From plane panic to PR ecstasy - the story of the 2016 Chicago Marathon

From an airport panic to a dash to the expo to pick up my bib in time, to a goal-achieving PR and deep dish pizza, Chicago had it all.

I left the city with a new PR of 3:38:50 - beating my previous time of 3:41:35 from Philadelphia in 2015 - and a host of memories that will forever live with me.

The airport scramble

Yet, it almost didn't start. Or so it felt. I had done the slightly risky thing and planned to fly out to Chicago from La Guardia Airport on Saturday morning. The race was on Sunday. However, my flight time was at 9:50 a.m., meaning I would land in Chicago just past 11 a.m. CST. I just didn't factor in the havoc that Spirit Airlines was going to play with my plans. Leaving for the airport - extra early just to be safe - I received an email saying my flight was delayed until 10:46 a.m. UGH. So the Muffin and I carried on about our business, went through security, only to receive another email to say it was delayed even further - to 11:16 a.m.

We sat patiently - or as patient as one can be - around our gate, waiting for more info. At this time, I noticed there were many runners trapped in the same hell as me, waiting anxiously to get to Chicago and collect their bibs before the expo closed at 6 p.m. After a lot of nail biting, fidgeting, and walking back and forth, it was announced that we were further delayed until 12 p.m. At this stage panic was setting in. That meant we would not leave until 12 p.m. A two-hour flight meant landing at 1 p.m. Chicago time. Then we would have to disembark, collect baggage, get the train, etc. The expo was about an hour away from the airport. The panic was real.

All the runners at the gate looked at each other, wild-eyed and panic stricken. We'd spent 16-20 weeks preparing for Chicago, but none of us had prepared for this. Knowing they may have a riot on their hands, the Spirit crew got the plane ready in record time and we were on the way. At this point, I met one of the Virtual Trainer 37, Monika Le, who was also traveling from Queens to run the race. We both tried to ease others' fears, knowing we would make it in time. However, by the time everyone boarded the plane, I had spent 4 hours stressing and worrying in an airport for a domestic flight. Hardly ideal race preparation.

Upon landing in Chicago, we were told we had to sit on the runway for what seemed like forever due to the fact that there was "no gate for us." More panic. Sure why not. We got to the expo, with all our luggage in tow, at 3:30 p.m. Time to spare, but still later than I would have liked. We reached the hotel by 5 p.m after a day of planes, trains, and automobiles.

Tired - and worried about race strategy the next day - I received the ultimate pick me up when the Muffin and I explored our surroundings outside the hotel. We were less than a five minute walk from the start line! If you've done the TCS NYC Marathon, you'll appreciate how much of a boost that was to me when I realized how little I had to travel the next morning. That meant more rest, less time out in the cold - if it was going to be chilly - and more time to relax. And the meal that the Muffin and I went for was delicious. Things were finally coming together!

Race day

For the race, I was starting in Wave 1, corral D, with a kick off time of 7.30 a.m, but I headed down early-ish after a morning bagel (with raspberry jam of course) just to avoid any security concerns, meet some of the Chicago VT 37 team, and get into my corral and take it all in. I've mentioned the Chicago 37 team before, but haven't explained who they are. In 2015, New York Road Runners set up a closed Facebook group for users of its Virtual Trainer program. It was the first time it had done this. Over 16-20 weeks, the group got to know one of another, supported each other, and picked each other up when one of us got down. The group was an outlet for running woes, a place to ask questions, and share achievements. It also meant that we spent less time wrecking the heads of our non-running friends and families with stories and concerns about races. After the 2015 NYC Marathon ended, the group stayed open and everyone kept in touch, keeping the camaraderie going throughout the year. By the time Chicago came around, there was 37 of us enrolled for another of the Abbott World Marathon Majors.

My five minute walk the next morning had me right near my corral. This was heaven. But before I popped over to my corral to go through some last minute things, I ran into some of the VT gang, including Katie Duncan, Michelle Jones, and the man we've all designated as our team captain - Mike Castellano! Why is Mike our captain? Because he's an amazing person, he loves pints after races and long long runs, and somehow - during 26.2 miles - he always has a smile on his face. I don't know how he does it!

 Mike, Michelle, and myself before the madness of the marathon

Mike, Michelle, and myself before the madness of the marathon

 Glorious day for a wee run through Chicago

Glorious day for a wee run through Chicago

The corral - last minute prep

As I sat and stretched in the corral, the last 16-20 weeks went through my head. I remembered the Queens Marathon where my mental toughness failed at mile 22 and prevented me from achieving a new PR. I also thought about the pain from NYC in 2015, when I thought I wouldn't finish. But mostly, I tried to conjure up memories of Philly from 2015 and kept telling myself, today is the day it all goes right again. When a marathon goes wrong on you, it can haunt you. After committing to something for 16-20 weeks and not see the results you want, it can be devastating, despite the high that comes with any marathon finish. Yet, as I sat at the back of corral D, it was tranquil, peaceful, and calm. The announcements were timely and on point, meaning there wasn't a constant drum from the speakers as runners found their inner peace minutes before the madness. The corrals were amazingly marshaled, too, as I sat in a spacious area and took it all in. At one point, I looked back at corral E, which was a good few yards behind. As I did, some foliage trickled down from the bright blue Chicago sky, the result of a slight fall breeze that filtered through the morning air. At that moment, strangely, I felt it was going to be my day. It was if my concerns drifted away with that breeze. The foliage reminded me that fall PRs are made in summer and I had put in the work in relentless NYC humidity.

 Feet don't fail me now

Feet don't fail me now

The race

As I stepped over the start line, I knew this was it. This was going to be my best shot at a PR for the foreseeable future. I had carefully fine tuned my race plans weeks in advance. It sounded simple, but required discipline. A lot of discipline. The plan was: A new PR somewhere in the region of 3:38 and negative splits. After attending an amazing talk in NYC - the launch of the Strava Back Half Challenge, held by Strava, New Balance, and Finish Line PT - I set my sights on a negative split. At that talk, expert marathoners Steve Tranter, Alex Bernardi, Mark Coogan, Jerry Faulkner, and John Honerkamp gave incredibly helpful tips on smart pacing and the art behind negative splitting. When I did the NYC Marathon in 2014 and 2015, I gassed badly at the end both times - because I went out too fast. Negative splitting, then, was the obvious way for me to go. However - to make things more challenging, only 3.5% of those who took part in the 2015 New York marathon achieved negative splits. So it wasn't going to be easy.

So remember those concerns that I said had drifted away into the Chicago sky. Well, it didn't take them long to return. About 7 minutes in fact. Just 7 minutes and 50 seconds in, my Garmin watch told me I was at Mile 1. This was impossible. I knew I was giddy, but I was making a concerted effort to hold back. In order to achieve a negative split, I was supposed to start off at around 8:40-8:50. Seven minutes, 50 seconds would have been a marathon killer at mile 1 for me. I knew things were going pear shaped GPS-wise when .20 miles later, I reached the official 1-mile marker. Fifteen minutes in, my GPS said I had completed 2 miles. I was nowhere near the 2-mile mark. Things were going awry on my watch, which I was depending on to get me through this. At first, I did what I think most runners would have done. Panicked. On the outside, I looked fine, but inside, I was fecking losing my shit. My pace per mile was all over the place on my GPS.

Thankfully, on my arm, I had a pace band that was set up for a time of 3 hours and 38 minutes - and negative splits. In my third mile, the GPS watch said I was doing a 6:30 mile. At this point, I knew I had to approach things differently. I relied instead on overall time, rather than mile pace. With three miles done, the next 10 involved me doing a lot of maths. And I fecking hate maths. In the official race photos, I look confused - rather than enjoying myself - for the first half of the race. According to my pace band, I had to pick up the pace at mile 4, to about 8:26. My watch told me I ran a 8:07 mile, but I still wasn't at the 4-mile marker. I was still about another 15 seconds away from it. At this point, I did some maths (did I mention I fecking hate maths) and concluded that I needed to run at about 8:08-8:15 on my watch to keep up with what I had on my pace band, especially as my watch never matched up with the official mile markers.

However, my main pacing strategy at this point was based on: conjecture. Yes, I was basing my conclusion based on incomplete information. In layman's terms, I raced as my body felt. Throughout my training plan, I had about 20-30 'As you feel runs,' which means you ditch your watch and just listen to your body. I'll be the first to admit that I always did look at my watch and didn't listen to my body as intently as the coaching suggested. But right now, in Chicago, during a fecking marathon, I was listening. My body was talking, telling my brain to shut out the drama of the GPS watch, listen to my legs, and go with it. If someone told me this 16 weeks ago, I would have called them crazy, but by mile 10, my head and legs were in sync. My pace band said I should have 10 miles under my belt at 1:24:12. I came in just 30 seconds under that. I was on track. Even better was that the Muffin was going to be at mile 13 to meet me for my traditional 'good luck kiss/pick me up.'

I had debated telling her that my watch was screwed, but didn't want her worrying about me for the last 13 miles. I had put her through enough the past 24 hours with my airport panic, dash to the expo etc, and, anyways, by the time I reached the halfway point, I was bang on track. I crossed the halfway mark at 1:50:14. My pace band goal for halfway was 1:50:01, so I was around where I wanted to be. My watch was still going wild at this point, so I kept a focus on overall time, rather than lap time.

The worst thing about all the GPS kerfuffle was that I didn't exactly enjoy the first 10-12 miles as I was too busy adding numbers in my head. What I can remember seeing was amazing though as Chicago natives took to the streets in large numbers to roar us on. Mile 13 saw me meet the Muffin, where she gave me a customary kiss and a hug and sent me on my way. Just another 13 to go and I was feeling good.

At the Strava Back Half challenge, Jerry Faulkner said to achieve negative splits, you need to hold back until mile 16 and then the race really starts. When I hit that point, that statement was on my mind. It was race time. I was feeling fresh and a PR was on the cards, if I maintained my discipline and pushed myself. At this point, my watch decided to get in on the act by acclimatizing itself to its surroundings. It was now giving me somewhat accurate readings. Thanks GPS - only took you 16 miles to get in the game.

 Powering through Chinatown - or at least trying to

Powering through Chinatown - or at least trying to

Of course, all marathons don't go to plan and the last six miles involved a lot of obstacles, one of which involved me slipping on a banana skin in classic cartoon-like fashion at mile 21. As racers discarded peeled skins, my right foot went out underneath me. Being an awkward lummox, I went falling, only to be gripped by a fellow runner, a savior. If I had have fallen on my face at that point, it's likely that I would have stayed there.

The final four

By mile 22, it was happening. However, the crowds were not as large as they previously were, meaning that extra boost wasn't quite there until the final two miles. A lot can happen between Mile 22 and 24. Races can be won and lost, PRs can spectacularly fall apart or become a reality. Miles 22-24 were full of mental issues. All I kept thing about was: I have around 33 minutes left of running. I've done about 50-70 four mile runs throughout my program. I visualized where I had run many of those four milers and said, I can do this. With my legs suddenly starting to feel heavy, it was my mind that was going to take me through the last four miles. Once I reached 26 miles, I knew the final .2 distance would come easy. I thought back to the Queens Marathon, where my PR disappeared right in front of me, due to poor mental preparation. That's what kept me going here. Not again. Not today.

Those two miles took it out of me. Just before I reached the Abbott cheer zone - located on the last 1.2 miles of the course - I did the unthinkable. I stopped. I ran to a standstill. Putting my hands on my knees, I thought to myself: "Oh shit. Don't stop. Why have you stopped." About 20 seconds must have passed, but they seemed like a lifetime. Seconds before embracing another PR failure, something clicked. Sheer will and stubbornness teamed up to defeat exhaustion and the part of the mind that says "please stop." Taking one last big breath, I put one foot forward in front of the other and got back on track. The Muffin would later tell me she panicked when she saw the little Gary McLaughlin dot stop on her Marathon App tracker. But I moved forward and eventually picked up the pace. This was still happening. Feet don't fail me now. When I reached the Abbott cheer zone, thousands of people roared us all onto the home stretch - what could go wrong now?

 Racing someone called Julia on the final stretch #raceeverything

Racing someone called Julia on the final stretch #raceeverything

A fecking hill?

Everyone says Chicago is flat. What they don't tell you about is the hill at Mile 25.5. It's not a significant hill, by any stretch of the imagination, but at Mile 25.5, any hill feels like Everest. It was do or die. I saw many people stop and walk up it. And there was no shame in that. However, I knew that come Monday, the pain and regret of walking up that hill would annoy and trouble me more than the pain in my legs if I were to run up it. With that, I used my arms and legs and used the momentum by dropping my arms to lift my legs higher and higher with each step up that fecking hill to the final .2 of the course.

The finish

I can vividly remember crossing the finish line of the New York City Marathon in 2015. I can remember the finish of the Queens Marathon. And the Philadelphia Marathon. Chicago though was all a blur, like an outer body experience that I wasn't physically present for. As I raced up the final stretch, the mind went blank. I didn't think about a PR, I didn't think about the achievement, I didn't think about the last 16 weeks. Awash with clarity and peace of mind, muscle aches disappeared, mental anguish dissipated into the beautiful Chicago air, albeit momentarily. As soon as I crossed the finish line, a crashing wave of screams - happy joyful finisher roars - broke my serene mental state. Realizing where I was, I stepped to the side and tried to reflect on the whole thing for a moment, before walking off to collect the all important bling. Seconds later, the Muffin rang to congratulate me, and she was greeted with a bemused runner. "Congrats. You got a new PR," she said. I didn't even realize. From Mile 25 on, I didn't check my watch, I didn't know what was happening. Suddenly, heavy legs felt like they weighed less. A smile supplanted the pain-staked look on my face. The finisher walk was a joyful one, rather than one of regret. If anything, I wish it had have gone on longer, strangely enough. The ghost of the Queens Marathon was put to bed. A sub 3:40 marathon was achieved. And it was still before 12 p.m. and plenty of time left in the day to celebrate. Chicago, renowned for its deep dish pizza, was calling me for the next two days. After 26.2 miles, beer and pizza was a must. And there was no better city to be in.