Philadelphia Half Marathon, 11/22/2009
1:29:09 – first sub 90:00 result, new PR by 3:44, 2010 New York City Marathon qualifier
109/2534 OA Male
8/257 Male 45-49 AG
All roads lead to Philly, or so it seems. Maybe it’s because I still think of it as my hometown even though I relocated to Virginia years ago. Or maybe it goes back to my time in college, where I spent three years as the low man on the totem pole of the St. Joseph’s University track team. For either of those reasons, or perhaps both of them, I often find myself returning to Philadelphia to run, to race, and to prove a point. And so it was again two Sundays ago, when I stepped into the maroon corral to run the half marathon in this year’s Philadelphia Marathon event.
As this year’s fall racing season shaped up, I made a decision early on in the summer that after already running two marathons in 2009, I would do no more for the year and focus on shorter races. After running Boston on an injured lower right leg and having to take a month off to rehabilitate it, that made perfect sense. But it also meant I could focus on distances where I think I’m stronger and have a bigger upside, specifically 10-milers and half-marathons; they are I think, my true sweet spot. Sure enough in October, I nailed a new PR at the Army Ten Miler and then set my sights on the next big target, Philly’s half. In the meantime I kept up a very busy and successful fall racing season. In addition to that great Army run, I also put together a nice string of age group award finishes in 5k races and knocked out two very demanding 10k trail races.
Still, as the half marathon approached I wondered if I had done enough to be ready. After finishing less strongly than I would have liked in my final scheduled race prior to Philly, on 10/24, I felt that I needed to boost my endurance. So the following weekend I fell back on my old marathon training ways, and went out for a 20-miler. It was probably a lot more than I “needed” to go, and it was basically just a long easy run, but more importantly perhaps, it did wonders for my confidence. I knew that if I could go 20, even at an easy pace, I could go 13.1 hard. The race performances were already there as indicators of what I could do, and I was still nailing my interval workouts even as a little fatigue from the long season kicked in. After a few more quality workouts, it was time for a brief ten-day taper period to gather my strength.
After a week of anticipation I finally made the drive up I-95 on Friday night. For some reason there was a lot of traffic and it was a slow trip. I met up with my brother Pete and his companion Elizabeth at the General Lafayette Inn for a beer and thankfully, they were still serving food, so I got an awesome turkey burger, too. Then we got to his place and turned in very late, but I wasn’t too concerned about that, figured it just meant I’d sleep in, which I did. Then Saturday afternoon it was off to the expo. I got my bib, chip and shirt quickly and had time for a little shopping. Then later that night we met up for dinner at the Plough and Stars with my friend Jill, a fellow Kickrunner who was running the marathon. After two years of chatting with Jill as on online friend it was nice to finally meet her in person. We were both pretty excited about our upcoming races and the relaxed atmosphere also helped calm me down as I had been feeling a little nervous all day. By the time we parted ways, I knew I was ready for the next day. I even slept fairly well when I got home…that never happens the night before a race!
Finally, race day!
The alarm went off at 5am and I dressed quickly then headed downstairs for my usual pre-race breakfast: oatmeal, energy bar, banana, coffee. By 5:45 I was out the door headed downtown. I parked at 23rd & Cherry Sts. and was in the race area by 6:30, plenty of time, I thought, until I saw the lines before the porta-johns and the bag check trucks. I didn’t really need to go, but I waited in a POJ line for a few minutes anyway, until I calculated it simply wasn’t moving quickly enough and I knew I would be fine. I got to my assigned UPS truck and then it was time to strip down out of the track suit, the beanie, the turtleneck to my race outfit — DC Road Runners Club singlet, arm warmers, shorts and over-the-ear headband, gloves. As usual for this distance I had opted for my Nike Air Zoom Skylon shoes. As I jogged my warmup to the corral I felt comfortable even though the temperatures were in the low 40s. I got into the corral with about 5 minutes to spare.
Soon the cannon blasted and we were off. Despite being in the maroon corral, 2nd fastest behind the elites, the start seemed a little slow. I couldn’t tell what pace I was running because I opted not to use my Garmin, and relied on how it felt. The first mile or so “felt” like about 7 minutes. I don’t know the exact split because I never saw the mile marker. I didn’t see the Mile 2 mark either but someone near me with a Garmin told his buddy they head just hit 2 miles in 13:30. Okay, I thought, 6:45/mile is about right. Ideally I would have liked to be about 6:40 pace but I knew 6:45 was still in the range I needed to be in, so no worries.
Shortly after that we made a right turn at the Delaware river waterfront and headed down Penn’s Landing. The mile 3 point came up along here and I finally got a clean split of my own – 20:10. That seemed a little fast and I think the mark may have been a little short (I seem to remember the same thing about the marathon in 2006). Mile 4 was a little more to form, 6:44. The next several miles went down much the same way, all in mid-6:40s to low 6:50s. Mile 5 split time was very encouraging, at about 33:50; that was the first true benchmark I was looking for. The next would be at 10 and of course, 13.1.
As we wound our way through Center City and towards University City, the first of the hills hit us. Philly is not a course reputed as being hilly. In fact, it’s considered a fast course by many. I think of it more as a “fair” course, mostly flat but with enough elevation change to challenge you and really earn a good result. Mile 8 turned out to be a real tough one, as it headed not only uphill slightly but also into the wind. Here I dropped my slowest mile of the day 7:02. Going over 7:00 was not something I wanted to do and I knew I had to step it back up, and I did in Mile 9, going 6:44 again. The Drexel frat boys on 34th St. probably helped with that. They are so loud and boisterous in their support, it’s impossible not to get an extra bounce from them. Still I knew I would have to work hard for the result I wanted. As we hit Mile 10 the biggest hill on the course greeted us in Fairmount Park and again I slowed down, going 7:01. This time it was somewhat intentional though, as I gathered my strength and also took in a Gu.
As I hit the 10 mile point I got my next benchmark…68:22. I quickly calculated that it was going to be a real dogfight to get that sub-90 result that I so badly wanted. Worse, the 3:00 marathon pacer was now right on my shoulder. Perhaps that provided me the motivation I needed, because I stepped it up at this point. As we hit a turnaround on Martin Luther King Drive in the park, my legs finally stopped shaking from the hill climb and started feeling strong again. Knowing I had little time to spare I bypassed the water stop at Mile 11 and just kept driving. I was finishing strong, and I could feel it.
Mile 12 went much the same way, and by now I had put about 30 yards between myself and that 3:00 pacer. At this point I finally started feeling a little more confident about making my goal, but that just made me want it even more. As if on cue, the 3:00 pacer then yelled out, “Half marathoners, you’ve got a mile to go. If you’ve got anything left, go for it! You’re ahead of 1:30 pace right now!” So I dropped the hammer; it’s go time, I told myself, go get that result! By now I’m blowing past most everyone around me. As we cross back over the east side of the Schuylkill and the half and full marathoners parted ways, I looked ahead for the finishers arch. Once I saw it, I sprinted home to it, looked down at the watch and saw that I had made it with room to spare at 1:29:09. My final 5k had gone down in 20:47, and the final 1.1 miles in 7:17, so I had indeed saved my best for last. I let out a loud whoop and said “New York City, here I come!”
Afterwards I got changed, and headed back out onto the course, this time to the 25 mile point so I could cheer on some friends. I was hoping to see Tonya, another Kickrunners friend, but didn’t. So I waited a while longer until Jill passed by. She looked great and was running strong, like someone who knew she had her goal of a sub-3:50 in the bag. What a spectacular first marathon performance for her!
All in all, it was an exhilarating day, and my race performance is one that I’m tremendously proud of. I didn’t feel quite as fresh as a month ago when I PRed at the Army Ten Miler. That day, it all seemed to fall in place and I was playing with house money the whole race; this time I had to dig deep in a target race, and fight for what I wanted, and I did it. As a reward I got not only a new PR and my first sub-90 but also the New York City 2010 qualification. A trifecta, and I couldn’t be happier.
And I can’t wait to toe the starting line at the foot of the Verrezano Bridge next November as qualified entrant. In the meantime, though, there’s Boston to prepare for…and some redemption after last April. Training starts January 1.