Race Report: Philadelphia Marathon

Well, it’s been four months since Mrs. RunnerPub and I ran the Philadelphia Marathon.

We have five weeks until Boston.

What better time — well, aside from the preceding four months — for a full recap of Philly?

With that, here it is:

Pre-Race Thoughts, Goals

Heading down to Philly in late November, my goal was to beat my personal best, which is still 2:49:55 from Paris ’08. Ideally, I wanted to run between 2:44 and 2:48.

In the final weeks of training, that seemed like perhaps a biiit of a stretch. For one thing, I’d been battling a strain in my left glute that had me nervous. For another, my legs didn’t seem to have much “pop” in them during our final workouts.

In particular, I’d bombed our final “marathon-pace” run of 15 miles. That workout’s supposed to be a beast. Still, I hadn’t expected my legs to turn into tubes of cement by Mile 10 and to struggle and strain through the final loop of Central Park.

And so, with Philly approaching, I was hoping that the combination of tapering and “magic of race day” would afford me the necessary boost to reach my goal.

Race Morning

Ready for battle, circa 4:30 a.m.

By the time our hotel’s shuttle bus dropped us off near the start line at 5:15 a.m., the wind was already howling. For some reason, the security guards weren’t letting people into the fenced-off prep area until about 5:45. So we stood there for a while like idiots, shivering from the cold and our pre-race jitters, along with several other early arrivers. I wondered if everyone else had decided to skip the race.

“They probably saw the weather report and said, ‘F— it; I’ll just run the local Turkey Trot on Thursday instead,'” I thought.

Once inside the prep area, Leslie and I sought refuge from the elements in a big tent. Before long, a few hundred similarly bundled-up runners had joined, creating a sense of warmth and camaraderie — and nerves!

At 6:40, twenty minutes before the start, we came outside, checked our bags and found our respective corrals. I was in the “Maroon” wave, right behind the elites. Leslie was right behind in the “Black” wave. She was looking to beat her 3:27 personal best from Chicago ’15.

Les is trying to stay warm in the pre-race chill

After the Star Spangled Banner was sung, I pulled off my two pairs of sweatpants and long-sleeve T-shirts and tossed them in a bin. Marathon legend Bill Rodgers was on a stage, speaking into a microphone, recalling his own victory here in 1974 on a similarly cold and blustery day.

Then the race director gave final commands.

And then, the gun went crack!

Early Miles

The Philly course opens with a lovely stretch to and around City Hall. Since I hadn’t put myself at the front of my corral, I spent much of the first mile weaving in and out of people. I hit the mile in 6:47, pretty solid, and things started opening up.

Around here, we ran by a dive bar called Paddy’s Pub (just like in the TV show “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” and therefore an early highlight). Then we turned right on North Columbus Avenue, taking us right past our hotel, the Holiday Inn Express — Penn’s Landing (temptation to run back inside and go to sleep: averted).

The sun was rising over the Delaware River and neighboring New Jersey. I was loosening up, picking people off, looking for a group of bodies to hide behind before we’d turn west — straight into the wind.

You could kiiiind of see Independence Hall from the race. We saw it up close and personal the day after the race

First, though, we looped around Philadelphia’s “Old City,” which was nice considering it was still early enough for us to appreciate the sights — including Independence Hall. The crowds were pretty decent in this residential area, including one person holding up a sign that said:

“Run like you’re being chased by _____: a) Voldemort b) Darth Vader c) Steve Bannon.”

It was early enough in the race to laugh — and be frightened.

During this stretch, I picked out a tall man with a bald head and sunglasses to tuck behind. He looked tough, clad in a singlet and shorts, despite the cold. He looked to be in his early 40s. Turning one corner, we encountered a preview of gusts to come and he muttered:

“Every time I get into a rhythm, we hit a f—— headwind!”

At Mile 5, things started heating up. We turned left, heading west up Chestnut Street. This stretch constitutes the “Big City” portion of the race, progressing beneath the downtown’s towers and lined with cheering spectators. It was also straight into the wind. I bunched in with four others, forming a line behind Bald Guy. We clipped off a couple of miles in the 6:20s, right where I wanted to be. I was feeling good.

At one point, Bald Guy veered to the side, as if begging us to pass.

“I’m trying to get out of your way,” he said.

“We want you in our way!” someone called back.

Bald Guy didn’t seem to mind.

Settling In

At Mile 7, we caught and latched onto another group, transforming us into a Pack of 10. This was a rush, like we were elites bunching together for the opening stages of the Olympic Marathon (it was still early enough for me to be imaginative). We headed over the Schuylkill River for the first time, ascending a bridge that was the race’s first uphill. This brought us to “University City,” where we kept climbing past Drexel University’s Fraternity Row.

An annotated course map

This was another highlight, with a collection of frat boys on the sidewalk hooting and hollering, banging pots and pans, blaring “Surfing USA” from speakers. They looked like they hadn’t made it to bed the night before — or, perhaps, hadn’t been up this early in years.

Either way, they brought the funk.

Fired up, I pushed to the front of Pack of 10 on the ensuing downhill, hoping to catch Bald Guy, who’d since pulled ahead. He was, someone had informed me, shooting for a time of 2:45. Rather than catch him, I wound up becoming the Pack of 10’s resident pacemaker, blocking the wind for everyone else’s benefit as we entered the course’s hilliest portion.

Mid-Race

Mile 10 dealt the first body blow, a hill longer and steeper than I’d imagined. I tried slowing things down, shooting for “steady effort” rather than “steady pace.” In so doing, I lost more ground to Bald Guy. A couple of members of the Pack of 10 floated past. By the top of the hill, we’d entered Fairmount Park, where the wind was truly whipping.

Here’s what the wind looked like that morning (credit: Weather Underground)

A note about the wind: according to Weather Underground, Philadelphia that morning had sustained winds of 20 m.p.h. at 7 a.m., 23 m.p.h. at 8 a.m., 30 m.p.h. at 9 a.m., and 26 m.p.h. at 10 a.m. Gusts exceeded 40 m.p.h. It blew mostly from the west, though occasionally surprised us.

By the time I’d gotten to Fairmount Park, my quads and calves were starting to feel heavy. From here, we followed a big downhill out of the park (not helping the legs, that) and cut back along the western bank of the Schuylkill to the halfway point.

Here, we were isolated from the crowds. The road was cambered, making it hard to find flat footing. My left glute was tightening up. I was getting nervous.

I passed the Half Marathon mark in 1:23:40.

Rolling Along

From there, we doubled back over the Schuylkill, passing right by the finish line (so close, yet so far…) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (of Rocky fame). Thus commenced a long, lonely slog up Kelly Drive.

“Easy, boy,” I told myself through Miles 14 and 15. “Keep ticking off these miles. Once you get to the turnaround at Mile 20, it’s smooth sailing, wind at your back, all the way to the finish!”

This, of course, is called “wishful thinking.”

Over the next few miles, I formed a tight unit with a couple of other guys to battle the headwinds up the eastern bank of the Schuylkill. At one point, we began roping in Bald Guy again. Then, out of nowhere, Bald Guy stepped off the course. Then Bald Guy entered a porta-pottie. We’d never see Bald Guy again.

By now, it was a classic “out-and-back,” so that while you trudge past Miles 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, you also pass Miles 25, 24, 23, 22, 21 on the other side of the road. This might have sucked, reminding me of how far I had remaining. But for some reason, it had the opposite effect, making me feel closer to home — including when we “passed” the leaders at Mile 18 (for us) and Mile 22 (for them).

The drawback?

Feeling so close to home, I pushed the envelope.

By Mile 19, reality was setting in. Cresting a 50-foot hill that felt more like Everest, I encountered a gust and quickly lost contact with my two companions. It was a real blow — literally and figuratively. All at once, my legs felt like they’d tripled in weight.

Still, I forged ahead, trying to force myself to relax. Up ahead was the funky suburb of Manayunk, perhaps THE highlight of the race, I’d been told. Following miles of relative solitude, you’re thrust into a party town that goes bonkers on Marathon Day. I imagined miles of college students banging pots and pans, funneling beers, blaring Springsteen hits. They didn’t materialize. Maybe it was too cold and windy. Maybe I was hurting too much to notice.

Either way, I didn’t get the Manayunk Boost while scaling another unexpected incline that brought me to the Mile 20 turn-around.

Looping the set of orange cones, I gazed ahead at the final 6.2 miles and thought: “Uh oh.”

Heading Home

Retracing the rolling hills out of Manayunk, I had a couple of unsettling realizations. For one thing, there was a growing possibility that I would epically “bonk.” For another, the tailwind I’d hoped would propel me home would not, in fact, live up to the hype.

Mentally, I was struggling. Sharing the two-lane road with thousands of runners on the other side of the road was no longer fun. While I was ahead of them now, I was sure that every one of them would catch me — and how they’d laugh! The upside of this fit of paranoia was it distracted me from some of the pain of Miles 21 and 22.

Miles 23 and 24 are best forgotten. Over that godforsaken stretch, we zagged southwest (into the prevailing gales) and ran beneath rocky cliffs that seemed to collect all the wind of the world and unleash it in our faces.

“Where’s the g–d— tailwind?” I inquired of a fellow sufferer as we endured one particularly potent blast.

“What the f—!” he replied.

While my pace hadn’t yet fallen off a cliff, I was entering the Danger Zone in which at any moment you can start losing whole chunks of time — in other words, bonk. I was fighting tooth and nail to stay under 7:00 a mile — not exactly clipping off 6:10s and 6:20s like earlier. I checked my splits. I attempted some mental math. I wanted to know if breaking my old personal best was still achievable. As best as I could tell, the prospects were fading.

At Mile 24, I caught one of the two guys I’d run with from Miles 14 to 18. Evidently, he’d also entered the Danger Zone. We ran together for the next mile. Then, he took off, leaving me in the dust. Minutes later, I reeled him in again and, to his credit, he offered: “Go get ‘em!”

It was now the final mile and I resorted to an old trick.

“New goal!” I lied to myself. “Get your sorry butt to that line of porta-potties and then maybe you can walk!”

Once there, I told myself: “New goal! Get your pathetic excuse for a body to that traffic light and then you can give up.”

Once there, I told myself: “New deal! Just carry this failing pile of flesh to that Japanese flag and then…”

And then, upon reaching the Japanese flag, I realized I was at Mile 26. All that remained was a final quarter-mile “sprint” to the finish.

Digging deep, I unleashed everything I had in the tank. It certainly wouldn’t qualify as a “kick,” but it did bring me to the Promised Land.

In 2:50:21.

Twenty-six seconds slower than my personal best.

Nooooo!

Post-Race

At which point, I nearly cried.

Every time I’ve finished a marathon (four of them, now), I’ve experienced a similar torrent of emotions. Pain, of course. And relief. And pride. This time, I felt frustration, too, for so fleetingly missing my best time. But it was impossible to be overwhelmed by that, for I felt badass, too, for enduring the windy weather. And grateful for the fans who’d cheered along the way. And kinship with the strangers I’d run alongside, whether they’d ultimately pulled away from me or I from them.

Hobbling forth, I felt undying love for the old ladies who wrapped me in one of those metallic blankets and bestowed me with a “Finisher!” medal. Hobbling still further to the food tent, I felt primal joy for the lines of bananas, oranges, soft pretzels and steaming cups of chicken broth.

Checking my watch, I realized Leslie would finish any minute. So I hobbled back to the finish and felt stoked to see her zip past looking like a rock star (see below).

“Tiiiiim,” she said, once she’d spotted me and begun hobbling over.

“It hurt so much…”

Well, she’d shaved 12 minutes off of her personal best, finishing in 3:15.

Reunited now, we hobbled back to the food tent. Then we hobbled to the big tent where we’d started the day, which was now being used for massages. Leslie sprawled on the ground.

We were back in this tent, but didn’t look as chipper as we do in this shot taken hours earlier!

“Hey!” a race official barked. “Medical tent is that way!”

“I don’t need medical,” Leslie whimpered. “I just need to sit.”

“And warm up,” I pleaded.

The official took pity, handing us a collapsible chair. His unspoken message: If you can’t park your butt on this, then drag your butts out of here — all the way to medical.

The man looked stressed. As more and more finishers streamed in, all cold and cranky and aching, they vastly outnumbered the official and his team of masseuses. The situation soon reached its inevitable climax:

“Sir,” the official told one runner, who looked to be in his 20s, “you can’t get a massage if you’re that cold.”

“How the f— do you know my temperature?!” the runner rejoined. “Do you have a thermometer?”

The runner was blue in the face, but he had a point. I’m not sure anyone was warm enough for a massage. Fortunately, Leslie and I had another option. Checking our phones, we learned our friend Amy (who happened to be in town) had found a spot near the finish and filmed our “kicks” with her cell — and sent along the footage.

“LIKE A BOSS,” she’d texted.

Now, Amy, was headed to a highly regarded cafe in the vicinity.

“Should we hobble over?” Leslie said.

“Let’s hobble forth,” I said.

And so we did. Once inside that warm and beautiful cafe, we eased our cold, creaky bodies down at a table. Then we began swapping war stories and inhaling large volumes of recovery latte.

It was, without a doubt, the most welcome caffeine rush of my life.

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