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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2013 Race Schedule

I don’t usually have a perfectly solidified race schedule so early in the year.  At any given point, I have a few races set in stone with a select group waiting in the wings, either because I haven’t registered or because they have yet to graduate from “flight of fancy” to “official commitment.”  However, this year I am very confident that it has been completely mapped out through November.

The reason for my confidence actually stems from a comment Otter made to me a few days ago.  He said that (almost) every race on his radar has a purpose.  I looked at my own race calendar and had a similar epiphany.  With a few exceptions, the big races on my schedule were meaningful stepping stones of some sort, which made it easier to ink these events into my otherwise palimpsest of a calendar.  Though I haven’t officially registered for all of these, I decided to at least publish the schedule to keep me from flaking out on any of them.  And so, with great excitement and hope that I encounter no sudden injuries, this is the path that 2013 will take:

01-RNRNOLA
February 24, 2013
New Orleans, Louisiana

The Disney World Marathon was supposed to end my marathon-a-month streak and mark the beginning of my ultra regimen.  However, on something of a whim, I decided to go for the Rock ‘n Roll New Orleans Marathon.  If you’ve been following my adventures, you’ll find this choice of race a bit odd.  True, I’m not the biggest cheerleader for Competitor’s RNR series, but I refuse to run Louisiana in any other city and this is its only marathon.  The timing for this event wasn’t entirely whimsical though.  It has not escaped my notice that every marathon I’ve run since Des Moines has been slower than the previous.  Perhaps spacing them so close together has made it so I’m never fresh enough for a faster time.  So this will be my last shot at a fast marathon for a long time.

02-PALEO
March 16, 2013
Willow Springs, Illinois

I first saw the Paleozoic Trail Run on ultrarunner Jeff’s blog.  While the signature event is a 50k, the shorter 25k option looked like a great race to test our trail skills leading up to longer races.  I sent a link to Otter and he showed great interest, signing up almost immediately.  I was surprised at his enthusiasm, given that he has a loose rule about never signing up for inaugural races.  But here’s something intriguing, if not intimidating about their tagline: “Finish or Fossilize” which written on a T-Shirt is alone worth the registration fee.  Located just thirty minutes southwest of Chicago, it’s an easy race to reach and will surely give us a taste of the challenges to come later in the year.

03-NC
March 24, 2013
Charlotte, North Carolina

I originally wanted to run the NC Half Marathon in 2012 to continue a series of races that all had race tracks (Pomona Raceway, Kentucky Derby’s Churchill Downs and the Indianapolis 500) but airfare was unusually expensive and nobody else seemed interested.  So I tabled the race for 2013.  As of this writing, a group of 5 of us are registered and ready to start our engines.  While this race isn’t a building block of any kind, it will be the first half marathon I run since August and the last on my calendar for quite some time.  In other words, it’s my last shot at a fast half (perhaps even a PR), possibly until 2014.  Posting a record time will depend on the weather, but North Carolina can expect a bloodthirsty performance from me regardless.

04-GARMIN
April 20, 2013
Olathe, Kansas

You can’t run a marathon in  Kansas without it having some theme related to the Wizard of Oz.  Held three weeks before my first 50k race, I decided to use the Garmin Marathon in the Land of Oz as a training run.  By this point I will have spent a lot of time on trails and will simply want to strengthen my legs and steel my stomach.  My goal for this race will therefore be to run conservatively, practice my food intake and finish comfortably (in other words, avoid throwing up).

05-ICEAGEjpg
May 11, 2013
Ottawa Lake, Wisconsin

The Ice Age Trail Runs include a 50-miler and two shorter distances, a 50K and a half marathon.  In order to continue training for a much longer event later in the year, Otter and I decided to sign up for the Ice Age Trail 50k as our first venture past the 26.2-mile barrier (and no, I’m not counting his 26.5-mile Route 66 Marathon as an ultra, no matter how pedantically he tries to suggest it).  Running this will be similar to my first marathon; the next big event, the one where once again I’ll be unsure of the outcome and all excitement is slathered with a thick layer of trepidation.  While pictures from the event look gorgeous, I’m sure my face afterward will be far from comely.  It will be the single hardest race I’ve ever run.  That is, until …

06-NCR
August 24, 2013
Wellston, Michigan

… this guy.  I still don’t know how an undertaking as massive as running fifty consecutive miles could start with something as simple as a webchat at work.  You’d expect things like this to happen after a bear with a broadsword orders you to do it or if a band of marauders captures your children and leaves them fifty miles away, hungry and afraid.  But somehow I found myself receiving an email saying I was registered for the North Country Run 50-Miler, wondering how it was possible that I had signed up.  50-milers are for crazy people and I just run marathons.  In fact, I still can’t truly process what this is going to be like, but it will likely change me, for better or worse.  Given its date, there’s a good chance it’ll be warm and humid, so I’ll have to double-down on training and nutrition to ensure that I don’t donate my body to the dirt beneath the Manistee National Forest.

07-LEAVENWORTH
October 5, 2013
Leavenworth, Washington

This marathon isn’t a milestone of any sort by itself (besides being my first in the state).  In order to understand its significance in this story, you have to move to the next race.

08-LEAVENWORTH
October 6, 2013
Portland, Oregon

I doubled-up on half marathons in 2012, which meant that it was only a matter of time before I tried the same with the full distance.  Just like the North Country Run, it started off as a suggestion, which grew into an idea and finally became a commitment.  Given the distance, I will have to practice both steady discipline and measured food intake in order to successfully complete both races without hating myself too much.  There will be additional challenges, such as avoiding atrophy on the drive between cities and eating enough to both replenish and restock.

09-PHILADELPHIA
November 17, 2013
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Assuming that I survive everything so far, I’m aiming to run the Philadelphia Marathon because … well, because I want to.  It’s not part of a greater plan nor is it supposed to teach me anything.  It’s simply because after all the year’s meticulous orchestrations, I want to run something simply because I want to.  Isn’t that why we run in the first place?

Given that I haven’t signed up for all of these, there’s still a very real chance that this schedule may change.  However, I’ll do everything possible to stick with it and hold myself accountable.

But more importantly, I’ll need advice from all experienced runners on trail running, nutrition and doubling-up.  I’m going to face these challenges directly with little but intuition and my “stick-to-itiveness” as my wife once noted, but I will definitely need as many tips and tricks as possible.  All insight and anecdotes will be appreciated.

Onwards!