Two Medals, One Challenging Run

Lara James – Bank of America Chicago Marathon 8th Oct 2023  – 3:20:41

In January this year I received an unexpected email invite for The Abbott World Marathon Majors (WMM) Wanda Age Group World Championships.  This mouthful was to take place as part of the Bank of America Chicago Marathon on Sunday, October 8. Not wanting to miss out, I immediately signed up and paid the USD$400 entry fee chuffed to have earned a place on the start line through this route.

I didn’t understand what the Abbott WMM was all about, but I knew it was something to do with the six marathon majors and I had wanted to work towards the coveted ‘Six Star Finisher medal’.  Now I understand it a little more I’ll try to explain and hopefully get some more people excited about it.  

Abbott WMM introduced the Six Star Medal in 2016 to honour runners who complete all the (currently six) major marathons. These are London, Chicago, Boston, New York, Berlin and Tokyo. There are rumours more will be added but for now it’s six. I had already gained one star – London. Chicago gave me an opportunity to get my second star. Once a runner has completed all six majors they receive the prestigious finisher medal and there’s no time limit on it.

Abbott WMM collate and publish the Wanda Age Group rankings on their website and here you can search by age group, gender and nationality to see where you rank amongst fellow marathon runners.  It was these rankings that got me the invite to Chicago as this was to be the race where they hold the Age Group World Championships.  Last year it was held in London, next year it is to be … Sydney – which adds further confusion as this is not currently one of the ‘majors’. But there you go.  

Chicago is, of course, an iconic marathon and it had not escaped me that it is a very flat route.  I’d gone into it accepting that I just wanted to get round in order to get my ‘star’ and instead of obsessing about hitting a time I was to try to enjoy it.  That way I could stay on track with focussing on fitness and speed in my training through the summer and just do enough long runs to ensure I would make the distance.  A ‘PB’ was not necessary for this race. However, as the date got nearer, the buzz around the race and the Age Group entries was ramping up, and the weather forecast was looking really good (chilly and dry), so I thought I’d go for it and push for a PB if I felt ok on the day.

I picked up my running numbers and goodies from the Expo, sorted my kit out and met up with fellow Jersey runners Ben Watts (also Spartans member who ran a PB) and Jilesh Chohan for carb load and to do a shake out 5km (along with 9,200 other runners) in downtown Chicago, on the day before the race along with my husband, (another Spartans member) Peter, who finished second in his age group in the 5km race.

Having practically wrapped myself in cotton wool in the week approaching the race I frustratingly picked up a cold affecting my throat and head which came out that afternoon so I loaded myself up with things to help shift it.

I woke up on race day feeling more under the weather but I decided to run it anyway, adjust my expectations and walked down to Grant Park to join a huge queue to my start corral in the Age Group Champs area.  The organisation here was a shambles.  Queues everywhere, people everywhere, chaos everywhere. We dumped bags (big queues), visited the toilets (more big queues) and followed a placard to the start line where everything was far better organised.  

The race is hugely well supported and the fast, flat course tricks you into wanting to go faster early on, but I’ve done enough races to know that any time you gain in the first half by going at a pace too fast will probably be robbed from you with interest in the second half as you tire. Water stations were frequent and well delivered by really happy teams of volunteers. Mile markers were big and visible and given the number of runners (c. 48k) it didn’t get too congested out there.  Just over two hours into the race word was getting round about a new world record being set – with heightened emotions it felt incredible to be a part of the race where we learned from people shouting on the side lines that Kelvin Kiptum had broken the world record and run Chicago in 2:00:35. Shortly after we hear Sifan Hassan had finished in 2:13:44 and is the second fastest female marathoner in the world. Awesome.

Many more miles and internal dialogues passed, finding ways to cut the time left to fool the brain into thinking it’s not that bad. Finding the positives. Thinking how lucky you are to be running when many less fortunate can’t. Thinking of all the inspirational stories, and of how good it will feel at the end. The milestones clocking by. Only 10km to go, just a Parkrun, 10 more minutes you’ll be done. Just keep going.

I’d read that in the last mile the wind can pick up and there is a slight uphill. No problem if you’ve done most of your training in Jersey I thought. Both were minor and soon the finish was in sight.  I finished in 3:20:41, not a PB, but not far off and I was gradually coming to terms with that as the miles went on, my heart rate increasing, my pace dipping and the 3:20 pacer passing me in the last few minutes of the race. I was elated to be at the end and given my medal by another lovely volunteer.

I found another Age Group Champs runner at the finish and we were guided back to the ‘exclusive hospitality’ to pick up our bags. That is when I learnt that we also get an extra medal, this made me very happy as I’d not realised, and I do love a medal. This elation quickly expired when the shambles from pre-race came back in force.  Our ‘private gear check’ was now 3,000 identical see-through bags laid on some grass in no real order as exhausted, cramping runners were invited in a panic to go find theirs after queueing for 45 minutes. I doubt that system will be used anywhere else very soon. The moment someone found their bag it was as if they had won the lottery.  Celebrated but envied by those around.  After 30 mins of picking up random bags hoping they would be mine I was about to just go and leave it, even though my phone was in it. I was knackered, cold and I couldn’t see how anyone would just happen to find their bag. Then I saw it – my big writing – my bag!  There were claps, whoops and cheers. More excitement than the finish line.  There have since been two sincere apologies from the Chicago marathon team about the fiascos at the start and finish and they assure us they are doing all they can to ensure it doesn’t happen again and I believe them.  

I’m a huge advocate for anything that helps to encourage and promote age group participation and competition. I believe all athletes whatever age should be given the opportunity to continue to be competitive in their 30s, 40s, 50s and far beyond. Abbott Age Group Champs are doing good to help this.  I’d love to see age grading percentages more widely used when reporting races because this is when we will truly see the relative achievements across age groups and gender.

And best of luck if any of you choose to run Chicago in the future, go for a Six Star Medal or compete in the Age Group Champs.  

Also read