Race Review: Chi Town Half Marathon 2016

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Spoiler Alert?

Race Week

In the week leading into this race, I felt mentally unprepared. I hadn’t done much visualization, I had only loose time goals (somewhere around 8:30s, maybe a bit faster on a good day), and everything felt busy and rushed. It barely registered that I was racing in a few days. The course had been changed about a week before race day; instead of letting the race sell out, they kept registration open, and moved the course to accommodate larger numbers. This was the first sign that the race organizers were more focused on their bottom line than their customers’ experiences. On top of that, the weather had been pretty unpredictable, and the forecast changed almost daily. Up until Thursday night, I was anticipating partly cloudy, low-to-mid 40s, and minimal wind: cool, but about as ideal as can be expected this time of year. Friday night’s hourly forecast told another story, one with less warmth and more womp.
It had rained, sleeted, and snowed – sideways wind and all – all day Friday, and I was faced with the reality of a cold, damp, and potentially snowy race. In April. Of course. I picked out approximately 37 different race attire options to cover my bases, ate some pizza, and fell asleep fairly easily (maybe the first sign that I wasn’t as mentally engaged as I should have been?). Despite multiple emails (4? 5?) telling people to bring their bib numbers to packet pick-up, including one on race morning, there was zero communication about course conditions, safety precautions, or updated race info. So that was neat and not at all a sign of things to come.

Race Morning

I choked down some peanut butter toast and nuun, and Todd and I hopped in the car, expecting to give me about 45min pre-race to get settled, warm up, and hop into my course mapcorral. As we drove in, it was clear that snow would be an issue on the course. Once we found parking, and started the 1/2mi walk to the staging area, it became clear that ICE would be an issue. Every iota of the trail (dirt, gravel, pavement) was covered in almost an inch of sheet ice. As far as we could tell, the race organizers hadn’t plowed/shoveled/salted anything. Someone had to have marked the course that morning — did they just decide it was somehow safe? There were also no visible bathrooms in the staging area, and no volunteers to ask where I might accomplish some pre-race rituals. Annoyed, I set off towards some porta potties we had passed on the way in (a good 1/4mi from the start/finish), and waited a good 20min to use them. The crowd around me was just as confused and frustrated. The jog to and from the bathrooms served as my lackluster warm-up; I gingerly ran on ice-covered sidewalks, dodging other runners walking in herds to the start. By the time I got back, angry tears had started forming. This was supposed to feel like a victory return to racing, and I felt cheated. I took a few minutes (and hugs)  to re-calibrate, and I figured the bathroom and weather issues would soon be a thing of the past. My frustration crept back in as I pushed through the crowded corral with thousands of other runners (this event also hosted a 10k, and there were ~4,000 of us in total). Two additional corrals were opened up 2 minutes prior to the gun with conflicting announcements as to who should be where (the DJ’s instructions were backwards, as he was facing us, and literally changed every time he announced them). Everyone around me grumbled and pushed, equally confused. Finally, about 5 minutes late, the gun went off as the basement price race announcer kept doing shout outs.

The Race

Mile 1: Oh, a 90-degree turn 10ft from the start? Ok. Waved to the guy and tried to keep my eye on the icy path. He later told me he saw a few runners wipe out in that first turn.

Mile 2: Huh. 8:30s. Ok. Oh, we’re running in the grass now because the actual course is covered in 2 inches of ice. Almost got my eyes gauged out by those small, barely visible tree branches, but better than sliding into the lake? My feet continued to slip out from under me. One lone porta potty here, and people actually using it?

Mile 3: Two runners have already gone down on the ice. A third wipes out and takes 3-4 runners out from behind. 1-2 more can’t stop and fall over him. I am angry at how unsafe this is. I start expecting someone to plow into me from behind with every step. I latch onto a young woman wearing a warm New Trier headband – she has enthusiasm I can’t begin to understand. Still 8:30s.

Mile 4: A traffic manager lights up a stogie as I run past. “Seriously?!” I exclaim loudly. My irritation, it seems, can only grow. I pass my guy, smile, and give a thumbs down. In my anger, the idea of dropping out is no longer an option. I immediately feel guilty, because I know that he’ll spend the next hour worrying about me. GET IT TOGETHER, BRAIN! If you can’t be happy, at least stop being so damn angry!

Mile 5: Oh, the trail seems better! The ice looks totally melte… wait, nope. Now it’s black ice, not sheet ice. An asshole checks my shoulder hard as he weaves between people. “HEY,” I shout angrily. He was wearing basketball shorts and about to crush a middle-of-the-pack pace, so who was I to get in his way? It was at this point that we finally ditched the 10k-ers, and the crowds ease up a bit, but my pace had slowed with the crowds, and my feet were more tentative.

Mile 6: I took my first gel – the cold weather meant I basically ran with a mouth full of orange-flavored pudding until I passed a water table and could finally choke it down. A guy wearing a footballer jersey cruises past listening to a loud, external stereo. His EDM jam sounded like a chorus of sharts. I hated him. Man. My knees are barking. I hope this is just tired hurt and not long-term hurt. I almost miss the timing mat trying to avoid a giant pothole filled with ice. [[ 10k split = 54:29.5  or 8:47 pace ]]

Mile 7: I am officially tired. Turns out that running incredibly tense and angry, and using stabilizing muscles that haven’t seen the light of day since 1st grade ice skating lessons, will wear you out really fast. ENOUGH. Time to stop being angry and start feeling determined. This lasts literally 4 seconds before my feet almost come out from under me, and my brain reverts right back to BURN IT ALL DOWN.

Mile 8: Ok. Almost to the northerly turn-aroun… oh for the love of god why are we running West?! Volunteers have taken it upon themselves to write ice warnings on their direction signs as we head down a cement ramp that is covered in ice… or a ski jump. “Ok, you’ve slowed down a bit, but that’s ok. Your new goal is to finish sub-2. At this pace (9:15), that’s completely doable. Just buckle down on the stretches where the ice is drier.” The trail shoots us back North where the ice is now rough and about 3 inches thick, and we’re immediately hit with 35mph wind. The water table here is more of a hazard: water from the cups is only adding to the slippery ice already underfoot, and people are coming to dead stops everywhere. I almost start crying. Sub-two?! Welp, see ya…

Mile 9: Simmer down, buckle down, calm down. The trail is still covered in ice, but I’m on familiar turf here, and know that the wind and ice will likely revert to their earlier, better-but-still-horrible conditions in less than a mile. The trail is right along the lake at this point, and the angry waves are crashing up on to the path. Runners are forced onto the wrong side of the trail to avoid getting soaked.

Mile 10: Ok. You have 3.1 miles to go. You literally do this all the time. Oh, there goes an ambulance. I hope that person’s ok… I hope that person sues. Might as well eat this other gel… nope. Yep. Still pudding-like consistency that requires water to get down.

Mile 11: Fidgeting with my iPod doesn’t seem to be helping me. Two miles to go. Is this the fucking glacier half? I hate everything. The fastest way to be done is literally running race walking to the finish line. I can still go a sub-two if I don’t slow down. Just don’t slow down.

Mile 12: One more mile. If they send us up Cricket Hill, I will literally murder someone with an icicle. Oh, a water stop at mile 12.5, and perfectly located where the trail narrows and makes a 90-degree turn under a tunnel: how convenient! The first person says, “Water?!” and I literally put my hand up and said, “Nope!” with a tone I’m not super proud of. (The volunteers here were great, though. This was the first time that people utilized our personalized race bibs in their cheers — I heard a lot of “Yea Hillary!!” That made me feel even worse about my attitude.)

Mile 13: Oh, look. Spectators and volunteers are literally just walking on the path in herds like there’s not a race happening. That’s fun! I see Todd right before the finishing chute and give him a big smile and wave (I think? Did I actually do that or was it more of a grimace and nod?) I literally slipped ON the finishing mat (covered in icy water, duh), and almost went down, so that felt appropriate. I clocked at 1:58.

As I walked through the finishing chute, someone handed me a medal, and I entered an empty staging area with minimal people and no banana or water table to be seen. Who wants those things after a half marathon, anyway? That, I later found out, was conveniently located about 200 feet from the finish line, hidden by gear check? Todd wrapped me up in a big hug and I cried a little bit out of anger and frustration and exhaustion, and I recapped the entire mess of what I had seen. He recounted his own experiences as a spectator; at one point, he saw traffic management giving cars and shuttle buses the right of way across the race course, forcing runners to slow or stop. Much like me, he saw numerous people slip and fall on the ice.

The irony of such a photogenic race photo isn’t lost (mile 6-7?).

This was definitely not the race I wanted, and while I can take responsibility for continuing to run the course, there wasn’t really any option to drop out after mile 4 that didn’t involve walking miles back to the starting line on the same icy path. I had no way of knowing just how bad the course conditions would be later on, and optimistically (and perhaps foolishly) thought they might have salted, or that the sun would have done its magic. I’m loathe to criticize volunteers, because I know how hard that can be, and I’m thankful for their efforts, but race organizers did little to prep or train them for their duties. There were three kids holding directional signs where the 10k split from the half, and when I passed, two of them were talking to their friends, the signs not facing the runners. That’s not fair to the people who pay to be there, and it’s not fair for the people who want to help. Communication about course conditions was completely and entirely absent – no emails, no DJ announcements, no staging area signs or staff.

 

Takeaways

This wasn’t my fastest or best effort — and while the ice was really, really bad, other people managed to find their feet a little better than I did. I finished in the top 15% of women and AG, top 25% overall, and most importantly, I was the fastest (and oldest) Hillary in the race (weirdly, there’s no medal for that) — these aren’t stats to be ashamed of, but I’m finding it hard to be proud of a race that was completely different than the one I anticipated. That being said, I am proud of myself for being able to shift my goals mid-race, and for sticking to those new goals. I’m proud of myself for pushing in those last four miles – I maintained my 9:15 pace or faster in that time, despite feeling defeated and tired and distrustful of every step, and despite not actually being able to push off my feet without slipping. I find it poetic that this race’s greatest challenge turned out to be mental, something I’ve definitely struggled with this cycle.

Moving Forward

I was a little creaky and sore the rest of the weekend, but by Monday I felt fine, and my anger generally dissolved with the ice. I still won’t be running any more races with All Community Events, but I have other things to waste my brain power on than feeling frustrated by the past.  Moving forward, I have a two 5ks and two 10ks in the coming months, and I’m looking forward to warmer, more cooperative weather. As great as it was to enjoy a spicy Bloody Mary and a roaring fire, I’d much prefer a sunny patio for post-race libations.

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6 Comments

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  1. Ugh what a bummer! Not just that you had such a crappy experience but that a professional race org didn’t seem to care 😦 I ran this race 3-4 years ago and it was OK but I think I remember a few weird things (congested start, the course may have crossed itself at one point, weird porto placements).
    My husband ran the All Community Events thanksgiving half marathon a couple years ago and that was also a very “meh” experience.

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    • I ran this back in 2013, which was the year they misdirected that 10k folks and ended up refunding a bunch of people for it. I think the most baffling thing to me was the finish area. How do you not have bathrooms and food in the immediate vicinity of the finish line? That’s a no-brainer to anyone whose only race experience is other peoples’ facebook profile pics, much less an experienced race org.

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      • I must have run it in 2011 or 2012 then. And duh, crowds of people = need somewhere to answer nature’s call. Huge discouraging oversight 😦

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  2. I am torn between feeling sad that you had such a shit-tastic race and delighted because it led to such an enjoyably snarky post. I would have rather you’d been able to run in great, safe conditions but absent that I’m glad we at least got this post out of the situation.

    Also what’s with course control letting traffic onto the race course? That happened up during a triathlon in Clermont – a cop stopped racers on their bikes to let a truck through. What the fuck. Just…NO.

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    • Heh. I spent the majority of the race drafting this review in my head. I didn’t witness the crowd control issue myself (my boyfriend did), but my experience with them the last time I ran this race wasn’t much better. The guy smoking a cigarillo just floored me. 1) Smoking in city parks is illegal; 2) you’re literally lighting up next to thousands of people exercising; 3) it was 9a.m; 4) you need both hands to effectively direct traffic, and lighting up/smoking uses one of those hands. I can’t remember if this guy was a city worker, or private company, but not cool either way.

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  3. Ugh, sounds like a freakishly terrible experience, but good on you for pushing through. And that photo! All you need is some salad and rainbows, and you’d be set!!

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