Caveat emptor: I know it sounds a bit pretentious to consider a disappointment a sub-3:30 marathon and being mad about it, but disappointment is a subjective experience and a result, which would be a huge accomplishment for some, is a failure for someone else. Ryan Hall described his result at the Philadelphia Half Marathon a huge disappointment, so big he decided to withdraw from the Chicago Marathon: he ran the race in a puny 63 minutes. And I can hear from the readers “but he’s a professional runner …” That’s true, but it doesn’t make a race less important for amateur runners; in different way, we both, professionals and amateurs, have invested a huge amount of energy and time into the preparation, and it is on this investment that disappointment should be considered.

So here I am in describing what worked and what didn’t work in the weeks leading to the Chicago Marathon and, more importantly, what I learned. Plus, I’ve very cool graphs to show my point. (N.B. ci saranno molte ripetizioni con quanto ho scritto in italiano nel race report.)

In the week before the race, I was looking, almost frantically, at the weather forecast for Chicago; in the last few years, the Chicago Marathon had experienced some unseasonal warm weathers and I was worried the 2010 edition would be the same. Needless to say, it was.
By Wednesday, I knew race day would be warm; the race would start in the mid-60s to creep into the the 90s by noon. I never react well to heat, I am a person who prefers to wake up at 5 in the morning, before sunrise, rather than having to run in warm weather.
All my fears became reality when on Saturday I landed in O’Hare: as I was waiting the shuttle bus to pick me up, I thought “damn it’s hot.” It wasn’t just my perception, pretty much everybody was talking about the weather, and temperatures in particular, at the expo; the people at the Nike pacer stand were suggesting to be conservative and to consider a 30 minutes slower time goal. I didn’t and signed up for the “3:10” group anyway, but the fear in high temps had already crept in and — I now realize — I lost at that moment. It is often said that a marathon is 5% physical and 95% mental, meaning that the hay is in the stack and one has to have confidence that the training will give its fruits; I lost confidence in myself already on Saturday, hours before standing at the starting line (by the way, this is only an expression, I was yards away from the starting line).

I still wonder if I should have changed plans completely and going with the 3:20 group instead. I know, at the end, I finished in 3:22 but the race was a complete disaster. The following plot should give an idea of what kind of race it was:

Plot of my pace vs km. (The pace is given in min/km, blue dashed line, and min/mi, red dashed line.)

Up until the halfway point, I went at a pretty steady pace and then the race changed completely; I remember the second half of the race as brutal — many started dropping out, being helped by med teams or walking their way to the end. I was part of the second group, though I thought, seriously, to stop at a medical tent and to quit the race. I bonked around mile 19 and, although it sounds like the wall, it wasn’t (or at least I’m trying my best to maintain that opinion); it was mostly psychological and a little physical. At the point in the race there is no shade and temperatures were already above 80F, I know this bit because I read it on a thermometer around Chinatown and that was the blow that shattered my hopes completely.
This is for the psychological part, for which I couldn’t do anything (I know … I should be tougher …) For the physical part, it was something I started noticing more and more while going for medium and long runs: I can’t eat the gels. For sure I need them in training, but I don’t know if I really need to carry them during races, where Gatorade is offered at water stations. On the one hand, I think I could go without, but on the other, it’s hard to leave home this special kind of lifejacket and it’s even harder to even consider experimenting. I might try different gels when I’ll be running long again and see whether they’re “gentler”.
I kind of believe that both the gels and the temperatures are responsible for the horrible stitches I got around mile 19 (as I said it was both psychological and physical).

It was an upsetting race, but an experience nevertheless. I am still recovering, mostly because I’m overly cautious after a marathon, as I had a very bad experience after the Vermont Marathon, when I went back into running too early and managed to hurt the knee and to lose many days of training. This upcoming week I’m planning to go for some easy runs, no longer than 45 minutes, and if everything goes well I’ll start to get back into regimen and hopefully I’ll be on my base of 50mi a week by mid December.

What follows is the statistical study of my division (male, 30~34 years old) during the Chicago Marathon. If I believed in “curving the grades” and “mal comune, mezzo gaudio” I’d see that my race wasn’t that bad after all …

The thick black dashed line is my time, the thin line is the average over the entire field division. Average was of 4 hours and 38 minutes, standard deviation 54 minutes.