“Congratulations! You are a Bank of America Chicago Marathon finisher! Yesterday, you and 45,786 of the runners crossed the finish line and etched your names in Chicago Marathon history.”
“Sometimes what you think is an end is only a beginning.”
While I crossed the finish line to complete by first World Marathon Majors in 3 hours 46 minutes 06 seconds, I soaked in the overwhelming feeling of my name being called out just meters to the finish line.
I was exhilarated with the result; the energy and concentration during the 42,000 steps filled me with a new-found joy.
My ability to finish sooner than 3 hours 46 minutes and 06 seconds was overpowered by the countless emotions that ran through my veins. The Chicago Marathon wasn’t my last but the most memorable.
“Over the 12-week training plan, I learnt to believe in myself and my abilities as a runner – something you can’t see on my Garmin / Strava.”
What is World Marathon Majors (WMM)?
The Abbott World Marathon Majors (AWMM) is a championship-style competition for marathon runners that started in 2006. Founded on six major city marathon races recognized as the most high profile, the series comprises annual races for the cities of Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York City.
I swung into action following a casual conversation after a group workout and applied for the London Marathon followed by Berlin and Chicago. I had been applying for the Tokyo Marathon even before I knew about the Marathon Majors. But, as fate would have it, the Tokyo, London or Berlin Marathon still seemed like a distant dream. Keeping in my mind the dry spell of luck, I had begun planning for the Amsterdam Marathon.
The perseverance paid off, and in December of 2018 I received a confirmation of being selected to run the Chicago Marathon. The good news was immediately followed by the Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM) in January 2019. Though the training had been great, I couldn’t mirror my previous TMM performance. The learnings from the TMM 2019 added a new zeal in me to outperform myself.
Marathons are a combination of speed and distance; requiring great amount of physical and mental strength coupled with structured training. Now that I had conquered the distance by completing consecutive Comrades Ultramarathon of 90kms in 2018, I switched my focus on improving my time.
According to a recent research; Berlin, London & Chicago Marathons are amongst the fastest races where average runners clock their personal best time. This study encouraged me to train harder and stay positive for the Chicago run.
Training for the Chicago Marathon was different from all the previous marathon training, thanks to my coach Atul Godbole The inclusion of marathon pace run was the biggest differentiator.
A couple of time trials of 10 and 21 kms prior to the marathon training helped me focus on speed and made a huge impact on the day when it mattered the most. The 4 days per week training program comprised of intervals, marathon pace, aerobic & easy runs. Though I am guilty of missing a few workouts during the 2 ½ months of training; I ensured that I nailed all the others. I lived by the rule of ensuring that all workouts are completed within the prescribed pace, something that was etched in stone by my coach.
The marathon pace workout posed its own set of challenges when it was increased to 14 and 16 kms. I used to run these marathon pace workouts at the faster end of the prescribed pace just to ensure my heart rate zone remains low by running 3-4 seconds slower during the marathon. The maximum distance of marathon pace training run was only 16kms and sustaining the same pace for 42kms is always challenging. The 2km warmup, 16km run & the 2-minute cool down that took 2 hours was followed by a mentally grueling 1 hour drive to office. And even though I was running the two 32kms aerobic run (~15 seconds slower than the marathon pace) that were part of the training plan all alone (even though we started as a group), it did not deter me from going all out to achieve my goal.
Last Weeks of the Training
The most amazing run during the entire training period was the last marathon pace workout of 16kms which I ran at the slower end of the marathon pace. The comfortable feeling while running the 16kms, 5 seconds slower than usual gave me a lot of confidence. So, the strategy was to run at the slower end of the marathon pace, gauge the comfort level at ~35kms and then push harder if there was some fuel reserve. My thirst for knowledge led me onto various blogs about running the Chicago marathon which helped me understand the route, do’s & don’ts and tips to have a good run. The Motiv8 team veteran’s valuable advice to keep the 1st half conservative, helped me feel good and push harder during the second half. Over the course of time I have come to realize that running even 5 seconds faster to save a couple of minutes in the 1st half can cost you 3-4 minutes in 2nd half and may end up being a reason for you not meeting your target.
I have a few tricks up my sleeve and running at my own pace is one of them. Even though most of the marathon runners train & run in a group everyone has their own comfort zone. I always start at the slower end of the prescribed pace to give myself time to get comfortable specially during long runs. I also avoid running at someone else’s HR (Heart Rate) which has helped me not only for short runs but also long runs including a 55kms run during Comrades Ultramarathon training.
Travelling to the USA is not always a joy ride. I was fortunate not to be onboard a 15-hour long flight which helped me to relax a bit. I made sure I took breaks, walked around every 2 hours and kept on sipping water to stay hydrated. I am grateful to my running partner Rishikesh Sardeshmukh for arranging the accommodation. The stay was fun and full of insights, thanks to the plethora of knowledge both Rishikesh & Dr. Abhijeet hold.
I made sure I collect my kit (got lucky and was able to get the T-shirt exchanged) on Friday so that I can spend my Saturday relaxing; preparing my mind and body for the greater goal that was ahead. Fascinated and in awe of the sights around, I unknowingly ended up walking around 9kms trying to get a closer look of the countless booths the expo had.
The Pen-ultimate Day
Thanks to Dr. Abhijeet’s friend Mr. Mallikarjun who invited us for lunch and made sure that we don’t have to venture out for dinner. The warm hospitality and positive vibe of Mr. Mallikarjun and his family ensured I had one of the best pre-race days. We discussed everything under the non-existent Sun, but Marathons. Diverting your attention from running helps you ease the race anxiety.
Our wave was to start at 8 AM and we had to be there 45-minutes prior to that. The coffee made up for the lack of sleep. I sometimes wonder whether jetlag was to be blamed or was it because of the endless thoughts I kept pondering upon. We had 2 hours before we head out for the Grant Park (the starting point) and used the time to grab some cake, biscuits, banana and the essential Lomotil pill.
We left for the race at 5AM and it took us less than 35 minutes to reach Grant Park. We had ~2 ½ hours to the start of the race and were shivering in our shorts (never underestimate the cold wind of Chicago). Most of the runners had come prepared with joggers and jackets. It’s always advisable to be comfortable and not to waste too much energy in keeping yourself warm before the start of the race.
I am not sure if the long queue for the loo was due to the nervous vibes or due to the number of participants. What we thought would take 10 minutes took us 30-35 minutes and that’s when we lost track of Dr. Abhijeet. Although our wave’s start time was 8AM, the entry to the coral was to close at 7:40AM. Missing to enter the coral before that would have been forced us to go back and join wave 3 which was starting 20 minutes later.
Starting along with wave 3 (Coral G, H) would mean running along with people whose paces were comparatively slower. It would have been difficult to run faster and get away from the runners who soaking in the fun. Thanks to our good karma, we entered the coral just in time at 7:40AM filling me with positivity.
The atmosphere was exuberant. The elite runners had already started, and the giant screen was streaming live where we could see Sir Mo Farah. I soaked in the energy around and marched towards the start line. The weather forecast which ruled out the possibility of rain was an icing on the cake.
The Start Line
The start time management was perfect knowing the fact that there were ~46,000 runners. No rush or push or any chaos – as expected from a World Major.
8AM – Wave 2 was released.
Just ~600 meters into the race and my GPS gave up. My Garmin couldn’t the show correct distance/pace because of the skyscrapers. I was continuously checking with my running partner Rishikesh for the lap/average pace. Our target was to maintain 5:15 to 5:19 min/km till 35kms and then try to push if we were still feeling good, else continue with the same pace.
Post 22kms, I made it a point to have a sip of energy drink at every hydration station. I trusted the race director’s knowledge about the hydration requirements of all the runners. This helped immensely as I could park aside the idea of getting cramps or dehydration. Chicago is known for its windy cold weather but fortunately the weather was perfect for the race. I was running the race purely on intuition (feel) and this approach had helped me achieve my target in all my previous runs. I was hitting the milestone of 5kms and I was ~1 ½ minute behind the target. I very well knew that this could be made up for in the last quarter of the race. I hit the half way mark, a minute behind the target. I was less worried about the time but more of the fact that there won’t be any photograph of me as I was wearing a T on top of the BIB. But thanks to face recognition technology, I got some 🙂
A little bit of sunshine amidst the windy weather was a bliss. The crowd support throughout the race was brilliant helping a lot of runners to improve their time by a minute or two. I was ~2 minutes behind the target when I crossed the 30 km mark. I could feel fatigue in my calf and was worried that could lead to cramps. Popping in another salt capsule was definitely a life saver, thanks to the advice which I had got from my fellow Comrades runner. I felt like a mathematician running a marathon; converting miles to kms (Garmin was under sky-scrapper induced coma) and calculating time based on distance yet to be covered.
The Last Quarter Marathon
Sipping energy drink at every station, controlling the rhythm and maintaining the posture; the last 12 km was the most enjoyable part of the race. The key to an enjoyable and successful race is focusing on the next milestone and not the final goal. A Motiv8 veteran runner had also mentioned about breaking 42.2kms into 5kms and focusing on each milestone at a time.
One of the most challenging tasks was to keep track of my running partner Rishikesh especially at the water stations. At the 35km mark, I wanted to push but decided to keep maintaining the same pace or run 2-3 seconds faster. A quick calculation at mile 23 – just ˜5kms from my first World Marathon Majors medal. I was feeling much more comfortable than I used to at the half way point of a 46-minute 10km time trial (TT). This is where I had to rely on the training which means doing the things I’d done in the past to get the job done. But still no sudden surge and then at mile 24 I started to push much harder (I didn’t know the pace but wasn’t even bothered also), just running on by feel. And boy! The pace was exactly that I thought, ˜4:45 min/km – my 10km TT pace. I was feeling much more comfortable than I used to and crossing quite a few runners felt good. Finally, just before ~ a km, my last sip of water & high five to the volunteer and now was on the final gear of the engine which started ˜3 hours 40 minutes ago and supposed to be running efficiently at least for 26.2 miles because it was trained to run in hot, humid and even rainy (& very heavy rainy) weather to bring out the best on 13/October/2019.
I can never forget the last 500 meters of the race; a feeling that cannot be penned down in words. The sense of accomplishment and joy I had over-come the exertion. At the finish line the cameramen captured the moment; my soul captured the memory.
I did check my watch to see if 3 hours 45 minutes was possible but there was no dying urgency; rather preferred good finish photographs than to look drop dead because someday I will be super old and I deserve to look back and have these memories. This wasn’t just any run.
The cramps I felt during the 200-meter walk after the finish line vanished at the sight of 26.2 beer (although that beer was awful).
I finally caught up with my running partner Rishikesh Sardeshmukh, Dr. Abhijeet and Mr. Mallikarjun and his family. We explored the streets of Chicago up until evening joyfully flaunting our medals. I had achieved my goal (there is a long way to go yet) and was ready to enjoy my vacation.
A journey cannot be defined by a date or time. It is defined by when you set your mind on a goal and work towards achieving it. And like I always keep reminding myself, I want to tell each one of you that great things can happen if you forget about the mountain and progress one step at a time.
“One cannot run a strong marathon without a positive mindset.”