Trail(s) to a PR – Chicago Marathon Race Recap

Bank of America Chicago Marathon – October 11, 2015

To start – Chicago was very awesome because my parents met me there, and my sister made a surprise trip as well! How can any race be bad when your family is cheering you on? Now for the rest of the story…

Me and the family after I snagged a PR.

Me and the family after I snagged a PR.

This post is not really going to review the Chicago Marathon, as I don’t believe in reviewing big city races (if 40,000 people are going to run it, my opinion won’t sway anyone). I will say a few niceties at the end, but this post is largely going to focus on a PR that shouldn’t have happened (based on where I was via conventional marathon training methods), and the different things I did that allowed me to PR despite not having done a lot of speed work (track, what track?), not having slept very well for weeks, and just feeling generally run down. Before I start – note that I am no expert in running and have no coaching experience/certifications. So, be warned…I’m just a dude that puts one foot in front of the other as best and as fast as I can…and take my advice and thoughts as you want.

To start, let’s rewind to the beginning of 2015. I came off a pretty successful 2014 where I ran 9 marathons and set a new PR of 2:56:47 in Boston (and ran a 2:56:48 in November). Nine marathons in a year more than doubled my best prior year (4 in 2013). I had ambitions to double that number in 2015 and set out an aggressive race schedule, especially in the 1st half of 2015 (10 marathons in 5 months). In January 2015, I was peaked physically and caught a perfect weather day on a great 2 weeks of rest/tapering at the Chevron Houston Marathon and knocked out a 2:53:19, shattering my prior PR. I was ecstatic until I realized I missed running a NYC qualifier by 20 seconds. I don’t like lotteries and I don’t gamble much, so if I’m running NYC it’s going to be by qualifying. Now knowing I could actually run a NYC qualifier (prior to Houston 2015 I didn’t think I could break 2:55), I set my sights on Chicago as my goal race to the fall. It was PR or bust, NYC qualify or bust.

After the PR in Houston, I messed around at most of my other marathons. Ran a lot of small races where I could place/win without putting in a full out effort (treated them as faster training runs). In March, I was introduced to trail running by signing up for a Trail Racing Over Texas event. The race I ran was the San Felipe Shootout, a staged race that consisted of a 5k, 10k and a half marathon, back to back to back. After running this race I learned two things. First, trail running is dang fun. Second, trail running beat the living poop out of muscles I didn’t know existed (and the trails at San Felipe aren’t technical). After running San Felipe, I did some research and found there are single track trails in the middle of Houston at Memorial park, go figure. Having placed a number of trail races on my calendar for the summer/fall, I decided I may want to train on trails. By June, I was doing around 1 day per week of trail running (working it in to replace a road 7-8 mile run that I do on Saturdays). So success factor #1 was trail running…I’ll describe more later.

Success factor 2 was simple – a smart increase in mileage and distance of long runs. I ran a number of ultras over the summer (ranging from 50k to 35 miles) and treated these as endurance building long runs. The 35 miler was a pretty slow pace, but I knocked out a 50k with 7:40 minute miles which is a pretty good long run pace for a 6:35 minute/mile marathon target.

What I didn’t do well was the more conventional speed work that has gotten me decent marathon times in the past. My tempo runs were flat and lethargic, and I often struggled to go under a 6:20 pace for 5-7 mile runs…which does not bode well when you are targeting 6:35 marathon pace. Plus, I was only doing these once or twice a month…not good. Lastly, I forgot that tracks exist and did zero workouts on a track…oops.

So why did I PR? As I reflect back on it, trail running has played a huge part in making me a much, much better runner. 1st, trail running gives you a more thorough work-out than roads. Roads are very repetitive and similar motion. On a good single track trail you are bouncing around, using different foot placements, varying your stride and attacking ups and downs. This all helps to build and strengthen muscles that don’t get challenged as much on the roads. 2nd, trail running inherently requires more effort since terrain is varied, surfaces are softer, and footing is more challenged. I found that my trail pace was up to 1:30 minutes/mile slower than on roads when putting out a similar effort. Trail running helped make me stronger and more durable, which paid off big in Chicago.

Trails also help you prepare mentally as well. If you are used to running alone and pushing hard in a small trail race, you can certainly get through 2 more miles with thousands of people screaming for you when you are feeling physically exhausted at the end of a marathon.

I attribute trail running, and added endurance from my summer ultras to driving my PR in Chicago. This PR shouldn’t have been given I had an ear infection and head cold 4 days before the race, got almost no sleep for 2 nights leading into the race, and had a month in August and September where my body was run down and tired. I had very few quality speed work outs, but somehow on race day I felt strong and ready to tackle the race.

So after that long dive into the benefits of trail running, I’ll say a few words about the race. Toeing the line with 40,000 people is just insane, and I can’t believe the logistics actually work. The weather was decent that day, a bit windy but starting temps in the 50’s felt nice to this Houstonian. The race starts off very crowded, but thins out after about 5 miles. I went out hard with a PR or bust mentality. After a few miles, I realized I was running a 6:20 – 6:25 pace. While I thought this was too fast, my breathing was right so I went with it. The 1st half of the course was mostly wind at the back, so that helped some. I was feeling strong through mile 11 and got to see my family there (which is always a nice boost). I maintained this nice pace through the halfway point (1:24:20 1st half) and still felt good 15 miles in. The back half of the course had a decent head wind and slowed me down…plus I just started getting tired. I was able to hold on to a 6:35 – 6:45 pace through mile 23. I hit a mini-wall here and started to finally get fatigued. The fast 1st half caught up with me a big, and I dropped to ~7:00/mile pace. Fortunately, I banked enough time where I crossed the finish line with a new PR.

What was fun about this whole deal was, I did not run with a watch. I was using mile marker clocks to check my splits. When I crossed the finish line, the gun time was 2:53:50ish…at the time I thought I was over 2:53 and maybe didn’t even PR. After a mile walk to meet my family, I asked them what my time was and they told me 2:52:55 – so I got to find out I PR’d and qualified for NYC (by 5 seconds) with all of them with me…sweet.

I just found out I made the cut-off, 2:52:55 gets me to NYC, no lottery!

I just found out I made the cut-off, 2:52:55 gets me to NYC, no lottery!

So, in summary. I snagged a PR and a NYC qualifier, so the race was a big success. Training wasn’t ideal, but a new love for trail running helped make me stronger and ready to go for Chicago. The race went as well as I could have expected given that I had illnesses and some exhaustion leading into the race. Makes me believe that I can break 2:50 sometime next year under better training/physical condition. Best of all, my family got to see me put on my best performance, and I got to spend a great weekend in the city with the parents and sister!

The best part of the trip? A Monday morning run with my Mom and Sister!

The best part of the trip? A Monday morning run with my Mom and Sister!

The Stats:

Career Marathon/Ultra #34 (Marathon #31)

State #12 – 5th Sub 3:00 state, 12th Sub 4:00 state

Time – 2:52:55 (PR)

The Gear:

Altra Zero Drop Adam Shoes

Feetures Compression Socks

TROT New Balance Singlet

North Face Flight Series Shorts

Marathon Maniac Buff



  1. Congrats on the new PR! The best are surprising ones 🙂

    I ran Chicago as well this year (my first) and having a watch was pretty much non-functional anyways. Aside from paces being totally off each of the first few miles (I clocked a 5:15 when I was actually closer to 9 my first mile), it also ended up being about .25-.5 off after a couple miles. My tangents were awful, but not THAT awful!

    Trail running is definitely something I like to bring into my training, too. I didn’t this year at all, but will for next year along with more hills. I nailed huge PRs when incorporating weekly to biweekly trail/hill runs last time.


    • booch82

      Thanks! It was a fun race! On the watch thing, it is a practice for me to not run with GPS in any race that has mile markers. If there are not clocks on the course I’ll simply go old school and keep my own mile splits. Keeps me from continually looking at the watch and worrying about my pace. Every PR I’ve had in the last few years has involved no watch. For trail running, I’ll use GPS since most races don’t mark mileage. I will keep the “instantaneous” pace off my display though. Running by feel is the way to go! Good luck on your training for your next race!

      Liked by 1 person

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