Remember the movie “The Empire Strikes Back“?
There’s a scene where Luke Skywalker, training with Yoda to become a Jedi, comes across a cave. He senses the dark side of the Force in the cave, and asks Yoda, “What is in there?”
Yoda responds, “Only what you bring with you.”
That is a perfect description of my experience at the 2017 Chicago Marathon.
I did 2 things very wrong in training, and those 2 things controlled how my race went.
First and foremost, the heat. Running my training plan through a super hot and humid Arkansas summer took the wind out of my sails going into this marathon.
It felt like 90% of my runs were in thick humid air, and rather than take the time to figure out a plan to run through the heat, I simply complained about it and wished for the quick arrival of fall.
That was a mistake. I told my oldest boy the day before the marathon that my biggest fear was the heat: “If it breaks 75 degrees tomorrow, I don’t have a plan to deal with that and I’m going to have a hard run.”
Sure enough, when the mercury hit 75, my morale and confidence plummeted.
But here’s the positive side – a HUGE shout out to the race organizers and the city of Chicago for my favorite part of the Chicago Marathon.
The temperature skyrocketed to (according to my quasi-accurate Garmin weather widget) 83 degrees by mile 13.
Running in that kind of heat is hard, and dangerous. But on the course, there was no shortage of water to drink and shade – and, of course, fountains of icy cool water from fire hydrants and neighborhood hoses.
So a HUGE THANK YOU to the organizers, volunteers, and the city of Chicago for keeping us all safe out there in such hot weather.
Second, I skimped on the long runs and when I did them, I ran them as some sort of pace test run. Somewhere in my brain I thought that if I could build the confidence of running long at marathon pace, I didn’t need to do long runs over 17 miles.
Not very well thought out, right?
At mile 21 of the Chicago Marathon, I promised myself that next cycle, I’m going to get all the long runs in, run at least twice over 20 miles, and run at 1:30 to 2:00 below my pace on the long run.
Here are my splits:
I want to say a HUGE thank you to all the folks that donated in support of my run – we raised $930 for the Arkansas Down’s Syndrome Association.
A special thanks to the Center for Hearing in Fort Smith, Arkansas, who sponsored the run with a sizeable donation to the ADSA!!
If you live in Northwest Arkansas, please support this phenomenal business (owned by an Army Veteran) by using them for all your hearing needs.
It’s not too late to donate to support the Arkansas Down Syndrome Association: click here to support the work of this fantastic non-profit.
This training cycle was harder for me than last years. ‘
No particular reason, but my mind found it really easy to say, on a particularly long run, “17 miles is close enough to 18 miles, I will just make it up during the week”. I did that on several runs, in fact.
I don’t think the missed mileage hurt me, but when the “going got tough” in Chicago, my mind was not tough enough for it.
I had to walk miles 22-24.
That’s the big takeaway: the grueling training cycle doesn’t just train the body, it trains the brain to run 26.2 miles.
Or, to paraphrase Yoda: “Your race is only as good as the training you bring into it.”
Now, I still broke 5 hours, and ran a 4:59:40 overall.
That took 42 minutes off my time at New York in 2016.
Still a “back of the pack” guy, but cutting that much time was very gratifying.
The Chicago Marathon Course.
It’s everything you’ve heard about it: fast and flat (except for a couple hills, notably the final climb into the finish chutes).
The course was on much narrower streets than the NYC Marathon, so runners ran a lot closer, and the crowd tended to clog up around the few turns on the course.
The only thing I did not like about the course were the sheer number of people crossing the street. I saw one runner knocked to the ground by a pedestrian trying to cross the course, and I don’t think I went a half mile without seeing groups of pedestrians trying to weave in and out of runners.
The few bridges we crossed were carpeted, so you don’t have to run (and trip!) on the metal grates that make up the surface of the Chicago drawbridges.
Chinatown and “Charity Row” were my favorite parts of the course.
The music and decorations in the former were a welcome distraction from the flat and urban section preceding it. The latter was the most motivating area of the course – folks there served up generous doses of positive motivation and encouragement…sorely needed around the halfway mark.
Lessons Learned – my “Top 5 Takeaways” from the Chicago Marathon.
1. Long Runs. Don’t skimp on the long runs in my training: it’s okay to miss a long run or 2, but a longest long run of 17 miles was not a good plan. More important, I’m not going to run long runs at pace. I think I could have made a stronger go of it if my long runs were slower, and forced me to spend a little longer time on my feet.
2. Sunscreen. Especially if you are bald, like me. Always have sunscreen no matter how cool it is…that sun still burns.
3. Gear. Bring the gear I trained with. I left my Running Dynamics Pod at home by accident, and so I had to rely on my Garmin 735XT picking up the foot pod on my shoe. For whatever reason, it never did. Since I trained to paces based on miles per hour, and since GPS doesn’t give accurate miles per hour readings on the Garmin, I had no idea what pace I was truly running for the first 5k. Turns out, I ran the first mile at 8:25, which was a full 1:10 faster than my intended pace for the first mile.
4. Goals. On future races, I’m going to set “tiered” goals. I will set my “push” goal (super ambitious), my “probable” goal (what I’m training for), and my “settle for” goal (what I’ll settle for when things go wrong). Having those tiered goals in mind keeps negative thoughts at bay early in the race when I can sense that my ambitious goal is not going to happen.
5. Enjoy the Experience. When I ran NYC in 2016, about mile 8, these three words become my mantra: Respect, Trust, Enjoy. Respect the Course. Trust your Training. Enjoy the Experience. At Chicago, I forgot the “Enjoy” part (at least until the halfway mark). I put my headphones and playlist on after the first mile, and as a result, never took the time to soak up the positive vibes and energy from the crowd.
Chicago 2017 is only my second marathon.
Marathons are an intriguing challenge. Both times, around the halfway point, my mind swore I’d never run another one….my brain told me that 26.2 miles was too aggressive a distance for a newbie runner over the age of 45, and I should just stick with the more manageable half marathon.
But a very powerful shift in my thinking occurs somewhere during the last half of the marathon.
I reconnect with a feeling I don’t have a name for…. a pleasant awareness deep in my gut that is a mix of acceptance and confidence. I intuitively sense that by slowing down and taking smaller bites I can take down the largest obstacles with steady and unrelenting progress.
The feeling evokes my favorite parable: with the faith of a mustard seed – a tiny seed that has no choice but to break the crust of the earth and slowly grow into a plant – we can move mountains.
That feeling is important, not just in running but in life.
I’m in my mid-40s. Most of my friends are starting to reap the rewards of 2+ decades of hard work in their careers and are sending their kids off to college.
By contrast, I feel as though I’m re-starting my professional and personal lives.
Professionally, I started my career a little later and graduated law school in my 30s; now, in my 40s, I’m rebuilding a law firm that had strayed far afield of what I wanted it to be.
In our personal lives, my wife and I just settled into our “forever home” in a brand new city, and are raising a 5 year old again…after guiding 2 awesome young men to their teenage years.
I don’t want the frantic energy of my 20s and 30s: it is too much like the energy I experience in the first half of a marathon. A need to achieve, to be somewhere by a certain time, and to do it in a certain way.
Here at the halfway mark of life, I want to slow down and enjoy the view, even while working hard to achieve new and seemingly unreachable goals.
If it takes an actual marathon to remind me that patient, plodding and unrelenting progress is the path to success in life, I have no doubt I’ll be back next year running another marathon.
The only question is where.
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