Ben Lynch's 6 Star Abbott Marathon Journey - Chicago
Ben (@Ben_Lynch) is a London based Runner and Senior Product Designer. Last year, he began the first of his 6 Star Abbott Marathon journey last year at the Chicago Marathon. This series tells the story of each race along his journey, with insights and tips around each race.
The Luck of the Ballot
If there’s one thing nobody prepares you for in the world of running, it’s the highs and lows of ballot entries. My 6 Star journey began in November 2018. After missing out on entries for London and Berlin in the space of 6 weeks, I’d given up hope of being able to take part in a Major Marathon the following year. Forgetting that Chicago was still due to be drawn, I was sat in the middle of a meeting and saw an odd transaction for $150. It took me about 10minutes to realise that no, it wasn’t fraud but my entry fee for the Chicago Marathon!
Tips for entering Chicago Marathon:
- Research long in advance when the entries open for race ballots. You don’t want to get caught out as these things are often a year in advance and fees alter for international applicants.
- Chicago runs on a ballot entry, but is also open to charity spots. Make sure to research the recommended list of charities, their entry requirements and fundraising targets if you want to pursue this. Same goes for researching tour operators who offer guaranteed entries for a package deal.
- Don’t leave accommodation too long, the best accommodation disappears quite fast and hotels will be booked up fairly quickly too. Chicago is a very well connected city and many train lines link up to Grant Park, so don’t panic if it looks as if you’re picking a place slightly further out.
- Flights to O’Hare are worth keeping a close eye on. I recommend travelling out during the day and coming back overnight to maximise your stay. From the UK it’s an 8-9 hour flight after all.
- Think about all the extras you want to buy for the race. The Balbo Hospitality Tent is an absolute must, as is the MarathonPhotos Package.
Building up a training plan
The real work began in June. I spoke to many experienced runners in the London scene to see who could recommend a running coach. I knew I couldn’t do it alone and needed someone to help me come up with a training plan. Meeting Justin (AlamerAthletic) was a real game-changer. The approach was simple; build up a solid foundation to work from, focus on improving speed over shorter distances and get comfortable with the distance training runs. Summing up 4 months of marathon training doesn’t do justice to the many highs and lows I faced. It’s important to stress that everyone's marathon journey will be different for every runner, so don’t become too caught up by what others are doing and focus on being the best version of yourself. I set myself the ambitious goal of hitting up a sub 3 hour marathon on the first attempt which in hindsight was a big challenge, but one I was so sure I could achieve.
Tips for your training cycle:
- Having a goal to work towards (whether that be for time, to fundraise or to simply cruise at party pace for 26.1 miles) and stay true to it. It will keep you disciplined and focussed, even on the hardest of training days.
- Make sure you fuel your body with good quality food throughout the training cycle. Staying on top of sports nutrition and eating a balanced diet will all play a part once you reach the start line in Grant Park. (But do allow yourself to enjoy the odd pizza or whatever makes you feel good - I know I did).
- Pushing your performance can only come from listening to what your body is telling you. Considering the importance of recovery and rest will only make the next session stronger. Regular sport massages may also be beneficial to your routine and never underestimate the power of a foam roller…
- Something as simple as having a mantra can really help psychologically boost you when the going gets tough.
- Lastly, set some practice races throughout the training plan. I did a 10km and Half during this block and managed to hit PB’s in both. This can do the world of good to your confidence and create positive momentum.
Settling into Chicago
We flew out 3 days before the race, to give ourselves some time to adjust to the timezone, do a little exploring around the city and get settled. We stayed in an Airbnb towards Wicker Park, 20 minutes on the Blue Line to the start line for the race, but central enough to still sight-see. The Race expo is something you’ll want to set aside a few hours for, as you’ll want to make the most of everything there is to offer. From there the following days became prep for the race essentially. Carb loading, some light jogging and really just soaking in the atmosphere building around the city. I knew I needed to get my mindset clear for what was about to come next.
Tips for entering Chicago Marathon:
- It sounds silly, but once you arrive unpack right away and double check you have all your race gear. You don’t want any nasty surprises the night before and this gives you enough time to go buy anything in case you did happen to forget something.
- Do the race expo at McCormick Place early (the queues get seriously long around lunchtime). Make sure you bring with you any documents, ID, proof required to pick up your race pack. Also if you book any extras (like the Hospitality tent) make sure you go get your pass for this at the expo too.
- Have fun! You’ll see so many stands and discover so many cool products. Make sure you get your obligatory race bib picture taken too and soak up the atmosphere.
- Go see Chicago. Build up a list of touristy places you want to go to and of course places you want to eat (post race that is…) and get your sightseeing done.
Getting to Grant Park
My body jolts up and it’s 3:30am. Still pretty jet-lagged, but this works in my favour as I’d been falling asleep by 8pm. I make breakfast, get my gear ready and start going through my pre-race ritual. My Pen closes at 7:10am for a 7:30am start time so I’m able to get all the toilet breaks, fuel I need and other bits done with time to spare. Julieta’s up and we leave to the city centre. Heading down the station escalator I start seeing more and more runners appear and the excitement starts to kick in. It takes us 20 minutes to get to Grant Park and once we get out the cold snap really hits. My body is eternally grateful for purchasing the Balbo Hospitality Ticket now (it was about 3c at this point). Julieta wishes me luck and we both part ways. Inside the tent, I was starstruck when I was able to chat with Paula Radcliffe (at the time, she held the fastest women's Marathon time of 2:15:25, until Brigid Kosgei broke that record a few hours later). She gave me some great advice which you could basically summarise as, don’t smash out the blocks.
Tips for race day morning:
- Have your gear set out the night before and everything ready to hand.
- Set multiple alarms (on multiple devices).
- Don’t do anything new, only what your body is used to. Don’t try new shoes or gear for the first time. Don’t try out new gels. But do have fun and savour the experience.
- Embrace all the pre-race rituals that help settle the mind. Anything that gives you confidence and calm.
- Smile! You’ve come so far and now is the time to really enjoy all the hard work. Think of this as a celebration for all the milage you’ve put in over the months.
There’s no getting around it. The moments before you begin a race are pretty wild. You’re absorbing so much information with what you can see and hear, but mentally maintaining a calm balance to focus on what’s ahead. I lock eyes with the 3hr pacer ahead of me and shuffle closer to make sure I’m on target. The skies are blue, the sun is shining and the conditions are perfect for a race. I finally start to feel calm and before I know it, we’re off.
The first 10 miles was a really euphoric and humbling experience. From the thousands of spectators and crowds cheering you on, to the immensely tall buildings and streets and creative signs being held up (Chicago really is special for this). Now there’s space opening up between runners, it’s time to get to work. The next 10 miles I started to dig a little deeper and while reaching the halfway point, I realised I set myself a 4 minute PB and was definitely going faster than planned. “Keep pushing”. The route loops back down near to the start line and we’re making our way south of the city. I passed by Julieta for the second time which really, really helped keep my spirits high.
I’ve taken 5 gels now, over the 2hour mark and about 9km to go. I notice my pace is beginning to slow down now and the watch shows I’m right down to a 4:30km/avg speed, not quite the 3:50 speed I began with. I shuffle on and make my way through the dead zone back onto the final stretch, doing whatever I can to make my hamstrings not give up. It’s painful at this point and everything is seizing up. I know the end is coming up, I just can’t tell when until suddenly a bend appears and I can see on the clock from a distance I’m on 2hrs 58minutes. Now if there’s one memory of the race that will forever stick with me it was this moment.
I’m sick of hearing my internal voice scream words of encouragement. But instead, I start asking myself the question “how badly do you really want this sub 3 time?” Everything just fires up and I start to sprint. Taking the last bend and we’re up to 2 hrs 59 minutes now. I get to the line and see I’ve managed to just make a sub 3 hour time by about 39 seconds. Pure relief.
I shuffle for about 25 minutes to the hospitality tent and immediately get a sports massage to help the legs recover. I can feel the cold snap hit pretty hard by this point so I know I need to give my body everything it needs all at once, I just don’t know what order. I sit and walk slowly around for about 30-40minutes with some food, water and warmth before setting off to meet Julieta again. We hit up Lou Malnati’s for Pizza and stroll around the city. Surprisingly the fatigue disappears pretty quick and we’re off to soak in the feel-good atmosphere after the race.
Tips for post-race recovery
- Be proud! You’ve just completed a marathon. Wear that medal with pride. Believe me when I say, Chicago really is a super friendly city (you’ll get all the high fives, congratulations and handshakes if you wear your medal for a few days after).
- Keep the legs moving. The next few days will feel heavy, so it’s important to do a few small walks when you can and not sit all day immediately after the race. Subtle leg stretching, foam rolling will all work well.
Magnesium spray is also a great little recovery tool you can use. Try it a few times beforehand to get the legs used to the tingling feeling.
Training for a marathon (or any race for that matter) is no joke. You need apparel that will last the months of work (without the odour), still feel great and adapt to various types of training. I used the Porter and Watson Tee’s during my training cycle, along with the Pro Performance short. Then on race day, I wanted something that will allow me to perform to my absolute best. The Pro Performance range is so lightweight and functional, you don’t even think twice about it during the race.