Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The marathon is behind me but the buzz remains..

It's over 2 weeks since I returned from Chicago but life was pretty crazy upon my return and I had to spend some time with my husband and children before I could reattach my umbilical cord to my PowerBook...

In short - I had a fantastic time. The expo, which took place 2 days before the race, was wonderful - if you're a runner and a consumer. My mother and I are both, avidly, so it was just wonderful. All the main sports brands had stalls selling their running gear as well as masses of other brands selling sportsfood, other kinds of food (peanut butter?), hair grips (yes - and they are fantastic) etc. There were all sorts of cool freebies - magnets, stickers, bandaids - we were walking around with huge bags full of booty. Then there were also stands for various other marathons and for some running writers - I had a chance to have my Marathon book (which I had used to train with) signed by the author, Hal Higdon. He was lovely and very encouraging. Then I met John "the Penguin" Bingham - the man who set me off running in the first place. He is a slow and awkward runner who gives great support to those of us who are not within sight of Boston qualifying times.. An article written by him on the merits of running slowly was what got me started running 3 years ago and it was great to meet him. He was very kind and friendly and we spent some time talking to him about the marathon and Chicago. At the expo I also signed up for the 4:30 pacing team - these teams are led by local runners who stick meticulously to a given pace so that you can help to pace yourself through the race. I felt quite ambitious signing up with this team but also felt that aiming for a 4:30 finish time was fairly realistic given the pace I'd run in training. The day of the marathon itself started very early (I was bold upright by 5am) and was very very cold. Walking to the start in the dark with my mother the wind was whipping around us and I didn't talk to her about the weather - I didn't want to state the obvious fact of how awful it was..

We mooched around the start in the dark for some time (plenty of time for about 5 nervy visits to the PortaKabins, which I knew I would need) and finally, at 7ish, I said goodbye to her, took off my long sweats and gloves (foolishly) and went into the start corral to look for a pacer. Just as the sun rose the starting gun went off and I set off with my pacing team, incredibly nervous with the realisation of just how cold it was and just how foolish I was to be running in shorts. Unlike NYC, the Chicago marathon goes right through downtown several times and the first couple of miles were easy - there were so many people cheering us on and the buildings blocked most of the wind. Unfortunately, we soon went north and found Lake Michigan and its winds on our right but by then I had warmed up and found my pace and was chatting happily with my pace team leader (a former director of the Chicago Area Running Association, a very famous running group) and various people in my pace team. I was so comfortable with my pace that I refused to be set back by queueing for the very occasional portakabins, so I introduced a desperate fellow (female) runner to the freedom of peeing between cars - she said she was 42 and hadn't peed outside since she was 3. I suppose we all have moments where we have to show others how to live... By 10 miles I felt I was holding back to stay with my pacing team and I decided to go it alone, relying on a fastish long run I had some weeks prior to the race for my pace. It was amazing. By 18 miles I was aware that I was making really good time, but also that it was very cold and I was terrified of cramping up. I decided to keep up the pace, to stay warm if nothing else, and I started very slowly counting to 100 in my head, regulating my breathing and my pace while I was doing this. Each time I reached 100 I started again. By the time I reached mile 22 I was counting out loud and not worried that others could hear me. I was maintaining my pace and that was all I would let myself think - I was aware that my knees hurt, my back hurt, and that my legs and my hands were freezing - but I didn't let myself dwell on any of that, I just carried on counting. I crossed the finish line in 4:17:32 - faster than I had ever dared hope. Admittedly, last year's time was nothing astounding but it was wonderful to set a new personal best by improving my time by 38 minutes...

As a result, I never saw my team of fans - my mother, Jeff and Brian and John who had trekked all over Chicago to see me but who obviously did not realise I was going so much faster than I had anticipated. We met each other fairly quickly after the race, however, and they all very patiently listened to my excited tales of the marathon.

On average, my pace was 9:49 minutes per mile. I placed 15909 out of 33,633 contestants in all, was number 4925 out of 14724 women, and placed 901st in my division of 2475 women between 35 and 39. Very cunning that last placement - I turned 35 3 days before the marathon so just made it out of the young gun division in time.. It was such a different marathon from NYC - the cities are so different in look and feel, NYC is a very international marathon and this is very American, and the weather was diametrically opposed - it is impossible to compare them. However, doing better than I had hoped gave me an enormous high and I can still feel it. Running a marathon is such an intense experience psychologically and when it goes well there is very little in life that compares to the sense of physical power and achievement I felt. Having always thought of myself as athletically incompetent it is astounding to myself that I can do this - and I can only conclude that if I can, anyone can. Honestly - had you seen me 3 years ago, 3 stone heavier and so lacking in self confidence, you wouldn't have dared tell me I could be capable of this.

What next? After a rest I will be spending the winter concentrating on speedwork (which I have avoided so far) and building some upper body strength and I will be looking to run another marathon, all being well, next autumn. Suggestions for venues are welcome!