“If marathon’s were easy, they’d be called ‘Your Mom.’”
So read my favorite fan sign of the day as I ran 26 miles and change through Philadelphia on Nov. 18. I was half tempted to stop and take pictures of some of the funnier signs: “Smile if you’ve pooped your pants already”; “Run like you stole something”; “Chuck Norris never ran a marathon”; “There IS a finish line. I checked”; “Hurry up, we’re getting cold.” And others I can’t now remember.
But I did not stop for pictures. Or even the bathroom. And that’s a good thing. This was my third marathon. Or, as I like to say just to annoy people who really don’t care about the marathon details of yet another marathoner they’ve had the misfortune of starting up on the subject, this was my second and a half.
My first marathon, New York in 2005, I developed searing pain halfway through and hobbled it more than I ran it. Slacking off on training will do that to you. I finished, but I knew I’d have to do at least one more
My second one, New York in 2008, I trained a little harder. My ideal goal would have been under four hours, but the week before the race, I took stock of my training and said I’d shoot for 4:15. I finished in 4:14:57 if I remember correctly. And I told myself, “Never again.”
But I sort of suspected I might take one more stab to get it under four hours. And the decision was made when Cara decided she wanted to run a marathon. On and off, I’ve been training since January. And it’s mostly been the Team in Training plan. After a couple of solid half marathons, I thought briefly that I might be able to best my old man’s best marathon time, set in Houston in the 90s, something in the 3:40s. But as race day grew closer, I had a sneaking suspicion based on my long runs that that was definitely not going to happen. So I reset my goal back to the more realistic sub-4. Ideally — ideally — I’d hit 3:55 or under. But I’d be happy with under four hours.
Result for Philly: 3:59:04. What can I say. I like to cut it close.
The Garmin Conspiracy
You can see the mile-by-mile breakdown below. But one thing to note is that my Garmin GPS watch indicated I ran not 26.2 miles, but 26.45. A quarter mile might not seem like a lot, but when you’re running that far, it does. It also messes with your time calculations. A number of other people running with GPS watches tracked in the 26.5 mile range, with one getting as high as 26.8. Reasons for this could include sadistic course managers, faulty GPS, or, more likely, a course map plotted down the center of the roads and runners taking the outside curve at every turn.
This isn’t to complain about the course. It’s more of a warning. Despite being told by coaches and magazines and experts not to rely too heavily on technology, I check that watch pretty damn frequently to note my pace, to keep me honest. But if the watch is off, trouble can ensue. For example, when I hit mile 20 — the Garmin version AND the official race version — I was just under 3 hours, which indicated to me, I could have run the 6.2 remaining miles as slow as 10 minutes a mile and still make it under 4 hours. And believe me, I wanted to. But as you can see below, I didn’t even approach a 10 minute mile and even got one under 9. And still, it was a squeaker.
I think I would have strangled myself with the space blanket if I came in over 4 hours. Especially if it was something like 4:00:15. But I didn’t stop to pee even though I felt the urge a few times. I didn’t stop to walk (more on that later). Didn’t stop for a swig of beer at Mile 19. (Cara did, and now I feel like a lesser man.). Two things saved me. The first was, duh, I could tell from the mile markers that my watch wasn’t agreeing with the course. The other was that I was a little confused about where the actual start was, so I thought I’d started my watch too soon, thus scrambling what little math I could do in my head, so I didn’t trust the watch completely especially at the end.
Oh, Yeah, the Race.
I can’t say enough nice things about the Philadelphia Marathon. It’s well organized. It’s a beautiful course through a beautiful city and with plenty of natural scenery as well.
Philly? Start time at 7 a.m. Wake up at 5:30. Roll out of bed. Get dressed. Stroll down a parkway to the corrals, which are at the foot of the Art Museum (you know, the steps Rocky ran up) and give a decent view of the downtown skyline. Start running.
In the Beginning
As you can see below, the first mile was a bit of a wash. This tends to be the case with big races. Even though Philly does proper wave starts, it’s still crowded. Over 20,000 people I believe — including an extra 3,000 NYC Marathon “Refugees.”
Oh, and a random old Chinese man just crossing the damn street as thousands of tightly packed runners go by. Seriously. He just appeared out of nowhere, there in his puffy coat and little hat, smiling like an idiot, like it was just the most natural thing in the world to almost be trampled to death.
Miles 2 through 4 or 5, I had the good fortune of catching up with Mary, one of the Brooklyn TNT runners and we chatted for those miles as if it were a regular training run. Mary went to Notre Dame, so she was very excited about what happened in college football on Saturday, what with Oregon and Kansas State undefeated. If Notre Dame beats USC this weekend, they can look forward to going to the National Championship and getting absolutely demolished by an SEC teams. (I didn’t tell her that).
I lost Mary at a water station — or more accurately, she lost me, as I saw her ahead of me later in the race.
After that, it was solo running. And it all seemed to be going so, so well. Even the monster hill there between miles 9 and 10, just past the zoo. Sure, Philly has a couple of uphills, but months of training on the North Hill in Prospect Park paid off.
Pro-tip, potential marathon runners: I DON’T CARE HOW FLAT THEY SAY A COURSE IS. HILL TRAINING WILL ALWAYS — ALWAYS — MAKE FOR A BETTER RACE.
I just trucked right on up those hills. And I THINK it was right after that I spotted TNT Coach Allison and her crew of merry pranksters cheering. It was somewhere in there. Things get a little blurry.
Oh No They Didn’t
One cruel trick that Philly pulls on you. The half marathon and full marathon start at the same time on the same course. The half marathoners run with the full marathoners for the duration. And when you get back to the area near the Art Museum, they peel off to finish their race. But here’s the thing: Full marathoners have the option of peeling off and getting scored for the half, picking up a medal, heading back to the hotel, showering, getting some coffee and walking around like a normal human being for the rest of the day.
It’s a cruel, cruel temptation. But I was still feeling pretty solid at Mile 13, so I kept on keeping on.
It wasn’t until mile 17 that this whole thing started to feel like, I don’t know, I was running 26.2 miles at a pace quite a bit faster than my usual training runs. At this point, you’re into out-and-back territory. So you can see people trucking their way to the finish on the other side of the road. Or shuffling their way to the finish. Or crumpled like a piece of paper on the side of the road. You can also see just how close you AREN’T to the finish. We crossed a bridge. We crossed it again. I saw TNT Coach Jim on the bridge. I’d used up my two bottles of Gatorade by this point — I carried my own for first bit so as not to get held up at water stations. I probably should have been drinking a lot more than I did. Who knows? So I cruised in for some Gatorade at mile 18. Or was it 19? After the bridge was perhaps the cruelest part of the race for me. I just wanted to hit the turnaround. But it was far, far away. It just would not show up. I ran by the people handing out beer. It smelled like a bar bathroom. Finally hit the turnaround. Finally hit mile 20 and developed a horrible stitch in my side. My chest started tightening up — which is not a good thing in general, and a bad thing for a hypochondriac like me who’s always convinced every gas pain is a heart attack.
Oh, and my legs were kind of tired. But I remembered something from the last marathon I ran, something the pace-group leader, a nice woman with an Oklahoman accent, had told one of the runners who asked if she should stop and walk at mile 21. That day, four years ago, the pace-group leader said, “No. If you stop, you won’t start again. This will sound crazy, but run faster for 10 seconds. The longer strides will stretch your legs out some.” That worked then. It worked on Sunday. That pace-group leader had also said, “Imagine your reward at the end of the race.” In 2008, it was Popeyes. This year, it was a steak and an old-fashioned at Parc on Rittenhouse Square.
“I’m coming for you, Old Fashioned,” I totally should have screamed at mile 21. But I could barely talk. But I did talk a little to TNT Coach Radie who was running around somewhere in there helping people out. Then it was over the final hill. Then there were three miles left. Then two. Then one. Oh wait, still one, because my watch is off. Where’s the damn turn off. How far away is it? It’s gotta be closer than this. With between a half a mile and three quarters of a mile to go, I quit looking at the damn Garmin and ran. I finished. I beat my goal.
I don’t remember anything about that last stretch. Cara, meanwhile, who finished her very first marathon and came in under 5 hours while doing so, remembers that stretch. And she drank the beer. And she actually took in the sights in the old part of the city. So she had a hell of a race too.
But we finished. And we both say, “Never again.” Half-marathons from now on. They’re fun. They’re easy. “Never again.”
But I’m not putting money on that.