This race had been on my mind for a long time – I registered this race as a revenge for my crappy performance at the Delaware Marathon back in May. Philadelphia is known to be the up and coming marathon, trying to join the bigger boys in the block, namely Boston, NYC and Chicago. The larger marathons attract pros but they’re still nowhere in sight here in Philadelphia (I have a feeling that the prize money is just too little). It’s hard to brag to be a world-class marathon race when the course record is more than 2 hours 10 minutes. With that said, though, it matters little if the best of the elites show up; as long as the course is gorgeous and the organizers are considerate, people will flood the race. And indeed they have, as Philadelphia is now one of the largest marathon in the United States and probably around the world, with over 10,000 marathoners crossing the finish line every year. This race is also known to send people to Boston as the race is pretty flat, but not pancake flat. If you want pancake flat, you probably have better luck in the Midwest, such as the Chicago or Illinois marathon.
I chose this race for a couple of reasons – it is located near where I live, held annually in the fall and I don’t need some kind of crazy lottery luck (I’m looking at you, NYC and Marine Corp). Even though I live less than an hour drive away, we (DP and I) decided that we are better off staying in a hotel in Center City and avoid waking up at ungodly hours that even roasters are still fast asleep. This is especially important for larger city races as security have been tighten after the tragedy in Boston, and runners have to arrive earlier than before to be screened by volunteers. The race EXPO was held at the Philadelphia convention center with more than 50 venders trying to sell all kind of products. We walked around but did not really look at anything. The main objective here was to pick up our bibs and shirts, and I was rather disappointed with the shirt design but forgave it when I realized it is a long sleeve tech tee. Function over fashion any day! There were many talks held throughout the day – we stopped at one given by some dude who was describing the course. All I remembered was that the last mile includes a little uphill that will look bad at that point in the race but in reality it wouldn’t be that hard, and that Manuyank has the best crowds. I couldn’t care less though; no offense buddy, but all I wanted to do was to get out of the place and rest my mind.
Nutrition is especially important before the race and we took carb loading to a whole new level. Both of us have two servings of ramen for lunch (pure carbs, remember? If you ignore the fatty broth and awesome pork belly) and an awesome “runner’s special dinner” at Marathon Grill (pun totally intended) that included a Ceaser Salad with more dressing and cheese than greens, a bowl of not too bad spaghetti and some chocolate mousse for dessert. I was totally stuffed and happy at the end of my meals. Not only that, we also stopped by Wawa – Philly’s beloved convenient store, for some fruits and Clif bars for race day breakfast, and at La Columbe Coffee for race day’s coffee. Do you know that Philadelphians are so espresso deprived that the coffee shop serves 4 shots in a 16oz Americano? It’s definitely a tough life out here.
The polar vortex came a week before the race but the marathon god (Atalanta?) decided to show his (or her) grace on Philly by giving us a pleasant race day weather of 5C in the morning and a predicted 12C at noon. I brought my winter gears but was very glad that I did not have to use them. I had not been training in them for long distances. We prepare for next morning’s race (such as pinning the bib, loading GU Gels and laying out the clothes) before heading to bed. This is the first time I brought clothes to be thrown away – let me explain. Most races start early in the morning when it is still cold out, and runners have to hang around for a while in the cold before the race begins. Since the body generates lots of heat during exercise, I dress 10 warmer than the predicted temperature at the end of the race – this is the perfect outfit for the race but too cold for standing at the starting line. Some smart runners a long time ago thought up the idea of wearing old clothes over their running gear while waiting in the cold, and throw them away when the race begins. It is a no-brainer these days to do exactly that, and charities take advantage of this golden opportunity to pick up these clothing and distribute to the poor. I bought a hoodie and sweatpants from the local Goodwill and was kind of excited that I get to throw away these purchases at the starting line. I’m weird.
I have a good 8 hours of sleep and woke up at 5am when I hear the neighbors taking a shower. Such thin walls! We were out of the hotel in less than 30mins and headed straight to the security check point at the Philly museums area. Total time spent at security check: 20 seconds; time wasted not sleeping: an hour. Since we got here so early, I wanted to take it easy with the free time on hand, but DP can’t wait to start stretching and walk around, so we compromised a little each and sat under a tree for some time. After depositing our bags (DP is getting super anxious at this time), we lined up at the potty (it was his idea. The only liquid I had the entire morning was from the cup of coffee). The lines were very long but it didn’t bothered us – we still have almost an hour to kill, after all the nothingness we did. The guy standing behind us was bored too and chatted with us. This person is also from Delaware and jokingly (I hope!) said how he didn’t like Boston. I made the mistake of saying that Delaware is 2 states below PA – my brain is clearly not working because it is too damn early! Used the potty, stretched and ate GU gels. Finally, we are ready for the marathon. We stood at the back of the Gray Corral, which I think is the overall 4th corral.
The national anthem was played, horn was blown and the front runners began trotting away, but we couldn’t see any of these actions since we were standing light years away. Traditionally, the major of Philadelphia hangs around at the starting line, high fiving runners who passed by. I missed this opportunity because I couldn’t get to him with so many people at the beginning of the race, and I totally forgot about him at the end. You got to feel bad for him though, his palm probably hurts from the constant slapping. As we slowly inched towards the starting line, it was time to part with the Hobo outfit. Pants and shirts were flying in the sky onto the sidewalk as we moved forward – it was a pretty spectacular scene. My right shoe was stuck in the pants when I was getting rid of it and almost tumbled over trying to get out. A very nice lady saw me struggling and pointed at my shoe lace, which untied itself (Thanks!).
The war has begun. My game plan was simple – finish under 4 hours with some negative splits. I could bore you with the details of the plan, but the gist is basically slower in first 5k, slow in the next 10 miles, a bit faster in next 7 miles and finish strong in the last 6 miles. It turned out to be rather difficult to follow a plan where there are millions of people sharing the road with you. Moreover, I promised myself not to overtake anybody for at least the first half, so I was crawling behind whoever that were in front of me at whatever speed they dictated. I was much slower than my targeted times and crosses the half marathon mark at 2 hours and 2 minutes.
Timings aside, the view along the course wasn’t half shabby. Arch Street is the major artery across Philadelphia and has all the historical buildings dotted alongside it. Colombia Blvd and the roads that connect to Chestnut Avenue were pretty boring but the crowds were great along South Street. Chestnut Street is awesome – it’s that elegant street with nice boutique you see in every city, and I definitely enjoy the view and the cheers there. We crossed a steel bridge to Drexel at mile 7, and this was the part where my friend Mohammed warned me about, “It is a darn steep hill!” I hate slopes with a passion and still have really bad memories from the burning of Wilmington, but this hill wasn’t that bad. Granted, I took my time knowing that there is a hill ahead, but the gradient and length aren’t enough to scare anyone away. Funny story – a frat boy stood on the side of the street and asked why there were so many people running on the streets. Someone probably had a rough night.
Even though it was only a quarter way through the race, my right quad muscle begin to tense up. I blame it on over tapering and ignored the slight pain. There is no way I will walk this early in the race, and I will figure something out if I have to. The other problem I face was the need to pee. Remember I lined up at the potty early in the morning? I didn’t have to go then, but now I can’t go because all the potties on the sidewalks are line with runners and waiting is definitely not part of the plan. I decided that the smarter plan is to find one after the half marathoners finish as there will be less runners.
Most of the views from Mile 8 to Mile 13 were pretty forgettable because it is like a long run along parks in the middle of nowhere. I could also see runners in the distance, and it is kind of disheartening to know there are so many of us in front of me. The building at mile 10 (Avenue of the Republic) is pretty, grand and awesome. I really like it and stared at it while running around it. Since there are nothing interesting besides that, I will talk about water stops here. I have to give Philadelphia some credit when it comes to aid stations. There are a total of 12 different places you can sip a cup of water if you need to! (Not counting those you run pass twice) However, I thought they could improve on the organizations for the aid stations. At the stations, they serve Gatorade at the front and water at the back and I feel like this should be in reverse order. You can’t chase GU gels with Gatorade and I didn’t even drink Gatorade in this entire race. Instead of handing out unknown liquids, the volunteers could wear different uniforms for runners to differentiate them. There are multiple times I have to stop and ask multiple volunteers before finding a cup of water. Then again, that’s my opinion and you might disagree with me. The volunteer support is great and did a great job of cleaning up the cups runners litter on the floor. I do not condone this behavior and find this irresponsible. Someone might slip on the cups and the water makes to floor even more slippery. I think it is not worth anyone falling down just so you can shave off a hair of a second from your race. There are many people sweeping the streets to make it less trash filled for the later runners.
The split came after the first 13 miles (surprise there), and there are significantly less people after this point. As I ran pass the finish line (not through it, pass it), the emcee mentioned that the leaders for the marathon are heading to the finish line. It is an out and back course from here on out and the road was separate in half, so I tried to spot for the elites across where I was. First came a biker. Then another biker. Then a third biker. And finally, a white man who was running very fast. The crowds and even a fellow runners clapped and cheered him as he passed. The chaser was probably 30 seconds behind him, and we cheered him on too, but it seemed like the gap was too wide for him to catch up. The second and third male runners were black (I assumed Kenyans), while the forth guy is this poor white guy who was literally dying – he had very weird strides and you can tell he was suffering. After that, there were a whole bunch of runners and I missed the women leaders. It is here where my right calf started to tense a little bit too, probably from the hill workout and the downhill sprint from before. I just kept on going ignoring those weird pain. Both my armpits have some chafing, a first for me at those areas. I rolled up my left sleeve but quickly unrolled it because it was still too cold.
With fewer crowds and runners, this atmosphere in the second half is completely different from the previous half. It is kind of the harder part of the marathon and you can feel it in the air. Runners are getting tired by this point. I, on the other hand, was itching to get some actions going but managed to hold myself back. I can feel fatigue was building but I had been conserving most of my energy from the slower than usual pace. Nothing stop an endurance runner better than the wall, and I’m really scare of the wall. If I plan to finish under 4 hours, I can’t hit the wall today. Judging from my sore right leg, not hitting the wall is all the more important. I just don’t want to have to tackle another problem right now. Instead of passing people, I continue to let the faster runners pass me and instead follow people who are running at my pace. It kind of worked for a little bit but for some reasons most people don’t do tangents so I have to find new leaders once in a while. To some, I’m that asshole who cut in front of others and suddenly disappear to the other side of the road, and back again, depending on the curves of the course. To me, why would you want to run more than 26.2miles for a marathon?
This part of the course is so boring that I did not remember much except that the amazing crowd at mile 17/22 and I have to run over this really tall “Falls Bridge” only to turn back after crossing it. Really, Philadelphia? My right quad was getting sored going up and down these slopes and I was hopping for more flat roads. Even though the second half of the race is rather flat, you can see the gentle gradient on the roads. The race director should switch the first half and the second half. It is pretty difficult to make the race memorable when all the good stuff happen in the beginning. I have been trying to keep my pace constant but it is getting harder at this part of the race. Things did change for the better when we are near Manayunk, small town/city north of Philadelphia. We ran along the Main Street and the buildings dotting alongside have this small town feel. I appreciate the view. The crowd here is probably not the best in the world, but it is filled with people on both sides of the one mile long street and had a festive feel. At the end of this town lies the 20th mile marker, an aid station where I downed my last GU and the last turning point of the race, literally and figuratively.
At this 180 degree turn, I decided it is time to step on the pedal. With 6 miles to go, my watch said that I am around 3 hours into the race. I have not hit the wall and I am feeling really good mentally. In fact, I try to keep a smile while I’m running, but it is pretty hard when you are constantly pounding on your feet. The first thing that I saw after the turn was a slight incline upwards; the second was that everyone was slowing down. It was time to shine, baby! I increased my pace and ran mostly on the outside of the road (left). For some reasons, nobody wanted to run next to the spectators and so it was rather empty on the outside. Something unexpected happened – since I’m now closer to the cheers, I ran faster, and so the crowd cheered even louder as I passed, making a positive feedback loop. The crowd could now see my bib and my name, and instead of “go runner,” it became “go Bo!” It is hard to explain that feeling unless you experienced it yourself of an entire city cheering on you. I sped up from 8.4minutes/mile at mile 20 to 8.20minutes/mile at mile 22.
I know I am going to finish under 4 hours when I hit mile 22, that’s even considering if my watch was a few minutes behind and that there were actually 27miles to run, so long as I don’t hit the wall. Well, with not much risk and a lot of reward, I turn up the heat and ran even faster, without much crowd support at this point. Most people were either slowing down to a jog or started to walk, but I was just cruising along, constantly running into people and had to navigate around them. Instead of the original asshole, I’m now that disruptive guy who was just causing more pain to other people’s suffering. In my head, though, I was totally in the zone and enjoying every single second of the race.
Ever heard of Runner’s high? It’s this phenomenal when you are couple of hours into an exercise and should be feeling pretty fatigued and tired, but your body suddenly reenergized and ready to take on any challenge. Sort of the opposite of a wall, think of it like a roller coaster where you just sat and enjoyed the fun. They call it the high because it is similar to smoking marijuana, except that it is legal in all 50 states. I had heard of this mythical experience but had never tasted it before, and here I’m, 20miles into the race with my right legs half-cramping, and the bliss blew at me. Suddenly, going uphill fast and downhill even faster felt great and right. I was just giggling and smiling non-stop. When I saw DP near the 21st mile marker (his 19th mile), I pointed at him and screamed “You are no. 10,000!” And at that moment I knew I was having runner’s high, because not a single person around us smiled or laughed, as everybody was probably struggling to complete the race.
The crowd spread thin between mile 22 to 25, which is fine by me because I’m used to small crowds, and I was cruising at an average of 8min/miles with a couple of 7.30min/miles mix in them. My cadence was none existent and I increased my speed by taking large steps rather than more steps. My legs hurt really right about now. At Mile 24, I had to side step some runners at the aid station and accidentally extended my left calf, which cause a serious cramp or a Charley Horse. In my head I was screaming not this can’t be happening right now and I have to finish the race under 4 hours. If I had to, I would run in constant pain rather than walk. The cramp hurts stung every time I landed my left foot, but lessen with every step I took. By about 30 steps, it was completely gone and I was very glad.
Near the mile 25th marker, there were 4 photographers at one spot taking pictures of the runners. I was behind a pack of girls and one guy was standing diagonally right of me. Something got into my head and I wasn’t thinking for sure, because I quickly ran between the two groups and did an Asian-peace-sign-post for the camera man. In my defense, the guy next to me was flapping his hands, so I was completely sane. However, it did not occur to me what I did until 2 hours after the race. Wow.
I was getting tired after running fast for the past couple of miles and slowed down a little at mile 24. However, I revered up my engines at the sight of the 25th mile marker. By now, the crowd has re-thicken and lined with hundreds of people on the mile long side walk. Similar to before, I ran on the left side of the road and positioned myself closer to the crowd. This time, however, pretty much everybody are cheering the runners as we were trying to finish the race. They also paid more attention to my name and instead of screaming a general name. Couple of people actually said “Bo knows” (from the commercials) and one person mentioned that I have a pretty good name. Haha!
Mile 25 goes like this – you go up a gentle slope for half a mile, and go down the same slope to the finish line. Couple of steps after going over the hill, my watch beeped and reminded me I had ran 26 miles. 0.2 miles to go! I know that my GPS watch wasn’t that accurate, and so I estimated it to be at most 0.5miles to go. That’s probably the longest half mile I ran in a very long time. Even though I was going downhill, my legs were sore. All I want know is to be done and locked in the finish time before the 4 hours slip away. I didn’t hear the cheers anymore and all I care about is to reach the bottom of that hill. And something else hit me – there was no finish line at the bottom of that hill! Oh no, did I calculate wrongly?
Turns out, you have to make one final left turn at the bottom of the hill to the finish line. I couldn’t see the end from the top of that gentle hill as it was blocked by both trees and people. All the dead people I was running with were now brought back to life, and I was running with the rest of the crowd at similar pace. I made my turn and saw the finish line and the clock shown 4:07. I knew that I have a lead of at least 10minutes, so I was guaranteed an under 4 hour marathon. Finally, after 4 tries in the past couple of years, here I am, crossing the finish line under 4 – I just couldn’t believe it. No wall, no tummy ache, perfect weather, no crazy hills. It just can’t get any better than this. The announcer seems to know what I was thinking and said “these runners here… They all finished under 4 hours.”
My marathon is over by now, but the event isn’t and DP is still somewhere running towards the finish line. I was so happy at my race results that I missed the high five with the major. Oh well. There were little organization at the end of the run and I had to find someone standing to the side of the road for a very large finisher’s medal. (The half marathoners get the same exact medal. Bummer.) The “post-race” party is set up like a highway to channel the runners out of the area. Think of it like the same running course except now volunteers give you stuff on the side while you continue to the exit. The first item I got is heat sheet and I wrap it around my body but I have no idea how to use one. It was too hot anyway so I fold it into a square and tugged it away. The race director is pretty stingy with the water bottles – they come in 16oz size and I only took one, thinking that I can get more later.
I like to describe anyone who just endured and finished a marathon as pretty slow, tired and dumb – So don’t expect them to solve anything hard. The organizers had sat up a long booth in the middle of the road as the runners are walking out, and there was a very long line on the left side of the booth. Everyone was just lining up for something, and with the crowd effect, I joined them. I stood in line for a minute and noticed that the volunteers were bringing out goodie bags from the right side of the booth. Thinking that nobody would be cruel enough to stop a really tired guy, I walked over to the other side. It turned out the other side is the same as the left side but without the line. I grabbed a goodie bag, a Philly style pretzel, bananas and chips, and proceed to get out of the area. At the end of the booth, I saw someone pouring liquid into paper cups and thought it might be hot chocolate. They turned out to be packaged chicken soup. It was a welcoming sight as I was getting cold and down the still warm soup – and darn, it is the most delicious chicken soup (or stock, no idea) I had have for a very long time. I was pleasantly surprise even though I knew it probably doesn’t taste that good in real life.
There were a lot of policemen guarding the exit and everything is a one-way street. I got out of the food area and it hit me that I can’t get seconds and was disappointed. The next area consisted of large fleets of UPS trucks with one of them containing my bag. It wasn’t hard to find the right one, but they took some time to locate my bag. I made a quick call to Meixi who was supposed to join us at the finish line and send a text to DP telling him that I’m done. Finally, the glory is over. I walked out of the runners’ only area.
I found a bathroom after more than 4 hours, and now am very thristy. I tried to find somebody who was giving out or even selling water but I couldn’t find anyone. In my head, I was thinking that’s a pretty big blind spot as most runners will be dehydrated and the organizers should be throwing water bottles at everybody. I gave up searching for water after 10 minutes – there were just no water to be found. I found Meixi and DP came quickly afterwards – he finished his first marathon strong. We stretched a little bit on some patch of grass before heading back to the hotel to checkout. Days Inn gave us a late checkout at 1pm so both of us got a nice shower before heading to Cheu ramen for lunch.
Philadelphia marathon was meant to be my redemption for Delaware, and it served its purpose. I had never thought before the race that I will be remembering Philadelphia as the city I first broke 4 hours. This race is getting more expensive and larger with each passing year, and I would suggest it to anyone who are willing to fork out large sum of money to experience a big city marathon. Philadelphia is the first large scale marathon I ran in, and it proved to be a very different race compare to all else I had. At no point in the race I was alone, and I was blocked way more often by other runners than to have a clear path ahead of me. The crowd were big, cheers were loud at parts of the race and there were a lot of really funny spectator signs. The aid stations provided Clif gels rather than GU and I had to carry my own. I also did not see the 4hour pace team during the entire race, which is kind of interesting because I should had been close to them the entire race.
Well, no more complains. I am happy with my results and I definitely gave it my best (very close to my targeted time). Next up, New Jersey Marathon in one month. Tapering time BEGINS!