After 22 weeks of training, an injury, countless early mornings, and Saturday long runs, Rachel made it to the start line of the 2016 Philadelphia Marathon. Read on for a detailed look into what marathon day is really like.
The week leading up to the marathon, I was a ball of nerves. The worst part, as anyone who’s ever run a distance race will tell you, is that this happens to also be the lowest mileage taper week, when rest is prioritized over all activity. Because long-distance runners often use running as their main form of stress relief, purposely not running feels like cruel and unusual punishment.
Despite feeling restless and strangely emotional, I managed to make it to Friday night fairly intact. The next morning I had a 9am flight to Philadelphia, so I packed up, obsessing over my extensive packing list, freaked out several times that I was forgetting something important, and packed an excessive amount of running outfits. Despite going to bed at a reasonable hour, I tossed and turned due to anxiety until about 1:30am.
When I got up at 6am, I felt pretty terrible. Conventional wisdom says not to worry about getting a good night’s sleep the night before a big race, because it’s really your sleep two nights before the race that will give you the energy needed. I logged only 4 ½ hours of sleep two nights before the race, so needless to say I was worried that I also wouldn’t sleep well the following night and would be exhausted for race day.
Luckily, this didn’t happen. After a very easy flight, a trip to the Race Expo to pick up my race bib, and a low-key night spent watching Netflix and eating pretzels for dinner, I easily fell asleep just after 9pm from exhaustion.
When my alarm went off at 5am, I felt wide awake and quite well-rested. In fact, I was so relieved that I had slept well that my nerves disappeared. I drank a ton of water as I got dressed and ready for the race, and then switched to coffee as I foam rolled and stretched out my legs. After more coffee and breakfast, I was out the door at 5:50am, into the pitch black morning. We walked about 5 minutes to the security checkpoint, where I’d expected to find a mob of people. Instead, there were just a few runners milling around, and I walked straight on into the race course. It turns out I didn’t need to get to the race so early!
It was a very windy day, with temperatures in the 30s that morning. Luckily, I had purchased an ugly $15 Target sweatshirt to wear over my running clothes, which helped keep me warm as I waited. Just after 6:30am, the start area began to get crowded, and the corrals were set up. I spotted my corral, flanked by gray flags for those aiming to finish in 4 hours, and sat on the sidewalk hugging my legs for warmth until just before 7am.
My new goal, since getting injured, was to try to finish the race in under 4 hours, which averages out to about a 9:09 minute/mile pace, water stops included (which I always have to walk through, because I cannot run and drink water at the same time.) My plan was to start out slow and simply try to settle into a comfortable rhythm without worrying too much about pace, and reassess later on to see if that goal was still attainable.
Soon enough, it was race time! I threw off my sweatshirt (which the race collects & donates), and took a few deep breaths. With quite a few runners in corrals ahead of mine, it took almost 15 minutes to inch to the start line, but before I knew it the people in front of me had started to run. When I set off across the start line, I was so cold that I couldn’t feel my feet, and it took a few miles for my body to truly warm up. On top of that, just a half mile into the race, the 4 hour pace group flew past me, running close to a 9 minute mile, and left me in the dust. I hoped I’d see them again at the end of the race, but I knew that was a long shot.
My main problem was that when I looked down at my pace, sometimes it was closer to 10 minutes, and sometimes closer to 8:30, yet both paces felt the same. My body kept switching between feeling energetic and hyped up on adrenaline and feeling tired, overwhelmed, and thirsty. I often find that it takes me a few miles to settle into a run though, so I tried not to freak out and instead enjoy the awesome crowd support, music, and silly signs along the route.
10K Time Check In: 58:36 at a 9:26/mile pace
Soon enough, the first hour had passed, and I was starting to feel better. At mile 7, I ate my first set of 3 dates, and just after that, the hilly section of the race arrived. The Philly Marathon is relatively flat, but there was an unexpectedly long and challenging hill around mile 9. Many runners stopped to walk about halfway up, but I wouldn’t let myself. I recovered my breathing on the downhill sections, and rejoiced that the hills were now behind me.
At this point, I had hit mile 11, and I needed a new mini-goal to set my sights on. The only way to mentally make it through a marathon is to break the run up into pieces. My fiancé had planned to stand at mile 14, so I set my sights on simply making it to there so I could see him cheering me on.
Half Marathon Time Check In: 2:02:59 at a 9:03/mile segmental pace (9:17 cumulative average pace)
Unfortunately, he was on the opposite side of the road to where I was running, so I missed him. At the same time, the wind really picked up during this stretch of the race, blowing directly into my path and slowing me down. However, the good news is that I had officially entered the second half of the race, the point at which you start to be able to actually picture crossing the finish line.
In this race course, you run up one side of the road for miles 14-20, and then turn around and run back on the other side of the road, all the way to the finish line. What that meant was that just after mile 14, at around 2 hours 10 minutes, I was able to watch the elite runners on the other side of the road race towards the finish line to compete for the top spots. If that’s not motivating, I don’t know what is.
Still, miles 14-20 of a marathon are uniquely difficult in several ways. At this point, it’s very likely that your body is starting to seriously hurt, and is already telling you to stop. Yet the finish line still feels very far away, and it can be mentally challenging to keep moving forward. For me, it was during this stretch of time that my right hamstring and hip, which had been extremely tight in the weeks leading up to the race, started to bother me a lot. I had also developed blisters on the bottom of the feet that became very irritating around mile 16. I got through this part of the race by once again breaking it up into goals, like getting to the next water station or the next mile marker where I could eat a few more dates. Combined with an awesome playlist, this helped me continue to move forward without too many “I want to stop” thoughts.
30K Time Check In: 2:53:04 at a 9:20/mile segmental pace (9:22 cumulative average pace)
Finally, I spotted the turnaround at mile 20 just ahead, and felt a surge of happiness. Mile 20 of my first marathon was the point when my energy flagged, and I struggled so much to make it to the finish line. But this time, seeing mile 20 was a huge relief. I still had a lot of energy, and while my legs and feet were hurting, they showed no signs of needing to slow down. Wth only 6 miles left, I could really start to picture crossing the finish line. I no longer needed to hold back and conserve my energy. I could give it my all and make it to the end with no regrets.
Around mile 21, I stopped for a drink at the water stop and knew it would be my last one. At this point, I didn’t know what my exact time was, as I hadn’t had a chance to note how many minutes were already on the clock when I crossed the start line. However, based on my estimate, I thought I might still have a chance of hitting a sub 4-hour time if I picked up the pace and didn’t waste time walking through the water stations. I sped up to almost 8:30 min/mile and focused all my might on not slowing down.
I watched mile 22, and then mile 23 tick by. And then, just before mile 24, I spotted the 4 hour pace group just ahead of me. I was so ecstatic that I threw my hands up in the air. I must have looked crazy, smiling my face off at mile 24, while runners all around me were gritting their teeth in pain, or stopping and limping to the side, nursing a strained calf or hamstring. I kept my eyes laser-focused on the pacer, and at mile 24.5, I passed him. I continued to speed up, until finally, I was just one stretch away from the finish line. I broke into a sprint (well, the fastest to a sprint that I could do at that point), and crossed the finish line filled with triumph.
As soon as I stopped running, my legs felt incredibly tight and heavy. I waddled through the finisher’s chute, collecting my medal, water, and some snacks, and headed to meet my fiancé at our arranged meeting spot. It was from him that I learned that I had finished in 3 hours, 59 minutes, and 40 seconds. Just 20 seconds below my goal! I likely finished almost a minute ahead of the front of the 4 hour pace group, so the pacer must have unfortunately finished slightly behind what he had aimed for. My heart breaks for all the people running in that group, thinking they would finish in just under 4 hours, only to come up a few seconds or minutes short. But I’m so grateful that I continued to speed up, even after I had passed them, or I may not have hit my goal.
Finish Line Time Check In: 3:59:40 at a 8:47/mile segmental pace (9:08 cumulative average pace)
The Philadelphia Marathon was a beautiful race course, with fantastic crowd support and great scenery. Overall, I am thrilled with my performance, and extremely grateful for the experience. Despite getting injured, taking a full month off from running, and experiencing other injury-like aches and pains throughout training, I ran strong throughout the entire race. Through sweltering summer days, weekends away, travel, illness, and sleepless nights, I stayed committed to my training and shaved almost 21 minutes off of my first marathon time.
I hope that this marathon series has inspired you. Whether that means you’re motivated to sign up for a marathon of your own, commit to running a few days a week, or embark on a new fitness journey, I hope you discover how much joy being active can bring you. You’ll be amazed at what your body is capable of when you believe in it.