2014 was the first year of my newfound hobby of marathon running. Last fall, I ran the New York City marathon and had planned to try to run Philadelphia three weeks later, figuring I’d already be in training shape. When the morning arrived, I decided I was still way too sore from New York to attempt Philly. I pledge to try again in 2015. After running the Belfast marathon in the spring, a race where my goal was to finish without feeling like I was dying, my goal for Philly was to shave some time off my finish time. I was able to cut down my half marathon time to 1:44 in Brooklyn in October. I ran four half marathons in six weeks between the end of September and end of October, but figured the three week gap would be enough to recover for the full since I’d mostly be tapering. With this in mind, my goal was to run around a 9 minute pace, bringing me in under four hours. My previous PR was 4:19, so this would be a fairly substantial improvement.
My training didn’t go quite as I had planned. I began following the Hal Higdon “intermediate” training schedule which added an extra day (typically Sunday) of running and added more miles per week. This actually worked pretty well for me. The weekday miles weren’t usually a problem and I had no serious injuries or even soreness from adding an extra day of running. I was able to bring my shorter runs down to around a 8 minute pace and the longer ones to 9 or 9:30. In the entire four month training schedule I missed only about two days. Unfortunately, they were the big ones. I missed the first 20 mile training day while returning from Ireland. I had hoped to run after getting home from the flight in the morning, but came down with a stomach bug while leaving and didn’t leave the bed that day. I then tried to make it up a day later and gave up after 14 miles when I realized I wasn’t back to 100%. Luckily, I had a second 20 miler two weeks later. On this day, I went out, made it about 18 and just crashed into the wall. I had to walk the final two miles back home. I figured it was close enough.
All the Way to Philadelphia: Pre-race
When the weekend arrived, we headed down to Philly Saturday morning. I usually prefer a Saturday race to a Sunday one as it gives an extra day for recovery, but this one was nice in that it gave an extra day to settle in and get ready. After a few long runs with some stomach issues or running out of fuel, I knew the food going into the race would be critical. I even cut out beer for two weeks before hand. We got in to Philly early due to a strange lack of traffic and decided to hit the expo early. Since Reading Terminal Market was just across the street, it seemed the most logical place to grab a bite. After scoping it out, the heavenly smell wafting from DiNic’s famous roast pork called me over. A roast pork sandwich with spinach and cheese seemed the perfect protein and carb supplement. The line even moved fairly quick. After having two of these, I think I may be willing to lay it all down and claim that these are better than a cheesesteak.
The packet pickup and race expo was across the street at the convention center. While it didn’t compare to the immensity of the New York expo at Javitz Center, it was pretty close. It was definitely the second biggest expo I’ve seen and had a nice energy. Pickup was super fast and easy as was changing corals to the sub 4:00:00 one, though the volunteer did question me which I didn’t like. The booths were nice with a ton for other races, gear, and tech. Sadly there weren’t that many giveaways. After chowing down on every single free item at the New York expo, I learned my lesson and left them uneaten.
Carboloading at London Grill
After the expo, some low key rest and relaxation was called for. After some football and two gallons or so of water (got to stay hydrated), we went out in search of dinner. After moving to an incredibly convenient apartment about a 15 minutes walk from the Art Museum where every single race seems to start from, and yes, that was a deciding factor, our friends let us stay with them again. There are lots of nice restaurants in the area, and we planned on Brigid’s but the small dinning room was full with runners as was the bar at Bishop’s Collar. Luckily the huge London Grill had some space though the bar was also full. It has an upscale feel, but the service is very welcoming and casual and I definitely didn’t feel out of place in my sneakers and cozy athletic gear. Lehigh had just won the 151st meeting against Lafayette, so we were still celebrating with our gear. Sadly the perfect sounding Boar Fettuccine was out, but the bacon and mozzarella gnocchi special sounded like a good replacement. After our huge lunch, I was only able to finish about half, and also had a ton of the delicious truffle-parmesan frites. I had no issues during the run, so it must have been a good decision. With a 7:00 start time the next morning, it was back to the apartment early, a vacation picture slide show to get ready for bed, and asleep before 10.
Like apparently every race in Philadelphia, the marathon starts in front of the Art Museum of Rocky steps fame. Apparently people have the energy to run up them at the end of the marathon, but I had barely enough energy to even walk back. Getting through the newly instituted security was no problem and we were in the corals very quickly. The port-a-potty lines were far too long again, and continued to be busy until mile 10 or so. The speakers along the start line were nice for knowing what was going on and helped to get pumped up with some music. The weather was perfect this year and just a little chilly, enough to keep cool but not freezing. After the freezing temperature and high wind of New York last year, this was perfection. I ran in my Lehigh shirt again, partly to celebrate the win and partly because the bright yellow makes it easy to find me apparently. I even met a fellow alum at the start line who had been at the game the day before.
After a short delay due to a car being towed, the second such delay I’ve had in the last two races, we were off. The race is a half marathon and marathon with the marathon and half sharing the same course for 13 miles through the downtown, then the marathon splitting off and continuing with a long out and back along the river to Manayunk. Philly’s mayor was even at the start line giving high fives to all the runners. The parkway that we ran along here is lined with flags from every country of the world, which actually makes it easy to find your supporters. Ours were waiting at the Slovenian flag which I now know what it looks like from our summer trip.
The half marathon route was amazing, probably the best half marathon route in terms of energy and scenery I’ve run. The route winds through center city, past tons of historic landmarks like The Mint, the Liberty Bell, City Hall, Independence Hall, under the bridge, and down South Street for a bit. I was tempted to peel off and get some fantastic South Street Souvlaki, but decided to keep my eye on the ball and keep running. There were even supporters out in colonial garb near the Liberty Bell. I pretended Ben Franklin was behind me with his kite and lightening was about to strike to keep the pace up. I had no problem keeping a strong pace of under 9:00 a mile, even dropping down to what my Runkeeper said was 8:30 through mile 7. Unfortunately my Pebble watch which I use for tracking pace and distance disconnected at mile 6, so I lost track of pacing info. Luckily I still had the periodic audio cues from my phone every mile, but I began to suspect the accuracy of these when it kept telling me I was at 8:40 even when I consciously slowed down. Through the whole half, I had no issues beyond needing to duck into a port-a-potty at mile 10 from too much water. I should have just used the river near the zoo like at least 20 men I saw running over. It was hard to tell if the “earthy” smell around the zoo was from the animals or runners.
Hitting the Wall
After separating from the half runners, I dug in for the remaining 13 miles, a long out and back along the river. From the Rock and Roll Half, I was familiar with the route, at least to the Falls Bridge which can seem a bit endless. This helped not be too surprised by the distance. I made it to the bridge and then began struggling. Just after the bridge, my phone also decided to die, taking my music and pace with it. I was then running blind and deaf which I have done before on training runs, but when you aren’t expecting it, can be quite demotivating. Then, I started getting some serious soreness in my knee and IT band. I stopped to stretch both a bit, and was passed by the 4:00:00 pace group. I tried to catch back up but couldn’t maintain the energy to do so. At mile 20, I hit rock bottom and had a hard time starting to run again after the water stop. An offering of beer from the Manayunk spectators didn’t help matters one bit. I wish I could say I mustered the energy, dug deep, and overcame the wall, but in real life, that doesn’t always happen. I ended up walking up the hill for a quarter mile or so, then began running again, only to make it to the next water stop where I couldn’t get going again. I alternated a shuffling zombie walk and what my wife calls the T-Rex run where arms don’t move, knees barely bend, and you “must go faster” for the next 4 miles or so. The crowds thinned a bit along the river on the way back. Getting passed by someone in an Olaf snowman costume also hurt. When the hills flattened out at mile 24, I was able to get back into a real run. I kept it up through mile 25, passing my cheer squad, and all the way to mile 26.2, even turning up the afterburners for the sprint to the finish line. My finish line photo are not a pretty thing.
The medal for finishing is the coolest medal I’ve received by far. New York has weight and substance, but this has a bell that actually rings. The finish line sounded like an over excited school rendition of Jingle Bells. Leaving the area was a bit of an issue because it required a mile plus walk back to the spectator area after going all the way down the exit chute. Of course I collected water, Gatorade, and even some chicken broth. It was surprisingly refreshing. The walk back to the apartment was also difficult, but decked out in my New York Marathon poncho and with my medal jingling, I couldn’t have felt more accomplished. I was disappointed to have not met my goal and to have crashed so hard, but I still got a PR and finished after a pretty rough training schedule. There’s always next year for beating four hours.
Recovery with Ramen
The nice part about starting so early was being done before noon. We relaxed, showered, and recovered for an hour or so, then hit the road to get back home since it was after all a Sunday. On the way, we passed Rai Rai Ramen in New Brunswick which had been recommended. It’s in a deceptive strip mall, but the inside is pretty nice. The food was incredible. Somehow ramen really hit the spot after spending the whole morning in the elements. Pork belly is definitely a recovery superfood as well. It only seemed fitting to end the day with ramen after foolishly having some incredibly spicy ramen the night before the New York Marathon last year.
Even though I didn’t hit my goal, Philly treated me well. The more I run in this city, the more it grows on me. Beside the terrible sports fans, the people are super friendly and supportive. There were very few areas where there were no supporters out to cheer us on. I got a ton of Lehigh cheers, and thanks to the race bibs with our names on them, lots of personalized support as well. People weren’t afraid to push you when struggling too. During my walk spell, I got lots of encouragement to keep going. It helped push me to get going again and finish fairly strong. Thanks Philly, I’ll see you in the spring for the Hot Chocolate 15K, Donor Dash, and possibly the Love Run Half Marathon.