State 36: Pennsylvania (2013 Philadelphia Marathon)

09-PHILADELPHIA

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.

Philadelphia, Old and New

Philadelphia, Old and New

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.

philadelphia-marathon-start-corralBut 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.

City Hall

City Hall

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.

philadelphia-marathon-downtown-google-earth-map

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.

Manayunk Main Street (Google Streetview)

Manayunk Main Street (Google Streetview)

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?

logan-square-fountainBut 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.

Conveniently located near the finish line.

Conveniently located near the finish line.

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?

The Final Stretch (Google Earth)

The Final Stretch (Google Earth)

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 philadelphia-marathon-medalresplendent, 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.

Left to right: Brandon, me, Kevin (November 14, 2003)

Left to right: Brandon, me, Kevin (November 14, 2003)

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?

Left to right: Ashley, Lady, Brandon, me (November 16, 2013)

Left to right: Ashley, Lady, Brandon, me (November 16, 2013)

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.

Onwards.

Marathon_Map 045 (PA)

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About Dan
Running a marathon in all 50 states because there's no better way to explore the world around you than on your own two feet, for as long as you can, until you hate yourself and everything around you. Then you stop, get a medal, and start over.

30 Responses to State 36: Pennsylvania (2013 Philadelphia Marathon)

  1. Mike says:

    First things first, congrats… 3:25:28 is an impressive performance. I couldn’t agree more with your strategy of “better to have run and bonked, than never to have run at all”… you have to put yourself in a position to win big when you have the chance. Because you never know how many chances you’ll have.

    Excellent (running) commentary on Philadelphia’s historic neighborhoods. And an intriguing perspective on marathon lessons learned, one that feels very similar to what I took away from Portland. Sounds like you’ve reached the point (like me) where PRs are no longer a given, and incremental progress means either training harder and smarter than before, or registering for Tucson and running 26.2 miles down a mountain. Although given that you were able to read and recall that entire Yoda sign on the fly, maybe you weren’t running hard enough…

    I’ve never given much credence to online pace calculators (Yasso 800s are a bit better)… I’m inundated with enough questionably useful information on a daily basis, and I’ve never quite figured out what to do with the quixotic data those calculators provide. The cynical side of me might suggest their sole purpose is to sell marathon training programs… “a 3:05 marathon?? I’m definitely going to need a professional coach for THAT.” Fortunately my cynical side doesn’t have access to the internet.

    When I read the name Bruce, my mind immediately pictured the shark from “Finding Nemo” – “Runners are friends, not food.” And hopefully Brandon and Ashley’s son didn’t burst into flames right there in front of you. No matter what else you’d written, any blog post I can pull two Pixar references from is a keeper.

    Another compelling chapter in the ongoing epic, bard Dan.

    • Dan says:

      If there was anyone who would understand my somewhat unhinged philosophy on PR’ing, it would be you (and Jeff). Even I thought it was folly just hours before the race started. But given all the favorable elements and a ironclad resolve to make it happen, I figured, why not? Sadly it didn’t happen, but that’s probably due to a confluence of events (an unorthodox 6-week taper, which included zero 20-milers, the NW double and that Moab adventure race instead of the typical 12-14 miler two weeks prior).

      Alas. There will be other races – I just need to step it up in training. With the ultra goals this year, I was more focused on running long than fast. In this light, hell, I think I killed it.

      Thanks for the insight, Mike. I hope you have a fine holiday season.

  2. Congratulations on your awesome performance, Dan, particularly with a packed race schedule.

    I ran the Philadelphia marathon in 2011 and 2012. I agree with your assessment of the course, the second half of the race is a bit so-so until you get to downtown Manayunk. And I didn’t much care for the short out-and-back segments that seem to have been added just to make up the marathon distance. Almost all of the second half, you can see the faster runners breezing by in the opposite direction. Inspiring yet strangely demoralizing.

    Interestingly enough, I’m able to run a faster marathon than what my 5k, 10k, or half marathon PRs would suggest. Everyone’s a bit different. As Mike states in the past above, I’ve found Yasso 800 repeats to be a better predictor – but only when done consistently over the period of marathon training.

    I attempted to break 3:20 in Philadelphia in 2011, but ended up with a 3:22, which was for me still a big PR at the time. A similar tale followed in 2012 – an attempt to break 3:15, and I came tantalizingly close – 3:16 and change. I was able to break 3:15 in a 2013 spring marathon and finally qualified for Boston at the 2013 Chicago marathon.

    So continue to believe in yourself and your training. Relish your hard training runs as much as your races. After all, a race is simply another point in your running journey.

    Continue to enjoy the marathon journey and the training that goes with it!

    • Dan says:

      Thank you for the wonderful comment, Krishna. I remember when we were “rivals” in Athlinks at the half marathon distance, and then you went on to smoke my times. You ramped up impressively quickly — and now you’re a Boston Qualifier!

      I do need to incorporate more Yasso 800s into my regular training so that I get a better sense of what I can do. It looks like you are very dialed in to you abilities, given how close you’ve been to your target times in recent years. Looks like there’s a lot I can learn from you.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  3. Laura says:

    Love the reflection AND the brandon conrad shoutout 🙂 I had my first legit post-broken-foot run this week and it felt great!

    *Laura MelleMPP Candidate, HKS ’15**Laura_Melle@hks15.harvard.edu | 301-785-7131*

  4. Marcia Boyle says:

    Great story. I hear a quiet resolve in your words…which usually means success is not far behind.

    • Dan says:

      Ha, there’s a fine line between “quiet resolve” and “reluctant resignation.” But I do agree that I came out of this race more confident than defeated. Thanks for reading 🙂

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  6. tootallfritz says:

    I don’t think all of us have bodies created to run those times on “the” chart. I know, it’s poor training, right? Or possibly a bad mental game? Maybe. Maybe not. I’m quite positive that McMillan & I will never agree on this but I can’t run as fast as “he” thinks I should. Wanna run short? I’ll go out with everything I have and give it a shot cuz well, the probability of my dying while running a 5K, 10K, 15K is relatively low. But the odds change drastically when a person toes the line for 42K. Totally different game. Anything can happen and I’d rather lope into the finish area with a smile and a slower time than leave it all out on the course and end up along the side of the road somewhere blacked out or worse. Yeah, I’m not fun but that’s just how I see it these days. I’ll never win and well, if I never manage that coveted BQ, I’ll probably be okay with that too.

    • Dan says:

      I’m completely with you there. I can hustle out a 10k or shorter at breakneck speed and make it happen, but that same performance seems foolhardy at the marathon distance. So I take it in stride and simply face the truth: I have to be even faster at the short distances to reach the times I want at the longer ones. Not sure why, but that’s why we tinker with our training schedules, right? Onward to each new discovery.

      Thanks for reading 🙂

  7. runninginnj says:

    Excellent race report. Good luck reaching your goal – sounds like you’re well on your way to that Boston qualifier.

  8. Congrats on your finish and for digging deep in those last 3 to turn the crank! We gotta do some long run speedwork together man. I don’t think your tall frame is a good excuse. There are plenty of tall elite runners. If proving those pace charts correct is something you really want to do some day, I think the key is training long regularly at considerably faster than race pace, to get your body used to working so much harder that when you put it together during race efforts after a taper it feels comfortable for the first 30k or so. You really only have to work hard the last 10-12k (in theory). This has worked for me. We can talk about it sometime… over beer, preferably. Rest up!

    • Hey, I was part of that 3:10 pace group in Chicago, and I did see you. You’re absolutely on the money. I did 6 – 10 mile tempo runs at around a 6:50 pace, faster than the targeted 7:15 pace. The long tempos and 800m Yasso repeats (too many to count) most definitely were big factors in my success on race day.

    • Dan says:

      Jason Hartmann single-handedly dashes height as an excuse for being a slow runner. I simultaneously admire and scorn him for making me look so bad. But I agree, we should do some long runs on the lake path together — a little competitive drive would definitely push me to new limits.

      Thanks for the support Jeff. Let’s talk soon.

  9. Patrick says:

    Great report. Congrats ona solid race result!

  10. Laszlo says:

    It seems that all the hard work you put into the ultra training made you much stronger. I am sure that breaking the 3:20 is not too far out. Just keep it up!

    And how cool are the two photos taken 10 years apart! 🙂

    • Dan says:

      I’m glad somebody noticed that the pictures were taken almost exactly 10 years apart to the date. It was a fun little surprise. Thanks for the support as always, Laszlo. I hope you survive the winter and can successfully train through it!

  11. Jen says:

    I always say “Go big or go home”, but there you were in Philadelphia, actually *living* it. Congrats on marathon #19 and the surprise ending “comeback” at mile 23! That’s happened to me during long runs, but never during a race. Maybe I’ll try to channel you at mile 23 of my next marathon. 😉

    McMillan says I should be able to run a 4:03 marathon (PR: 4:32) and 1:57 half (PR: 2:00:37) … so clearly, the calculator is crazy, or I am seriously limiting myself… or as Mike has pointed out once or twice, I keep running non-PR courses (i.e., hilly, gravel) or really bad weather finds me (CIM 2012). I feel like you’re mentally and physically ready to break 3:20 on the right course (and with the right training, of course). Good luck!

    • Dan says:

      Thanks for the comment, Jen. I hope I can provide some spectral support at your next marathon. What you need is a nice, flat course with perfect weather to knock that 4:32 down several pegs. From what I’ve gathered reading your blog, you have the drive to make it happen. You just need to banish the bad luck demon that showed up at CIM.

  12. MedalSlut says:

    Impressive!! Surely the fact that you’re ‘bonk’ didn’t last as long, and wasn’t as violent as you were expecting means you’re on track for getting even faster! 🙂 Dooo eeeeeet!

    • Dan says:

      That’s the optimism talking. I also had a weird-as-hell taper going into the event, which I casually omitted from the final post. That might have explained why I wasn’t in 3:18 shape. Anyway, I’m confident moving forward, but with winter coming up, I have plenty of time to re-tool the ol’ arsenal. But you’re a month away from your big Texas race. Get pumped!

  13. Stephanie says:

    This 2004 picture is … very special.

  14. paullegard says:

    Fantastic effort Dan! Sometimes you have to go for it. Sometimes the unexpected happens! If you play it safe too often you won’t know what you’re capable of or learn as much for next time. Great time!

    • Dan says:

      That was my mindset going in — go hard and see what’s possible. At the very least, I’ll learn some lessons along the way, even if it comes at the price of an early collapse. Fortunately, the latter didn’t happen and I left Philly with more confidence. Thanks for reading, Paul!

  15. Brian says:

    Congrats on a great race!

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