Since 2004 I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the Chicago Marathon. It was the first marathon I ever ran and even though I had nothing to compare it to, I couldn’t imagine how a marathon experience could be any better. The crowds, the neighborhoods, the excitement – all of it meant an amazing first marathon experience.
Then came 2007.
I ran two other marathons between 2004 and 2007 – one in Phoenix, the other in South Bend. Both were also great experiences, but Chicago held a special place in my heart so I was excited to return in 2007. It was the race’s 30th anniversary and the build-up to the race was quite exciting. My running buddy Peter, whom I met in a training group in 2004, said he was also game so we signed up just in the nick of time, less than a day before registration closed in early April. The race is held in October.
Despite one of the best training seasons I’ve ever had filled with lots of laughs and even more exhilarating runs, that was the year I learned to hate the Chicago Marathon.
First there was the whole running-out-water thing. I’m not quite sure what is more baffling, the fact that a marathon could run out of water or the fact that they initially blamed it on the runners for doing what the race director said to do — drink more than normal and pour it on your head if needed– in his little heat advisory he issued the days leading up to the race. He had enough information to warrant a heat advisory but somehow it didn’t occur to him to order more water…??
The other mistake Chicago made, in my humble opinion, was to increase the field from 30,000 to 45,000 runners. I understand why the decision was justified given the interest and popularity — even with the 15,000 increase, the race still sold out earlier than it ever had before. But there is something to be said for being too big.
I think the Kenyans had already crossed the half way point by the time I made it across the start line. The only other massive crowd I can compare it to is Bourbon Street in the middle of Mardi Gras, except no one is offering hurricanes in commemorative souvenir glasses.
The whole experience left me frustrated and disappointed, mostly at spending $120 for the pleasure of running in a poorly managed race while my only hydration was supplied by my husband, who ran out and bought me bottled water when he was alerted to the situation, and the nice residents along the course who offered much-needed relief from their garden hoses. The experience left me promising I would never run Chicago again.
But I had to eat my words in 2009 when the non-profit autism organization that provides services to my godson was looking for charity runners. The experience was rewarding because I not only raised more than $1500 for the charity but I also set a PR. Friends and family came out (with water, just in case the race didn’t supply an adequate amount this time) and cheered me on. And the crowds were supportive, just as I remembered.
Although it was meaningful because of the reason for my run, it wasn’t quite the magical experience I had in 2004. Maybe it was the memories of 2007 that left me a little jaded, or maybe it was the fact that the field was, again, so packed I know I lost at least three minutes just navigating the crowds the first 5 miles. I decided, again, I was done with Chicago.
Despite my resolve, I still felt a sense of panic and urgency when I received an email in mid-March saying the race was about to close. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do a marathon this year but for some reason I felt that if I changed my mind I would be stuck with no race. I was this/close to signing up again but ultimately decided that I resented the fact I had to commit to a race nearly seven months out — I have held jobs for less time! So I ignored the emails and made the decision to focus on shorter distances this year after I realized that the 25k trail race I ran in February was every bit as challenging as any marathon I have run. I realized I didn’t need to do a full marathon distance to feel accomplished.
About the same time I made this decision I was talking to my father about running a 5k and sold him on the idea of running the Sunburst in South Bend. The Sunburst is actually four races — a 5k, 10k, half marathon and a full marathon. There is even a 5k family walk.
Peter, who ran the Sunburst full marathon with me there in 2006, has been back twice to run the half marathon. He signed up for the full marathon this year.
In the weeks before the race, which is always the first weekend of June, my father jacked up his knee and had to pull out of the race. And Peter acknowledged his training hadn’t been going as well as planned. So, I decided to upgrade and Peter decided to downgrade and we made the decision to do the half together. Because Sunburst is still so small, we made the change the night before the race with no issue whatsoever. What this means is, I could have decided within days of the race to run, and I could have gotten in — no seven-month advanced planning required!
The Sunburst course is nearly as flat as Chicago and, dare I say, more picturesque. It runs along the St. Joseph River, through several parks and tree-lined residential streets. And the crowds, albeit not nearly as thick as Chicago, are still enthusiastic and supportive. And get this. There is plenty of water and Gatorade. And, with only a few hundred runners in each race, the only time it felt crowded was at the start of the race and the crowded feeling only lasted about a block.
But the best part? You end the race by running through the same tunnel used by the Notre Dame football players to enter Notre Dame stadium. And the experience is made complete with the blaring sound of the Notre Dame fight song which continues until you cross the 50-yard line to end the race. I don’t care if you’re a Notre Dame fan, that is pretty darn cool. Once you cross you are given wet towels and Popsicles (!!) and an entire football field on which to stretch.
With an entry fee half of Chicago’s, you can get a hotel room (or B&B, one of which I will review in a separate post) and make a fun weekend of it to celebrate the fact that as you get the first marathon of the year under your belt, there are thousands of poor schmucks just starting their training which will continue throughout the most brutally hot months of the year.
My point? Consider this my Dear John letter to the Chicago marathon. I have moved on to a race that respects it’s runners, doesn’t force you into a decision several months (which I expect to near nine months soon) ahead of the race, has a field small enough to give you your own space, and has a plentiful supply of water. And have I mentioned the Popsicles?!