I have a short list of races that have chewed me up and utterly destroyed me. They are as follows:
The 2007 Bayshore Marathon (Traverse City, MI); the 2008 Distance Classic Half Marathon (Chicago, IL); the 2010 & 2011 Shamrock Shuffle 8K(s) (Chicago, IL); the 2010 Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon (Chicago, IL — formerly known as the Distance Classic, before the race was bought out by Competitor Group); the 2011 LIVESTRONG Half Marathon (Austin, TX); the 2011 Steamboat Classic 15K (Peoria, IL); and the 2011 Air Force Marathon (Dayton, OH). As long as I live, I will never forget any of those races, try as I might.
The races varied in lengths, from less than 5 miles all the way up to a full marathon, but the one thing that they had in common is that I was hugely embarrassed by my performance(s) in all of them. Some of those results served to inspire me (the Austin Disaster of 2011 is why I started really running again in the first place), while others just tore me down without seeming to serve any real purpose. With so many of those failures stacking up in 2011, though, I wanted to do something about it.
Beginning in 2012, I started an unofficial “Revenge Tour,” with the goal being to banish some of my demons of those past races. It started when I ran the 2012 LIVESTRONG Half Marathon 30+ minutes faster than I had in 2011, qualifying for a seeded start corral in the Chicago Marathon in the process. 3 months later, in Traverse City, I avenged my 5:47-ish Bayshore Marathon death march in 2007 by running my first sub-4 hour marathon. Less than a month later, I bettered my Steamboat Classic 15K time by almost a full minute per mile, running the whole way on a hilly course and feeling great at the end. In 2013, I finally ran the Shamrock Shuffle in less than 40 minutes, shattering my 8K PR by running a 33:21. If revenge is a dish best served cold, then lately I’ve been the Schwan’s man.
Back in December 2012, I received an email with a discount code to settle the score with another old foe: the Chicago Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon, a course/race which had kicked my ass twice (both as the “Distance Classic” and the Rock ‘n Roll Half). This true early bird pricing meant that I could register for less than $70 *after* fees, and so I signed up on a lark and penciled the date in for July 21st, 2013, hoping that I would still be healthy when the summer rolled around. I don’t particularly care for Rock ‘n’ Roll events — I think that they’re generic, overpriced, and I don’t like that they buy out local races and then smatter their corporate-ness all over the race…but in this case, the price was too good to pass up.
Having suffered no substantial injuries by the time mid-July was upon me, I steeled my resolve to cross one more race off of my Revenge Tour’s hit list.
My old roommate Ben decided to drive in from Ohio to run the race as well, and he would be sleeping on a couch at my apartment for the weekend. This reunion was trouble for both of us right from the start. Ben got into town around 6pm on Friday, and after a subsequent 8 hours of never seeing the bottom of a pint glass, we finally left the last pub around 2am to get some sleep. This was all on Friday, though — we figured one big night would be okay, so long as we went easy on Saturday.
We did not go easy on Saturday. Let me present the following 2 related facts:
- There was a Jason Aldean concert at Wrigley Field on that Saturday night, which is just a ¼-mile north of where I live.
- I happen to live right across the street from a country bar.
Sometime after Ben and I had each ordered our 4th 40-oz beer apiece at the Houndstooth Saloon, we had something that comes close to the following discussion:
Me: “This … this got out of hand. We should probably call it quits after our waitress brings us our last, uh, 40. You realize that’s 3 and one-third beers per 40-0z bottle, right?”
Ben: “WOOOOOO CARB-LOADING!!”
Me: “Well yeah, but, we’re racing 13.1 miles tomorrow, and we’re each drinking more than 13.1 beers today. In one sitting. That girl over there is a nurse, and she told me that she thinks we’re idiots.”
Ben: “She likes me better anyway, and you worry too much.”
We somehow woke up the next morning by 4:45am, because the race started at 6:30 and we’d scheduled a cab coming to pick us up at 5:15am. In the morning.
“Dude…I don’t feel so great this morning,” Ben groaned. Funny, that.
We picked up our friend Kat on the way, checked our bags at Gear Check, and tried to relax a bit before the race started. I felt more or less okay at 6am, but I was certain that my tune would change after an hour or so of hard running. It was early enough that my hangover hadn’t really even had a chance to kick in.
I badly, badly wanted to exact revenge upon this specific race, but I hadn’t exactly set myself up for success.
Based on the 07:02/mile pace I’d run at the Soldier Field 10-miler in May, I lined up with the 07:15 pace group for the Rock ‘n’ Roll half, hoping to break 1:35 if the stars aligned. In reality, I would have been delighted with anything starting with a 1:3_, but I felt like aiming high.
One thing conspiring against me, though, aside from the 13.33333 beers I’d drank the night before, was the weather — even though the race started at 6:30am, it was still July in Chicago. The temperatures would hit the high 70s & low 80s sooner rather than later, and I wasn’t looking forward to it.
As the clock turned to 6:31 and we runners were released from our holding pen, I was startled by the speed at which our pacers started. It felt way faster than a 07:15/mile pace, but I didn’t feel like I was in a position to pipe up.
Jesus-Christ-riding-a-velociraptor, I thought to myself, am I THAT hungover?! How am I already wheezing after running a 07:15/mile clip for only half a mile?
No, the pacers provided by Chicago Endurance Sports were just bad at their job. We hit the first mile marker in a time of 06:50; for those of you that went to a state school like myself and need help with the math, that’s damn near half-a-minute faster per mile than we were aiming for.
“Sorry about that! Got a little excited and pumped up on adrenaline!” cried out a mustachioed pacer, who had apparently forgotten that many people run with pace groups specifically to avoid burning out too early. After this semi-apology, though, he didn’t slow down one bit. Thankfully, we had another pacer running with the group as well, a perturbed-looking Australian who sped up and grabbed the other pacer by the arm to reel him in.
“7:15 pace group, stick with me!” shouted our Aussie protagonist at Mile 2, as his Broke-Ass Magnum P.I. Sidekick (or “BAMPIS,” for short) continued to gallop and range about 20 feet in front of the group. Several of us behind the Aussie pacer exchanged bemused glances – I hadn’t ever seen this type of friction between pacers before. Because, you know…why would there ever be friction between pacers? The pacer’s responsibility is to run at a steady, pre-determinted pace, a pace that’s normally much slower than what they’re capable of running. Big races like Rock ‘n’ Roll events often have multiple pacers per pace group, in case one of the pacers twists and ankle or develops some random cramping and has to drop out, but usually the pacers can at least agree on how fast they’re supposed to be running. Not these two, though.
The course itself was pretty great for these opening miles, running over the Chicago River and through the man-made canyons of wrought-iron and steel buildings that surrounded us on each side as we raced through downtown Chicago. The crowd support wasn’t anything like what you’d see during the Chicago Marathon, but a big crowd had still turned out for the race, and most of the course was lined with cheering spectators to keep everyone chugging along.
I felt good, but not great. Perhaps this was to be expected – I’d never, ever started a half marathon this fast, and my pre-race carb-loading strategy had been…well, let’s call it “unconventional.” At Mile 4, though, my concerns turned toward the Aussie pacer that was actually running at a 07:15/mile pace. He was sweating profusely, breathing heavy, and leaning forward a little too much to go unmentioned.
“Hey man, I don’t mean to offend you, but I have to ask…are you feeling all right?” I asked him.
“Yeah mate, I’m fine,” he responded, in delightfully stereotypical fashion.
“Okay, I’ll take your word for it.”
We ran our 5th mile at a 07:25 clip, and I decided that he was being a little misleading about how good he was really feeling. I ran ahead to try and catch up with BAMPIS, who seemed to be running at a more reasonable pace now. I never saw the Aussie pacer again, confirming my suspicions that he was struggling more than he was letting on. I hope he ended up okay (I have literally no idea what happened to him), and I hope he was responsible enough to tell the people running alongside him that he was dropping down/out.
Somewhere between Mile 6 and Mile 7, as the course emerged from the shaded urban canyon and onto Michigan Avenue in front of a throng of spectators, I had a decision to make. Should I keep pressing, I asked myself, or should I dial it back to make sure that I finish without hating my life? At this point, I was still on pace to run a 1:35…but it wasn’t a sure thing. Conversely, I knew that even if I scaled back, I would still probably break that 1:40 threshold and get this race’s monkey off my back.
As I turned onto Michigan Avenue and felt the full brunt of the rising sun for the first time all morning, my decision was made for me. I could still feasibly record a new PR, but maintaining this pace was out of the question. I decided to let BAMPIS and the rest of the gang scamper ahead without me, and I eased my foot off the throttle.
Once I made the decision to dial it back, the race became much simpler, if maybe a little less exciting. I did the math early and realized that so long as I kept an 08:00/mile pace or better (which felt more than comfortable at this stage), I would set a new PR. It then became a matter of passing the time and keeping myself entertained, which wouldn’t prove easy.
Once the course turned on Michigan, I continued on that trajectory for damn near 3 miles. There were no turns, and no spectators. The sun was out and the crowds had disappeared, because nobody watches a half-marathon that far south on Michigan, and for a spell I became lost in my own mind. I don’t remember what questions I asked myself, I only know that I didn’t have any of the answers. (Ed. Note: As I type this, that last sentence doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, but in the moment I swear it was absolute fact).
I was annoyed that each step south took me further away from the Start/Finish area. Yeah, I knew that I would end up running a USATF-certified 13.1 miles when it was all over, but there was something mentally-defeating about continually running away from where I wanted to be at the end. Shortly before or after the 10-mile mark, I was grateful that the course started bending east, if only to inject a little variety.
As the course turned toward McCormick Place, I groaned; every downtown Chicago race along the lake runs through the tunnel underneath McCormick place at some point, a 1/4-mile stretch where it is always muggy, dimly lit, and thoroughly unenjoyable. As I approached the McCormick Place underbelly this time, though, I was surprised to see rows upon rows of flashing lights and strobes set up to welcome the runners. There was a DJ at the entrance, and the lights and speakers extended more than halfway down the foreboding McCormick tunnel, transforming a normally dark & mundane strip of pavement into something that was actually interesting. I have to tip my cap to the folks who organized the race for that.
Over the last 2 miles, I yo-yo’d with a girl who dominated all of the mild uphill stretches, but seemed to run out of gas at the crest of each (very) mild peak. I only mention this because she was exceedingly attractive, which is why I noticed her in the first place, and her existence was somewhat noteworthy. I didn’t say it was a good story.
As we roared up Columbus Avenue with the finish line in sight, I knew that a PR was certain, and I found a new gear that I was positive I didn’t possess at this point in the race. I blew past a number of runners who probably didn’t get blackout-drunk the night before, and I crossed the finish line in a time of 1:37:35. I’d broken my previous PR by more than 3 minutes, and I couldn’t have been more shocked to have done so as I was in that moment.
After I picked up my bag from Gear Check, I saw a text message from Ben on my phone – he’d somehow run sub-1:30 in his hungover state, which was good for a monster PR for him as well. When I found him lying next to a curb off of Columbus Drive, though, he looked like he was knocking on death’s door; he didn’t look so hot for a man who had just run faster than he’d ever run before.
We sat in silence for a while. Whenever either of us undertook the struggle to form words, it was brief. I’d mention how I felt like shit, he would say the same. I’d look at him side-eyed and say, “Did we really just do that?” Ben couldn’t even bring himself to laugh. I truly believe that he wanted to die.
We waited for our friend Kat to finish and then we headed over to the post-race party for our one free MICHELOB ULTRA, which might be the most Rock-n-Roll-Half-Marathon thing ever. There was a band playing, and they were good, but all I wanted to do after drinking my
water Michelob Ultra was go home and take a nap. And eventually I did, and it was glorious.
…And then I woke up, learned that some friends were out at the bar, and I started it up all over again.
Sadly, I learned all the wrong lessons from my pre-race transgressions — I didn’t do a damn thing by the book, but my overall level of fitness has fortunately improved enough that I was able to overcome my shambolic carb-loading strategy enough to set a new PR. With cooler temperatures and a clearer head, I feel confident that I can dip below 1:35 sooner rather than later.
Right now, though, I couldn’t care less about how much faster I could have run, I just know how fast I did run. I came into the race looking to banish a demon borne from multiple bad experiences with this course, and I did just that. I’m not exactly tripping over myself in a rush to sign up for another Rock ‘n’ Roll event, but this race definitely exceeded my (admittedly low) expectations.
Now, if I can just get myself to focus on some dedicated speedwork, I might be able to go as low as…