“There is simply no substitute for a complete lack of preparation.” – Brian Gatens.
Since 1997, the Sunday before Thanksgiving has been its own holiday for me: It’s Marathon Day in Philadelphia. 2022 would bring me to the starting line for my 24th Philadelphia Marathon, lined up once again (for better or worse), with my wingman for the 15th time – Brian Gatens.
We have both had the kind of history at this race that would at first glance appear to be ripe for MarathonInvestigation.com; Brian’s best Philly is a 3:41, and my best is a 3:42. Most of our finishes are in the 3:50-4:20 range, but in 2021 due to a lack of training (a total of three weeks for me, compared to virtually no weeks for him), we finished in an all-time slowest 5:00:55.
I was determined not to repeat that kind of Death March, so I sketched out a proper 16-week training plan and stuck to it. I ran hills, I ran speedwork. I ran two 16-milers, two 20-milers, and started to almost feel ready. Brian often commented on my Strava posts with his usual encouragement: “Bah.” This was nothing new. That sort of casual and public disdain had roots in the days where were first met in triathlon around 2008, where Brian immediately and permanently took on the role of arch enemy to me (even though I didn’t know I needed one).
But those of you who know Brian via Facebook know that his “normal” sport is Multi-Day Adventure Racing; a short race for him is 24 hours. In July he raced the ITERA Expedition Race across Inverness, Scotland – a four-day event that saw his team cover 341.39 miles and 33,973 meters of vertical during their 114-hour, non-stop journey.
As he often reminds me, “Training? Bah. I’m in marathon-ready shape at all times.” Realistically, a marathon to him is just a fun-run before lunch.
The weather is always a hit-or-miss deal for this race, and while November 20 was going to be dry, this race was setting up to be the coldest, windiest day we’d had since March.
But at least it would be sunny.
On race day we followed our proven plan of waiting until 5:55 to run out the door from the hotel, hopping on a well-placed shuttle bus, jetting through security, and bouncing into the corrals at 6:45. I’d bought us Mylar Space Blankets pre-race, and like two stealthy mashed potatoes we just kept moving up as far as we could, somehow ending up in the front-most corral behind the elites.
It was here as we stood in the pre-dawn light trying to stay warm, a group of West Point Cadets came flying into the corral from our right. For all we could tell they had fast-roped in; in a blink there were eight young men all bouncing off one-another in shorts and tank tops. Just one of them had a long-sleeve base layer, while all were doing their best to generate any kind of heat they could.
“SIR!” One of them asked me, “Do you know where the three-hour pace group is?”
First off, I wish we could all bottle and share the overt politeness of West Point Cadets. Second, all I could think in that moment was, “This guy thinks I look like a 3-hour marathon runner. It has to be the jacket.” I looked around and spotted a “3:15” sign held aloft, then pointed towards it. “It has to be up there, that’s 3:15. What year at West Point are you guys?”
They all turned around in unison and cheered, “First year, sir! Plebes! Thank you! Have a good race, sir!” As they ricocheted off into the distance, I realized that in the year they were born (2004 or so), I already had 7 Philly finishes.
“I can’t believe we’re doing this again…” I mused to Brian. But we were, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
At a little after 7:05AM we finally got rolling and as is his custom, Brian took off like he’d been launched from an aircraft carrier. I ran about 100 meters with my Mylar blanket before tossing it. As I watched it to make sure it cleared a barricade and stayed clear of the road, out of the corner of my eye I saw the unmistakable shape of a body coming at me from the wrong way and ducking down low.
It was Brian. He’d dropped a glove while hauling the mail and waving to the crowd, and that’s how I found myself suddenly leaping over him thinking, “If we crash each other out this early, I’m quitting forever.”
We missed each other, he got his glove, and we settled in for the next 26.19 miles of whatever would be coming our way.
One thing about Brian when he races, he does not think about what’s to come. His nickname since I’ve known him is “Leeroy.” If you need to Google Leeroy Jenkins, please do so and come back – I’ll wait for you.
Quick Version: Brian does not think about the miles to come, Brian does not plan, Brian does not waste energy on what may happen. In Brian-world you run THIS mile, and that’s it. He is part nitroglycerin, part solid-rocket booster, part Wile E. Coyote. He basically Prefontaine’s his way through any race as fast as he can go in that moment, and when his body gives out, he just shrugs and keeps moving with whatever life support systems still happen to still have power.
I am the complete and absolute opposite of Brian, which makes our races together the beautiful disasters that keep my therapist happy.
I had a plan, a plan to be patient and keep it steady through 20. I remembered that I had a plan like this in 2021, 2019, 2018, 2017…all the other times I ran with Brian. And just like all those other times, here I was again like Ethan Hunt hanging on the outside of the aircraft wondering just how bad this was going to get.
I knew I had to tell him to slow down one way or another, so I did what guys do – I went directly to movie quotes. When we rolled through the first 3 miles in a little over 27 minutes (which was way stupidly faster than the 10:00 I needed), I looked at him and hissed, “You arrogant ass. You’ve killed US.”
He got the reference right away, and said, “Okay, okay…”
(For the record, that’s one of the final lines in “Hunt for Red October,” delivered by an officer to his commander after he removed all the safeties from their weapons, a tactic that yielded their own torpedo coming right back at them: https://youtu.be/pzzyq5E8Gg4?t=445)
But he didn’t really slow down for long. As I tried to find some kind of rhythm, every single time another faster group would come along Brian would wordlessly accelerate and settle with their tempo while I made really ugly faces and tried to stop from dreaming about putting his body into a woodchipper.
Eventually he’d look over his shoulder and go, “Oh, come ON…” as he’d ease up and bring it back. I told him, “You’re like the lead dog at Iditarod. As soon as someone passes you, ‘BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK…'”
Between the yo-yo-YO-yoooo tempo and the weather, I was not in a happy place. As we passed 6.2 miles, I still wasn’t sweating one bit. We made our way up towards University City, and the wind was right in our faces. Crossing the Schuylkill River near the US Post Office, we took a 30+mph gust that made me feel like we’d started to run in slow-motion. Brian cheered out, “YEAH…” I just grimaced and contemplated my choices. “Just what I wanted, love it…” he mused.
“This is what you wished for…” I countered. “So why is it you can’t wish for warm breezes, blue skies, perfect conditions?” He replied, “Bah. This is how you callous your soul. This is good for you.”
I’d been here before – dark patches in marathons are part of the game. It sucks when they arrive early in the race, but one rule you know once you’ve run a few of them: Good or bad, however you feel is not going to last forever. You learn to just take whatever is happening and keep moving. I sat back and watched Brian work the crowd, blowing kisses, zigging and zagging all over the place. He high-fived little kids reminding them, “Stay in school.” He harassed Eagles fans (“GO BIG BLUE”), he pulled up next to a couple dressed as Santa and Elf and delivered the line, “I know Santa, you’re not him…”
I found some energy and managed to add, “You sit upon a throne of lies.”
We plowed through the hills near Memorial Hall, and then through the Reservoir Loop above Kelly Drive, a new, hilly feature from 2021 that was just as lousy and challenging in 2022. It was here at the highest point of the course that a particularly nasty wind gust attacked the Mile 14 water stop by picking up and peeling an ENTIRE TABLE of Gatorade cups into the air, cosmically flicking the work of the volunteers across two lanes of road and about 140 surprised runners.
But that wasn’t the only thing we were ducking: In a new twist, the maddening weather meant SIGNS were flying out of spectator’s hands and becoming head-seeking missiles. If you weren’t busy enough dodging leaves, sticks, flying cups, and errant, airborne smaller runners, there were glittered oaktag guillotines that always seemed to aim right for the neck. I actually managed to catch one (“GO AMY!”) in an act of sheer self-defense, and handed it back to the woman who’d lost it. “Tell Amy she owes me one…” I smirked.
As the miles ticked by, Brian did start to settle into something resembling a steady trot. I still wasn’t feeling that great; I couldn’t figure it out: “I lifted weights. I did speedwork. I did hill repeats. My long runs got faster and faster, I felt better coming into this race than I have in seven years…and yet, today, I still suck. What gives?” Brian put it all in perspective, “But we’re still out here, for how many years is this? We are more than what the clock says at the end of the day.”
Word. I think the biggest hurdle for me was that I hadn’t been in cold weather since April. I’d spent the entire summer training for a regatta in Sarasota, running mid-day all summer to prepare for Florida in July. Throughout the Fall I’d never run in anything under 60°F, so now with temps in the 30s with wind-chills in the teens? My body was having none of it.
We passed through halfway in 2:14 and Brian motioned for a stop – he spotted his racing buddy Eric off to one side. We chatted for about two minutes, and Brian took a moment to consume 3 Advil. We turned away from the break and started on the downhill towards Kelly Drive – a steep, surprisingly torturous downhill for Mile 16. It was here that I felt something surprising – I felt better running the downhill. I’d worked on descending during all my Chester Springs days, because nothing trashes your legs more than running downhill late in a race. “Pretty cruel putting this thing at this point in the race…” Brian pondered.
We turned right onto Kelly Drive, and Brian got very quiet. We could see the faster runners headed towards their finish at Mile 24 on the other side of the road, and I mused, “Man, I hate those guys…”
Brian stayed quiet.
I knew what was going on – I’d come completely unstuck at this same point in 2021. The equivalent of a “Check Engine” light was on, and Brian knew he was entering the heavy chapter of the day. With 10 miles to go, the race was down to two parts: Get into Manayunk, then get out of Manayunk and get home.
in 2021 as my wheels came completely off, Brian stayed with me the whole way – there was no question I would do the same for him here. When we were both pushing for PRs in 2008-2015 there were times where you knew you had to take off and leave your buddy, or be the one left behind when the price of the pace was more than you could carry. In those moments no words were needed, no hard feelings. Sometimes it would just be a look, or a hand wave, and that was that – see you back at the hotel.
Tradition Dictated that the second man to the room would arrive and announce his presence by opening the door and yelling, “THIS RACE IS BULLSH*T.” Sometimes it was me, sometimes it was Brian.
Today was not that kind of day – this was a day to just do what you do when you find yourself trapped in another idiotic adventure, you stay with your wingman.
We cruised down Kelly Drive, past East Falls, and onto Ridge Avenue with the sun at our backs. We made our way down Main Street in Manayunk to the turnaround just beyond 20 miles. The crowd was out in force; the energy we were both seeking was everywhere. Music, balloons, signs, people 4-5 deep on both sides. I passed a spectator holding a huge bowl of leftover Halloween candy and thought, “Maybe? No, better not…”
Seconds later Brian disappeared off my right shoulder, and then re-appeared on the left with wrappers dangling from both corners of his mouth, and a handful of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, “FFMmmt Frmmms Omm?” He muttered.
“Nah, I’m good.” I grinned.
For the first time all day, I found the juice to high-five people, wave, and smile a bit. I thought about how angry I’d been with myself earlier and realized that the training I thought had let me down really had worked: I had more in the tank at 20 that I’d had in 7 years: I had legs left to get us home. It wasn’t fast, but the resolve and power was there.
Brian had told me that he was going to stop for an espresso at Mile 21 if he needed it, and as we made our way out of the party he made a beeline for Pilgrim Coffee Roasters. I watched as people parted like the Red Sea as Brian turned hard right off the course, walked right in the front door, and three minutes later came out with a full espresso.
I made small-talk with folks outside the shop, “So, how’s your Sunday? Enjoying the parade? Yeah, I’ve run this race a few times…always fun…”
As Brian sipped he said to me, “In two miles we’re going to be flying. Let’s go.”
Brian turned and lit his engines once more, and we headed towards Kelly Drive for the final five miles.
Despite the caffeine and enough Advil to sedate a Shetland Pony, Brian stayed quiet. I didn’t cheerlead or try and talk him up – that is not what you want to hear when you’re coming apart. What I did was break the race down into smaller pieces, namely, the bridges. “See that one, that’s Falls Bridge. After that it’s less than a mile to Strawberry Mansion. Then after that one it’s a mile to Columbia, and from there you’ll see Girard Avenue. Get there, and you’ll see the skyline…”
I talked about how sacred bridges are to a Dragon Boat racer in Philadelphia, and how no matter how hard a practice has been, no matter how shelled you and your crew might be, when you hear someone challenge you with, “TO THE BRIDGE!” You know you’ll turn yourself inside-out and paddle until the sky goes black to win that piece.
Brian just stayed steady and stared straight ahead, locked in on the remaining thought looping in his mind – the easiest thing to hang onto in those last miles:
We knocked the bridges off one after the other. One step at a time, one mile at a time. We made conversation with an Army Medic from Maryland running his first marathon. When somebody near us would break stride and walk, we’d pat them on the back, “Everybody walks…keep it up, nearly there…”
In the last four miles, you are never alone no matter how bad you feel: The running tribe never leaves anyone behind.
When we passed the base of Fountain Green Drive – the scene of our descent at Mile 16 – there were still a few runners and walkers coming off the hill and starting their trek to Manayunk. They were on pace to finish close to 8 hours, and I said to Brian, “Just think – they look at us the same way we look at the sub-3-hour guys we saw here…” A humbling reminder that no matter what you do out there, on those days where the clock doesn’t give you what you hoped for, you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself – you’re always someone else’s “fast” even if you don’t believe it.
We rolled steadily through the last two miles, finally making the turn at Boathouse Row towards the last climb of the day to the Art Museum, the Ben Franklin Parkway, and the line.
I talked towards Brian, “Today was rough, I know. I was really in a dark place the first half, and you’re there know, but we’ve got this. After all the wind, the cold, the grinding…there really is nowhere else I’d rather be.”
The race had done what it always does: It takes every human emotion that exists, packs them into a single prism, then sends the entire spectrum back at you with the power of a rising sun against a bluebird sky. Even after 43 marathons, every single one has been a totally different journey through that emotional sea: The sunrise of relief and joy pushing the doubts and fears away when you finally know you’re going to make it, that’s everything.
It’s tasting immortality. It’s impossible, yet real. It seems to take forever to get there, yet never lasts long enough.
We climbed up that damned rise to Mile 26, and I reached down to pat the rocket that Katie had given me the night before for good luck. I pulled it out of my pocket and held it in my hand as we made our way towards the clock.
We made it up and over onto the sun-splashed canyon of people by the Parkway, and rolled into the final barricaded stretch. We would cross the line at 4:44 race time, I had it at 4:33 (with the stops). Regardless, even that 4:44 was nearly 20 minutes better than 2021.
We stopped for photos, and Brian stayed in character. He mused about how much he hated running, and wanted to burn his gear as soon as he got home. I reminded him that these races were shorter when we trained properly.
“Bah.” He replied.
We walked towards the exits and found our way towards the Shuttle Buses that were suddenly in the right place at the right time. Neither of us felt much like walking around the city to get back to the hotel (which normally is a good way to flush the legs, but since we’d been icing them for nearly 5 hours, to hell with that idea), so we took the easy way home.
We ate lunch at the same place we’ve been going to post-race for years; it was filled with runners, some still wearing their race kit. We all toasted one another, then ordered seconds. I had my one cheesesteak for the year, savoring every single bite.
Running is sometimes pretty stupid. Running a marathon is definitely stupid.
Running 43 of them, with 24 in the same city in the last 25 years, that’s astronomically stupid.
But as Brian bid his farewell for another year and left to head back to New Jersey, and all the other runners closed out their checks and left, I found myself sitting alone at Pete’s Famous Pizza. I couldn’t stop smiling, shaking my head at how ridiculous yet wonderful it all was.
I gave my little Liberty Bell medal a ding, and chuckled as my head did what it always does – what anyone who’s raced has to do when there’s nothing left to do but look ahead.
“So next year will be Philadelphia #25 for me. Maybe we can start training a little sooner…keep the run mileage going this winter, stay a little sharper. Maybe this time we can finally get Brian to follow a race plan?”
You never know. It’s worth a shot.