Running Philadelphia

Lining up to get in to the Philly Expo, 2013 Marathon

Lining up to get in to the Philly Expo, 2013 Marathon

We had to get up awfully early.  The start of the race was scheduled to be at seven AM, and the officials were recommending runners arrive by five AM to get through security.  That would mean a lot of time standing around waiting to start, in the dark, getting cold.  After Boston, it seems all of the US based marathons, and perhaps worldwide, I don’t know, have gone to higher levels of security around the start and finish of the races.  It seems a false sense of security, but I understand the motivation.  In Philly, we were told there would be security entrances at the staging area of the race and we should expect lines.  Hence, the reason for early arrival.  We compromised, with a knowledge that this being our hometown race, we could predict how things would go.

I set my alarm for 4:00.  I wanted to get a decent breakfast before heading out.  I ate a bowl of cereal and had a cup of freshly brewed coffee.  I bought the beans the day before at Old City Coffee at the Reading Terminal Market.  It has become my tradition, to go to the marathon expo at the Philadelphia Convention Center, pick up my number, browse the expo, then head over to Reading Terminal Market across the street.  I even know the route I will take through the market.  First, a stop at Metropolitan bakery, for a pain au levain and a loaf of cherry chocolate bread, because life is better with cherry chocolate bread.  Then I head to Downtown Cheese, to pick up something tasty, usually a goat gouda or morbier.  Then, it’s on to Old City Coffee for some of their freshly roasted beans.  At Old City Coffee I had a conversation with a young woman also buying coffee.  She asked if I was running tomorrow.

“Yes,”  I said.

“The full?” she asked.

“Yes, the full,” I said, smiling.

“I’m only running the half.  I started to train for the full but got distracted, and I’m just not ready for a full.”

She looked plenty young and fit enough to run an ultra if she wanted, and I felt a bit wistful, that someone could be perfectly satisfied running the half, knowing others would be running the full, and thinking she had done the right thing.  While waiting for our coffee, we talked about the course, how the crowds gather on Chestnut street, how the weather would be, and how early we had to show up the next day.  I then said “have fun tomorrow”, and headed back to meet my friends who had come to the expo with me, and were patiently waiting, actually having lunch, while I indulged my wants.

A group from my running club met at the train station for the five AM train into Philly.  There were plenty of others on the PATCO line from South Jersey heading in for the race.  We definitely were a bigger crowd than the normal 5:00 AM Sunday train sees.  We rode to the end of the line, 16th and Locust, then started walking to the Ben Franklin Parkway. It is more than a walk. We sped along, the adrenaline pumping up the pace and the chatter. We passed two closed Starbucks, and commented, “we’re up before the baristas.” As we reached the Ben Franklin Parkway, the crowd got thicker. There were entrance gates into the staging area for the runners, but we went through without a holdup. The security guards at the gates seemed to recognize who were runners, and just waved us on through. As we wandered up the parkway we saw the UPS trucks waiting to take our clear plastic personal items bags. We decided whoever makes clear plastic bags for marathons is having a banner year this year. Along a grassy stretch there were dozens of portable toilets with almost no line yet. We all stopped to use the facilities, not because we had to, but because the lines were so short. This is never the case at these big races. We then strolled over to sit at on the steps of the Washington Monument fountain in Eakins Oval. It was still early, about 6 AM, so we had another hour before the start.


On the steps of the Washington memorial fountain, awaiting the start of the Philly marathon.  Photo by B.A.

I spoke to a young woman seated on our same steps. She was with her mother and father, who were not running today, but just making sure she was not alone in the crowd. I found out this was her second full marathon, but her father was on his way to running a marathon in all fifty states.  That, it would appear, was where the motivation came from for her to run.  He had completed about 20 states, and said Alaska was the most interesting so far.  The marathon, in Anchorage, is run during the summer solstice in the middle of the night.  He’s saving Hawai’i for last.

Another trip to the portable toilet was out of the question. The lines had grown tremendously, and the way the toilets were lined up facing each other, the lines melded into a confusing conglomeration. One didn’t know if one was coming or going.   As the start time grew nearer, we headed to the UPS trucks, dropped off our bags, and found our way to the corrals.  Unusual for this time of year, the temperature was balmy, in the mid 50’s.  I came with a throw-away long sleeve shirt, but decided to pitch it before the race started.

We lined up, and then, before you know it, we were off.  The course for Philly is a great urban course.  It starts down the Ben Franklin Parkway and past our incredibly ornate city hall.  The statue on top is known familiarly as Billy Penn, the founder of the city of brotherly love, and as now known also of sisterly affection.  Then, it’s down Arch Street, and over to the aptly named Race Street to Columbus Boulevard.  The route heads south to Washington Avenue, then in to South Philly.  South Philly has a character all its own.  In addition to the usual signs held up by fans, I spotted a permanent sign on the street which said, “The last car that parked here still hasn’t been found.”  Turning up South Street and heading west, the crowds had grown thick.  The nice weather had brought out a great number of spectators, and they were all very noisy and encouraging.  Then, its over to Chestnut Street, choked with fans to the point that the course got a little narrow in places.  The race was briefly interrupted by a taxi carrying a woman to Pennsylvania Hospital.  Over the Schuykill river, the race turns north through the Drexel University area, where celebrating frat boys are banging on pots as the runners go by.  Beyond that, the crowds thin considerably as the route heads past the Zoo.  Up and around the Belmont Plateau, and the Please Touch museum, the first offering of gels is provided.  The sponsor this year was Clif, so we got Clif Shots in all different flavors.  The last part of the first half heads down hill to West River Drive, along the Schuykill, then back to the Philadelphia Art Museum.  At this point, large signs attempt to direct the half-marathoners one way, and the marathoners the other, for the full trip out to Manayunk.

I was feeling pretty decent up to the half, but noticed my nemesis, muscle cramps, starting to threaten.  It was certainly early in the race for this to become a factor for me, and I was seriously considering  bailing at the half.  I would have finished the half in a decent but not earth shaking time.  But, my stubborn side would not allow it.  This would be my sixth consecutive Philadelphia Marathon, and I did not want to only finish a half, and break my streak.  Looking at it from a rational, objective view, who would care?  Would stopping at the half make me half a person, unworthy of honor?  Regardless of whatever logical argument I could have made, I made the illogical choice to run on.

I had arranged with my friend Tony to have a bottle of Gatorade for me at this point.  I almost missed him, looking on the wrong side of the street.  Fortunately, he was with another of our club members, the delightfully attractive Michele, who I didn’t miss, and I was able to grab my Gatorade and muster on.  Around the front of the art museum I went, heading out for the second half, the long slog out to Manayunk and back.  I was still going fairly well, with the occasional calf cramp sending one leg or the other out in a bizarre spasm.  Another club member had joined me at this point, Dave, running just to support us SJAC club members.  He’s a remarkably fast runner, and I felt guilty as I started to fall apart running with him.  I also caught up to my teammate Brian, normally much faster than me, who, it appears, was having a worse day than me.  The route goes out along Kelly Drive, past the famous boat house row, and along the Schuykill to the Falls Bridge.  This is the only part of the course I really don’t care for.  We have to go across the bridge, down a hill along the West river drive for a ways, then make a U-turn to come back up and across the bridge again, for the sole purpose of adding distance.

As we got back to the road to Manayunk, I started to have serious problems with the legs.  I was having not just cramps, but real pain, and my back, shoulders and arms were cramping up, too.  It made for an amusing sidelight.  As I grabbed a cup of water from a water stop and raised my arm to drink, my bicep and forearm muscles cramped, and I had to pull my arm down with the other hand to get it to straighten out.  By this time, I was already in Manayunk, and the only way back was to go the last six or seven miles, even if I had to walk.  Which was what I did.  Not the whole way, but a good part of it.  My terrific time tumbled, and the walking was all I could muster.  I noticed a good number of other runners who had succumbed to fatigue, or the wall, or whatever, and were walking, too.  It became a race of walkers.  I was jealous of the other runners who continued to zip by me, still able to run and even chat.  I stopped several times to stretch, and Dave, my friend from the club, who had lost me for a while, found me again and was very patient and encouraging.  Finally, as I neared the boat houses again, I had recovered sufficiently to run again.  Interestingly, the pacesetter for the 4:15 group, who had passed me a little earlier, seemed to be having his own troubles, and I passed him as I rounded the curve to the home stretch along the Parkway.  I have always said, “look good going out and coming in.”  What happens in-between, only I am privy to.  So, I looked as good as I could for the finish line.  I gave Mayor Nutter a high-five as I crossed the line with the Rocky theme playing loudly over the speakers.  The crowds were there and shouting, and the atmosphere, as always at this race, was very upbeat and positive.  I sidled along the line of recipients receiving their marathon medals, which this year were beautiful, large gold colored medals for the 20th anniversary of the race.  I didn’t need the mylar blanket, because the temperature had risen considerably and it was quite warm.  I got in line for my post-race snacks, and headed out to the UPS trucks to pick up my clear plastic clothing bag.

Another marathon done, I pondered about the way my muscles had failed me.  I was in very decent shape going in to this race, having done a 21 miler two weeks earlier in fine form.  It turned out the following day, I had, perhaps, a partial explanation.  I developed a fever, sore throat and runny nose, and felt completely washed out.  I think I was in the pro-dromal stage of a virus, and that explains the muscle soreness and cramping of everything, not just my legs.  I was a real sight the day after the race at work.  It is my standard practice to always take the stairs, no elevators for me.  As I hobbled in pain on the stairs, particularly going down, sniffling, and moving slowly, my surgical residents were probably wondering why I would do this to myself.  I don’t have a ready answer, but I do know that I am already planning next years assault on the marathon circuit.  We, my running partners and I, are thinking about Minneapolis/Saint Paul.  We hear it is a great marathon, and perhaps a little easier course than Philly.

Brandon Runs New York

Brandon, in the SJAC jacket, organizing our club's Great Grace race.

Brandon, in the center in the SJAC jacket, organizing our club’s Great Grace race.

People living on the east coast (of the US, for my non-US readers), cannot forget hurricane Sandy.  For some, it was a big storm which didn’t do much damage.  For others along the coastline and in New York and parts of New England, it was a devastating storm from which many have still not recovered,  although it has been a year.  Even if there was recovery, in this campaign season we in New Jersey are constantly reminded of how our fearless governor stood face to face with the storm and chased it away, then went out to help our citizens recover, walking arm in arm with the president.  It made for some strange politics, now replayed as political ads.  It also created mayhem for the New York City marathon, which was cancelled at the last minute.

The New York City marathon started as several loops around central park in 1970, organized by Distance Running Hall-of-famer Fred Lebow.  At the time it had a starting lineup of 125 runners, 55 of whom actually crossed the finish line.  The winner, Gary Muhrcke, finished in 2:31;38, while Mr. Lebow finished in 4:12:09.  Since then it has grown to be the largest marathon run annually, and now traverses all five boroughs.  Staten Island is included by the race starting on the Verrazano Narrows bridge, then it progresses through Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and finishes in Central Park in Manhattan.

Since its start in 1970, it has only been cancelled once, in 2012.  As Sandy hit New York, causing flooding, destruction of houses, buildings, roads and tunnels, electricity outages, and isolation of communities, the Road Runner Club of New York, and Mayor Bloomberg, pushed on, wanting to show the world that the dominant spirit of New Yorkers could overcome anything.  About 36 hours before the race, it was cancelled when the organizers and the mayor recognized the severe impact of the storm on the citizens of the boroughs through which the race would be run.  Instead of using sorely needed generators to provide emergency backup power, these generators were used to heat tents along the route for the runners’ support.  The race was cancelled, and tens of thousands of runners who had gathered in New York were turned away.  Some used their energy to volunteer, helping hurricane victims.  Others, having come from far off points around the globe, returned home, peeved that the race had not been called off before they made the trip.  The sponsors of the race eventually refunded the entry fee to several thousand runners, while others opted for a chance to run in 2013.  My friend and running partner Brandon chose a 2013 entry.

Among several things that Brandon lives for, his beautiful wife and their adopted special-needs son, his faith and his church, running is a very big part of his life.  He ran track in high school, and still relates stories of the races he ran and competitors he raced against.  He has run many marathons, among them multiple Boston Marathons.  He has a tie hanger loaded with Boston Marathon finishers medals on the wall in his living room.  It also displays medals from London and several others, including one from New York.  He ran New York in 1993 at the prime age of 26, finishing with a gun time of 3:02:28.  This was before the modern era of chip timing.

Brandon is a very hard trainer.  He regularly runs upwards of 60 miles per week, mixing long distances at marathon pace, speed work and recovery runs with core training, stretching, and foam roller rolling (for lack of a better term).  Often when I drop by on Saturday mornings for a run, he has a video on in the background of a DVD for core workouts on standby.  The intro shows a woman on a mat raising and lowering her midsection endlessly.  No wonder he enjoys doing core workouts.  Our Saturday morning runs are at marathon pace for me, but a very slow recovery run for him.  He is driven by the fact that our club has some very fast runners who are older than he, and he uses them as a stimulus to keep his game going.  He is also a terrific coach for runners like me who benefit from his years of training and racing experience.

Brandon heads to New York today.  He has plans to take the train to Penn Station, get his number and other swag at the expo, then check in at his hotel.  As he put it, he’ll spend $425 for the privilege of a few hours sleep in a fine New York City hotel, only to have to leave before sunrise to make it to the start line.  Twenty years since he last ran, he has a very good shot at breaking his previous New York City marathon time.  His friends and supporters will be watching the race on TV and on-line, wishing him a great run with the wind always at his back, not too hot or too cold, no stepping in potholes, and a fine finish in Central Park.


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