The Monkey Is Off My Back: Mint’s Chicago Marathon Race Report

Every marathon training season has its own ups and downs and every race day is different.  Sometimes it is a grand success, sometimes it is a heartbreaking fail.  Usually there is no in-between.  But no matter the end result, each season takes on a life of its own and each holds a special place in my heart.  No doubt this is because we must devote months of hard work, commitment, sacrifice, self-doubt, and dogged determination all for (hopefully) success on one day.  Thankfully, this season was one of the best ones yet for me and it reaffirmed why I do this:  no matter who we are or where we are in life, we can always push ourselves to achieve more (take that Father Time!).

The Goal:  3 hours and 25 minutes.  I have been chasing 3:25 for five and a half years.  That is a LONG time and I am certainly not getting any younger.  I’ve hit 3:26:xx twice and 3:27:xx twice.  And I was way off a handful of times due to heat, nor’easters, illness, lack of fitness, and who knows what.  But over the years, one thing has not changed:  I wanted that 3:25 really, really badly.

The Plan:  I used to faithfully abide by the Pfitzinger/Douglas training programs (which are excellent).  But in December 2011, I hired a coach, Joe Marks.  He led me to a strong race this Spring, and this Fall we decided to take things up a notch for Chicago.  I completely switched up my training so my easy runs were faster and in a set pace range and I consistently logged 3 quality workouts per week.  I peaked at just over 70 miles per week, but even on my lightest weeks I felt as though Joe was making sure I was working hard.  It was challenging, but great.  I knew going into this race I had my best training cycle ever–thank you Joe!

The Cause:  I ran Chicago as a SoleMates runner for Girls on the Run.  I was able to raise $400 for our local scholarship program, which is a cause near and dear to my heart.  I also knew I had 16 awesome girls all cheering for me on race day (thank you awesome girls!).   Even more importantly I ran for my sister-in-law, Jamie, who is undergoing breast cancer treatment.  My task was far easier than anything she is doing on a given day and I kept her in my mind (and on my back) every step of the way.

Pre-Race:  The stars fully aligned for me this season.  I nailed almost all of my workouts, the weather forecast was ideal and I did not get the awful cold that seemed to be circulating among my colleagues and family in the days leading up to the race.  John and I headed to Chicago alone instead of bringing the boys since it is a super expensive venue and spectating would be hard for John with both boys with 1,000,000 others.  We made the whirlwind trip, hit the expo and then went on search for my last supper.  My best marathons have been preceded by cold pasta feeds, so superstition prevailed and I insisted that we have the (way overpriced) pasta buffet at the host hotel.  It delivered as expected and I was one happy camper.

Race Morning:  This part wasn’t so happy.  I woke up at 4:00 am with a WICKED headache.  My stomach was not happy at all either.  Great.  I Googled taking NSAIDS prior to a marathon and it became abundantly clear that was a bad idea.  I suddenly panicked a bit.  I fully promoted this race on Salty Running and Facebook.  People are watching me.  Lots of people.  How awful if I fall apart now due to a headache or tummy troubles? I have no idea why or how, but thankfully my headache fully subsided and my tummy issues disappeared just before the race.  Little things like this that I looked at race morning didn’t hurt (my kids rock):

A note my son tucked in my bag as a race day surprise.

The Start:  Last year was a bit of a debacle at Chicago.  All of the front corrals (A-E) entered through the same narrow entrance.  I barely made it in before the gun went off and was stuck in a crowd of people kicking my shins for 7 miles.  Thankfully, they rearranged things a bit this year and I got in seamlessly (great job Chicago).  The National Anthem played, and as usual, I teared up and felt so thankful for being healthy, strong, and there.  The gun went off and it took me a little over a minute to cross the start.  The first few miles were awesome.

I was determined to take it easy the first mile or two, but I was also determined NOT to be a slave to my Garmin.  Thanks to three failed watches over the course of this season, I had the most basic model and I was not planning on relying on the GPS.  I had an arm tattoo with my goal splits and that was how I was going to track it.  As each mile clicked off, I hit my lap button.  Early on, I noticed I was a good minute off the clocks at the mile markers since it took me a while to cross.  But by mile 6, I noticed I was right on track – which meant that I was a good minute ahead of my 3:25 goal already.  Throughout the race, I ran solely by feel.  I did not look at my time and speed up or slow down.  I just ran.  Amazingly, until the last 5k, I was incredibly consistent too.

Somewhere between mile 5 and 7, I ran into my friend Cindi.  Wow, what a highlight!  I have known Cindi for years through running blogs and forums but had never met her in real life, so it was really cool to meet her among 40,000 people!!  We chatted briefly and then I distanced myself as I did not want to botch her race or mine by chatting; we needed our energy to run, not talk.

The early miles were so great because I kept thinking of last year.  Then it was hot and I was miserable.  This year, I felt awesome and strong.  I had an aggressive goal, but I felt good.  Strong.  In control.  Kicking Ass.  This was my race!

Happily cruising along.

Middle Miles:  I hit the half at 1:41:02.  This was HUGE.  I have never hit the half that quickly. I felt great.  I was overwhelmed.  And I knew that today was my day.  I was cautious though as I know a lot can happen in those last 13.1 miles.   I saw John and hammed it up big time for him.  It was the 3rd time I saw him and I was so happy he was there.   I admit I am also a major cheese ball in big marathons because the crowd support is incredible, and Chicago is the perfect venue for this.  Its spectators beat any other race I have run (including Boston) and I love it.  I high-fived lots and lots of kids with outstretched hands, I thanked every volunteer I took water/Gatorade from, and I hammed it up BIG time when I ran through a big crowd (whoop whoop).  It takes no extra time, but it adds exponentially to the race experience.  Awesome.

Last 10k:  I always think of the marathon really starting at the 20 mile mark.  I don’t care who you are, but here is where it really starts to hurt.  I was feeling really good through mile 20, but was definitely starting to feel the fatigue.  By the last 5k I was dropping pace some.  I checked my Garmin at this point and it said I was at an 8:22 pace.  I knew that so long as I didn’t stop to walk and kept my forward motion, my 3:25 was in hand.  However, I admonished myself for thinking this way.  Come on, Mindi!  Don’t settle when you have worked this hard.  You came here to race!  So I picked it up and I felt like I was running fast as I was passing so many runners.  The truth was that I had slowed down a bit (the last 5k was at a 7:55 average pace), but I was focused and working hard.  The last mile I started to feel a bit of a headwind, but I could smell the sweet finish.  Just before mile 26, the course turns up a big bridge and then down to the finish.  I saw the finish clock was at 3:24:xx and I knew I nailed it.  My time was 3:23:39.  Sweet, sweet success.

The walk to the family meet up area was pure pain.  I won’t lie.  But I had Gatorade, water, beer and a banana in hand with my space super cape and had a smile that couldn’t be brought down.

Lessons:

Yes, I am cheesy. But I also have a shiny new PR, so I don’t care. ;)
  1. Don’t ever give up.  I could have freaked myself out by my headache and stomach problems.  But I didn’t.  I went on and I was fine.  Don’t let it stop you until it truly stops you.
  2. Run for someone or something that really matters to you.  Someone who truly inspires you.  You’d be amazed at how much that can push you through.
  3. Ignore your watch (gasp).  This race was so great because I ran within myself.  I was never breathing too hard and I was constantly checking in with myself rather than my watch.
  4. Enjoy it.  Be a ham! Smile at people and have a good time.  You aren’t here to suffer, this is your victory lap after months of hard work.  Take it with a smile and enjoy it, even if you are working hard.  Outstretching your hand for a kid won’t take any seconds off your finishing time.
  5. Feel the gratitude (and say thank you).  I was shocked and floored by all the love I received from friends and family before, during and after the race.  What a treasure.  Thank you everyone!

Mindi is a serial marathoner. She is a private practice attorney, wife and mom of two awesome (and super fast) boys, ages 12 and 14. She coaches Girls on the Run and is a big advocate of youth running.

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25 comments

  1. Hahaha. As a Wisconsinite, it seems right to grab a beer at the finish, so I did! (with the Gatorade, water, banana, and powerbar (none of which I could finish either).

  2. Congrats again, Mint! This is a great recap. I am so glad that everything came together for you and you nailed that PR! I hope you did something to pamper yourself afterwards. I notice that it didn’t take you long to grab a beer :)

  3. Great recap and so many congratulations!!!!! I love how it took you several attempts to get this – clearly I don’t love it for you, but there’s a great lesson there that things don’t always come on the first attempt and sometimes you have to work hard for them.You may need to remind me of this on Monday :) But I bet it makes success all the sweeter.

    1. Thanks! It is so very true – the success was so sweet since this goal has been so elusive. And it is awesome to finish a race and have to ask myself, now what do I shoot for rather than regrouping for another try. Woot!

  4. Stars don’t align on their own – you are the one who did the work to move them into place, and then executed your strategy nearly flawlessly on race day. Nice job, savor the success as you’ve earned it! Now, about 3:20…

    I agree with your coach on the Pfitzinger adjustments, I’ve done the program twice now (70 and 85 mile versions) and next season there’s going to be a heftier load, within roughly the same mileage, of running in the HMP to MP+5% range, I think. Still lots of easy miles, but the program lacks intensity.

    1. Thanks Greg. Yes, about that 3:20…. :)

      It is funny you say that about Pfitz because I remember the first time I tried the 18 week / up to 55 mpw schedule I couldn’t do it because it was too aggressive. It is pretty amazing what our bodies will adapt to if we keep working at it.

    1. Thanks Pepper. I really took the GPS/pacing advice from you too and decided just to do the wrist band. It was an excellent decision – so thanks!

  5. I love this! Way to go on the PR and great takeaways for us newbies. I am 100% with you on thanking volunteers and people cheering and taking as many high-fives as possible– it makes all the difference!

    1. Thanks! I have also found that the key is to high five the KIDS and avoid the adults. Some adults will take your arm off with their high-five prowess. :)

  6. Congrats again, Mindi! I hope one take away that we all have after the last few months of marathon posts is that sometimes it takes several – yes, SEVERAL – marathons before we nail our goal. And that’s normal and ok! When a marathon goes just right it is such an amazing experience and something that just doesn’t and can’t happen every time we toe the line for 26.2! I’m so glad you finally got the 3:25 monkey off your back and met this goal!!!!!

    1. Thank you again, Salty! It is very true that it can take a long time. I know a lot of runners who were in the same boat as me – trying to break through a plateau. It is so very, very sweet when it finally happens!