Where do I even begin? I was incredibly excited from the moment I signed up for the Philadelphia Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon to head on over to The City of Brotherly Love for some serious running. Not only would this event mark my fourth half marathon since last August and my first true fall race, but I’d be running it with my cousin — turning a 13.1-mile journey into a quick weekend getaway filled with sweat, food, laughs and determination. What more could a girl want?
My training began strong, with an impromptu 11-mile run that built up my confidence levels like woah. If I could crush 11 miles after just a week, I knew that I had the platform for a strong race, even if it was still a solid 2 months away.
That’s when my body began to fail me.
Without hashing out the details that I’ve beaten to death over the last couple of months, let’s just say that getting to the starting line has been quite the journey in itself.
Just a few weeks ago, as I began training again after taking 10 full days off from running altogether, I became fearful — and of so many things at that. For one, I was scared that I’d have to back out of the race; I imagined waking up on September 16th, knowing that the race was just about to begin while sulking from my New York City apartment. And then there were the what ifs. What if I race and injure myself mid-event? What if I finish, but can never run again afterward?
The list goes on and on.
With prudence and patience, September 15th, the day before the big showdown, finally came. On Saturday afternoon, Dori arrived at my apartment where we’d set off to Penn Station together to kick off our half marathon weekend in Philly. I felt good. I felt strong. I felt excited. And yet that lingering what if dread continued to tickle the back of my mind.
By 1 in the afternoon, I had no choice but to ignore all those voices. We had boarded the train and had accidentally situated ourselves in the “quiet car,” where it is forbidden to use anything but a whisper. As Dori put it, this alone would be more of a challenge than 13.1 miles of running.
Once in Philly, it was the same old pre-race day song and dance. We stashed our belongings in her friend’s apartment where we’d be staying and headed over to the race expo to pick up our bibs and swag (though, Mr. race day organizer, albacore tuna does not count as swag).
While there, we checked out sweet running tanks (I’m a sucker for colorful mesh) and perused glittery gear.
Dori had her first taste of a Gu…
…and I of Snickers’ new line of dog-treat inspired athlete-friendly treats.
We took pictures in front of glowing backgrounds…
…and then decided to get off our feet for practical reasons and call it a day. Rather than wander the city, we walked back to the apartment to watch cheesy television shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians (which I’m ashamed to say is surprisingly addicting!) and to relax.
By 6:15, it was dinner time. I’m not so much the carb-loading-Italian-pasta-and-massive-baguette type, but thanks to my cousin’s friend’s recommendation and a stellar rating on Yelp, we wound up indulging in the perfect race day eve meal at an adorable eatery called Audrey Claire. On the menu:
Paired with a half-bottle of white wine and a requisite bread basket, Audrey Claire turned out to be just what I needed. The atmosphere was low-key and the water had lemon in it; a winning combination if you ask me.
After dinner, Dori and I stopped off at a nearby grocery store to grab a few last-minute items (coconut water for after the race, mainly), and then it was off to bed. While the thought of waking up at 5am on a Sunday morning would make most mortals cringe, I was perhaps a little too happy to be in bed by 9:30 on a Saturday night. Old age really is upon me.
Naturally, before saying goodnight, Dori and I took the time to test out our brand-new headbands and make sure our accessories were in order. Spoiler: Not only did these Lulu headbands look freaking awesome, but they were by far some of the best ones I’ve ever owned. For the first time, well, ever, I didn’t wind up with head-sweat burning my eyes; the material managed to soak up every last salty drop. Worth. Every. Penny.
After a less than great night of sleep, race day arrived. Morning brought with it that same excitement I remembered so well — the same excitement that ignited this need to sign up for another race and will most likely prompt me to do so again in the future.
The alarms started going off at 5:15 am while it was still pitch-black outside.
Slowly, we showered, walked downstairs to grab coffee from the Starbucks around the corner, and began to get ready. As the sun rose over the city of Philadelphia, I began to feel more alive than I have in a long, long time — perhaps since my leg injury first took hold. In no time, we were dancing around the apartment as though we were going to an electronic music rave when, in reality, anyone raging from the night before was probably just getting home to go to bed. But hey, to each their own.
Awake as ever, we pinned our race bibs onto our shirts…
…and finished up small morning snacks of chia muffins, vegan cranberry scones and whole wheat rolls.
By 7:15, it was into a cab and off to 22nd Street just west of Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Over the last year, since immersing myself in this wonderful world of racing, I’ve heard plenty of mixed reviews about these Rock ‘n’ Roll events. Philly, rumor had it, was one of the better ones due to both the flat course and the fact that the event was allegedly well-organized. Turns out, the rumors were true. For the most part, I was blown away by how calm and put-together everything was, from the corrals to the porta potties to the post-race water, Gatorade and chocolate milk stations.
Dori and I were in corral 13 (perhaps a bit ambitious given her lack of time to train and my injured leg), which put us about 20 minutes behind the 8:00 start time.
At 8:20, we crossed the finish line and started our 13.1-mile run.
Mile 1: As most races do, mile 1 felt like it didn’t even exist. I was smiling from ear to ear knowing that I had worked so hard to make it to that moment uninjured, and even if it was just for a few seconds, I wanted to soak it all in.
Mile 2: Unlike other races, the start of the Philly RnR route never felt overly crowded thanks to the city’s luxuriously wide streets. Both Dori and I noted that we felt strong, which was amplified by the fact that, by mile 2 in Central Park, we’ve generally just finished climbing Cat Hill. The flat Philly surface was a breath of fresh air.
Mile 3: Still feeling good, Dori and I decided that we were keeping a solid, steady pace. We settled into a nice conversation and took in all the city had to offer. There were also some great fans cheering from the sidelines here, which made those first few pivotal miles go by in a flash. Before we knew it, we were into the single digits.
Mile 4: I know the map showed us going in a loop for the first 4 miles, but at this point, I began to feel as though we had circled around and around and around. A substantial part of the race was supposed to be along the water, and I was kind of ready to escape the tall buildings at that point. I’d had enough of the urban surroundings.
To occupy ourselves, Dori and I began deciphering the shapes of sweat that had formed on people’s backs — from hot air balloons to brains to Popsicles and peace signs.
Mile 5: Fortunately, mile 5 brought us back to the starting point, which was a great indicator of what was to come. Once we passed the art museum, we knew that the rest of the race was basically a big out and back down the river and home. This environmental change brought with it a sense of calm, as did the sound of crickets surrounding us as we entered a more scenic, wooded route.
Mile 6: Dori and I both felt fine by the 10k mark, but this was where we both started to feel like we were running a race. During every half marathon, you reach a point where, on any other weekend morning, you’d be totally satisfied with the mileage you had logged — with us, 6 to 7 miles would usually be it. Instead, by mile 6, we acknowledged that we were a mere halfway there.
Mile 7: I should mention now that, although all of my photos depict headphones around my neck, I never once listened to music during the Philly Rock ‘n’ Roll Half — and it wasn’t because I thought the event’s music was at all great — which it wasn’t. By mile 7, free of music, I was concentrating on taking it all in and ignoring the fact that we had a ways to go, from the thousands of people surrounding me to the beautiful Sunday morning to the perfect fall air.
Mile 8: Remember that time during mile 5 when I was all I can’t wait to get to the river? After 2 or 3 miles on the river, I was ready to head back into the city. Every bridge in the distance brought with it the hope that we’d be crossing to the other side and reversing the route; most of those bridges also brought with them disappointment. Dori’s knees were starting to give at this point, in equal proportions to my patience.
Mile 9: Finally, the bridge that we’d cross to head back toward downtown Philadelphia. Homestretch time.
Mile 10: Our pace had slowed significantly by mile 10 as my leg began to momentarily throb. As for Dori, she was pretty sure she left her knee caps back somewhere around mile 8.
Mile 11: Have you ever encountered that really annoying spectator who tells you just what you don’t want to hear exactly when you don’t want to hear it? Enter the guy who shouted out, “You got this, this is the worst part of the race,” from the sidelines. Thanks, guy in flip flops.
Mile 12: We could see the art museum off in the distance at this point and could practically taste the finish line. It’s less than one lap around the reservoir at this point, I told my cousin. We’ve done this a million times.
Mile 13: As always, the last .1 mile stretched out for what seemed like forever. And then, we saw it — the finish line up ahead. In true dork form, we grabbed hands and crossed the threshold to greatness, my cousin finishing her first half marathon and I my fourth in just over a year. Naturally, the camera didn’t catch us holding hands.
The best way to sum up the Philadelphia Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon is to say that, upon crossing the finish line, I forgot to stop. My body was certainly ready to sit down and never get back up again, but my heart was ready to keep going. A few steps later, I became aware of the fact that my feet were still peddling and made a conscious effort to slow them down.
When I first registered for the Philadelphia Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon, I envisioned the entire process in a completely different way, from the training through race day, from the physical to the mental. What I suspected would be an easy process turned into one of the hardest few months of my life, full of frustration and pain and, in some cases, dread. And yet, for the first time in my life — despite the fact that this was by far my slowest time on by far the flattest course — I feel like I accomplished something tangible, authentic and real.
When Dori read our time on the train back to New York, she was noticeably disappointed. What I realized at that moment was that even those who claim to be apathetic about time and speed and distance (it must be in the blood) can find the desire — the need — to do better, to push harder, to achieve more when faced with race results.
Of course, a 2:23 finish gives us – both — ample time for improvement. My last race, the More/Fitness Half Marathon , which took place among Central Park’s grueling hills, took me 2:08, and that was with 2 miles tacked on at the start. To add 15 minutes to a former PR might seem like a fail to some, but to me, simply crossing the finish line after months and months of frustration was certainly a success in itself.