Race Report: Philadelphia Marathon

I’ve done it. I’ve completed my first full marathon. I can call myself a marathoner! It was  grueling, thrilling, wonderful experience. And here’s how it all went down.

Race weekend

Like a boss, I forgot to actually request off Friday November 16 from work (though my boss let me have it. I’m a genius). But after a quick detour to the DMV (I got a new license the day before mine expired – and now have a PA driver’s license. Woohoo!) NB (who needs a new pseudonym as he is now my fiance and has been so since September!) and I hit the long road to Philly. It was about a five and a half hour trek, actual drive time anyway, and we made a stop at a Bob Evans for pancakes (etc.) in a little podunk town called Carlisle – which served us well the whole weekend, actually – and got gas for like $3.49 a gallon. I got a little too excited about that last part, honestly.

It was definitely late fall at that point, but we were lucking out on weather: it was cool, crisp, and very sunny. We got into Philly in the afternoon and headed to the expo and packet pickup at the convention center. The expo was a little blah – a lot of the booths I was looking for didn’t have any presence (Brooks! I missed you!) but we still saw some cool stuff, AND got these awesome shot glasses that say 13.1 (at the half shot mark) and 26.2 (full shot). Fantastic. We got our shirts (fantastic), bib numbers, and packets without issue.

After the expo, we checked into the Hilton for our one night stay. It was a pretty nice room, and after some chilling out time, we walked to a local Italian place that I’d found via Siri (thanks, Siri) for another carb-filled meal.

Well, we walked the about 15 minutes there… only to find that this was a VERY popular spot. The host asked if we had a reservation. “No, is that going to be a problem.” “Yeah… we’re completely booked.”

Nuts.

So we stood in the alcove (it was chilly out) looking for an alternative and resigning ourselves to the possibility that we’d have to actually move the car from its parking spot. But thank goodness we took our time, since as we were wandering back toward the hotel, a hostess shouted after us, “A table just opened up!” A two-person reservation had just cancelled, and we were in! Huzzah!

We had a FANTASTIC meal. Unfortunately we couldn’t celebrate with wine since the place was BYOB and we were ill-equipped, but we still had a marvelous time. After dinner, we curled up in the hotel room watching “Groundhog Day” on my laptop before hitting the sack.

We slept in luxuriously and I got in touch with my cousin Laura who lives in Philly with her hubby, Guy, and their darling 17-month-old baby, Lily. After some scheduling, we headed to a restaurant Laura recommended nearish her house called Sabrina’s, which apparently is like the Philly version of Pittsburgh’s Pamela’s: great food, tiny and cramped, bustling staff, and always a line out the door for brunch. I got to talk to Kowalski and try to return some other birthday calls while we waited for our table, and once we were seated we ordered quickly and wolfed down even more carbs. We would NOT be going into this marathon under-fueled. Nosiree.

Immediately after brunch, we headed to Laura and Guy’s BEAUTIFUL home and met their gorgeous little Lily. What a doll! I knew she was a cutie from pictures, but she was such a sweet, charming, funny little baby. I could barely stand it. Laura was apologetic about not being entertaining enough, but we honestly had a blast. We went to the park and then walked to a dog park so Lily could look at the puppies (“pup-ee. woof woof.” *melts*) and marveled at how beautiful Philadelphia is. I’d been that once before, at the end of senior year for that day trip with McBride’s class, and once again I was content to do day-in-the-life rather than the touristy stuff. Plus we did need to rest our feet prior to the race.

Their refrigerator was busted, we ordered in, and NB and I got pancakes (naturally). Lily was in bed by 7 and after watching a couple DVR’d shows with Laura and Guy, we all soon followed. We both slept fitfully, not helped by their very cute, very fat, and very disruptive Cat, Porter, who kept stepping on us in bed and purring like a motorboat.

Pre-race

The alarm woke us at 5 a.m., and it was breakfast time first thing. I packed us a ton of oatmeal (1 cup each. Our usual half-marathon breakfast is 3/4 so I upped the ante). I couldn’t finish it – I think it was nerves. We got dressed and after some debate, I opted for capris rather than full tights, a regular long sleeve (instead of cold gear), and my toasty Brooks midlayer jacket. I went to town with bodyglide and vaseline, and donned a hat, earband over Air Force cap, gloves I bought at the expo (I know, I wore something new. BAD. It was fine though. It’s just gloves) and a throwaway sweatshirt with a broken zipper. And of course my trusty Brooks Launch.

We opted to walk the mile and change to the start rather than drive and deal with parking. We knew the walk back would be pretty painful, but figured it would probably be good for us in the end. We made it to the first port-o-potties we saw without about 45ish minutes to the start. We blessed the portos and then headed over to the purple wave corral (NB was in gray, technically, but we started in the later wave since we were running together). And as luck would have it, we were RIGHT in front of the Rocky Steps! (aka the Philly Museum of Art)

We met up with my twitter pal (and now real life friend!) Kristin and chattered excitedly about race strategy and gleaned from her all the tips we could for a first-time marathon.

The Race

At 7 a.m., the race began, though we had a looong way to the start, since we were pretty far back. We considered at this point that this race was pretty huge – record numbers, including some displaced NYC marathoners (so much support for them! They had their own corral. It was great). About 21 minutes in, we crossed the start, and were off! There was a lot of crowding, and our first few miles were pretty slow as a result, but I soaked it all in. We stayed pretty near Kristin for a while, with the understanding that whenever someone needed/wanted to break away, we would, and try to catch one another at the finish. Maybe a mile in, a saw a group of gals in matching outfits, one whose shirt said “I’m the bride!” and the rest said “I’m with the bride!” I chatted with them a bit and found out the bride was getting hitched in 3 weeks. I congratulated her and wished them all luck in the race. How cute is that?

As the miles clicked away with astounding speed, I enjoyed the incredible crowd support and amazing volunteers. NB got called out a lot for his Pittsburgh half shirt quite a bit, so we saw a lot of locals, and one guy stayed with us for a couple minutes to chat about how great a race this was for a first time marathoner, before he cruised off to crush the half. We also saw FANTASTIC spectator signs throughout. I wish I could remember them all, and will probably update this post with more as they come to me/as NB reminds me. Here are just a few:

“Only [extremely large number] inches to go!” (this was like 4 miles in or something)

“Smile if you’ve already pooped yourself!”

“Smile if you’re not wearing any underwear!”

“Welcome NYC Marathon refugees!”

“Motivational sign.”

A bit before mile 7, as we crossed the river, we saw our cheering section! NB spotted Laura first, and we paused for high-fives, and Laura flagged down Guy, holding Lily, for more high fives. Laura said later that Lily got really excited about giving runners high fives and was reaching out to them, but getting snubbed a lot. The trouble with being so very, very little.

Our pace was improving as we went. We had one mile that was in the 8:50s along a very flat stretch (one where I saw quite a few dudes just off the course, backs to us, answering the call of nature. It was kinda hilarious how many there were). The course grew a bit more rolling, and we passed by Drexel, including fraternity row, which already reeked of booze. But the brothers were out their cheering, so I wasn’t complaining. As I’d heard, miles 8 and 10 were hills, but nothing a couple Pittsburgh runners couldn’t handle. I almost wanted to cackle at all those I saw walking. You should try Negley sometime! (but seriously: I’m a huge hill wimp. I’ll be the first to admit it)

As the halfers split off, I knew to try to keep things in check – they’d be surging, and we had a long way to go. But it wasn’t that hard, honestly, since we had a problem. NB wasn’t having a good day. Just a few miles in, and he admitted to feeling more run down than normal. Uh oh.

I kept up a Gu every four mile schedule (and had packed plenty of spares to ward off a bonk), taking one at 4ish, 8ish, and 12ish. We headed toward Schuylkill for the long out and back (with a couple smaller out-and-back section. I was pumped by the crowds that cheered us on, and was a happy that the field was a lot less crowded. I had heard the second half was lonely, but I never felt it. There was plenty to pump us up. Around mile 15, NB was struggling. I reminded him that we could slow down, that we just wanted to finish this and have fun, so we took a brief walk break. The course was scenic, but some the mini out-and-back structure of some parts was kinda grueling. I was feeling a bit run down, but nothing too worrisome, and I occupied my mind by trying to figure out ways to boost NB. We made it through that first short out-and-back, and headed out for the longer haul. Around mile 19ish, there was a beer stop (legit), and the smell didn’t bother me til the way back, though I declined to imbibe both times.

Shortly after, NB gave in to something that was nagging him: he’d been running in his ankle braces as insurance (he sprained some tendons a couple weeks prior to the race), and now they were causing him pain. We stopped along the side, clock ticking, and he took them off as I felt all the energy drain from my legs, and forced myself to hop around so I didn’t totally die. Once we were back in business, we walked for a few seconds to get the blood moving again before breaking into a jog.

At the turnaround, the crowds were screaming, and shortly thereafter was the 20 mile mark. Just 10K to go, I told myself, feeling okay – tired, but okay – and ready to try to push.

The running gods had other plans. Those last 6.2 miles were the most painful of my entire running life, bar none. We got boosts from the spectators, the amazing volunteers, the water and Gatorade we started taking at the aid stations very liberally. I had taken my 20 mile gel at 19.5 to ward of a bonk, and then took a last gel at mile 23 (with some to spare in case). Our pace was slowing. We were hurting. NB was in visible pain. He kept telling me to go ahead without him, but I refused. I would not leave him behind. He would never do that if the roles were reversed. He needed me. Plus, despite his claims that I could go get a better time, who’s to say I wouldn’t have pushed too hard and blown up?

We walked a couple more times, but I got him back into a jog as quickly as possible each time, reminding him how hard it would be to start running again the longer we walked. All around me I saw marathoners in agony. People were stopping to walk. People were stopping to stretch. People were stopping to grimace in agony. Someone was getting her hands bandaged from a bad spill. Someone else was curled up in a ball under a space blanket as an ambulance came roaring down the parallel road. But we were still moving. Hurting, yes, but okay.

Managing a smile. I think this was pretty late in the race. 20-something.

The mile 25 since was like Mecca, and I encouraged NB, telling him we had less than 5 laps of a track to go, asking him to find just a little more. As we crossed to mile 26, I shouted to him to find one more gear, easing up to match strides, trying to pull him along with the last vestiges of energy and enthusiasm I could muster. We were going to miss all of our foolishly set goals (well, except one that I had set for myself, but it’s petty so I won’t even go there, at least not here). The crowds were screaming. All of my muscles were burning. My heart and lungs were strong, but I wished with all my might to drag that finish line closer to me. I threw up my arms and smiled for the cameras as we crossed the line, NB right by my side, our watches reading about 4:17.30ish. (chip time: 4:17.31).

On the right – NB is in green and I’m cut off in the blue
We are marathoners!

Post-race

We hobbled through the finisher’s chute. NB was completely depleted. I shut off my watch and music and grabbed onto him, repeating over and over “I gotcha, I gotcha.” We received our medals and I made sure he got his space blanket (and then I forgot to get myself one. Oops). We got in the food line and stopping to stand there caused everything that hadn’t already seized to do so. My feet killed. My calves ached. My quads and hamstrings burned. My glutes, piriformis and hips were on fire. Even my upper back and shoulders were sore. We grabbed bananas, oranges, cookies, pretzels, water, and the all important BROTH. Liquid, electrolytes, protein, and warmth? YES PLEASE. We bumped into Kristin in the food line and chatted a bit. I wish I’d had my wits about me more to chat more, but it was still great to see her and briefly download about the race.

We limped over to some spare curb to try to eat and hold onto everything, and NB suddenly seized me in a hug and we were both in tears: exhausted, exhilarated, completely and totally spent.

After we gathered ourselves a bit, we started back, hobbling along slowly. I texted Laura to let her know we were on our way – at a snail’s pace – and we agreed to talk about food once we got there. They were really nicely hands off when we got in, besides letting us in. We both collapsed on the floor in the guest room, putting our feet up and stretching, before we got cleaned up and slowly made our way upstairs, dressed in comfy, clean clothes and compression socks. They made us veggie omelettes (saints!) and got us hydrated, and we chatted and watched Lily play. Lily took a real shine to NB all weekend. It may be because he very much resembles her uncles Ben and Jeff (redheads with facial hair) but at the park the day before, she’d walked right up to him and stuck her arms out, asking to be picked up. When Guy took her back, she cried and insisted on being given back to NB. And I had snapped this adorable pic with my phone:

We became a bit more human as the hours went on, helping each other stretch and trying to rest and move often as the same time. By 4:30, we were hitting the road, with many hugs and much thanks for our wonderful hosts. I took first shift driving, and we stopped often to stretch and switch, and made a stop for greasy burgers and fries at Red Robin in Carlisle, PA and topping off the tank for uber-cheap again.

It was an amazing experience. I can’t even really describe it or do it justice. I have no regrets. Sure, I wish I could have run faster, but I still wouldn’t change how I ran this race, given a chance at a do-over. Even in the last couple miles, when my muscles felt like they were breaking down and my hamstring was seizing, I thought to myself, “I can’t wait to try this again.”

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I'm a 29-year-old writer and runner. This is my running blog.

7 thoughts on “Race Report: Philadelphia Marathon

  1. Excellent read! I’m going to be running Philadelphia in a few weeks and have been scoping out blogs to get a feel for what the race will be like. From the sound of it, I’m going to enjoy myself. Are there any other big hills I should watch out for besides 8-10?

    1. Thank you! Glad you found this post, and hope it was helpful. 🙂 It’s been a while now but I don’t really recall any hills outside that one (and honestly it wasn’t too bad). I think the crowds at the start (with a few opportunities for bottlenecking early on) and exhaustion near the end were he biggest obstacle to even pacing for me.

      Good luck at Philly next month! Hope you have an awesome race. Do you have a goal in mind?

      1. It’s the first marathon that I am actively RACING since February. I’ve done several since then but extenuating circumstances led me to run them conservatively, or as training runs. So I’m out to run hopefully under 3:30, preferably under 3:23, which would be a PR. Here goes nothing!

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