By Jim Bloom
Sunday 12th October 2014
After finding in 2012 that I could run a little bit (and almost enjoyed it) 2013 was a big year of events for me, too big. I entered every event I could – cycling events, runs, triathlons, you name it. In total I completed 7 marathons (including Blackpool, Boston and London in consecutive weekends (more on Boston below), and Berlin which was my fifth of the original 5 World Marathon Majors), my first Ironman triathlon in Bolton, cycled end to end again (finishing at Land’s End this time) as well as a half marathon or 10k pretty much every weekend in between. This resulted in a bit of progress – PBs at all distances, and a lot of confidence/experience from doing all the events, but my training plan was all over the shop, nutrition even worse and I ended up 2 stones heavier than I started the year (still not quite sure how I managed that!).
So 2014 needed some focus, and importantly some simplification. Cycling and swimming (not that I ever really could swim – I was doing breastroke in my triathlons!) were out and only running was in. And even more importantly I wanted one run to focus on. I had already booked in for Tokyo and Paris marathons in the Spring, so I needed an Autumn marathon to try and “peak” at. I was unsuccessful in the NYC marathon ballot (still my favourite marathon, probably because it was my first back in 2011), similarly Berlin, but was lucky enough to get a place in Chicago (which was running a ballot for the first time, like Berlin – an indication of the popularity surge in distance running) – mid-October seemed perfect timing.
So my basic plan was made, being to use the entire running year to build up to a best possible time in Chicago. I needed some specifics to help define the training plan though, including a target time. Whilst I achieved my then PB of 3:48 in London marathon, on the back of Blackpool and Boston, I felt as though I could take a huge chunk off that if I trained properly and got my weight down, but didn’t have a clue what to aim for. I was going to need some serious motivation so I set my sights on aiming to qualify for Boston – for a 35 year old man that means breaking 3:10. Neither I, nor anyone else thought that was going to be possible, but the goal was to aim high, and get motivated.
The goal of qualifying for Boston wasn’t totally arbitrary. I had run Boston marathon in 2013 on a tourist place, so hadn’t qualified (my best time prior to 2013 was some 85 minutes too slow!) and I felt like a bit of a cheat running behind thousands of truly dedicated and accomplished runners. It was an amazing race, with incredible crowds and support, and I loved every minute of it until the finish. I crossed the line in a time of 3:54 which I was delighted with, immediately stopped to phone my wife who (thankfully) I didn’t see on Boylston Street where we’d arranged (by Marathon Sports), and just as I walked towards the finishers funnel an incredible explosion went off about two hundred yards behind me. I didn’t quite know what to do, where to turn, how to react, and couldn’t really hear anything any more. I vividly remember looking at the race clock on the finish line just behind me and it was showing 4:09 – the exact time I finished Blackpool marathon in the weekend before. As the marshals and emergency services immediately rushed to the scene to assist another explosion went off. At this point it became chaotic, and a short period of time elapsed that I’ll never forget before the police herded all runners away from the finish line. Wanting to help, but not being able to made me feel sick, guilty and pathetic all at once, until I just realised I had to find my wife Louise. Thankfully my phone was still working and I met her at the family meet and great and we returned safely to our hotel. So my aim to qualify for Boston was with the memory of 2013 in mind, and the motivation was certainly there.
2014 began well. I had joined Roundhay Runners late in 2013 with the aim of finding a friendly group to help get me out running in the dark and cold winter evenings and to provide me with some guidance and information. One of the best decisions I’d ever made. Some long Thursday runs in the dark and rain, and a few PECOs later, and I was already a much stronger runner ready for the run in to Tokyo (completing all six World marathon majors) and Paris marathons. Paris saw a PB, but not the progress I was looking for – carrying too much weight still, and I skipped a few too many LSRs in Feb/Mar. So some clarity of thought and application to my training was required. Anything that didn’t help me qualify for Boston disappeared – no dead miles, no skipping LSRs, no beer (well, for 3 months at least, which helped me shed 2 stones), no distractions, no excuses.
It was all going so well, until 2 key things happened. 1) the distraction, and 2) the injury.
1) The Distraction
My employer is the sponsor of an annual cycling challenge called the Ride Across Britain, and all staff are entitled to enter a ballot to win one of a number of free places. I had already completed this challenge twice – in 2012 (Land’s End to John O’Groats) and in 2013 (JOG to LE) so had got this out of my system, however I keep putting my name in the ballot every year in the hope of getting a free place. This year my name was drawn, and I was lucky enough to get a free place – the event was taking place in September – right in the middle of the key section of my training plan! You only get one freebie, so I decided to take it and Louise was also going to do it with me this year.
It’s fair to say I didn’t get too distracted though, when I arrived at the start line in Land’s End I had only been out on my bike 6 times in 2014 and was relying on my running training getting me through nine days of cycling 110 miles each day (which it comfortably did – reminding me how much more demanding running is on your body (and joints in particular than cycling)) Louise was in way better cycling shape then me having trained loads on her bike, too much, unfortunately she picked up a tendon injury two weeks before the event and we hoped she was going to be fine to ride, but after four very painful days she was forced to retire and we both headed home from Haydock Park. So the distraction was only for a few days in the end and I was back on the training having missed only 6 days of the plan.
2) The injury
I have been a very lucky runner so far and never picked up an injury. No idea why this was the case – I don’t really know what I’m doing, am a lazy stretcher and certainly haven’t taken it easy. Having seen the impact that injuries have had on others’ training I was very frustrated and fearful of my chances of actually getting to Chicago when I pulled up in agony with a very swollen Achilles’ tendon at the Yorkshire vets Grand Prix event at Kirkstall at the end of May. I have absolutely no idea what caused this, but after about 800 very straight forward yards on the Tarmac around the abbey I simply couldn’t run, and could barely walk.
After about 4 very frustrating weeks of rest and no training at all, the tendon had just about returned to its normal size and I was able to start running again, only missing the first two weeks of the 16 week plan. All in all I was very lucky indeed – tendon injuries can easily wipe you out for a lot longer than a month.
On to Chicago
Other than the above 2 events, the training went very well. The plan seemed to be working, I was growing in confidence and the training, guidance and support from the club was really helping. I even gave Loch Ness marathon a go with a couple of friends from work a fortnight before Chicago which was a decent confidence boost with a decent PB on a very tricky, but beautiful course.
Arriving in Chicago felt very familiar – I had run the marathon two years ago in a time of 4.40:40, and we had been back there on holiday a couple of times in the meantime. It is a pretty amazing city, on the shores of Lake Michigan with a lot of history and amazing architecture. It is also a fantastic drinking town, so whilst Louise was able to make the most of this for the two days before the race, I was a miserable so and so that was desperate for a beer – they give you a free pint at the finish line so I kept reminding myself of how good that was going to taste.
As with any big city marathon, we arrived on a plane full of marathon runners, to an airport of planes full of marathon runners and headed to our hotel full of marathon runners. The atmosphere was building already and everywhere you looked from the L train there were signs of the marathon. It felt like the entire city was ready and waiting to run. Chicago is a very friendly town and everyone kept wishing me and any other runners good luck which was great. The downside to all of this is the hideous expo that you have to collect your number from – I hate these places, overcrowded and full of people meandering aimlessly. So we got there first thing in the morning, ready for the doors to open and got our of there ASAP. It was extremely well organised to be fair and we spent only a few minutes there before spending the rest of the day sight seeing and relaxing ahead of the big day.
The time difference worked in my favour, and I was wide awake well in advance of the early morning start. Having gone through the ritual of getting the gear out, pinning my number to my vest, buying 2 large bottles of gatorade and a large bag of sugary sweets the night before, it was as simple as getting dressed and walking to the start line in the dark at 6:30 am. Our hotel was in the Loop, close to the start line at Grant Park by the lake which meant I wasn’t walking far, and it was impossible not to find your way there with the 45,000 other runners all heading for the same place. The atmosphere was amazing – everyone being nervously excited, looking out for each other and the loud music at the start line kept everyone’s spirits up.
As with any sporting event in the US, the national anthem was belted out before the start and this got a huge response from the crowd. Then in what felt like the blink of an eye the wheelchair race had started, the elite athletes were off and looking for a WR in absolutely perfect conditions, and then wave 1 was off. It was finally here, and the nerves well and truly kicked in as I walked towards the start line and began running alongside a Swede, a Franc, a Dane and a Kiwi – this was definitely an international marathon.
I was in corral C of wave 1, which wasn’t a bad result. My time in Brooklyn half marathon earlier in the year qualified me for a fairly fast group in wave 1. However, the curse of an improving runner in these big events is that you get a start position that reflects how good you were several months ago, and I was amongst runners targeting 3:30-3:50 pace, which was a good chunk behind the 3:10 pace I wanted to set off at. That meant for a frustrating first 10k or so as I weaved in and out of the gaps trying to stick to 7:00-7:10 minute miles.
The first part of the race is pretty spectacular – running along wide avenues that seem to have been carved by glaciers out of the enormous (Garmin busting) skyscrapers that take your breath away. Weaving around some of the most amazing buildings – the Wrigley Building, Chicago Board of Trade, Grant Park skyline and so on was a great distraction for the first 3 miles or so – enough to make your neck ache.
The route then turns away from downtown and heads directly north for about four and a half still congested miles. Chicago is a town of neighbourhoods, each distinct in their own style and immigrant populations and the route really showed this off. After passing the Lincoln Park zoo it wasn’t far until the turn back – and the tallest building in America, the Willis Tower, loomed 5 miles ahead – I found this to be quite a motivating marker pretty much signalling the halfway point.
By the time I got to the Willis Tower I was on plan – my half split was 1.35:00 exactly. I was pleased to have dragged this back from a slower than planned first few miles in the congestion. It felt like I had overtaken thousands of runners and I was well into a steady rhythm at this point, feeling fantastic. For the entire course the streets were lined with spectators, and I had somehow managed to tune out from their constant cheering and shouting, but at the halfway point the noise was deafening as the spectators were 6 deep for a good mile or so which felt fantastic to be cheered on by so many people. I think I had forgotten about the spectators earlier as there were so many bands playing on the route – I managed to count tribute bands to Bon Jovi, Led Zep, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Stones, but Elvis in the Old Town was the best!
An easy section out of town to the United centre, home of the Bulls and the Blackhawks, followed by a meandering route through Greektown, Little Italy and Chinatown was another set of distinct neighbourhoods which helped distract me from the tiredness that was beginning to set in. At mile 18 I was just about on schedule, but slowing and unfortunately I got steadily slower. There is a turning point at mile 23 next to the White Sox baseball stadium which I kept reminding myself was effectively the finish as the remaining 3 miles were so loud with spectators last time and it’s a straight line from there to the finish.
Mile 23 seemed to take forever to arrive. And I was in a bit of pain by this point – calves and thighs feeling like they were about to cramp at any point and I had been feeling the beginning of a stitch which thankfully never arrived since about mile 20. Turning the corner was a huge relief and my pace increased marginally as a result. This section of the run is not through the best of neighbourhoods, but was very well supported and yet more bands helped take your mind off things. This time the Willis tower was like a torture instrument – instead of looking like it was a few minutes away, it appeared 40 miles away and I needed to squint to see it. I tried to keep my eyes off the skyline and not let it distract me.
Approaching the final mile was amazing – deafening noise, on course commentators reading out your name as they spotted your bib number and shouting at you to keep going. A bit of a gentle ramp to get into the park that felt like Slaid Hill to me was followed by the best sight of the whole route – the finish line. I had known for about 8 miles that a 3.10 finish was unfortunately long gone, so it was all about trying to finish as strong as possible and improve my PB if at all possible.
I crossed the line in a time of 3.25:44, which I was both delighted and devastated with. In the context of setting my PB in Paris in April of 3.44, and taking over 75mins off my last performance here I took huge positives from the race and after meeting Louise in the runner reunite field in the 27th mile post race party (yet more bands, and free beer!), the rest of the day was spent making up for those beer free days in various bars, eating deep dish pizza and watching American football. Chicago marathon is pretty damn cool.