I am not sure where the past two weeks went. If you find them, let me know. I guess I’ve been spending time being social in places other than social media. And trying to figure out the rest of my life and solve all life’s problems at midnight only to decide sleep is a better idea. Yeah, that sounds about right. This doesn’t mean my goal race of the season is a distant memory, and now is as good a time as ever to share how it went….
Pre-race: thoughts & routine
As I mentioned before the race, I was feeling great about the Philly Half in mid- to late October: super motivated, super determined, and confident in my ability to make a goal that was more ambitious than any I’ve ever set before. Then, sometime around Halloween/NYC, probably, I started to feel worn down, mentally and physically. I no longer felt that invincible feeling that I could negative split races, workouts, and long runs forever and ever. I didn’t really have a desire to make sure my runs were completed significantly under eight minute pace anymore. The truth was, I was still training, and I was just listening to my body more than my mind. I don’t think this ended up being a bad thing, nor was it bad weeks of training. It was all mental. So, going into the race, I tried to get back the mentality I had before and during the Perfect 10: have fun, don’t think too much, just run. Cruise. 6:50 pace is now easy; just do it, it will be fine.
Race morning was a balmy 52 degrees and humid. I ended up managing the easiest transportation plan humanly possible: I stayed at my parents’ across the river the night before, and my dad dropped me off at the downtown Sheraton just before 6 AM, where I met up with a few people to walk to the start. The drive was about fifteen minutes, max. Sweet deal (10 minute light rail ride back to NJ too, that’s what’s up). I even ditched my gloves by throwing them back at him through the open car window at the last minute. The lobby was full of runners, and I started getting excited. My legs felt ready (at least more than they did earlier in the week when I was wondering why I did so many squats…). I used the lobby bathroom, expecting to also use a porta potty later. Instead, what happened was what every runner dreams about but it never happens: I didn’t need to use a porta potty at all. Seriously – it was a runner’s miracle. AM I RIGHT?!
In most race recaps, I break down the experience mile by mile, or groups of miles. For some reason, I didn’t think of this race in terms of miles at all, even while I was running. The times shown on my watch each time it beeped seemed totally irrelevant. I only glanced at the average lap pace and took it one street at a time. So, I’m going to break things down the way I did in my mind during the race: section by section of the course.
Here’s the course:
Part 1: Eakins Oval to Columbus Boulevard
I was 100% calm at the gun. I feel less nervous with every race I have done this year. I thought that when the air horn (I believe it wasn’t actually a gun) sounded, they would wait for the elites and seeded runners to take off and then we would be allowed to go, but we just went right with them, only seconds after 7:00:00 AM. With over 30,000 runners in the marathon and half marathon combined, this was by far the most densely populated race I have ever run. The problem with my “let’s try to feel like I did in the Perfect 10” plan was that this was the opposite atmosphere of that race: I didn’t know who I was running next to, or in front of, or behind. I didn’t know the course step by step. I didn’t know each and every turn, and therefore, tangent. So, the start was…weird. I started off at 6:36-6:45 and made myself reel it back; the plan was to negative-split and I would not let anything or anyone change that plan. I went through a period of mental confusion when I felt like tons of people were barreling on past me and I felt like I was hardly working. In short: there was a lot of conscious slowing down, speeding up, and looking around on my part, all the way to the river. My mile splits, the first of which I didn’t even look down and see, were 7:00 for mile 1 and 6:41 for mile 2. Big difference on paper, right? They felt exactly the same. This may have been about the time I shifted my focus entirely to maintaining a constant, appropriate effort, and sectioning off the course by the roads, not the mile markers. The third mile was straight and boring, along the river. My 5k split was probably around 21:30 but I’m not positive. Mile 3 was 6:57. One thing I was dealing with I tried to push out of my mind was my shins were really tight. This used to happen to me all the time – basically, my anterior tibialis swells and I feel like my feet are just slapping on the ground. It’s hard to get good turnover when it happens, and I often slow down (on a normal run) until they loosen up. Because I knew they would loosen up, I wasn’t too concerned; I just felt like I was tiring them out though…like the wrong muscles were firing and there was nothing I could do but wait. So, that was really annoying, especially since this hadn’t happened in months. The muscles didn’t end up loosening up until about 5.5 miles. Mental or not, this made me glad I chose to wear my compression socks.
Part 2: Front to South to Sixth
We looped underneath 95 and ran on a few short stretches of roads, with a couple sharp turns. Heading up Front St., I saw Jack come out of nowhere and run by me. I yelled his name and waved. He asked how I was feeling (to which I said “eh, alright”), said something incomprehensible, and ran away. Turns out he started in the Black Corral thinking it was Maroon….Miles 4 and 5 were 6:50 and 6:57. Again, all of these splits felt pretty much unvaried.
Part 3: THE BEST PART – Chestnut Street
Just after mile 5 ended we turned left onto Chestnut (I actually didn’t know the street names at the time…), and a few things happened: 1.) The road narrowed, 2.) The crowds grew, 3.) I started feeling great. I sucked in all the energy and enthusiasm coming from the spectators who were now lining the curb with their signs and their coffees and their tired, morning-eyes. I read each and every sign and listened to distinctly every call. When people played music I hooked on to every beat. I got into the groove and started to enjoy myself and get excited for the miles to come. Even though the race didn’t start with me feeling 100%, I felt in control and ready to execute some plans in the later miles. I still felt patient and…controlled really is the right word here, pardon my repetition. Miles 6 and 7 were both 6:49. My official 10k split was 43:08.
Part 4: First Schuylkill cross and Drexel
The long stretch that was Chestnut St. eventually had to end. But first, we crossed over the river and were greeted with the first slight hill near 30th Street Station (may have just been the bridge, actually…). I was lucky enough to receive cheers from some South Jersey runners I know at that point, which really helped! It was an eyes-on-the-prize, up-and-over “hill,” nothing too significant. We made a right on 34th soon after, which put us right in the heart of Drexel University’s fraternities. Music was blasting, much louder than I would assume is acceptable at any party, and the air legitimately smelled like beer. I’m pretty sure they were handing out some cups to runners, but the runners in this pace group were not likely to take any….I high-fived some frat guys and continued on. There was another overpass with another hill, this time more substantial, and then a tree-lined street which I am just learning (thanks Garmin/Google/course map with a key) was next to the Zoo. I remember glancing at my watch, at a woman ahead of me, and at a guy who definitely went off-course to relieve himself.
I thought that it was getting pretty far into the race and I should consider starting my far-out kick soon. My “plan,” or whatever, was to drop it to the low 6:40s, then the mid-6:30s, then see what else I could do if there was still time. I still felt good and thought that just before, or right at, mile 9 I should ease into this process: that would give me 4.1 miles, and I did this around mile 6 at the Perfect 10 and that was (besides the wind), well, perfect. (Mile 8 was 6:53, which I was okay with, especially considering the first real hill of the course.)
Part 5: the Fairmount hill & the cheer squad turnaround
If you want to throw a wrench into a negative-splitting plan that calls for a kick starting at mile 9, put a big, steep hill at mile 9. Like, exactly mile 9. This was not so cool. I tried to think about all the long runs I did in Princeton and Skillman with bigger hills than this one, but the reason in me came out when I thought, I let myself run 8+ minutes for those miles…this is a race, not a long run…not applicable. Thank you, reason. Really needed that now. Anyway, I made it up and over the hill and tried to coast afterwards. It was at this point that I realized I was working harder – breathing harder, feeling it in my legs more – just from the accumulation of miles as a precedent to that hill. But that was okay. It was time to do hard work. I ended up passing a lot of people on the straight stretch immediately following the hill. I also managed to run 6:47 for that mile (9), meaning my kick was in effect effort-wise, so hopefully that would transfer over to the flatter miles to come and they would actually be faster. I will reiterate that this race did not feel like a mile-by-mile race; mile 10 was 6:57, and I think the entire 8-11 stretch should be looked at and averaged out, if you were to really understand the pace pattern in effect. Again, I was more focused on the effort and the strategy. There was a musical, costumed bunch awaiting us at a really sharp turnaround – seriously, way too sharp Philly…one traffic cone?!
To get back to Eakins Oval, the course basically just took us on the road along the river. I dropped a 6:39 mile for mile 11, which got me thinking I was on the right track now – if I could keep this up, and I felt like I could at the time – I would have a strong finish and get really close to 90 minutes. I didn’t do much math in my head at all during this race, but I knew whether or not I broke 1:30:00 would come to down to a matter of seconds. I knew every second from here on counted, but I tried to just keep running by feel, since I didn’t want to let that stress me out. Mile 12 was 6:44. I was hoping it would be faster. I was starting to feel fatigued, more than I would have liked to at that point. My legs just felt generally low on energy. Mile 13 felt uphill…it did have a net elevation gain, but not by much. I wasn’t entirely sure how soon the finish would come up, since I doubted I ran tangents all that well. All I knew was, I would regret not running as hard as I could with so little left to go (I said this at 12-12.5). And, I wanted the finish to come up as quickly as possible. I mustered a 6:56 for the 13th mile, wishing I could remove myself from the moment, reinsert, and change it to a 6:36 (the plan…). I rounded a bend and saw the clock ahead for the first time: it read 1:30:09. There was a twinge of disappointment when I saw that; however, I actually didn’t think it would still say 1:30:0x by the time I was right there. I pushed as hard as I could and finished in 1:30:18 for 13.21 miles according to the watch, finishing at 6:05 pace for the last 0.21.
I didn’t feel too bad immediately after finishing, which surprised me given how I felt during the last mile. One “takeaway” from those last long minutes: that was the first time in recent races I didn’t feel like an invincible treadmill, like I could drop the pace down to whatever I wanted. On one hand, I could take that to mean I wasn’t rested enough, or I could have broken 90 had I had even a “normal” day; I had an off day and that was unfortunate. On the other hand, and this is how I looked at it almost right away, this was a race. It was a race with hills positioned right at a place I would be most challenged; I responded as best I could and I gave it all I had. One more mile and that mile would have probably been slower. That’s the first time I can say that, and I’m going to take it to mean that “off day” or not, I gave it all and truly attempted to defy any pseudo-limitations that may have prevented me from reaching that state of fatigue other times.
My big goal of breaking 90 sounded pretty crazy five months ago. Even crazier eight months ago, after I curiously felt completely satisfied with my 1:33:33. Not something I could do yet. Not something I was sure I even wanted to ever set as my goal for the half marathon. When I checked my email confirmation before packet pickup, I saw I had written my estimated finish time as “1:32.” In my injured state, on June 30, that was the degree of confidence I had in my ability to race another half. Maybe sub-90 wasn’t really a crazy goal to have. Coming off of the summer I had, however, it certainly wasn’t to be expected, on paper. If I hadn’t made it a goal, crazy or not, I wouldn’t have come to close to it. So, for the first time this year I didn’t reach my “A goal” for a race, time-wise. That is perfectly fine.
If 90 minutes is crazy, I’m really happy to have come within 19 seconds of crazy.
I’m making it a goal to get all caught up on my recent running musings and adventures this week! I’m just here tonight to dump out all these thoughts and photos about Philly (see, told you I still remember how the race went…), because it was about time. I’ll sign off with this: I can now say I have only run half marathons on Sunday the 17th of the month. 🙂