Lessons Learnt on Wiser Roads

I was bruised and battered, I couldn't tell what I felt.
I was unrecognizable to myself.
Saw my reflection in a window and didn't know my own face.
Oh brother are you gonna leave me wastin' away
On the streets of Philadelphia.

I walked the avenue, 'til my legs felt like stone,
I heard the voices of friends, vanished and gone,
At night I could hear the blood in my veins,
It was just as black and whispering as the rain,
On the streets of Philadelphia.

-Streets of Philadelphia, Bruce Springsteen

The Training

The Philadelphia Marathon is the 44th largest marathon event on the globe. In Seattle, the crowd was small - both in runners and spectators. In New York, the number of people was nearly indescribable, unless you have been to New York, in which case, just imagine that busy-ness, but concentrated into lines.

I didn’t know what to expect from the Philly marathon. I purposefully did not look up the course. I didn’t read tips about race day. Until the night we arrived, I did not know how getting to the starting line was going to unfold. Aside from what the couple had told me on the ferry over a year ago, I had no idea what the next 26.2 miles were going to bring.

However, this year I knew what I was bringing to those miles. After New York, I had to take a step back from how I was training, as well as, what and who I was running for. Were my training runs improving me? When I go out, what do I want from a run? And am I running for myself, or am I trying to prove something to someone else?

When I looked at the numbers I have logged (all 6,921 miles worth) I saw my times getting faster and my distances growing consistently longer, until they both started to plateau. At the start of my journey in running, I did not have a time or distance goal. I ran to feel strong. I ran to stay mentally healthy. I ran to escape. In my last year of college, my goal was pulling 5 miles under 40 minutes, and then trying to get that time even shorter. Before that I had run one 26.2 mile distance to prove that I could, in an almost-circle for 4 hours. By the end of 2016, I ran the Seattle marathon in 3:45:43 - not bad for a last-minute decision.

In 2017, I had all year to prepare for the New York City race. I logged long miles in the early mornings before work, under the humid cover of the rail trail when I lived in New Freedom. When I moved out, I ran killer back-road hills and main streets in Mount Joy - in loops. Looking back, the only consistent trend in those runs was the fact that I was running. I didn’t eat a consistent diet. I didn’t sleep long enough. I wasn’t keep schedules, and I love schedules, so I was stressed out too. I felt like I was running to catch up to something. I finished with a 4:01:26.

So, in 2018 - how was I training? I love morning runs, so I kept the 4:30am wake ups. I shortened the training window from 8 months to 5ish. I committed to keeping longer runs, even on blazing summer days. One of the biggest changes I made was mental. In the years since I started to get into the sport, I had amassed a bounty of apps, devices, and logs to keep track of my miles. The data you can glean from a run can be so enlightening, but it can also quickly burden your thoughts. Before, I would lose my focus during a run if my GPS watch didn’t show me a time I was proud of, or if my effort didn’t fit the distance shown on the screen. So in 2018, I opted to have at least two runs a week that had a distance goal, but no time constraint. The benefits of these runs are two-fold - you get to strengthen tired legs and you get to fall back in love with the act of simply running. I found myself rediscovering streets that I had run every morning, whether it was some sort of mural on the wall or simply a water bottle filled with birdseed. These moments of calm made it easy going back into brutal Track Tuesday workouts, where I felt refreshed and challenged.

The race

No amount of training can prepare you for the race you’ll run when Marathon day arrives. Everything from the meals you had in the past two days, to the weather, to your hotel neighbors, to the lines at the entrance affect the version of you that steps up to the line. On November 18th, Vito and I were standing in line to drop off our change of clothes when the starting gun went off. Now, large marathons like Philadelphia have corrals, so the first corral start didn’t matter, but Vito and I had different corrals. Mine corral was only two away from starting. The lines didn’t seem to move away faster as the second corral started. All around you could see panicked runners trying to see if any lines were shorter; some even abandoned their bag altogether.

By the time I had dropped of my bag, the fifth corral was about to take off. I ran through wave after wave of people trying to get to the starting line for this corral. Right as I approached the line, the race MC had handed the microphone to Meb Keflezighi for some final race wisdom. Meb is the 2014 Boston Marathon champion, and one of the first runners I grew to admire. In fact, I had just missed him at the NYC marathon a year earlier. Meb said his piece and handed the mic over to Des Linden, the 2018 Boston Marathon champion. Des mentioned that training for this was far more intense than this race would be, and that it’s time to trust the process and enjoy the day. I felt grateful to see these two athletes, who have inspired countless runs, in-person. There was no time to live in this moment, because as soon as the starting gun went off, I had a corral to catch up to.

At mile six, I had caught up to my corral, but not my pacer. I had started the race at 6:40ish miles in order to catch up. However, the dinner from the night before had different plans for our run, and I fought to keep my pacer in my sights until mile 8, where I needed relief. Back on the road, by mile 11, I was able to continue keeping good times and I found my pacer once again, only to need another stop shortly after the halfway point. Still, despite the needed bathroom breaks, I felt strong and my pace was in good shape. My thighs weren’t in nearly as much agony as they were a year ago. By mile 16, my head was still in a good place, though I knew a BQ was slipping away. The thing about mile 16 is that you are now entering a straightaway that you will be in until mile 24. That means runners are heading straight out into Manayunk and then making a U-turn and running the same scenery, for nearly 8 miles. The most difficult part of the race here is mental. You are watching faster runners head the opposite direction, knowing they are so much closer to that post-race meal than you are.

As I made my U-turn, I turned to see the wonderful group of people that came to support Vito and I, with a sign of great encouragement. And just a few strides away, the runners on the other side seemed to thin out and there was Vito, knocking out his first marathon and cruising through the dreaded loop. There is a certain magic in seeing the people you know in a large crowd, and it felt like a sign from the running gods that we were able to exchange just a few words before continuing on.

By mile 24, I knew my BQ had already passed. I was committed to finishing strong and coming in under 3:30 - a new PR. The last few miles are serene. As I heard my name called over the speaker and I entered the finisher’s tent, I felt relief and pride. Through 26.2 miles I had seen a t-rex with a sign that read, “You’ll be dino-sore tomorrow!” I ran through streets and past landmarks that were critical to our young nation. There is something humbling about running on streets that decided your history long before you had any choice in … anything. I relived memories of concerts and celebrations as I run between venues and restaurants. I spoke to ghosts of my former self. I learned the power of starting out too strong - a lesson a thought I knew before. I finally understood just how dangerous Mexican food can be to long run. I met a man from West Chester, Pennsylvania. I mastered the art of bathroom stops - sort of. I saw my best friend finish his first big race. And before any of the events of the day, I learned how to better train for the big day.

Most of all, I learned that with every mile I am still learning what it means.