I have been chasing the sub-4 marathon for years. I publicly declared my intention for breaking 4 hours in 2014, but it really goes all the way back to 2002 after I ran my first marathon. I knew there was a lot of room for improvement, and I knew I could break 4 hours. My ultimate goal is to qualify for Boston, but sub-4 is a manageable intermediate goal that I need to achieve first. After a debacle of a marathon in NYC last fall, I re-dedicated myself to sub-4, getting a coach and focusing my training in a way that I never had before. I followed specific paces in training, and I did structured speedwork consistently for the first time. I got fitter and faster and ran Sugarloaf in May to break the 4-hour barrier.
I missed sub-4 by 15 minutes at Sugarloaf (poor race execution on my part), so I signed up for Chicago as my fall marathon knowing it was a flat and fast course. I also knew that it could be hot in Chicago for the race :foreshadowing: but I hoped that wouldn’t affect me since I would be in such great shape from training. That was wishful thinking since I usually melt in the heat, but it wasn’t something I dwelled on since it wasn’t something I could control. This represents growth for me since I usually obsess over the weather for my races.
Building off the fitness and a shiny new almost 30-minute PR from Sugarloaf, I trained through the summer with sub-4 at Chicago as my sole focus. Easy runs, long runs, tempo runs, repeats—most of my training was right on target, but the summer heat took a toll on some of my long run paces. I ran a series of 5ks throughout the summer—progressively lowering my time at each race, I ran my best times ever at RTB 3 weeks before Chicago, and I finished off my training with a hilly, hot, humid half marathon as part of a 16-mile training run 2 weeks out from the race. I had put in the work, felt confident in my training, and I was mentally prepared to finally break the elusive 4-hour barrier.
That said, I had a lot of work and personal stress over the summer along with the stress of planning a wedding. The week leading up to the race I had a particularly bad bout of insomnia, but I tried not to let that stress me out too much on top of everything else.
JP and I arrived in Chicago on Friday afternoon. Thanks to the air travel, I was rocking a massive migraine by the time we landed. We hit the expo, and my blood sugar plummeted since it was mid-afternoon and I had only eaten breakfast and one snack all day. No one likes a hangry Martha, and this Martha was very hangry! We had a late lunch, chilled at the hotel for a bit, then met some friends for dinner. On our walk back from dinner, I developed GI distress that wouldn’t leave until after the race. Ugh.
I went to bed early but was up bright and early at 4am. Yay insomnia!
Saturday JP and I did a 2-mile shakeout run and then met our fellow Semper Fi Fund fundraisers for our team lunch. The rest of the day we didn’t do much of anything but watch Spirit of the Marathon and Chariots of Fire for inspiration. I focused on hydrating since everything I was eating was going right through me. Ugh again. We got some pasta for dinner and set our alarms for the quite reasonable hour of 5:30 am. Again I was up at 4 but I was excited for the race to start.
We walked to the start area, which was only about 10-15 minutes from our hotel. JP and I were in the same corral, which was convenient. We got through security and got in a porta potty line that moved excruciatingly slow. After standing in line for about 30 min, we realized that our corral would be closed by the time we got to the front of the line, so we stepped out, checked our gear, then headed to the corral. As our wave started and we all moved slowly forward toward the start line, the course marshals were letting people jump out of the corral to hit porta potties and then jump back into the corral. I took advantage of that opportunity and ended up back in the corral, somehow ahead of JP. I finally crossed the start line and my race was underway.
Immediately after the start line, we went under a really long overpass. My Garmin freaked out and apparently didn’t track anything correctly for the entire race. It was off by almost a mile early on, and in total it said I ran 28.2 miles with a 6:17 and an 8:11 thrown in at miles 14-15. I thought it was still tracking pace correctly even though the mileage was off, but I was wrong on that point too. Complete technology fail.
It was in the 50s when we started, and the first half of the race was in the shade. It didn’t feel hot, but the running felt hard from the very beginning. I didn’t feel like I needed to hold myself back from running too fast, which is how I felt at the beginning of all my other marathons. This time I felt like I was struggling to even keep the easy pace I was supposed to be keeping for the first few miles. I knew I was in for a long race, but I tried to keep pushing the pace regardless. I thought I was finally hitting MP (~9:00) by mile 6 or so, but my official splits tell me otherwise and that I was never even close to MP the entire race.
I took water at every aid station since I knew I was probably still dehydrated from the GI distress and also since it was supposed to get hotter as the day wore on. I took my gels as I had in training, but every time I did they made my stomach cramp. I just kept plugging along until the half marathon point, when I took a much needed bio break. I felt a lot better after that, but it was then that I knew my race was done and that I wouldn’t be getting my sub-4 that day. I tried to speed back up to what I thought was race pace, but my body said no. I have never experienced that in a race before, hitting a wall like that. I just couldn’t go any faster than my slogging pace.
My slogging pace translated into running between aid stations, walking through each water stop to get one cup of water to drink and one to pour on my head, then running to the next water stop. I stopped to stretch twice as well. Although most of the logistics surrounding this race were great, the logistics of the runners on the course really really sucked. I was dodging runners during every single mile of the race, and the crowds never really thinned out. I was in a bad state of mind since I knew I wasn’t going to PR or break 4 hours, and this added annoyance of having to continually sidestep other runners did not help my state of mind during the long last miles of the race.
Once I reached the 40km mark, I looked at my watch and thought “hey I can go sub-4:30 if I pick it up a little bit” so I tried to speed up and my right calf said “NOPE!” It twinged as soon as I pushed off trying to go faster. I was actually happy since my calf cramps started at mile 20 at Sugarloaf and at mile 16 at NYCM so having them hold off until this late in the race was an improvement. :p My calf didn’t fully cramp until just after the 1-mile to go sign, and then it cramped at 800m to go and 300m to go. It also was cramping on the final stretch to the finish but f- that, I was not going to stop at that point so I just hobbled it in from there. 4:34:30 for my official time. 77 degrees and full sun at the finish.
I was super disappointed in my race. It wasn’t what I trained for. I know I have sub-4 in me (even though I contemplated quitting marathons in those last few miles), and it was supposed to happen on this flat, fast course. The heat definitely got to me, and the insomnia, low blood sugar, and GI distress in the days leading up to the race didn’t help. But in the hours after the race, I realized that this is my second-fastest marathon time ever, and both of my fastest times were set this year, so that perspective has made me re-evaluate the entire race. If I can run my second-fastest time in less than optimal conditions with all of those things against me, imagine what I can do on a cool day and at 100%?
JP and I hobbled back to the hotel (he had a rough race too), chilled out, showered, then met my cousin and her family for dinner and ice cream. We fell asleep around 10pm, and I was wide awake at 1am, so even running a marathon didn’t cure my insomnia. I was awake till 3:30 then up again at 5 to get to the airport where our flight was delayed for 4 hours. :-/ JP had thought ahead to upgrade us to first class though, so once we finally got on the plane it was awesome, and the rest of the trip home was uneventful.
I am running the MCM 10k on 10/22 and am looking to PR there. Marathon-wise I don’t know what’s next yet, I am talking with my coach to see what he recommends. I KNOW sub-4 is in the cards, so I just need to be patient and keep plugging away until I get there.