The 2011 Philadelphia Marathon was to be my swan song.
When I learned last spring that so many great people would be running it, I decided that I would register for a fun no-pressure morning in my fair city before hanging up my road shoes for a couple years to focus exclusively on adventure racing.
Then came a spring filled with 12- and 24-hour races, a disastrous outing in Costa Rica, and a Nationals for the record books.
I was pooped.
I grudgingly fought my way through long runs and intervals until about four weeks ago, when all of a sudden, everything began to click, and I started to think about reorienting my goals a little bit.
By the time the race actually rolled around, I was committed to one thing and one thing only: having a smile on my face at Mile 23…
With great house guests, expo extravaganzas, and all kinds of people to meet, I knew that the running-filled weekend would pass quickly.
Photo c/o Amanda. I am short.
And with so many runners and running bloggers taking to the streets, it was impossible not to feel excited. Unlike the past couple years when I woke up marathon morning with dread, when Sunday came I popped out of bed at 5 AM ready to go.
Amanda and I were out the door by 5:30, and the car was loaded up with running buddies ten minutes later.
It was 6:15 by the time we found parking and made our way to the start. After two frantic rounds of port-a-potty lines, we all parted ways and Laurie and I headed over to the green corral.
With a marathon PR of 3:38:00 and a half time of something like 1:36:00, there’s no question that Laurie’s a faster runner than I am.
She wanted to have a race where she didn’t explode out of the start and pay for it later. I wanted to push past my comfort zone and see what it felt like. We decided to start together and take it mile by mile. No expectations, no commitments – just two friends out for a long run, so long as it was working.
We looked for Kari just before the start but in the pre-race frenzy, we never managed to connect.
It was just me and Laurie and 20,000 of our closest friends as we crossed the start line a few minutes after 7.
Following a frustratingly slow first mile of bobbing and weaving, we settled into a comfortable pace and took in the scene. The weather was near-perfect and the crowds were bigger than I’d ever seen them. The city was rocking and rolling.
Brent and Amanda’s husband, David, were traversing the course on bike, and I knew from past experience to begin to look for them around Mile 2.
Sure enough, just before the route turned onto Delaware Avenue, there they were.
“There he is!” I yelled, forgetting that there were thousands of “he’s” out there and that it was unlikely that my “he” would know where to look in the sea of runners.
“Brent!” Laurie called.
That did the trick.
He whipped out the camera and readied to take a picture just as I tossed my gloves and arm warmers his way. Startled, he bobbled the camera around his neck and tried to catch the flying gear.
So, no pictures from Mile 2. Party foul on my part.
With loud crowds and no distracting pace groups around us, I was able, for the most part, to ignore my garmin and just be in the moment. Here and there I would check our pace, pulling us back we veered into the 8:00 range, but unlike previous marathons, I didn’t allow the number to dictate the race. Instead, I settled in, enjoyed the company and the crowds, and ran.
Brent missed us by a couple minutes on Delaware Avenue but still got a pretty great shot from the bridge.
Mile 5 and still having fun - a definite improvement over last year!
We saw Laurie’s husband, Bill, for the first time around Mile 6, and my friend Judy – with cowbell in tow – at Mile 7. From there, we turned north and headed up into the park.
There were a lot of runners who seemed to be struggling with the incline at this point, but Laurie and I had covered this section of the course during two 20-mile training runs and we continued on comfortably.
“That was an 8:15,” I said as we passed by the mile marker near the Please Touch Museum.
“And that was with the big hill!” Laurie responded.
Since the second mile, our pace had been hovering between 8:20 and 8:40. It felt comfortably sustainable at the time, but I worried that I had gone out too fast. I tried not to think about when I would begin paying for it.
We descended from the park around Mile 10 and were promptly greeted by one of our personal photographers out on the course.
Bill and his Movember mustache
Bill kept us entertained for the next several miles, and when we parted ways with the half marathoners and turned down Kelly Drive toward Manayunk, Laurie and I took stock of our race to that point.
“That was the smoothest first half I’ve ever had,” Laurie said.
I didn’t want to jinx anything, but I felt the same way.
The next few miles are the quietest of the race, and as we continued on down the all-too-familiar road, I began to feel myself check out mentally.
“Okay,” I said to my running buddy, “I’m starting to get bored…”
On cue, Laurie commenced a two-mile Q&A, which took us right across Falls Bridge and toward the waiting camera of my favorite spectator.
Seeing Brent on the course is more energizing for me than any gu or block.
From there, it was just a couple quick turns to Manayunk and the loudest part of the morning. We headed down Main Street, listening to Eye of the Tiger and cheering along with the crowds.
At Mile 20, Laurie turned to me and said, “I don’t know what you just ate, but you’re shooting ahead!”
“I love Manayunk!” I responded. And for the first time ever during the Philly Marathon, I really did.
We reached the end of Main Street and returned to the solitude of the river path. At this point, I could tell that Laurie’s race plan had worked. She’d held herself back for the first 22 miles and was itching to push. I wasn’t slowing down, but she was certainly speeding up, and instead of pulling her back or pushing myself too far, we parted ways.
I smiled as I watched her dash off and quickly pulled out my Ipod that I’d brought for just that occasion. I didn’t do a great job with the playlist – too many slow songs – but I happily jammed out to Johnny Cash and Aerosmith as I continued on toward the art museum.
Without Laurie to distract me, I expected myself to fall off at that point. So I was surprised to look down and see that I was still holding a steady pace. I did some quick math and realized that unless I completely blew up, I was in the running for a serious PR.
I passed the Mile 23 marker with a huge grin and was still smiling when Bill biked by at Mile 24.
Those last couple miles weren’t my favorite – I think in large part because I started focusing on my watch – but I knew that the faster I moved, the sooner I’d be done.
Just after Mile 25, I saw my dad for the first time.
It’s hard to put into words exactly what kind of effect that had on me. For as long as I can remember, my dad has been my biggest cheerleader. He’s not loud. He doesn’t make a scene. But he was in the stands (or on the deck, or running the bake table) at every swim meet. He flew out to Wisconsin with me for the Ironman. He’s volunteered at adventure races and spectated at marathons.
Two years ago, when I spotted my dad at Mile 19 of the Philly Marathon, I broke down hard. Thankfully, it was near the end of an out-and-back and I was able to pull myself together by the time I ran by him again a mile later, but I felt terrible that he’d come all the way down to the race just to see me sobbing as I plodded painfully down the road.
Since then, he and I have talked a lot about why I’m still signing up for marathons when my heart isn’t in it. He wasn’t sure why I’d registered for this one, but he – along with my mom and my sister – still came down to cheer at the finish.
Seeing him with less than a mile to go and being able to give him a big smile felt like a victory.
From there, it was just a couple hundred meters up one last little incline and then down into the chute. I pulled off my headphones, took in the crowds, and when I saw the finish banner (there was no 26 Mile marker), I sprinted across the line.
I spent the next half hour walking through the endless lines of (sort of lame) post-race food and gear-check bags and wandering through the crowds in search of my family.
Finally, I tracked down Brent, Bill, and Laurie. My parents and sister arrived a few minutes later.
I ended up crossing the line at 3:45:07 – a PR by 9 minutes. Laurie clocked in at 3:43:46.
I never hit a wall, never felt like I was falling apart. It was by far my most solid marathon performance to date.
The best part, though, was how steady we were.
I had signed Brent up for the text alert service to track my times, and when I looked at the splits after the race, this is what I saw:
Half in 1:51:58. Pace: 8:33. Est. 3:44:10
30k in 2:40:18. Pace: 8:36. Est. 3:45:28.
Finish in 3:45:07. Pace: 8:35.
How’s that for consistency?
Post-race celebratory brunch!
So, where does that leave me?
Is there a part of me that wants to register right now for a spring marathon and train for a 3:35:00 finish (something that, surprisingly, actually feels reasonably attainable, with the right training)?
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted.
But for now, the BQ will have to wait.
Next year, I’ve got bigger mountains to climb.