Where to start? This was my goal race of the year. I ran it Sunday, November 22. I blew it out of the water. I’m still so happy. My heart is full of running joy.
Having missed running a spring marathon because of a hip/back injury, I was especially excited for a fall race. I don’t remember anymore how we concocted the Philly plan. I had a lot friends do it last year and they loved the race. Nicole and Chris, my sub 30 buddies, both thought they could make it, though Chris’s race schedule ultimately took a different direction. Our local crew came together over the summer with me, Snarky Girl, Teacher Runner, and Swifty all planning to race in Philly. We also added a new member to the crew, Rooster, who, like Early Bird, wants to run at or before dawn. Swifty, unfortunately, got hit with a stress fracture over the summer, so we became a gang of four.
Our weeks took on a pattern over the course of the training cycle. Long runs usually Sunday because Teacher Runner’s husband worked Saturday. Monday switched around between circuits, easy running or rest. Tuesday was always track day. Wednesday sometimes hills or later in the cycle, a tempo run. Thursday train with Tough Guy. Friday was our girlfriend run, sometimes fancified by Coach Cowboy. Saturday circuits at the gym. This training schedule felt really good for me. Teacher Runner and Rooster almost always joined me for track days. Teacher Runner and Snarky Girl were near constants on Fridays. We all found a rhythm that worked for our individual schedules, but also intersected with everyone else on a regular basis. Running is an individual sport, but having a crew is almost like having a team and this group was awesome.
The Saturday before the race, Snarky Girl, Teacher Runner and I loaded up an incredible amount of stuff and headed to Philly.
Rooster was already there, having headed down a day early with her family. The drive down felt slow. There was traffic. We stopped at Panera. We drove some more. Finally we got there.
We got settled in Saturday afternoon and headed to the expo with Nicole and her BRF#1.
The expo was big! Not as big as New York, but we didn’t have a lot of time. We picked up our bibs, swapped the shirts for bigger sizes and got Teacher Runner switched to a faster corral. I had so been hoping to buy an official jacket because I missed out at NYC, but they were sold out! When will I learn? Order ahead! However, I picked up a nice hoodie and frankly, found plenty of Philly merch to buy.
There was also a booth where if you posed for a picture with their background and posted it to social media, they basically threw free shirts at you. I got 6 free shirts! Four of them were tiny, but I think Rose and her buddies will get a kick out of them. I had hoped to see some other sub 30 folks, but we were pretty rushed about getting to dinner. Snarky Girl bought new shoes that she ran in the next day because that is just how she rolls.
It turned out that another sub 30 group was at the table right next to us so we got to hang out some and take a picture with the flag. Very fun. We had a really nice meal, relaxed, and talked about plans for the race.
Back at the hotel room, we got ready for bed. We flipped around on the TV a bit and laid out clothes for the morning. Rooster arrived around 9pm and we started to wind things down. Lights were out by 10pm or so. I took a Tylenol PM and slept great.
I slept a little too great. I was the only one who set an alarm and I set it for 5:45 instead of 4:45. OOPS! Thank goodness I woke up at 5:15, as usual, and jumped out of bed! Morning time preparations were, shall we say, more “focused” than they might have been otherwise. Luckily, we really were ready to go. We had time for oatmeal and coffee. We put on our ridiculous throw-away wardrobes and were out the door by 5:55am or so. Stepped out the door and pretty much right into the HUGE security line.
This was a total bog down. I don’t know if it’s because we were a few minutes later than we had intended or if they increased security because of the Paris attacks, but we waited forever in line to get into the race area. We had met up with Nicole and her BRF#1 and we took turns going to the bathroom in the hotel because we were still right outside the door. There was a huge truck that said something like “Homeland Security – Special Unit” so I think this was a response to Paris. Once we finally cleared security, it was really time to pee. Teacher Runner and Rooster and I wanted to go to the first porta-pottys we spotted so we said good bye and good luck to the rest of the crew and got in line. And waited and waited again. Nicole was right – it would have been better to walk for a bit and then go, but once in line, we didn’t want to give up our spots. It was getting later and later and people were getting antsy. There were still people in the security lines and many many people waiting to pee. We finally finished around 6:52 for a 7am start. Yikes!
Luckily we knew that with a wave start, we wouldn’t be moving right away anyway so we started a slow jog to our purple corral. I really didn’t want to get worked up about this so I kept telling Teacher Runner and Rooster to stay calm. I think the big surge of adrenaline when I panicked at the start of the Hartford marathon in 2013 messed up my race and I didn’t want to repeat that. In any case, we jogged along until we found the purple corral and even found BRF#1 waiting in it! Despite Teacher Runner’s misgivings (“I’m not that kind of person!!”) we jumped the fence and joined BRF#1 in the corral. We had plenty of time because the race started late anyway.
They were playing music and we danced a little in honor of Chris. Shook off some nervous energy. Teacher Runner and I reviewed the race plan again. Finally we started moving and inched our way to the start. They got everyone in purple lined up and then we had a real start of some kind and off we went! Four months of hard work about to be put to the test! The weather was in the mid-40s and cloudy – good for racing!
Teacher Runner and I lost BRF#1 and Rooster pretty much instantly, but that was fine. We had thought we might stick together for a mile or so, but they planned to start faster than we did. The first mile was really congested. So many people! The whole operation was nothing like as crowded as New York though. It’s a whole different league from Hartford, but it still felt like 1/10th the crowds of New York City. And unlike my experience in NYC, we were in the right place, so even though it was crowded, everyone was running close to our pace.
The overall plan was drop dead simple. Run as close to a 9:30 pace as possible for the entire race. No pace adjustments unless feeling smashingly good at mile 20, then speed up a bit. Otherwise 9:30 all the way through. Of course, that is NOT enough to think about, so Coach Cowboy and I had worked out some other ways to break things up. The first five miles were all about staying under control. You should feel good for the first five miles of a marathon and it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement. Our first five splits are 9:26; 9:53; 9:29; 9:38; 9:38. Right on plan. We heard the Rocky theme for the first time. Saw lots of cool buildings. Ran by the Constitution Center. Generally, we felt very good. Teacher Runner and I didn’t talk a lot, but we commented on interesting signs and reminded each other to stay in control. I saw Therese from Sub 30 out on the course somewhere in the first five miles in her bright yellow hoodie, yelling my name. That was really fabulous!
I had figured out what a 9:30 pace would be at the three timing mat locations in the race and we crossed the 10K mark at 59:20 or so, nearly perfectly at our 9:30 pace. I had decided that miles 5-13 were about enjoying the city. Remembering to look around and there was lots to look at! This section of the race goes down Chestnut St. and that is where the crowds were. This was the one place where the energy of Philadelphia approaches that of NYC. Chestnut was full of people and the energy level went way up. It was hard not to get swept up in that and I kept telling Teacher Runner (and myself), keep it easy. Stick to 9:30. Still, we had our fastest split of the race on that stretch of road. Splits for this section were: 9:21; 9:04; 9:57; 9:11; 9:41; 9:11; 9:19; 9:27. The 9:57 is one of the hills. I suppose the 9:41 is probably the second hill, with the splits following those climbs being the faster downhills. We run a LOT of hills in Middletown and these Philly hills were really not a big deal for us. Noticeable, but unproblematic.
The final couple of miles out by the river were pretty lonely and even though she didn’t see me, I was happy to see Linda from Sub 30 out there cheering! I was also incredibly ready to get rid of the half marathoners. Lots of people had talked about the split on the Philly course. Half marathoners and marathoners are together until almost mile 13 when the half marathon runners head to the start/finish area and the marathoners head out along the river. The half marathon runners all seemed to think we would feel so sad not to be turning right with them. Instead, I was so happy to see them go. I was honestly ready to get rid of them by mile 7 or so. I didn’t feel quite as strongly about it as my friend the Bearded One, who claims he wanted to throat punch all the half marathoners, but I can understand his perspective. It was nice to have a clearer course and to get down to the business of the second half.
We hit the half mile split at 2:06, which was a minute or two behind schedule. At that point I thought, ok, sub 4:10 is probably out of reach. You are not likely to negative split this thing. But I had said right along that 4:10 was my dream goal but I wouldn’t be unhappy with a few minutes to either side of that. It was still going to be a huge PR. I also told myself, ok, if no sub 4:10, let’s at least hang tough for sub 4:15. I think being able to click to that secondary goal in an instant was probably mentally important. I didn’t spend time or energy mourning sub 4:10 – just adopted 4:15 and thought how sweet that would be.
Coach Cowboy and I had broken the second half of the course into four sections. The second half is an out and back, with one deviation where runners cross a bridge around mile 17. The four segments were from the halfway mark to the bridge. Bridge to the turnaround. Turnaround back to the bridge. Bridge to the finish line. Kelly knew the plan and she recited it just as we crossed the halfway mark. I realized I hadn’t told her that we would actually run across the bridge, but my desire to talk had decreased by now so I thought she’d figure it out. I also put my music on at the halfway mark. We weren’t talking much anyway and I know music helps me run and stay strong. The run to the bridge was okay. It was all starting to be work, for sure, and by now we had picked up a lovely headwind. I thought of running the last 6 miles of the Providence marathon into a much worse headwind and just said, yup, you can do this, but I was sure grateful when it let up.
On the far side of the bridge is an out and back that just seemed gratuitously long. And the segment from the bridge to the turnaround, which is about 2.5 miles, seemed about a hundred miles long. Strangely, in here somewhere, Teacher Runner asked how I was feeling and I know I said “fantastic!” Which is also true. I felt simultaneously great and also like I couldn’t wait for this ridiculous race to be over with.
During this part of the race, I felt furious at the race director folks. In addition to the lovely beautiful much-longed-for mile markers, someone had added “medical markers”. The “medical markers” I’m sure are to help medical personnel locate people on the course who need help and they are clearly totally reasonable, but I just felt personally offended by them because I didn’t want to see “Medical Marker 16” or whatever, I just wanted to see Mile 18. This was the darkest portion of the race for me. The best part (only good part?) of this section was at some point, there was a beer aid station. What I loved was not the beer, but the fact that there were big warning signs BEER ONLY before the beer station so that no one made a mistake. This struck me as hilarious, but I may have been getting a little punchy.
We crossed the 30K timing mat, right on schedule at 2:57 hours into the race. I had a feeling that was a good thing, but I also couldn’t remember if we were supposed to cross 30K at 2:57 or 3:57 and I was definitely starting to lose track of where we were on the course. The same thing happened during the NYC marathon, when I actually asked at the 19 mile water station where we were because I could no longer figure it out. Ah, the mind does strange things over long distances.
Why couldn’t I just look at my watch to check my mileage, you might ask? Normally, I am a pretty Garmin-reliant runner. I have a Garmin Forerunner 220 watch and I love it. I love it because it’s purple and looks really cool, but I also love it because it helps me stay on pace and I look at it a lot. During this section of the race along the river, however, my watch kept losing its satellite signal. I have no idea why because there were no sky scrapers here or any other structures to mess up reception, but I knew I had lost signal enough that my mileage was pretty far off. I was hoping the stopwatch part of the watch had remained functional, in which case we were right on target with 30K at 2:57. I think my brain just sort of said at that point, 2:57, 3:57, what’s the difference, just keep running.
Once we reached the turnaround, it was time to boogie back to the finish line. Yes, we had to pass the bridge, or on this side of the road, the section where out and back courses were temporarily not together. But mostly we had to finish this thing. Past the beer aid station. Finally to mile marker 20. One little 10K to go.
The last 6.2 miles were glorious and horrific. Now, a few days later, mostly I remember the glorious. Running with Teacher Runner at my shoulder is some version of heaven for me. By now we had run 20 miles together. We were pretty much done talking. At some point she said “train” and pointed to what was indeed a train. I think I said “urg”. That was the level of conversation. I lifted my arm to wipe away some sweat or snot and realized how incredibly tired and sore my arms were. Thank goodness, I could not really feel my legs. But running with this woman at my side might be the closest I’ve ever felt to flying without an airplane. Simultaneously completely euphoric and totally terrifying. My biggest fear the last six miles was that she would run away from me. She’s done it before, at both the Citizens 5K and the Surftown half marathon, and I didn’t know if she had it in her to speed ahead or if she would do it, if she could. I knew I would be crushed if she left me and also that I might walk, which would be a blessed relief and also a huge defeat. She told me afterwards that she was wishing so hard we could walk, but that she would never have said that and that she was also worried I would run away from her. I will hold the magic of these six miles in my heart forever and they make this entire journey worthwhile.
We started to tick down the distance until the end. 21 miles – 5 to go. 22 miles – 4 to go. By now my watch was a full half mile off in terms of mileage, which was actually ok. It meant that something “happened” every half mile. We either crossed a physical mile marker or my watch gave me a split. I was so deep inside myself now that I didn’t feel the watch vibrate, but I started calculating splits based on what time we passed the mile markers. 3:19:00 to 3:28:30, so still on 9:30 pace. 3:28:30-3:38:00, still good, etc. The final miles of a marathon can take on a sort of unearthly quality. For me at least, time becomes fluid, passing both more slowly and more quickly than normal. I try to imagine my eyes as a camera, capture the image, remember what this is like. You will want to remember. Look, there’s a bridge, and then also a rock arch right behind it. How cool. Look, there is the skyline, still kind of far away. Even though I try to do this, I often can’t fully remember what the end of the race was like.
I do know that during this six mile run back, I saw three members of my sub 30 running group. First up was Kim (running with Adrian, who I didn’t see – sorry!). This was Kim’s first marathon and she was injured just three weeks prior to the start. I saw her when she was around mile 17 or so, smiling! A big bright smile and a yell for me! I smiled and waved back, so very happy she was that far along. I knew she’d finish and I figured I had better stick with it too. I saw a sub 30 shirt I didn’t recognize, who yelled for me! Now I know it was Alison and her presence reminded me that sub 30 gives me friends in unexpected places, just where you might need them. Near the end I saw Therese again, jumping up and down and cheering like crazy in her yellow hoodie and her crazy energy helped push me along. It’s pretty much impossible to overstate how great this group is and how much support they offer.
As we approached the finish line, I knew there was something I wanted, but I still couldn’t really speak. I had run 26 miles with a close friend and training partner. Finally with about 20 feet to go, I was able to gasp out “Hands” and reach for Teacher Runner. Luckily, she knew just what I meant and reached back. Yes, we crossed the finish line hand in hand. We had not necessarily said we would run this whole race together, but we trained together, we ran together, we finished together. It was nothing less than spectacular. We hugged, we high fived, we got medals and blankets. Finally we checked our time: 4:09:03. Sub-4:10!!!!!
The rest of the day was delightful. I think I was positively vibrating with happiness. We got through the finishers chute and found the Bearded One. Snarky Girl and Rooster found us. Lots of hugs and congratulations all around. It turns out, my entire crew PR’d, as did the Bearded One. I was able to buy a marathon jacket (finally!) on the way back to the hotel.
We chilled at the hotel for a bit and then met Nicole and some other sub 30 folks for drinks and grub at the Tap House.
The Tap House also had: the best hard cider ever! the best scrambled eggs ever! The best water ever! Ok, I may have just been super super happy. It was wonderful to celebrate! When it was finally time to head back to Connecticut, our gang took one last ramble around Philadelphia’s German Christmas market, which was really lovely. Then coffee, candy, and on the road home.