I just ran the Philadelphia marathon. Every race is unique, here’s my take on Philly.
- The city as a race destination
- The people
- The start
- The course
- The finish chute
- What could have been better
- The best part of the Philadelphia Marathon
- Thank yous
The city as a race destination
Philadelphia is a fantastic destination city for a race. The Terminal Reading Market with it’s decadent Beiler donuts (freshly made maple bacon donuts, no wonder this place always has a line up!), Flying Monkey whoopee pies and pumpple cake (apple pie in vanilla cake on top of pumpkin pie in a chocolate cake! I think I would have to run a marathon to burn of the calories from that! Philly cheese steaks, lots of tasty ways to get your calories.
Philadelphia is also home of the Liberty Bell, lots of street art and beautiful buildings. Perhaps the busiest tourist attraction for a group of racers who have been training for 4 months is the front steps of the Art Gallery made famous by Rocky! (they were easier to run up than I expected, even if you take them two at a time, but I still can’t do one armed pushups like he does in the movie). The statue of Rocky Balboa at the bottom of the steps was even wearing a Philadelphia marathon shirt. There was a line up of runners waiting to pose with the statue. The rocky theme music runs through the head of many a runner at some point in a race or training, so he holds a special place in our hearts. And best of all, lots of hop on/off bus tours to get you between all the attractions without spending too much time on your feet and lots of hotels an easy walk from the start line. Both important details for anyone running a marathon.
I don’t know if hosting a big race brings out the best in people, but we met some wonderful people during our visit. Whether it was random locals like the trio we met at dinner Saturday night at Gran Caffe L’Aquila (amazing food and service there btw!) who generously offered to buy us drinks, and when we informed them we had a marathon to run the next day so we were only having one glass of wine, they apparently asked the waiter to put those drinks on his bill. To the fantastic fan support through downtown on race day. Lots of people holding up signs, cheering us on, ringing cow bells, reading the names off our bibs and cheering us on by name (which I LOVE by the way, every time a complete stranger yells out ‘Go Susan’ I get a little burst of energy. Several fans were obviously cheering on family or friends in the race as I saw them two or three times on the course (the guy with the Dr Who sign and the couple with the giant cat and dog signs). So it’s also good to know that from a spectator perspective you can see someone more than once on the race course. There was one stretch through downtown about a mile long where the crowds were incredible!
The start on race day had its ups and downs. anyone entering the start area had to clear security. I completely understand the need for security. This race was only one week after the attacks in Paris, and ever since the bombings in Boston, we all recognize that a big race is a potential target. Unfortunately the security was not organized as efficiently as possible to get runners into the start. Some runners waited in line 30 minutes and then discovered they could have walked 2 minutes to another entrance with a 5 minute line. Some runners did end up starting late. So hopefully this is something that will improve in future years. Perhaps better signage, more volunteers letting people know about alternate entrances, better separation in the line ups of runners with bags/without bags/ spectators. Again, I appreciate the need for security and thank the volunteer who turned back the spectator who tried to enter the start area with pepper spray in his bag. But arriving at 6 AM for the 7 AM start was a mistake on our part and several other thousand runners, so room for improvement there.
Once inside the race start area, things improved, there were lines for the port-a- potties but there always are. The line ups were typical. The bag check was well organized. Participants bib numbers were based on expected finish times (faster runners lower bib numbers, slower runners higher bib numbers), so they had the bag check doen by last name which means shorter lines for pick up at the finish. They also provided nice big clear bags for the race check as part of our race kits, I had lots of room for warm clothes to wear post race.
There were entrances to corrals where bibs were checked, I appreciate the effort to keep racers in their assigned corrals. Those of us out for a PB can be frustrated by casual runners who think it’s cool to be closer to the front and don’t realize that it’s a trial for faster runners to be zigging and zagging around those who run a slower pace. Don’t get me wrong, I love having racers of all abilities at a race, but if you and a friend are planning to chit chat walk/jog the entire race and have never run a race before, please go to a corral with other people going a similar speed. It’s a great system when everyone follows the rules.
Unfortunately or fortunately the start was delayed because a car needed to be towed. Worked out for me because it meant I got to get through the port-a-pottie line, but frustrated others who had gone to their corrals and had to wait longer. But, not really something within control of the race, they were ready to start on time.
The first 2 miles
The gun went off, and about 7 minutes later I crossed the start, perfectly reasonable given my corral. But the Rocky music was playing, and the deputy mayor and Bill Rogers were high fiving runners as they crossed the start (I high fived the deputy mayor). So I was in good spirits. It is fairly narrow at the start of the course, so it was very difficult to set your own pace. Honestly until you turned down Columbus Boulevard along the Delaware river you frequently got stuck behind other runners, also the buildings threw off my GPS which would tell me I was running a 1:45/km pace one moment and 6:15/km pace the next.
Definitely the most fun part of the course, even it was a little narrow and the road was somewhat uneven. But I loved it because the crowds were awesome! I had my fastest mile along this stretch.
After you leave the crowds you hit the hills. Now let’s be clear for those who train in Vermont, you probably would call this course flat, for those who run in New Orleans, you would call miles 9-26 hilly . There were some hills along the way, but that’s true of most marathons. There was also quite a headwind on the toughest hill, but that was just our luck on race day. A few stretches of road had quite the camber which was a little tough on the legs, but the view as we ran along Schuykill river back towards the Art Museum was nice (and we had a tail wind for that )
This was the toughest stretch of the course in my opinion. Those running the half marathon peel off to the finish line and you turn around and head back into the wind along the river. There are very few crowds cheering you, and because it’s an out and back you see the faster runners headed back to the finish line. It was great to have a chance to wave to the other runners I knew in the race, but knowing that they had 3 miles to go and I still had 10 was tough mentally. There is also a very odd little out and back at Mile 17, I was rather miserable here since I had just spent 4 miles running into the wind and my IT band was not happy.
Just past mile 20 you turn around and head back towards the start. This felt good on so many levels. 1 – there is a good crowd along that half mile stretch before the turnaround point. 2 – you switch from head wind to tail wind. 3 – You are now the runner with 3 miles to go watching runners going the other way who still had 10 miles left. As tired as I was, I knew I was going to make it. 4 – I didn’t have to run that little out and back on the way back, so the distance back to the finish line from the turaround point was shorter! I’ve decided I liked that little out and back , also my IT band settled down around mile 19, so aside from some very sore quads I was doing okay.
Mile 25 – 26.2
There is a slight uphill around 25 miles, but that’s also where the crowds start to build again cheering you to the finish. When you pass the 26 mile marker it’s downhill to the finish line. You can’t see it until you are quite close, but the crowds were great and I really enjoyed the high five from the mayor because a high five capture my emotions perfectly as I cross the finish line of a marathon. I did it, it’s done, I did it, yes! I can’t imagine how long he was standing there high fiving runners, but I will tell you I deliberately went over to get my high five and loved it.
The finish chute
Blankets and medals appeared very quickly and it took me a few minutes before I started to notice the sound of jingle bells ringing. It must have been another minute or so before I realized I was jingling as well. The race medal had a liberty bell that rang. So whenever you took a step there was a gentle jingling noise. The end result was this wonderful symphony of jingling all around you at the finish line. Best race medal ever!
What could have been better?
Not all races are perfect, there are a couple of things I would love to see improved at the race aside from the security screening process I mentioned earlier.
Not all water stations were on both sides of the road and some of the water stations were very short, since they were not at consistent distances this sometimes made it difficult to get water withough breaking pace. Having some big flags at each water station would help so we can see them coming. Having water stations on both sides of the roads would help, having water stations at consistent distances would help so we know when to expect them. They did show us on th emap where water stations would be, but I didn’t memorize every water station location. I was very glad I brought my own water so I could skip some of the stations and take my gels without worrying about where I would find the next stop. I did appreciate having gatorade and water at each station and the volunteers who were shouting out where to get water vs gatorade (their voices must have been completely hoarse by the end of the day)
Snacks at the finish
When I cross a finish line, I am spent, anything I have in the tank I use up in the last mile. I need to keep walking. If I stop walking, I get very light headed and sometimes nauseous. So when I saw the line up for the post race food (bananas and bagels usually) I had to walk past. I could not physically stand in that line up. I had no trouble getting water and the snacks themselves were fine, the pretzel I managed to snag as I walked past was like mana from heaven (salt!!!!) and I appreciated Macy’s donating bags to carry the post race nibbles. But perhaps I am spoiled by the National Capital Marathon and Army Run in Ottawa where they set up a tent and have about 15 different lines you can go to to get your post race nibbles so you never stop moving even when you are grabbing your food.
The best part of the Philadelphia Marathon
The Philadelphia marathon is run by the city, not one of the big race companies. Hey I run Rock N Roll races too. But the fact it’s run by the city changes the spirit of the event. Toronto, Canada had a mayor who sees big races as a nuisance instead of an opportunity. 30,000 runners raced this weekend. We came, we ran, we also spent a fair bit of money at restaurants, hotels, stores, tourist attractions. We got to know your beautiful city, and may return as tourists with our families because we just didn’t have enough time to appreciate all the city has to offer. Not only that it’s nice to think that any profits from the race can go to help the city itself. Mr. Mayor (and Mr Deputy Mayor I know he was there at the start giving high fives) we weren’t just accepting a high five for finishing the marathon, we were also giving you a high five for being such a wonderful host!
I may be running the marathon alone, but you have a lot of time to think over 4 hours of running and endless hours training before hand. In no particular order, because you can’t rank a list like this…
Thank you K2J for all your help with the training. That’s a PB for me and a BQ!
Thank you to all my fellow runners, you know who you are, for helping me stay sane, motivated, and healthy throughout the training and on race weekend. Every call, every cheer, every word of support makes a difference.
Thank you Run Ottawa for organizing the bus trip from Ottawa. That was a fantastic way to get to and from the race and meet runners from other Ottawa race groups. Thanks Jon for the donuts on the bus too .
Thank you to my family for putting up with my constant disappearances for runs and my frequent naps after the long runs and the chores I didn’t do because I was running.