Today, I ran the Philadelphia Marathon. I first ran this race in 2012. I missed this race last year, so I could do the Richmond Marathon. This year, it was the same weekend as the Route 66 Marathon in Tulsa. I did Route 66 last year, so this year, I returned to Philadelphia. There just aren’t enough weekends for all the good races.
The last time I flew to Philadelphia for a race, I experienced travel delays in both directions, so I was a little nervous about my flights. I had a non-stop flight that was scheduled to arrive in the mid-afternoon. That would give me plenty of time for packet pickup if my flight was on time, but the Philadelphia airport sometimes experiences “ATC delays.” Last time, I didn’t find out my flight was delayed until I reached my departure gate. As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about. We took off on time and actually arrived a bit early.
I was able to use Hilton points to get two free nights at the Hampton Inn in downtown Philadelphia. That’s about a mile from the starting line, but it’s right next to the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where the expo was held. When you’re staying downtown, there’s no need to rent a car. I took a train from the airport. My hotel was seven blocks from the train station, so I packed light.
After checking in at Hampton Inn, I walked over to the convention center to pick up my race packet. Later, I had dinner with my friend Patrick and another runner. I met Patrick last May, when he had a stopover in Minneapolis on his way to the Comrades Marathon in South Africa. We’ll both be doing Comrades again next May, but it will be my first time doing the “up” course. Patrick has already done Comrades four times, including both the “up” and “down” courses.
I generally try to get to bed early the night before a race, but I knew it would be an uphill battle. Last weekend, I had to adjust to a late schedule, with an evening race in Las Vegas. All week, I’ve had trouble adjusting back to my own time zone. Adjusting to Eastern Time would be even tougher. Surprisingly, I was able to get to sleep at 9:00. Unfortunately, I woke up at 1:15 and never got back to sleep. At 4:30, I gave up on sleeping and started getting ready for the race.
The race started at 7:00, but pre-race instructions advised getting to the start area by 5:30. Ever since the bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon, other large races have increased their security. I wasn’t at this race last year, so I didn’t know how long it would take to get through the security checkpoints. When I checked in at Hampton Inn, I learned that they would have breakfast for the runners at 5:45. I decided to wait long enough to have a quick breakfast before leaving for the race.
When I got up, it was 39 degrees, but it was supposed to drop another degree before the race started. It was forecast to get into the mid-40s by the time I finished. Because I had to be at the start so early, I opted for tights and a warm hat. I knew I risked getting warm in the late miles, but I didn’t want to be freezing in the start corral after dropping off my gear bag. I should have brought a Mylar blanket or some throwaway clothes. This is why I seldom pack light.
I went down to the lobby at 5:30, so I could make a cup of tea. The breakfasts were grab-and-go bags, and they were already on a table in the lobby. It was more food than I needed to eat so close to the race. I ate a muffin and a small granola bar and brought the rest back to my room to save for after the race. I put a cover on my tea and brought it with me as I walked to the race.
There was a secure perimeter around the start/finish area that was fenced off. There were about five places where you could enter. Although the start corrals were a mile away from the hotel, the nearest entrance to the secure area was at Logan Square, which was only a half mile away. It only took me 10 minutes to walk there.
The only bags you could bring into the secure area were the clear plastic bags we were given for gear check. When you enter, they check that you’re wearing a race bib and look in the bag to make sure it doesn’t contain anything dangerous. Each checkpoint had about a dozen lines, with a separate security guard for each line. I was expecting congestion, but the process was quick and efficient. I’ve done races where it took longer just to enter your start corral.
I still had about an hour until the start of the race, which gave me more than enough time to make a bathroom stop, check my gear bag and get to my corral. It was cold, so I waited until 30 minutes before the start before removing my warm-ups and checking my bag.
I didn’t have a well-defined goal for this race. At the least, I wanted to break 3:30. This was the first race in several weeks that struck me as a good opportunity to run a fast time. I already have a BQ-5 for 2016. It would be nice to try for a BQ-10, but I didn’t think I was ready yet. That would take a time of 3:20 or better. A more likely goal was to improve upon the 3:23:44 I ran two weeks ago at the Soldier Marathon. I decided to start running, see how I felt, and wait until the halfway mark to decide on my goal.
I was thinking of lining up next to the 3:25 pace group, but decided to line up with my friends Karl and Aya instead. Since I wasn’t near any pace groups, I was on my own to set the right pace. That’s just as well, since I didn’t know how fast I was trying to run.
The race starts and finishes on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, near the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The steps in front of the museum were used in the Rocky movies and are sometimes called the “Rocky steps.” There’s a statue of Rocky near the steps, and every year you’ll find the Rocky statue wearing an extra-large marathon shirt on the day of the race.
After a few blocks on the parkway, we made a slight left onto Arch Street, which took us through the heart of downtown, towards the “old town.” It didn’t take very long before I could run at my own pace. In the first mile, I was mostly trying not to run too fast. I reached the first mile marker in 7:56. That was about right.
Running through the old town, I missed the second mile marker. I may have been too distracted as we made a few turns, and I had to pick my way through other runners. By the time I finished three miles, I saw that my second and third miles averaged about 7:40. That wasn’t unreasonable if I was going to take a shot at 3:23:44. The 3:15 pace group, which evidently lined up behind me, passed me. I had to be careful to run my own pace and not let myself be pulled into their faster pace.
After a loop through the old town, we ran back through downtown on Chestnut Street. The crowds along Chestnut Street were great. It reminded me of the crowd support in the New York City, Chicago and Twin Cities marathons. I ran a couple more miles in the 7:40 to7:55 range, but then missed the sixth mile marker. I’m sure the banner and clock were obscured by the thick crowds.
Right at the 10K chip mat, I was passed by another large pace group. This one was the 1:40 group for the half marathon. I also did my best to ignore them. I wondered if I was subconsciously influenced by them, because it started to seem like I was running harder.
As I approached the next aid station, I noticed how to spot the aid stations from a distance away. You could always see a sea of yellow hoodies. That’s what all the volunteers were wearing.
I dressed mostly for the cold temperatures at the start. I wondered if I would get hot later. My cheetah tights and hat are both quite warm. As we left downtown and crossed the Schuylkill River, I felt a cold wind. I might get warm later, but it wouldn’t be any time soon.
The next mile was uphill. I was worried that I might be running too hard, so I eased up a little on the hill. That hill was followed by a long downgrade and then another hill. My pace varied with the hills, but I was still on roughly the same average pace.
At mile 11, we did a brief out-and back on a parkway alongside the Schuylkill. By mile 12, I could see the back of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I knew we would cross the river and run by the museum just before the halfway mark. When we got there, the half marathon headed toward the finish, while the marathon began a long out-and-back on Kelly Drive.
I reached the halfway mark in 1:41:23. I was on pace to beat my time from the Soldier Marathon, but I wasn’t confident that I could maintain the same pace in the second half. For now, I deferred setting a goal. I still needed to wait and see how I felt later in the race.
The second half of the race is mostly a long out-and-back along the Schuylkill, but there’s a section around 18 miles where we cross the river, do a short out-and-back, and then cross it again before continuing alongside the river. I was still maintaining a similar pace, but I wasn’t trying to push it. The out-and-back is slightly downhill going out and slightly uphill coming back. I told myself to just get through the uphill without wearing myself out. When I finished the hill, I realized it wasn’t as big as I thought.
The next section of the course took us into Manayunk, where there’s always an unofficial beer stop. Since this course is out-and-back, you pass it at 19 miles and again at 21 miles. At 19 miles, I was still unsure whether I was trying to beat 3:23:44, but I knew it would take a good effort. With seven miles to go, a beer stop seemed unwise. On the other hand, it’s part of the Philadelphia Marathon experience, so I went for it. It’s not a big cup, but it’s also not some watered down light beer.
At this point, we were starting to climb a gradual hill. A spectator cheered, “Over the hill. Over the hill.” I was tempted to yell, “Was that a remark about my age?” Then I heard their sound system playing Eye of the Tiger. In general, Rocky tunes get played way too much at races. Here, they’re always appropriate. The next song was Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run. That worked too.
As I crested the hill, there was a short downgrade until the turnaround. Coming back, we had to go over the same hill, but in that direction, it was easier. I reached 20 miles in 2:34:54. Clearly I was on pace to beat 3:25, but it was still unclear if I could gain enough time to beat 3:23:44.
We went through an aid station, but I was too far from the side of the street, and there were other runners in the way. I decided to skip that one. After all, I was coming up on the beer stop again. I did, in fact, have another cup of beer. Then I checked my watch at the 21 mile mark. I ran that mile in 7:43. If I kept up that pace, I would break 3:23:44. With 5.2 miles to go, I finally decided to go for it.
The last five miles were slightly rolling, but it didn’t seem to bother me. I maintained a good pace through miles 22 and 23. I was feeling good and running hard. I was passing most of the runners around me. When I got to 24, I couldn’t remember my previous split. Did I gain time or lose time in that mile? I didn’t know. I could see that my overall time was on pace for 3:23:44, but just barely.
I ran hard for another mile. I ran mile 25 in 7:33. I kept running hard. After going under a bridge, through a small tunnel and under another bridge, I could see the museum. The last mile is slightly uphill, but it’s the last mile! I ran past the museum and finally reached the 26 mile sign. That mile was 7:32. This was similar to the way I finished the Soldier Marathon, and I was going to beat my time from that race. I was also going to run negative splits.
I finished in 3:21:46. I ran the second half exactly a minute faster than the first half.
I worked my way through the finish area, got a bag with some snacks, retrieved my gear bag, and immediately pulled on my warm-ups. Another runner saw me putting my Zubaz on over my cheetah tights. She said, “You got zebra pants AND leopard tights? Ain’t nobody got nothin’ on you!”
After walking back to the hotel, I finished my post-race snacks and what was left of my grab-and-go breakfast. I took my time recovering and getting cleaned up. When I eventually got dressed, I started walking back to the start/finish area.
It had been four hours since I finished, but I still saw a surprising number of runners walking back to their hotels, still wearing their Mylar blankets. I made a point of congratulating every one of them. I gave high fives to the ones who had a free hand. I also saw a few people wearing yellow hoodies, and I thanked them for volunteering.
When I got to the finish area, they were taking down the fences and tents, but the clock was still running. There were still runners on the course. I saw some of the last finishers. One was a college student who finished the entire marathon without ANY training. I don’t care how long it took. That’s not easy!
I walked over to the museum to take a picture, now that it was no longer blocked off for the race.
On my way back to the finish line, I saw two more marathoners on the course. They were walking, so I started walking alongside them to congratulate them. As they reached the 26 mile sign, the finish line announcer said , “Here come the last two official finishers.” They started running. I ran alongside them. Then the mayor and the race director also started running with them. They finished with a clock time of 7:59.
After they crossed the line, I noticed one of them was wearing a sign on her back. She’s a Maniac in Training. This was her second of three marathons in 90 days to qualify for Marathon Maniacs. She probably has no idea how crazy her life is going to get.