2014 was my third year in a row doing the Rock n Roll Chicago Half Marathon…. which made this the first time I’ve done the same race more than twice. And to be honest, during the last few weeks leading up to the race, I found myself wondering why I even signed up for it in the first place. I’m always up for a race, but what I really like to do is travel and go running in places that I’ve never been to before…. and not only that, but the first two times I did this race were miserable experiences:
2012 was my own fault – The Chicago Blackhawks Convention is the same weekend as the race every year and that particular year, I decided to do both since the convention is held at the Hilton on Michigan Avenue, which is walking distance from the start and finish lines, and since hockey is my second sports passion after running… This would have been perfect except for the fact that I spent the entire day before the race walking around the Hilton checking out hockey memorabilia and hydrating myself with copious amounts of beer, so I was really in no shape to run a half marathon the next day…. the extreme heat and humidity didn’t help, but in the end I knew that I really didn’t have anyone to blame for my horrible finishing time but myself so I decided to give the race another shot the next year.
In 2013, I was a lot more prepared for the race, but it was so hot and humid outside on race day that I don’t think anyone who ran it had a particularly enjoyable experience. The middle of July in Chicago is usually brutally hot and humid and the race starts at 6:30am so that most of the runners can finish before the temperatures get too high… This particular year, the early start time wasn’t much of a help since it was already 78 degrees outside when the race started and quickly warmed up to the mid 90’s without a single cloud to be seen anywhere. By the time I got to mile 8, I was sweating so much that the sweat had run down my legs and soaked through my shoes and socks to the point where my feet would make a squish noise whenever they hit the ground. When I finally hobbled across the finish line an hour or so later, I was completely worn out and dehydrated, probably with a touch of heat stroke from the sun beating down on me, and I told myself that I would never do this race again….
I really, genuinely planned on not signing up for it this year too – a couple friends signed up and asked me if I was doing it….. I said “nope”…. a couple more friends signed up and asked if I was doing it….. I was starting to get a little more interested by this point but I still said “nope”…. and I kept ignoring all of the email reminders to sign up and the ads that I saw in running magazines, etc…. until I got the email that contained a picture of the finisher’s medal. I took one look and decided that this was easily one of the top 5 coolest looking race medals I had ever seen and knew right then and there that I had to make it mine…. so forget the heat, the humidity, the harsh sun, the squishy shoes…. nothing was going to stop me from getting a medal from this race….
A few weeks before the race I got another email that said that Competitor Group had added another 5K to the schedule for the weekend. They already have one on Sunday at the same time as the half marathon but now there was one on Saturday and you could get an extra medal if you did both. So I figured that if I was going to do a race in Chicago in the middle of July, I might as well go all out and I signed up for the 5K too….
The 5K on Saturday turned out to be a lot of fun – it wasn’t too crowded and it started in Monroe Harbor and went up along the lakefront path, then headed west at the museum campus and did a little loop through the south side of Grant Park before heading back North up the lakefront path and finishing back at Monroe Harbor. The only downside to this course is that the race organizers aren’t allowed to block off the lakefront path to the public during the race, so there are other runners, walkers, bikers, etc. on the trail at the same time and people doing the race have to work their way around them. This isn’t specific to this particular race though – I’ve done other 5Ks on the lakefront path that are the same way and really, I can see the city’s point of view on this – the path is supposed to be for everyone, and if race organizers were allowed to close it down, then it wouldn’t take long before there would be some kind of race or other event shutting down the trail every weekend and nobody else would ever get to use it. I heard a few runners complaining about this but it really didn’t bother me much and the views made it totally worth it anyway. The Mackinac Island Boat race is the same weekend, so not only were the views of Lake Michigan absolutely beautiful, but there were even more sailboats out on the water than usual.
I also got to take a picture with Shalane Flanagan before the race… and there was even a post race party in Grant Park that was a little smaller than the one after the half marathon the next day but still bigger than the party at any other 5K I’ve ever done, which made the whole experience nothing short of excellent.
I was fully expecting to have to endure brutally hot temperatures and air so thick that it felt like I was running through a bowl of soup during the half marathon….. but amazingly….. the races weren’t bad at all…. in fact, I would even go as far as to say that these were two of my best running experiences in years. I’ll attribute the experience to three different things that all sorta happened at the same time:
First, the weather on race weekend was extremely mild for the middle of July. It was still humid, but the temperatures were easily 20 degrees cooler than they had been during the two previous years and there was a ton of cloud cover for almost the entire race. Both races were the most pleasant running experiences I’ve had at that time of year in almost as long as I remember.
I also got to meet up with a lot of friends before and after both races. There were a few other runners that live in Chicago who I ran into and also some friends who I had met online that traveled in from other cities for the race too. When it comes to the actual act of running itself, I usually like to run alone – that way I can set my own pace, let my mind wander, check out the scenery, etc… without having to constantly worry about adjusting my pace to either keep up with someone else or let them keep up with me…. but there’s nothing more fun than meeting up with friends at the start line or for a beer after the race and knowing that I’m going to meet my friends after I finish running always seems to energize me…..
This last one is probably the most important – not only did I do all of the right training for this race physically…. but I had also made some changes to my diet about a month or so earlier, and I could tell that my body was pretty happy with them because I felt lighter while I was running and at certain points, I also felt like I could keep running forever (something I hadn’t felt in years). There wasn’t a single time during the race when I wanted to slow down or stop running, even towards the end when the temperature did start to heat up a little bit and the sun started to peak out from behind the clouds. This is important for me – for anyone who’s reading this that hasn’t known me for a long time, the past year or so has been somewhat of a comeback year for me that’s involved making a lot of changes – back in my 20’s and even in my early 30’s, I took pride in the fact that I could eat or drink whatever I wanted and still have enough energy to work out two or three times a day and run sub 2 hour half marathons (and my full marathon times weren’t too shabby either). At one point I even ran a full marathon after staying up and drinking all night and then going straight to the start line without bothering to sleep (this will be its own separate post at some point so I won’t go into any more details about it here). There was a time when I was actually proud of myself for being able to do these things…. then right around the time I turned 35, my body decided that it had had enough. So I spent a couple years after that watching my weight and finishing times slowly creep up while my long runs seemed to get harder and harder…. and speed work? Forget it…. Then I spent a couple more years finally coming to the realization that if I ever wanted to get back to the level I used to be at, I was going to need to make a few lifestyle changes (yes it took me almost 2 years to realize this…. what can I say? I’m a slow learner….). So lately I’ve been training harder, drinking less, and making tweaks to improve the quality of my diet, and I’m finally starting to see results. My race times still aren’t as good as they used to be but they’re definitely starting to come back down and I can tell that I’m in better shape than I was even at the beginning of this year, which made me love this race…..
The course itself was a little bit different from previous years – I think they had to change it because of some construction that’s being done on the Van Buren Street Bridge this year, but to be honest, I wouldn’t mind if they left it that way for future races. Instead of circling around the edges of the loop like it did in the past (and like a lot of other races in downtown Chicago do), it kinda zig-zagged up and down some of the streets in the city. It was a nice change of scenery. There was some pretty good crowd support in the usual places, especially right after mile 6 when the course turns onto Michigan Avenue.
Even in the past years when the heat was bad, I’ve still always enjoyed this course. Besides running through downtown Chicago for the first 6 miles, the last three miles head north alongside Lake Michigan where there are beautiful views of the skyline (not to mention that the cool breeze coming off of the lake tends to help with the heat) and then through McCormick Place and finally underneath Lake Shore Drive and up Columbus towards the finish line which is right next to Grant Park…. and right after Roosevelt Road, the crowds on either side of Columbus are nice and thick and all the cheering helps to give the runners a nice little boost for the last quarter mile or so….
There’s only one thing I would change about the course, which is miles 7 and 8 – runners head south on Michigan Avenue away from downtown…. and there’s a fairly long stretch where there aren’t any crowds and there really isn’t anything interesting to look at besides some beat up old buildings…. The drummers on the bridge right before the mile 8 marker are pretty cool but other than that, this two mile stretch is pretty challenging. That being said though, I don’t want it to sound like I’m complaining too much because I really don’t have any ideas for how to make it any better – besides a couple small hills here and there, the course is nice and flat and it offers runners an opportunity to run both through downtown Chicago and up along Lake Michigan…. and since you have a way to get everyone from one of those places to the other, there’s bound to be a mile or two here and there that just aren’t as exciting as the rest – every race has them.
Everything else about the race was great – there was plenty of water and Gatorade at all the water tables along the course, there was a table at mile 11 where people were handing out wet sponges, which always feel amazing by that point, and they even made an improvement over last year in the big tunnel near McCormick place by adding some neon lights. The post race concert festivities were good too – I got to meet up with some friends and listen to some good music…. and I also got an extra medal for doing both races…. and did I mention how much I like the half marathon finisher’s medal?
So in the end…. for a race that I had spent months swearing that I would never sign up for again, this actually turned out to be a great experience…. and I’ve already added it to my list of races that I want to do again next year….