Race Report: Philadelphia Marathon
Well, it feels like an eternity ago, and I could pontificate on the variety of reasons why I haven’t written this review sooner. It’s the holiday season. The semester was coming to an end. Darker days sap my energy. Blah. Blah. Blah. At any rate, the reasons are irrelevant. The race may have taken place over a month ago, but the memories are still there so I wanted to share!
Most folks are probably on the verge of being thoroughly entrenched in their holiday plans, balancing increased opportunities to eat with decreased opportunities to run, and not even thinking about races in 2017 just yet. December is always an interesting time for runners, especially those in cooler climates. The weekend before Thanksgiving is always a wild card when it comes to weather, and is typically about as late as you can push most longer races unless you are committing to the cold, or happen to live in Florida. I was actually a bit surprised that the Philadelphia Marathon was as late in the season as it was, but it provided me with a nice racing bookend for my season. I probably wouldn’t have even considered it, but for the fact that a good friend from Iowa decided to fly out for the race and end her season on a high note as well. I couldn’t say no to that!
The epicurean and I made our way up to Philly on Saturday to pick up our packets in the afternoon before meeting our friend for dinner. It’s been a while since I’ve been to a larger race expo, and I found it interesting that the mystique of the experience definitely isn’t there for me anymore. If there was any question about whether or not I was a trail runner at heart, it was put to rest at the expo. I love the simplicity of a trail race, the community, and the environment. The expo just seemed overly commercial by comparison. Luckily, it was very well organized and we were in and out pretty easily. After a nice dinner, we parted ways and headed home for the night. In retrospect, it would have made much more sense for me to stay in Philly with my friend that night and not have to drive back up in the morning, but that didn’t occur to me for some reason. Hindsight is 20/20, eh? On the drive home, the temperature drops rather significantly, and the freezing rain began. Yikes! I could only hope that the weather system would be gone by morning, or the race would be brutal.
I woke up on Sunday morning at a rather ungodly hour, and went through my pre-race routine in a bit of a haze before hopping in the car. I parked near the finish area, and walked to meet her at her hotel before the race. We procrastinated a bit to limit the amount of time we’d be standing around before the race, and then headed over. I was thankful I had worn a sweatshirt and a pair of flannel pants I could toss before the race, because the temps in the low 30’s and the 30-40 mile wind gusts made for a chilly morning. Those winds wouldn’t let up in the least bit over the course of the race, and they proved to be a challenge for many folks!
I had no intention of truly racing, but rather wanted to go out and enjoy myself, and cheer on folks throughout the race. Thus, I decided to commit to dialing things back for the first half of the race, and then seeing if I could conjure up a negative split. I went out rather conservatively, and stayed closed to the 4 hour pace group. The cold wind, and my lack of warm clothing probably pushed my pace a bit more than I had planned, but I still managed to run well within myself. The crowd support throughout the race was phenomenal and the route through the city was visually entertaining. Over the years, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Philadelphia. I’ve always seen it as being a bit too dirty, and lacking the character and charisma of someplace like New York or Boston. However, as I’ve spent more time in Philly, I’ve grown to appreciate it for what it is and stopped hoping it would be something different. The history is obviously important, but the character of the people and the energy they bring to the city is equally important. Philly is a city of hard-working folks who go about their business, don’t try to be too flashy or outgoing, but still establish themselves as worth of their position as a World Heritage site, among other accolades. I was reminded of this subtle significance as I calmly tackled the first half of the course.
I meandered through the course, sticking to my slower pace and trying to stay conversational, even if I wasn’t actually conversing with anyone along the way. It’s a relatively flat course as far as I’m concerned, but trail and ultra-running has arguably skewed my perspective a bit. Over the course of various other runs, I had become familiar with a majority of the course as well, which helped me feel quite comfortable throughout. The few hils of consequence that do exist along the course are conveniently located in the first half, around miles 6 and 8, which made slowing down a bit that much easier. The route passes the Philadelphia Zoo around mile 8.5, but sadly the animals weren’t lining the streets with the crowd to cheer us on. I would have appreciated a clapping monkey at the very least! Around mile 10, after a bit of climbing, the route passes the “Please Touch Museum”, and I had to giggle as I heard a few folks wondering if this was the art museum, and hence the end of the race (for the half, I presume). They sounded a bit sad upon realizing they still had a few more miles to go, but it was a mostly downhill route to the finish of the half marathon so I’m sure they survived.
I hit the half-way timing mat in 1:55, which was a few minutes ahead of my modest 2 hour target, but still very comfortable. After a few hours of calm running, I was excited to pick up the pace a bit and really stretch my legs. Around mile 14, you pass near the finish line as you head out along the Schuyukill River for an out-and-back segment. Years ago, I probably would have been annoyed at being so close to the finish line, but I was simply excited to pick up the pace along the river. I’ve run along this stretch of the river on a number of locations, and the route has a particular urban beauty to it as you progress along the shore. If it had been earlier in the fall, you would have seen crew teams out practicing on the river. As it was November, we had to settle for the wicked 40 mph winds indecisively alternating between blowing us along and bringing us to a standstill.
Over the course of the next 4 miles or so, I pushed myself a bit and enjoyed realizing how much pep I had in my legs after 13 miles. In some past races, it has taken me a solid half marathon to even warm up and hit my stride, so I was definitely aware of the endurance training at work. I received a small ping of happiness each time I passed someone, and it helped me forget just how cold I was with very little to break the wind or protect myself from it. The route continues down the river until around mile 20, where you reach the turn around point and naively hope that reversing directions will help with the wind. It did not. However, it was fun to see so many runners with the out-and-back segment and be able to cheer people on. After mile 18 or so, I pulled up a little, having passed the 3:45 pace group faster than I anticipated. I was comfortably in negative split range, and sought to maintain a decent pace the rest of the way that would challenge me but not exhaust me.
I may prefer smaller trail races, especially due to the family atmosphere, but there is still something special about a large urban marathon. I’m always keenly aware of the folks out there pushing themselves, running the distance for the first time, or attempting a new PR or a BQ. The extrovert in my loves cheering people on, and feeling as though I am sharing their their triumphs and struggles. It was that energy that propelled me back along the river towards the finish line as the final 10K ticked off. The crowds weren’t heavy along this stretch, but they were consistent and you never felt alone. I made a point of stopping briefly at each of the well-staffed and well-stocked aid stations and thanking the volunteers, and surprisingly managed to keep myself properly hydrated the entire time. The race finishes near the famous Art Museum steps immortalized in the Rocky movies, and the spirit of the marathon is certainly characterized by that particular brand of grit and hard work.
I crossed the finish line in about 3:39 as the Garmin flies, and locked in a solid negative split in the process. I have never run a negative split during a marathon so it was a nice feather in my running cap. I finished just a few minutes behind my Iowa friend, which made it easy to find her amidst the crowd. We collected our medals and space blankets, and shuffled our way through the finish chute towards some snacks and water. Had it been a warmer day, I would have loved to stick around and cheer others on. However, we began shivering pretty quickly so our priority became heading back to the hotel for a hot shower and some more substantial food. As I walked back, I was subtly aware of how good my legs felt, which brought a smile to my face. This marathon was all about the human element, and the celebration of our sport, and I couldn’t have been happier with the smiles I logged along the way while #chasing42!