4. GO British ! Chicago Marathon 2002

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We’ve got to hold on to what we’ve got
‘Cause it doesn’t make a difference
If we make it or not
We’ve got each other and that’s a lot
For love – we’ll give it a shot

Whooah, we’re half way there
Livin’ on a prayer
Take my hand and we’ll make it – I swear
Livin’ on a prayer
Bon Jovi – August 1986

“4:18 in London and trying to crack four hours in Chicago – it’ll be tough, but I’m going to have the fun of my life trying !” – so I wrote last month.

Fantastic trip from London. Fly in over Lake Michigan, which is so much bigger than I expected. Wake up on Friday morning in time for a stroll amidst the most spectacular, bluest of dawns lighting up the skyscrapers. Call friends and family from the Lakeshore Path. Two hours later and I’m still strolling, wandering across the river bridge on North Michigan Avenue, captivated by the downtown architecture.

Decide to find the start line and there I meet Steve Cram and a camera crew at the Buckingham Fountain. Steve is recording pre-race coverage for the BBC. I shake the hand of this Olympic silver medallist, World Champion, two time European Champion and world record holder at both the mile and 1500 metres – and I tell him my goal is 4 hours. He smiles, but strangely declines my offer of a free interview.

Two more hours and I’m still walking, past Burnham Harbour and looking for the infamous hill into Grant Park at 25.7 miles. It looks fine from here. Head back to the hotel to put my feet up, then to the Expo. The purple line is closed so I end up walking from East Ohio to 12th Street to pick up the ‘El. It’s way too far and I have walked about 12 miles today. Never do this two days before a marathon. Stroll around the exhibition, and on the bus home I meet a runner from the Ecuador national team.

I can still make Hal Higdon’s V-Team pre-race party, so I hail a taxi for the Hilton. But the driver tells me there are three Hiltons. At first I think I’ve got the wrong one, but eventually I find the runners. I’m introduced to a fellow Brit, who turns out to be the Chicago champion of 1996. Then I meet Barb, Scott, Nels, Dominique, Amanda, David, Phil, Carrie, Christian and many more. It’s turning into quite a memorable day.

On Saturday I stroll in Lincoln Park. I limit the walking to five miles today. The weather forecast looks brutal. As the sky turns black I join 10,000 other runners buying the last five pairs of gloves in Niketown. Eat great pasta just off East Ohio. Sleep very little.

Sunday morning and the breakfast buffet is closed. Pay $ 20 for two bowls of a la carte porage which will fuel me for the next 6 hours. I ask for a banana and the waiter refuses. I tell him it’s included in the $ 20.

Lock myself out of my hotel room at 6.40am. Nightmare come true, but luckily Security let me in. It’s cold so I take a fleece down to the start. Big mistake – just 35 minutes to go and the gear check queue is 30 minutes long, with the tent ludicrously sited right across the main path from city to start line. With one minute left and rising panic I make it into the start chute. Find the 4 hours team just after the gun.

It takes us 11 minutes to reach the line, but we jog promisingly from the start. The first corner is pure chaos, and by the second and third I realise that these streets are just too narrow for this many runners. In London I’d been chased through Greenwich by a guy in a rhino suit, but at least there they have three starts which merge after 3 miles – it works.

The crowds are fantastic. “Go, runners”, “Great job, marathoners” – these are words of encouragement which I will never forget. But by four miles we’re way off the pace. I remember now that slow runners only run in threes, and always line abreast. I try not to weave, but hey, there’s only three and a half hours left.

40 seconds to water a tree in Lincoln Park, and I see the 4:05 group go past. Catch the pace team Bunny Ears around Mile 8 but we’re still two minutes behind. Approaching downtown, suddenly it opens up in front of me as we pass a Radio Shack around mile 10, and I decide to take my one chance. Negative splits are too tough when you’re 6’3″.

I quickly find the flow, and my mood soars with the skyline. Approaching the river at Mile 11 and I’m only a minute down. There’s a great view of the city and from in the depths of me I hear a loud cry “Shick-aggo !” It feels so good that I shout it again.

I ease off just a little and pace-leaders Melissa and co. are with me again. At mile 13.1 there’s a rock band playing Bon Jovi – “Whoa, we’re halfway there, whoa whoa, we’re livin’ on a prayer”. Right enough, and by mile 14 we’re exactly on pace at last. We’re heading east again towards the deepest of concrete canyons, with the helicopters circling over Paula ahead, and I feel this dream is so close I can almost touch it now.

Someone gives me an orange slice at 15. The mile posts are getting further apart, I notice, and there’s a rough patch around #16. Try to relax, play the mind games and get back on track. 18 miles and there’s a gel stop crazily next to a corner. The field stops stone dead for ten seconds. I take a long drink and lose 20 seconds on the pace team. Grit hard and somehow I’m on their tail once more at mile 19.

I’ve a Union Jack flag on my tee-shirt. “GO, BRITISH !” screams a woman on the kerb at mile 20, which I reach just 15 seconds behind. 3:03 something, and suddenly I realise there’s still 57 minutes of this pain left. It’s really hurting, and as the energy drains I see the pace boards ease away, first 50 yards, then 100, then 200 and I’m in trouble. Keep grinding. I’ve worked too long and too hard to give up this dream without a fight. But I start to feel sick and realise there’s nowhere to go but backwards now.

Decide to walk a minute at mile 23. If I can regroup and rip three eight minute miles I can still get inside four hours. Yeah, right ! The tank is all empty, so I grimace and tear the 4:00 sheet from my back in disgust. The last three miles aren’t pretty. A blank and soulless freeway, then a truly miserable tunnel. At last a sign saying one mile to go. I can run that far, surely. Finally the 4:05 group go past, just as I’m climbing the Matterhorn which has become the ramp into Grant Park.

Then it’s a blur of grandstands, screaming crowds, a huge screen which somehow I can’t bear to watch, and the line rushes over me. 4:05:43. It’s close enough for this time. A girl gives me the medal. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world at this moment, and she’s quite surprised when I kiss her.

It’s a slow walk back to the hotel, and I have only five minutes to shower before check out. Sit in the lobby, writing my race postcards. Same message on each. “This is a great marathon in a great city, and like all of them it only really starts after 20 miles”.

Suddenly it’s 3pm and I have a flight at 6. I walk down East Ohio to Grand for the last time, catch the ‘El to O’Hare. The bag is heavy and I’m dog tired. There’s a lot more walking. But the medal is still round my neck and I don’t care. The flight is late and in the space of an hour I eat $40 of pizza and ice cream, and drink that first beer.

Ten days on business in Houston, Mexico, and Scotland and at last I’m home. Will there be a next marathon ? Maybe there will, and maybe somewhere smaller. Anyone fancy the Shakespeare Marathon in Stratford-upon-Avon one day ? At thirteen miles I want to be a minute ahead next time, and better still two minutes up at twenty.

So how was Chicago ? Yes, it was tough, and I had the fun of my life. GO, British !

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