NEW YORK, November 28, 2012 —The Philadelphia Marathon is a big city race with a small town feel. With 11,617 finishers, the 2012 race on November 18 was the largest in the city’s history. Another 10,921 runners finished the half-marathon, which runs concurrently. But unlike more crowded marathons in New York and Chicago, the vibe is relaxed and unhurried. It feels like the city simply wants you to have a good time. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter is at the start and the finish, passing out high-fives to runners, setting the tone for a friendly, flat and fast course.
The Philadelphia Marathon was my fifth marathon. I set out to nab a big personal best time after a rocky and emotional training season. The race’s motto is “Best Time of Your Life.” Turns out, it’s true.
The Philadelphia Marathon course is mostly flat with a few rolling hills between miles 7 and 10. The race takes runners on a foot tour of the city’s beautiful historic buildings, narrow tree-lined streets and riverfront parks.
The course starts and finishes near the Philadelphia Museum of Art along Benjamin Franklin Parkway and tours Center City for the first six miles, passing landmarks like South Street and City Hall. Runners then cross the Schuylkill River into University City, where Drexel University students cheer loudly. The next few miles gently undulate, winding through Fairmount Park and back to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for the halfway point. At mile 13, half-marathoners break right to the finish and marathoners break left for the second half of the course—a 13 mile out-and-back along Kelly Drive and the Schuylkill River, past the famous Boathouse Row, up to Main Street Manayunk, and back to the Museum for the finish.
Hydrations stations sit roughly every two miles with a few more in the back end of the course. It felt about right for the first half, but toward the end, one or two more water stops would have been nice.
The Starting Area
The starting area was large and easily accommodated all the runners without feeling crowded. I found my baggage truck quickly to check my bag and was pleased with the plentiful number of port-a-potties. My only grumble was the pre-race water station. I never found it even though I’d seen it on the starting area map.
But I got into my corral without any fuss and waited for my start; each of the nearly ten corrals started the race about every five minutes beginning at 7 a.m. Organizers didn’t give any cut-off times for baggage check and simply asked runners to be in their corrals 15 minutes prior to the start.
I heard the theme song from “Rocky” blare over the loudspeakers and runners cheered. We were standing just a few paces from the famous “Rocky steps” in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a statue of the most famous faux-Philadelphian.
I’d initially set out to run the Philadelphia Marathon as the cap in a $10,000 fundraising effort for my cousin Laura, who was battling a rare cancer called clear-cell sarcoma. But one month and $4,200 in, Laura lost the battle. As I waited for the start, I thought of Laura and her family. All the pain of her death came flooding back to me and I started to cry. I dedicated the race to her and channeled all that pain into the marathon.
Soon my corral toed up to the starting line, buglers from Valley Forge played a short salute and we were off.
I ran with the 4:15 pace team, which was targeting an even 9:44 pace per mile. I’d been sick twice in the last three weeks of training and was dubious about my chances of hitting that time. So I had the goal of finishing in 4:30 in my head and hoped I could hit that no matter what. Our first mile clocked in at 9:11 and subsequent miles flailed all over the place from as fast as 9:05 to as slow as 10:06. It wasn’t exactly ideal, and many of the runners around me were grumbling.
But the pace leader pulled us through the halfway mark in 2:05:52 at a 9:36 average pace, on target for a 4:12 finish. I figured she was putting time in the bank for a second-half fade. So I stuck with them. Hanging with the pace team allowed me to go into autopilot for those first just-get-them-done miles.
As with every marathon, I wore my name on my shirt. Hearing “Go Karla!” goes a long way. Center City was packed with spectators, especially along the nearly two-mile stretch from miles 5 to 7 along Chestnut Street. The narrow road and thick crowds made it one of my favorite parts of the course. The loud screams of college students from mile 7 to 8 helped push us toward the half and through the few hills on the course.
I cruised through the first half of the race with ease. But I’d mentally steeled myself for the second half out-and-back along the Schuylkill River. I’d heard that there weren’t nearly as many spectators. And it was true. It was much quieter.
But as you’re heading “out,” you see the faster runners heading “back.” Looking for runners that I knew gave me something to do for a few miles. So I ran along the inside edge of the course and scanned the runners on the other side. I managed to find a good number of my NYC running teammates and cheer them on as they edged closer to the finish.
I rolled into the turn-around and mile 20 on pace for a 4:14 finish. Main Street Manayunk was packed with spectators cheering runners on. It was a welcome change from the previous five quieter miles.
But then it happened. A cramp shot through my left quad. I let out an audible yelp, veered to the side of the road and stretched the cramp out. It was the first time in five marathons I’ve ever had to stop.
I resumed running at my 9:45 pace. The break had given my lungs a little extra breather and they still felt great. But before I reached mile 21, the cramp returned and I had to stop again. I realized that my leg wasn’t going to let me keep running that 9:45. I knew my bid to break 4:15 was over.
But honestly, I wasn’t heartbroken. Not losing a goal isn’t worthy of heartbreak. Losing Laura was heartbreak. There’s nothing like death to put life in perspective.
And I was still alive in the race. I still had a half hour in the bank on my personal record, so I shifted goals and aimed to come in under 4:30.
Those last six miles were painful, but they were nothing compared to the pain of true loss. With that perspective in mind, I managed to enjoy them. I jogged slowly and stretched my leg periodically, slowing to a walk and kneading my knuckles deep into the quad muscle.
My lungs felt great with the easier pace. So I thanked people who cheered my name and got a few high-fives along the way. I chatted with a few struggling runners and offered them encouragement. The crowds were much thinner in those late miles and there were many runners in worse shape than me.
“This sounded like such a good idea,” said one runner who was hobbling along the side of the course.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “It was. Just a few more miles. You can do it! Just keep going.”
The crowds thickened once more as the finish neared and somewhere along the home stretch I spotted my husband and two other friends. They screamed my name and I stopped for a picture to commemorate my triumph over loss and over pain, both large and small.
As I crossed the finish line, I got a high five from Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. I looked at my watch: official time of 4:28:06. I managed to set a new personal record by almost 17 minutes.
As I slowed to a walk, I thought of Laura once more. She’d been with me all throughout training and the race. I started crying again, now that it was all over — this journey I’d set out on to help her. But that’s the funny thing about running for someone else. In the end, they are the ones who help you. I think I trained as hard as I did because I was channeling my heartbreak into running. Laura helped me turn the pain into something positive.
I’m sure the people who saw me crying, like the volunteer who wrapped a heat sheet around me or the one who placed the medal around my neck, saw plenty of marathoners in tears that day. It’s an emotional endeavor. So many people set out to run for so many reasons—for themselves, for their kids, for a loved one, for a cause. In its personal triumph, the race really is a metaphor for the triumph of the human spirit. Perhaps that’s why I keep coming back to the marathon time and time again.
The Philadelphia Marathon was a well-executed and enjoyable race. From picking up bibs at the expo to picking up bags at the finish, everything ran smoothly and with ease. The course was scenic, flat and fun. Spectators were loud, if not always plentiful. And within 10 minutes of crossing the finish I had a heat sheet, medal, food and my bag. It doesn’t get any better than that.
As for the “Best Time of Your Life?” Turns out, it was for me.
Karla Bruning is host of On The Run, New York Road Runner’s weekly lifestyle web show about running. She has completed five marathons, two triathlons and trains with the New York Harriers. Follow Karla’s “Notes From a Running Nerd” at RunKarlaRun.com, Facebook and Twitter@KBruning.
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