Well, here’s the recap of this morning’s jaunt.
Sunny and chilly as C, T & I go down to Eakins Oval in front of the Art Museum. The pre-race is singularly unremarkable save for my being barred from the elite porta-potties. Apparently the blocked off area, with the vacant porta-potty that I had my eye on, is not the “elite” area but the VIP area, to which I needed some special wristband for access. Properly humbled to learn the distinction between “elite” and “VIP”, I go on my way.
I spend most of the time at the start with the “regular” folks, nervously talking to a few acquaintances. I then pass through the barrier they had set up to cordon off the front area (here my number gets me access), and talk to a few fellow local “elites” that I know. I take a few half-hearted wind sprints to reassure myself that my legs feel fine. Somewhat starry eyed, I get a kick out of lining up right at the starting line and, right after the horn goes off, to running in the lead pack for the first blessed few blocks down the Ben Franklin Parkway. I quickly recall some marathoning advice that an old running buddy, MF, and I used to share: “let the Kenyans go, you can always reel them in later” and ease up. The first mile, just past City Hall, nonetheless passes in 5:54. Let the Kenyans go.
Mile 2 passes in a more sustainable 6:13. We are now in Old City and then, a few turns later, we’re on Columbus Avenue. I fall in with a pack of five others who are going a little faster than I would have liked, but decide its worth it for the mindlessness and wind protection that running in a pack affords. Miles 3 & 4 both pass in 6:02 and the course now winds up Front Street, onto South Street and then it’s a long straightaway on Chestnut through Center City; with miles 5, 6 & 7 clocking in 6:03, 6:08; and 6:04. Past the Bryn Mawr Running Club water stop and its into West Philly. I make a right onto 34th and now I’m on the stretch I’ve trained endlessly on. I tell myself to take it easy, as I’ve got time in the bank and this is the toughest stretch of the course.
Mile 8 goes by in 6:19 as we go through Powelton Village. This is always one of my favorite parts of the course. When I first ran it in 1997 the crowd here was sparse, all African American, and loud. Eight years later the crowd is more numerous, much more white, but still loud. The Drexel University frat boys are out in force, sitting on their porch hooting and banging pots and pans. Then its over the railroad tracks, past the zoo in all of its scatological pungency, and into Fairmount Park. Mile 9 is in 5:53, which feels like a short mile, and then mile 10, which is usually in front of Memorial Hall, is farther down and clocks in at 6:26. Total time at mile 10 (accuracy of the mile markers notwithstanding) of 61:09. 6:07 pace and right on schedule!
Next two miles are pastoral and downhill, through botanical gardens, under autumn leaves, and amidst sculptures half hidden amidst the foliage. I run and chat a little with a guy from the DC Road Runners who is shooting for a 2:48 – talking to me he realizes that either he’s going to have the race of his life or he’s going to die. I pass by him and stop to water a tree, thus mile 11 splits in 6:25. The course bottoms out on MLK Drive and we’re along the Schuylkill River. Now I’m in with two guys, one with a Cornell shirt and one in a red shirt. I’m with them through miles 12 & 13 (5:56 & 6:07) and now we’re at the half in 1:20:21. Still exactly where I want to be.
Just before coming back to the Art Museum C, T, and KF are waiting and give me a big cheer. I flash a thumbs up to let them know I’m in good shape. Taking inventory, the only problem to monitor is my left big toe, which is banging up against the front of my shoe and getting more painful. That pain gets filed away in the “deal with it later” category. Looping past the Art Museum and onto Kelly Drive, I concentrate on keeping pace through these crucial miles. Its still me, Cornell, and Red Shirt, and we stick together in an odd way. I run steady, Cornell runs behind me, and Red Shirt runs with an astounding inefficiency, keeping a ten foot lead in front of me but frequently letting me reel him in, at which point he surges to regain his lead. I expect him to crash at any minute, but we stick together to Manayunk. Miles 14-19 are like clockwork: 6:09; 6:01; 6:06; 6:07; 6:06; and 6:11. Now we’re seeing the leaders as they are heading back down Main Street. The guy with the drumset, another marathon institution, is taking a break as we pass. I wave my arms and he starts up again: that’s better I shout. Up a long gradual hill and we hit mile 20 in 6:17. 2:02:38; or just 20 seconds off the pace for the first ten miles.
Like most people, I run a marathon with an eye on how I’m doing now and with another, more anxious eye on how I will feel at mile 20. That foreboding lifts here, for the future is now. Cornell fades and it’s me and Red Shirt screaming back downhill through Manayunk redux. Mile 21 is in 6:10, one less mile to suffer through. But then it’s a slight uphill through the ass-end of Manayunk and a nasty little acclivity up a ramp and back onto Kelly Drive. This mile (22) passes in 6:20. Mile 23 passes in 6:18 and I’m past Falls Bridge again and on home turf. I don’t mind spending some of my banked time on these miles, but now its time to pick up the pace again. I feel like I’m doing so but this proves an illusion as mile 23 passes in 6:26. I’m slowing down. Red Shirt, amazingly, has pulled about 50 feet ahead of me and would stay in my view but out of my reach. I hear footsteps behind me and keep a few steps ahead of the phantom but again don’t gain any time as mile 25 passes in 6:25.
I have hit my limit. 2:40 will not happen, but then neither will 2:45. I’m hurting but in all the appropriate places, and I just want to hang on. Every once in awhile my left foot hits the ground long and pain shoots up from my toe. We’re closing in on the Art Museum and the crowds become thicker and louder. I’m in that zone where my head is screaming at my legs to go faster but my legs no longer listen. There is no mile 26 marker, so the last 1.2 go by in 7:53 (6:34 pace) and I cross the line in 2:42:14.
2:42:14! Personal best time by over 3 minutes, and a race run exactly according to plan and to the best of my abilities. Everything fell into place. I ran exactly the race I wanted to run: holding a 6:08 pace to mile 20 and setting myself up to give it whatever I had left in the tank. And I did exactly that. I can only think of two things I would have done differently: eaten more prior to the race and not run that first mile so fast. But these are minor. As are the black toenail and silver dollar size blister on the ball of my left foot. Finally, after three tries, I broke 2:45 and now have 2:40 in my sights.
As I’ve said before, it takes a village to run a marathon. A few weeks ago I described my experience running the NYC marathon and the privilege of guiding Jambal, a blind Mongolian runner. Throughout the race and especially toward the end I felt a bit like Jambal, being guided by the cheers and support of others, many cheering me by name. Any marathoner can tell you how powerful this is (many write their names on their shirts and bodies) and, especially at the end, how this can carry you. Several instances were particularly moving. Philly’s got a tight knit running community, and never is this more apparent than on the day of a big race. And each year the Philly marathon draws bigger crowds, and this bodes well for the future of this race.
Also have to thank C., my #1 fan, who tirelessly makes it out to my races and cheers me on. But more importantly I have to acknowledge the hundred little things she does so I can engage in this self indulgent little obsession of mine and without which I would never make it to the starting line. My mom has also been a great source of support, reads my blog religiously, and amazed me by how genuinely thrilled she was at my time today. The folks in the two clubs I run with: Philadelphia Athletic Charities and Philly Runners, had my back today and I wish I could have done more to cheer them on. I’ll also put the spotlight on MM, who has been a friend and mentor to me since I was running 3:10 marathons, who, from the sidelines a half mile or so before the finish, jumped onto the course yelling in my face to get a move on. That was about what it took to get my attention at that point, and he knew it and it worked. And that, on a more metaphorical level, is what I have gotten from many people all through training and running this race.
And lastly I’ll thank the blog readers for the good karma they have thrown my way. Writing this is now an essential part of my training, and it amazes me at the number of folks who respond positively to these accounts of my running exploits. Now that the marathon is over I will take some down time. I read once about how it is essential to have dormant periods in our training cycles. I fully intend to apply this advice to the rest of the year and, although I’ll still run (and maybe even race) some, it will be sporadic, unstructured, and only done when accompanied by joy. This blog will be like that as well – updated irregularly and with every intention of getting back down to business come the New Year.
So stay tuned, but not too often.