Monday, October 11, 2010

The Chicago Marathon 2010: 100% Pure Misery

As some of you know, yesterday morning, 10.10.10, I raced the Chicago Marathon. Actually raced isn't the best word. I survived the marathon. There, that's better. This wasn't my first marathon but it sure felt like it. Or maybe how a first marathon is supposed to feel. But I first ran this race back in 1996 in 3:09. That was my first marathon.

I have been attempting to break the 3 hour mark for the race. Not necessarily here in Chicago, but any marathon. However, Chicago has a very flat course and it's widely known to yield pretty fast times compared to other races.

If you have read prior posts on this topic, running a sub 3 hour marathon is my road to the Boston marathon. The last time I attempted the marathon distance in somewhat decent shape was in 2008 where I finished in 3:04 on a warm day. That year I was coming off knee surgery, and blah, blah, blah, I wasn't near 100% on race day.

2009 was a bust due to injuries so I jogged it in about 3:49 (I think). 2010 was supposed to be a "no race" year. I just wanted to be able to run steady this year without an injury that forced me to sit for a few months. After all, I just like to run.

Of course by early summer when I wasn't injured and could feel good running fitness coming on, the idea of a fall marathon popped in my head. I should have ignored it. Completely. But I late-registered for Chicago through a charity that I still need to raise money for or end up paying the balance of the donation goal myself. If you have it in your heart to donate even $10, please click here and do so. Thank you!

I ran very well in July and August, near 250 miles per month. I was getting fast. I was doing my long runs on Saturday mornings and they were easy. My weekly mileage had slowly increased up to 55. I was doing everything right. By the book.

I did a half marathon on September 12 as a tune-up race. And I wrote about how that race didn't go as well as expected. I ended up severely injured afterward, but still ran a 1:28. For the next month, almost all of my running was a joke. I took almost 2 complete weeks off and cross-trained at the gym. I also lost some extra muscle weight I didn't need.

The first week of October I was able to run again. Well, sort of. I did a few pretty decent workouts where I got my speed up. Last Sunday (October 3), I ran 12 miles. It felt ok. Going in to yesterday's race, I knew a sub 3 hour race was probably out of the question since I ran so little for the preceding month. I could feel I had lost sharpness.

Was a 3:05 possible? How about 3:10? Surely a 3:15 was almost a guarantee, right? Wrong.

Race morning started out pretty normal. I was up at 4. I drank a couple of cups of coffee. I ate a plain multi-grain bagel. I drank water. I drank some Gatorade. But not too much of anything.

The problem, however, was that my left foot and leg hurt. I developed some random plantar fasciitis back in July. If you don't know what that is, look it up. But it's a very painful condition on the bottom of the foot sort of in the arch area but reaches back to the heel.

I had never had this type of injury before. I took a day off in July when it happened. I ran shorter distances. I iced it. I stretched it. But I never let it heal. I figured out how to train with it. What I didn't know was that I was changing how I ran with my left leg to compensate for the injury, which in turn caused injury further up the leg towards the knee.

I taped my foot. I took some ibuprofen. Actually, I took a lot of ibuprofen and headed down to the race. I had the usual pre-race jitters in my stomach. I needed to have one last sit-down in a porta potty before the race. This is normal.

But the potty I went into and sat down inside of, was out of toilet paper. Oh no. Not good. I did find a plastic bag on the floor and made due with it. But you can imagine how nasty that was. As it turned out, I think that was an omen of more shit to come. Literally.

Because I ran a 3:04 in 2008, I was assigned to the first start corral, A. Almost 40,000 start this race. It can take 30 minutes for the folks in the back to reach the starting line. Being able to be up front only 30 yards back from the start is nice. Corral A is right behind the elite runners and it takes less than 20 seconds to reach the start line.

The race started. I took off. Immediately my left leg starting screaming at me. I wanted to pull right off the course and call it a day. I knew it was going to be bad if I kept going, but had no idea just how bad it would really get.

I kept going. Went through the first mile in 6:51. I felt pretty good because I was ignoring the leg. The first 9 miles were all under 7 minutes. I was on 3 hour marathon pace. I felt pretty good. I was relaxed. I wasn't breathing hard. My pace was where it needed to be.

But around mile 9, I started to slow down. I remember the exact step it happened. I ran my first mile in over 7 minutes, but only by a couple of seconds. I averaged 7:07 for the next 3 miles, then 7:26 for the 3 after that. At this point I was thinking maybe a 3:10 race might be doable.

But after I hit the half way point in about 1:33, it all went down hill from there. I got sick. For the first time in any race, I got sick. I had diarrhea. I was vomiting. My legs stopped working. And I did something in a race for the first time: I took walking breaks.

Due to the severe cramps I was experiencing, walking was the only way to keep me from shitting my shorts. A mile later I hit a porta potty. Sat down. Shot it out. Kept on running, albeit slowly. Then the vomiting started. Then more cramps. Short bought of walking. Slow running. Extreme cramps. Another bathroom break. Repeat.

I know of other runners who got sick during marathons. But it never happened to me. I never considered the possibility. I don't eat strange foods the 2 days leading up to the race. No grease. I eat mostly grains, such as wheat pasta and bagels. I really don't know what happened. Don't have a clue. 

My body was doing everything possible to convince or even force me to quit and abandon the race. But my mind wouldn't buy it. Pride apparently was stronger than physical misery. And so this is how the last 10 miles of the race went. Utter misery. I eventually slowed to 11 minute miles because I was walking here and there. The last 2 kilometers of the race was at a per minute mile pace of 13:24. Ouch.

But it wasn't just me having a bad day. I had never seen so many seeded runners walking the last half of a marathon. A lot of people had a bad day. I usually see half a dozen or so seeded runners that went out too fast walking part of the last 5-6 miles. Yesterday, the walking wounded started appearing during mile 14. And I soon joined them.

It was warm and sunny. Some that had a bad day will probably blame the heat. I am not sure if the weather conditions played a part in my failure. It's possible. But I trained this summer in extreme heat when indexes were in the low 100's. I am not sure what the temperature was during the last half of the race, but it had to have been high 70's to low 80's. That is not ideal marathon weather. I simply don't know what happened to me. I am clueless. 
The last 2.5 miles of the race is on Michigan avenue, headed back towards downtown from 35th street. Michigan avenue was total carnage. People were walking. People were off to the side, laid out like dead fish being treated by EMT's. It was almost surreal. Most of the time by that point in the race, my brain is a little soft due to lack of carbohydrates. But not yesterday. I never experienced any head fog. I was just sick.

I knew where I was. I knew my name. And I knew I wanted to die. I have never felt physical pain like that in my life. My legs were hurting in areas for the first time (and still are). Coming down Michigan the spectators were yelling "you're almost there, just 2 miles to go!"

That may have been true, but it was the longest 2 miles of my life. And ones I never want to experience again. I hit the turn at Roosevelt to make my way up the little hill at the end. When I reached the top, another cramp hit. So I walked the final corner to the finish line. Then I shuffled the last 100 meters and finished. Without soiling myself. That was a victory in itself.

Several people were being put into wheelchairs and taken immediately to a medical tent. I heard ambulance sirens everywhere. And soon I saw runners on gurneys being wheeled around. It wasn't pretty. But I kept walking. I got my medal. Let out a tear or two. Grabbed some Gatorade. And walked damn near a mile to grab my gear bag. Grrrr.

I had brought my headphones with me to listen to music on the train ride downtown that morning. I powered up my iPhone. Put the headphones in my ears and started playing Dark Side of the Moon. The pain started to ease ever so slightly. Then I had to walk another mile to get to the Adams/Wabash train station so I could get home.

This race proved to be the most difficult physical test of my life, including the Ironman triathlon. It was 100% pure misery. At no time was it fun. At no time did I enjoy it. I wanted to quit every step of the race.

Years from now, when I look at the race medal I won't remember it as the race where I broke 3 hours, since I didn't. I will remember it as the race where I found out about myself. And learned just who I am. I will be reminded that in the worst conditions I can imagine, I refused to quit.

Good marathons are easy. They just happen. You're ready. The conditions are right. And you do it while never feeling horrible. Sure it's 26.2 miles, but when you have a good race, they are not that bad. Yesterday was the exact opposite.

I am currently registered for the White Rock Marathon in Dallas on December 5. At mile 20 yesterday, I swore off that race. Entirely. No way I am doing it. It can go to hell.

24 hours later my legs are busted and sore like nothing I can compare it to. I am walking like an old man with polio, but I can eat and appear to be digesting properly. I am sure yesterday was just a fluke. But it was a humbling experience on many levels. The gimpy lower leg and foot weren't the reasons I had a bad race.

No, I think the Marathon Gods decided to remind me taking 26.2 miles for granted is foolish. I had lost respect for the distance. An act of arrogance I shall never repeat. The price was too great. I had no business starting the race given my condition. And my hubris cost me. Now I sit and recover. Tomorrow I will hurt less. And the day after, even less. Within a week, I will run again.

No matter what happens from here, yesterday's race on 10.10.10 will probably be my proudest race accomplishment. I never gave more of myself to accomplish one singular feat in my life. The Ironman triathlon took me just under 12 hours to finish, but was no where close to as miserable or painful. Everyone who does this sport eventually has a bad race to some degree. I sure hope yesterday was mine.

There are pieces of me littered throughout the last half of the Chicago Marathon's course. And not just me, thousands of people lost parts of themselves out there yesterday. The empty Gatorade and water cups have been swept away. Traffic is again moving along the course like any other Monday. But the memory of what happened out there is burned into me, never to be forgotten.

For to forget, would only set myself up to be reminded. Don't really want that.

Bring on Dallas.


  1. Marcus,

    Thanks for sharing such a personal experience. Since my goal has always been to run a marathon (and just finish, even if it is last)this is great insight. With everything you have described here, I think your time was awesome. Quite frankly, I don't know if I would ever be able to run a marathon in that time. Like I said earlier, the goal for my first marathon is to just FINISH it. I can do speed,sprints, and speed intervals, but just am not good with distance so 26.2 miles seems overwhelming. I hope that you are healed for your December marathon, and it goes better than this for you. Like you said, after this marathon you have been through the worst, and you know that you can get through anything!! Just out of curiousity (not that I will ever be running it) but what time to you have to get to qualify for the Boston marathon?

  2. Dear Marcus,
    101010 was my first marathon. I'm 40 yo, French-Mexican descendant. My time was 5:38:00. A dream made true. Many thinks died inside me that memorable Sunday. Yes it was miserable... even weird: is the zone where happiness converges with pain... I ran just to see how far I was able to reach... perhaps some times you receive more by expecting less ; )


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