, and summer isn't all the way ready to let go. Man, it was so humid on the trails, I'm glad we were only running 8 miles! Hopefully the race is a little better, OK, a lot better!

Still, it was fun to talk with everyone and reflect on how the last few months have gone. As I have said before, as a veteran of several marathons, each time you train for one is different. Some are enjoyable, others are not as much.

To a person, all of us said we really enjoyed training together. It was a lot of fun, and I definitely plan on doing it again. It's good to have that support.

Speaking of, one of the runners, Alli, is running her first marathon and was starting to get a little stressed. Over the course of the last mile I ran alongside her and just gave her a lot of words of encouragement. The main thing is to just believe at the starting line that you are going to do it. At the same time, it's important to look around, take it in, and have fun.

Most people only run a marathon once, the number of people who run two, three or beyond grows exponentially smaller. Outside of my friends Wally and Jay, I can't think of anyone else I know who has run more marathons than me. I'm not saying that to be boastful, I'm saying that to stress the point that most people stop at one -- so if you are stopping at one, make the one count, you know?

It's easy to get stressed or overwhelmed, no matter how many marathons you have run. When those thoughts start to come to the surface, you have to confidently push them into a corner. At this point it's just time to line up and run, and if you have done the work, it's in the bag.

So according to the schedule, I have a couple of runs left before the big day this week. Let's get them in the bag and bring on the weekend!

Friday, October 4, 2013

One More Long Run Tomorrow!

So tomorrow (Saturday) is our last long run before the marathon. Today in the car I was thinking about how fast all of this has gone, and how much different (and better) the journey has been this time.

Of course, it will never compare to my first marathon, when I was new to running and was always learning and growing, and getting lots faster! I remember my first run around the neighborhood on January 2, and it took me almost 15 minutes to run a mile. Just three months later I broke 30 minutes for four miles, and by the summer I could run an 8K in about 40 minutes and ran most of my long runs at about a 9 minute pace.

I remember one of my neighbors saying near the end of the summer that at the beginning of the year when he would see me run by his front window it looked like I was going so slow, but then all of the sudden I was just flying by!

And of course, the marathon was awesome, a day I will never forget.

But if you had to compare the process I've gone through for each of my eight runs, it seems like this is pretty close to the first one. Back in February, I signed up as soon as registration opened, and I could probably run about three miles at the most. Not square one, but not far off.

As the year has gone by I've gotten stronger and more confident. Not necessarily all that much faster, but that was never my focus anyway. Marathon training isn't easy, and there were so many days that I struggled, but in the end I just trusted the processed and pressed on.

So here we are, one day from the long run and nine from the marathon. Tomorrow's run should actually be a lot of fun...just a nice, casual run with friends that should go by quickly. I'll probably do a lot of thinking about everything that has gone on this year, and how amazing it is to be at this point again. Because there were times I never thought I would be.

The last time I ran a marathon it was at such a low time in my life, and it was such a horrible experience that I felt like I was done with the race, and even done for the most part with running. I hated everything about it.

But fast forward to now, and the blessing of this whole thing is that I love running, I love the person it makes me and I certainly love how I feel. I'm also thankful to have been reminded of the number of people in my corner, and how supportive and caring those people really are.

Training for and running a marathon can be one of two things: training for an end result (not a bad thing, mind you) or taking a journey that helps you discover -- or rediscover -- things about you. I am so happy to say that this time, the latter is true.