Monday, November 21, 2011

Race Report: 2011 Philadelphia Marathon (or "Best Time of Your Life, My A**")

I never hit the wall, because the whole race was the wall.

When I look back on the 2011 Philadelphia Marathon in the days, weeks, months and years ahead, I'm not sure how I'll remember it. I failed by all but the very minimum standard (just finish) that I'd set for myself, but I still feel like I did accomplish something. Right now, though, I'll say that it was miserable. I hit the wall at Shamrock, but I would say that I mostly enjoyed the race. Yesterday, I hit the wall earlier in the race, and I would count the 2nd half of the marathon as the most miserable, joyless 13 miles I've ever run, with the exception of one hell of a rush at the finish.

It sucked. I knew I wasn't as ready as I should have been and that it would suck, and I was prepared to accept the consequences, but I underestimated the level of pain I would be in. I don't remember much pain from Shamrock. (Though I think the pain was there and I just chose not to remember it because I am overall very happy with it. Chris is right -- i could barely walk after Shamrock, too.)I mostly remember that I "just" got to a point where my legs just wouldn't go anymore. Yesterday? Very painful.

I finished in 5:07:17, about nine minutes slower than Shamrock. Let's get that unpleasantness out of the way. I have to consider this a setback, a failure, a bad race, but I do not do think my failure was quite complete.

Chris, who was running the half (her second), and I got to the Expo at the Philadelphia Convention Center at around 2pm on Saturday. Packet pickup went smoothly. The expo seemed to take up about half of a very large convention room, and it was tightly packed and crowded. I bought a hefty load of Philadelphia Marathon-logo apparel, and we met up with a few other runner-bloggers who were running the race. (Thanks to Amanda from for organizing the meetup!). It was while we were hanging around chatting that I noticed my legs were feeling very tired (more from an overall exhausting week, I suspect, rather than a tough week of running) which turned out to indeed be a harbinger of doom.

(Oh, that doesn't look so bad. As you can see, this isn't my first rodeo.)

We looked around the expo for a little while, grabbing our Shamrock Marathon cups at the J&A booth, when I remembered that I wanted to buy a book, because I had forgotten to bring anything to read at the hotel. I was looking for something that would mostly be entertaining stories rather than serious training tips, so my choices seemed to be My Life on the Run by Bart Yasso and Run! by Dean Karnazes. Since Bart Yasso was sitting there at the Runner's World table, I picked up his book, got it signed, and chatted for a minute.

Having accomplished everything we could at the expo, we headed over to Reading Terminal Market, next to the Convention Center, to each have a cookie from the Famous Fourth Street Cookie Company. Let me just say that they are famous for a reason, and leave it at that.

We had dinner (and my pre-race beer) at Sotto Varalli on Broad Street. It certainly was adequate carb loading. With the long day ahead, we were in bed by 10:00.

(Ready to run.)

The Race
The Dream
I got up at 3:30am for a peanut-butter sandwich and some water, and went back to bed. I got up "for real" at 4:15 to do my IT band stretching and foam rolling, apply sunscreen, put BodyGlide everywhere, and try to psych myself up with some pre-race Van Halen. We left the hotel around 6am, accompanied by our friend Maryrose, who came to watch us and some of her other friends.

We were in our corrals a little before the 7am start, and I chatted with a friend of Maryrose's who was running the half and also starting from the super-elite orange corral. It was great to have some company, because it made the interminable wait for the wave start a little less, well...interminable.

The race started, eventually, and while I didn't feel great (in terms of overall energy level), I felt "ok" and I hoped that would be enough. I'm not going to be do a mile-by-mile recap like I did for the half marathon last year, because it would make me too angry to type, but over the first several sections of the course, eastbound through downtown Philly, south on Columbus Boulevard, and northwest on Front St./South Street/Sixth St., I was exactly where I thought I needed to be in terms of pace. I saw the Eagles Drumline, which made sense because my beloved Birds were in NY for their game that night against the Giants, and the Sixers dance team, which didn't make any sense at all since the Sixers don't exist in any meaningful sense right now, although I welcomed the distraction. (We did get Sixers ticket vouchers in our packet and the new owner of the Sixers ran the marathon.)

On the next phase of the course, the long flat westbound stretch down Chestnut Street, I continued to hold back. This is the part of the course where I usually make up time because it's flat and straight with great crowd support. I hit the six-mile mark at midway point of Chestnut at just over an hour. Perfection.

After Chestnut Street, things got a bit more difficult: The long hill on 34th Street, the steep up and down hills of the zoo and Fairmount Park. At least I didn't see people peeing on the zoo this year. Miles 7-11 is the hilliest part of the course. I wonder if I should have eased up more here, though it likely wouldn't have made much difference on this day.

The farthest west point on the half marathon course is just around mile 11. From there, it's a mostly downhill or flat two-mile charge back to Eakins Oval. At this point last year, I pushed myself toward a great half marathon finish. This year, I held back, knowing there were many miles left to run. I felt tired, and as I saw the signs throughout mile 12 directing half marathon finishers to the right and marathoners to the left and a turn back to the west, the wiser part of me contemplated packing it in at 13.1. Instead, I kept to the left and descended into Hell.

(You have chosen...unwisely.)

In hindsight, I believe that my familiarity with the half marathon course was part of my undoing. Though I paced myself well, I think my mindset was to think "I'm almost done" as I progressed through the first half of the course. It was very disheartening to reach the place that had always been the finish for me, where I've had two of the happiest moments of my running career, and turn back out for another 13.1 that I was beginning to suspect that I didn't have in the tank.

The Nightmare
I finished the first half of the marathon in 2:15:02, which was almost exactly where I wanted to be. But I felt weak. Not only was I under-trained (however, I had reason to believe I wasn't that under-trained), it was a warm day compared to the last two Philadelphia Marathon and Half Marathon race days, and I think for me it was just "one of those days", because things started to go wrong soon after I made the turn out toward Manyunk. Still, at some point in the race, and I don't remember exactly where but it was definitely rather early, I decided that the moment I crossed the finish would be amazing, and I wasn't going let anything -- be it fatigue, pain, the (relative) heat, or dissatisfaction with myself -- take that moment away from me.

I think the pain began to creep into my quads at around mile 15, and I had to start taking walk breaks at mile 18 instead of the 21 that I made it to at Shamrock. Pain soon became agony. I got to Manyunk, and it seemed like the turnaround point would never come. I gratefully accepted a cup of beer at the very welcome unsanctioned beer table at mile 19 and some bacon that was being handed out outside a restaurant.

I tried to run as much as I could, knowing that the more I ran, the more quickly I could end this ordeal. I could still have my moment, even if the race sucked. Even if I sucked.
(I don't mean to be overly negative here on the blog, but my thought process at this point in the race was very pessimistic. I was so mad at myself.) I tried to split the race into 10-minute segments with three minutes of walking and seven minutes of running, but seldom could I maintain that. I had visions of a 6-hour finish, or no finish at all.

I rallied a bit over the last three miles, and when the 5:00 pace group passed me, I tried in vain to keep up. Still, it seemed that things maybe were not quite as bad as they seemed, and the last three miles of the race really did pass more quickly than I thought they would. It was a disaster, but not as big as a disaster as it seemed at mile 18. Since the second half of the marathon is an out and back, I'd been able to see what was waiting for me, and my impression was that I had a pretty hefty uphill ahead at mile 24 or 25, but it never seemed to come.

I hit Boathouse Row (mile 25) and was overcome with joy -- I knew that my trial would soon be over. I would guess I ran the first half the last mile, trying to decide if I should take one last walk break. I did so as I went by the art museum, not wanting to get "caught" walking by the cameras at the finish line. As I rounded the art museum, the course went downhill and I charged. I knew the finish line was ahead, but with a curve in the road I couldn't tell how far. Luckily, it was right around the bend, and I was almost in tears with relief as I crossed. There will be better days than this, I hope, but my moment was not taken from me. I'm not happy with how I did, but I endured for the medal and so it means something to me.

(After breakfast, we finally felt well-enough to pose.)

I also admit that I really wanted to finish because I didn't want to not be able to wear all the Philly Marathon crap I'd bought the day before. Whatever it takes, right?

Lessons Learned
After Shamrock, I had a whole litany of things I wanted to do differently. Some of them I did: more long runs, better pacing through the first half of the race, and a better job eating throughout the whole marathon. Some of them I did not do as well on, namely speedwork and strength training. Those are a must. I really don't care how fast I am, but I want to do everything I can to make sure no marathon is this un-enjoyable again. My quads need to get stronger. I felt like my cardiovascular endurance was sufficient yesterday despite my need for multiple inhalers to help fight off cold symptoms earlier in the week; it was my legs that were not strong enough.

There's really only lesson from this one. It's hard to accept that I didn't work hard enough, but it's the truth. I could blame the warmer-than-usual weather, since I get stronger when the temperature gets lower, say that Philly was hillier than I expected (I don't think it's considered a bad one, but compared to Shamrock, OMG.) and accept that "some days you've got it; some days you don't" is probably a part of most runners' experiences, but the lesson I want to take from this day, this miserable but still somewhat triumphant day is "Just shut up and work harder."

Virginia Beach, I am coming for you. I will not waste another chance. I'm going to take a few recovery days and then I'm going to make sure I go down to the Shamrock Marathon a better runner and stronger person than I am now.

Congratulations are in order to Chris, who finished her second half-marathon and scored a new PR! Though there aren't Disney characters to distract runners, I think Philly is a tougher course. Also congratulations to Derek, who, after laying waste to our age group at HACC Dash, ran a PR 1:36 in the half, and Nick, who ran the half after recovering from the Baltimore Marathon, and had cheesesteak eggrolls before the race and still finished. Trust me, no small feat!

After running 26.2 miles, ok, ok, after running most of 26.2 miles, the celebration began. Brunch was at Little Pete's, my favorite diner-type restaurant.

(Our server said they'd had a steady stream of race customers. I figure the Kenyans went through at around 9:15)

I declared my intention to drink 26.2 beers to numb my aching quads. Though I only made it through 4 (post-brunch, 2 at dinner, and 1 during the Eagles game), I will say that I enjoyed them all!

Dinner was spectacular. Cheesesteak eggrolls from the Continental Mid-town.

I slept through 90% of the Eagles game, but a win's a win. We wrapped our weekend in Philly up with an amazing breakfast at Molly Malloy's at Reading Terminal Market.

Now, the race is over. The feasting is done. I have four months to Shamrock and it's time get serious. The climb up the wall begins now.


  1. You ran the best race you could on Sunday. I'm proud of you for going out there and for finishing! No one said it had to be fun to be fun. ;-)

  2. Strange, you call this a failure yet on the drive home I am sitting in the car thinking, "Man that was tough, I can't believe Brian had to run twice the distance I ran!".

    Plus, keep it in perspective... the time may not have been as good as you wanted but it was still a good time.

    Each run can be so different in how you feel, how fast you are, etc. Some days you are the bug, other days you are the windshield.

  3. Plus... you may be a slightly pissed off marathon runner right now, but you are still a marathon runner none-the-less. Still pretty bad-a**.

  4. Thanks Chris and Derek! I don't mean to kick myself too much over this, mostly because I can't lift my legs enough kick anything but also because or be overly negative. 2 weeks ago I ran 20 and felt I partly chalk this up to "just one of those days."

    I'm still proud of myself (in fact, people are going to think I'm a jerk), but I do want to use this race as motivation to get stronger.

  5. well first congrats on pushing through to the finish and second, I actually believe the second marathon is tougher. odd right? but the first time around you had no expectations so you just let yourself go.. the second time I totally think a lot of us let the pressure get to us

    but yes i had to run the full so I could wear the gear too :)

  6. I finished this race too, it was my first full and I thought I did poorly, until I realized that two runners died attempting it. So, that said, I did a good run. And so did you. And you can always try again next November!

  7. I'm sorry the race didn't go better for's so hard to swallow that we just didn't have it in us that particular day (we all have them!). You pushed through the lows and did not let them control you, that says a lot about your character and I know for the next one, you will take what you learned and be all that much better! Another marathon finish is nothing to belittle, congratulations on finishing strong! :)

  8. And congrats to your wife, too, for her PR - that's fantastic! :)