Friday, July 25, 2014

Chicago - Rock'n and Rollin' in the WIndy City

Celebrating a fun, run-filled weekend in the Windy City

Whew! The Rock'n Roll Festival in Chicago was a rockin' fun time.

This past weekend, I journeyed to the Windy City, to reunite with Penny (a friend I met through Facebook, via our running pages). Penny and I became friends last year while training for our first marathons. We had similar training plans because our races were within a few weeks of each other.  We met each other in person back in March, and decided we should do a race together.

I live in Iowa, and Penny is in the Chicago area. Not exactly within close proximity, but all things are possible. #havecarwilltravel

I arrived at Penny's house around 2:00 on Friday, a couple hours later than expected (I got almost 20 miles from home when I realized I'd forgotten my purse). After a quick lunch, we headed to the expo. As most runners know, there are no friends quite like runner friends. Being runners gives you an instant bond, and you feel like long-lost grade school friends reunited. This was the case for Penny and myself.....nonstop chatter and lots of laughter.

The expo was big, numerous vendors and lots of excitement. Although there is much to see (and buy), I tend to not drop a lot of cash at event expos. Usually, I don't have luck finding great deals, but this expo was an exception. I scored a great deal on a race registration, bought a fuel belt (with a water bottle attachment), and Penny and I found matching compression socks (on sale) that came with a free headband. Penny also landed a great price on a watch. #happydance

When we registered for the Rock'n Roll Half Marathon, it was going to be just the 13.1 race. The clever people at Rock'n Roll Marathon Series, though, added an additional 5K race, to be held the day prior.  They also dangled a 5K medal in front of us, and tempted us with the Festival ReMix Challenge....we'd not only get a medal for running the 5K, we'd get an additional medal for completing the challenge of doing both the 5K and half marathon. Well, that was a no-brainer! The registration for the 5K was an additional $35, which I thought was reasonable for an event such as this in Chicago (that came with an additional tech shirt and medal).

With two races on the agenda, we had to figure out our racing wardrobe options. I brought along several tops and bottoms, and we had a mix & match planning session after  a delicious carb-heavy dinner of deep dish pizza (When in Chicago, one needs to eat Chicago-style food).

Shameless self promotion.....admiring the 5K shirt
Showing the Half Marathon shirt (also self-promoting)

Saturday arrived with a 5:45 wake-up and a 6:30 departure to get downtown and parked in time for the 8:00 race start for the 5K. We got a great space in the Millennium Park parking garage, and we were on the Lake Shore path shortly after 7:00. We had plenty of time to relax and enjoy the view of Lake Michigan and admire all the boats in the harbor.
Hands at  "10 and 2," eyes on the road....navigating our way towards downtown Chicago

It was a beautiful summer morning, with lots of scenic photo opps

We were surprised we didn't see more runners. We'd heard they were expecting 1500 for this race, but there didn't seem to be but a few hundred walking around with race bibs. We did see all the R'nR signs, so we knew we were at the right place.

Enjoying the harbor, awaiting the start of the 5K
An exciting thing about this R'nR event was the appearance of Shalane Flanagan! She was running both races; pacing the 8:00-minute runners for the 5K on Saturday and racing the half marathon on Sunday. They introduced her, and she said a few encouraging words before the start of the race.

Our goal for both of these races was to enjoy the city, the route(s), and each other's company. We had no intention, whatsoever, to run towards a PR. That said, we ran the 5K faster than we'd planned. The route was flat, and the weather was perfect. It didn't really feel like we were pushing ourselves, and we were chatting most of the way. We finished in 25:54, not a PR for either of us, but a decent finish time none-the-less.
I totally LOVE Chicago, the architecture is unbelievably beautiful & it's everywhere

Showing off the first of the hardware

There was a meet and greet with Shalane, so we headed to the post-race party after grabbing our 5K medals. I have to say, it did seem a little disorganized in finding out where we needed to go. Fortunately, there was a band rocking the stage, so we had plenty of entertainment as we searched for Shalane.  After asking around, we found the tent, and scored a place near the front of the line.

I have followed Shalane's progress as a runner. I saw her represent Team USA at the Olympics, and I have read about her success. It was an honor getting to meet her; she's a genuine, friendly, down-to-earth gal.

My brush with fame, meeting Shalane Flanagan!
 Following our 5K experience, we headed back and grabbed some real post-race food: pancakes (bananas and bagels just don't do it for me). Penny and I had a busy afternoon of pool lounging and discussing marathon training strategies, followed by a much-needed carb-loading dinner of pasta and bread.

We thought it necessary to have a race day wardrobe dress rehearsal, and Penny hooked me up with some side walk chalk to get my art fix
 We mapped our strategy for the next morning, and planned to leave around 5:00 to allow plenty of time  for traffic and parking. The half marathon start time wasn't until 6:30, but we were hoping to meet up with the Half Fanatics (a world-wide membership of runners who celebrate their love of running the 13.1 distance) for a 6:00 group pic at the famous Bean sculpture.

There's a saying about the "best laid plans" not working out.....and that came true for us on R'nR Half Marathon race day. We'd been told (via R'nR info) that the City of Chicago would be closing off the downtown streets at 6:00 for the race. We figured if we arrived there by 5:30, we'd be in the clear. Wrong. Instead, we got trapped on Lake Shore Drive with no open streets to lead us off towards any of the parking garages. We were hoping to park at Millennium Park (since we'd parked there for the 5K, a mere 24 hours prior), but there was no "open" way in. Finally, we were directed to turn around and "maybe try Soldier Field" (which was a few miles in the opposite direction. UGH.

We made our way back (the direction from which we'd just come), and found a spot in the Soldier Field garage. We spotted a couple getting out of a car (decorated with 26.2 and 13.1 stickers) wearing race bibs, so we followed them. It was a lengthy walk to the start line (at least a mile), so we counted that as our warm-up.

Despite the slight hassle in getting to the start line, it was fun just being there. The Bean pic didn't happen for us. I spotted several Fanatics throughout the race (in their Fanatics race shirts) and the pic didn't happen for some of them either for the same reasons (early road closures & parking).

In corral 11, ready and waiting....
As we waited for our corral to be called, I tried to assess the race conditions. It was going to be crowded. The temps were comfortable (mid-70's), but I could already feel the humidity. It was overcast, so the lack of sunshine would help. I felt well-rested, but had that feeling that I should have eaten more for breakfast. I know I should have had more water, but I knew there would be water along the route.

Our corral was called and we were off and running! Within the first few blocks, we heard our names being shouted. Our friend, Michelle, had spotted us! She even got our picture! How exciting to see a familiar face in the mass of runners and spectators!

We were spotted! (and we spotted the friend with the camera)
As we approached the first mile mark, Penny expressed her frustration with her watch (the one she'd bought at the expo). She had been having difficulty getting a signal, and she didn't think the pacing stats were accurate. It said we'd finished the first mile a few blocks before we saw the Mile 1 sign. My watch showed about a 9:00 minute pace, but my watch is a very basic "stop-watch" type, it doesn't give mile-by-mile information.

As we continued on, I could already tell this race was going to be a sweaty one. It wasn't too hot, but it was very humid. Running through the streets, surrounded by tall buildings, doesn't allow for much air circulation so the air was pretty heavy.

There were several groups of cheer teams throughout that first mile. Also, as with most big races, the first mile was pretty crowded. Even with the assigned corrals (based on estimated finish times), there are always those who either lie about their finish time or simply jump ahead to a faster corral. 

It wasn't until we were well into the second mile that I realized there hadn't been much for music since we crossed the start line. There were a few circus performers on stilts, but they weren't singing or playing guitars.

Typically, I need a few miles to get into my running groove. It takes that long for my muscles to get loosened up and for my mind and body to enter the robotic state of distance running. It didn't seem to be happening for me. Penny also was having some difficulty getting into a comfortable pace, and her watch (along with the distance/pacing stats) was an endless source of frustration.

It wasn't until mile 5 that we could hear a band in the distance. Finally! There was plenty of crowd support, but this was a Rock'n Roll event, and we were expecting some tunes.

There were water stands about every mile or mile and a half, and all the volunteers were cheerful and eager to assist us. I stopped for water (or Gatorade) at every opportunity, and walked quickly as I drank, otherwise I'd be wearing it (yes, I am that ungraceful and no, I have not yet mastered the running & drinking technique).
See camera, will pose (the race atmosphere brings out the diva in me)

Penny and I managed to keep a steady pace (averaging around 9-minute miles), but the humidity was slowly wearing us down.Thankfully, the temps were fairly mild, and we didn't have much sunshine or it would have been even more difficult.

So we pressed on. As mentioned, the lack of music was a bit of a disappointment. This also was a different route than from previous years, and I heard that there is a noise ordinance restricting loud music in the early hours. That being said, this is Chicago, one of the biggest cities in the world. What a privilege to have the downtown mainly to ourselves, with endless architecture to admire and no traffic interfering with the enjoyment of not only running, but running with one of my favorite VRB's (virtual running buddies).

There was music along the route for most of the second half of the race, but the humidity also seemed to be increasing with each mile.  Humidity is no stranger to me, but coupled with my less-than-adequate breakfast (and forgotten water bottle on the kitchen counter), this race was tough.

I think it was around mile 9.5 or so that we decided to walk briefly. It is  frustrating to walk, but we had nothing to lose in doing so. After all, we weren't attempting to PR, and with the confusion of the mile marks not matching Penny's watch, we really weren't certain just how far we had gone (or how far we had yet to run).

We did a few more walk breaks during the final 3 miles, being careful to immediately break into a run if we spotted a photographer (one guy did manage to bust us on one of our walk intervals, though). An especially nice feature was a misting station towards mile 12, and a stand where volunteers were handing out wet sponges. 

We were able to run most of the  final mile, and grabbed hands as we crossed the finish line.  The volunteers handed the finisher medals to us, and we were outta there. We grabbed water and a few snack items and headed to the post-run celebration, desperately in search of a place to sit.
Approaching the finish line
 We spotted the stand where the Remix Challenge medals were, so we stopped and got the last piece of our hardware for the R'nR Festival. And then we promptly sat ourselves down on the grass. 

Whew!  A weary display of the final two medals, the half marathon medal and the Challenge ReMix medal
We finished the half marathon in 2:16:43, not bad considering we made a couple potty stops and walked intemittently towards the end. We were happy to have finished the race vertical since we saw several runners down, receiving medical attention, in the final miles. Humidity is not something to mess with; the air is heavier, it's more difficult to breathe and your lungs have to work much harder than usual. I have no shame in walking if it's going to keep me from fainting (or worse).

So, how was the Chicago R'nR? Overall, I give it a thumbs-up. I have only done one other R'nR event (St. Louis, October 2013), so I don't have much to compare this to (other than the 20+ non-R'nR half marathons I have run). I think the registration is on the high end (I think I paid $85 for this, and that was the early bird special. They do offer Lucky-13 discounts, though, on the 13th of each month, saving you $13). The race shirts are nice (tech material, colorful, neat graphics), and seem to be unique to each of the cities where the races are held. The expo was huge with a good variety of vendors and a great atmosphere. Hands down, though, the best feature (in my opinion) are the medals. The four R'nR medals I  own (three from this weekend, one from St. Louis), are top quality...heavy, great design, with unique ribbons exclusive to the event (the city name and date).
Aren't they pretty?
 As mentioned, the parking was an issue. Whether it was a lack of communication from the City of Chicago or the Rock'n Roll Marathon Series (or between them), I don't know. It would have been beneficial to have correct information regarding street closures/times or shuttles from designated parking lots or garages. I would guess the vast majority of race-goers do not live with walking distance, so this is an issue that affects most of us.

There were also a lot of complaints regarding the accuracy of the course, many people  had issues with their tracking devices showing much longer distance than 13.1 miles (Penny's watch showed 14 miles!).  Apparently,  the tall buildings
and numerous tunnels affect satellite signals (or so we've been told).  The lack of music was disappointing during the first several miles, but that improved after Mile 5. 

Although there were some race day frustrations (parking, weather, fatigue, etc.), this still was a great experience. The atmosphere was festive, the volunteers were plentiful and post-race celebration seemed to have ample food, drink and entertainment.  And, best of all, I got to experience all of this with Penny.  Despite our struggles in the final miles, we still managed to find humor in the situation and keep each other smiling.

Now, onward!  Both of us have 26.2 races on our agendas this fall. Yikes!  

Have you done a Rock'n Roll event?  What was your experience like?

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