This was my second time running the Philadelphia Marathon. In 2013 I over-trained for the race, hoping to break 3 hours for the first time in the city I called home for nearly a decade during and immediately after graduate school. When I hit the wall in mile 18 that year and later dragged myself across the finish line in 3:06 (which was still a PR by 6 minutes and my first Boston qualifying time), it crushed my willingness to push myself in distance running for the foreseeable future. For the next six or seven months I basically just jogged when I got around to it instead of really training. Although I still ran races in the first half of 2014, my times then were much slower than they had been for the previous couple years.
In mid-summer 2014, however, I decided to recommit to running. I started training hard again; and for the first time I enlisted a coach, who helped me train smarter as well. It took some time for me to get back on track, and it wasn’t until this past summer and fall that I was really able to put together a good, long stretch of consistent training. So it is fitting that my first breakthrough in years and my first sub-3 hour marathon finally occurred in Philadelphia (albeit two years later than originally planned).
I knew I was in good shape going into the race this year, but the weather was a concern. The temperature was (for me) perfect – around 47 degrees – with overcast conditions but no threat of rain. The problem, however, was the 10-13mph wind from the WNW. The loop course was such that this was a headwind for runners from the halfway point until about 20 miles, and then it was a tailwind for the final 10k. Before halfway there are a lot of turns on the course and the wind seemed to be coming from every direction. My question was: could I handle the wind, especially the headwind after halfway, and get to 20 miles in a condition to take advantage of the tailwind for the remainder of the course?
The short answer is: yes. My splits tell much of the story:
Mile 1 – over 7:00 (my Garmin was messed up)
Mile 2 – 6:47
Mile 3 – 6:42
Mile 4 – 6:49
Mile 5 – 6:49
Mile 6 – 6:33 (excited by crowds on Chestnut street)
Mile 7 – 6:36 (same)
Mile 8 – 6:58 (first hill in university city)
Mile 9 – 6:47
Mile 10 – 6:59 (second hill by the zoo)
Mile 11 – 6:51
Mile 12 – 6:48
Mile 13 – 6:48 (halfway in 1:29:41)
Mile 14 – 6:43
Mile 15 – 6:47
Mile 16 – 6:45
Mile 17 – 6:49
Mile 18 – 7:04 (two bridge crossings, a hill, and a turn-around)
Mile 19 – 6:46
Mile 20 – 6:50
Mile 21 – 6:40
Mile 22 – 6:46
Mile 23 – 6:46
Mile 24 – 6:47
Mile 25 – 6:56
Mile 26 – 6:49
Finish – 2:58:56 (average pace 6:49/mile)
I aimed to go through the half just under 1:30 and nailed it. The wind in the first half was definitely noticeable, but it didn’t seem to be consistently blowing in any particular direction. Occasional gusts would blow us this way and that, but there was never a steady head- or tailwind for very long. So it was little more than a nuisance in the first half. My energy level seemed pretty good at halfway and I had no muscle issues.
After halfway the course thinned out, because the half-marathoners and marathoners had started together. I was worried that this could leave me fighting a headwind alone. But it turned out that I had plenty of company. There was indeed a steady headwind with occasional stronger gusts, so runners tended to cluster together in packs. For the first four or so miles after halfway, I settled in with a pack of at least 6-8 runners behind two guys running side-by-side who seemed content to lead: one of them was wearing an ironman triathlon kit, and the other was wearing union jack arm sleeves. I’m not sure how much running behind them actually helped block the wind, since it kept gusting from slightly different angles. But at least they were holding a steady pace in the upper 6:40s, right where I wanted to be. Unlike in Pisa a year earlier, the wind prevented me from making the mistake of speeding up at this point and trying to move forward from group to group. Instead, I just tucked in and rolled with it.
My least favorite part of the Philly course is mile 18, where runners briefly leave Kelly drive and cross a bridge over the Schuylkill River, run down a hill, turn around, run back up the same hill, cross back over the same bridge, and then continue down Kelly drive in the same direction toward Manayunk. This is the point on the course where my wheels came off in 2013. Again this year, I had a bit of a low point there. The pack I had been tucked into kind of broke apart. The two guys who had been leading it side-by-side separated from one another. The tri-guy ended up behind me somewhere. Union jack continued running strong, so I stayed glued to his back even though I wasn’t feeling great. Once we got back on Kelly drive everything seemed fine. My low point had passed and a slightly smaller pack reformed, with tri-guy and union jack resuming their positions at the front, along with a tall guy in white whom I hadn’t noticed earlier. We settled back into the same pace we had been running before the diversion in mile 18. It was work now, and the course starts undulating a bit as you approach and enter Manayunk. But I knew that the turn-around was just ahead and the headwind would soon become a tailwind for the remainer of the race.
Before the race I had expected to slow down from miles 14-20 because of the headwind. So I had mentally flagged that turn-around as the point in the race when I was going to shift into another gear and take advantage of the tailwind to make up some lost time. As it happened, though, the headwind hadn’t slowed me down at all and I was right on my goal pace at the turn-around. It hadn’t crossed my mind even to dream of finishing this race faster than 2:58, and I didn’t want to screw things up by speeding up and then blowing up in the final 10k. So my plan from that point was basically just to hang on without pushing the pace. Still, the final 10k of a marathon is tough no matter what. With the wind at our backs now, I had no need to stay tucked into a pack and immediately pushed ahead of the group I had been running with. It was a race now. I was getting competitive in order to make sure the pace didn’t slow down.
The final 10k is kind of a blur to me now. Tri-guy and union jack were left behind, but the tall guy in white and I fed off each other for maybe four miles or so. Whenever there was even a slight uphill, he’d push ahead of me, and then I’d pass him when the course evened out again. At some point around mile 24 I passed him for the last time, but then tri-guy reemerged duking it out with a woman whom I hadn’t seen before that point in the race. I stayed with the woman as tri-guy floated ahead a bit, and she and I went back and forth for the final two miles. After 24 miles I knew that I had sub-3 hours in the bag. Now it was just a question of whether I could get under 2:59. I seem to have slowed down very slightly in mile 25, which I don’t recall, but maybe I was gathering strength for the final mile, which is steadily uphill. Most of the course in the final 10k has very few spectators until you reach that last mile, but their presence helped me finish strong. The woman won our little duel in the last couple miles, finishing a few seconds ahead of me. But my Garmin shows me running 6:21 pace for the final few tenths of a mile, so we were both moving. Tri-guy suffered on the final hill and I passed him just before the finish line, which means only one person managed to pass and stay in front of me in the final 10k. I must have passed dozens of people.
I finished in 2:58:56 (chip time). Having aimed to run that kind of time for so long, I half expected fireworks to go off when I crossed the finish line, or for it to require an unprecedented super-human effort to keep running sub-3 hour pace after 20 miles. But none of that happened. I was considerably more emotional after my 22 second PR in Boston this past Spring than I was in Philly. Perhaps that’s at least partly because I was physically in a much better condition when I crossed the finish line in Philly than I’ve probably ever been at the end of a marathon. I recall thinking around mile 22 that I didn’t feel any more uncomfortable up to that point than I usually did in marathon pace training runs. It just went on for longer. The last 2-3 miles were indeed harder, but not massively so. I never hit the wall or needed to dig deeper than I have in other marathons that I’ve finished in slower times. In fact, I think that each marathon in which I’ve hit the wall – which is every marathon I’ve run before Boston and now Philly this year – was harder and required considerably more effort than Philly did, even though my time in Philly was much faster. I’m not saying it was easy. But in a way my big breakthrough was really earlier this year in Boston, when I managed for the first time to measure my energy level appropriately, so that I could still run strong after 20 miles. Once that clicked, it was just a matter of putting together a consistent training block so that doing the same thing again would get me to the finish line much faster. I see no reason why further consistent training of the same sort won’t lead to still faster marathon times.
A few more details: I’ve now completely mastered race nutrition for marathons. I eat two pieces of bread or a bagel with honey about two hours before the race, and then a banana sometime in the hour after that. Between 60 and 30 minutes before the race, I take a 100mg caffeine pill (more than that gives me the shakes). Around 15 minutes before the start, I eat a gel with a small amount of water. Once the race begins, I eat a gel with water every 3-4 miles until I get to the fourth gel, when I need to gauge how my stomach feels. If my stomach is even slightly unsettled, then instead of eating the next gel I’ll drink some of whatever sports drink they’re giving out on the course. Then I’ll eat the gel a couple miles later, again with water, and follow it with more water at the next fuel station if it gives me any trouble. In Philly this plan worked perfectly. I ate five gels during the race and resorted to sports drink twice, finishing the race with one more gel in my pocket. My stomach never gave me any real trouble.
Shoes: I’ve run in Adidas for years now, but this was the first marathon I’ve run in their Boston 5 Boost. I used to race marathons in various incarnations of the Adidas Adios, but in Pisa it finally dawned on me that me feet were hurting in the last third of marathons because I needed more support. In Boston I went with the much heavier Supernova Glide, and sure enough my feet didn’t hurt. This time I wanted something lighter that still has more support than the Adios. The Boston Boost hits the sweet spot, in my opinion. At 8.5 ounces, it’s almost as light as the Adios (8.0 ounces) but somehow has as much support as the Glide (10.7 ounces). I’m not sure how that’s possible, but I do know that these shoes feel fast and that my feet never hurt in Philly. I strongly recommend Birkenstocks after the race, though.
Several people have asked me: what’s next now that I’ve achieved the goal I’ve been aiming at for years? I’ve never come close to achieving my goal time in any marathon I’ve run until now, and this time there’s literally nothing I had even secretly hoped to achieve in Philly that didn’t actually happen. One person even asked whether I was going to quit running altogether now. I mean, what else is there to aim for after you’ve run a sub-3 hour marathon? But I’ve never regarded the sub-3 hour marathon as my ultimate goal in running. It’s a nice round number, which makes it into a kind of psychological barrier for runners around my ability level. But I’ve always hoped and expected to cross that barrier and then continue improving. I want running to be less about time and more about competition with other runners, in my age group or whatever. In the past I had considered running under 3 hours as a kind of prerequisite for being competitive in the marathon, but now that I’ve done it I’m not sure that was ever actually true. There are people to compete with at all paces – they’re just different people. I guess what I’ve aimed and still aim for is to be among something like the top 10 local runners in my age group at longer distances, so that I can feel like I’m pretty good at this stuff and compete with other guys who are too. Honestly, I already felt that way before Philly, perhaps because I already thought that it makes sense for me (and others at my ability level) to aspire to crack the top 10 among local runners in my age group, even though my 2:58 marathon still wouldn’t rank me that high. To get there I’d probably need another 7 minute PR, or maybe more. So what’s next is that I’ll continue aspiring and competing, encouraged by having crossed this psychological barrier. Hopefully this will help me obsess less over times in general and nice, round-numbered times in particular. But my sights still remain firmly set on getting faster and more competitive in distance running, especially in the marathon.