Friday, November 21, 2014

Bib of the Week -- Chicago Distance Classic, August 13, 2006

I have to say, 2006 was a pretty sweet spot in terms of my running career. From 2005-2007 I was running a lot and ran some good race times. It was also that time where I was heavily involved in the sport from the media side, as I was writing a weekly "Marathon Diary" during the lead-up to the Chicago Marathon for the Aurora Beacon-News.

That was a lot of fun, I did that for a couple of summers and it was a great opportunity to meet some really cool people in the running world, such as Alan Culpepper and Deena Kastor, not to mention former NFL great Roger Craig, who ran Chicago for charity one year and was one of my most interesting interviews ever. I was also contributing marathon content to Chicago Athlete magazine, so I was hitting the marathon experience on all fronts.

So in July, 2006 I came up with the idea to try and get an interview with John "The Penguin" Bingham, who at the time was the race director for the Chicago Distance Classic, which in 2009 became the Rock N Roll Chicago Half Marathon.

The Penguin's motto
With a little help from the marathon office, which was awesome back then, I was able to connect with The Penguin. Of course, he was a great guy and we had a fun conversation. His story  is one that has become more inspiring to me as time's gone on, and I'm at the point in my life where I relate a lot more to his writing. What's weird to think is that he got started in all of this when he was the same age as I am now. I love to write about running and I definitely love social media, so it would be a dream to even scratch the surface of what John Bingham has done.

At the end of the conversation he said, "So, are you running my race?" Being that this was about a week before the event I told him no because I hadn't been able to sign up in time.

"No problem!" he said, "Give me your fax number and I'll have someone from here send you an entry form!"

So I was in! I was really excited about it because it was a race that had been around a long time and was one of the bigger summer races in Chicago. With it being held about 8-10 weeks before the marathon it was a good place for everyone to see where they were in their training, and lots of big area names usually showed up.

The only bummer about the race is that it was (and still is) a 6:30 a.m. start! With a 45-60 minute drive in it's a little early for me! But at the same time, it's August, and it's Chicago so that's probably the smartest idea ever.

For the first time, the race was incorporating some of the marathon course, including the start and finish areas on Columbus Drive. It also ran on the Lakefront Path (which was no problem since it was late in the race and the event only had 7,400 entrants, compared with 20,000-plus now) and went through the museum campus before going under Lake Shore Drive to Columbus and the finish.

According to Weather Underground (love that site), the high on that day was 84F and the low was 69F, meaning it was in the low 70s when the race started. But with the dewpoint sitting at 66F, the humidity was high and it was pretty sticky.

At least the sun wasn't very high in the sky when the race got underway and we headed north on Columbus. I don't remember specifics of the course layout but I remember there being a hairpin turn at about four or five miles, which I thought was kind of odd in such a big race. I hit the 8K split at 44:38 and shortly thereafter we meandered over the famous Roosevelt Road bridge -- which on marathon day represents the final climb to the finish -- and out to the lakefront.

A nice breeze off the cool water of the lake would've been a nice respite at the time, but the wind was pretty still so that didn't happen! Still, I felt stronger as the race went on despite the heat and was feeling good as we closed in on the finish. Under Lake Shore Drive we went and when we stepped off the sidewalk onto the street, the finish was about 100 meters away. I put my head down and gave what I had left and crossed the line in 1:55:33, for a tidy pace of 8:50 per mile.

Thankfully the race was over because by then it was really starting to warm up. But even though I was done running, my day downtown wasn't quite finished. I put on my media had and had sessions with both Bingham and marathon executive director Carey Pinkowski, as well as Keith and Kevin Hanson, who are the founders of the Hansons-Brooks Original Distance Project.

But the interview I was looking forward to the most was with elite runner Brian Sell, who spent his entire professional career running with the Hansons team and had won the CDC that morning in a time of 1:04:25. After qualifying for the 2004 Olympic Trials at the 2003 Chicago Marathon, Sell boldly took the lead at the Trials race in Birmingham, Alabama and ran by himself until the 22nd mile where he fell back and eventually faded to 13th.

His climb from there was steady, though, as he spent the next five years as a stalwart on the American road racing and marathon scene. By the time his career was over in 2009 -- he is now a biotechnology scientist in eastern Pennsylvania -- he had finished fourth at Boston, sixth at Chicago and 22nd in the marathon at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and had dropped his PR from 2:19 in his 2003 debut to 2:10:47.

I've always loved B. Sell because he is a true grinder, his success came as the result of relentlessly pounding out 130 to 170-mile weeks for eight straight years. His coaches attributed that to a combination of laser-like focus, an extreme level of durability and an off-the-charts tolerance for pain.

He is an intense guy, and you could tell by talking to him how much he wanted to be great. While he never made it to that upper echelon of elite runners, he had one heck of a career. I got to talk to Brian two or three times after than, and enjoyed his insights.

Oh yeah, I forgot about the big honkin' medal too! That was a stalwart of Bingham races back in the day and paved the way for other races to bring out the bling. It's actually one of the cooler medals I have in my collection.

All and all I have to say that given everything that happened it was one of the cooler race day experiences I've ever had!

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