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Chicago Marathon 2023 - James Barnet

Four Dundee Road Runners in search of their 6 stars (Hannah Barnet, Marcus Sheridan, Jackie Heilbronn and myself) along with their support crew (Fíona Ní Cheannabháin and Tim Heilbronn) headed across the pond to take on the Chicago marathon last weekend. Marathons involve months of sacrifices, hard effort and training, but so much hinges on your state and weather conditions on that one critical race day. If temperatures are too hot, or the winds are too strong, then hopes of a PB could be dashed. Similarly, if you fall ill with Covid or flu (a high chance at the moment) or fall foul to an injury in the weeks or days before the event, then you may not make the start line at all. Therefore, we were all looking forward to race day with nervous anticipation.

As I have done several times this year, I was keeping a keen eye on the weather forecast over the few weeks in the run up to the event. For a while, it was looking quite concerning. The weekend before saw exceptionally warm temperatures of 28°C in Chicago and there was a worry that the weather wouldn’t cool down sufficiently in time for race day. However, as time went on, it became clear that a northerly blast from Canada would hasten a rapid onset of autumn during the few days before the event. As it turned out, weather conditions on Sunday 8 October couldn’t have been more perfect. The winds were light (a blessing for the “windy city”), temperatures were cool (rising from chilly lows of 6°C to 13°C), and it didn’t rain with intermittent sunshine breaking through the clouds. A perfect opportunity presented itself to reap the rewards of all those months of hard work.

We arrived into Chicago O’Hare airport on Friday evening, a day later than the rest of the DRR posse, and finally got into our accommodation at 4am UK time in a somewhat jetlagged state. Perhaps not the most ideal start but I generally find I don’t sleep that much immediately before a marathon anyway. The expo on Saturday was very busy with long queues to get in, even though we arrived just after opening. We collected our numbers, race bags, then stocked up on a very generous number of freebies. The hydration drink of choice was “Gatorade”, something Hannah and I at least hadn’t tried before. It was certainly an acquired taste, but we only found that out after stashing 3-4 bottles of the stuff into each of our race bags. After a trip to Navy Pier and failing to get on to any of the fully-booked river boat tours around the city (we booked onto one on Monday to relax after the race instead), Hannah and I headed back to our accommodation late in the afternoon to prepare our waistbands for race day and have our own pasta party.

The Chicago marathon kicked off at 7.30am and runners were advised to start arriving at Grant Park from 5.30am to allow plenty of time to clear registration. As usual, the adrenaline was pumping and I had been awake and ready to go from about 2am, so it didn’t feel like as early a start as it should have done. It was a surreal experience walking out of our AirBnb into the dark cold morning to make our way to the train for a race. Normally the streets would be empty at that time, but instead we soon bumped into other marathon runners making their way hastily in the same direction in the dark. We arrived in plenty of time, got through security far quicker than expected, and then watched dawn slowly break across Grant Park. It felt like some sort of midnight rave as the dark park reverberated with an increasing number of runners, buzzing with adrenaline, and keeping their warm clothes on for as long as possible to provide protection against the cold morning. Phone torches became an essential tool for navigation, especially when using a portaloo in the dark!

With 20 minutes to go, we headed for our respective start corrals (which closed 10 minutes before race start) and the start of the race was nigh. We were set off in waves and I crossed the start timing line at 7.34am, 4 minutes after the official start. We were off! The first 8 miles head out north, initially between Chicago’s impressive high rises, which messed with the GPS and made it impossible to keep a handle on your current pace. The roads were wide and flat, although not in the best state, with a number of potential trip hazards. After a few miles though, we headed north from the skyscrapers and it became easier to track the pace. The support was fantastic and probably amongst the best I’ve ever experienced in a race. Several signs generated a chuckle amongst the runners, including along the lines of “You’re running the streets better than the government”, “The rats don’t run Chicago, you do”, “Smile, you paid to do this”, “I know a shortcut” and, only 2 miles in, “The Kenyans have already finished”.

I felt very strong at the start and running at or a little below my target marathon pace felt effortless. I had a 2hr58min timing band on my left arm which listed the times I needed to hit at each mile marker, as well as every 5K. As the miles ticked by, I slowly banked time on each mile marker, a few seconds at a time, and I was looking good for a 2hr56min-2hr57min finish. The aid stations were frequent, roughly every mile, with opportunities to fill up with Gatorade (no thanks) or water. Both were given out in paper cups, which as I learned the hard way at Berlin, were near impossible to drink out of for me when running at speed. Hannah and I therefore developed a technique of pouring water from cups into a small squeezy bottle we were carrying in our waistbands, dropping in a hydration tablet, and carrying on at pace.

After 8 miles, we turned back southwards for 5 miles along roads almost parallel to those we’d taken on the way out. The wind was a gentle north-westerly and except for one or two brief gusts, was barely of concern during the race. After the halfway point, we headed west for a couple of miles, before working our way erratically southwards, ready for a final long straight northwards from just before mile 24 to the finish.

As the miles ticked by, the legs gradually started to tire but the pace was still there. In fact, miles 15 to 19 were some of my best miles and confidence was growing that my dream marathon target of sub-3 hours could really be on. I’ve always found that the last 10K is make or break in the marathon. You can be going great guns up to this point but how you deal with the race from mile 20 onwards will decide whether you’re going to achieve your target time or not. At Berlin a year earlier, I had been on target for 2hr58mins until the last 10K, when I abruptly dropped off a cliff and ended up missing my sub-3hour target and finishing in 3hr1min53secs. I blamed it on dehydration, as the sun came out in the latter part of the race and I felt I hadn’t been able to get enough fluids inside me by just drinking a few sips out of the cups provided. But Chicago was different. The temperatures were cooler and I’d been hydrating better. Would the same drop off happen again?

After mile 20, my pace did start to slide. Not as dramatically as at Berlin, but I could see I was gradually losing the time I’d banked on the 2hr58min mile markers from mile 20 through to mile 25. I was pushing as hard as I could but the fatigue was getting to me and my legs just wouldn’t move any faster. I slipped from a 6min35sec mile on mile 19 to a 7min15sec mile on mile 25 and then it became clear I wasn’t going to finish in under 2hr58mins anymore. The final mile always gives a bit of extra motivation, so I dug deep, brought the pace down to 7min10sec for mile 26 and 6min51sec for the final 0.4 miles (yes, it should be 26.2 miles but it always ends up more like 26.4 miles in the race because it’s impossible to always take the racing line through the corners). A cheeky gradual hill just before the finish was uncalled for, but then we turned left and sprinted gently downhill to the finish line. Despite dropping a bit of pace, I managed to achieve my first sub-3 hour marathon at the second time of trying, finishing in 2hr59min3sec with a PB by almost 3 minutes on Berlin. The emotion was incredible and it was hard to not cry once across the finish line. Indeed, some people did!

My PB was backed up by two other DRR PBs, with Marcus finishing in an incredible time of 2hr47mins47secs, Hannah smashing a 7 minute PB in 3hr19mins21secs and Jackie finishing in a very respectable 4hr17mins55secs, despite managing a hamstring injury! It was a day of records with Kelvin Kiptum winning the race and setting a new world record in 2hr0mins35secs, clearly showing that weather conditions were perfect around the streets of Chicago.

The walk from the finish line back to the bag collection in Grant Park seemed to go on forever. As my legs seized up, I gradually got slower and slower until the point one of the support crew genuinely asked “Do you need a wheelchair sir?”. “No, I’m OK thanks” I replied, followed by “Are you sure?”! The race was well organised except for the bag drop collection, which was abysmal. The understaffing and poor organisation had us stood with tired aching marathon legs for over an hour in ridiculous queues, when all we wanted was to sit down and get off our feet. Other than that, a fantastic experience and looking forward to the next one, whenever that may be…Boston or London maybe…

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