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Marathon Time, Philly Style

December 10, 2012

After weeks of long runs, hill repeats, and interval training, the Philadelphia Marathon had finally arrived. The mental anguish from tapering was finally wearing itself thin, and I felt ready to run. My wife and I arrived in Philly mid-Saturday afternoon and headed straight for the expo. As if the buildup over the past few weeks was not enough, my entrance into the expansive, yet crowded, convention center really drove through the fact that I was there to run a big race. Goosebumps crawled up my arms as I grasped the bib number and safety pins which would soon adhere to the front of my racing singlet.

Philly bib

After a quick bite to eat with a childhood friend, we settled in for the night at another friend’s apartment. Fortunately, they had hosted someone for the marathon a year before, so they were prepared for my own pre-race neuroses. The group of us–which now also included my sister-in-law in town just for the marathon–enjoyed a delicious homemade pasta dinner and I went to bed early.

Against all expectations, I slept well through the night and woke up with my first alarm, ready for the day. Breakfast included a plastic bag’s worth of Cheerios, one Honey Stinger Waffle, and two tall glasses of water. My stomach felt almost settled, so it was time to head out of the apartment. The cab I had arranged to pick me up in the morning was waiting outside the building and drove me to within two blocks of the start line village. A brisk walk took me to the Children’s Tumor Foundation tent, where I would leave my bag during the race.

It Begins

Having arrived an hour early, I had plenty of time to stretch, visit a porta potty, and ruminate over the imminent adventure. An added bonus to running with the NF Endurance team was having an area to leave my stuff that was separate from the chaos of the official bag checks. Feeling relaxed and keeping my heart rate low are very important to me before a race starts. Unlike the popular, raucous team huddle before some competitions, I try to experience the calm before the storm. It eases the nerves and can help prevent an overzealous, and potentially disastrous start.

The marathon organizers did a great thing by offering entries to those who were registered to run the infamously cancelled New York City marathon just two weeks prior. Walking to the starting corral, I passed through a dedicated start zone just for those NYC runners. There was definitely some extra energy in that group. Finally I got into my corral and met up with Shannon, the 3:05 Clif Bar Pace Team leader. He was planning an even race, nothing fancy. Having completed over 130 marathons, I was inclined to trust him.

Go Steve

One last time, I thought about all of the training, the hard work and the good fortune, that brought me to that start line. I closed my eyes and listened to the Star Spangled Banner. The gun went off and I shuffled towards the next 26.2 miles of my life.

“Nothing Stupid”

I had a race plan. Though I stayed mentally flexible to adjust for race day conditions, I knew what I wanted to do. Good or bad. As I settled in with the pace group, we watched and commented on the occasional runner who would sprint past us as if there were only 400 meters to the end. In the early goings of a marathon, you can only blow it by starting too fast. The refrain I repeated to myself reflected that idea: “nothing stupid before 13.” If I was going to run a 3:05:00 or better for that Boston qualifying (BQ) time, I needed to run even and controlled at least for half the race.

The first two miles of the race were very crowded. I did some bob-and-weave maneuvering through the field to keep Shannon’s pace sign within close range. Early in the race, the group was around 15-20, but decreased as the miles progressed.  The race field itself thinned out, relatively speaking, after the 5k mark. I crossed the 10k in 43:18, which was at 6:58 pace was running “a little hot,” as Shannon called it.

Back in March when I ran the Rock ‘n’ Roll USA marathon, I psyched myself out at the midpoint after seeing most of the participants veer off towards the half-marathon finish line. Whenever running a race with both a full and a half marathon distance on the same course, the split can be a very difficult mental challenge if you are not prepared. This time I was ready to see the signs, to hear the extra cheering, and to keep on going. Actually, my legs felt strong as I was energized by the fact that I had the opportunity to run more. Perhaps as a result, mile 14 was my fastest mile of the day at 6:40.  The subsequent two were also each under 7 minutes by a few seconds.

Focus, focus

By mile 17, we were already traipsing down the long out and back stretch that makes up the back half of the Philly course along the Schuykill (pronounced SKOO-kuhl) River. My mind wandered to that familiar place of doubt. Would my legs have enough to continue this pace? Was I still under my goal pace? Would I get a beer when this was all over? I was pretty sure the answer to all of those questions was yes, but one is never quite sure. Running two subsequent miles in over 7 minutes did not help either. These were not horrible mile splits by any means, but just seeing that number became a bit disconcerting. Would each mile now continue to slow down, to the point where I was seeing 8’s?

Turkey trot sign

Having been warned by a few people with Philly experience, I knew this was likely during the quieter parts of this route. Never underestimate the importance and power of mental preparedness. So I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, and the miles ticked away. Knowledge that I had trained hard, smart, and could succeed was going to get me to the finish.

It Is Going to Be Close

Things were actually going well until mile 23. I had managed to bring my splits back under 7 minutes for miles 19-22. Then my side cramped. I don’t know if it was the extra gel I took, not enough water, too much water, or a muscle pull. But it hurt enough to slow me down. Doing mental math throughout the race, I was pretty confident my goal time was in sight. I also knew it was going to be close. Very close. At a big event like Philly, it is also hard to have a sense of how far off your watch is from the race clock. When my side started to tighten, that vision started to fizzle.

I felt about as beat as I look

I felt about as beat as I look

Those last four miles hurt. I kept pushing, but it was painful. Somewhere in the last two miles I ran passed my wife and her sister, cheering and waving the great signs they had made. They had already made it to two spots along the course and I had no idea if I would see them before the finish, so that was a huge lift to my spirits. Though they later told me how pained I looked at that moment, their boost carried me to the end. My legs went as fast as they could and I crossed the finish line, arms raised triumphant.

My eyes glanced to the Garmin on my wrist and I still had no idea. The clock said 3:05:30 or something close. My watch was a little faster than that, but it still held no sure answers. It was not until I got back to my phone and saw the automatic e-mail alert. Finish time: 3:05:08. Wow, what a race. I was proud, exhausted, happy, and cold. Wrapped in one those strangely effective foil blankets, it dawned on me that I missed the Boston Marathon qualifying time by less than 10 seconds. If you could have heard my thoughts, it would have sounded something like: “AWW F*****CK!!!” Hard as it was, how could I be upset? I PR’ed by over 30 minutes. I ran exactly the race I had planned and trained to run. I ran 26.2 miles feeling mostly healthy. I raised a lot of money for a really great cause. I had a ton of fun. On balance, I would say that is quite a victory.

Wife (left) and my sister (right) - best race cheer crew!

Wife (left) and sister (right) – best race cheer crew!

So thank you to the Philly Marathon for helping me to live their slogan and “redefine possible.” Thank you to everyone who donated to the CTF, it means more to the organization than any of us could realize. Thank you to everyone who tweeted words of encouragement and congratulations. A huge thanks to my race weekend support crew. I could not have done it without them. And thank you to everyone who supported me in this marathon. It was a blast.

And watch out Boston, I am still coming for you.

Here it is, mile by mile

Here it is, mile by mile

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8 comments

  1. I’m not a marathoner, so I don’t know the Boston process, but it blows my mind that you ran a 3:05 marathon, but did NOT BQ? I’d let you in!! Congrats on a well planned, great race. The signs were awesome!


    • Thanks so much Amy! To qualify in my age bracket, I need to run a 3:05:00 or faster. No buffer seconds or anything. The irony is that they changed it this year. Until 2013, our qualifying time was 3:10:59. Just have to get it next time! Thanks again for the kind words.


  2. wow steve, awesome job!! thanks for sharing your experience. and you have it exactly right, “look out BQ, steve’s coming…!” 🙂


    • Thank you, Karen. And you better believe I am still going hard after that BQ! Appreciate the support. Hope to see you out a race soon!


  3. Great recap! Congrats on the unreal HUGE PR! You will get it next time, you ran an amazing race!


    • Thanks Ashley! Hoping to get it next time, you just never know. Tons of fun either way, what an experience!


  4. Great run!! So exciting to read and very inspiring for someone who is within a year of running their first full marathon!! Congratulations on an excellent race!!



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