by Tom Flanagan
After abandoning hopes of a sub 3-hour marathon in New York because of 90% humidity and temps in the mid-50s, I was sure the weather would be better in Philly. We woke up to a temperature of 59 degrees and 83% humidity with a torrential downpour and 25 mph winds.
Ugh, why didn’t I run NYC? It doesn’t matter what time of year it is, the weather knows when I sign up for a race. Chris, Joe, and I left our hotel at 6am. The weather hadn’t changed at all since we woke up.
Joe and I wrapped our bodies in plastic to avoid the rain from saturating our clothes and shoes before the race even began. Luckily, the rain began to let up 15 minutes before the start and the dew point was dropping. The wind hadn’t diminished at all, though.
While waiting for the race to start, I saw the media talking to organizers of the race on the side of the road. I was thinking, “… I know they’re going to come up to me, it’s only a matter of time.” Sure enough, a photographer from the Philadelphia Enquirer came up to me and told me not to pose but that he was going to take pictures of me and took my name. A few minutes later a reporter came up to me from NBC10 News and asked me a few questions about the race. It was a good distraction from worrying about the weather.
Ok, ok, onto the race itself…
I started a few rows back from the line. When the horn went off, the front row didn’t move and there were shouts from people behind me, “Go, Go!” It created a bit of a bottleneck at the start. The ground was fairly wet and I was side-stepping around some of the puddles that were lingering around. The wind was at my back for the first mile or two, so my pace was slightly ahead of what I had planned. My right ankle was starting to bother me after the first mile. I had twisted it while crossing the street the night before and became concerned. Another mile later, it started to feel better so my mind was open to worry about other things.
Based on what I had heard from other marathoners, it’s good to drink as much as possible and take many gels. So, that was my plan. At each water stop, I took small sips of water. I had two gels in my hand and another two in the pocket of my shorts.
I saw Scott cheering with signs at mile 5, which woke me up from the daze I had fallen into. When we exited Center City, the path started to narrow and the roads were rough. Because people were running right in front of me, I was a bit worried about rolling an ankle. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. I ended up missing the cheering section at mile 7 and only noticed after I had passed them. 🙁 I noticed someone taking a gel and started to think about taking one at this point, but I didn’t take one until mile 9 during training, so I waited. My mile splits were all under 6:50 pace up until this point. The first rolling hills of the race appeared around mile 8 and I felt pretty good. They only slowed me down by a few seconds.
9.75 miles done and a water station is approaching. Oh crap, I forgot to take a gel. I take water and mix the gel with water in my mouth. Swallowing it was difficult and I began coughing afterward, but recovered quickly. Mile 9 complete: 6:35 pace. We hit mile 10 and I know the biggest hill is approaching. It wasn’t as bad as the Queensborough Bridge in New York and came a bit earlier, so it didn’t kill my quads.
After the hills were out of the way, we ended up on Concourse Street. This was the first time I noticed the wind slowing me down significantly. Groups were forming and people began drafting. I wasn’t too thrilled with the group I was running with at this point. People were getting selfish with their positioning and were grabbing any drafting space they could take. After a half mile or so, I had to hold my ground and, after getting hit with a few elbows, the others finally gave me some room.
The end of mile 11 featured a cheer group wearing animal onesies with loud music playing. This pumped me up a bit and, combined with the gel kicking in at this point, mile 12 was my fastest split of the race. 6:23. Another water stop approaching. As I bring the cup to my mouth, I drop my gel that I was holding. “Shit!” There’s no going back to get it now. Nothing to worry about, that’s why I brought 4 gels and not 3. I crossed the half marathon timing mat and checked my watch. 1:28:20. This was a little fast, but I felt good.
Mile 13 and 14 along West River Drive wasn’t as fun. The sun was right on my face and was reflecting off the river and water that had settled along the road. It felt 10-15 degrees warmer here than it did in the previous mile. We hit the turnaround at mile 15. Here it is: the place where I was warned the wind would pick up. Leaves were flying in every direction. Crosswinds almost pushed me off the road a few times and headwind gusts felt like they were bringing me to a complete stop. Time for another gel. I couldn’t get half the gel in my mouth without having breathing trouble. I took water, but still held onto my gel wondering what I was going to do. Over the course of the next two miles, I took little “bites” of the gel. I knew that gel 3 would be trouble but I wasn’t sure I could make it to the finish in under 3 hours on only two gels. I decided to take Gatorade on every water stop from here on out.
The wind was taking its toll on me. My splits weren’t really dropping off from miles 15-18, but my form was struggling and I didn’t feel too good. At mile 15 my stomach began tightening up. My 20-mile MP run two weeks earlier felt much easier than this race.
I started to see some of the elites run by on the other side after the turnaround. I was a bit envious since I knew the wind was at their backs as I was still struggling to get through the headwinds.
There was a decent gap in water stations here. It felt like 2-3 miles or so between them. As we approached the mile 20 turnaround, I noticed another uphill. I figured the turnaround was at the top of the hill, but then looked at my watch and it said 18.5 miles. I wasn’t there yet.
After making it to the top of the hill, I saw another downhill. Normally I would welcome this, but I knew we would be running back up the hill after the turnaround.
The turnaround comes and goes. The wind! The wind should be at my back now. Why does it still feel like it’s in my face? Was I just being hit with crosswinds the past 5 miles? My pace was starting to slip a bit. Mile 19 and 20 were both about 7:00 even. I couldn’t let my pace drop much further.
I saw Chris and Drew running lockstep and shouted to them. I don’t remember what I said though. I needed to figure out if I had a good buffer time to slightly fade and still break 3 hours because I was starting to fade. At mile 21, I checked the distance on my watch and compared it to the mile 21 marker. 21.09, not a significant difference.
Mile 21 was 6:46 and mile 22 was 6:53 pace. I was holding steady but the mind games were getting worse. 4 miles to go. My legs were feeling numb and my hips were starting to hurt. I knew this was an early sign of bonking. How much longer could my body hold up on 2 gels and some Gatorade? How much could I fade and still cross the finish line in 2:59:59?
The worst gust of the race hit me at mile 23. A stick flew into my legs and leaves obstructed my vision. I threw up my hands in frustration. Is this the end of my sub 3 attempt? Is this another excuse for failure? No, I have to get to the finish in under 3.
Mile 23: 7:02. I’m running slightly conservative to avoid falling apart. The runners have really thinned out. Not many people are ahead of me; some are pulling off to the side of the road to stretch their legs. That’s not an option for me. Mile 24: 7:00 even. I think I have it at this point. Yes!… No! I can’t say that yet. It can easily fall apart with the way I’m feeling. The mile 25 water stop approaches. I decide not to take water or Gatorade for the first time. It’s not going to help me now.
Mile 25: 7:03. 8-minute pace to the finish, that’s all I need now but I continue to run 7-minute pace. I don’t want to mess with what my body has been used to for 25 miles.
Mile 26: 6:44. I don’t see the finish banner, but I know the line is up ahead. With the crowds cheering I pick up the pace and sprint to the finish line. I cross the line in 2:58:47. It’s over. It’s over! I did it! What do I do now? I walk past the people passing out medals in a daze and have to walk back to have someone put it around my neck. Everything is loud and silent at the same time. Holding back tears, I wait to see someone I recognize. I don’t see Chris or Drew for a few minutes and wonder if their races went well or not. I went through the security tent and collected food. I waited another few minutes and saw Chris going through the tent area. As he exits, he mentions he ran a 3:02, 8 minutes faster than his goal time! We give each other a hug and walk over to the photographers.
Thanks to all the Whippets who came out to cheer during the race. It’s great to have such a supportive team and many of those are dedicated enough to unselfishly travel to other cities to help out other teammates. In addition, the long runs in the Whippets’ training plan helped me conquer the full distance without slowing down at the end, which has always been a problem with me after mile 18 when my body runs out of energy.
I look back and wonder what I could have run had I not been conservative the last few miles or if the wind was calm. But no, the struggle and strategy that played out throughout the race, in addition to all the sicknesses, failures and injuries from previous marathon attempts that resulted in a bad finish or DNS made the result that much more meaningful. I don’t think I would have had it end any other way.