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I just blew in from the Windy City…

Chicago marathon 2016

I have wanted to visit Chicago for many years, and it was probably the place I’ve been most looking forward to running in as part of the Timmyslam. It didn’t disappoint. At least, once I got there…A rather long and uneventful flight (apparently there are still long-haul flights with no TV/film options!) was followed by a two-hour delay at the airport as I was pulled out of the line by US Customs and Border Protection and made to wait in a holding area, all on account of having “a very common surname”.

A light breakfast!

Our first full day in Chicago began with breakfast at a fantastic local place called Yolk. Breakfast is much more of an event in the US than it is at home, and I would definitely recommend Yolk to anyone who found themselves in Chicago. Bacon, sausage, pork, lamb, chicken, steak (with or without sauces, syrups etc), eggs done a million ways, different types of bread toast and juices, free coffee refills…the list was endless, and so (almost) were the portions! Suitably fortified (and with no concerns about having to think about lunch), it was time to head-off to the marathon Expo for the usual number and t-shirt pick up and to take in the pre-marathon atmosphere. I think Chicago ranks alongside London as the best Expo experience so far – all very well organised, and although it was very busy it never seemed overly crowded (something Berlin could learn from). And then it was time to spend a couple of days exploring the city.

Run, walk or bike – a great city to explore

That’s one of the best things about Chicago; it’s the sort of place that lends itself to wandering around (on foot, bike, bus or boat) and just seeing what you find. It’s helped by the stunning lakeside position of the city and the plethora of gardens and parks with their statues and fountains, but there are also some great museums and galleries, and some stunning architecture too, not to mention the elevated (or ‘L’) trains, all which give Chicago its own distinct feel when compared to many other North American cities. Now I’m not particularly a student of architecture, but a guided boat tour along the river (did you know they changed the direction of the river some 120 years ago so that it now flows out of the lake rather than into it, much to the annoyance of Canada?) was a fascinating way to see the different styles of building, and to get a feel for how the city developed. Not to mention having pointed out to us all the places where they filmed Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy!

International runner!

Of course, the main reason for the trip was the run; or actually two runs. As I wrote previously, my partner Liz started running this summer, completing a Couch to 5k programme at our local club. As part of the marathon weekend the organisers hosted the inaugural Chicago International 5k, a chance for visitors and locals to experience running through the city, and to finish at the official marathon finish line. So we decided we would do this together and, despite the early (and cold) start, we had a great time, with Liz proclaiming at the finish that she was now an international runner and proudly wearing her finisher bobble hat!

In many ways the marathon followed the tone set by the Expo and the 5k – it was incredibly well organised, and although a big event (40,000 plus runners) it managed to maintain a friendly and intimate feel. Another early start (the race started at 7.30am) meant runners started to gather in Grant Park whilst it was still dark. However, it did mean that I was able to watch the sun rise over Lake Michigan before making my way to the start line, a wonderful way to take a little time out and contemplate the race ahead. The marathon weaves its way through many parts of the city; through the skyscrapers of the city loop, crossing the river a number of times, following the park paths along the lakeside and taking in a number of the city’s distinct neighbourhoods. As I was a little unsure how my legs would fare just two weeks after Berlin, I decided to run with one of the many pacing groups, and really enjoyed the experience. Not only did it mean I had the benefit of running with a group, and not having to think too much about my pace, but the pacers themselves chatted all the way round, pointing out things that we would never have noticed otherwise, and helping to pass the time. The crowds were great too. The support in London and Berlin was fabulous, but somehow the Americans just throw themselves into it so much more enthusiastically. I never got tired of hearing “Go runners…good job” or “You got this seventy-five ninety-one” or reading a “If Trump can run so can you” sign every 100 metres!

The Bean (and the bean-counter)

It was all going well, really well in fact, until about mile 18 when the going just started to get much harder, and although I didn’t noticeably slow down until mile 22, Liz had seen me out on the course and could see I was struggling. So much so that she took one final detour to see me again at mile 25 and cheer me on to the finish. It worked, and I was able to hang on for my third fastest marathon time and a second sub-3.10 in two weeks. Once again the runners area in Grant Park provided a great setting for some post-race reflection and rehydration (with a free beer), with runners able to take their time to collect themselves, and talk to each other about races run, and future plans and challenges (“this crazy Brit’s running all six majors this year!”). Watered and stretched it was time to head out to the family meeting area, the post-race party, and a well-deserved ice cream.

All my major marathons this year have been different and special in their own way but there was something about the character and atmosphere of Chicago, both the city and the marathon, that really appealed to me, and makes me suspect I’ll be back again!