Marathon runners tend to be type A personalities that don't like to relinquish control, and this was definitely proven this weekend at the 30th running of the Chicago Marathon by myself and the other 35,000+ runners who attempted the race despite the less than perfect conditions.
Since June 2006 I have participated in 4 marathons. Initially, I only wanted to do one, so that I could say I ran a marathon in my lifetime. After a decently successful first marathon at 4hrs and 40 minutes, I determined that I could probably become a sub 4hr marathoner, so I decided to run the 2006 Chicago Marathon. I arrived in Chicago to less than optimal conditions, but was able to run a 3hr and 56 min marathon in the 34 degree weather. After this success, I decided that I would continue to run marathons until I qualified for the illustrious Boston Marathon. After hitting that milestone I would finally listen to my 6'1" physique and arthritis ridden kneecaps and make the transition into cycling.
What better place to attempt to qualify for Boston, than the flat fast course at the 2007 Chicago Marathon. I had experience on the course last year, and had been able to take 45 minutes off my time, so it seemed that the 3 hr 40 min qualifying time was in reach. After training for 3 months, recording countless miles, running 3 half marathon races in preparation, cutting out alcohol from my diet for 2 months, lifting weights, and even taking up yoga, a sport not fit for my personality that doesn't like to relax, I found that though I could control my diet and mold my body, something completely out of my control would make my goal out of reach.
Who could predict that the weather in Chicago would top 90 degrees in October? (Officially the high was 88, but I passed a bank at mile 22 that said 94) That is almost a 60 degree raise in temperature from the previous year's race. Even hearing the warnings about heat exhaustion, over-hydration, and all the other issues that could arise when one pushes their body to do the near impossible in unbearable conditions, I remained confident. I had trained twice as much as I had for any other race, and I was a competitor. I had run the course before, so I had pictured each 8:20 mile of the course in my head and imagined my success as I crossed the finish line and earned the right to run Boston.
Unfortunately, my confidence could only get me so far, and things did not turn out as successful as I had imagined. The first 9 miles went as planned, the weather was decent, probably around 77 degrees, and the morning sun was casting huge shadows across the street keeping me cool. I was ahead of pace at the half marathon point, but the heat was starting to wear on me. Every water station seemed to take longer to arrive, and each time I would drink a Gatorade and pour 2-3 cups of ice cold spring water over my head, to the dismay of those behind me who came up to empty water stations.
I got to the halfway point, still on pace, but really starting to feel the heat, as it was well over 80 degrees at that point. My muscles ached in a way they hadn't in past races, and it became increasingly obvious that my goal was slipping away. I slowly watched as more and more people around me were beginning to walk. I started to pass extremely fit men with corral A bib numbers that had obviously gone out too fast to deal with the heat.
The other thing that became painfully obvious was that I had consumed too much water. My kidneys began to ache, so I slowed down and took a crank(energy and electrolyte gu) to try to increase the electrolytes in my body and prevent over hydration. I tried to drink less water at the water stations, but I was still unbearably thirsty. I ate some salt to try to help with the situation, and then the pain became unbearable. Around mile 15 I found a much needed porter-potty and proceeded to be sick for about 2 minutes, obviously a damper on my over all pace.
After that I felt well enough to run again, so took a deep breath and undertook the last 11 miles. I figured if I could run a 10 minute pace the rest of the way, I may not qualify for Boston, but at least my time would not be over 4hrs.
The scene for the last 11 miles became increasingly more astonishing. It seemed that every mile I would see 3-5 people passed out on the side of the race course with spectators attempting to get them hydrated with ice and water, and medical personnel running to their aide. Each water station I arrived at would have 3-4 empty tables where they had run out of water until I came to the end of the line, where the volunteers could not pour the water fast enough to hand it to the dehydrated participants. At one point the volunteers just began to take the 1 gallon jugs of purified water and dump it over our heads, which was refreshing for about 1 minute and then I was hot and thirsty again.
With about an hour to go, I came upon the first fire hydrant that had been opened to spray water across the street and provide relief to all of us participants. The relief was great at the time, but after running in wet shoes for an hour the resulting blisters and lacerations on my feet made me question whether the relief was worth it.
You know the race conditions are bad when even the pace team is dropping out, I passed various pace officials in orange singlets walking. Finally there was a mile to go, and I was one of the 10-15% people left running. The best comment I heard was from a British man in a Union Jack singlet. Around mile 24 he yelled in his British accent, "Thanks for the weather Chicago!" There was also a man in a Mexican singlet that ran next to me for about 100yrds with his head down just gasping, "Aye, Aye, Aye..."
At this point all hope of finishing in under 4hrs was lost, so not only would I not qualify for Boston, but I was going to finish with a worse time than last year even though I knew I was in way better shape. I rounded the corner to the finish and a police man yelled, "Please walk ma'am it is just a fun run, there is no time." In my head I was like yeah right, I can see the finish there is no way I am going to walk now.
I ended up crossing the finish line at 4hrs and 15 minutes, only to be bombarded by a bunch of people running across in the wrong direction. I later found that the race had forced everyone who didn't pass the 14 mile mark in less than 3 hrs and 40 minutes to turn around. These people wanted their finisher photo and medal so they plowed through those of us who completed the course ran across the line in reverse to then turn around and run across the finish line.
The scene at the finish line was the worst of any race I have ever seen. People were sprawled out all over the ground. Spotters were yelling from towers "Runner down, runner down" as people collapsed and volunteers were picking up people in wheel chairs and rushing them to the overflowing air conditioned medical tent. I rushed to the ice tent only to find that they had run out of ice. Luckily, a gracious fellow competitor had finished with his bag of ice so it was simply recycled for my use. After resisting the urge to puke for about 10 minutes I was composed enough to drink some water and stand up. At this point I heard the news. They had called the race and were forcing people to take busses back to the start.
I never would have expected the scene that day. Runners were not only hot and sick, but irate at the fact that they had not been able to complete the race. The Boston Marathon was run under similar conditions in 2004. The difference with Boston is that people have to qualify for Boston, so everyone is an experienced Marathoner. In Chicago, I think that no one had any idea what they were getting into. Even with the experience of 4 marathons I was not prepared.
I do not think that the marathon organizers are to blame, but then again I say that as a person who was able to complete the race. I witnessed people collapsing, some people walking deliriously, and it was obviously unsafe to continue the race, when they ran out of medical people and ambulances to respond to all the fallen runners. My father, who is 53, ran the race and finished. For the first time in his marathon running career (he has completed more than 20) he was stopped as a runner so that an ambulance could cross the course.
As I look back at October 7th, I realize that I am not frustrated specifically with the heat, with the lack of water, or even with the race organizers. Instead I am frustrated with the fact that I had to learn that I did not have control. As a marathoner, I thrive on the fact that my mind is powerful enough to make my body take on an endeavor it was not designed for; my mind can control my body even when my body is telling me at mile 21 it doesn't want to continue. I learned that there are limits to this control on Sunday. I don't believe that training more, a healthier diet, or a better mindset would have improved my race, because the circumstances that took over were out of my control. So, its back to the drawing board. I must start from square one, and train for another race and hope that I make it to Boston in 2009.