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What a great Sunday it has been on September 9, 2012!!! Just as I was sitting on the ground, all sweaty and stinky, the crowd was flowing around me, the sun was shining and as I was just sitting there, eating my post race snacks and watching the people walking by, I had this great feeling of a personal accomplishment. What a great feeling!

Sitting sweaty and stinky…

For sure accomplishments can mean lot of different things in life (getting a car, having a house, building a career, etc.), but I can tell you one thing for sure: few things compare to the feeling when after months of focused training, you successfully finish your first Half Marathon race. Right as I was sitting there in the middle of Jackson Park, I had this great feeling of accomplishing something significant.

Running this Half Marathon has been my goal for several months now. I love Chicago, I love Lake Shore Dr and when I found out about this race, I set my goal of running my first Half Marathon race at this event. Considering that in the process I started a new job in a new city in a new state, spending months separated from my family then moving to our new place just a week before this race presented all kinds of challenges. It definitely tested my determination to keep my training plan and be ready to run this race. And finally, after strong support from my family, support from many people to make our move happen on the previous weekend all made this possible.

Maybe another reason why finishing this race felt so special was the fact, that sitting there exhausted was really my first chance in months to completely unwind and not care about other issues that had to be resolved, other challenges to get through, but to enjoy the moment. Felt like with all the sweat I was able to flush out all of the stress that accumulated through the past six months in my body.

And here is how it all happened…

The event was the 16th Annual Chicago Half Marathon. And the Half Marathon race course map.

Pre-race preparation:

On Saturday we went to Navy Pier to pick up the race packet and we were able to spend a very relaxing family afternoon together.

Race packet in hand

We spent some time at the Navy Pier then took a boat trip through the river and the lake. Then after a calorie rich dinner we went back to the hotel.

Through the night I woke up to check the time very often being so excited about this race. Finally I woke up as I planned: 4:30AM. I carefully inspected my running gear and made sure I had everything I needed in my backpack (not that I needed a whole lot of things). I had an easy 10 minute walk to the shuttle bus, so I left the hotel at 5AM.

Early morning pre-race smile

Walking the streets of downtown Chicago it was funny to see how other fellow runners were emerging from other streets, everybody walking towards the designated shuttle bus station at W Hotel at Lake Shore Dr.

Race weather forecast – everything is given for a great run

The shuttle buses showed up just as planned and we were already riding the bus to Jackson Park a few minutes later. Once arrived to the park I was really happy that I took the shuttle bus, seeing the lines of cars waiting patiently to get into a parking garage. Once at the park, I followed the crowd until started seeing signs pointing towards the gear check.  I decided to check-in my bag first thing, so I will not have to worry about that later when more and more people will arrive. Great idea, Mr!

Gear check tag – great way not to worry about your backpack

With my backpack checked in and with my pre-race snack in my pocket, I started to walk around looking for my pace group, but that area was still closed. No problem, just walked around, watched others preparing and decided to have my pre-race snack at 6:30AM.

Soon enough after I finished my pre-race snack the streets were rearranged and we could walk to our pace group. During the sign up process we had to indicate our expected pace. Based on that everybody was assigned a pace group marked by letters.

Pace group “K”

As I started to walk towards mine (K), just recognized how many letters I had to skip from the start line. By the time I will sign up for the 2013 race, I will try to be a few letters closer to the start line…

2:00 pacers are getting ready

Start:

The last five minutes of waiting seemed like an eternity. I was so ready to run. I wanted to be out on Lake Shore Dr running and conquer this challenge. National Anthem… Wheelers started… Then our race started… However due to the huge crowd, it took some time for our pace group even to be able to start walking. Then it took quite some time to be able to start running. That happened a few yards before the start line. By that time the official race clock has already been running for almost eight (8) minutes! No problem, our chip time should start only at the start line. And I took this as another source of motivation to get stronger so next year I can start from a pace group closer to the start line.

Mile 1-2:

The first two miles took place in the park (Jackson Park). I was expecting that it is going to be crowded, which it was, but it was not as bad as it was impossible to run. However I could not really get up to a good pace through the first two miles as I was trying to make my way through the crowd. This is when I realized, that many people either do not understand the simple concept of the pace groups, or just simply do not have the respect towards fellow runners. I was assigned to the 2:00 pace group and in the first two miles I passed so many people even with my slow pace. My suspicion of this was confirmed, when I was passing people who switched to walking after a mile. Anyways, I was so happy to be there to participate that I just took this as a minor annoyance and kept moving on. Seeing a guy running barefoot was also an interesting sight on this great event that just started. 13.1 miles barefoot running on asphalt: I save that type of challenge for another day…

Another nice thing on this race was the large race time display at each mile marker. I remembered that I crossed the start line with the race clock already at 8 minutes so I knew I was running at a slower pace than I wanted to. I also knew that if I want to achieve my goal of finishing in less than two hours, especially my top-secret goal of finishing in less than 1:55, then I have to step it up a notch as I was running close to 9 min/mile.

As a side note: I used the lap recording function of the Sports Tracker App, so according to that my first mile was 8:43 (pace 8:08), while the second mile was 9:08 (pace 8:58).

Sports Tracker log – beginning of the race

Mile 3:

Shortly into Mile 3 there was an Aid Station. Nice volunteers were handing out water and Gatorade. One thing I never tried during my training runs: drinking while running. One thing I knew that running here will require me taking at least one drink somewhere around Mile 8 so I will have a bit of boost for the last part of the race. Especially that during my training runs I always felt exhausted after running 12-13 miles without any refuel. So I thought since I have a pathetic pace already and there was still quite a bit of crowd around me, I test how I can grab water and drink it while running. I can report out that I was not able to drink any water from the paper cup while I was running, so I ended up throwing it away. Glad I have not tried with Gatorade first as I would have been a mess… Based on this experiment I also concluded if the moment comes, I will have to stop for a few seconds to finish my drink. Another reason to switch gears sometime soon… Especially that my Mile 3 time was 9:06 (pace 9:02)!

The water drop at Mile 2 marker was my experimental Aid station

Mile 4-5:

Finally arrived to Lake Shore Dr and started to see the lake. This part has been amazing. It was already full sunshine, with the lake on the right side, being able to run with a convenient tempo I was enjoying every moment of these two miles. I heard the waves arriving to the sandy beach, people cheering, bands playing at every mile or maybe even closer to each other. Also around me everybody else seemed to enjoy the run. I could not have wished for a better place to run my first Half Marathon race. I was able to increase my pace as I was running Mile 4 in 8:50 (pace 8:38) and Mile 5 in 8:53 (pace 8:33), which means I was able to get some consistency going in my running as well.

Mile 6:

This is the mile of running while cheering for others. The race course runs up and down (North and South) of Lake Shore Dr. So I was expecting that at some point I will be able to see the leaders of the race passing us on the way back. I just did not expect it to happen this early in the race. First we saw the leader of the Wheelers group then we saw the leader of the Runners group. After everyone cheered for them, I heard general amazement among the fellow runners everyone wondering “how is that humanly possible?”… To put it into perspective, we were losing by almost 6 miles after running 5.5 miles or the leader running 11 miles he was about 6 miles ahead of us. I just took it as another form of motivation. And also took it as a confirmation that I should not worry, soon enough the race course will really turn back towards Jackson Park and I will be running proudly towards the finish line while passing the Mile 11 marker. My Mile 6 pace was 8:49 (pace 8:36).

Beautiful area to run – seeing the leader on the way back…

Mile 7:

Something to watch out: I was running the compression sleeve around my right knee. Earlier during the week my right knee felt great and the short practice runs that I had, I completed them even without wearing the compression sleeve around my right knee. To be on the safe side, I decided that during the race I will still use it. What got me worried a bit was that somewhere between Mile 6 and Mile 7 my right knee started to send some warning signals. Otherwise I felt great. I thought finally I am running at a good speed, I did not feel tired, the crowd was reasonable, the weather was still perfect. Usually I felt the best between Mile 6 and Mile 8 during my long practice runs and this has not been any different during the race either. At least everything went just as practiced before, except the first warning signs from the right knee. Since it did not really hurt, it just started to feel a bit uncomfortable. So I decided to keep pushing on without taking any action. As a result 8:28 later I passed the Mile 7 marker (pace 8:22).

Mile 8:

I felt Mile 7 was a bit too strong for me to be able to keep pushing like that until the end of the race, so I cut back a bit to a more relaxed tempo. Everything is relative as comparing it to the leaders in the race my pace was more sleepwalking…

Anyways, I just kept going and watch my right knee if it feels better or worse. But I felt no change, which was a good thing. Nothing would have made me more disappointed than my right knee giving up a few miles before the finish line. I also started to think about when I should start the “last push”, which I usually started during my practice runs somewhere around Mile 11. Here, since I was still feeling strong as well as I had some traffic that “slowed me down” a bit during the first couple of miles, I thought it is a good idea to push a bit stronger from Mile 10 onward. After all that would be just a simple 5k. But I also decided that I will stop by at the next Aid Station to get some Gatorade to avoid getting exhausted due to lack of fuel in my body. I reached the Mile 8 marker in 8:54 (pace 8:32).

Mile 9:

After I passed the Mile 8 marker, I kept looking for the overpass I knew we will have to climb to get to the southbound side of Lake Shore Dr that will take us back to the Finish line. So that was a good temporary goal: reaching the overpass. Turning back is a great feeling for several reasons. First of all, I knew that 2/3 of the distance is already behind me. Second of all while going down from the overpass back onto Lake Shore Dr it was great to a bit of view of the course. It was great to see the strong, stable flow of people. Everybody was running for something. I wondered how many was in the same situation as me: running their first Half Marathon.

I also saw an Aid Station, so I quickly pulled to the right and stopped to pick up a Gatorade. Based on my not so successful experiment at the beginning of the race I knew that I will have to stop for a few seconds and that is exactly how I did. I picked up the cup, stopped for a few seconds, while drinking then back to running. I was waiting for the big moment when my body will realize the boost from the Gatorade, but I never felt that magical moment. I was waiting for me start running like Superman or just simply increasing my speed up to light speed, but that just never happened. The Mile 9 marker came in 9:01 (pace 8:30)

Through the overpass – more miles behind than ahead…

Mile 10:

Despite of my careful planning and thinking, I became a bit impatient with myself. That is not a good thing when trying to finish 13.1 miles of running. Long story short I made (in retrospect) a mistake: I switched to a faster speed a mile too early. Myself I call it “the last push”, which is the last part of the race, when I switch to a bit faster speed that I try to maintain until the Finish line to finish strong and to help squeeze the last drop of energy out of me.

I had that feeling that I started “the last push” a bit too early, but I was also positive that I will be fine. Especially that during my practice runs I always run without taking any drinks and here I already had a Gatorade. So I must be stronger now. What a simple way of thinking! But I think finishing the last few miles is more mental than physical challenge. At least that is how I think about it. I arrived to the Mile 10 marker in 8:02 (pace 8:17).

Mile 11:

I knew I started “the last push” earlier than I originally wanted and I knew that I was running stronger compared to my practice runs, so I decided to make another stop at the next upcoming Aid station to pick up more Gatorade. That is exactly what I did. Same sequence: pulling to the right, picking up a Gatorade, stop on the side, finish drinking as soon as possible, back to running then carefully merge to the left side as soon as possible.

My strategy at each Aid station stops was to pick up the drink from the very first volunteer. This allowed me to gradually position myself to the right side of the race course already ahead of time, instead of cutting through my fellow runners rushing to the aid station while there. This is one good way that served me well to conserve energy. The other way was to stop while drinking, so I could minimize the time of distracted running. But I made sure I pulled to the side not to hold up other fellow runners. The third way that helped me the most was once I was back running, I moved to the left side of the race course as quickly as possible to get away from the busy traffic that is always present at each Aid station. On the left side there is usually no or at least only a few paper cups thrown away, clean surface instead of the slippery where everyone spills the drinks and also no fellow runners cutting from the left to right around you trying to reach the volunteers at the Aid station.

I am sure there are lots of other strategies, but this worked for me the best. At previous Aid stations that I skipped, I already moved to the left side of the race course as soon as I saw the Aid station, so by the time I reached it and I knew I will not stop there, I was not in the way of other fellow runners trying to get there.

With and second energy booster, I kept running and got to the Mile 11 marker in 8:13 (pace 8:22).

Mile 12-13:

During my practice runs I start to get these weird heat waves (I think from the increasing exhaustion) somewhere after Mile 10. Here I have not had the same heat waves, so I concluded that picking up Gatorade twice has served me well. I do not know if that was really the reason, but let’s assume that my brilliant plan and execution worked. Just so I can feel smart for a little while…

This part of the race brought a continuously increasing number of people to the side of the race course as we were getting closer and closer to the finish line. At the same time, every step felt more and more difficult. I knew I started “the last push” earlier than I wanted and I started to worry about running out of gas before the finish line. In my case “running out of gas” would mean slowing down significantly. I did not want that to happen and I did not want to think about such negative things, especially this close to the Finish line. So I focused more on the cheering crowd, which has been amazing. It seemed like everybody was cheering for everybody. There were hands out to get high fives from people I have never seen ever before in my life, there were “looking good”, ”going strong”, “almost there” and other cheers coming towards the runners.

On a sad note: I saw a fellow runner lying on the ground in the middle of Lake Shore Dr surrounded by Ambulance. I felt sorry for the poor guy. I have not seen the moment when he went down, but I felt really sorry for him for not being able to finish with only a couple miles to go. I also saw other runners, who have finished already re-joining the race as they found in the crowd their friends/partners/etc and tried to motivate them to get through the last couple miles easier.

By the Mile 13 marker we had lot of people on both sides cheering, we had signs in the last mile showing “3/4 Mile to go”, “1/2 Mile to go”, “1/4 Mile to go”. Here all race plans were already upside down. I just run as strong as I could to finish the race as strong as I could. Somewhere during this exciting stretch I must have not pressed the Lap button properly or completely missed pressing it, so I have Mile 12 and Mile 13 measured together: 17:06, which would be an 8:33 average (pace 8:28).

Sports Tracker log – end of the race

Finish:

And finally I crossed the Finish line!!! What a feeling! I can tell you what kind of feeling: I was really exhausted.

Sports Tracker summary of the race

When I crossed the Finish line, I looked up to see the race clock and it showed 2:02. I do not remember for the number of seconds. For me it meant, that I completed in less than 2 hours as when I crossed the Start line, the race clock has been running for almost 8 minutes already. So I was happy to achieve my goal of finishing in less than 2 hours. Now the question was still open if I was able to finish in less than 1:55. But first I had to get something to drink and eat. Originally I was planning to cross the finish line with a big smile on my face and arms up in the air. I can tell you that the biggest smile I was capable of producing was captured on the picture below:

I am very happy, but too tired for a big smile

Arms up in the air when crossing the Finish line? Something I will have to try again next year…

Finally: my official chip time was 1:54:31, which means I could even accomplish my top secret goal of finishing the race in 1:55. This new PR (Personal Record) was enough for the 2773th best overall record out of 12107, while placing me at 1950 out of 5292 male runners and at 332 out of 908 runners in my age group. Overall for running a first Half Marathon I would consider this a good start. Especially that in 2011 December I could barely finish a mile. Keep it up, Laszlo!

In case you are interested in more detailed recording of this run, here is a link to my Sports Tracker log. And here are some post-race pictures.

It was a great event on a perfect Sunday morning, so I will not have to think too hard to figure out if I will be running this race again. See you next year!

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