Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Chicago Marathon Race Report

The 2007 LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon will likely go down as one of the most memorable marathons in history, but for all the wrong reasons. By now, the heat-related havoc wreaked on the runners participting in the 30th running of this event has been well-documented.

In most years marathons, even the major ones like Chicago, Boston and New York, receive scant coverage in the mainstream press. But when a runner dies, hundreds others are treated for heat-related illnesses and the race is called off some three-and-a-half hours in, the race suddenly becomes front-page news and a lead story on CNN.

I was there in Chicago on Sunday, and it's with mixed emotions that I pen this report. I want to be proud of the fact that I was able to finish, yet be sensitive to those who didn't get that opportunity. I want to be thankful that I was not among those who suffered any ill-effects from the record-high temperatues, yet be considerate of those who did. I sympathize with those runners who reported not having water available to them at aid stations because I was able to consume ample fluid at each station to remain hydrated. Yet I also empathize with the race officials, who despite their best efforts and planning, had no control over the brutal weather conditions that ruled the day. And, of course, my heart goes out to the family of Chad Schieber, the 35-year-old Michigan native who died while running, as well as the hundreds of other runners who were treated for heat-related illnesses.

When I first registred for the Chicago Marathon in the spring the race's reputation for having a flat, fast course coupled with cool fall temperatures gave me visions of running a personal best time at the 26.2 mile distance. All that changed when I read the race-day forecast in the Chicago Tribune while eating breakfast Saturday morning at my hotel. The forecast read, "Sunday's 30th annual LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon will most likely be run under the warmest conditons ever with runners advised to guard against potential overheating, cramping or other heat-related maladies." Unfortunately, the weather man got this forecast right on all accounts.

When I woke up Sunday morning to ride the El train to the starting area downtown, the temperature was already 70 degrees at 5 a.m., three hours before the start of the race. Less than a half mile into the race, I was already working up a sweat. While watching for some of Chicago's distinctive landmarks such as the Board of Trade, the famous Chicago Theatre and the Chicago River in the early stages of the race, I was also on the lookout for temperature readings. Shortly into the race the first one I saw read 73 and another shortly thereafter read 77.

After getting the first few miles behind me, running a steady pace and staying hydrated became my orders of the day. Although the aid stations were crowded, I had no trouble getting both Gatorade and water. Some runners deeper in the pack said they didn't receive any fluids until around mile eight. After crossing the halfway point in front of the Sears Tower, I was already dreading the second half of the race with the heat bearing down. Near the United Center around mile 15 I noticed a shirt that read something to the effect of "the first third of the race is run with your legs. The second third of the race is run with your mind. The last third of the race is run with your heart." I liked the thought.

They say the real race in a marathon begins at mile 20. So how do you think I felt when I saw a temperature reading on a bank sign that read 91 degrees? Six miles to go with the sun bearing down. Where I could I ran the shade provided by the buildings that lined the streets. I'm also thankful for those spectators who provided runners with water and ice of their own accord.

After plodding along for the final six miles, I finally turned the last corner and with the finish line in sight I heard a firefighter or police officer yelling to the runners, urging them to walk, saying "The race has been cancelled." What did that mean, I wondered? Did I hear him right? Well, stubbornly I told myself I didn't run 26 miles to walk the final two-tenths. That's if you consider the pace I was going at that point actually running. So I decided to finish what I started and run the rest of the way in. And making that final turn is when I saw my first runner collapsed on the ground. Medics were tending to him, giving him water.

After crossing the finish line, other runners were dropping. "Runner down," I heard spotters repeating, prompting medical staffers to tend to the runners and get them medical attention. I hung around the finishing area for a while, getting some food and water before heading back to the train station to head back to my hotel. As I made my way back, that's when I saw the runners who were forced to stop being routed down Jackson Street to the finish area.

It wasn't until later in the day that I heard reports of Schieber's death, the 300 heat-related illnesses, and the shortages of water and Gatorade at the aid stations. From my position on the course, I saw nothing that would lead me to think that conditions were so dire out on the course. But apparently they were.

The heat issues and the cancellation of the race actually overshadowed exciting and dramatic finishes in both the men's and women's races. The men's race came down to a photo finish as Patrick Ivuti of Kenya edged Morocco's Jaouad Gharib at the finish line by five one hundredths of a second -- the closest finish in Chicago Marathon history. In the women's race, Berhane Adere of Ethiopia sprinted past the apparent winner Romania's Adriana Pirtea in the final two-tenths of a mile to claim victory.

I left Chicago with mixed emotions about the marathon. I'm thankful that I was able to finish the race, but I can't seem to take as much satisfaction in the accomplishment knowing what befell my running bretheren. One thing I've learned from participating in endurance events is that runners, particularly marathoners, share a kindred spirit. There's just something about the shared experience of putting in hours of training, logging hundreds of miles, overcoming obstacles and then going the distance on race day that creates a common bond among runners. And because of that connection, I share in those hardships that my fellow runners experienced in Chicago.

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At 12:14 AM, Blogger Chris Knight said...

Chad, you did a great job writing about this. It's apparent that you struggled immensely with how to put the experience into words... because you obviously care a lot about people, even if you've never had the opportunity to know them.

It's one of the things that I've always admired about you, brother.

At 8:25 AM, Blogger Adam said...

chad, that's exciting/scary/crazy all in one. i remember hearing about the marathon on the news and wondering what was going on with you. glad you finished--it was all those summer runs in the heat of north carolina that conditioned you. god's grace was on ya! blessings...


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