A Musical Tour Through Downtown Chicago
The Rock n Roll Marathon Series is a corporate entity spawned in the late 1990s. One of their first races, a June marathon in San Diego, was a disaster. Marathon day was much warmer than expected, there wasn’t enough water, and at a post-race press conference the race director, in a quote he desperately and futilely tried to retract, blamed the volunteers for the resulting chaos. I didn’t read any news, good or bad, about the series for several years after that, leaving a vision of dying runners begging for a cup of water as my last and lasting impression of a Rock n Roll Marathon.
The series survived the San Diego debacle and has grown a lot since then; it now consists of 30 marathons and half marathons in North America and Europe. One of the current Rock n Roll races is a half-marathon in Chicago, which I ran for the first time this July. I chose this race mostly because of the timing; I wanted to do a half-marathon at the end of July and I didn’t have many other viable options. The rock n roll angle carried no weight with me. In the past, I’ve run races with musical acts on the course. I didn’t mind the musical interludes, but they didn’t add to the gratification I was getting from the competition. With my jaw set and eyes narrowed as if peering into the future (essentially, the worst Clint Eastwood imitation, ever) I would utter some banality about the only reason to race in a race is to race (in the late 90s the San Diego Marathon race director was not the only one spouting off stunningly dumb quotes).
Another reason I decided to run this particular event was the course: it was not on the lakefront. Several years ago Chicago started requiring any event using city streets to hire a police officer for every intersection. That drove up costs, and many races either shut down or moved to the lakefront path. Now, Chicago’s lakefront path is an urban treasure: it’s as safe as any place in the city, the views are incredible, and there are almost no intersections with city streets (attracting race directors on a tight budget). But I don’t like racing there, mostly because it’s not a closed course. The cyclists, and dogs, and power-walkers talking on their cell phones will turn the most mundane 5k into an exciting (in the bad sense of the word) obstacle course. Refreshingly, the half-marathon course runs through and around Chicago’s downtown, the loop. In addition to not having to slalom past any cell-phone zombies, running through the canyons in the loop never gets old for me.
Like every big race nowadays (just under 20,000 competitors at this one) there was an expo where each runner had to pick up a race number and t-shirt. This expo was held at Chicago’s convention center, McCormick Place: a structure so large and cavernous that it doesn’t remind me of an airplane hangar so much as a place to store airplane hangars.
I was surprised to find that the race packet-pickup was efficient and hassle-free. I don’t know why I expected otherwise. Perhaps I assumed that an event so large had to be staffed by the same caliber of employee as the local utility monopoly. At any rate, with my race number and t-shirt safely stowed, the current of the crowd pulled us towards the sales floor. I checked and saw that it was possible, if not well-advertised, to leave without passing through the vendors and their forests of moisture-wicking polyester, but my three-year old son was with me and I was counting on feeding him with the free samples available and entertaining him with the knick-knack giveaways.
Apparently it’s been awhile since I last wandered through a race expo. All the free stuff was gone, replaced by a gauntlet of data collection thugs. I was harangued to sign up for a chance to win all kinds of useless prizes: one hour of free cell phone time or a single yoga class. In one case, it was unclear if there even was a prize: a large poster had the word “Las Vegas” inside one of those jagged ovals normally associated with “Grand Prize” or “Win!”. Out of the corner of my eye I surreptitiously read the rest of the poster and I think they were just selling a timeshare in Las Vegas. As far as I could tell, there was nothing to win; they simply wanted my phone number so they could continue to harass me even after I left.
My son was getting antsy. I knew the clock was running out on the snack time window of opportunity, which was making me antsy. I was also feeling a little long in the tooth, with my expectations for the expo so glaringly exposed as 20 years out of date. And then I was rescued; it was the Power Bar tent, a company that still does marketing old school. There were plates and plates of their confections, er.., energy supplements, to be sampled. I asked my son whether he wanted chocolate energy or vanilla. Both, he answered. OK, I acquiesced, but don’t tell your mother. With him sated, temporarily, I also found a postcard advertising another rock n roll event to give to my son. It was glossy and I told him it was a ticket, so that kept him in good spirits long enough for me to cut my losses and get out. Expo, schmexpo.
Chicago in July is hot and humid. Miserably so. Wisely, the race start time reflected this reality: 6:30 am. It did make for an early wake-up calI, but I gladly traded a late, leisurely start to the race for 5 or 10 fewer degrees of soul-crushing heat.
I waited for the bus in the dark next to a group of University of Chicago students also decked out for the race. One of them was talking much too loudly and laughing (also too loudly) at her own unfunny jokes. It was irritating, until I took a closer look at her and realized that running 13 miles was not something she did very often. I smiled, realizing she was terrified. Her buffoonery was oddly endearing after that.
The walk from the bus to the starting area was an eye-opener to yet another development in road racing that I had missed since my last time out: the free-lance photographer. There were swarms of them buzzing around the cross-streets between Michigan Avenue and the start on Columbus Drive. It was quickly clear to me that groups of runners who were happy and chatting with one another were the prime targets, so I tried to look as sullen and morose as I could.
For a race with 20,000 people the start area was surprisingly organized and easy to navigate. No lines at the gear check, toilets, or water stations. The only place where I saw a long, unruly queue of people was at the “Problem Solver” tent, making me glad I am neurotic about organizational stuff when it comes to races.
I entered my corral. To get assigned to this corral I just had to write on my entry form what time I expected to complete the race in. They did not ask for any proof. In my experience, this is a recipe for disaster. And yet again, my experience was exposed as hopelessly out-of-date – there were no problems with slower runners lying their way to the front and clogging up the course (apparently I was the lone exception).
The gun went off and we headed north on Columbus. Within a minute or two we were running through an underpass. The Fairmont Hotel was above us, but the hotel’s kitchen must have been down on our level because the tsunami of bacon smell almost knocked me over. 50 feet later we passed the hotel’s exhaust duct – the temperature rose twenty degrees and the bacon gave way, reluctantly it seemed, to that smell my vacuum cleaner gives off when something gets caught in the intake and I don’t turn it off right away.
We soon left the underpass and the odors of the Fairmont Hotel’s nether regions. The race crossed the river, and headed into the north loop. We zipped through the hotels and restaurants before heading south again on State Street. We passed the Chicago Theater, a music venue with the best marquee in town (everyone wants their favorite band to play there so that they can get a picture of themselves standing under the curved “Chicago” neon sign with the band’s name just below). Someone was playing a tuba in front of the theater. It was a New Orleans dixieland tune. I wondered, is this one of the rock n roll acts supposed to entertain me? Or is this just someone who wants to play his tuba? And then I wondered some more, can you get in trouble for playing a tuba without a permit? Is there even a permit for tuba-playing? (that’s a joke; in Chicago there is, and you need, a permit for everything)
We headed west on Randolph and Monroe over the river again into the west loop. We were four miles into the race and this was the first time we weren’t surrounded by high-rises. The west loop neighborhood is developing fast, so while the high-rises were gone, the mid-rises there have been popping up like mushrooms recently. Currently it’s just condos interspersed with some industrial, but based on past experience, in a couple years this section of the race will be lined with coffee shops.
There were a couple of good bands in our tour of the west loop. It was the first time I noticed the quality of the music. They were real bands; they were tight and in tune and playing catchy music. In fact, I think one of them was playing an original composition which I surprisingly enjoyed, though I have no idea who they were and will not go the trouble of tracking them down.
With two exceptions, the Rock n Roll Half-marathon did a good job of living up to its moniker. The first exception was the (rogue?) tuba player, who was fine – he just wasn’t a rock n roll tuba player. The other exception was a dance mix dj I passed later in the race. That kind of music isn’t really my thing to begin with, but to compound the problem, when I passed him the song he was spinning had so many obscenities bleeped out that the censorship was creating its own rhythm. Those two aside, all of the acts were good rock n roll bands, and in a couple cases I was actually a little disappointed to have to keep running out of earshot.
We headed east back into the loop and weaved around. We ran south on LaSalle to Jackson and the Chicago Board of Trade. Right at the intersection was a band performing a Guns n Roses cover with the guitarist doing an admirable job of playing Slash’s solo note-for-note. The sound bounced off the Board of Trade building and headed north on LaSalle, ricocheting back and forth between the skyscrapers creating the most amazing reverb I’ve ever heard. Why, oh why, didn’t I bring a lighter to hold up?
The race spent a lot of time in the loop and its environs; we didn’t leave downtown for real until close to mile 8. I cannot find a single fault in the organizers’ selection of the course layout; it hit all the exciting, attractive urban features of the city over and over again: the buildings amplified the cheering crowds and the bands; we passed under the el tracks several times; we crossed the Chicago River four times. The only thing that could have added to the authentic downtown vibe was if part of the race included standing in line at city hall to pay a parking ticket. Maybe next year.
My one quibble with the course came at the seven-mile mark. We were running east on Jackson and took a right on Michigan. At that point we were very close to the starting area. I happened to be having a particularly bad race that day and the temptation to leave the race, walk the two blocks, grab my stuff and go home was strong. I wish I could say that I dug deep and found the moral fortitude to continue on, but in fact I was thinking that I had paid $110 to enter the race, so I was going to get the pleasure, and value, of running all 13 miles, no matter how miserable I was.
We continued south on Michigan. We crossed Cermak Avenue which made for the first time we weren’t in a downtown neighborhood. We spent a mile or two running through Bronzeville before heading back towards the loop on a Lake Shore Drive service road.
At mile 11 the course passed through a tunnel under McCormick Place (previously seen from above ground at the expo). It was almost completely dark, but there were neon glow sticks everywhere. I can’t remember what music was playing, but it was loud. It’s 7:30 on a Sunday morning, I thought, and I’ve stumbled across a rave?
Back in the sunshine with a mile to go, we were looking at the skyline the whole way home. The Rock n Roll corporate juggernaut apparently learned its lesson from 1998: when I crossed the finish line there was plenty of water. There was also a vendor handing out slushy drinks, but the slush had turned back into ice making them impossible to slurp. So I held it the giant purple ice cube under my armpit for a minute to cool myself off, and then threw it away.
Based on the handful of message board comments I’ve seen, some people have some pretty strong feelings about the Rock n Roll series of races. My take on this particular one was that it was well-organized and was close to the best possible 13-mile course to be had in Chicago. It is always going to be hot and humid here in late July, so this will probably never be the fastest half-marathon around (note to self: the course can be faster if you train more ahead of time). I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed the bands; after the first two or three, I found myself looking forward to hearing the next one.
Will I run it again? Maybe, if it fits into my schedule again. And if I do, I’m definitely bringing a lighter to hold up when I run past the band playing the Chicago Board of Trade.