This post is part of an occasional series documenting the racing experiences of Runner Academy founder and head coach Matt Johnson.

On October 7, 2012 I finished in the top 25% of all finishers in the Chicago Marathon.  I recorded a time of 3:54:21, good enough to qualify for start corral C next year among the top marathoners in the field.

For some perspective of that performance, in 2011 the average marathon time for men my age (30-34) was 4:19:34 while the average overall marathon time for men was 4:27:12 and for overall for women 4:52:36.  It was a solid result not so much for time but for executing a perfect race strategy that I look to improve upon in 2013.

One of the most challenging aspects of training and running a marathon is pacing.  While I can run short distance at a fast pace distance running calls for adjusting the pace to endure the 26.2 miles of the marathon.  This means a lot of things, but namely:

-Avoid going out too fast burning energy in the early miles
-Avoid settling into a faster pace that can only be sustained in shorter distance races
-Adjusting for course conditions (i.e. weather)

In addition, there are more details than I could ever share in this race report on how to prepare with confidence and execute a well established plan on race day.  That will be part of the training content within Runner Academy Membership.

My training for the Chicago Marathon was solid.  I stuck to my training plan closely and took no short cuts.  I consistently cross trained, put in the miles in the blazing summer heat, took proactive injury prevention measures and tapered perfectly.   I was prepared all summer for another inferno marathon given the lack of winter, summer heat arriving in March and relentless heat throughout the summer.  Thankfully this was not the case as conditions were ideal.

Race Expo

I attended the race expo on Friday morning and had the pleasure of meeting many.  Among those I met were Dean Karnazes and Hal Higdon.  I also had the opportunity to meet the good people at Mercy Home featured on podcast episode 3 with Hilda Marin.

Night Before

I managed to sleep well the night before.  Some have difficulty sleeping the night before a big race, but I have found that over the years the more race experience you have, the more it comes down to execution in the day before and race day itself and fully believing in your preparation.  As I went to bed I visualized success again just as I had done for many months prior.  I visualized even splits, running light on my feet and pushing through the wall should it come calling.

Pre-Race

I awoke at 4:30 am ready to go.  I had my pre-planned breakfast that I had trained with many times before on my long runs of 20+ miles.  My body responded just as it had in training.  While making my final preparations before leaving home I turned on the iPod and began listening to my running playlist.  Van Halen’s Right Now is one of my favorite songs to get in the zone and pumped up before a race and I played it over and over a few times.

Race day is all about planning, routine and execution.  For me I have a template for running a major race in Chicago that starts in Grant Park.  I always drive and park as afterwards the last place I want to be is on public transportation.  I have a specific garage with a cheap $10 all day rate (sorry, some things I keep close to my chest!) right near the Hilton and Towers which is the official hotel of the major Chicago races.

After parking I headed straight into the Hilton and Towers where there is always lots of activity as runners make their final preparations.  I always choose to use their lavish facilities one last time to avoid the porta-potty lines in Grant Park.  After my quick stop in the hotel I headed out onto Michigan Ave and walked the 6 blocks to gate 1 for qualified seeded start runners.  During my walk I reflected on my training and that the moment was at hand  I looked around at the thousands of others descending upon Grant Park and thought about how they got here.  It’s really quite amazing when you think about it.

After entering Grant Park and clearing security I headed straight for gear check and dropped off my bag.  With 30 minutes to go I headed to the seeded start corrals, cleared security again with my bib and walked out onto Columbus looking right at the start line.  Looking stylish in my throw away outer layer of too tight track pants and an oversized gray fleece that I had picked up at Goodwill I took it all in.  I thought about the qualifying race earlier in the year to be among the top runners at the head of the start corral order.  I chatted up a few others as we awaited starting gun.

The announcer began to introduce the elite athletes and then the wheelchair participants.  The prior winner of the women’s wheelchair race hails from Champaign, IL and attended the University of Illinois.  After hearing that announcement I immediately blurted out ‘ILL” and got the “ILL – INI” chant going through the start corrals.  It’s another race tradition of mine whether or not there is a reason to do it.

Then, the national anthem.  The first of a few emotional moments during the race.  It was really showtime at this wonderful race yet again.  No matter how many distance events I race the fact is race day marks the culmination of countless workouts preparing for the moment.  Immediately after the national anthem I shed my throw away clothes and threw them high into the air and cheered!  Thousands of other did the same almost simultaneously with celebratory cheers as sweats, sweaters and blankets rained down and got tossed to the side.

The Starting Gun

The start time temperature was 39°F, mostly cloudy, no wind and I was left in my shorts, a prior marathon dri-fit shirt, my throwaway arm warmers I constructed from tube socks and $3 throw away gloves.  Right at 7:30 the gun went off and Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run began blaring throughout Grant Park.  The ropes holding us back began to fall as I saw the elite runners head out onto the course.  Within minutes the start line was upon me and at 7:35 I crossed and heard a chorus of Garmins beeping including my own as runners started their watches.  I felt intense excitement of starting the race.

Being in a seeded start has it’s advantages.  First, you are grouped with runners that are of good ability so if you have a goal time you will be able to run in a straight line and the tangents while avoiding having to weave around runners of all ability levels.

The second advantage is it helps you avoid the number one mistake at the marathon – going out too fast.  Runners that have earned a spot in these start corrals are seasoned racers.  They know their paces, most likely have a race plan and know all the pitfalls.  Everyone went out at a proper, yet conservative pace.  There was no running out at full speed in the excitement of the moment, but rather controlled enthusiasm.  This is key because burning too much energy early means bonking later and is among the biggest mistakes a marathoner can make.

First Half

The first mile seemed fast as it always does.  Lots of great crowd support.  I quickly settled into my planned pace and don’t recall any issues with the first mile or two being hard to get into rhythm as can often be the case.  There was plenty of room to run, no weaving around others and no crowding to slow you down.  The second mile of the course  turned onto State Street again with tons of crowd support and wonderful views of the city.  I reached the first aid station and skipped the Gatorade and just took water.

The one thing I appreciate about Chicago vs other races is how the aid stations are all consistent.  Gatorade always first with the Gatorade station being one city block long followed by the water station also one city block long on BOTH sides of the street.  Staffed with hundreds of volunteers there was no issue obtaining fluids here or at any point in the race.  The volunteers are also trained well on how to fill the cups, unlike so many other races.  But, this is Chicago and I expect as much in a world class marathon.  So far, so good!

Just before mile 3 I saw my first supporter of the day, my Aunt Nancy and I high fived her as I ran by.  It was her first time watching a marathon and she was moved by the experience.  As I approached the 5K mark I was pleased with my pacing.  I was slightly ahead of pace by about 10 seconds overall and feeling great.  I was beginning to feel warm despite the temperatures being around 40°F so I shed my makeshift arm warmers but opted to keep my throw away gloves for the moment.

Miles 4 and 5 brought me into Lincoln Park, my home for many years.  At mile 5 I took my first GU and took water from the aid station and kept pressing on.   I remained in the center of the road to avoid any discomfort from the crowned roads and made the trek up north to Wrigleyville.  At mile 7 the crowds in Boystown did not disappoint.   It is always the loudest and most hilarious part of the race and this year was no exception.  It was here that I saw one of the few memorable signs of race – a sign that said “I like your stamina, your pace or mine.”  Creative and original, unlike the endless “Beat Oprah” and “Chuck Norris never ran a marathon” signs.

For some reason at mile 8 I fist pumped and got slightly teary eyed for a brief moment, I think because everything was going to plan.  At this point my hands were getting warm from my throw away gloves so I pitched them to the curb.  I was left running in the 40 degree morning in my summer attire – light dri-fit shirt, shorts and my wicking hat.  It felt like mid-50s from running.

Miles 9, 10 and 11 were relatively uneventful.  I was feeling light on my feet, no signs of fatigue at all and was executing my nutrition plan perfectly.  My mile splits were tracking evenly in the 8:40s.  At this stage of the race, things were so consistent that I actually ran two of the 5K splits at exactly the same time to the second.  I wouldn’t know that until later when reviewing the results, but that is truly knowing your pace and executing.

At mile 12 I was surprised to see my wife jump out into the race and say hello alongside my friend Gonzalo who was waiting for his wife Hilda to come by.  The reunion was brief as she headed back to the curb to make the trek to Chinatown to join me at the 35K mark to help me finish strong.

Halfway

I crossed halfway at 1:55.  At this point I gave a little smile and really began to feel good about how things were going.  I felt I had plenty left in the tank, my legs felt fresh, the cool air was keeping me from tiring but I knew all to well that is no time for any kind of celebration.  I got done what I needed to do in the first half, but as any seasoned runner knows the second half of a marathon is a whole new race.  You might as well forget the first half altogether, the second half is where your preparation pays dividends or exposes your weakness.

The marathon is a great equalizer.  You can be a great athlete, be in excellent physical shape, even be able to run fast at short distance – but if you haven’t trained for the endurance the distance will humble you.  Very few can gut it out on determination alone.  In fact, taking a look at the split times from this year’s race there were many that finished under 4 hours and even slightly beyond that had Boston dreams at the halfway point that fell apart and ran 30 to 40 minutes longer on the second half of the race than the first half.

Maintaining speed over distance takes time to build and execute successfully unless one is blessed with some natural talent.  I know my 15 years of running, cycling and fitness routines have served me well in distance endeavors.  Don’t allow yourself to get discouraged if it seems impossible to run with speed at distance.  Patience and persistence are rewarded in running.  But this race was a step towards that goal to set the stage for speed increases in subsequent races as I continue towards Boston in the near future.

Second Half

If there is any challenging part of the Chicago Marathon course it comes in between miles 14-16 as the crowd support is not the same on this part of the course compared to the rest.   After crossing halfway I headed out west from downtown towards United Center.  The crowds thinned out some, but to my surprise they were not as sparse as they are sometimes at this point of the course.  Seems the word has gotten out that it’s a great place to see your runner as a spectator.

At mile 15 my cousin Mike, a 2004 Chicago Marathon finisher, was on the corner and cheered me on as I ran by.  He told me to keep going, and I did!

Crossing mile 16 I recall thinking wow, this race has been a blur so far.  How did I get here?  At this point I started thinking of the race in increments rather than just having 10 miles to go.  The first increment was to get to 20 miles and into the 20s, just 4 miles ahead.  I thought to myself I can crush that, I ran 4 routinely with ease all summer.  Just the warm up for the long runs.   At this point of the race my music was really fueling me.  My playlist hit power songs right when I needed them.

I don’t recall much about miles 17-19 other than I was completely in the zone.  Completely determined.  My form was great, no sign of any trouble yet.

As I rounded the turn onto 18th street I crossed the 19 mile mark.  To me, the stretch between mile 19 and 20 is tough in this particular race.  The crowd support in Pilsen, a Hispanic neighborhood, is phenomenal.  They are out in full force and gives Boystown serious competition for loudest part of the course.  But this stretch is so challenging because you can see the entire mile of the course.  18th street comes to a T junction right were mile 20 is.  In the distance while running from mile 19 to 20 is a white building that is so far away and never seems to get closer.  To me it is the longest mile on the course.

About this time I started to feel the first signs of my legs becoming tired.  I was certainly not hitting the wall, but I began to get that lead feeling in my legs and they began to grow heavier with each stride.  But it was all mental that I thought I was slowing down.  Checking my Garmin I wasn’t slowing down at all and kept pressing on.

Finally, mile 20 – 10K to go.  That is how I always approach this point in the race and this time was no exception.  I began to think of all the 10Ks I have ran over the years and the ones I crushed and how effortless they seemed.  It served to really lift me and provide a temporary boost.    I went through confident knowing my training has taken me past this point before and also in prior marathons.  I took two GU chomps and pushed on.  At this point I remember Young The Giant – My Body coming on my iPod.  For those that don’t know the lyrics they are “My Body tells me no, but I won’t quit – Cause I want more.”  I began to feel my pace quicken and made the decision to turn up the speed a bit and start kicking for home.

Mile 21 brought me into Chinatown, always a favorite part of the race.  Great crowds, but most importantly it was this part of the race that my wife would join in and lead me home for support if I needed it.  I rounded the turn onto Wentworth and caught glimpse of her right where we discussed and flagged her down.  She jumped in with me (had an official number but did not wear a chip or record a time as she was injured) and kept just ahead of me at my pace and slightly above as my own personal rabbit.  As much as I was grateful for her support, on this day I didn’t need it.  She ended up running a bit ahead of me and at times was out of sight.  Everything was going to plan.

All was well for a bit until around mile 22 when I began to feel the fade starting.  I decided that since it was so late in the race that I would go all in with my nutrition and took down 4 GU chomps and some Gatorade at the next aid station since the risk of becoming sick to my stomach in the last 4 miles was low.  That proved to be a wise decision.  Within a few minutes I warded off the fade and before I knew it caught glimpse of Michigan Ave and the home stretch of the final 5K to the finish.

It was at this part of the race that I looked at my Garmin and started doing the calculations.  Short of something catastrophic happening like tripping and falling, sub 4 hours was in the bag.  The question became how much today?

At mile 24 I remember my legs really turning into anvils and for the first time in the race, my pace had actually slowed about 10 seconds according to my Garmin.  Nothing of concern, but I tried to push the pace back up and found myself going back to a 10 second slower pace.   I decided to live with it and make it up on the final approach.  Also at the same time Bruce Springsteen came on my iPod and for mile 24 “No Retreat, No Surrender” drowned out everything.  It was me, the road and the Boss.

And just like that the final mile of the race had arrived.  I passed mile 25 and saw the 1 mile to go at mile 25.2 sign.  Almost on cue, Van Halen’s Right Now came blaring on my headphones.  It was at this point I began to tear up again as the emotion ran over me.  The entire year of training, races, seeded start corral qualification all flashed before me.  I had run a race with even splits and was on track to post a great time and improve my start corral qualification for the following year as well as for other short distance races in Chicago.  It was now time to “catch my magic moment, right here and now.”

I kept pushing on and had tunnel vision as the cheering from the crowds ahead in Grant Park became audible over my music.  I saw the jumbo tron at the turn into mile 26 at Mt. Roosevelt start to come into focus.  I took off my headphones and suddenly the lead feeling was gone from my legs and I started yelling out “Yes! Yes! Yes!” out loud over and over.

For those that don’t know the course, mile 26 is affectionately known as “Mt. Roosevelt” named for the 2 city block long incline on Roosevelt Road up to Columbus Drive and the finish line.  The incline on Roosevelt Road is really no big deal, but after 26 miles it might as well be Mt. Everest to some runners.  This year I didn’t even notice it.  800m, 400m, 300m to go.  I flew right up and “summitted” and made the final turn home.

The Finish Line

I am a big believer in the power of visualization – meaning because it has been done in the mind it just has to be done with the body.  The final tenth of a mile approaching the finish line that drove all of my training for weeks was here.  I had replayed this moment in my mind countless times before.  I finished each long run imagining I was approaching the finish line in Chicago.  Even so, it didn’t exactly turn out as I imagined.  The finish line seemed closer than usual when I made the turn onto Columbus Drive and I sprinted towards it.  My Garmin would later tell me I was running an instantaneous pace of 5:30 for this last tenth of a mile.  The real moment now continues to replay over and over in my mind.

And then, as I crossed the finish, for a brief instant all fell silent.  I touched the finish mat of a perfectly executed race.  Can’t really describe it.  Pure jubilation.  But I could feel no emotion.  I had absolutely nothing left.  I was in a daze and stumbled around as my legs really began to fail from that final push into the finish that took everything out of me.  My wife was there holding me up as I wobbled around a bit.  I was asked several times by course marshals if I needed medical attention which I didn’t.  I just couldn’t stand after that sprint to the finish!  No regrets, it was all left on the course.

As I began to regain composure and my footing a volunteer with a huge smile on her face had a medal ready for me and I reached out and hugged her thanking her for being there.

I then stood and took it all in, thinking about the journeys of everyone else coming across after me.  28,000 more runners would cross the finish line after me each with a story of their own.   No matter how many races I run – marathons or otherwise – crossing the finish line of a marathon is always an emotional experience for me.  I’m not alone.  I saw many, including other grown men, sobbing like babies.  Not me however at this point despite having some emotion earlier in the race.  I simply had nothing left – exactly how you want to finish this race.

The picture below was taken just moments after I finished.  This sums up why I run, what it is all about.

Final Thoughts

I share this story in hopes it inspire you to achieve your running goals.  Whether it is to get off the couch and get moving, completing your first 5K, your first run over 10 miles, a half marathon or even a full marathon, qualifying for Boston – it doesn’t matter.  Have the courage to go forward and believe in yourself.   As many of those I have interviewed on the podcast can attest, you never know where your journey may take you.

If you are looking to run your first marathon or have yet to experience a big city marathon I feel you should put Chicago at the very top of your list.  Not to be biased being my hometown race but quite simply, nothing compares to it.  I am so fortunate to call this my home race.  Every detail is thought of, the entire event is world class and the city of Chicago comes out in large numbers to support you.  Parts of the race have screaming people 4 or 5 deep from the curb.

Each neighborhood comes out with their unique way of supporting the runners.  You just can’t replicate the atmosphere anywhere else.  It is a moving experience.  I have run races in other places but too often they feel like training runs.  Support at the beginning and end and being alone the rest of the time.   Not Chicago.  You leave feeling energized and ready to do it again!  There is a reason why it is part of the 5 world marathon majors.

Running is about incremental success.  I believe strongly that a positive feedback loop develops over the course of your journey.  If you can’t imagine the thought of running a marathon today starting out with running that first mile or first 5K will bring you similar satisfaction to that of crossing the finish line of a marathon.  From there you continue working towards larger goals.  As you accomplish intermediate goals you feel empowered and motivated to do more.

Next Steps

I’m headed to Detroit to run the Marathon relay with 5 others on 10/21/12 and then have a winter of speedwork on the track indoors and out along with focused strength training ahead of me.  I’ll also be running a few 5Ks in November to round out the fall race season.  My 2013 goals will be to run a half marathon in the pace I can run a 10K (approx 7 minute miles at this time) and to improve my endurance to 3:30 at the marathon as I continue to work towards qualifying for Boston with a time under 3:05.

I also look forward to releasing all of my best training material to you through future podcast episodes and within Runner Academy Membership as Runner Academy fully launches in the near future!

Now, go out and crush it and tell me your your running goal in the comments below!

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