Monday, November 19, 2012

2012 Philadelphia Marathon Race Report

In my experience there are two kinds of PRs. The first occur in races when, for no explicable reason everything clicks and your new PR pace feels almost effortless. The second occur only after months (or years) of training and throughout the race the pace feels tough. My Philadelphia experience was decidedly of the latter type. Crap, I guess I just gave away the ending since now you know I PR'd.

As my faithful readers (and relatives whom I bombarded with requests for donations) know, I signed up for Philly only two weeks ago when New York was cancelled--the race, not the city most of which is still there. At that point I had already been taper three weeks for New York and so adding on the two weeks to Philly I ended up with a whopping 5 week taper!*

I didn’t really know what to expect. Although my not-so-secret goal for roughly the last 2 years has been to sub-3, I didn’t really feel up to it heading into this weekend. None of my runs have felt great the last couple weeks—I did 2 miles at goal marathon pace last Wednesday and thought I was going to die. With that in mind I sort of wrote off the race, thinking to myself, a PR would be nice but probably best to lower your expectations now.

My new attitude gave me the perfect excuse to play around with carbo loading and so I did. I had way more carbs in the two days before thank I usually do. Just to scare you, here’s what I ate Saturday: 1 small bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios; 4 blueberry banana pancakes with maple syrup and a side of tempeh bacon; 2 plain bagels; tons of Clif Bar samples at the expo; 1 baguette (yes, you read that correctly); and a bowl of rice noodles with red sauce. I also drank Gatorade or PowerAde throughout the two days prior to the race.**

Since I was already testing new pre-race strategies, I figured Philly would be the perfect race to try a new pair of shoes (not new as in I just bought them, but new as in I had never raced a marathon in them). The shoes, the New Balance 1400s, are lighter shoes with less cushion than the shoes I worn in marathons before and I wasn’t sure how my legs would hold up in them for 26.2 miles.

On Sunday morning I drove to the start with my host for the weekend, Larissa, who was also running the full. By the time we got to the staging area there were only 20 minutes to spare, but after my gluttonous experiment scientific fueling I really needed a portapotty visit. The lines were so long that I finished by business with less than 5 minutes until the start—talk about a recipe for stress. Somehow I made it to my corral about 45 seconds before the gun.

The First Half

Just ahead of me in the start corral I saw the 3:00 hour pace leader. Although I thought my sub-3 prospects were somewhat dubious, I hope to follow the pace group initially. The horn sounded and I crossed the line at around 15 seconds. It felt like we were going downhill as we ran along Ben Franklin Parkway towards City Hall, cutting around the fountain at Logan Square. We passed the Christmas Village in “Love Park” which was fun to see. As we turned onto Arch Street, the course narrowing, I completely missed the first mile marker.

It was fun to run by the Convention Center and Terminal Market, both of which I had visited the day before. Unfortunately, with the crowded field, it was difficult to tell when turns were approaching. There were also some parked cars that hadn’t been towed, making for a bit of an obstacle course. We hit the Mile 2 marker and my watch read 14:36 which made me think something was wrong.

As the I turned onto Columbus Boulevard the field opened up again. I could see the 3 hour group not far ahead and I also spotted a North Brooklyn Runner, Miriam, to whom I said hello. When we got to Mile 3, it became clear that Mile 2 had been long and Mile 3 short—I didn’t let it phase me.

In order to avoid the crowded water stops early in the race I had a water bottle with me. As we passed through the water stop around 3.5 a guy who was also carrying a water bottle commented on our shared brilliance. I quickly got to talking to him and learned his name was Frank, that he was from South Jersey, and that last year he did Philly in 3:02. Since we were both shooting for around the same time, we decided to run together. He helped alert me to several of the upcoming turns as we settled into our pace. I really enjoyed running along South Street, just a couple blocks from where I had stayed with my friend Mariah in October.

Once we got to Chestnut Street, the race crowds really thickened and I truly felt like I was running an urban race. The pace, while not effortless, didn’t feel too tough as Miles 5, 6, and 7 went by and we crossed the Schuylkill into University City. My new friend Frank was keeping me honest, reminding me not to speed up.

Around Mile 7 the longest hill of the course began, but I had been warned about it and it was a lot less steep than I had anticipated. We were running through the Drexel Campus and things leveled out just as we reached their frat houses, before taking a dip downhill. I guess it was around here that the pace leader began to pick things up. Frank wisely told me We’ll catch up gradually which kept me from foolishly charging forward as we neared the Zoo.

The steepest hill on the course came just after the Zoo, following Mile 9. I love hills but I had no intention of charging this one and I dialed it back, watching as Frank drifted forward and the pace team disappeared from sight. It was at this point that my legs began to hurt and I first seriously doubted my ability to sustain a sub-3 pace. I tried to push those thoughts to the back of my head and continued on.   

When we passed an impressive Beaux-Arts building shortly after Mile 10, I asked a runner near me if he knew what it was. He didn’t. He was also from New York. (The building, I later found out, is the Please Touch Museum). Running south along MLK Drive, I had pretty much lost sight of the pace group. At this point, my main focus was on reaching the turn-off for the half. I figured if I could make it to Mile 13 then I could reevaluate my strategy for the second half.  Crossing back over the Schuylkill River and looping around the Art Museum I saw my friend Mariah which gave me a huge boost. 

Quietly cursing the half-marathoners who were finishing, I hit the marathon’s halfway point in 1:29:57. I was on pace for sub-3, but that was a problem—in my previous 8 marathons I had always run a slower second half by anywhere from one to five minutes.  

The Second Half

Best race photo. Ever. (Mile 26)
The second half of Philly is essentially a long out-and-back on Kelly Drive along the Schuylkill River. Rather than thinking about the 13.1 miles ahead of me, I thought about the 6.9 miles until the 20 Mile mark (which comes just after the turn-around).

I was still chatting with the fellow New Yorker, as well as a somewhat recent Philly transplant by way of Chicago. The New Yorker was hoping to BQ. Like me, he had a half PR of around 1:22 but hadn’t been able to reach his marathon potential. He said he usually cramped around Mile 18. I told him, get past 18, and you’ll be fine. I wasn’t feeling fine, but running with these guys helped. The pace team was long gone and I’d given up on catching them. Somewhere in these miles I also saw my teammate Patricia who’d come to Philly to cheer—that was awesome!

Shortly after mile 18, we made our way towards Manayunk. Although Manayunk is part of Philly, it feels like a small town, kind of like Natick or Wellesley on the Boston course. In addition to the water stops there were unofficial beer stops and there was plenty of music blasting. Although I was getting more and more worried that the wheels were about to come off, I tried to do some fist pumps to “Play that Funky Music White Boy.”

Finally, I saw the turnaround and shortly thereafter I hit the 20 Mile mark. Only 10k to go! I now broke the race down mile-by-mile. Using my standard mental trick, I told myself, if you can keep the pace for this mile, you can go to X pace next mile and still finish with a BQ. I tried to pick up the pace whenever there was even the slightest hint of downhill, though I felt like crap. A cramp that had been simmering below my rips for some time kept threatening to derail me and I found myself practically punching my stomach to keep it at bay.

Somehow I did Miles 21 and 22 in 6:48 and 6:42. It helped that more of teammates were out cheering and I saw my friend Mariah again. I managed a 6:48 Mile 23 and now I knew I had just over 5k to go. I realized that even if I slowed to an 8 minute mile I would still finish with close to a PR and another BQ.

On the way out I had noticed medical markers along Kelley Drive, numbered 1 through 15 and spaced roughly 1/10 mile apart. Coming back in I began using these, instead of the mile markers, as my check points. My left hip was actually starting to hurt and my feet felt like they were on fire (though above the waist I felt great) so I needed to concentrate on these manageable portions to keep going.

Although I ran Mile 24 in 6:48, I could feel myself slowing as I approached Boathouse Row and Mile 25. When someone yelled my name, my brain was too fuzzy to realize it was my teammate Jeremy until he was already out of range. I clocked Mile 25 at 6:58 and knew I was in serious trouble. I was really hurting and I remembered from the way out that Mile 26 was mostly uphill. I couldn’t afford any more of a slowdown if I wanted to cross in under 3, something that still seemed possible. Although my legs were doing the physical work my brain was expending enormous amounts of energy trying to ignore the feeling in my lower extremities.

It worked. I did Mile 26 in 6:57. I rounded a corner and with .2 miles to go the finish line was in sight. I could see the clock and hear the announcer saying that finishers were struggling to come in under 3 hours. I gave everything I had and did that .2 in 1:27, a 6:38 pace!

As I crossed the lines I raised my arms high and smiled as wide as I could. I knew I crossed with a gun time of just under 3. Walking forward through the chute I tried to hold back tears of joy but decided that with my sunglasses on it didn’t matter. I let myself sob—a feeling I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before. Moving was incredibly painful, but it was worth it.  

My net time, I found out later, had been 2:59:43, just over two minutes faster than my Chicago time of 3:01:44, also making for my first-ever negative split!


Almost as rewarding as my own time was seeing the guy from New York (I was too out of it to remember names at that point) who thanked me for running with him, telling me he'd run a 3:03 and finally qualified for Boston.  Unfortunately walking was so difficult that I wasn't able to make it to the charity tent to meet the amazing folks behind the Philly Chapter of Covenant House. I also missed meeting up with some friends immediately after because I hadn't brought my phone.

I did eventually meet up with Larissa (who, unfortunately, didn't have the race she'd hoped for that day) and later with several of my teammates, all of whom gave some incredible performances. We had a great brunch at Sabrina's Cafe (thanks Larissa for the tip!) before heading back to New York. I don't know that I've ever had a better 24 hours.

* If that doesn't sound long to you non-runners, keep in mind that I generally abstain from alcohol, caffeine, and, let's be honest, fun in general during the taper.

** I may have carried this mission a little too far, forking over $3.50 for a 20oz bottle of Gatorade at Reading Terminal Market.


  1. Fantastic job, Dave!! Great race, great report.

  2. congrats again! i love your recap and love that you refer to manayunk as a small town. i used to live there and never thought of it that way...interesting. nonetheless, a well run race!

  3. Congrats you had an amazing race!! I loved your recap too, running Philly is something I'd like to do someday for sure now that you described it so well. Awesome job :)

  4. Great job on the sub-3, and I enjoyed your race report too! Congrats!

  5. Awesome race David! Congrats on the PR!!

  6. This was really exciting to read. Great job- you earned those tears of joy!

  7. Congratulations on a solid race! (I meant to congratulate you a full week ago, but then pumpkin pie got in the way. Sorry about that.) An all around outstanding effort, David, and a great read. Well done.

  8. Yes...exciting to read! Thanks for the spoiler because I don't think my nerves could have taken it. :)

    Fabulous job!