Chicago Marathon: A Mental Battle

I am not sure why it has been so hard for me get my thoughts down about this race. Sure, I have been busy with work and family in town, but I have sat in front of my computer or had time to sit in front of my computer several times and the words just haven’t come. The race feels like it was ages ago, when in reality it was just over a week. But finally…here we go:

If anyone would have asked me a few months ago if I thought I was a “mental” runner, I would have told them absolutely not. I love to run. I like to believe that I train hard, but smart (Thanks to Coach) and have been running long enough to know that one bad run (or one bad week for that matter) can’t make or break a training cycle. I would have said that I have learned how to run on feel in the marathon and can find a pace and lock it in like clockwork. And because of that I don’t over-analyze Garmin data every other minute or get too worked up about “too fast” or “too slow” during the race. I would have said the mental part of my running wasn’t where I needed improvement. Boy, was I wrong.

In the last few weeks leading up to Chicago Marathon, I found myself in my own head way too often. During every run, I was constantly thinking about how my legs were feeling and worrying if I was fresh enough. Despite everything I know about taper, I definitely let it get to me. I even wrote a note to coach telling him I had no idea where all this mental BS was coming from, but I just couldn’t shake it. I would like to be able to write this race report and tell you that what was happening in my head before the race didn’t affect my race, but that’s definitely not the case.

BUT, I am very happy that something changed and I was able to walk away with a race (and PR!) that I am very happy with. I can’t take the credit myself..I definitely didn’t have an “Aha!” moment and pull myself out of a negative place. The credit absolutely goes to a very good friend {and maybe a little bit of my competitive (stubborn?) nature.}

Race Weekend

The weekend leading up to the race couldn’t have been more perfect. I was surrounded by a small group of close friends to share lots of laughs but also some quiet time relaxing at my house.

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Saturday  shake-out with my house guests Jocelyn, Char, Holly & Walter!

It may sound odd, but there was something about doing dishes and laundry the day before the marathon that made me really happy. It meant that I was in my normal routine which is about the most relaxed I can be. Being at home made the whole race not seem “real” in some ways. I never got really nervous or overly excited, which is a different feeling, but I have learned keeping my emotions in check is important for me (see Boston 2014 for “everything Corey shouldn’t do before a race”.)

Race Morning

I slept well and when my alarm went off at 5 a.m., I felt refreshed. I had plenty of time to do all the pre-race things, eat, get last minute items for everyone who needed them (safety pins! Gu! warm clothes!) and still be out of the house by 6 as planned. Major public transit fail when we walked up to the train and realized we missed it by less than a minute and had to wait 15 minutes for the next one. But we still had plenty of time and there was no reason to get worried. We chatted and laughed nervously while we waited on the train platform and I was very grateful to have my friends there to share the time. Once we got off the train, it was chaotic and kind of crazy trying to stay together with Char, Jocelyn and Batch to get to baggage drop and then to our corral.

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One of the worst selfies in history (Char, Me, Batch, Jocelyn)

We managed to do it all by 7:10ish and were in the corral area with 20 minutes to spare. Unfortunately the porta potty lines were really long and there was definitely some panicking over whether they were going to shut the gates of the corrals while we were standing in lines only a few feet away. People were peeing everywhere and I lost Jocelyn, Char and Batch, but I decided to wait for a porta potty and take my chances. It ended up being completely fine and I was stripping off throwaways and squeezing into the corral with Nicole (who we ran into in the porta potty line) like a herd of cattle with well over 5 min to spare.

{I am going to break the recap into beginning, middle and end rather than in 5 mile increments like I normally would. It will tell the story of the mental part of my race most accurately.}

The Beginning (Miles 1-9): 7:50, 7:53, 7:50, 7:55, 7:46, 7:58, 7:46, 7:57, 7:46

Those first few steps of a marathon are always surreal. You work so hard and wait so long for the day to come and then you are finally running and it is always a bit like an out of body experience. I tried to take a deep breath and take it all in.

I was super happy to clock mile 1 EXACTLY on target, thinking it was a good sign that I had settled in right away. I stayed to the left and got a big wave and smile from Jenny and Holly right after the 1-mile marker. Over the next few miles, I focused on locking in the pace and getting to the next place where I knew friends were cheering. I saw both Char and Jocelyn on the course between miles 2 and 3. I missed Jacqueline and George at mile 4 and somehow missed Brad and the dogs at mile 6, but I passed my teammate, Vicki, around mile 7. It was nice to see a friendly face and fall into step with her for a few minutes.

The next few miles were by far my absolute favorite part of the race. Running through Boy’s Town was amazing with the enthusiastic crowds, loud music and people watching. Huge bonus that the whole section from 6-10ish is basically my own neighborhood. Running through familiar blocks where you know every storefront and curve in the road makes the miles fly. This was also the section where I saw the most friends! I heard my name and got a solid side-five from Jeff around mile 8, then saw Brad, our neighbor, Joe, and the dogs around mile 9 and got lots of cheers and side fives from Jenny, Tim, Holly and crew at 9.5.

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Photo Credit: Jenny. Hand Credit: Carla

At that point, I was flying high. I got a huge adrenaline boost from from seeing everyone and the crowds in the next few miles were fantastic.

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Side Five Perfection. Photo Credit: Jenny

BUT…I noticed pretty early that while the pace felt comfortable, it didn’t feel like I was necessarily holding back to keep it there. I had hoped that I would have to force myself to slow down to keep it around 7:50, but that definitely wasn’t the case. I tried not to let it concern me and to just focus on taking it all in and having fun. 

The Middle (Miles 10-18): 7:56, 7:55, 7:55, 7:56, 16:11 (14&15), 7:53, 8:03, 8:05

Not worrying about the splits worked for the first section of the race, but as I got to the middle miles, my head took over and I stopped trusting myself. When I hit 4 miles in a row at 7:55-56, I basically freaked out. I felt like I was putting down the same amount of effort and was steadily getting slower. These middle miles were definitely the darkest moments of the race. I knew that if my body was slowing down already that the last 10-12 miles would be rough.

I got a small boost at mile 11 when I saw Jacqueline & George and then looked forward to seeing and giving Kevin a big wave and smile at Mile 13.5. But shortly after that, I made a decision…I am not sure if it was a good one or not, but it did give me some mental relief at the time. I consciously decided to back off the pace. I felt like I kind of shook my own shoulders and said “Why are you pressing?” I thought by slowing slightly meant that I had a better chance of having something left from 20+. It did help a little and I also got a boost when I realized that I missed a mile marker so that I saw Mile 15 when I was expecting 14 to come next. Then I got another small boost when mile 16 was back down to 7:53. And I even thought to myself, “I am going to be okay. I am going to finish this strong.”

That didn’t last too long and by the time Kevin fell into step with me at Mile 17ish, I was back at 8+ min/miles. When he asked how I was feeling, I tried to stay positive. I told him I didn’t feel bad, but that I didn’t feel great and that I had backed off the pace. He told me that I looked really good and relaxed and that I needed to focus on getting to 20 and then laying it out for the last 10k. I left him with a smile and a “Yep! That’s the plan!”.

The next two miles took me back to a dark place again. I felt like I had given up on the race a little and was content to just sit at 8:05’s and just hold on.

The End (Miles 19-26.2): 7:54, 7:52, 8:00, 7:41, 7:49, 7:45, 7:47, 7:43, 7:25(0.2)

Shortly after I passed the 18-mile marker, I heard a voice behind me that said, “We were meant to finish this together.” It was Char. She came up behind me charging fast and with a ton of energy. She was feeling great and even better when she realized that we were going to get to run together. I was so so happy to see her, but as I picked up the pace to fall into step, my mind immediately went back to questioning. Can I hold this pace? Should I let her go? I told her I hadn’t been feeling great and that if she felt like she could run faster she should go. She told me that she was fine right at that pace and just said, “You can do this. Let’s just work together.”

And so we did. We ran every single step after that side by side. At some point I stopped questioning whether I could do it and just made up my mind that I would do it. It got hard for both of us a different times, but we just fed off of each other. When we would get separated at water stops, neither of us slowed. Whoever was behind would pick the other one up and use that momentum to keep pressing. We smiled and told each other great job every time we hit a mile marker at 7:4x. But other than that, we talked very little except the occasional “You/we have got this” or to announce what was happening next: “I am taking a Gu here.” “I am getting Gatorade at the next water stop.”

It was the most familiar and comfortable feeling. I have run thousands of miles next to Char and it seemed so natural and perfect that we would be running together in the final miles of the race. Having her there gave me the confidence that I was missing in the first 18 miles of the race and finally allowed me to get out of my own head and just RUN.

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Happy Runner. Mile 24.5. Photo Credit: Charlyn

We smiled and waved at Jenny at mile 19, heard Jacqueline and George again at 21, big smiles for Charlyn and Annabelle at mile 24.5, a big yell for our mutual friend, Liz, at 25.5 and then fist pumps and smiles for Kevin and Tim at mile 26.

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Side by Side. Photo Credit: Charlyn.

We crossed the finish line together, followed by the biggest hugs.

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Chicago Marathon: 3:26:52 (3:12 PR)

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I learn something from every marathon that I run and #8 was definitely not an exception. In fact, I think overcoming my own mental battle is one of the biggest lessons I can take away from a marathon up to this point. In the future, I am going to have to learn to do that on my own, without the help of Char. And to remember that the feeling of pressing might just be all in my head. It might not mean that I need to back off, but actually maybe to speed up slightly or just change something. While I wish that I hadn’t given in during the middle miles, it’s hard to say whether it was the right decision or not. The push that was there to make the last 5k the fastest tells me that there was definitely more left in my body than I thought at mile 16. But maybe the 15 seconds per mile I gave back for 4 miles is the reason?

Overall, I absolutely loved the race. Running through the streets of Chicago with the spectacular crowds, amazing volunteers and friends all over the course made me fall even more in love with this city.

About Corey

I am a 30-something swim, bike, run addict married to my best friend and in love with my two schnoodle doggies.
This entry was posted in Chicago, friends, Goals, Race reports, Races, running, training, Weather. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Chicago Marathon: A Mental Battle

  1. Claire says:

    Pulling yourself out of the mental funk is harder, I think, that getting through a physical funk. Incredible race, so happy for you – congrats!

  2. So I’m a little embarrassed to tell you how much I have anticipated reading your recap and how much I was looking forward to it…..I may or may not have been stalking your blog…. Anyway, congratulations! The marathon is such a beast in so many ways and there are so many sides to it. You really ran a great race and the mental battle is a tough one to fight, but you did it. Congratulations on the PR and a really great race. It’s really amazing to see how much progress you have made and continue to make and to see your hard work pay off.

    • Corey says:

      Awww…you are so sweet. I have your race recap saved in my reader to come back to you to comment on as well! Thank you so much! And thanks for the reminder…I sometimes forget to look back and remember where I was a couple of years ago, compared to now. It definitely puts all of my goals into perspective!

  3. ok i kinda wanted to cry as you talked about char that’s just freaking awesome. I am so incredibly happy for you and know what it means to see all those hours of work pay off

  4. Pete B says:

    Congrats on the huge PR. Those splits are really even. I’m jealous!

  5. I’ve thought all the same thoughts as you during a marathon and honestly this post makes me feel so much better because you proved that not feeling like you’re holding back and not feeling amazing at mile 10 or whenever doesn’t mean that you cant finish strong! Congrats on a great race – you should be very proud!!!

  6. Congrats again on your PR!
    It’s amazing how much our brain actually influences our runs! Looking back on my PR races, I had a pretty good attitude for a majority of the race. & when I didn’t, I knew whatever I was going through was temporary, so it didn’t set me back.
    But your last 3rd of the race was amazing – those splits are awesome (also you are full of smiles in all those pics! I’m never that lucky!). Good thing you ran into Char 🙂 At least now you know you can pull yourself out of those negative thoughts, so step 1 is out of the way. Step 2 is just doing it without her, like you said. Enjoy your post-race recovery!

    • Corey says:

      Thank you so much! Those pics did turn out great, but mostly because they weren’t race photos…they were pics that my friends took as I came by. So I smiled and waved to them when they were cheering…haha. It definitely makes it look like I was just smiling the whole time though!

  7. elizabeth says:

    you look strong, fit and happy in all of your pics. SO insanely proud of what you’ve accomplished since we’ve met and I love seeing how much you’ve improved and how well you know your own body (even if it wasn’t exactly the way you planned, you seem to always know what to do and handle it). huge congrats, friend!! xo

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  9. erin says:

    So, so AWESOME! Huge congrats on a well executed and fantastic race, Corey – and, PR to boot! Love all the pics, too… you look so happy! The only way to run, right?! Hope you’re recovering well!

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  11. evamadera says:

    I am so happy for you Corey! (sorry it took me so long to comment…I kept forgetting to pull it up when I had internet :D)
    Those mental battles are really the hardest to win and I am so glad that you won this one! Sometime soon I hope to have a fabulous running partner like you have in Char. I love that you were able to finish so strong together.

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