Yesterday, I ran a marathon. A full one. 26.2 miles. It was physically the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And it was worth every bit of the pain that I’m currently in as I type this.
Less than a year ago, I was training for my second half marathon, the Walt Disney World Half Marathon, and I had absolutely zero interest in running a full marathon. Full marathons are crazy! 13.1 miles was tough enough. How do people do 26.2? But after that race, my feelings quickly changed and I started wanting to do a full marathon. I convinced my wife and we signed up for the Philly Marathon and instantly started worrying about what we had gotten ourselves into.
Training officially started on July 4th with the Cranford Firecracker 4-miler that we run every year and the last four and a half months have been a crazy roller coaster ride. My tendinitis still wasn’t fully healed and my wife and I were still planning our wedding (we took this into account by starting training two weeks early). Since July 4th, we had our bachelor/bachelorette parties, wedding, honeymoon, and three other weddings to attend. All of this made finding time on the weekends for our long runs very difficult at times. The training plan we had picked out was supposed to be intense, but because of injuries we were still trying to kick and lack of time, that plan got altered significantly. Training for a full marathon becomes your entire life and takes up all your time, but we didn’t always have any time to give up in the first place. I would have liked to be running five days a week and get three 20-mile runs in before the marathon, but that wasn’t a reality. I ran three to four days a week and did two 20-mile runs, neither of which were easy.
The first time you run a full marathon–and maybe subsequent times as well, I wouldn’t know yet–is insanely nerve-racking. You’re constantly doubting yourself and worrying you can’t do it. Every minor little pain or soreness suddenly becomes this big deal as you find yourself slowly turning into a hypochondriac. In the weeks and days leading up to the race, this only gets worse. You know you trained and put in the work to do it, but you still can’t quite figure out how you’re actually going to finish this thing in once piece. A marathon sounds like an amazing idea when it’s still months away, but when it’s days, hours away, you realize it may have actually been the worst idea you’ve ever had. People will ask you if you’re ready for it, but there is no being ready for it and it doesn’t matter if you are or not. Race day comes quickly and the race isn’t going to run itself. There is no being ready, just doing.
Somehow, I actually got a good night’s sleep the night before, which was probably helped by the fact that I went to bed at 8:30. Once we got over to the starting area, I made my way over to my starting corral and tried to find a good spot within there to place myself. I saw the 3:20 pacer and placed myself right behind him. I felt like this would be a good place for me and decided I would park myself right next to the pacer for the next three and a half hours of my life. A 3:20 finish would put me at a pace just a few seconds slower than I did my last 20-mile run at so it seemed attainable, but it also seemed like it would be a good way to help keep me on track and prevent myself from starting out too fast and dying later in the race.
When the race started, there was this insane feeling, “this is happening and there’s no turning back now.” There was a lot of energy in the beginning, everyone was pumped up, but there were a lot of people all huddled close together. It was hard to find room to run, some runners ended up on the sidewalks, and I had to actively work to keep near the pacer.
By the time we got to the third mile, things started to even out a little, but it was still tight and I still had to fight to keep my own space. I heard the pacer say we were 22 seconds ahead of where we needed to be and I was feeling great so far, except for my left ankle, my tendinitis was starting to act up. I was actually a bit shocked, even though my ankle hasn’t been bothering me much for a couple months, this was still very early in the race for it to be a problem. I tried to stay focused though, my ankle was going to have to hold up now. Luckily, this pain didn’t last more than a mile or so.
At this point, we were coming down Columbus Blvd and then made a quick turn around the block to get onto Front Street. By now the group around me was thinning out a bit more, but Front Street isn’t very wide and there were still cars parked on the sides of the street. This felt like the most dangerous part of the course, but it was also right about this time that I got pulled in with a couple guys running near me, Jonathan and Doug. We started talking a bit and the three of us stuck together for a while. There was a lot of camaraderie among the three of us as well as the rest of the 3:20 group as we came around the corner onto South Street. We were all pretty pumped.
The course is only on South Street for a few blocks, but there was a ton of energy packed into those blocks. The streets were lined down both sides with people cheering. This got me into a bit of trouble. I had just finished telling Jonathan I wanted to stick with the 3:20 pacer to help keep me from going too fast, but the energy down South Street really started pushing me forward. I wasn’t doing it consciously, but I soon noticed the pacer, who was just off to my right for the last few blocks, wasn’t there anymore. I turned my head a bit more and didn’t see him. From this point on, I was on my own. I had lost Doug and Jonathan and I didn’t see that pacer again for another eight miles.
From here on, I tried to keep my pace in check, but I was full of energy and focused as the course turned onto Chestnut Street for miles six and seven into University City. The course had thinned out a lot at this point and I was practically running by myself at certain points.
Now, it was time to turn onto 34th Street and begin three miles of seemingly endless climbing with just a quick flat spot near the Philadelphia Zoo (which stunk like animal crap). Just after crossing the 9th mile marker things got rough for the first time. We hit the biggest climb of the course and it majorly sucked. In reality, it probably wasn’t straight up, but it certainly felt like it at the time. At nine miles in, I had plenty of energy and leg strength to tackle it, but a conscious effort needed to be made not no blow too much energy on a section of the course just barely a third of the way into the race.
Things kept pretty steady through mile eleven, but I was starting to feel my pace catching up to me. I started to fear I wouldn’t be able to hit that 3:18 finish I was now targeting, but I also knew I still had a bit in me before I needed to start slowing down. The next two miles along the Schuykill River remained pretty uneventful, I just kept on doing what I was doing and thinking about my strategy for the rest of the race.
As we began to approach the Art Museum at the 13th mile and where the half marathon splits off, I started to keep a look out for my family. The area around the Art Museum was filled with people and energy to propel us into the second half of the course. I saw my parents right before the 13th mile marker and that helped pump me up a bit and my pace, which had been very slowly slowing down over the previous few miles, picked back up a bit.
It was also at this point that Jonathan caught back up to me…or rather I slowed down to him. He came up along side of me and we started chatting again. I asked how far ahead of the pacer we were and, much to my disappointment, it was just a matter of feet. I looked over my shoulder and there he was, I guess I had slowed down a little more than I thought I had.
From this point on, the rest of the course was an out and back down along the opposite side of the Skuykill. Jonathan and I spent the next four miles talking about running and staying just in front of the 3:20 pacer. We passed the leaders of the race heading back down to the finish line as we were coming up on the 15th mile (they were approaching 25). As much as an out and back can suck sometimes, this was was a nice benefit of it. Those guys were flying.
These four miles were the last good ones I had. By mile 17, I knew I wasn’t going to be finishing at my current pace. I knew I didn’t need to take it down yet, but I wouldn’t be able to hold on for long. As we came up to the 18th mile marker, the pacer let us know we had about a mile and a half to go until the final turn around of the race. This mile and a half was the longest mile and a half I’ve ever run. It felt like it was never going to end. It was definitely the longest feeling section of the race.
The 19th mile was a bit of a turning point for me. Things started getting harder faster and faster and I knew I needed to drop back a bit. I could keep the pace up for a little while, but I wasn’t making it to the finish line if I didn’t slow down a little. I decided now had to be the time and I slowed myself a little as we started to get into Manayunk. It was tough watching the balloons on flag the pacer was running with get further and further off in front of me, but the slow down had to happen.
I was all alone again and focusing on just keeping my pace decent and not dropping off too much, but things started going to crap quickly, just as they had in my training runs at this point. As I came down Main Street in Manayunk, I tried taking in as much of the energy from the crowd as I could, but it wasn’t enough, I was starting to struggle. There were people handing out beer to runners here and that sort of blew my mind. I guess the liquid carbs could be helpful, but beer was the last thing I wanted right now.
As I was coming down Main Street, a few of my wife’s friends screamed out my name and that gave me a small boost right before the final turn around. I came back up Main Street and saw them again as I climbed the little hill I had just come down. I wasn’t feeling too good and, even though they later said otherwise, I couldn’t have been looking too good either. At least I knew the rest of the course was almost entirely downhill.
I crossed the 20th mile marker and it was time to enter new territory. I’d never run more than 20.25 miles before, but it was time to change that. I knew it was still a little too early to start pushing, but I was quickly running out of stamina. I had the energy, but my legs didn’t have the ability to use that energy anymore. All my legs wanted was to just walk for a bit, but I knew that wasn’t an option. If I started walking, even for a few seconds, that would have been it, I would have never started running again. I had to just keep on going.
The next few miles progressed about the same, I just kept going as best I could and by mile 22 I started looking for my wife coming up the other side. I finally saw her around mile 24 and she was looking pretty good, but I was fading quickly (and she was just barely past mile 14 so she had a long way to go still). I had already been doing a serious countdown to the finish in my head.
Somewhere just before the 25th mile marker I caught up with Doug. He wasn’t looking too good, but I wasn’t either. He was running with a couple guys who seemed to be in great shape still. They were cheering him on as they were going and really trying their best to pump him up (he needed it). I was unaware before, but apparently it was his birthday and the guys he was running with were making sure everyone watching the race knew about it and were cheering him on. The energy around these guys is what helped me push to the finish line. The four of us stuck together for just about the rest of the race. Doug and I pushed it out as best we could while the other two guys seemed just fine.
Besides seeing Doug, the 25th mile marker also brought about the realization that at this point, if I just started walking, I could still finish by my target time. It was really tempting, but I had come too far, I had to keep going.
As we got up to the Art Museum, I started making my final push. Both sides of the road were lined with people cheering and I started throwing everything I had left at it. I was running as fast as I could after having been running for almost three and a half hours. I was passing everyone I could and using each person as extra motivation to just keep on going. By the time I got close enough to see the clock, I was starting to feel relief that I was just about done and it was over.
I didn’t even really see the clock when I finished. I had a rough idea of what was on the display, but I wasn’t looking at it. I was just focusing on getting across that finish line and staying on my feet. Doug came up right behind me and we celebrated for a minute while trying to make our way over to water and food. Before we even made it there, Jonathan, who I didn’t notice passing at any point since leaving the 3:20 group, had also finished and met us in the line. We spent a few minutes lamenting about the pain we were all feeling, but it was an insane feeling and seeing these guys at the finish was a nice way to end the race.
After I finished, I could barely walk. Everything below the waist hurt more than it ever had in my life. The pain and tightness was insane (even as I type this, it still is), but it didn’t seem to matter. I had done it. I completed a full marathon…and I did well. I couldn’t have been happier. From here, I spent the next hour and a half walking around trying to find my parents and then trying to find a spot at the finish line to watch for my wife. The walking was awful and slow. I must have easily walked close to another two miles after finishing while trying to find them and not a single inch of it was pretty.
I ended up finishing the race at 3:24:09 with an overall place of 1059 out of 10213 runners. Not bad at all. That time fell right into my target zone. I was looking at finishing between 3:20 and 3:30 and I nailed it.
Yay! And ouch.