When you register for a race, you have certain expectations right away.
At least I do.
When I registered for the 2021 Philadelphia Marathon, my only real expectation was to get a new personal best marathon time, which was 3:25:51 from 2019.
There was just no other way for me to approach this race.
And so with that expectation in mind, I altered my training over the summer to include some tempo and speed workouts. I also ran my warm-up races this fall with plans that I hoped to carry forward to this marathon.
Coming into the week of the marathon, I felt confident in the quality of my training and long runs as well as my races this fall.
That being said though, it seems like every time race day is approaching my mind momentarily forgets the other times I have prepared for a race.
All of a sudden, all of my experiences from my previous races are gone and I can’t remember what I should be doing in the final days leading up to a race. Some runners call this “maranoia”, which is defined as “mental anxiety found in marathon runners, characterized by the irrational belief that a last-minute disaster is imminent.”
That sounds about right.
If you have run a marathon or any other long distance event before you have probably experienced some level of maranoia as race day approached. For me, it is phantom pains or injuries, or anxiety that I didn’t train adequately or properly enough.
For this race, I had some of these feelings but added to the mix was the ghost of not having finished this very race in 2008. As I’ve mentioned before, I have thought about the 2008 race a lot and used it as motivation over the last 13 years.
And now I was finally back at the start of the Philadelphia Marathon!
Calm Before the Storm
I decided to stay in a hotel the night before the race, which made race morning so easy and stress free not having to worry about traffic or parking. I was able to find a place to eat with my preferred pre-race dinner – chicken, rice and vegetables – and relax knowing that it would only be a short walk to the start line in the morning.
Luckily, I had a decent night’s sleep, especially for the night before a race! When I woke up at 4am to start getting ready, I was strangely (and quite happily!) not very nervous.
With a race start time of 7:00 am, I began the 15 minute walk to the start area at 5:45. It was a chilly morning, but not freezing. With the temperatures expected to stay cooler and a mostly-overcast sky in the forecast, the day was starting out nicely.
After some back and forth over the final weeks leading up to the race, my strategy at the start line was to run the first three or four miles between 7:45-8:00 minutes per mile. Then, once I was warmed up and comfortable, gradually work my way down to an overall pace of 7:30/mile, which I would hope to maintain for as long as possible.
Now, it was time to see if I could put my plan to action!
The last minutes before the starting gun goes off always seem to go by in a flash to me. There are usually a lot of things going on – from people stretching/warming up to the race emcee trying to get everyone excited about the race and the morning ahead.
Today, like most other races, I was taking everything in and trying to focus on what I wanted to do for the first few miles. There was one big difference compared to most other races I’ve done though.
I wasn’t nervous at all!
After the start, the first few miles went by exactly as planned with one exception.
Between mile 1 and 2, my GPS disconnected and when it connected again the overall distance was about .3 miles ahead of the course, meaning that my overall distance and pacing was thrown off for the next 24+ miles!
From then on, I tried to focus on my current pace as much as I could and every once in a while calculate my overall pace just to make sure that I was still on track for my goal.
If that was the worst thing to happen, it would be a very good day!
Other than that small mishap though, I was off to a nice, easy start through the downtown area of the city.
I don’t have the exact splits but each of them were between 7:40 and 7:50 per mile.
Even though I felt good, in an attempt to stay ahead of my hydration and fueling, I had my first gel at about mile 4 (and every 3-4 miles after) and I made it a point to drink water at each water station on the course.
Having gotten through the first few miles, it was now time to get comfortable and start bringing my pace down over the next 15-16 or more miles.
Running through parts of the city center and some surrounding neighborhoods with a nice mix of spectators and quieter areas helped to settle me down into what I hoped would be some easy miles at my race pace.
Reaching the 10k point at about 47:00 and the half at just under 1:38, I felt really good about where I was with my pacing and how I was feeling overall.
But I also knew that the hardest miles were still ahead.
This course is known as a fast and flat course, but some changes were made to it recently, so it now has a few hilly areas. Nothing too major really, but enough to test my mind when the miles were starting to get a little tougher.
Miles 16-19 of the course are mostly along the Schuykill River with some good crowd support. But what provided me with the bigger boost at this point was the race leaders coming the other way along this section – only about 6 or 7 miles ahead of me! Seeing them fly by was really impressive and helped to distract me from the tiredness slowly creeping into my legs.
At about mile 17 or 18, I was starting to feel it in my legs and my feet, which almost never bother me. I did my best to try to attach myself to the runners around me to keep my pace where I wanted it to be. It was all I could do to keep it together – mile by mile or step by step if necessary.
I was still on pace for a sub-3:20 time, which was what I had hoped for when the day started.
I just wanted to be in a position to have a real chance at sub-3:20 with 10k left, which wasn’t too far away now.
Most people know that these miles are sometimes the most difficult in a marathon.
Some might call it the wall.
There is “only” 6 miles or so left, but after running 20 miles, it doesn’t really feel that close.
Today, however, these would be the miles that saved me and re-energized me.
These two miles are run on the narrow main street of Manayunk, a popular Philadelphia neighborhood. Probably the most energetic crowds of the day lined both sides of the already-narrow street, which gave me a huge lift. Many of the spectators were enjoying some beers and other drinks in the morning sun, which I’m sure helped with their energy levels! Whatever it was, it gave me exactly what I needed at that point and kept me moving towards the finish line.
Coming off of the high of the miles in Manayunk, and with the finish line not quite in sight yet, these were unquestionably the most difficult miles of the day.
While the crowds were still good, and continuing to grow the closer I got to the finish line, my legs felt like they might cramp up at any point. The feelings in my legs were somewhat exacerbated by the several people I passed during these miles that had to stop due to cramp or to walk.
But I came here to get a personal best time and I knew that the only way to do that was to keep moving, which is exactly what I did.
The finish line was still not technically in sight, but I could feel it approaching.
Unfortunately, I could also feel my chances of sub-3:20 slowly fading away almost with every step.
But my main goal of getting a personal best was still well within reach!
The crowds were growing and getting louder as I got closer to the finish line, but at this point I was only looking ahead to hopefully see the finish line.
The final stretch seemed to go on forever.
My watch was now past the 26.2 mile mark (due to my GPS mishap), so I knew that I was almost there.
Looking back now, this last section feels like it was some kind of dream. I don’t remember what was really going through my mind or what was happening around me.
I know the crowds were quite large at the end, but to be honest I don’t remember much else about them either.
Finally, the finish line came into view. And I crossed it.
And I had a new personal best time of 3:21:11!
I’ve run a lot of races in Philadelphia and it’s a great city to run through. This race was no exception. The crowds were great throughout and the course gave a great tour of the city and it’s different neighborhoods.
The GPS issue could very well have been a blessing in disguise because it allowed (forced!) me to think mainly about the mile that I was in. I really couldn’t be more happy with that mishap being the only low point in an otherwise near-perfect day for me.
Coming into this race, I thought I would need to lean on my DNF in 2008 to push me through the more difficult sections, but I actually ended up not thinking about it at all during this race.
I’ve thought about it a few times over the days and weeks since though and I’m really happy that the 2021 version of this race will now be the first thing I think of when I think of the Philadelphia Marathon.
Just because I’m happy with this race and my new PB though, doesn’t mean I’m done yet.
I’ve already starting thinking about what’s next and am confident that someday in the next year or two, I will qualify for the Boston Marathon.
More from RunPatRun:
- If you want a refresher on the time I didn’t finish the 2008 Philadelphia Marathon, check out D.N.F.!
- In the weeks to come, I’ll give a recap of 2021 and what my goals are for 2022!
- Check out my other post in my Racing Series about one of my other favorite marathons – RunPatRun Race Series – Part 1: Favorite Race – Marine Corps Marathon!