My Best Chicago Half Marathon

The reality is that I’ll never “win” a race.  That is, I’ll never come in first.  For an age grouper, winning is something different — it’s redefining a podium finish to achieving the best you can offer.  It’s about goals and finishing strong.

The Chicago Half Marathon is my last event of the year.  It’s my final test to see if my best has improved; to determine whether I’m a stronger running.

The 4:00 AM Central Daylight Time alarm is very painful because I’m from the west coast.   It’s really 2:00 AM my time.  While the early, early morning is a shock to my system, I still force myself to eat two oranges before going down to the hotel lobby and meet my friend, Eric.

We walk 5 minutes to the shuttle which takes us to the start line.  After a 15 minute ride in a yellow school bus with less legroom than an airplane, we arrive to a dark, near empty field.  It’s 5:15 AM and the race begins at 7:00 AM.  For an hour and a half, Eric and I aimlessly roam around the start area drinking coffee and staring at others who foolishly arrived excessively early.   We find a post-race meeting place, the best porta-potty locations, and lie in the grass waiting for the remaining 12,000 athletes to arrive.

At 6:45 AM, we line up in our start corral where we can see a full spread of humanity ready to spend their Sunday morning racing.  The pain of the early morning alarm is quickly replaced with the pre-race adrenaline.  I am ready for my best.

After the national anthem, the race begins.   Together, Eric and I run through the first mile until our natural cadences and the thick crowd separate us.   Quickly, I look over my shoulder and wave goodbye.

The thick field keeps my pace slow and holds me back from running too fast, too early.  It’s not until mile 3 when the course leaves Jackson Park and heads north up Lake Shore Drive that space opens up for a longer, faster stride.  With a little space, I keep my head up and enjoy the spectacular views of the lake.

Without much effort, I pass the 2:10 pace group and speed through the first 6 miles.  By now, I know that I won’t achieve the dream sub-2 hour race, and that’s okay.  My best will be between 2:00 and 2:10.  So long as I stay ahead of the 2:10 pace group, I’ll meet my expectations.

The only threat to my new goal comes during mile 8 when I hear the loud chatter of the 2:10 pace leaders behind me.  I thought I left them 2 miles ago, but I must have slowed. Feeling the pressure, I stretch out my legs, increase speed, and restore the gap.

At mile 9, the course reverses direction backtracking south on Lake Shore Drive.  With less than an hour of running left, I take stock of my reserves.  Should I go faster?  Can I go

At mile 10, I go for it.  I increase my speed testing my strength as a runner.  With only 5 km left, a random thought occurs, “Why are there so many people in front of me?”  Looking down the road, I can see Lake Shore still packed with people.  Did they run the first 10 miles that much faster than me?  Hubris tells me that they just started before me.  Reality tells me that, yes, they are just faster than me.

At mile 11, I think “only 2.2 to go” and try another acceleration.  While I feel like I’m working harder, I don’t think I’m producing more speed, just more pain.  Mile 12, 1.1 miles left, I accelerate again.  My muscles tell me that’s it, my top speed.  It feels impressive — the pounding of my heart, the straining of my legs, and the deepness of my breath.  But measured by the other runners who are still passing me, my impressiveness is clearly in my own mind.

I make the final turn and see the finishing gate.  I don’t care if I’m the only one impressed by my self-deluded speed.  I race through the shoot and throw up my arms.  Victory.

I’m one minute off my PR (which was obtained on a downhill course).  Yes, I ran my best. Yes, I finished strong.

“Run in such a way as to get the prize”  1 Corinthians 9:24

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