November 21, 2013 27 Comments
Although almost 30,000 runners and several times as many spectators were flooding the streets of Philadelphia, it was a strangely quiet morning. The organizers had chosen to not play any music until the start of the race out of respect to the citizens of the City of Brotherly Love, which I thought was a nice gesture. The lack of deep bass thuds had a calming effect on me as I looked for the gear check trucks. I was shivering a little in the low 50s temperatures that had woken up the city. All around me fidgety runners prepared for the 20th anniversary of the Philadelphia Marathon, shaking sleepy legs and breathing into cupped hands.
For the first time in many races, I was nervous. I was out to race today, something I hadn’t done since February. Every marathon I’ve done since then had either been a training run, a trail ultra, or part of a weekend double. Not only was this my first chance to run aggressively in a long time, but it was my last chance for the year. I wasn’t signed up for any future target marathons and didn’t even have plans for the next potential PR, so this was it. I performed my feverish runner duties by relating all of this (and perhaps too much more) to Bruce, the 1:40 pacer for the half marathon. There was no one leading a 3:20 group, so I opted to join Bruce’s troupe until the halfway mark, where I would hold on for as long as possible.
At 7:03, our corral was given the green light and we shot down Benjamin Franklin Parkway towards the city. All around us were flags from many countries hanging from streetlights, as if welcoming the world to one of the country’s most historical cities. In the center of it was Philadelphia City Hall, the world’s tallest masonry building, pointing skyward among its more modern steel brethren. Held up by white granite and brick, it stood out despite many surrounding buildings surpassing it in height, an awesome structure that must have mesmerized Philadelphians at the turn of the 20th century.
Right from the start, I could feel the pace. The first miles of my marathons are usually tackled at an easy speed – especially the fast ones – but today I was out for something more. There are several websites that let you predict your potential finishing time for various distances according to your current PRs, McMillan Running and Runner’s World to name two. For too long my projected times had sneered at me, taunting me with what I believed were impossibly fast times. My 5K PR of 19:07 suggests that I can run a marathon around 3:03, which is absurd. Even my half marathon PR of 1:30:47 translates roughly to a 3:10. I have my excuses for falling short of these lofty goals: I’m built for shorter distances; my tall body needs more calories; I don’t do enough fast long runs, etc. Almost all of these are some variety of “I can’t.” But on the streets of Philadelphia I was going to try.
I have to admit, it was strange trying to prove myself wrong and a meaningless algorithm right.
But I was acutely aware of how fast I was running. I normally don’t feel like I’m working until the second half, but here I was pushing from the very beginning, which wasn’t the best sign. But I was going to do this, recklessly if necessary. I had told a friend earlier that week that, crazy as it undoubtedly sounds, I would rather hit a hard wall at mile 17 and drag myself to the finish, heaving and sobbing but knowing I tried, than play it safe with the usual formula and PR by a minute. Even over g-chat, I knew she had raised an eyebrow.
Through the heart of the city I continued, staying on Bruce like his shadow. We ran through the Philadelphia Convention Center, where the expo had been held for the previous two days. I saw my favorite sign of the race around here – a picture of Yoda, typically calm and serene with the tag “If a smart pace you run, a fast time you will achieve.” We passed Chinatown and then the National Constitution Center, which had the emblematic “We the People” script emblazoned in huge letters on its walls. Barely two miles in, we reached the shores of the Delaware River, New Jersey clearly visible on the other side. Bruce’s group was an amorphous, fast-moving glob of humanity; racers would join for a few strides, ask a few questions and get swept away in the free-flowing torrent.
We reached 5k in 23:44, right at target pace. As we turned back into the city, we passed Washington Square Park and then made a left turn towards the core of downtown on Chestnut Street, but not before passing the Liberty Bell Center. Be it the large crowds, the electric city atmosphere or as a strategic move to bank time, Bruce picked up the pace. By now, I was comfortable with the cadence, matching the stride of everyone around me as if on parade. We passed City Hall once again with the 10k marker not long after.
Right as we left the city we were treated to the boisterous calls of University of Pennsylvania’s fraternity row, where many a hoodie-clad brother were manning beer stations and handing out comically red Solo cups to eager runners. Had this been much later in the race, I might have indulged. But at this point, I was focusing on the hills. The reliable flatness of the first seven miles was over and my pace was seeing its own peaks and valleys. Bruce kept reminding us that we had plenty of time to work with, so we could take the uphills at a more conservative pace. During this section, I was alternating between feeling light-footed and sluggishly ponderous. The pace we were running was a little ambiguous – fast enough to feel it, but not fast enough to worry. So naturally I would alternate between confidence and concern.
Around mile 10, we made it to Fairmount Park, mostly past the ups and downs. Many trees were shedding the last of their red canopy, reluctant to face winter. I was still running with Bruce, but the 1:40 group had dwindled considerably. Every time I looked around, I saw people who hadn’t started with us. They were likely random runners who happened to be there and weren’t consciously following the ballooned pacer sign. Right at the twelfth mile, Bruce suddenly picked up the pace, which made me suspect that he had taken it a little too easy over the last fifteen minutes. Another 23:42 5k split and we had reached the 20k mark, close enough to the finish line to hear the muffled echo of the announcer’s voice reverberating off buildings.
Even after completing several marathons, it’s never easy to hear the race announcer’s enthusiasm, knowing you’re only halfway there. Despite high energy levels and the assurance of knowing that I’ve delayed complete exhaustion for many miles, it still sucks to hear him congratulate runners as they finish. I can see them stop running and it makes every step a little more difficult. It’s like starving in a restaurant for hours and watching the waiter bring an entire tray of sizzling steaks to the table next to you (and they were waiting for half as long).
To make matters worse, the second half of the race course wasn’t very thrilling. I’ve seen it in many other races – the half marathon gets the vast majority of the sights, leaving the marathoners to face a formulaic out-and-back for the roughest miles. I understand, it saves money and manpower, but 6.5-miles out and a mirror-image trek back sometimes feels like we’re being punished for wanting to run farther. To be completely selfish, what if we reversed the course and let marathoners finish in the city? And we can ignore how much costlier it would be to shut down those roads for longer in the day.
Pushing the finish line behind us with every breath, marathoners spent the vast majority of their dedicated portion on Kelly Road alongside the Schuylkill River. Small crowds appeared every now and then but for most of it, we runners were our only company. Though monotonous, the course was actually quite beautiful. But I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted because by mile 16, it was getting harder to keep the negative thoughts away. I was feeling the pace and it felt fast. At this point in my fast marathons is when I normally start to push the pace, accelerating almost magically and laugh haughtily when I sneak a glance at my watch. But today it felt like a chore just to keep it up.
As if to cement those dark thoughts in my head, the course briefly shot over the river via the Falls Bridge, after which we would run downhill for about a third of a mile, turn around, and run back up. It sapped a lot of energy and willpower from me and marked the beginning of my slowdown. Once done with this dastardly detour, we were back on Kelly Road on the original path away from the finish line. Although I passed 30k still on pace, the last 5k split was the first to breach 24 minutes. As we approached the town of Manayunk, I saw a runner ahead who had collapsed. Spectators had moved him on the sidewalk, hoisting his legs in the air, his face oddly peaceful. I saw an older man cross the street on the phone with an emergency responder.
I hope he’s okay, I thought.
The crowds were out in full force in Manayunk. We ran appropriately down Main Street towards the turnaround. Aid station volunteers and spectators blended together into one energizing display of support and affection. Having reached the farthest point from the finish line, I made the hairpin turn and began the journey toward the finish. The roar of the town’s denizens was invigorating, but not enough to distract me from fatigue. The road was mincing the bottom of my feet and my gaze began to droop slightly. Just after leaving the town, as the crowd support returned to thin levels, I took a walk break. I stepped to the middle of the road to avoid an ambulance bounding towards me, almost brushing shoulders with marathoners running in the opposite direction.
I walked, hands resting on my hips, taking stock of what had happened.
That first half was too aggressive, I admitted to myself. I couldn’t reasonably expect to go from running 1:44s in the first half to 1:39 and keep it strong. I recently wrote about how foolish it is for the world to expect a two-hour marathon to happen soon given current performances, and here I was, thinking I was capable of a similar quantum leap in performance. Why was I special enough to break free of the shackles of statistical analysis? What made me think I could just defy the odds?
But although the intensity had gotten to me earlier than expected, I found that I wasn’t too upset. At least I had tried. And I soon realized that I was still running around an 8:10 pace, which was significantly far from the usual 9 to 10-minute bonk speed I can muster after reaching the point of exhaustion. So onwards I ran at whatever speed felt doable. I couldn’t say the same for the runners around me, who hadn’t collectively decide on their own pace. Some passed me, skipping nimbly over the pavement while others slumped by the wayside in worse shape than me. There was nothing else to do but keep going.
And then something strange happened. Around mile 23, I assessed my current situation. The bottoms of my feet were numb, but they weren’t keeping me from running. Make no mistake about it, they hurt. But it wasn’t like a spike in your quad, where it leeches your motivation and self-worth or a seizing hamstring that stops you cold in your tracks and makes you reevaluate your life decisions. My breathing was controlled, I wasn’t short of air; my leg muscles were working, all systems reporting. Really, there was nothing going completely wrong.
So I decided to do something. Something beautiful and pathetic in its simplicity.
I decided to run faster.
And I did. Over the last three miles, I picked it up, bit by bit, passing runners and inching closer to the finish line. At this point in the race, even a tiny incline would stop me in my tracks, but I pushed on, even with mile 25 being mostly an ascent. I became the passer, leaving tired runners behind me. I know in my bones that I couldn’t have sped up like this in Manayunk; I did not have it in me to push the pace. But at that twenty-third mile, it just felt like the correct (and obvious) thing to do and my body responded. Part of me thinks it was the pull of the finish line, but I’ve never smelled sweet victory three miles out. The two marathons I ran six weeks earlier, which put some seriously acidic pain in my legs, might also serve to explain this sudden surge. Perhaps I hadn’t digested the five GUs I had put into my system until that very moment.
But something happened. Perhaps it was the body finally accepting that it was made for running, that it was finally capable of handling the continued beating, even after hours of it. Was this the moment of transcendence? Had I finally become the master of my pain, one with my suffering? Or was it something more banal? Had I simply conditioned my legs to tolerate the strain of a hard run? Had I been overestimating the energy-syphoning effects of a bonk all this time?
Although I never found the definitive answer, it didn’t matter because I was smiling for the rest of the race. My pace charts may have won again, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t enjoy myself or post a competitive time.
I kept speeding up as I passed the twenty-fifth mile, returning to the boom of the finish line. The marathon had an excellent final stretch, which was run on wide and open streets, past the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the green Eakins Oval. It felt like the entire city had opened up to me, like I was entering an arena with resplendent, blue columns made of glass and steel. I eventually crossed the 8-minute threshold, and as I heard the announcer around the corner I somehow managed to speed up to a 6:45 for the final dash. Although my performance was a positive split, I will never complain about finishing in 3:25:28, my third fastest marathon to date.
Hours later, as I scarfed down a Philly cheesesteak sandwich like a combine, I thought about how this race fit into my experience as a runner. It wasn’t a game changer but it certainly put my abilities in perspective. There was once a time when I considered an 8:40 marathon pace to be ambitious, but today I stayed below that, even on empty. It was an encouraging indicator that, given time, dedication and discipline, we are capable of remarkable change, even if it’s not immediately apparent on the surface.
In a way, it was very similar to the first two days of the weekend. Before I toed the line in Philadelphia, I drove to the historic, Appalachian town of Lancaster to visit Brandon, a fellow Wildcat and fraternity brother. Although we were both very involved in the development of our chapter and both served as president at some point in our undergraduate careers, we didn’t become friends. Our social circles certainly intertwined but our personalities and vision for the chapter didn’t always line up. But in the years since graduation, something happened that made us reconnect. Before I had ever run my first 10k, Brandon was already a two-time marathoner and an Ironman, so that probably had something to do with it.
I visited his and his wife Ashley’s lovely home in Lititz, just outside of Lancaster. I got to meet Jackson, their adorable 12-week baby (who I think looks a lot like Jack-Jack from The Incredibles and not just because he’s a baby) and play with their vivacious golden retriever. It really was like stepping into a Norman Rockwell painting. In fact, if I were able to send this post back in time to myself in the year 2003, I doubt I would react with anything but incredulity. I’m running how many marathons? What is this touch-screen computer that I have in my pocket? Brandon is married? To a really nice girl? And is responsible for the welfare of a CHILD?
My reverie was broken by the cooks at Steve’s Prince of Steaks barking out an order through the onion steam. I glanced at my watch and realized it was time to go, lest I miss my flight. I stood up from the chair and hissed a few painful breaths as my legs cracked through their concrete casing. I had completed my 19th marathon, 36th state, spent a fun weekend with friends and learned a few lessons along the way. The 3:20 threshold continues to beckon me, with the Boston Qualifier even further down that arduous road. Although I haven’t planned it yet, I need a target race for next year, one where I crash through every wall and get closer to that prize. I’ll run more hills, throw in more intervals and push the pace on my long runs. Bit by bit, I’ll make it happen. I’ll face those vexing time charts and chip away at the rock on my shoulders, with every run facing the almost sisyphean task of hoping to stay strong over 26.2 miles.