“Please, will you just leave me! I’ll meet you at the finish”. These are the words coming out of a tired and slightly angry runner named Emma, about 20ish miles into the Chicago Marathon on 7thOctober. I could have left, I could have run off on my own, but I’d made a promise to Emma and to myself to not leave her. I knew something like this would happen. Many runners hit the wall, (me included around 20 miles/32kms), and you start to question what the actual funk you are doing. What was I doing though? Well I had agreed to pace Emma to a marathon PB, that’s what.
Flash back to December 2017. I was sat in a nice little Air BnB in Melbourne just about to go to Parkrun, when I got the email confirming I had a place in the Chicago Marathon, (via the ballot). I almost fell off my seat in shock because this race was scheduled 3 weeks after Berlin and 3 weeks before Beachy Head Marathon. When I entered the ballot, I thought I could defer for free. It turned out I couldn’t, (note – read the small print), and I would have to pay the $220 entry fee twice. After a little chat with my wife I decided to just book it in, but knew straight away I would probably be running this for fun with no time goal, so that I didn’t risk injury for Beachy and then Brecon Beacons in November. Basically, I had taken on too many big races, too close together, but I didn’t realise it at the time. So I just paid, booked my flight and parked it.
Paris Marathon was meant to be my gold medal marathon race of 2018. As I have said before, it didn’t go to plan, but in the build up and during the event I did get to hang out with a wonderful person called Emma. I first started Insta following her, (not stalking honest), in the lead up to the London Marathon in 2017. She is a runner with Type 1 Diabetes; these are really tough things to combine. As a long distance runner your body goes through all kinds of changes as you burn calories, you have to fuel to keep the machine ticking over. Now try to also do this and keep you blood sugar level even whilst running! Serious props to all the type 1 runners out there. Back to London and well, it didn’t quite go as planned for Emma due to a serious diabetic attack. She then tried again in Berlin and things went much better and she knocked 43 mins of her London time coming in under 5 hours. Then there was Paris, where I really got to know her. We had a “WhatsApp” group and there was plenty of banter and even a pre trip meet up. I learned that she had been injured since Berlin with #footgate. This meant she wasn’t able to train fully and had limited long runs. Still, she set a target of getting a sub 4.30 marathon. Alas, the heat of the day and training issues meant it didn’t work out. She got a 30 sec PB from Berlin but was obviously gutted.
Later in the year I talked about the idea of pacing in Chicago, not in an official way but doing something to help someone out. I love seeing people achieve their goals and anything I could do to help them would be great. I have to point out that I had never paced a marathon before, or even a 10k but I have felt more confident of keeping even paces in 2018. As chat led on to Berlin and Chicago I joked with Emma and Cat about the pacing thing more as they call me “Coach” for some reason. I decided to just take the bull by the horns, so to speak and just set up a group chat with only them to discuss it. They were both keen from the outset and Emma stated quite clearly that her goal was a sub 4.30, so I said hell yes! I could be comfortable doing this pace. GAME ON!
Now, when I say I hadn’t paced before it’s not strictly true, I just hadn’t done a race. I do pace the 8.30-09.00 and 09.30 – 10.00 group for LDN Burger run each month and doing this you discover a lot about how other people run and notice if they are struggling or taking it easy. I wanted to get some actual pacing practice in on some races though, so over the summer some of us from LDN Burger run paced at a Run Through 10k, and I then paced my friend Tommy to a 10K PB. This was great experience even though it’s a much shorter distance; you can still break it down into sections, especially if you are pacing just one person. You have to be the rock, the one that talks, provides support and be trusted to bring them home, even if they mostly hate you at the time. I took all that I learned into my plan for Chicago, but first I really needed to run with Emma so that we could talk and get to know each other a bit better. That run turned out to be really good practice as it rained really hard for the entirety of the 14kms. We ran at 3 different paces so I could see how comfortable it was for her and we had a great chat too. I think she enjoyed our little bonding experience too.
Off the back of this I came up with a plan in my head:
Try to maintain 6.00 min/kms (I think that’s 9.30 miles) for at least 32kms (20miles) BUT if its feeling comfortable push the pace a bit to 5.50’s.
I guessed that a run/walk strategy would happen from 32kms.
This is the toughest part of the race mentally, but weirdly you have done all the hard work. Your brain has just had enough, so I knew this is where I would need to help the most.
The plan in my head was to get her home sub 4hr 20mins. I didn’t tell her this though because it would have freaked her out but I really believed she could do it. Yes there were some crappy training runs but she had also had some great moments too.
I have learned running can be such a confidence thing. We all have days when we just don’t believe in ourselves and think Emma was suffering from a massive chunk of self-doubt! I genuinely think she tried to scare me off because in the lead up to the race, Emma told me the below many times.
- We would be out there for 5 hours
- You won’t like me during and after this race
- I will be mean to you
- I will puke
- I cant do this
- Seriously you don’t have to do this.
So in a way I was prepared, LOL
We got another chance to run together in the 5KM Chicago warm up run, Saturday morning. This was a good thing to do as we could run around a few of the streets we would be on the next day and see how the buildings would knock off the GPS on our watches. I was kind of worried about that, as I didn’t know what markers would be on the course being that we were in the USA. Yes I work in KMs!!! It turned out my watch was fairly accurate, being about 100m out. Some peoples were all over the place, including Emma’s. Again she was serious/joking about all the points above, I just told her she wasn’t allowed to talk about the race anymore!
That afternoon I started to get a bit more anxious about it, the realisation and responsibility was dawning on me. A marathon is still a long way, anything can happen and I didn’t want to let her down.
Something else that happened though before we even got there was a foot injury to Cat. Her plan was to run with us for a bit then go off if she felt comfortable in search of a time. This went up in the air though when in Berlin she inured her left foot getting a fab PB. It was touch and go whether she would run or not, I honestly didn’t know if she would turn up until the morning!
Marathon Morning came quickly. We were, (mostly), all jetlagged so the 8.00 race start, (7.30am for the speedy ones like Mo), was actually ok. I had a double Cliff bar and banana breakfast in my room before heading down to meet Tommy and Cat, (hopefully), at reception. I ran into Carl who was leaving even earlier as he had a special start up front with Tasha, her dad and Mo, which was awesome! Then Nix came along, she was super nervous as this was the biggest marathon she had run so wanted to come and hang out with us. Then Cat, (yesss), and Tommy came down and we headed off on our 20min walk to the start.
Now this is my biggest issue with the event: getting into the start area! This took us an hour because they had too many people going through one gate. We were all assigned our gates according to our start pens, (Tommy and Nix were in a different gate), and someone hadn’t done the maths! This meant a squash and long wait to go through bag security and had a knock effect on prep time as we literally dropped our bags and lined up for the toilet. This meant we got into our start pen at 7.50am. We were there though; the 3 amigos ready to battle it out on the course.
Weather wise, we had some showers that morning but now there was only some occasional light drizzle, it was overcast and about 15c. Perfect marathon weather! I reminded them both of the pacing plan and about 8.14am we crossed the start line on our adventure round the windy city.
As planned, I eased us into it keeping a pace easy for the first few KM’s, yes they had KM markers, smaller than the mile ones but this would help me. My watch GPS was almost dead on. Emma’s wasn’t, I told her not to look at it anymore but she kind of ignored me. Then as our legs got loosened up, we upped the pace a bit to around 5.50s and were cruising along.
Normally I would wear my hydration pack on a marathon so I don’t have to stop and get tangled up in water stations. Chicago doesn’t allow them though, only bottles and belts, which is annoying but I planned ahead by carrying a 500ml bottle of water and putting my SiS electrolyte drink in my belt bottles and gels in the pouch pocket. I planned on drinking 250ml SiS during 1sthalf and the 500ml of water. I would then have to use the cups for the 2ndhalf and have the 2ndbottle of SiS. The good thing here is that the cups are paper, so you can just squash them into a lip and sip while running and they don’t make a horrific sound like the plastic ones of Berlin did, plus its probably better for the environment.
The reason I am mentioning this is Emma was pretty good at getting through these water stations without hassle, taking some sips and throwing away, way cooler than me, so I learned something. This meant we didn’t loose much time and could keep the legs moving. We did loose Cat though at about 5 miles in, which was a shame but everyone has to run his or her own race; we really hoped she would be able to finish. Apart from this, we were both enjoying ourselves. The course was great and the support close to London in its consistency and size. Although Emma was confused about everyone shouting “Jayzee” as we passed them, a little later she noticed it was written on my T-shirt, literally crying! We were flying though and Emma’s blood sugar was behaving itself, so far.
We had the first heavy rain shower about 10km or so in, this kind of pissed us off a bit. It then stopped, we dried out and then it rained heavily again, sigh! It made it tricky for Emma to check her levels with the special armband thing, which connects to her phone. So I would have to try and dry the screen using the dry bits of my Buff. That was a bit frustrating, but when she got it to work she was a bit low, so she had some sweets. The rest of the race there were no more issues with the levels, which was amazing and again a perfect scenario.
When we hit the HM marker, I checked my watch and could see we were on for a 4.03 finish if we kept up the pace. I didn’t think we would be able to but secretly I began to get excited as I thought we could do a sub 4.15. I have no idea if Emma had any thoughts about this. I was basically just talking rubbish to her in one ear as the other one had a headphone in and she was listening to Disney songs. She did try to sing one but I gave her the look of dissatisfaction, as I am not a fan of any kind of musical! I think she found this quite amusing though.
I also have to mention at this point I had pretty much needed a wee since 5km but didn’t want to stop as:
- a) I thought we would loose too much time
- b) Emma would run away and hide!
I used this as motivation to get to the finish as fast as possible.
At around 25km, I noticed that she was starting to struggle, there were a few groans and moans, and I just shrugged them off and carried on with the positivity. We were still trucking so I thought lets up the pace a little. When pacing a person, the “pacee” usually spends their time either next to or behind the pacer. Emma on the other hand would often like to lead, and then she would turn around and see she is going too fast and slow down. This didn’t happen all the time but I noticed it happening more when things were getting tough. I didn’t want her to shoot off and end up having a blow up. So, I decided we would adopt a walk/run strategy as planned from 32km but not before and we would get there a bit quicker. So I upped my pace a bit and we cruised along. I think it was around a water station at 30km that I lost Emma for the first time. I picked up my cup, slowed down a bit and sipped from it. I turned around and noticed, she was no longer with me. I pulled over to the side stopped and frantically looked around, she then came ambling through the water station and threw her cup down but didn’t start running. So I grabbed her hand and reminded her of the plan. We just had 2km to go then she could walk. She moaned a bit and for the first of many times told me to “just leave her”. Of course I said no way, I said she was so close, we can run to 32km and reluctantly she did.
It was at this point that she had also mentioned she was feeling a bit sick. I did ask if she needed to stop. I am not completely mean; if someone is like that they need to feel ok. This is only a run after all and your health is more important. We carried on though and got to the 32km marker. From here on out we would walk for up to 1min then run roughly to the next KM marker. This kind of worked and we had a few funny moments picking the start and stop points. Like Emma would say, “Run to the traffic lights” then stop early and point to different traffic lights and say, ”I didn’t say which ones”. She also told me to leave her countless times and that she would still do a good time but can I just go away. No chance! I did manage to loose her again at some point, which was even worse than the last time as I just couldn’t find her. It was on a corner. One minute she was there, then the next she wasn’t. I had a proper freak out for about 30-60secs before eventually finding her again further ahead!
Then the puking happened. Somewhere around KM37, we pulled over and the mother of all chunders happened, but as all she had consumed in the last few hours was 2 gels and some sweets, that’s all it was. Bless her. It’s never nice seeing someone be sick, as we all know what it feels like. There is nothing you can do but offer a tissue so they can wipe their mouth and blow their nose. As we were standing by the side of the road though a police officer did come over to ask if she was ok. I said yes she would be fine once this was all out. After she finished the officer asked if there was anything he could do and her answer was “yes, this man keeps following me”. I was mildly concerned for a split second as that would be a terrible end to a marathon. DNF due to being arrested! Luckily she smiled like it was a joke and this was one of the few Americans that understood British sarcasm. Sorry American friends! He wished us well and off we went, only to stop again about 500m down the road for puking round 2. This time I gave her my buff to clean her self up and there were no police entanglements. I had nothing if round 3 were to come though.
After this she felt better. I was trying to get her to drink some water but it wasn’t sitting that well and the mood was getting more grumpy, also because she kept looking at her watch and it was way over this point, by like 2 miles! With less than 5Km left I tried to reassure her, she had done the hard work, this was now the victory lap. I tried to get her to imagine what her local park run looks like because I find it helps me put the actual distance into a real place. For me 2.5 laps round the local park. Alas, Emma doesn’t really do parkrun, so that didn’t help, doh! She kept saying it’s a really long way and I said it wasn’t. So that’s how our conversation went for a while. Then, as another distraction I planted the seed of a sub 4.15 in her brain, she of course didn’t believe me but I was confident and I also wanted her to run a bit more. I know how hard it is in those last few KMs, when you can’t see the finish and have no sense of geography. You are looking for that 500m to go sign and then the image of the finish and you question everything about your life choices.
The we hit the 1km to go marker, had the best hugs from James, who was out cheering on his own like a superstar! Then I said we are running this in, Emma didn’t want to but I pushed and grabbed her hand, she said alright but please let go, lol! I had looked at my watch and saw the time was still on. Emma hadn’t looked though, so we ran and we ran some more.
Got to the 500m mark, she wanted to walk, I said no.
Then the 200m mark and she finally twigged that she could do it and sprinted off. I was like woah, where did that come from and chased after her, then as we hit 100m she grabbed my hand, we sprinted together and we crossed that line.
4hrs 14mins 25 secs
38 mins off her PB set at Berlin 2017.
The look on her face is something I will remember forever. We had a hug, a couple of tears, then puke no3! Not a big one but someone asked if she need medical help. Emma said no. We walked on to get our medals, foil blankets and take some selfies. We stopped for a photo then Emma wanted to phone her mum. It was cold though so I wanted us to get moving. I had a quick finishers photo, (Emma forgot).
She started to feel a bit rough, as we headed to bag drop she said she wanted to check her levels and turn her insulin pump (the amazing device she has attached to her to save having to inject several times a day) back on. Her levels weren’t too bad but she was still feeling rough. She almost puked again, so we went and found a place for her to sit her down so that I could finally go for that wee* I had waited over 4 hours for. When I came back she was lying down and not looking so well. I was a bit all over the place myself tbh, so I messaged Cat, (after noticing she had finished which was amazing!), to say I needed some help as I was worried. I wrapped her up in both foil blankets. She had changed into a hoodie but something was off. It’s at this point I should have just got someone from the medical tent over, so I am sorry Emma, I just wasn’t thinking straight. Anyway, as soon as Cat arrived she saw what state she was in and got a medic over. I gave Emma my tracksuit trousers to put on and we tried to wrap her up a bit more. They took her blood pressure and checked sugar levels, (all good). I suspected dehydration, exhaustion and the medic agreed, so said they would take her to medical tent to be properly checked out. Emma didn’t want to go initially and was very upset, which is completely understandable. It’s not the way you want to start the celebration of a massive marathon PB. Tommy had arrived during this and we were taken off to the family tent to wait for news. I was in a bit of shock to tell you the truth so it was good to have friends around. Also it was nice to be in the warmth and eat some snacks.
After about an hour, Emma messaged to say she had taken herself out of the tent and that we should go and meet her back where we left her. We walked back and she looked much better but said the people in the tent really didn’t do much. She had thrown up on entering the tent, then they gave her Gatorade and crisps. She couldn’t drink the Gatorade and then threw the crisps back up. I honestly thought they would put her on an IV but apparently not! The one good thing being in the tent did was warm her up. So we quickly got moving and I said I would get her back to her hotel. Our friend Laura and Emma’s roomie would have a hot bath ready for her and would stay with her until she felt better.
We had a nice chat on the way back and a laugh about the events. I dropped her off and headed back to my hotel. I was a bit all over the place, with my recent mental health issues, this was quite something to take in. So many emotions all at once and there were a fair few tears over the next couple of hours. I had a shower, and then we went for drinks and food. I didn’t think I would see Emma that night but she came out and looked so much better which made me happy. Two baths, a nap and some diet coke had done the trick. Now she was super hungry and proceeded to steal my chips! PHEW!
So would I recommend this as a marathon? Hell yes! The support is amazing. My favs were the Koreans singing and dancing to “Gangam style”. There were some really creative signs, with one of my favourites being ‘Chris don’t fuck it up and let Kevin Hart beat you”. Also lots of supporters like to put large photos of the faces of the people they are cheering on poles so they can be spotted. Definitely doing this for an event I go and cheer at!
The course is really interesting, with only a couple of short industrial parts, its pretty flat, with two small inclines. I enjoyed it more than Berlin as you travel through different neighbourhoods, which each have a distinct feels. The architecture in this city is amazing too; just try not to keep looking up when walking or running about, as you’ll likely hurt yourself!
Apart from getting into the pens the organisation is amazing and everyone is so friendly and helpful.
Yes it has cups but paper is better than plastic. If you don’t mind carrying a bottle, do it, as it will make your life easier for half the race. At the water stops, Gatorade is first, don’t make the mistake many did, (including Emma!), and take the first cup you are given, lol.
You don’t get a finishers T-shirt. You get a free event T-shirt at the expo, if you want the finishers one; make sure you get to the Nike store at 10am as they sell out quickly. I have a female large which “just about” fits me!
This was my favourite road marathon so far. Even though it ended weirdly, I am so full of joy for this race. Seeing Emma battle her demons and smash them out of the park was just immense. I also just loved the feeling of running round this amazing city. I literally couldn’t stop smiling and I genuinely feel privileged to have run this and been trusted to help someone else out.
As Katy Ekins said: “Chicago Marathon – you were EVERYTHING I hoped for and then some”**
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
*Literally the longest I have held on for a wee ever!
** Apart from the medical scare