Tomorrow I will be spectating at the Chicago Marathon, and at this time last year I was gearing up to run the race for the fifth time. But in the previous two years (2011-12) I had a different role...as a member of the media.
In both 2011-12 I covered the marathon for the running website Letsrun.com, and several years ago I wrote a weekly column and covered the Elite Athlete press conference with the Aurora Beacon News. There are many sides to the marathon, and the one from the perspective of a credentialed media member is one that many aren't able to see.
As a writer, it was really special to be able to cover an event as prestigious as a major worldwide marathon, and as a fan it was a treat to be up close to the runners I really admire. I've had so many interesting conversations with elite runners over the years, but what's funny is that while I have no problem talking to other professional athletes I'm still a bit nervous when I talk to them.
For me the weekend would always begin with the Elite Athlete press conference on Friday, which is held at the Chicago Hilton and Towers. If you get there early, it's kind of a who's who of the running world as runners, former runners, commentators and coaches are all hanging out and catching up with each other. For lots of people, the running season is a traveling road show, as they go from race to race, so they always take some time to catch up.
Once the festivities get started, race director Carey Pinkowski begins with some remarks. I've dealt with Mr. Pinkowski on more than a few occasions, and he is always kind and cordial. Nowadays the race is probably too big to do this, but years ago you could call or e-mail him and he would always reply. He cares deeply about the race and the city of Chicago, so as long as he is in charge the race is in good hands.
Then the elite runners are introduced, and a few of the top contenders take to the stage for questions. Since runners are probably the most humble athletes on the planet, you don't get much more than "I'm happy to be here" or "my training went well and I'm ready to go on Sunday". Of course, that's also because many of the runners are from other countries and either don't speak English or it is their second language, so that's understandable.
Once all of those festivities are finished, the runners move to another room and sit at individual tables for one-on-one interviews. If I really needed something from a specific runner, I would normally try to sit with them when someone like Kathrine Switzer (the first woman to run the Boston Marathon and now a commentator) or Toni Reavis (a world-renowned running journalist and commentator) are talking to them because the runners are comfortable talking to them and are more open to answering their questions.
After that I try to find one of the top American runners and get a few comments from them. Again, they are great people and more than happy for the coverage.
Once I'm done with all of that, it's time to write. You can read one of my pre-race stories here and here.
Sunday dawns bright and early, as I try to beat the crowd downtown and get to the Hilton by about 6:30. Nothing is going on yet but it's a good time to get some breakfast and get my workstation set up for the day ahead.
They are nice enough to feed us breakfast, but we aren't allowed into the dining room until all of the elite runners have eaten. I peeked in there once a couple of years ago and saw a Kenyan runner eating quietly at a table all by himself. I really wonder what was going through his mind.
Unlike most in the media I'm in fan mode until the race starts, and I like to go out and watch the start of the race. A credential is a big help to get into a good spot to see the start! :--) At some point I head back to the hotel, and by then the elite runners are about 10K into their race.
The press room is set up much differently on race day. While the Friday presser was a stage with some chairs set up in rows, race day has dozens of tables, each set up with power and network capabilities. Large TVs are set up for the broadcast of the race, and big screens are set up at the front of the room showing the current standings.
During the race, there is a person with a microphone who calls out mile split times and other notables about what's going on. I usually write down the individual splits and the elapsed time for each mile.
As the race is nearing its completion, a marathon staffer goes around asking the media who they would like to talk to. Normally they bring in the top 2-3 finishers on both the men's and women's side, but other times there might be someone who has had a good race that might be interesting to talk to.
When the race is finishing, most of us get to work. It's usually a little bit before the runners so I would start writing and fit the quotes in later. It's interesting to see them 30 minutes or so after the race because when you see many of them on TV they look like they could run another 10 miles, but when most of them make it to the media center, they look just as worked over as the rest of us!
I would typically write a game story and what's called a sidebar. The game story focuses on the race and the winners, while a sidebar takes something from the race in focus.
Here is my game story and sidebar from 2011, and my story and sidebar from 2012.
All of that writing usually takes about as long as it took the elite runners to run the marathon! Still it was an amazing experience to be a part of, maybe not the same as running the race itself, but pretty close.