Laura was all thumbs up prior to jumping into the port-a-potty-line-from-Hell.

Laura was all thumbs up prior to jumping into the port-a-potty-line-from-Hell.

This Chicago Marathon Race Report comes to you from Laura, our Saucony 26Strong cadet. To read more about Laura and her training, check out these posts

With 37,000 runners, 12,000 volunteers, and more than a million spectators, the Chicago Marathon is one of the biggest marathons in the world. Put another way: It’s a whole lot of people.

Like any event this size, there is a highly organized procedure for getting to the start line. There are boldly marked directions, security guards, and chain link fences. This works for me: I follow instructions and do as I’m told. So on race day when I found myself jumping the five-foot chainlink fence to get into my corral 30 seconds after it closed, I should have guessed my race was not going to go as planned.

Because it didn’t.

Marathon morning started innocently enough. My husband and I rose early, and walked from our hotel to Grant Park. I was so moved by the crowds, the cityscape, and the arrival of the big day that I had to wipe tears away numerous times. This is it, I thought, the day I’ve focused on every day for four months. It’s finally here, and it’s way better than Christmas.

We arrived at the entrance gates a little before 7:00. I had 45 minutes to drop off my gear, use the bathroom, and enter my corral by the 7:45 gate closure and 8:00 start time. Even at a major marathon, I assumed this would be enough time. Wrong. Ladies, I was in the bathroom line for 40 MINUTES. Hello stress. Every bathroom line except mine was moving and as the minutes ticked by, folks in my line started to chant “GO GO GO.” This was not great for pre-race jitters.

When I finally left the toilets, I had four minutes to sprint to the gear drop then back to the corral entrance. Again, not great for pre-race jitters. I got there at 7:44, but the eager volunteers were already closing the gate. Understandably irritated by this, a few other runners started jumping the fence. What the heck, I thought? I’ve just trained for a marathon. I’m in decent shape. I can probably jump a fence even though I’m 46. Over I went, into the crowd, the volunteers’ cries to “Stop!” falling on deaf ears.

Once in the corral, I made friends with Liz, a veteran Chicago Marathoner who kindly lent me one of two throw-away coats she’d brought with her. I gradually warmed up and calmed down. Liz and I crossed the start line at 8:08, wishing each other good luck. I hit the start button on my GPS watch and away we went, me shedding a few tears of joy before I focused on my pacing.

I was aiming for a 4:00-4:15 finish. Sarah had coached me to start 20-30 seconds slower than race pace for the first 4 to 6 miles (which was 9:30-9:40), then gradually speed up until I was running at race pace by mile 10 (9:10). I am proud to say I pulled this off. [Coach’s note: I am super-proud, too!] The course is so flat and I was so excited to start running that it would have been a breeze to run faster, but I held back, striving for that elusive negative split.

But even this was a challenge because my watch immediately got off track, probably due to the cavernous streets lined with skyscrapers. My GPS quickly jumped .75 mile ahead of the mile markers on the course, and at one point indicated I had just run a 6:54 mile. Yah, no. To track my real pace, I had to run by feel and do a little math every time I reached a mile marker. Math and running by feel: not my strong suits.

Laura finding her strong--with enviable posture--on the streets of Chicago.

Laura finding her strong–with enviable posture–on the streets of Chicago.

I really enjoyed running the first 13 miles. I had studied the course map carefully, and knew exactly where I was at every turn. The first mile along Grand Avenue and State Street was so empowering, with the concert-sized crowds, their cowbells, and the big-city streets all to ourselves. When the tall buildings began to fade away, and we were in grassy Lincoln Park, I thought about all the Chicagoans who get to run there on a regular basis. The neighborhood’s stately historic homes were beautiful.

But even within the first 13 miles, another part of my plan began to fail – my fan plan. My husband, sister, and mother had all carefully planned to be at mile 4 and 11, but we only saw each other at mile 11 due to the crowds and even that was a near-miss. At mile 12, I looked for Sarah and the Saucony crew, who sponsored my entire marathon experience, also without success.

One element was working was my fuel plan. I had diligently carbo-loaded for three days prior to the race, gagged down a container of cold steel-cut oats on race morning (apparently fancy hotels don’t have microwaves), and squeezed a GU down my gullet every four miles. With water from my belt. Like clockwork.

At mile 15, my wheels first started to wobble. My energy level was still high and I felt great overall, but it was hard to run at race pace without passing people, and I wasn’t sure how much energy to dedicate to this. The crowds had thinned some, but not nearly as much as I expected and I found myself constantly running a little too slowly, surging to get ahead or moving laterally to get around other runners – none of which was a great option.

I saw my husband, Tom, at mile 16.5. He had climbed on top of a barricade so I could see him, and this gave me a little surge. At least until mile 16.75.

At mile 17, my hips and joints were starting to hurt, and I began to slow down.

Next on the plan was to look for Sarah at mile 20. We were wearing the same clothes, and I was scanning the crowds for 5’11’’ Sarah in the orange Saucony tank and bright hat. Hope dashed again. There were just too many people. [Coach’s note: I felt–and still feel–dreadful about missing Laura. For the past few months, all my running focus has gone into preparing to run with my Saucony 26Strong cadet for the final 10K of her debut marathon. After realizing I missed her, I ran the 6.2 miles solo, in the hopes of catching up with her. Crying about two miles in didn’t help matters…]

Laura and I (SBS) connected--and showcased our amazing Saucony running attire--in the hotel lobby the day before the marathon.

Laura and I (SBS) connected–and showcased our amazing Saucony running attire–in the hotel lobby the day before the marathon.

Right before I had reached mile 20, every muscle in both legs started to cramp, which was most definitely NOT IN THE PLAN. I have had minor problems with cramping in the past, and had taken two sets of salt tablets earlier in the course as a preventive measure, but nothing like this.

First it was my lower calves, then my feet tightened into misshapen muscle masses. All I could think, was “Seriously? I am now running on sideways feet. Who does this?” Yes, each foot took several turns twisting, and before long I was walking a few seconds here and there until each episode would clear up. I became so disappointed in my body, and so angry at my lack of willpower to just keep running. I mean, I don’t think it would have hurt my feet to run on them sideways. At least not permanently.

Laura is the orange dot in the middle of the photo (taken by her sister). Tough to spot, right?!

Laura is the orange dot in the middle of the photo (taken by her sister). Tough to spot, right?!

By mile 22, I was walking for longer and longer stints. I was cutting every possible corner to shorten my distance, but as soon as I realized I would have to run 8:00 miles for the last four miles to make my goal race pace, I started to give up hope.

I saw my mom and sister at mile 23, which was a total surprise, and this perked me up a little. My sister told me later that I looked so determined and focused, which was definitely not how I felt. But somehow I powered on, and used each mile marker as my next goal. I was ecstatic when I passed the 25-mile mark and saw a sign that said 800 Meters, then another at 400 Meters. I knew these distances. I knew this was just two times around the track — I knew I could run that far.

I would like to say I ran faster my last mile, but I doubt I did. And thanks to my malfunctioning watch, I’ll never know.

What I do know is I was both utterly relieved and deeply sad when I crossed the finish line. I was so upset over missing my time goal, I couldn’t find the joy in having finished my first marathon. All I wanted to do was find Tom and collapse into his arms. I just held back the tears and started the long walk to our meeting place.

My watch said I had finished in 4:16, but I knew this wasn’t true. I would learn later that my finish time was 4:25.

Now that several days have passed, I feel much more positive about my race. My energy levels have returned to normal and my legs are only mildly sore. I was surprised to learn I placed in the top half of all finishers, and that I ran faster than 65% of the women in my age division. This gave me a new perspective on my time.

Despite her race-day disappointment about her time, Laura was all smiles in front of the camera post-race--and she's gained perspective and appreciation for her 26.2 effort in the days since.

Despite her race-day disappointment about her time, Laura was all smiles in front of the camera post-race–and she’s gained perspective and appreciation for her 26.2 effort in the days since.

I know better than to compare myself with others, and as the mother of two teenagers who run cross country, I always remind them each race is only against themselves and no one else. But I’m human and I was pleased to learn I had fared so well in the rankings. Now I believe that if a first-time marathoner at age 46 can outrun almost 20,000 other runners in the Chicago Marathon, I might just be able to outrun myself at a smaller marathon closer to home. Because that’s my new plan.