The Philadelphia Marathon would complete my ‘four fall’ marathons (others being Top of Utah, Twin Cities and NYC). It was never on the schedule as a true race but that didn’t stop me midweek changing my goals for it. The days after pacing the New York Marathon on November 3rd, I didn’t do much speedwork, just easy miles to keep up the turnover but all my body was holding up well.
I decided that the course was flat(ish), my mind was strong and frankly why not try to go after it. Sub-3 was my original goal to save the legs for my December 50 miler, but it seemed as though I was setting the bar too low on myself. I played that game back at the Twin Cities marathon post 100K and happily succeeded. So, I decided to just go for broke. I would chase down my personal best/record (depending on where you are reading this from) and go for a sub 2:45 time.
Race day weather was near perfect. Low winds, a high of 63 but the early race start of 7am realistically put this number down to the mid-40’s for the race. I went to the start village with my teammates, Casey and Ryan. We hung out with Rocky, ran ‘the steps’ as a warm up and then decided we had better get ready for 26.2 miles.
With bags about to be checked into the UPS trucks, we all scrambled for our blood testers for one more check of blood glucose levels. Typically competitive people, we liked to compare our results. Let’s just say I lost with the highest number but just above 200 was by no means bad for pre-race.
I squeezed up to the front of my corral which was just behind the really skinny guys known as the elites. The race director made his speech and then to my surprise, a legend of marathon running I am still to meet, Bill Rodgers appeared on stage to follow suit. Bill Rodgers is one of the heroes of running no doubt about it with 4 New York and 4 Boston wins. This got me fired up and ready to go.
Off down Benjamin Franklin Parkway lined with a flag from every country you could think of, we headed east across Philadelphia. Amongst the frenzy of the start, I missed the first mile marker. I spotted my friend De’Vang ahead and gave him a tap. Neither of us knew we would be here. He had just raced NYC and I had just paced it, so you could forgive us for not knowing.
We compared goal times and he let me go when I said 2:45. I ran by friends Elaine and Tom cheering excitedly and before the first mile marker the race was already feeling like a home away from home. Past Liberty Bell into Old City we went, I was this time ready for the mile split. Two miles complete and my pace was behind. My watch was not helping with data off (déjà Vu NYC) but in all honestly, I was off. I already felt I was at my limit as the first drip of sweat ran down my face. I knew this was going to be a tall order to maintain this pace and I was already behind!
Down the riverfront on Columbus Boulevard, I followed a thin line of runners, nothing but footsteps, breathing and the Rocky soundtrack. Yes, a runner next to me was blaring out “Eye of the Tiger” so loud it was unmistakable. I liked his style but me and music do not mix in the marathon setting. I need to hear my breathing, hear the crowds and take in the whole experience, not block it out.
Mile 4 wound us back north into the city center passed City Hall and continuing west. The clock timer read 25:11 and so did my watch. From being behind, I was now right on pace for a 2:45. It was a shame I was red lining it to be on pace though. I saw people I expected to see from Tiffany and Katie to others I did not such as Luke. My face turned from grit to smiles every time I recognized someone cheering me on.
But as naive as I was to try to hammer out a PR just because I felt it was worth a shot, I was now slowly adapting to the realization that my wristband splits would mean very little from this point on.
Passed the 30th Street train station and up a hill we went. My legs felt like they weren’t doing anything close to the effort of the first 6 miles with the added strain of going up. A right turn took us up another climb. The wheels were spinning but backwards was definitely not the plan. A group of rowdy college kids offering free beer and having a grand old-time for 7:45 in the morning. Could a few high fives cure my own diagnosis of acute fatigue syndrome? Momentarily yes but as they faded out of sight and noise the hill only continued going the same way as my heart rate.
I crested that hill as if it was my last one from a hill repeat training session. Luckily, what goes up must come down. A long straight lined the way ahead. I literally leaned into the descent and let gravity take over while I sucked up some much-needed oxygen.
The mile markers only verified what I already knew. I was dropping time. At first it was 10 seconds, then 25, now 45. I had no real plan B. A sub-2:50 was technically written out to me on the reverse side of my wristband but I knew turning it around to see it was the only easy part about it. I popped a gel. Maybe my glucose was lower than I thought. 8 miles done was about time for first one so heck, try something I thought.
A second and ultimately last big hill climb up Lansdowne Drive brought some confidence back. I pulled in some runners and begun to view the race as good Boston training. It made a nice change taking some places rather than losing them. At the top, a flat section looped us around Please Touch Museum and then the reward for all the climbing thus far. Not only was the road down but perfectly paved, fit for race cars.
The Schuylkill river marked the end of the free fall and a u-turn gave me my first glimpse of other runners expressions. Most looked strong and under control but not all which gave me more hope and dare I say confidence. It was a simple reminder that I wasn’t the only one hurting. As I headed back in the direction of the start/finish area by the Art Museum, aka the Rocky steps, I surprisingly noticed De’Vang not more than a minute behind again. My pace was truly in no mans land so I did what I never normally do in the middle of any race and turned around. I needed help so I literally put the brakes on and waited for him. We tapped hands and began running together.
Stride for stride, I now had a much-needed running partner on the course. We spoke occasionally to see how each other were doing. The game plan was to get to halfway together. De’Vang was adamant he would then ease off a bit more for the second half as he was hurting to. As I didn’t have a plan, the idea of easing off sounded like music to my ears. I was pretty confident at that moment in time I knew who I would be crossing the line with.
Over a bridge and up around the front of the Rocky steps, we then headed north while the half-marathon signs all pointed south to the finish. I didn’t think about that much. I wasn’t jealous of the runners that were about to be done but I knew I had a lot of work left to do and seemingly not much gasoline. We clocked the halfway shy of 1:25. I recapped the first half in my head, reminding myself the first 6 miles were at 2:45 pace and the latter 7 were less and less not. I knew doubling the clock time was unrealistic and all bets were now off for even a 2:50 finish which I had considered midweek. Marathons are not like ultras where you almost always get a second, third or fourth wind after a low point. But in the marathon, as soon as you are down, you normally just keep going.
The game for me now was to slow that process down as much as I possibly could. This was becoming a great test of pain management. How much did I want it? How much pain could I handle? I fast forwarded the clock to my last race of the year that will be in San Francisco. 50 miles of relentless climbing and descending with the best of the best ultra runners. I need to want it and handle pain out there so I thought I better start practicing right now.
Just after halfway, we passed Tiffany, Beck and Kwabs and I forced a smile. My girlfriend and best running friends had come down from NYC to watch and cheer me and many other friends on. We were lucky to have so many of our good friends here.
De’Vang pulled ahead and initially I struggled to stay on his left shoulder anymore. Just as he was creating a slight gap we descended. The second half of the race was an out and back so I did my best to remember where the hills would be for the final miles. Rather than be happy with the current downhill, all I could think of was what was to come with the final mile being uphill! I closed the gap on De’Vang going down to the river’s edge and now felt better than him but not much. Rather than stick on his shoulder, I felt good enough to keep my pace and let him join if he wanted. We had run over 4 mile together and had an unwritten rule that after halfway, we would do our own strategy again.
I pushed along at about 6:30 pace and churned out the miles along the river. I saw a large bridge ahead and thought it was the one we had to cross for an extended loop but it was too high above us for that to make sense. It turned out to be Falls Bridge, nothing more than a landmark on the course. I ran under this bridge into a large aid station and cheer zone that definitely lifted my energy. The bridge then came that we had to do a small out and back on. As runners were coming the other way, I just assumed the turnaround was at the end of the bridge. No, another left and down the road we all went.
We u-turned around a traffic cone and continued back up to the bridge. My predicted finish time was now creeping up towards 2:55. I hoped and prayed I didn’t see my friend Shannon Price coming who was the Clif Bar pacer for the 3 hour group. He had become my feared sweeper of the day. I did not want to see him or have to fight like hell to stay ahead of him. Luckily, I did not.
Onwards north towards the small town of Manayunk, a suburb of Philadelphia. Over a small bridge and then along the straight road of Main Street we went. I saw the crowds growing ahead and a banner held high above at the crest of the hill at the far end. Assuring myself that was the turnaround point, was relief and dread that I still had to go back. My legs were absolutely shot. My only goal left to fight seemed to be a sub-3 hour time. I had made a self-inflicted wound in those first 6 miles that was making for some severe determination now with 6 to go. At the banner, the road shifted left and into view came more ground to cover north. Thank goodness for the crowd support because this was a true ‘sufferfest’ I was putting myself through.
On the turn, 10K to go. I started doing the math of what minute miles I needed to run to go sub-3. My brain was a fog and I recall believing that 7’s would do it (it was actually slower). Part of my brain would tell me that it’s OK to stop and walk for a minute but I fought back hard every time the conversation came to surface. To stop would have been a huge mistake.
The nice aspect of the course being out and back was seeing my other friends running. First up was Brian Hsai and then Tony ‘three marathons in the fall’ Cheong from Nike Team Run NYC. He was fractionally behind the 3:10 pace group coming towards me. We saw each other, raised out our medial arm and tagged. No words, no expression, just the quick slap of hands which said everything about how we were feeling and our respect for each others ‘crazy’ of running multiple races so close together.
Grinding through the next mile, which of course had some uphill, reminded me to never try to PR here. I was wrong about this course. Although not as hard as New York or Boston, Philly has some bumps in the road that make you change running technique frequently. I caught sight of more friends; De’Vang, Otto Lam and team-mate Ryan Nichols, all very easily among the 12,000 runners. Each person I saw gave me a lift as I pained my way towards the end.
But no friend can help you more than one by your side. I had just passed mile 22 when a big shout of “ENGLAND” came from behind me. I turned to see my 3:15 New York pacer team-mate Andrew Rastrick a few yards back. Without hesitation, I waited for him. I felt like I had been stranded for days and Andrew was the helicopter! I jumped on his shoulder and was more than pleased to try to run at his pace. I thought it might last a few hundred yards at most before he dropped me. But I knew the situation. Four miles left and a partner to work with if I could just keep up. I mentally embraced it like many training runs over the years where I have hung on for dear life in Central Park to not get dropped by the pacer. Worku Beyi and Kevin Starkes, I’m talking about you.
We knew we were both working off of tired legs from two weeks prior. Andrew mentioned breaking three hours was his only goal and I quickly agreed. A goal of mine is to run sub-3 in all 50 US states. This plan is by no means planned out but I would like to do it over my lifetime. As short as my current states are and as many races as I have run in Pennsylvania, this state was not yet checked off. Now was surely the time.
I hung and hung. Every other minute I was close to telling Andrew to go ahead and run his own race. I did not want to slow him down but knowing neither of us were close to our PR’s, knowing we had put our bodies through the same exact stress two weeks prior stopped me from opening my mouth. I decided to work and work harder. We looked for the 23rd mile marker. It seemed an eternity away. Knowing we were both itching to see it told me that we were in mutual discomfort.
My mind flashed back to the Meb story in New York when a local runner, Michael Cassidy caught Meb and rather than pull ahead, decided to stay and help each other out and run to the finish together. I am not claiming to be Meb and Andrew is not claiming to be Cassidy but we do know we were helping each other in exactly the same way.
At 24 miles, we had 19 minutes to go sub-3. It was all but secured but the pace we had been keeping would not have shown anyone we had any intention of simply just making it. I wanted to push mile 25 and hang on for a final mile, Andrew, not quite so much. Subconsciously, I knew that with a mile to go, I wouldn’t slow down.
Up the long climb we went that I had been dreading and then passed all our friends. There was someone losing their mind but then I realized it was Katie just having a good time! Andrew said to go on but I declined immediately. He had gotten me out of a mess at mile 22 and I didn’t care if my time was going to say 2:55, 56 or 57.
We would finish this together, Meb and Cassidy round 2! To duck under three hours was our goal when we met and that is exactly what we did. We were both more than happy with the result. Running can be so solitary but it can also be a team sport. It’s really up to you. Without the push it would have been even closer to the 3 hour mark. We finished in 2:56 (and lots of seconds).
Done. 4 marathons complete in 8 weeks. Two as a pacer, one on shot legs and one hanging on to whoever was around me. Thank you De’Vang and Andrew for your help on the course. Sub-3 at Philadelphia felt like I had just “gone the distance” with the man himself. I don’t like shortcuts anyway.