A three-hour cruise? Not exactly ...

Updated: September 26, 2013, 12:19 PM ET
By Henry Abbott | ESPN.com

Philadelphia MarathonAP Photo/Joseph KaczmarekRunners make their way down Benjamin Franklin Parkway during the Nov. 18 Philadelphia Marathon.

ESPN.com TrueHoop blogger Henry Abbott set out to run last month's
Philadelphia Marathon in less than three hours. This is how it went.


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s the race approached, I printed out three pace bands. One for a first slow five miles, followed by running on pace until mile 20, then a fast close. That scheme is highly recommended by a friend who is a coach and has used it many times. I printed another for negative splits where the first half is just slightly slower than the second half. Then I printed a third which was even splits.

The problem, which I realize is a bit irrational: All the negative split schemes called for me to run 6:40s or so after mile 20. That just seemed like a hell of a thing to promise.

In the end, I ran with the third pace band, thinking I would attempt negative splits, but still wear this pace band, because at least then I could know in my head (I don't run with a watch, let alone a GPS) without too much thinking how I was doing relative to my one big goal.

[+] Enlarge2012 Philadelphia Marathon
Island PhotographyThis race ... at this pace? There'd be no euphoria, and no easy miles.
Also in the Philadelphia Marathon this year there was a 3:00 pacer. I figured I'd stay behind that guy, but ahead of the 3:05 pacer for the first half, and without too much thinking I'd be where I needed to be. Then in the final six miles I'd try to pass that 3:00 pacer and run on to glory.

Or something like that.

Side note is that in every long race I've done up to this point, I have trained and then just run without a time goal, other than to have a good day. This race was 100 percent different. I only even signed up and did all that training because I thought I could do this sub-3 thing, and for whatever reason that was my deal. WAY MORE PRESSURE than most races for me. Many a night this summer and fall I fell asleep, or not, considering this challenge. The simple truth is I would not have been happy at all with 3:00:00. It needed to start with a 2. That's what motivated me. Other races I have run for the exercise, the joy of running. This one I was doing for the 2 on the clock at the finish line.

Related: Every long race before this one, I have had euphoric periods of the race, where I just feel really strong. Sometimes I'm feeling so good mid-race I'm tempted to just floor it. I remember at the 10-mile mark of my first marathon literally involuntarily pumping my fist in the air, on top of the world.

This race ... at this pace ... there was none of that. I had no easy miles. At all times I was feeling how I felt and thinking, Really? Is this going to work?


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stuck roughly to plan. The pacer was visible ahead of me, but I let him go where he would in the first half. Uphill, he gapped me; downhill, I'd catch up to 20 yards back or so, avoiding the crowd around him. But the idea of pacing, of course, is to preserve energy and feel good. Meanwhile, simply to stay close to him I was feeling challenged. All my little tricks, little things to think about with my form and stuff to dig for extra speed, I was using them all. And here I was with, say, 20 miles to go, a little behind pace, and, frankly, tired.

All my little tricks, little things to think about with my form and stuff to dig for extra speed, I was using them all. And here I was with, say, 20 miles to go, a little behind pace, and, frankly, tired.

I'd love to tell you I had perfect confidence my training would pay off throughout, but as ever in running the big challenge was mental and it was constant. Mostly I just told myself to keep good form. I have seen analysis of human bodies running. When it's good form, the motion is simple. For some reason I got this mantra in my head, it's a simple machine. Keep it simple. Don't let it get complicated and ragged.

Thinking about that was great in part because it kept my weight balanced side to side, my butt muscles doing the work and the like, my neck long ...

But it also kept me from thinking the other thoughts. For instance, how in the hell was I going to not just keep up with that pacer, but beat him? It was hard to picture.

I had a few things going for me. One was that I had cleverly held back a bit at the start; I had crossed the start line 10 seconds behind the pacer. That way if we had a close finish, I had a little more cushion. Who knew how close he'd get to the goal time, early or late? Pacers get screwed up sometimes. It's a hard job. But I'd have a little more wiggle room than he did. In that way, being several yards behind him was effectively a tie.

Also, when I checked, which I did not every mile, he was generally something like 30-40 seconds ahead of pace. Plus I had crossed the start line 20 seconds after the gun. So by mile 20 I really had something like a minute of cushion.

[+] EnlargeHenry Abbott
Island PhotographyFeeling good at 20? Let 'er rip. Go win the thing. So that was the plan.
At about mile 17 my right hamstring was not cramping, but sending those signals that if I got it in the wrong position, it would. Had to run carefully to prevent that. Also, I was carrying six salt tablets and it was seeming like I'd need them. I used every single one. In one of the more impressive feats in human history, and out of sheer desperation, I swallowed three of them without water. The last two I did at once, around mile 22, when water was suddenly scarce. Never have I wanted saliva more than then. I can still taste the salt. Usually I use water to wash goo down, but in this case I used goo to wash salt down. But I have read my Timothy Noakes. I believe in the salt.

I was also really noticing that even the slightest uphill really affected my pace. I am slowly becoming my father -- he's 100 percent that guy who gets totally ditched on the uphill, but then thunders past everyone on the down. I have worked on my form to the point that I really don't feel like I'm stressing my knees running downhill. I can fly, without even breathing hard. But at race pace the uphills really get my heart rate up, so I tend to slow down to avoid burning so many matches.

All of which builds to the exciting conclusion. In my head, mile 20 had been a major goal. Despite the advice I had read in Hal Higdon's book, I took no solace in interim goals like "10 miles down" or "already at mile 15." But 20 ... get there more or less intact, pacer in sight ... and then just race. That's what my coach friend said. If you feel good at 20, let 'er rip. Go win the thing.

So that was my plan.


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nly, what if you don't feel good at 20? I wasn't really ready for that.

Instead I improvised this plan: hang on for dear life and try to keep that pacer, carrying his stupid little stick with a balloon on it, in sight, and in case of emergency rely on that slender cushion of seconds.

Bingo, there was mile 21. Five to go. At this point, I was thanking the city of Philadelphia for being so flat. Hills at this stage, at this pace, would have shattered me. Counting down the miles, trying to keep it together. Four to go, three to go. Around there this 60-plus year-old Masters guy, tough as nails, who had been with the pacer and, for many, many miles, with his own personal additional pacer of his daughter, seized up. He would have won his age group by sticking with it a few more flat miles. But it was too much. He just grabbed his hamstring, yelled and pulled up in agony. Say it ain't so!

As I passed the big 25-mile marker clock, it said 2:51! I'm no dummy. That means I had been running fast, that the pacer was ahead of schedule, and that I had nine or so minutes to go one measly mile.

By then I was picturing myself doing our local 5k. With 2.5 miles to go I'd be on Broad Street, by Chris and Stephanie's house. Piece of cake! Two to go really sounded easy. Wasn't looking at the clock anymore. Just seeing the pacer, up there, knowing the longer I stayed close the more likely the cushion would be enough.

But I was leaning on the cushion, letting the 10-yard gap become 20 at times.

Then ... drama. Masters guy with his pacer daughter returns. Must have been about mile 24 when she rolled up next to me issuing a steady stream of, "Come on, Dad, no time to stop now, keep it going, you worked way too hard for this, keep with me, keep it going, almost there" -- really top-shelf pacing/coaching/motivating. Just from hearing that you could tell a ton about this family, how close they were, how much she cared. And there he was, the dad, just hanging on for dear life to her rear wheel, injuries and all.

And passing me! If he could catch the pacer, what was my excuse? I ran alongside him as best I could, and at some point even left him behind.

[+] EnlargeHenry Abbott
Island PhotographyAcross the finish line, his arms raised in equal parts relief and joy.
Near the mile 25 marker the crowds of the finish line began and there was a lot of noise. I had been waiting for this one. One little mile to go. Sweet, sweet, sweet. I still hadn't had my hamstring wig out. It wouldn't be long before I could cramp up and, with my cushion, still jog or even walk to the finish line and make it in time. Usually I have a pretty good sense of how fast I am running -- this feels like a 7-minute mile, that feels like a 6:30. But by this stage, my sensors all fried, I was clueless. As I passed the big 25-mile marker clock, though, it said 2:51! I'm no dummy. That means I had been running fast, that the pacer was ahead of schedule, and that I had nine or so minutes to go one measly mile.

It was all I needed to know to stop chasing that pacer. I settled into a modified cruise. I started foolish things like writing this in my head. I considered the joy of a mission accomplished. How good I'd feel. How all the hard work was going to be worth it. The pacer got farther and farther out in front of me, and I couldn't have cared less. This must have gone on for half a mile, during which time I even had thoughts like "this kind of cockiness is exactly how people screw these things up."


H

OLY COW THE .2.

A marathon, of course, is not 26 miles. It's 26 point two miles. So, if you thought you had nine minutes to do one mile, but really had nine minutes to do 1.2 miles ... how bad is that? How many seconds at this pace blah blah blah ... I was far too mushy in the head to fix up that math. Had I already blown my entire cushion? Maybe!

But there, distressingly far ahead but still in view was ... the pacer.

There was no way around it. All my hard work. All the emotional energy. All the weekend days Jessica and Molly and Duncan were kind as I went off running for hours. All the dark, cold mornings before work when I would have rather slept. Almost all lost to forgetting the actual distance of the race. And redeemable only one way: Catch that dude.

Seemed like the hardest thing in the world, but I had to. I nudged up my speed, checked the body for warning signs, then nudged it up again. Nothing felt good. But everything was basically working, which was nice. He was still way out there. I'd take it a bit at a time.

Somebody was screaming my name again and again. Coach Sue, a woman from our town, an ultramarathoner. Had no idea she'd be there, but she was screaming her brains out, jumping up and down. She could see what was happening: Here I was, a 38-year-old dude near the end of a long race and not as close as you'd like to the 3-hour pacer. To anyone watching, this was clearly a bad position to be in. Such an obvious target, so not close.

[+] EnlargeHenry Abbott
Island PhotographySafely in with a chip time of 2 hours, 59 minutes, 11 seconds.
I kept rumbling after him. The course is gently uphill departing the riverside and approaching the Philadelphia Art Museum (with the "Rocky" steps) and then curves left, barricades and fans on both sides. Eventually there's a left curve and the last 100 yards or so are downhill toward the finish.

The uphill was slight, but I hated it. It was all I had to work with, my only remaining real estate to catch that pacer. I chugged on, getting closer and closer. You could hear the sounds of the finish line, and before I could see it I heard the P.A. announcer shouting all these people trying to get in under three hours have 40 seconds to do it! Didn't sound like long, but here was the pacer! I was just about on him! And as we rounded the corner and onto the downhill we both saw the finish line, with its big, beautiful clock.

He could see that it said we had maybe 30 seconds to do something like 15 seconds of running. He let up, I suspect to let his pacees have some glory. I hauled past him, and across the finish line arms raised in equal parts relief and joy.

With the seconds I had in the bank from crossing the start line after the gun, I was safely in with a chip time of 2:59:11. Sheer delight.

And almost certainly, my last marathon. Really eager to train the heck out of a 10k or somesuch.

Now, the sad part of the story? I'm not sure what happened to that Masters runner dude. I checked the results. No man anything like his age finished in the next five or even 10 minutes after me.

Wow, do I feel his pain.

Henry Abbott | email

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