There's something about starting from the first corral of a world major marathon that is magical, breathtaking and inspiring. With the best athletes in the world leading the charge through the starting gate and into the deafening screams and cheers from several hundred thousand boisterous fans lining the streets on either side, you feel as if you're being sucked into a giant vacuum of speed and sound that would make any previous rollercoaster experience you've ever had pale in comparison. Of course, my designated plan going into the race was to start slow and gradually accelerate to marathon pace over the first two miles. However, I don't think I fully considered the energy of the crowd and the magnetic pull of my fellow first corral mates to be so strong. So even as I was focused on starting the race with a self-perceived conservative effort and watched as everyone around me took off towards a much faster start, I was surprised when I passed mile 1 in 6:46, a full 10 seconds or so faster than where I thought I would or should be. But I was feeling strong and effortless, gliding along the same streets I had just walked the day before. So I carried on.
Somewhere around mile 1.5 as I was settling into my pace, someone comes up on my shoulder and starts chatting to me about the race. I immediately see he has the same race shirt as me and recognize him as F, a Saucony Hurricane teammate I had just met over dinner a couple of days before. He is nice and asks about my goal time for this race. I tell him about sub-3 but add that I feel uneasy given the warm conditions expected for this race. He tells me not to let the weather get to my head and to execute my race like I had planned. He himself is holding back, having conquered his first 100-miler a few weeks back. Wow, a marathon must feel less than a training run for him, I thought to myself as he talked casually while sustaining sub-6:50 pace. I wondered aloud if I'll ever get to a point where a marathon feels as easy as a short training run. Amazing! I thanked him for his sage advice, wished him well on his race and scooted off to refocus my energy back on my race.
Mile 2 passed a little fast again at 6:40 but I was already preoccupied with another task to worry about it too much. My friend M was planning to make her first appearance as a spectator somewhere in this mile. Judging from the thick packs of spectators lining the streets five to six rows deep at times, I knew finding her so early on in this race would prove a difficult task. As I scanned the crowds, hoping to find a familiar face, I felt extremely grateful that she was here somewhere cheering for me in this race. I also thought about the tens if not hundred of friends back home virtually tracking my every footfall as I ran. This made me smile a bit too! Although I ultimately did not find my friend in this mile as the crowded conditions proved a bit too tough for spectating, I did find many funny posters and signs held out by nonrunners that made me chuckle. A couple of my favorites were: "If you can read this, you're not running fast enough!" and "Me: Beer for Run. You: Run for Beer."
I passed the mile 3 marker in 6:45 and felt myself settling into this race. Having briefly surveyed the course map the night before, I knew I was starting out on the first of three out-and-back loops at this point. The crowds were thinner now as the course moved through the northern sections of town. Gone are the skyscrapers and modern architectural marvels that dominate the Chicago skyline. They have slowly given way to three story houses and billboards over the course of a short mile. The sun was quickly emerging from behind the buildings and clouds too, sending particles of light shimmering out in Lake Michigan. As I approached the second water station, I reviewed my hydration plan quickly (which in retrospect seems more akin to a list of military commands than a water plan) - I will drink at every water station. Two cups of Gatorade, 1 cup of water to start...moving on to one cup of Gatorade and 2 cups of water in the second half. I will drink as much as possible. I will slow down if I have to. Under no circumstances will I allow my own sense of thirst to deceive me in taking less than I should. Given the plentiful fluid stations that will be available on course, we cannot be dehydrated today. We will not be dehydrated today!
I "marched" through mile 4 in 6:40 and mile 5 in 6:46, running almost as if on autopilot. I was feeling smooth. I was feeling strong. I was running without regard to total time which was a completely different strategy for me. Previously, whenever I ran a marathon for a certain goal time, I would always calculate how far I was ahead or behind at every mile and made incremental pace adjustments in the following mile. This time, because I was confident that my training would take me where I need to be, I didn't do any pace calculations as I was running. I figured it wouldn't help and would have just distracted me and disrupted my rhythm. So I just ran easy and smooth. At times, people with 3:00 pace bibs on their backs would pass me and cause me to momentarily doubt my own strategy. But I figured I'll probably see them all later anyways and just let them go on.
Mile 6 in the park was crossed in 6:47. Mile 7 was spent transitioning back to the streets in 6:40. I must have sped up because somewhere along here, "Eye of the Tiger" was playing on the loud speaker and I felt a sudden jolt of energy and inspiration. I remember flashing back to my first marathon when I first heard that song along the NYCM course in the Bronx. I felt a lump start forming in my throat. Wait, it's too early. It's too soon. Deep breath. Slow down. We've still got a ways to go.
After mile 7, the course runs for a few blocks along Lakeshore Drive before heading back downtown. For some reason that was my favorite stretch of the entire race course. Maybe it's because I had walked a section of the Drive the previous day and enjoyed the biking, running, and swimming I saw all around me. Maybe it's because it reminds me of the West Side Highway back home in NYC where I've done so many of my long training runs. Either way, I don't think I felt more alive and in sync with my body than I did at that moment in time. In my exuberance, I might have slapped a complete stranger spectator high-five when he wasn't expecting it and was holding a sign that simply said "RUN". It felt right at the time.
We're starting to make our way back to town in miles 8 and 9. The crowds became thick again. There was music. There was dancing. "Let's Get It Started" by the Black Eyed Peas was playing so loud I felt the ground shaking as I ran. Although I enjoyed the musical interlude because I had played that same song in my hotel room earlier that morning as I was preparing breakfast, It was not so obvious to me why this particular musical selection was chosen to be played at this section of the course. It was apparent, at least to me anyway, that if it hadn't already gotten started by mile 9...it's time to pack it in and go home. For some reason, i didn't run as well here, pulling in a 6:51 for mile 8 and a 6:50 for mile 9. But, since it was still below goal marathon pace of 6:52 though, I wasn't worried.
Mile 10 (I think it was here) saw the appearance of NY Flyer paparazzi camera man, YP. I wasn't expecting him so it was a pleasant surprise to see a familiar face along the sideline. When he saw me, he sprinted ahead by a couple hundred feet just to take some action shots of me as I ran by. He did it a couple of times and it was the funniest thing ever. It lifted my spirits tremendously and made me appreciate being a member of a running club that travels so well. For a little while there, I thought about each of my other Flyer teammates who were all out on the race course too. Although it was still early, I hoped they were individually having great races and imagining in my head all the great stories they were about to tell.
A bit weary but a bit invigorated by recent events, I passed mile 10 in 6:48. Since this was a major checkpoint for me, I took a look at my cumulative time, 1:07:38, and made a mental note that I was about 45 seconds under goal pace at this point I took my first GU, washed it down with ample water from a fluid station and braced myself for the next stage of battle.