46 minutes and 34 seconds less of the running part this time
The race itself is a perfect showcase for the city. As a participant, you cover nearly every neighborhood within five miles of the lake and the Loop that has stories to tell when passing by foot. (A notable omission is Hyde Park, which is nicely summarized by the Chicago Half Marathon. Don't say you don't have options here.) The first five miles are a greatest hits of the famous North Side: from the starting line, a grand criss-cross of the Loop with the body of the race 40,000 strong, stretching wide and thunderous down the glass canyons and buzzing bridge decks of LaSalle Street; followed by a wind through Lincoln Park and Lakeview's streets packed with spectators, jam bands, and the occasional transvestite conga line.
Turning south, the long roll down Wells reveals gentrifying neighborhoods and fast-vanishing public housing; galleries, eateries and lofts lining the sidewalks of River North. A westerly turn takes you through the Old Country; Taylor Street and the venerable Italian neighborhoods. Somewhere here, it hits you that an Italian Ice might be just the thing to boost you into the next pace group. Without any warning, unless you're a habitual split-timer, the 13.1 marker flows past. Good Lord! I'm halfway home and I feel this good? I'm Invincible! Little do you know as a first-timer that this will be the finest half marathon of your life. The trouble is, you get 0' 00" to recover for the very next one.
The second half of Chicago is where the test lies. I suppose that's true of every city's 26.2, but it's especially poignant because of the layout here. The cheering crowds thin; the neighborhoods become far more commercial and far less gregarious (with the notable exceptions of Chinatown and Pilsen, where each's community welcomes the running throng warmly with colorful flags, dragons, and street corners full of cheering children and other well-wishers.)
Put all that drama aside. Somewhere around mile 18 or 19, The Grip sets in. Your legs just don't flow like they did across the river bridges in mile 3. Your breathing, benefiting all along from clean and cool October air, doesn't seem to pull enough oxygen to clear the weight from your chest. And when you get clear of Chinatown, you find yourself in a desolate South Side track that makes you reconsider the entire summer spent running darkened city streets at 5am and meeting your group for the weekend long run. Metabolism shmetabolism -- you're starting to burn organs at this point. Many Chicago veterans I've talked to say that the stretch by Comiskey Park is the worst. No spectators. You can see the returning field curving around the opposite side of the highway from you, seemingly miles ahead and moving at twice your speed. Check your watch for a split: 8:37:53? Crap. Losing steam, from new cracks in old pipes.
Mile 23. Bronzeville -- the modernist zenith that is the IIT campus. Unyielding fatigue, but no way in hell does this end here. You have a 5K to the finish line. In 2001, this was the point in the race at which at guy in a full Captain America suit -- with shield -- passed both me and Dick and lumbered his way to a sub-4 hour time. That's one way to have your expectations reset. You tighten the straps, shorten your stride, and watch your vision narrow to the plodding pair of feet in front of yours. If he can be in front of me, well, Hell...
The final mile. You can't stop, but yet you can't seem to reach the finish. Peripheral vision finally widens. That sprint you seem to always save for the end of your 8K races took a much earlier flight outta town; it's nowhere to be found today. When you finally cross the line, every last dollar in your race wallet spent, you start to suspect that you will reach an impasse with your quads and calves as soon as they get a chance to stiffen up. Everyone around you is wrapped in a reflective mylar sheet given to all finishers; it's a blinding, confusing mass of people who would probably collapse like a domino line if a big push ever rippled through the field.
So, that was my experience in a year in which my goal was simply to participate and test my personal limits. As for posting a 3:30 time — an early goal — clearly, I had my margins outside of the printable area of the page. But my time, 4:01:34, didn't dimish pride in the accomplishment. At some point since then, well after the soreness and any memories of the rough miles had faded, I began thinking, "How much time would I have to shave off to qualify for Boston?"
Turns out that 3 hours, 15 minutes is the time I need to qualify as a 36 year-old. Good thing I waited until I was older than 35; this added 5 minutes to the limit. So, that's my goal in 2006: find ways to cut off that 0:46:34 from 2001. I figure I can erase 15 minutes via improved race strategy, 15 minutes via speed training and better core strength development, and the final 0:16:34 through some undetermined personal sacrifice. (Please, God, anything but the hefeweisen.) Beginning June 24, I start in with my CARA group and hope to keep at it through race day this year, October 22. I'll keep you posted.
Labels: Pop Culture