It will take you about 10 seconds to read the first paragraph of this blogpost out loud. Go ahead and check me: I timed it with a stopwatch.
That brief span of time is all it took to reach my stated goal of running the Philadelphia Marathon under three hours, clocking in 2 hours 59 minutes and 50 seconds.
There’s a pull toward round numbers that makes us runners go beyond ourselves to break 3 (or 4) hours in a marathon, and the line between elation and disappointment is as thin as it is arbitrary. I’ve been close to the 3-hour edge before, on both sides, with a 2:59:19 in New York in November 2011, following a 3:01:24 in May 2011 in the Poconos and 3:01:43 in Boston 2010. But never that close.
To run a marathon in 2:59:59 or less, you need to average no more than 6:52 a mile (or 4:16 per kilometer). My strategy in Philadelphia was attempting to repeat what I had done in my previous sub-3 marathons, starting out fast with a first half in about 1:27, leaving plenty of room for the inevitable slowdown in the second half. It was risky, especially after two years without competing in a marathon and a disappointing time at a shorter distance during my training. The weather conditions, which turned from warm and sunny on Saturday to frigid and windy on Sunday, reinforced my decision. The second part of the Philadelphia Marathon is an out-and-back along the Schuylkill River, exposed to the strong gusts predicted in the weather forecast. I knew I would lose time.
I made a speedy start in the streets of Center City, partially sheltered from the wind, and completed the first 10K in 41:06 (average pace: 6:36 a mile, or 4:06 a kilometer). A fellow female runner came by: “You look strong, what’s your goal?’’ “Under 3 hours,’’ I said, “and you?’’ “Under 3 hours,’’ she said, “2:52 or 2:53.’’ A mix of panic and cockiness engulfed me, with two simultaneous thoughts: “You’re out of your league’’ and “You’ve got this, stay with her.’’
Mile 7 was the first test, ushering in a part of the course that combined a hill, exposure to the westward winds and lack of spectators. Unlike most runners, I welcome hills: They’re grand equalizers for short-legged people like myself. I also live in an area where they are unavoidable. They are my training ground. “Remember, hills are your strength,’’ my husband-sometimes-coach reminded me in a pep talk the night before. Not on Sunday. “Miss 2:52’’ took off on the first hill, and I couldn’t follow. The next 4-5 miles were about half an hour of self-doubt and lingering side stitches, trying to fend off headwinds. I refrained from looking at my watch.
The morale came back on the descent toward the first half, which I completed in 1:27:23, right on time.
I knew the worst was yet to come. I’ve always been plagued by lack of confidence, to the point that my family and close friends ignore me when I say I’m not ready for a race — which is how I feel before every single one. But I never completely realized how much of a downer I am until now. The husband-coach’s pep talk the night before was an eye-opener: I go into a race as a defeatist and then claw my way back up from my own hole. Perhaps that’s what gives me the rage to push myself harder, but what if it does hold me back?
After mile 16, I started to give up a little more with every gust of wind. It now felt impossible to keep a sub-3 pace for the more than an hour I had left. I passed the 30K mark in 2:05:28. While my average pace from the start still looked good at 6:43 a mile, my pace had slowed to 6:53 since the halfway point.
Around mile 19, about a mile away from the out-and-back’s turning point, I heard what I perceived as a herd of female runners, casually chatting and encouraging the faster female runners on the other side of the road, who were already making their way back to the city. “GO GIRL!’’ “YOU’VE GOT THIS!’’ When the group passed me — led by three or four women and including some men — I felt like being at the station while the train sped away. My pace, while fading, was still close to a 2:55 finish at that point: how could they have so much energy? And if they did, shouldn’t they keep it to run faster, with the elite? With hindsight, I think (hope) they were fresh-legged pacers, who were running only parts of the course. If they were, how unprofessional and unfair of them to be so loud and chirpy while passing the rest of us. I was crushed by that train. Even the friendly faces at the water station at mile 20 – run staffed by my running club – couldn’t restore my spirits.
By mile 21, I’d given up on running a sub-3. My GPS watch showed a pace of 7 minute a mile every time I looked at it. I must have already erased the painful memories, because I don’t recall the physical struggle of those miles. I only remember a general sense of wanting it to be over with. I was still trying to go as fast as I could, but felt slow. The wind, which I had hoped would be on my back by now, was still gusting in my face. I was passed by several women. I couldn’t chase them. I was out of focus.
When my watch beeped 22 miles, I knew the 3-hour barrier was out of reach. My brain was foggy, but still clear enough to calculate that I couldn’t run 4.2 miles under 25 minutes. (That’s a 5:57-per-mile pace). There’s nothing wrong with running a marathon in 3:05, I told myself. Soon, though, I saw the 23-mile mark on the side of the road. I had misread my watch. I was back in the sub-3 game. I didn’t check my time again, concentrated on finishing.
After mile 26, I looked for the finish line. I couldn’t see it. When I finally spotted the clock, it showed 2:59:38. You’d think 22 seconds is plenty of time, but it isn’t when you still have to run about 50 meters. It’s just about the time it will take you to read this last paragraph.