Philly Marathon

So how do you recapture the gut-wrenching excitement of your first marathon once you have four under your belt? Turns out, the answer is “run a bigger race than your previous four efforts combined.”

When I signed up for the Philly Marathon three months ago, I had no idea what I was in for. It really sounded like the perfect Northeast race. A late-season marathon. A flat-ish course. A soft-pretzel paradise filled with loving brothers, historical bells, and unintentional Rocky impressionists.

But what I wasn’t ready for was a citywide invasion of runners. 30,000 runners, to be precise. Runners clogging up every street and sidewalk. Runners corralled into pens like jittery hordes of factory-farmed hens. Runners eating everything in sight like a plague of carbo-loading locusts in reflective compression wear. It was madness.

I couldn’t even get to the start line.

Trapped in a car with my girlfriend, aimlessly dragging up and down the interstate, I wasn’t so sure running a marathon was in Sunday’s cards. All the highway exits were blocked off. The starting gun was scheduled to go off in approximately 15 minutes. Yet somehow we seemed to be at the mercy of a sadistic GPS intent on guiding us past downtown and back to the relative navigational ease of the Lehigh Valley.

It was at this point I started to question all my logistical planning and launch into emergency hyperventilation mode.

Previous excursions to the birthplace of cream cheese have involved staying with friends at a giant punk house in West Philly—the kind of sprawling oasis where bikes outnumber residents by at least 3:1 and you’re guaranteed dibs on a couch next to a snoring Chain of Strength cover band. It’s great. I even have my own key.

This time, however, I decided to avoid any pressure to party past 6 p.m. by booking a hotel room for the weekend. You know, like a grownup would do.

Unfortunately, I waited until all the real grownups snapped up all the downtown hotels and ended up with a reservation at the Microtel near PHL. If you’ve never stayed at a Microtel before you’re missing out (…on the opportunity to feel like a Bigfoot or similarly sized human giant). Everything is shrunk down to 2/3 scale and built into the wall, like you’re Shaquille O’Neal in the cabin of your own private yacht. It might not be a great location for a pre-marathon stretching routine, but the cramped quarters aren’t so bad if you’re enthusiastic about being cozy. I happen to adore coziness and loathe stretching, so I can’t say I had a bad night in our little Hobbit-tel.

Taking a teen-style ego-shot of the official race shirt and the entire hotel room.

The bad news was that our sleeping quarters were airport-adjacent, the race was downtown, and GPS is a nightmarish personification of how much robots hate us. So this is how I came to be running down the side of the freeway, weaving in and out of swerving vehicles and directing traffic with my Nathan handheld water coozie. In the dark. FOR A MILE. Ahem. So please factor that little sprint workout into your opinion of my final race time!

At the risk of sounding like “country mouse in the big city,” I was not ready for the crowd that greeted me after exiting the freeway and approaching the start line on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and especially not ready for the long lines that greeted me at the Port-a-potties. I was still in line when they sang the national anthem. I was still in line when the elites took off. I was probably still in line when the first elite crossed the half-marathon finish line. All I know is that I started so far back in the race that I had to fight my way to my assigned Green Corral like a short person trying to see the stage at a concert.

As the mob of power-walkers I was trapped behind finally shuffled into motion (11 minutes after the race gun had gone off!), the PA system cranked out various Rocky soundtracks. One might think the power of Rocky music to inspire would wear off after decades, and the novelty of running to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and pumping both fists in the air at the top of the steps, Balboa-style, would slowly dissipate after the ninth or tenth time.

One would be woefully wrong. As mentioned before, I’ve had an obsession with Rocky since I first started running and preferred to visualize myself as a gritty urban hero instead of some Get-in-Shape-Girl fitness nut. Now, I don’t care one way or another, but it used to rankle me that running didn’t enjoy the same tough-guy status that “urban cycling” did when I was a bike messenger. Rocky was the kind of runner I wanted to be—an island of underdog cool in a sea of heteronormativity and periwinkle wicking wear. Plus, it was on TV the night before in our Microtel, so the image of myself sprinting through Philly and air-boxing in grey sweats was fresh in my mind.

I relate to this.

Now, I’m not a fast runner, so I’m coming from a place of non-judgment. But here’s one thing I’ve never understood: If you’re planning to hit the wall at Mile 1 or 2, why would you start near the front of the race? Sure, there’s no foretelling spontaneous injury or sudden gastrointestinal apocalypse. But some of these would-be Green Corral-ers gave off a serious walkathon vibe, and I’m not sure they were doing themselves or anyone else a favor by pushing back against the tide like a salmon migrating upstream. I actually ran an extra .4 miles in the first 10K from all the bobbing and weaving. But I have a tendency to go out too fast, so I undoubtedly owe these leisurely salmon a high-five for helping me pace myself in the first half.

Probably the most thrilling part of the race was the crowd support. I have never seen so many spectators at a race. St. Louis and Kansas City occasionally have pockets of cheering friends and family but after the half-marathoners split off, for the most part you’re running through quiet streets alone. Philly, on the other hand, looked like thousands of party buses had been littering spectators all over the course all morning.

Best thing I saw: a sign that said, “If you were Paul Ryan, you would have been here an hour ago.”
Best thing I heard:
“Wooder stop, just ahead!” (People in Pennsylvania pronounce “water” as “wooder,” and it’s an unending well of linguistic joy for me.)
Best thing I ate: Blackberry Clif Shot Bloks.
Best thing I didn’t eat: The pretzels my girlfriend was supposed to hand me at Mile 13.
Best person I high-fived: A cop.
Best person I didn’t high-five: My boss, who finished in under three hours, and made it look way too easy.
Best pump-up jam I heard on the course: Le Tigre’s Hot Topic on the Penn campus.
Best pump-up jam I heard in my headphones when I needed post-Mile 20 distraction: MOP’s Ante Up Remix.

BEST THING ABOUT THE WHOLE ENTIRE RACE: I finished in 3:42:00, a new personal record (and an absolute delight to my OCD about even numbers)!

Philly was not only my strongest finish time to date but also my strongest race in general. Somehow I managed to improve my previous record by eight minutes and pull off fairly even splits, which is a definite first—usually I explode out of the gate and collapse into a heaving, asthmatic ball somewhere around Mile 20. The perfect weather,  crowd support and lack of memorable hills certainly helped me out. But I’d like to think I’m also getting smarter about pacing, training and staying positive when the going gets tough and the impulse to walk comes creeping through my head.

Next year I might even use an actual training plan to narrow in a Boston-qualifying time. You know, instead of expecting to magically get faster and more furious by running eight miles every morning on the exact same route.

Anyway, to all of my coworkers at Runner’s World, a 3:42 probably conjures the image of a kitten riding on a turtle’s back. This kitten, to be precise.

….But after a training cycle riddled with illness and traveling, I’m pretty proud of my new time and consider it a good sign I can get faster next year. I think I’ll stick to smaller marathons, though—as exciting as Philly was, I’m not sure my blood pressure can handle another highway race start. Once again, my writeup is running a little long, so I’ll wrap it up here. Does any of this recap even make sense? I think I left all my brain cells at the Manayunk turnaround.

To make a long story short (something I’ve never been known to do), THANK YOU, PHILLY!