Monday, November 24, 2014

An Epic Race Report: The Story of a Great Way to Leave REALLY Intense Marathon Training

Let me warn you that this is about 5000 words.  

Let me begin with the start of the weekend.

The training plan had me doing one last 3 mile run on Saturday, November 22.  It was a rather cold morning, so I had on an Under Armour shirt  and a windbreaker, gloves, a hat, and running tights.  The run felt effortless other than dealing with the cold. 

Then, I showered and had a quick breakfast (I don’t recall what I had) and took my 15 year old to the zoo for his volunteer work that he does every Saturday.  Came home from that and washed some dishes.  Saw my wife and nine year old off to look at used ski wear.  Packed my bags and went to the Waldorf School for the annual fair where I worked in the children’s shopping room and then drove to my Godmother’s house in Upper Darby.  At two Clif Bars along the way for lunch.  My Godmother lives less than a half mile from the house I lived in longest with my parents.  After a brief greeting (it was just a little past two), she drove me down to the Pennsylvania Convention Center to pick up my race pack.  The drive was horrendous as we got east of 20th street and headed for the convention center. 

I eventually got out about a block ahead of the convention center on 11th (coming from the south) and went in.  I picked up my bib number and my bag, and got some additional cold running gear and a “go belt” that would hold me four gels the next morning.

I knew a number of people who would be at the race the next day but didn’t see anyone I knew at the expo.  That was okay.  I only knew a handful of people and I had not made prior arrangements to see anyone.  I went back outside and waited for my Godmother to come around the block.  Then she took me to Tony Luke’s to grab dinner.  This is a really well known sandwich shop in South Philly.  Some of the characteristics reminded me of the soup Nazi episode on Seinfeld.  At that time of day it wasn’t overly crowded.  So the line was a bit informal.  The cashier asked everyone “What can I do for you, baby?”  Or she used some other term of endearment every time she spoke to a customer.  Then, the sandwiches would get made and a second person would call out names.  She seemed to have only one volume—loud.  I suppose in the summer with the plastic tent that surrounded the place open it would make sense to be loud.  Or if someone were around the corner from the window getting pickles.  My Godmother had ordered two pork and provolone sandwiches with spinach.  She doesn’t like broccoli rabe and I decided not to question the choice although several people pointed out how unusual the choice of spinach seemed. 

We drove back to her house and ate.  The person who had developed my training plan had told me to eat no less than 12 hours before the race.  We were done well before 7 PM.  It was not exactly carb loading, but it was a wonderful and filling sandwich.  This pork sandwich (and the pork was nicely spiced with pepper) was as big as a full sized hoagie.  Then we watched two recorded episode s of Hawaii Five-O and then I went to sleep after taking a picture of “flat runner” with what I would wear the next day laid out on the bed. 

Asleep by 9:30 on Saturday night. Plan to be at the race start by 5:30 the next morning. 

I woke up at 1:50.  Then I woke up again before 3.  Then, finally, I got out of bed at 3:15.  Goal was to eat a little something 4 hours before the race.  I didn’t quite manage that but I had two pieces of toast with margarine at that early hour.  All good.

I then wanted to take a quick “wake me up” shower.  I don’t always do that before a race but it just felt like the thing to do.  My Godmother lives in a house with narrow steps to the upstairs room that have somewhat worn carpet at the edges.  I slipped coming down the steps to take my shower. Where I hit my hip on the step when I fell still hurts more than anything else.  Did it affect me in the race?  I’ll never know.  I did feel it.  But I didn’t let it distract me.

Shower done before 4.  Then hanging until 4:45.  Tried to get everything other than what I had just consumed that was still anywhere in my digestive tract or intestine out. 

Drive downtown.  Incredibly quick.  Drank a half liter of water on the way.  (Check on hydration.)  Dropped off at 22nd and Arch well before 5:30.  No real line at the security check point.  I opened my bad for the security person to look in.  He didn’t even really look but waved me through.

I walked toward Eakins oval.  It was still not 5:30 yet.  I knew where I’d drop off my bag.  I knew where the porta-potties were.  And I tried to relax.  It was cold and the wind started picking up.  Without the wind it was not so bad.  I ran through what I wanted to wear.  Go Belt packed with 4 gels.  Decided not to carry phone.  Didn’t have keys with me anyway.  Decided I could lose the sweatshirt I’d brought. Decided not to lose the sweatpants.  Decided to go with arm warmers, gloves, and hat as planned the night before in my flat runner picture.  All go.

A couple trips to the porta-potty before much line.   (My system was always needed to be cleaned out like that—even as far back as high school track meets.)  Then one last trip at about 6:20.  A little earlier than planned.  But after that the line was incredibly long.  Couldn’t plan to go again.  Would have to take my chances.  Checked my bag at the FARM to FUHR UPS truck.  And headed for the maroon corral. 

When I got to the black corral, I managed to make my way to the front and didn’t see where the break was.  I asked a volunteer (preceding my question with “This is probably a stupid question, but…) and was directed to the right.  I realized it was the first corral but it was incredible to be so close to the start of a 30,000 person race.  My bib number was 607, so I had earned it.

I met up with Saturday Steve from Baltimore.  It was great to see someone I knew.  We exchanged greetings.  It was now 6:45.  Time to consume two gels.  Then I listened to a variety of people from the race.  The MC.  The race director.  The governor elect.  The mayor.  (He was really energetic.)  Then an excellent tenor singing the national anthem.  Next, the wheel racers got a start just before 7 with Rocky  music blaring.

After the wheel racers headed out, it was time for the runners to get ready.  A couple of elite runners started a bit before intended and were called back.  We all waited patiently.  Then, the Rocky trumpets again.  The race began.

I had spent the time in the corral as the race start approached looking for one of my training partners.  I have known Jackie since 2011.  She is the Executive Director of Back on My Feet in Baltimore.  She has held a number of positions within the local branch of the national organization in the time I have known her.  I have known her as my part-time MPH program advisee.  I attended her wedding.  I have seen her develop professionally.  She is an endless source of energy and optimism.  And I had trained with her at least once a week for much of the summer and fall.  She had told me that her main goal was to help to make sure I achieved my goal.  Two years ago she had run an incredible race in Philadelphia.  She did not plan to set a personal best yesterday as that was not her goal for this year.  But I did not see her.  I’d received a text from her earlier offering good luck and saying that she hoped to see me.  But I didn’t see her yet.

Despite not being that far back, it seemed to take forever before the people directly in front of me moved and I could begin jogging and head into a run.  The official timer had me 42 seconds behind the actual race start.  That was a long 42 seconds.  Those of you who read The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy know that 42 was the answer to life the universe and everything.  It really was yesterday. 

We headed from the area near the Art Museum toward the Delaware.  First mile felt easy enough once I got my pace and I understood that at one point runners could choose which side of a traffic circle to go around.  Time—7:14 down the Ben Franklin Parkway.  My coach had told me to think about trying to run 7:09’s for the first seven miles.  I didn’t let a few seconds in the first mile phase me at all. 

Second mile actually takes you close to the water.  Again, felt effortless which is what the person who had planned my training had told me to look for.  First fun sign—“WORST PARADE EVER”.  Ran a 7:04.  Perfect for a 7:09 average at the two mile point.

The fact that my last bathroom stop before the race was “early” finally caught up to me.  Yes, it was only a little over two miles in, but I was feeling like I was going to have to go at some point so I might as well stop.  There were porta-potties but there were all in use.  So, I did what several other guys were doing and just peed against the wall.  Not pretty—but effective.  And not so different than what happens in Boston. 

That cost about 30-40 seconds, but I ran the rest of mile 3 going down Columbus Boulevard strong and came through with a 7:17.  Didn’t phase me as I felt great.

Mile 4 continued along Columbus, just a block from the riverfront, past some places I’d been for conferences then turned back into the city.  One person said, “mile 4 is just around the corner”.  That was a bogus comment, although I didn’t let the fact that mile 4 was not, in fact, just around the corner phase me.  Time—7:03.  Still feeling effortless. 

Mile 5—I don’t remember much specifically and I ran a 7:07. 

Mile 6—7:11.  That was probably the first time I noticed this one woman I played leap frog with for much of the race.  She ended up coming in a couple of minutes ahead. 

Mile 7—the last of what had been planned as care free miles at the start.  Ran it in 7:00.  I knew that I was playing a dangerous game with speeds that fast.  But it just felt so easy.  20 weeks of training was paying off.  I just had to avoid pushing too hard. 

When mile 7 ends, the course for the first time takes a definite and long upward turn as runners go through University City and head north.  There is a climb of about 100 feet that proceeds pretty gradually but is the entire mile.  I believe it was during mile 8 that I saw Marcus for the first time.  I used to train with Marcus but he is injured right now.  His wife was running.  I was glad to have a friendly face I knew cheering me on as we ran up toward the zoo.  Mile 8 with its climb—7:05.  Surprised myself on that one.   

The start of mile 9.  Time to figure out how to take my first gel on the course.  I peeled off my gloves and pulled whichever of the two gels I reached out of the holder in the Go Belt.  It took me at least half of mile 9 to get the gloves off, get it out, rip the top off, and consume it.  Mile 9 is mostly down with an up at the end.  Cruising at 6:58 based on my Garmin.  Really took advantage of the downhill.  The person who developed my plan had told me to take advantage.  She had spent a lot of time listening to my trials and tribulations of trying to get better results out of marathons and noting how hard it was for me to close.  She didn’t want me to have to crush the end to meet my goal.

On to mile 10 with the gloves back on.  This was another mostly up around the south side of Fairmount Park.  Not much to say other than that I pushed and got 7:13.  Not bad at all.

Mile 11 is largely flat and takes you to the south side of the Schuylkill River. Recovered and ran 6:55.  Strictly too fast but was still feeing awesome.

Miles 12 and 13 are a run mostly along the river and flat although mile 13 does start up toward the Art Museum as the half marathon runners are turning to finish.  I ran each of those in  7:09.  Thought I was hitting my stride.  I noted the half marathon marker on the marathon course as I ran over it for a time.  Knew that I had a really good time.  The official results from today say 1:33:51.  I’ve only had three half marathon races that I race faster than that.  And the one time I ran with Jackie just for kicks to prove I could hold 7:00 for the entire distance. 

So, on into the second half.  The remainder of mile 14 and all through mile 17 was pretty flat.  A slight rolling hill.  Looking at the markers for the miles on the way back.  Wondering when I would see the lead runner coming the other way.  Did see a wheel racer who was cruising the downhill and encouraged all the runners as he went by.  So different from earlier in the race when I’d passed wheel racers going up hills and tried to encourage them.  Those miles went by like clockwork.  14—6:59.  15—7:05.  16—7:05.  17—7:10.

At this point, I had been taking either Gatorade or water with Gatorade more frequently at ever station.  Now, my stomach was starting to slosh.  And I knew there was an odd loop coming and some more hills.  Just trying to focus.

Start of mile 18.  Time for the last gel.  This time, my stomach was continuing to slosh and it was hard to get the gel down.  The one with caffeine had been consumed back at mile 9.  This one had B complex vitamins and electrolytes.  Hoping for the best.  Mile 18 does this odd thing where you cross the Schuylkill, do a loop around a turn around point, and then go back.  What I didn’t realize before hand was that the loop away from the point where I crossed the river was down and then I had to climb back up.  I had been passing people more than being passed from about mile 6 to where I was.  Now, people were starting to pass me.  As I was going back up the hill back toward the river, I heard Jackie yell at my from the downside of the hill.  Excellent!  Maybe she would catch me and we could run the rest of this race together.  I’d wait and see.  Finished mile 18 on the north side of the river—7:22.  Starting to be concerned.

Mile 19 was a continuing run a bit up into Manayunk.  My officla time at 30K suggests that overall I was keeping a 7:09 pace.  Clearly I had bought myself some time early.  The key question now was whether I had tried to bank too much and would just fade as I had done in my previous marathons.  I wasn’t able to regain any speed at this point.  Only lost a little bit as I ran a 7:24.  Wondering where the final turn around was.

So, I turned at the last place where there was a turnaround pole.  I think there were a total of three on the course.  The hill in Manayunk is noticeable but not really that bad.  I heard Jackie call to me again as I was in the earliest art of running back toward downtown.  She was a little closer.  Maybe she would catch me soon.  Mile 20 was completed as I was running back toward the main part of the city—7:34.

 So, now heading a little more down than up along Main Street.  Mile 21 I did get a little back and ran 7:25.  Maybe, just maybe I could still do this.  The woman with whom I’d played leap from most of the day passed me for the last time.  I know her only as Megan.  She was a solid (and more consistent) runner. 

As I completed that mile and headed into mile 22 things began to get a little surreal.  I remembered the Lower Potomac River Marathon when I qualified for Boston.  I had reached a point at which all I focused on was getting under 3:15 (what I needed to qualify for Boston).  While that day I was not running against my friend Rob, I had beaten him in several 20 mile or longer races.  And I thought it would be cool to have a faster Boston Qualifying time than he did.  That didn’t happen that day as I faded but hung on for dear life and it was the only time that the mileage after 26 was run at a sub-7 pace in my 5 previous marathons.  I began to wonder if just getting a personal best would be okay.  If I could just make it.  How much could I slow down and still be okay.

All that was going through my head as I ran mile 22—out of Manayunk and continuing back toward to much sought after finish line.  I was losing it.  I ran a 7:36.

At this point it was a matter of trying to figure out if I had anything left.  I’d passed two people I spent some time this summer training with.  My “surrogate running daughter” for the Father’s Day race and our mutual friend Travis.  They encouraged me and later posted that I looked strong.  I suppose a 7:36 that far into the race might look strong but I wasn’t feeling it there.

Then, I heard that familiar voice—“How are you feeling, Kevin?”  It was Jackie. She had caught up to me.  And she was asking one of the most common questions runners ask each other.  I told her I wasn’t sure what I had left.  I told her I’d felt great early but was paying for it now.  I believe she said something to the effect of, “You’ve got this.  You’ve worked too hard not to get this.”  That was all she needed to say.  But to me it was a reminder.  A reminder that I’d trained harder than ever for 20 weeks.  I’d gotten up at crazy early hours and run the 20 mile race on Labor Day weekend, plus another 20 and another 20 and a 22 and a 24.  She’d run several of those with me.  She’d done track workouts with me.  She’d done progressions and tempos with me.  And not only was it my work at stake it was hers. And it was Shannon’s too.  Shannon had helped me plan for this.  And it was Lauren’s—who had run with me.  And Travis.  And Melissa.  And my friend Joselyn with whom I’d been running since the summer of 2011.  And my family and all that they had to deal with in terms of my running.  Jackie said, “This is what you’ve worked for!”  And we went.

I don’t know where it came from.  But I stabilized what had otherwise been a slide for most of the past five miles and ran a 7:33 for mile 23.  My friend Marcus was there again (he’d ridden his bike).  He gave a big cheer. 

We reached a guy running shirtless with  “VEGAN POWER” written in black on his back.  He asked what was keeping us going and if he could borrow some.  Jackie said sure.  But he didn’t stay with us for long.

Somehow for miles 24 and 25 I ran 7:15 and 7:17.  I don’t know where the energy came from to bring my pace back down more than 15 seconds per mile.  I do know that it is always easier for me to run with someone.  Particularly someone whom I know can run faster than I can.  Particularly someone with whom it is just a joy to run.  Every once in a while Jackie would pull just a little ahead.  Then, I’d come up even with her.  Then she’d pull ahead again.  Never so far as to lose me.  Always making sure that I got pulled along.

Not physically pulled along. That brought back a memory of my first 5K run at a practice in high school at which one of the upper classmen did essentially pull me along physically.  This was all mental. 

As we entered mile 26, I asked her “You don’t mind if I collapse on you when we finish, do you?”  She said, “No, that’s why I’m here.”  We continued on.

Another Penn State sign.  More Back on My Feet cheers.  We passed a couple of local guy who runs with Falls Road.  (Can’t say this was all in the last mile but it was definitely as we approached the end.)  More cheers.  We pushed. I felt just a little off.

Having a Garmin 10 I don’t have all of total time and pace and distance on my watch at the same time.  I kept switching back and forth to reassure myself that there was a chance.  My watch beeped for 26 before the sign.  I’d slipped back to 7:24.

But that was not because of how I was running when we got to the 26 sign.  As soon as I’d seen the sign for 26, whatever I had left got turned on.  My watch had us running 26.36 total.  According to my watch, I ran the 0.36 miles between when it says I ran 26 and the finish line in 2:21.  That is a 6:27 mile pace.  I could see the finish line.  I could tell that we had a sub-3:10 as a possibility.  The finish line was wide open.  There were no chutes.  There was no one to take the bib or any part of it.  No timing chips to rip off.  Just a clear finish line.  I could see the time.   I knew that I was going to get under 3:10 if I just pushed because of what I thought was a 38 second difference between my watch and the race clock. 

For once, I raised my arms above my head in joy as I passed the finish line.  We had done it.  3:09:49.  (Although at the time I thought it was 52.  I’d started my watch at the first place rather than the second where we passed a timing device at the starting line.) 

I didn’t collapse.

I did need help.

Jackie guided me through.  A heat sheet.  (Mylar.)  The medal.  A bottle of water.  A banana.  A Macy’s bag with an OJ and a bad of chips.  A soft pretzel.  And then we got to the broth.

Jackie described what it had done for her after a previous race. Warmth was good.  Salt was golden. 

We ran into Saturday Steve.  He’d had a good race.  We ran into our friend Curt.  He had been aiming for 2:50.  He didn’t get it but he ratcheted back to a 2:54.  He took a picture for us after I claimed my bag with my iPhone in it.

Jackie went back out on the course to find Patrick.  He ran a pretty good race. 

I finally sat on the curb to put warmer clothes on.  Messaged my Godmother.  Walked to 22nad and Chestnut and waited in the sun.

A few other interesting facts.  First, two other fun signs: I thought you said “RUM” and The Pain is Temporary but Internet Race Results are Forever. 

At one point I saw people with a Penn State banner and shouted “We Are”.  The answered with the obligatory “Penn State.”  They had a fair number of members of their club cross country teams there. 

Got a lot of shout outs for my Back on My Feet shirt.  Even saw what looked like a whole cheering section from the Philadelphia group. 

Afterwards, I received many congratulatory comments.  But I really owe this one—as I mentioned—to my immediate family, Jackie, Shannon, my Godmother, Lauren, Travis, Melissa, and Joselyn.  On Joselyn’s FB page, my time came up and she posted “My running partner…Way to go.”

I even would mention my boss.  We talk about how sometimes we try, fail, and fix.  That is what I did after NCR Marathon 2011.  Even after I qualified for Boston in 2012, I tried to fix my fading at the end. Didn’t work at Boston.  This time, I fixed it.  And it worked. And it was amazing.  

Yesterday, I had numerous people who believed I had done everything I needed to in order to achieve the goal. 

Everyone other than me.

Now I believe.

But I mustn’t let it go to my head.  Instead, it is just a sign that I must always work this hard, stay focused, and not settle to achieve goals in life.   

And, despite all the planning I'd done--listening to inspirational Rocky music; thinking about St Sebastian; thinking about how at mile 20 I would reach 2000 miles and the church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico--I just needed one thing to get me through.  A friend by my side.

I am glad to have reached 2000 miles.  My Truth or Consequence was Truth.  I could reach me goal.  I had reached my goal.  And I will go on reaching goals.  

And seems like the Beatles once had something to say about "Getting by with a little help from my friends." 


  1. Reading the last couple sentences of this recap made me smile. Well, to be fair, there were other parts that I found quite funny, but the part about needing a friend by your side really resonates with me. You see, two weeks ago, I ran the last ten miles of Richmond with my daughter (after racing the 8k that morning) and only because she needed help. It was a freezing cold day and she had turned into an icicle after crossing a bridge at mile 16. I picked her up there, found a discarded sweatshirt and even stopped at a gas station to buy water to get her to the finish line. I always love having someone race with me and your recap just proves that friends really do help us push to that finish. By the way, my daughter ended up with a 13 minute PR!

  2. Such a cool story. I bet a lot of people have similar stories to share about running or other fitness pursuits.

  3. Fantastic job Kevin! My favorite is finding that extra energy to kill it at the end to make your goal. Amazing! <3

  4. Thanks. I actually look at it differently. I look at it as a gift that I had a friend who was there. Also, I found out this morning that my two friends standing right near the mile 22 marker (who also know Jackie) told her to go find me. She told them she'd been keeping an eye on me. Call it God. Call it Karma. Call it whatever you want. But this was not an individual effort. It took a village. And I benefitted immensely.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing! I loved reading all the details, so exciting! :D

  6. Thanks, Jessica. I am humbled by the positive reaction this has received. It has meant as much to share it as to run it.

  7. What a great race report. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to be part of your sub-3:10 journey! I will miss your morning emails reporting about your trainings and I hope to run into you somewhere someday soon :) Great Job Kevin!

  8. Shannon--I am honored to have had you as part of my journey. Your coaching has produced some pretty incredible experiences for people. Now, I have to see what my next adventure in life brings--besides more (and somewhat more casual) running. Run strong!

  9. Thank you for sharing this with me Kevin! I enjoyed reading about your experience. You are a great runner...and a great writer. Keep up the good work!! I feel inspired to go run now :)

  10. Thanks, Cara. Love to run. Love to write. Love to share!