Un, deux, trois!

Well vingt(20)! Chicago Marathon was my 20th marathon and I feel so privileged and proud to have achieved my third star of the Abbott World Marathon Majors(WMM). This was a goal I’d set myself many years ago after conquering the UK capitals of Edinburgh, Dublin and London marathons in 2009/10. For the unfamiliar, the WMM consists of London, Berlin, Chicago, Boston, New York and Tokyo Marathon and on completion of all six, as well as the personal satisfaction of doing so, you get the coveted Six Star medal.

Each race has different entry requirements, and unless you are a fast runner, lucky in a ballot, can commit to raising large amounts of money through a charity application, or pay a sports tour company, entry can be a challenge. My goal has always been to enter through an age/performance qualifier which until Chicago was a dream rather than a reality… but finally I did it!

I’d entered Chicago through the ballot, not realising there was a 50/50 chance of being successful, I was first alerted by what looked like a fraudulent credit card payment and it took a while to sink in, also, how would I broach this with my wife?! “It’s cold then”, she said “can we go somewhere warmer?”. Aha!

Fast forward to October 2023 and we’re heading out to Chicago… an 8.5 hour flight, departing and landing all on Thursday morning! I’d purposely planned to visit the Marathon Expo and collect my bib as soon as we arrived, so after a quick bag drop at the hotel (Club Quarters Hotel Wacker) , we navigated our way using the Electric trains to the Abbott Health and Fitness Expo. It was a very well executed affair, clearly signposted, no queues, very efficient in validating my identity and issuing my bib, then into the Expo hall to collect my t-shirt and goody bag, and look for freebies!

We had quite an active few days, sightseeing and exploring the capital, and on Friday morning I managed to squeeze in a 5K run alongside Lake Michigan, aiming to familiarise myself with the start/finish areas… at the end of the day we’d covered 13.8 miles! On Saturday we treat ourselves to a feast at Wildberries Pancakes Cafe; the queue here was 10 deep, most likely as a result of the runners returning from the Abbott Chicago 5K which had drawn in over 12K runners. I was seeking a peaceful and relaxing Saturday afternoon, we couldn’t get in Penn and Teller show but were lucky enough to secure some seats at the theatre to watch Hamilton which was great. The staple diet pre-marathon for me is pizza and we’d been advised in Chicago to go deep dish which we did and wow, it was delightful!

Marathon day was an early start, I was in Red Wave 1, Coral B and was advised to be at the start for security checks from 5:30. I walked to the start at Grant Park which was just under a mile away, it was a clear, cool and delightfully fresh morning. I walked on the street parallel to the Michigan Avenue and there was hardly a soul… then as I approached my designated gate 4, I moved up a block and what a difference – 1,000’s of runners all quietly making their way to the start. It was 5:50 when I arrived, security was swift and in total darkness you couldn’t make out if the portaloos were free or not.. queues were slowly building but I was positioned well for bag drop and entry into my start pen. I’ve never experienced such a well organised affair, water, Gatorade, access to sports gels and a PA system repeating instructions constantly to ensure everyone knew exactly what was happening.

I arrived in my Pen at 7:05 for a 7:30 start and had the unique opportunity to do a warmup in the empty part of the Pen. I was surround by running machines, a 3:10 pacer – had I clicked the wrong box?!

I knew GPS was going to be an issue from the Facebook community and my own experiences in the city. I’d decided to aim for 3h 20m, but do it to “feel” and not be obsessive about mile splits. Helicopters were up, the atmosphere was heightened and as the claxon sounded, we were off. The 3:10 pacer dropped behind me, and I found my comfortable pace and settled into the race. The route takes you through 29 neighbourhoods with bustling crowds, street parties and plenty of musical talent on display. I was absorbing it all and with a regular glance at my watch, a check of my heart rate, I could see I was making good progress on 3:20 and my heart rate was around 145-155bpm.

I’ve had a busy year on the undulating trails and my biggest fear was the flatness of this event. I was feeling good but for how long and would the monotony of flat, hard road get the better of me? My legs were stiffening but I felt comfortable; I had no concern of good splits or bad, just the commitment and drive to keep going. I had a mental goal of getting to mile 18 and seeing it through to mile 21 which were my most challenging but strongest miles in the Leeds Marathon earlier in the year (PB 3:21:12).

From here I was on the home straight and just absorbed the atmosphere and ran. Through Chinatown and back onto Michigan Avenue, along Roosevelt Road and a the well described final “killer” climb before the final push along Columbus Drive and the finish. It was then I looked at my time – 3:12:47.

I’d pushed for years to break 3:30 and finally, today I’d broken 3:15, achieving good for age qualifying times for New York, Boston and London.. I was so happy.

Like London, there was an area to meet family. The walk from the finish to here was long and I’d agreed to keep my club vest to allow for easy identification in a crowd. With over 1.7m supporters on the course, Hayley struggled to get back to me, but after a an hour or so, me changed and my medal engraved, we were reunited.

We’d had good accommodation but for the final night I’d upgraded us to 5* in Trump Hotel. You don’t get opportunities like this every day, posher than posh and a swimming pool and sauna too. A brewery, some fine dining that evening was the icing on the cake – what an amazing and rewarding experience.

I learnt of the elite results, a world record for Kelvin Kiptum in 2:00:35, and a course record for Sifan Hussan 2:13:44 – I was there!

I was nervous about visiting Chicago, unsure of the culture and a bit worried about crime. I needn’t have been, everyone was overtly helpful and friendly – it was just a bit pricey and with a big tipping culture, tough for us Yorkshire folk 🙂

Where next I ask?!

6am in Grant Park, Chicago

6am in Grant Park, ready and waiting

Athletes at mile 25 of Chicago Marathon

Still going strong at mile 25

My 3rd star!

Chicago Loop

View from poolside at the Trump Hotel

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