Saturday, June 4, 2011

13.1 Chicago Race Recap

~1 mile w/u + strides
13.1 miles in 1:21:42
Total: 14 miles
1st place female, $1000

It happened just before mile 12. Turning to the man pedaling his bicycle alongside me, I mustered up enough breath and energy to ask how much distance separated me from the next female. It was the first time I'd spoken to him all day. He arched casually over his right shoulder to scan the pavement behind us, then turned back to me. "She's at least two or three blocks. I can barely s
ee her." I breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you," I replied. "Because I think I might need to stop and walk."

Not exactly the words you'd expect to hear from the mouth of the lead runner, I'll admit. But this was no ordinary race. This was a death march, a war of attrition, any other number of militant doomsday metaphors. It was, with no exaggeration, the hottest and most difficult race of my life. The only thing that kept me from succumbing to exhaustion and walking during that final mile was the knowledge that six minutes later I would be a thousand dollars richer. I am not ashamed to say there was no sense of pride, no intrinsic moral fortitude, propelling me forward. It was straight up cash money.

I knew from the moment I woke up that it was going to be a rough day for everyone involved. When my coworker picked me up from my hotel at 4:30am, it wa
s already 76 degrees. The sun began steadily ascending on the horizon as we set up the Karhu and Craft booth at the race site. With it rose the temperature and humidity. After jogging barely a mile to warm up I found myself already thirsty and perspiring excessively. I put about a dozen ice cubes in my sports bra before walking over to the start line for the 7:13 gun time. Other than my friend Jill, a Chicagoan whom I originally met at another 13.1 earlier this year, I didn't know if there were any other fast women in the mix. Prior to the rapid weather deterioration--I'd been in Chicago for three days, any of which would've been perfectly acceptable for racing from a heat/humidity perspective--my plan was to take the race out hard and distance myself from the field within the first 5k. Now I knew that type of strategy would be reckless if not downright dangerous. Instead I decided to make a conscious effort to go out conservatively and see if others responded.

Despite those intentions, I found myself running solo less than a
mile into the race. I split 6:07--faster than I wanted, but it felt like a jog--but my only female companion had already fallen back slightly. I knew the course would make a U-turn around mile 7, which meant I'd have an opportunity to assess the competition. I decided to keep pressing with the same effort until that point, then determine whether I needed to keep up the intensity or whether I could back off. Easier said than done, as less than two miles in I was already thirsty and oppressively hot. The flat, fast course was more or less an out-and-back along the South Shore lakefront path, which could've made for blazing fast times under other circumstances. Today, all metrics were tossed out the window. The sun continued to rise, its heat seeping onto the race course and its rapidly wilting participants. If there was a quarter mile stretch of shade along the entire route I never found it. Instead I continued to slowly bake, like the ill-fated frog brought to boil in a pot of seemingly innocuous water. By mile four I realized I couldn't look at the remainder of the race in its entirety. I had to literally focus on one mile at a time or else the enormity of the task at hand would overwhelm me. If you think I'm being overly dramatic, you'll learn later in this story just how dire the situation was.

As promised, the turnaround presented itself just before the seventh mile. Soon after I passed the second place female coming from the opposite direction. Was she thirty seconds behind me? A minute? Two? Fatigue had dulled my reasoning skills and I honestly couldn't tell. (In reality, she was probably 60
seconds behind me at that point.) At the time I thought that there was a sliver of a chance she could be within striking distance, especially considering my rapidly deteriorating physical and mental state. Despite this potential to be overtaken, I began walking through the water stops from mile 8 on. In most competitive half marathons I wouldn't even take water, much less literally stop running in order to drink. Today I was willing to absorb the extra 5-10 seconds per mile just so I could ingest a full cup of water and a full cup of Powerade without spilling precious drops. There was also a cold towel station at mile 9, which again I would not heed under normal circumstances but today grabbed with greedy hands. Each time I approached a mile marker I would dread splitting my watch, certain there was no way it could be sub-7, and each time I was downright shocked to see something in the 6:10-6:20 range. It felt like my legs were moving in quicksand, yet somehow I wasn't completely imploding. Every once in a while I would overtake a male competitor, but for the most part it was just myself and the assigned lead cyclist. As I approached the final few miles I could feel heat rising like a wave of panic in my throat, and I knew I was dangerously close to overheating. If the second place female was anywhere close, it was all over. That's when I turned and, without preamble, asked my cyclist companion to update me on the situation.

Pretty much the exact moment when I wanted to start walking.
Photo credit Ali Engin.

I knew then I had just over six minutes to go, and for over $150 a minute there was no excuse for walking. I focused all my energy on putting one foot in front of the other until the cyclist spoke again. "You're there," he said. "It's been an honor riding with you." An honor? With my poor attitude and performance? I was instantly humbled. At that moment I wished I'd taken a few seconds to thank him for his help out on the course, but with a burst of speed he was quickly gone. I never saw him again.

A few seconds later I rounded the final turn, once again shocked to see a not-too-terrible time flashing on the clock. Somehow I found the energy to "sprint" in to the line, if for no other reason than the knowledge that ice cold Powerade and water awaited me there. I was done, in every sense of the word. Grateful for the win but utterly exhausted. I hung around in the finish chute to congratulate the second place female and my friend Jill, who placed fourth, before my coworker Jeff insisted that I walk over to the medical area to cool down. I promptly sat down in a kiddie pool filled with ice cubes and gulped down another water. I could palpably feel my body temperature cooling with every passing second and knew that I was out of the danger zone.

As it turns out, others would not be so lucky. Twenty minutes later, just before 9am, the race committee made the decision to downgrade the race conditions from Red Flag to Black Flag. This meant that the race was effectively over. No more times would be recorded and runners were strongly advised to stop in their tracks and take a shuttle bus back to the finish. It was eerily reminiscent of a similar 2007 situation that unfolded, ironically, at the Chicago Marathon. This time the race management team was expertly prepared and fully competent, but some runners were still no match for the extreme weather conditions. I learned later in the day of the tragic death of one athlete and the hospitalization of 10 others, an unfortunate end to what should have been a fun and light-hearted event.

As for myself, I was extremely satisfied with my race efforts. My time was unremarkable and undeserving of $1000, but there were easily half a dozen moments when I seriously considered dropping out and wogging back to the start line. As cheesy as it sounds, I'm proud that I finished. I feel like if I can conquer conditions like today's, then I have no excuse for not doing the same in any and every race going forward. The same can be said for all of today's finishers. Congratulations to everyone who persevered today at the Chicago 13.1--I hope you'
re drinking lots of water and maybe even a beer or two to celebrate your triumph over Mother Nature!

Jill and I post-race. We've previously met
in Dallas, Miami and NYC. Neither of us live
in any of those cities.


allensroadtoboston said...

Excellent post and gutsy race. 1:21 Galloway half? You're sick.

mmmonyka said...

Wow, sounds awful. I am sure you deserve those 1000 bucks for gutting it out.

Mad said...

Tough conditions!!! Congrats on a great race.

Sticky Fingers said...

I ran the race as well yesterday. I too, had a lot of similar thoughts/reactions (I believe "Bataan Death March" was what came to mind in my case). I think in the first mile I threw my game plan out the window and decided to just go with how I felt and ran very conservative, drank full cups gatorade/water at every stop. I would take my pace up a few notches to get through the unshaded parts of the path and down a few notches in the shade to cool off. I thought I was going slow and was suprised to find out my time was only 13 seconds off my PR. However, I came to the finish shortly after the runner who had later passed away and witnessed the onlookers and medics bravely try to revive him. It was a really horrible sight to see someone my age and roughly same fitness perish doing something that I was able to's given me a lot of food for thought the past 24 hours.

Congrats on your win. I saw you pass by and clapped for you and the other lead men and women. Hope your recovery goes well.

HalfwayHouse said...

Congrats on the win!

I was in corral M and was on mile 3 when I saw runners coming back the other way. A short while later about a third of the runners coming the other way were walking, not running. I checked their bibs & saw that they were from the B corral. By the time the D bibs came by, they were all walking. Those of us in M don't usually stop to walk, so when I saw Bs, Cs & Ds, walking, I knew it was only going to get worse.

I didn't run more than a few steps at a time after about mile 4. Many of us were running, and I use that term loosely, with a cup of water in each hand. I used twice as much nutrition as I normally would have.

They called the race when I was at mile 8. In retrospect it was dumb & I ought to have gotten on a bus, but instead I grabbed a full gallon of water & carried it with me to walk the remaining 5 miles. The gallon was not quite gone when I finished, although some of that was dumped on my head & given to other walkers. My estimated time was a full 45 minutes off of my PR of 2:35:01 just a month ago.

David said...

Excellent write-up of an event that was every bit as brutal as you describe here. I was there, and you passed me during mile 6, when I had to stop and walk to cool down. I was shooting for a 1:16 and wound up with a 1:31, since I effectively gave up during that 6th mile. As you said, I'm just glad I finished. And this marks the first time in my competitive running career that I've said that. Congratulations on your win, and thanks for sharing your experience of this brutal, and in some cases, tragic, race.

Jim said...

Monster race in horrible conditions. You shouldn't focus on the time because you were the best on this particular day. A well deserved win!

Jennifer said...

This was my first half marathon ever and it was some consolation to read that even the elite runners thought it was a tough one. Great blog post, thanks!