chicago marathon week 2013

Sunday (10/6/13): Twin City Warmup
With the corners of my mouth pinned up and my eyes crinkled and glittering my Fall marathon season began in the crisp air of one of the most beautiful St. Paul mornings you could ask for. With my thoughts and focus on the Chicago Marathon one week hence I pulled all my focus to the present, to the Twin Cities Marathon, step one, the appetizer.

After a week of forecasts of icy cold rain for marathon morning, the warm kiss of the sun unrelentingly distorting my face into a smile I burst on the start line. This race was not of the highest importance to me as a race its value lay in preparing my mind and body for the races yet un-raced. I allowed my arms to break free, cycling through the mechanics of a racing stroke; high elbows and flexed rhomboids leading to a downward explosion of force as your hands translate power through the push rim causing the racing chair to surge forwards. Seven days before the largest and most competitive wheelchair field ever would take over the streets of Chicago, I was beginning my final preparations with a warmup marathon. As the miles ticked by my eyes soaked in the lake front views of the fortunate Minneapolis-St. Paul neighborhoods as my mind analyzed the vital signs of a marathon ready body. My nervous energy turning kinetic, my arms honing in on the perfect technique, my lungs selfishly rejoicing with each breath.

To most marathoners it would seem odd to run competitive marathons in back to back weekends, but to a wheelchair racer it is relatively standard practice. Without the persistent pounding on the joints that accompanies running, wheelchair marathoners can recover much faster after a distance race making it possible to run as many as three marathons in a month without sacrificing much in the way of performance.

With that said I was still cautious to not work too hard this particular Minnesota morning. My mind playing jockey to the over energized horse of a body, constantly pulling back at the reins. I was fortunate enough to find myself well in front pushing with one of my teammates and training partners. We worked together and helped keep each other in check while ensuring we maintained our lead.

As the roads began to climb upwards around mile 20, I let myself climb a little harder, testing my ability. I separated from my training partner and pushed the final miles alone, a pack of police motorcycles leading the way and the voices of strangers cheering me on from the roadside. One race down, one victory, one more invaluable day of preparation for the challenges to come.

After a long shower I let my mind drift from the present and begin to get excited all over again for what was to come. My Chicago Marathon week had begun and would jump to another level that evening when I picked up one of my best friends and competitors from Australia, Kurt Fearnley, at Chicago O'Hare.

Monday (10/7/13): Return of Oz

The 2012 Chicago Marathon came and went without him, but in 2013 he returned. When Kurt texted my a few weeks ago to ask me if he and a friend of ours, Cuz, a bear of a man from the bush, could crash at my place for a few days leading up to marathon weekend I immediately and emphatically responded yes.

In the intimate world of elite wheelchair racing I had known Kurt since my first trip to Australia, but we grew close when he opened his Newcastle home to me in 2008, allowing me to crash on his couch and train with him for a month. Over the course of the stay we evolved from acquaintances to great friends. This trip was followed a couple years later by another month long stay on his couch in which I was so openly accepted (In Aussie see: "harangued") by Kurt and his circle of friends that I felt I had a second home on the sunnier side of the planet. I had always wanted to repay the debt of hospitality and could not have been happier to see him next to me in Champaign, IL.

Being their first day in the country, though, Cuz and Kurt needed constant stimulation to keep their glazed eyes open. After an early morning training session (for Kurt. I was taking a post-marathon rest day), we grabbed a large, fatty American breakfast and immediately went to a friends house to play video games. Though I am not much of a gamer I must say that they are the perfect tool to staying awake when your body is screaming for sleep. I mean, how can you sleep when you have to protect the world from the endless hoard of zombies coming at you, wave after wave, in Call of Duty?

NEED MORE... monday night football maybe?

Tuesday (10/8/13): Training with the enemy

Tuesday morning I fully remembered why I loved training with Kurt. As Kurt, Cuz (on a bike) and myself took advantage of a gorgeous morning, I savored the nature of wheelchair racing.

As competitive a sport as any that exists, it is immensely gratifying that the majority of the top athletes in the sport favor the growth of the sport as much as their own accomplishments. When I first trained with Kurt five years ago we were both fully aware that I was not a threat to him come race day. He was allowing me to train with him to attempt to get up to the level that he was, but knowing that I was not an immediate threat. We both openly encouraged each other to improve. Years later, at a time when I have finally elevated my racing to pose a threat to Kurt on race day, our encouragement has not changed. We both realize that as you actively help your competitors improve and progress to the top tier of racing you make it harder on yourself in races, but you exponentially raise the quality of the sport.

Training together five days before a major marathon we obviously gave away our fitness levels to each other, there would be no surprises there, but we also increased the anticipation for a fast, entertaining and tactical race.

Wednesday (10/9/13): Enter Chicago

After his third workout in Champaign I had Kurt convinced to return again next year to train for a much longer period of time. Champaign, IL and the University of Illinois, is one of the best places in the world for a wheelchair racer to train. My Aussie friend had finally experienced it. As one of the first places in the country to begin wheelchair sports in the late 1940s, U of I has become a hotbed for wheelchair racing and wheelchair basketball, fielding wheelchair basketball players on at least six different national basketball squads every Paralympics, and housing 90% of the USA wheelchair racing team as well as the top South Korean wheelchair racer.

As we packed up after practice and prepared for our evening drive up to Chicago, I delighted in the ability to finally share my home, and all it encompasses, with a couple great friends.

Thursday (10/10/13): One ticket short

I must admit that the details of this day are a bit hazy to me. I remember it starting wonderfully. We had a lazy morning, grabbing coffee down the street from our hotel on S. Michigan before snagging a rental bike for Cuz and wandering through Millennium Park. This was followed by a great lakeside ride before heading to the Elite Athlete Suite to check in and pick up our race numbers. But after that I began blocking out memories.

You see, I had to begin to immediately block out the fact that my dear Aussie friends acquired two tickets to the Thursday night Bears vs. Giants game. They acquired two tickets while, to the best of my calculations, our party consisted of three. I want to give Kurt the benefit of the doubt, counting can be difficult, but when he acquired amazing tickets at the 50 yard line through a friend who happens to be good friends with Roger Goodell, he obviously asked for the wrong number of tickets.

The last thing I remember from that day is drifting to sleep in a pool of tears with the Bears game on TV and my "good" friends soaking in the atmosphere at a sold out Soldier Field.

Friday (10/11/13):

Did you know that the natural coast of Lake Michigan is actually Michigan Ave.? Did you know that what is now the beautiful park and museum laden lakefront is all built on landfill? Well it is, and no you know.

One of the biggest keys to the week leading up to a major marathon is tempering the amount of time you actually spend thinking about the upcoming race. While it is impossible to not let your mind wander into the future at all, allowing it to happen too much causes, stress and anxiety and accomplishes nothing good. The key is the ability to accept that the race will happen when it happens and that no amount of thinking about it ahead of time will positively affect the outcome.

With this knowledge in our pockets, there was no better way to spend the afternoon than eating cookies on a boat as we were regaled by tales of the incredible architectural history of the city. Many thanks to the Architectural Boat Tour people. It was an enjoyable and informative tour and a great way to escape the racing world for a couple hours.

Saturday (10/12/13): The laziest days of the year

The day before a marathon has quickly become one of my favorite types of days. In the tight knit world of wheelchair racing major races take on the feel of family reunions. This particular morning began with a short training session in which the focus was just as much catching up with old friends as it was shaking out the arms and making sure we were ready for Sunday morning.

The rest of the day is dedicated to absolute and utter laziness. I laid around and chatted with one of my best friends who lives in Chicago, took a quick turn around the park, and then laid around some morning. My evening was taken up with a technical meeting, race sponsored pasta dinner and then pre-race equipment preparations before switching to geriatric mode and killing the lights at 9:30.

With a 4:30 a.m. alarm and the most competitive Chicago Marathon ever on the horizon, all responsibility the day before turns to doing nothing. Prescribed laziness that I have learned to savor.

Sunday (10/13/13): Sprint Finishes

I was so exhilarated when I woke up Sunday morning that I didn't even care that the numbers on the clock barely added up to the hour that I typically get out of bed. In two-and-a-half short hours I would be lining up next to the most amazing group of athletes that I have ever seen running Chicago at one time. Sharing the front line with me was Heinz Frei, the greatest wheelchair marathoner ever, Krige Schabort, the Iron Man world record holder who has a motor than never stops, Josh Cassidy, owner of the world's fastest marathon time, Kurt Fearnley, two-time gold medalist in the Paralympic Marathon, Ernst Van Dyke, one of the top marathoners of the past ten years, and Richard Colman, a short distance specialist who has had increasing success in the longer stuff. That's not to mention the guys lining up behind us, including one of the top marathoners from Spain, my teammate Aaron Pike, and my coach, a man who somehow manages to field 15-20 athletes in the Chicago Marathon every year and run in the lead pack himself.

As I settled my mind before the race I made sure I focused on anything but the amount of talent in the field, but when we bolted off the start line like a pack of wild dogs and I took a quick peak behind me the wave of potential struck me hard. Fortunately I was quickly refocused as I saw Ernst rush to the front with no sign of slowing down. With a couple of deep breaths to calm the early burst of energy I was flooded with, I slowly reeled Ernst in, settling into second going through the first turn.

Chicago is an interesting race for wheelchair racers. Wheelchair races, like in cycling or auto racing, tend to be run in packs. This leads to very tactical racing, as the person in front of the pack, "pulling" everyone behind him, creates a slip-stream or a draft that the racers behind him can take advantage of. Racers sitting behind another racer can go the same speed as the racer pulling, while working up to 15% less. This ability to work less while going just as fast creates a lot of tactical games as racers play cat and mouse trying to get certain racers to the front of the pack, or varying the pace to make sure that while you are pulling the racers behind you, they still have to work hard.

In many races, the lead pack of wheelchair racers is gradually thinned out naturally due to certain geographic elements. Hills and windy roads offer a lot of places where racers can attack and break apart packs. Flat courses, with straight city roads, like Chicago, often make it harder for racers to attack and thin out the pack. Despite Ernst's best efforts, pulling the first 5k at a blistering pace, we still had a solid ten racers in the lead pack. For a while the pace settled down and it seemed that the pack would maintain its size for a large portion of the race. There were a few strong pulls at the front that stretched the pack into a long straight line, but it wasn't until a series of attacks between mile 9 and 10 that the pack broke.

Around mile 9 I slipped to the front of the back but split out wide to the side of the road. I started settling into a comfortable pace when I looked left and realized that not only was there nobody behind me, but the entire pack was on the opposite side of the road. Before I gave myself a chance to second guess my actions, I put my head down and surged forwards, picking up the pace by a little over two miles an hour (to about 20mph), and forcing the pack to chase me. I held the pace for a little over a quarter mile before relaxing to let the pack catch up, however as soon as the pack regrouped behind me Heinz attacked, pushing the pace back to around 20mph. Heinz is famous for his ability to sustain attacks for extended periods of time, and this attack didn't disappoint. By the time he decided that everyone had hurt enough chasing him down Heinz had whittled the pack down to five. Within two more miles, five became four and the race for the win began.

Even 13 miles from the finish, a small pack of fiercely competitive racers will begin sizing each other up, taking inventory of strengths and weaknesses and trying to figure out the best way to cross the line in front of the rest. As Kurt, Ernst, Heinz and myself were led through the various Chicago neighborhoods we all began playing our little games. Heinz, hoping to take advantage of his aforementioned ability, would hang off the back of the back for a couple miles at a time before surging to the front and spiking the pace. Kurt remained content to stay settled in the pack, taking his turn at the front when he needed to, but staying as relaxed as possible. Ernst seemed happy to wait for a finishing sprint. He pulled moderately hard, but you could tell that he felt strong and was saving as much as he could for one swift finishing blow.

I kept having to remind myself to stay calm and relaxed. Our challengers in the chase pack were out of sight, and there was no point wasting energy. The goal was to win, not necessarily to go fast. I did, however, make sure that Ernst was behind me as much as possible when I was in the lead. I am smallest racer in the elite field, meaning that there is much less of me to block the wind when I am in the front compared to other racers. Ernst, being one of the biggest guys in the field, gets much less benefit drafting me than he would Kurt or Heinz.

The four of us played our games, sometimes surging, sometimes sitting up and forcing others to take the lead, until the last 5k. When you race with Heinz, the last 5k in Chicago can be the hardest stretch of straight road you will ever race. Heinz, wanting to avoid a sprint finish, a relative weakness of his, put on a series of surges. He would kick the pace up over 20mph forcing us to chase him down, then as we settled behind him he would cut hard across the road, shaking us from his draft and surge again.

My arms began to burn as I covered surge after surge, all the time wondering why we couldn't just get along. Then the final right turn came into sight and everyone's eyes narrowed. Kurt, happy to let everyone else dictate the pace for the previous 25.8 miles, surged to the front around the turn and powered up the first half of the bridge on Roosevelt. Ernst and I responded fast and as Kurt backed off his attack Ernst swung in from of him. I surged up the right side of the bridge, but could not take the lead before the final left turn. As I swung wide onto Columbus Kurt and Ernst were suddenly side by side in a dead sprint. Every sense in my body went numb except for my sight. My eyes were burning wholes in the backs of my competitors as my arms churned through my push rims.

All too quickly the finish line had come and gone. Ernst, then Kurt, then me. We traveled 26.2 miles and were separated by little more than a second. In a state of exhaustion I reflected on the race as I lay face down on the massage table getting the kinks in my neck and shoulders worked out. Success does not always have to be based on the end result. I was successful in my process. I was there in the end, with a chance to win. I have worked hard to get to this point and I was going to let myself enjoy it.

Then I went home, and began thinking about how I was going to repeat my success at the New York City Marathon on November 3rd. Sure I was happy with a third place finish, but I'm pretty sure I'd be a little happier with a win.