Chicago Marathon 2021 Race Recap

Less than ideal race conditions, adjusted race plan, 180BPM Spotify playlist, and oh so many gels.

(Again, I am not sponsored by any products nor supplements mentioned in this post. Those were just the products that I used. Legal…legal…legal. Please proceed with caution. If possible, talk to your doctor or coach before using any of the products. I am, however, sponsored by Fleet Feet New Balance Racing Team.)

It still feels unreal that this race that I have had as a target for so long has passed. It’s undoubtedly exhilarating that I got that close to my goal time in such a hot and humid condition. I can’t stop wondering what my body would be capable of in the ideal scenario. 

The race started at 73F & 85% humidity, and got to 75F when I crossed the finish line. Almost everyone in my training group adjusted their target time before the race. My anxiety level was through the roof the week leading up to the marathon. I felt like I should adjust my pace, but I just couldn’t let go of the 3:15 goal time after a solid training season. I kept doubting my outfit choice thinking I might overheat, and I kept having dreams of myself bonking the race halfway through and everyone telling me how I should’ve been conservative with my pace in this weather. Josh had to reassure me over and over again that I was ready – I did many long interval workouts in much hotter conditions this summer, and I never missed my target pace. 

The night before the race, I finally made a decision on my pace plan (after 3 different drafts). Starting the first 3 miles at 7:36 pace, move down to 7:30 between mile 4-7. Keep 7:26 pace from mile 8-13. And evaluate my body condition to see if I could move down to 7:20 for the remainder of the race. If not, 7:26 pace for the last half would still get me to 3:15:27, which is a time that I feel comfortable with. Because GPS is very unreliable in the loop, I wrote down the total time for each mile on my arm. I also marked the miles when I needed to pick up the pace, when I should take gel (every 4 miles) and salt tabs (every 7 miles), and when I would see Josh (I made a spectator plan for him haha. I got to see him 4 times! And he even jogged with me for a half mile around mile 25). 

On top of the pace chart, I wrote down “belong, focus, full send”. These words have been my mantra this whole season, and they came in handy during this race. “Belong” has been my running mantra for the past 3 years. When I moved to Chicago at the beginning of 2019 after a trip back to China, I was struggling to find a place where I feel like I belonged. I felt too foreign for home but also feeling too foreign for the U.S. Running was my escape. I was so grateful that my 2019 Chicago Marathon charity entry led me to a running group. I love how this group of runners show up every week to challenge each other to reach their physical limits. I love seeing my progress week over week. With this group of runners, I felt at ease for the first time in a while. I lace up and show up to every training to prove to myself that I am a runner, I belong here. I added the other two mantras this year. “Focus” helps me to combat my anxiety. And “full send” was added after Molly Seidel’s gutsy race in the Olympics. 

S for Salt, G for Gel, * for picking up the pace, and R/L for which side of the street Josh will be at

For the first time, I made a playlist for the race. I tried to find music with 180+ BPM. Turns out punk rock is the way to go. Besides my first marathon, I never run with music during races. I let my running buddies and the spectators carry me through. However, since everyone adjusted their pace plan, I knew I would likely run by myself for most of the race (I ended up running by myself after mile 1). Thanks to my in-laws for gifting me a pair of bone-structured AfterShokz, I was able to hear my surroundings and have the music on in the background.

I carried 4 salt tabs and 6 gels with me (2 GU, 3 Gatorade with caffeine, 1 Gatorade without caffeine). It was surprising that my little running shorts from Lululemon were able to hold that many gels + my phone in it. You bet I tightened the drawstring to make sure that those shorts would stay up. I had an extra gel in my hand when I got into the corral, and took it along with a salt tab 15 minutes before the start. 

I started with two Fleet Feet Racing Team friends, both of whom told me on the race day morning that they would follow my pace plan. I was excited to have running buddies, but we got separated within the first mile. It’s been so long that I forgot how exciting it is to run through the streets in the Loop with deafening cheering during the first couple of miles. I realized by mile 3 that I was going way faster than I planned. Luckily, I was close to the 3:15 pacer, and I had a temporary pace tattoo for 3:15 with even splits on the other arm, so I decided to change my plan on the spot. I slowed down a bit to keep the 3:15 pace group in my sight and planned on catching them around halfway. 

I felt great till mile 8. By then, I was following my fueling plan, and hitting every water station for both water and Gatorade. But the heat and humidity started to get to me. My stomach decided to slow down its digestion speed and the idea of drinking more Gatorade felt sickening. I wasn’t sure what was the temperature like at this time. But I started seeing hoses on the course spraying water, and I made sure to run through it whenever I saw one. Luckily, I was able to keep the same pace during all these little detours. And by skipping a few water stations, I actually caught up to the 3:15 pace group earlier than I planned. The energetic pacer with a pair of bunny ears on his head was great company. “Give it up to the 3:15 group!”, he shouted every time we passed a group of spectators. Might as well hang around the group and see how that goes, I thought. 

trailing the 3:15 pacer with bunny ears

For 3 water stations, I could barely take in anything. I started grabbing small water bottles from spectators, and pouring the whole thing on my head to cool myself down. At mile 11.5, I saw my friends dancing around at the water station, handing out Gatorade in one hand, and waving signs of me and Zola (my cat) with the other. They screamed like crazy people when they saw me. I laughed, and temperately forgot how tried I was. Despite my stomach giving me a hard time, the Gatorade gel somehow agreed with me. I took one more gel at mile 12 and carried on. 

One of the running buddies who started with me found me right before mile 13. He asked me how I was feeling. I couldn’t utter a word, so I just frowned and shook my head. He gave me a concerned look. We ran together for only a quarter-mile. He looked like he was just out there for a light jog around the city, so I told him to go ahead of me. “Good luck! See you at the finish line.”, I said. I tried to stay calm and run my own race. I looked down at my pace band a couple of times for the next couple of miles. Seeing the word “belong” helped me to stay close to the 3:15 pace group. 

By mile 16, I still couldn’t get much Gatorade down, and the fatigue started to kick in. My body was craving an energy boost, which I knew it meant that I was behind on fueling. But I was already there.

There is no time to look back.

Focus. Focus. Focus.

What can I do now?

There was a Gatorade gel station at mile 18. I was basically dragging my body at that point, and I thought, “hmm, an extra gel actually sounds great”. From there, I took 1 gel every 2 miles until I ran out. In total, I took 2 salt tabs (mile 7 and mile 14), and 7 gels on the course. GU Roctane at mile 4 and 8, Gatorade with caffeine at mile 12, 16, 18, and 20, and Gatorade without caffeine at mile 22. I had never tried having gels every 2 miles. It’s surprising that it didn’t upset my stomach.  

My pace kept dropping from mile 19 to mile 25. I almost cried (from both excitement and how fxxking tired I was) when I got to mile 20. I was super grateful that I did a “last 10k course visualization run” with Fleet Feet Racing Team the previous Thursday. I remembered every turn, each landmark, and all the jokes we talked about on this exact course. It helped me to stay calm and focused. A lot of people started walking around there. I told myself, you ran this part of the course, you know you are very close, you got this. I actually stopped looking at the pace band altogether for the final 10k. I felt like I couldn’t speed up, and I didn’t want the idea of knowing how much behind I am from my goal to get into my head. 

I tried to channel “full send” energy with only 5k left. But my legs just felt too heavy to move. Josh found me at mile 24.5, at which point I was running a 7:39 pace. I struggled to put up an ugly smile for his camera. He probably sensed how exhausted I was, and for the next half of a mile, he jogged with me with his backpack and non-running shoes. When we saw the 25-mile marker in sight, he turned around and said, “you got this!”. I gave him a thumbs-up, turned up the volume of the headphone, and started picking up my cadence. LFG. It’s full-send time. 

A friend captured this picture of me around mile 25.5

Thanks New Found Glory and blink-182, the last mile or so was actually my fastest time on the course, even with the hill on Roosevelt (which surprisingly didn’t feel as hard this year! I guess all the hill training this training cycle paid off). I clocked a 6:36 for the final mile. I crossed the finish line at 3:15:38 before Spotify finished the very last song on the playlist – Hold My Hand by New Found Glory. A new shiny PR (by 10 minutes and 21 seconds)!

No acute pain! I didn’t collapse, and I was able to walk without a medic for the first time after finishing a marathon! I got my medal and all the free things that were given out by the finish line. For the first time, I took the free beer after a race. There were still many things that I would like to change for the race. But for now, I would like to celebrate with all the cupcakes that my body can handle, and sleep for 2 days.

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