The plan to run the 2019 Chicago marathon was hatched back in November 2018. High Power Running Mentor #1 (HPRM#1) lives in Chicago and committed to pacing me. My training officially commenced right after the Boilermaker race on July 14th.
Coach Mick and I talked about what we wanted out of this training cycle and I told him about my desire to “Level Up,” in other words, make significant rather than incremental progress toward a faster marathon finishing time. He was on board, of course, and mileage and workout intensity both increased. As the weeks ticked along, everything went astonishingly well. Overall, training for Chicago was my happiest training cycle yet.
HPRM#1 was kind enough to put me up for race weekend. Honestly, that sentence so underrates his generosity that it feels untrue. I stayed in his home with his wonderful family and his two fabulous cats.
HPRM#1: Hi there, HPRM#1 here, offering the alternate version of this story, from my perspective. While I’m only a minor player in this drama, Sarah and I both thought it would be interesting for people to see one race through two sets of eyes. I’m so glad I offered to pace Sarah for this race. You’ll see why later on.
On the morning before the race, HPRM#1 and I did a shake-out run and headed to the expo. I picked up my bib and other swag, and then met up with the Running Munchkin and her husband for lunch and coffee. After a leisurely afternoon, I headed back to HPRM#1’s for dinner. I generally have whole wheat pasta, plain tomato sauce, broccoli and vegetarian sausage before every long run and marathon, so he made that. He runs a full-service operation!
HPRM#1: I cooked the dinner too! This is full service pacing at its finest!
Marathon running is a sport that involves something like three to six hours of an outdoor event in which performance can be drastically influenced by weather conditions. The amount of weather watching and worrying that goes on is astounding. A couple of marathons ago, Coach Mick and I agreed that he would be in charge of worrying about the weather, and I would not think about it. This strategy helped me a lot last spring when conditions at Boston kept changing so dramatically. For Chicago, I checked the weather once, a week out from the race. After that, I hardly thought about it until a few days before the race when I had to consider what to wear. Race morning, we got the near-perfect weather we had been promised: temperatures in the low 40s, low humidity, partially overcast, and a little bit of wind. Incredible conditions for marathoning.
HPRM#1: I was checking the weather constantly, more than I would if I was racing the marathon for myself. Around this time, with the excitement building so much for me, is when I started to realize how invested I had become in Sarah’s race and how much it meant to me.
The alarm went off race day morning at 4:45 a.m. We had, naturally, prepped everything the night before so we were out the door by 5:30 a.m., with Shalane Flanagan’s race day oatmeal in a mason jar (one cup oats, one banana, one tablespoon almond butter plus some Hershey’s cocoa powder and chocolate protein mix – yum!). North Shore Strider was joining us as well. Thankfully, HPRM#1 had secured access to a building right near the start. We were able to hang out indoors, with bathrooms, coffee and food, a place to foam roll and stretch, and a secure place to leave our stuff so we could skip the official gear check. It’s a full-service pacing operation.
Chicago is a huge race, but insanely well-organized. We cleared security quickly.
HPRM#1: Not accurate. We did not clear security nearly as quickly as is normal for the Chicago Marathon.
Externally, I was trying to project calm to Sarah and North Shore Strider. Internally, I was panicking that we would be late to the corrals. We had barely cleared security as they were singing the National Anthem. Not good. I said something reassuring like, “That’s fine. They do the Anthem before the elite wheelchair start, which goes off earlier. We’re fine.” Technically true, except the “fine” part.
Because we had waited until the last minute, we were at the back of the corral, but we figured that would help us not go out too fast. In any case, I was running with HPRM#1 so I wasn’t worried about it. And then we were off! From my perspective, we could move through traffic right away. Some of that was no doubt due to me following behind HPRM#1 while he cleared the path.
My A goal for this race was to run sub-3:40. Both Coach Mick and HPRM#1 thought that was reasonable, even conservative. More importantly, I thought it was reasonable, too.
HPRM#1: In going through her workouts and long runs, I definitely felt this was conservative. I felt that if things lined up perfectly for her, she was maybe fit enough to run 3:35 to 3:37. I did not say this to her, because I knew it would freak her out. I also did not intend to try to pace her to this, but rather was going to follow her lead on my pacing cues.
My B goal was to finish under 3:45 so I would have a 10-minute cushion for Boston. C goal was under 3:50, for a five-minute cushion. D goal was any PR, and I guess E goal was sub-4, though I was really hoping not to have to go that deep into the alphabet.
The first few miles through downtown were easy, as they should be. I felt a little anxious mentally, but physically I felt great. HPRM#1 reminded me that I’d had a good size cup of coffee plus two Jet Alert caffeine tabs. I wasn’t anxious – I was excited, and probably pretty amped up on caffeine. He had apparently been drinking gallons of water because at mile two, he admitted he was going to need to stop for a quick pee.
HPRM#1: If I said, “quick pee,” it was a total lie. I don’t know where it came from, but I did not know my body could hold that much urine. I think this may have been an effect of being so focused on Sarah and what she needed that I forgot a couple things I should have been taking care of for my own running. Like peeing.
I told HPRM#1 to wait to pee until the 5K mark where we expected to see some familiar faces.
HPRM#1: My fervent prayer that she would say, “I’m fine, just go now” was NOT answered.
As HPRM#1 ducked off, I ran on, hopefully holding steady at the pace we had established. After a while, when HPRM#1 didn’t reappear, I decided to check my watch.
HPRM#1: Seriously you guys. Gallons of urine.
I don’t even know what the watch said because as soon as I glanced at it, I heard a voice behind me say, “Don’t look at your watch – that’s my job.” He was back! Hooray! I note all of this because I didn’t look at my watch again until I had one mile left in the race. It was huge to not have to worry about pace at all.
HPRM#1: I think she was trying to shake me because she had moved over to the opposite side of the street. Also, you’d be surprised how many people wear neon pink singlets and look like Sarah from behind.
I can see why people love this race. Suddenly, we were at mile 5! How did that happen!
HPRM#1: Yeah … about that …
The reason the first five miles went by so quickly was that Sarah ran them REALLY FAST. Since I was in charge of pacing, how did that happen?
From the very beginning, Sarah was running beside me and often a bit in front. I knew she was out at a pace that was about 10 seconds faster than the average pace for her A goal. At first, my attempts to rein this in were subtle and non-verbal. I would just back off a bit and figure she would drop back slightly to match my pace. But that was not working. She just kept marching on. The picture below, at about 10K, shows how she was staying slightly ahead of me despite my best efforts.
I blinked again and we were at mile 8. During this first part of the race, I occasionally checked in with HPRM#1 to confirm we were still on pace for sub 3:40 (yes). He occasionally checked in with me about how I was feeling (fine physically, mentally still a little anxious, but good).
HPRM#1: Well, technically we were on about 3:33 pace, but … sure. This was my attempt to gauge whether I should be vocal and explicitly direct Sarah to slow down. I have a lot of faith in Sarah as a runner. She will tell you (accurately) that I often have more faith in her as a runner than she does. Sarah has run plenty of marathons. I know that she knows how she should feel at various parts in the race. So that was what I was asking her through this stretch, in very explicit terms: “We’re just past the 10K mark. Do you feel like you think you should 10K into the race?” and she would consistently answer with an emphatic yes, that she felt really good physically, but was mentally anxious a bit. Her breathing was good and her form was smooth, so I trusted that she was running at an appropriate effort. I did notice that she seemed quite tense, especially around the shoulders, but my encouragement to loosen up or shake out her arms didn’t seem to have any effect.
The stretch coming south through Boystown is one of the most fun, with lots of crowds, cheering drag queens, and huge energy. Chicago does not disappoint!
HPRM#1: Somewhere in here, I started testing whether I could use different cues to get her to reassess and establish a slightly slower rhythm. We were passing pretty much everyone around us, which was to be expected in the first couple of miles since we started at the very back of the our corral. However, around the 4 mile mark, I was concerned about how far ahead of target pace we were getting, so I explained that we had pretty much gotten past all the slower runners who had started in front of us and we should not get sucked out too fast. We were now about where we should be and we could just settle in. This actually worked, and we dialed in around an 8:20 pace.
HPRM#1 had said Chicago is like running a marathon on a track, and it certainly felt that way. By now, we had established a good rhythm. At water stops, he grabbed a cup and brought it to me. I didn’t even have to slow down, which was amazing. I let him know that I take a gel every 30 minutes and he kept an eye on the clock for that. When it was time to fuel, I handed him my gloves (it was still cold!), extracted a Maurten gel from my FlipBelt shorts, passed him the gel to open, took it back, swallowed the gel, and took my gloves back. It was almost like a dance and I barely broke stride.
HPRM#1: FULL. SERVICE. Y’ALL.
I don’t talk when I’m racing,
HPRM#1: 100% accurate. Have you ever talked to yourself for 3 hours and 44 minutes? I have …
but my mind is sometimes pretty active. I have often thought about my daughter, Rose, when running a marathon, but in the early miles of Chicago, I thought about my son, Aidan, over and over again. The Running Rogue podcast recommends a rhythm mantra for the early miles of a race and the host said he had used the word “smooth.” Aidan is maybe the smoothest person I know. Even though he can get fired up while playing video games, he has a dancer’s grace and a quiet gentleness when working with his little sister. Rose and I love to bake, but it’s Aidan who frosts the cakes. On and on through the streets of Chicago, I thought of Aidan, smooth frosting, and running.
I had studied the course so I knew the halfway split was around the time we finished the northern loop to come back downtown. I thought about whether I wanted to ask HPRM#1 for our time at the half, but decided against it.
HPRM#1: It was 1:48:12, putting us on pace for a 3:36:24 at the half. That was way faster than her A goal, but within the range that I felt she could physically run if she had what Coach Mick calls “a unicorn race.” It seemed like that could be in the cards based on how she said she was feeling throughout the first half, and her settling into an 8:20 pace between 15K and the half. This was a slower pace than her start through 10K by about 10 seconds a mile, and it seemed really smooth for her. 3:40:00 pace is 8:23 pace, for those of you keeping score at home.
Fairly soon after we crossed the halfway mark, I started to struggle.
HPRM#1: The onset of this seemed to be more sudden than I would have expected. As she started giving me more and more of a gap, I could tell she was getting more and more anxious.
HPRM#1 said he could feel me start to pull on the leash and that’s a perfect metaphor. I just wanted to slow down. Around this time, he and I had a conversation about whether it was time to take another gel. He asked whether I could figure that out by counting how many gels I had left. My response was, “I can’t.” I immediately regretted my word choice. You don’t utter the words “I can’t” mid-marathon. But I told myself, I only said those words in relation to math, and everyone knows math can get really hard when you’re running fast.
Later in the race when I was struggling, I said, “help.” I think “help” is much better than “I can’t” because if you’re asking for help, you’re still in the game and just need some assistance. “I can’t” suggests that you’re giving up. Even when I very much wanted to give up, I thought back to the Westfield 10K and refused to verbalize that feeling. Speaking it can make it true.
I don’t think it was the “I can’t” goof-up, but I was starting to feel the toll of the race. At 14 miles, when HPRM#1 asked how I was doing, I said, “I’m working.” Probably I was having to work a little too hard, given how many miles we had left. He said this is when he started to worry.
HPRM#1: That’s what I said, but it was a total lie. I started worrying about two miles before that, when I could sense Sarah becoming more and more nervous, despite saying she felt physically good.
Now the real work was indeed starting, a little earlier than expected. Miles 14-20 are a quieter part of the course with fewer crowds and less activity. I told HPRM#1 I needed him to tell me a running story. I have no idea if he actually told a story.
HPRM#1: I did not. She asked for a running story and I totally blanked on anything that would be motivating for her to hear at this point in the race. Several minutes of awkward silence ensued as I tried to think of one.
Then he offered dirty jokes. No, I said.
HPRM#1: Total mistake on her part. I tell great dirty jokes, and I have a ton of them.
Then he offered to go through his mental cues for the race, which he ran last year. He explained how he had watched the course video and imagined how he might feel at each stage of the race. He talked about all the training I had done leading up to this point. He said it was supposed to start hurting now and that was a good sign I was doing things right. I’m betting he said some other things…
HPRM#1: Soooooooo many other things
… but I was starting to be in the zone where it was all about the fight and less about the words.
At mile 17, he asked me who I was running for. I don’t know if he’s some kind of mind reader, but I wouldn’t put it past him.
HPRM#1: She’s lying. She already knows I’m a mind reader.
I had just directed my attention to my running statement of purpose, my five Gs. I told him I was running for girls. He knows my statement of purpose and he knows my running supports my feminism and vice versa. He talked about how they didn’t used to let women run long distances because they supposedly weren’t strong enough, but I was here proving them wrong. He talked about Kathrine Switzer and a lot about his daughter, Paulette. Paulette will grow up in a world where no one will tell women they can’t run marathons because they aren’t strong enough. At mile 17, I was running that world into existence, and that’s a powerful reason to keep going.
HPRM#1: I got choked up at this point. This was not some cheap motivational gimmick of a speech. I meant this very much. It is profoundly moving and inspirational for me.
At mile 18, I told him the next mile was for my daughter, Geneva. She goes by Rose in the blog, but of course, mid-race, I used her real name. “Say it again! Louder! Who are you running for?” “Geneva!” HPRM#1: “You will tell her after the race that you ran strong for her at mile 18!” So, my darling girl, I ran strong for you at mile 18, as strong as I could manage. I will do anything for my daughter. She is a constant source of inspiration to me.
But I was starting to hurt a lot.
HPRM#1: This is an understatement. She was literally frothing at the mouth.
I was also fairly sure that our pace was slipping. I tried not to think about it (not my job) and just run.
HPRM#1: Definitely my job. The pace was slipping, but not radically so, and I could tell that Sarah was still very much engaged and working, so I did my best to keep her in that mental and physical space.
We ran on and on, and Geneva ended up getting two miles. However, another issue was presenting itself that I did not tell HPRM#1 about. Runners call it a Code Brown. Lots of runners get GI distress of one kind or another, but I have mostly been spared. Not this time though. I have been re-reading Deena Kastor’s book Let Your Mind Run. I recently read the chapter on the London Marathon where she runs into the same problem and just pinches her cheeks until the end of the race. Imitating Deena has yet to steer me wrong so I thought I’d try that. For a few miles, it seemed like the problem wasn’t going to be all that serious.
At mile 20, HPRM#1 asked me who I was running for. “For Susan!” I said it loud this time because I knew he’d make me shout it if I didn’t. Anyone who knows Susan knows what an exceptional person she is. I am lucky enough to count her as a close friend. Susan’s son, David, died of cancer when he was only 10. She has been open about her struggles to recover from that loss, or not to recover so much as to integrate that loss into some kind of life that makes sense going forward. David’s motto, and Susan’s, is Embrace Life. That is what running lets us do. Running makes me feel more alive than almost any other activity. On the streets of Chicago, I was fighting to maintain pace, fighting to find meaning in the world, fighting to embrace life. We ran by a restaurant called “David’s Grill” and HPRM#1 pointed it out. Susan later said, of course, he was visiting you. David has come to me a time or two before. What an honor.
HPRM#1: Seeing this sign so shortly after Sarah had said she was going to run that mile for Susan nearly brought me to tears.
Mile 21 was for Coach Mick. I don’t remember HPRM#1 saying much. He didn’t have to.
HPRM#1: I was literally shouting at her the entire time, but I could tell she was not really processing much.
Coach Mick is very important to me. A good marathon coach gives his athletes the strength of body and mind to go to very dark places. It must be hard to lead someone there when you care so much about them. But with a lot of trust and a deep belief that the dark place is worth going, you can get there together. And now here we were.
HPRM#1 kept repeating that now was the time to define myself. That is Deena’s motto as well. The dark place is worth going to because that is where you discover what kind of person you are. He said things like, “You are writing this now. This day is yours to write. What are you putting down?” At one point he said, “How big of a BQ do you want today?” That’s when I knew for sure that sub-3:40 was not happening. Instead, we were fighting to see which side of 3:45 I was going to land on. I dug a little deeper.
HPRM#1: Completely accurate reading of the intended subtext of this statement.
Mile 22 was for my husband Kevin, for love. Again, I don’t remember HPRM#1 saying much.
HPRM#1: This is starting to get insulting … Am I not memorably witty and charming?
I know that running from a place of love is always the best choice. It’s easy to fall into the trap of running to prove something to someone or to yourself, running for revenge, or often running without any purpose at all. But running as an act of love is the way to go. I love my husband like nobody’s business. When I fear I might be done, I think of Kevin and run a little harder.
While my feelings for Kevin are romantic, something not-so-romantic was happening. That earlier Code Brown alert was escalating. I had to decide whether to stop. I knew I would lose time, but I still hadn’t looked at my watch so I didn’t know how much time we had to spare. That BQ comment had tipped me off that it probably wasn’t much. More importantly, stopping would involve having to start running again and I wasn’t sure I could face that. I’ve never run a marathon like this where I didn’t even have to slow down for water stops. If you slow to grab a water and have to start up again, the pain can be unreal. I didn’t want to deal with that, so I figured I’d just deal with messy shorts. When HPRM#1 asked, “How bad do you want it?” I just laughed internally and thought, oh, you have NO IDEA.
Without looking at my watch and being too deep within myself to see the mile markers, I am not totally clear on the next few miles. I knew at some point we would turn onto Michigan Avenue and have about three miles to go, straight north. I kept waiting for that to happen and it was taking forever.
HPRM#1: She is not exaggerating here. She had no idea what mile we were on.
Something that HPRM#1 and I share that not many people know about (until now, I guess) is a deep faith and a strong vision of how running connects us to God. God gave us strong, capable bodies and the ability to engage in the beautiful, physical act of running. When we run, we bring honor and glory to God. It is possibly the deepest reason of all to run for me and also for HPRM#1. Somewhere in this very dark zone, HPRM#1 offered a prayer for God to come to us as we ran and he quoted Isaiah 40:31: “Those who trust in the Lord will renew their strength; they will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary.” I was pretty weary, well beyond weary, but I wasn’t stopping.
HPRM#1: Mile 22, I’ll never forget it as long as I live. I have prayed in races many, many times. But never aloud, with people staring at me. But I sensed that Sarah really needed help at that point.
I told HPRM#1 that mile 25 was for him. I have given him a lot more miles than mile 25, but he has given me even more back. It’s an unusual friendship, not like any other I have in my life, and I treasure it. I often think of HPRM#1 when I’m running, but here he was right next to me. I ran as hard as I could.
HPRM#1: She really did. It was beautiful.
The last mile was for me. Because we can run for our children and our lovers and our coaches and our friends, but ultimately, we run for ourselves. I felt like I was running at a 10 minute pace and maybe I was, but I was giving everything I had. At the one mile to go sign, I looked at my watch for distance. It read 25.85 and thank goodness I didn’t see the pace. I started counting and counting and counting. HPRM#1 was still talking and he kept interrupting my count, but that didn’t matter. I just had to finish and by now it was clear I would finish, which I had seriously doubted a few miles back. I just wanted it to be over with so I could stop running.
HPRM#1: I offered Sarah her gloves back at this point, not because I thought she would want to wear them, but because I figured that she was surely aware that she was frothing at the mouth and also had a ton of snot running down her face. She was not aware. So when she declined the gloves, I just straight up said, “then take one and wipe your face off.” I knew she was going to want a good race picture of this because I knew what she was accomplishing was very, very special.
Then I remembered something pinned to my singlet. A few races back, Coach Mick had sent me a symbolic finish line in the mail. A little piece of material on a safety pin. I had grabbed it on the way out the door at home and pinned it to my singlet. Now I thought about how badly that bit of finish line wanted to be reunited with the finish line of the race. I let that thought pull me up and over Roosevelt Bridge. HPRM#1 was yelling, “Eyes up,” a command I’ve heard from him plenty of times. So I looked up to the finish line clock. Our start time was so out of whack with the clock that the time was pretty meaningless but I just willed myself forward, pulled toward the big finish line by the little finish line I was wearing. Just before we crossed the mat, HPRM#1 yelled, “Arms up! Smile!” And I managed it! At least the arms up part.
I was so happy to be done. I could hardly talk. I cried a little. He told me we were just under 3:45 on his watch and I had likely met my B goal. I told him about the Code Brown situation, and medical swept us off to the nearest tent and helped me clean up as best they could under the circumstances. Those EMT folks are hard core. One woman told me, “We signed up for emergency medicine, which is a whole lot of boredom interspersed with moments of excitement.” She almost made me feel like I had made her day somehow!
I knew that Spice Boy and his wife would be working the finish line and they found us as we exited. I was so incredibly glad to see them. My biological family couldn’t come to this race, so having my On Your Mark family there was unbelievably wonderful.
My official time was 3:44:18. A great day.
HPRM#1: In my entire life, I have never seen someone work harder in a race or run so bravely. Sarah was offered every chance to back off, take the deal, make it hurt less, or even just straight up quit. She never backed off and never gave up. It was an honor to be there to witness it. Words cannot express how proud I am of her and the race that she made. She created something truly beautiful.