The 2021 Philadelphia Marathon: This is Fine. Everything is fine.

Things usually happen for a reason. Sometimes that reason is that you forget that hoping is the opposite of training. Sometimes that reason is because you made poor choices early in the race. And yet, on some special days, sometimes you accomplish ALL of these things at once.

Sunday, November 21, 2021 – 6:45AM, Benjamin Franklin Parkway

Every third Sunday in November since 1997, I have run the Philadelphia Marathon, with one exception: I missed the 2007 race due to injury. After the cancellation of the 2020 race due to COVID, I was looking forward to resuming my annual Rite of Holiday Passage on the Sunday before Thanksgiving in 2021, back once again for the 26.2-mile romp around my fair city.

This marathon would be my 23rd in Philadelphia and 42nd Marathon, going back to 1996. Now, while those numbers would suggest that I am somehow an expert at the distance allow me to assure you that, much like any investment firm disclaimer about the latest and greatest fund: Past Experience Is Not an Indicator of Future Success.

The race is too big, too long, too tough to assume you can ever mail it in. I know this – I know that halfway is 20 miles, regardless of what the math suggests. I know that it takes a minimum of 16 weeks of focused training to be ready to finish; 24 weeks is more like it if you really want to run it properly.

Thanks to a long paddling season that stretched well into October, a regrettable eye infection that snicked away another full week of October, and then a raging cold that wiped out the first week of November, I would roll into the 2021 Philadelphia Marathon with a total of (adds up single half-page diary), three weeks of training.

A total of fifteen runs, with long days of 12, 14, 16, and 20 miles.

But with that barely-stronger-than-a-wet-paper-bag-basis of mileage also came 24 years of experience: I knew this HAD to be an economy run. Start slow, back off, and walk every time I had a cup in my hand. It would have to feel easy and controlled through 20 to have any chance to stretch what little I had in my legs through 26 miles, 385 yards.

Once again, Brian Gatens would be my wingman for this trip – our 13th time together for Philadelphia. He would be coming in with years and years of Multi-Day Adventure Racing in his legs; 4-5 day rough-terrain events featuring Mountain Biking, Trail Running, Orienteering, Mountaineering, Sleep Deprivation, and Snacks. His run volume for 2021 was reported as 0.0 miles, but that meant nothing. The man could stay awake and in motion for 96+ hours at a time, so a 4-5 hour run? This whole thing would be a pre-breakfast workout for him, really.

Brian was well aware of my limits coming into this race. He knew what 2020-2021 had been like with work; his journey had been fully as rough. He’s a School District Superintendent in New Jersey, while I’m on the IT Architecture / Infrastructure Team at Christiana Care Hospital in Delaware. COVID had pushed us both beyond breaking points time and time again, but running this race – getting into the corrals and getting back to a ritual we’d missed – grasping for something familiar that felt like the days before this madness, how could we not?

As is tradition, we found ourselves running for the start at 6:58 AM. After getting through Security, jumping a few barriers, and “Pardon Me”-ing our way to something that felt like a good space in the middle, we set off just after 7:05 AM with our wave. The weather was promising; cool temps, no chance of rain (unlike 2019, which had been a hypothermic nightmare for all 26 miles), and light winds.

When we passed through the first mile in 9:21, I turned to Brian and went, “That was quick.” Brian didn’t even turn his head as he replied, “It’s fine. This is fine. We’re fine.”

Mile 1. This is fine.

I did not feel fine. But it was early, and there was plenty of time to get things right.

In all the marathons I’ve run, I’ve never really felt strong in the first few miles. Usually it’s nerves, adrenaline, and trying to somehow convince my worried mind somehow that the body will be fine, even if it doesn’t feel good right in this particular moment. As Brian and I trundled down through Old City, I just settled into whatever it was we were doing and kept to myself.

Meanwhile, Brian was on the opposite end of the physical universe. Running with Brian – hell, doing ANYTHING with Brian – is like bodysurfing a tsunami. The man is a font of physical energy, six feet of raw, unbridled positivity, and all you can do is find a place on his wake and hold on.

I sat back towards the middle of the road as Brian moved to the right, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that he proceeded to go about greeting every single spectator he saw between miles 2 and 7 with a constant lilt:

“Good morning! Good morning! Hi! Hello! Good Morning! Stay in school. Looking Good. Great sign – MY name is Brian!”

As an Italian, I talk a lot. I also tend to talk during races. In 1993, I was recognized in France while riding my road bike in the Pyrenees as I passed another cyclist. “Do you race in New York City?” he asked out of the clear blue. “I, yes, I do!” I chirped. “I KNEW IT!” he boomed. “I recognize your voice. How the HELL can you talk in those races?”

Today was not one of those days, though. With some really early feelings of dread and heavy legs, I was more than happy to flip my “Emergency Introvert” switch and let Brian work the crowd, with the hopes that somewhere in the next 3 hours, things might swing my way.

Brian was especially fond of finding Eagles fans dressed in gear in the crowd. “Hey, Eagles!” He’d yell, and they’d invariably cheer back. This, of course, was simply the setting of the hook that Brian immediately yanked, “Giants fan. Go Big Blue.”

Some would laugh, some would go stone-faced, and others would just get an expression of unrepentant betrayal that wordlessly said, “This guy is dead to me.” It’s all part of the game of running with Brian.

In 2010 when we were 4 miles from the finish line (and he was towing me to a PR), this stunt spectacularly backfired. As we were running past Mile 22, Brian spotted a guy in an Eagles jersey on the other side of the road, head-down, approaching Mile 16. I remember thinking, “Uh, no, no… don’t…”

But of course, he did. “Hey! Eagles!”

The gents head rose, slowly…seeking some hope, some kindness, some energy.

“Go Big Blue. Giants Rule.” And like that, all of the above was denied.

At that moment, the man’s final fuse blew. We don’t know what his race had been like to that point, but being smack-talked from a guy more than an hour ahead on the road was clearly the last straw, and I watched in a mixture of horror and fascination as he TURNED AROUND AND CAME AFTER US.

“Get back here you @ssholes! Say that to my face!”

Brian and I were already running as fast as we could go, so there wasn’t much we could do about it. I remember saying to Brian, “If he catches us, we probably deserve it.” He did not, thankfully.

Back to 2021, we carried on through University City. Up the hills into Fairmount Park past Drexel, the Philadelphia Zoo, Memorial Hall, and around the Mann Music Center. In prior years this would end the hills for the race, but due to some construction on MLK Drive, we would be entering a new portion of the course – we’d be crossing the river on the Girard Avenue Bridge and doing the Boxer’s Loop.

I knew that second set of rolling hills would be tough, and I was unfortunately very much right. We ground our way down, down, down, and then up, up, up, and around the loop. We passed the halfway mark in 2:13-something, but I was running out of juice. I could feel legs that felt like I would have expected at Mile 20, but not this soon. I mentioned to Brian that the pace might have been too fast (relatively speaking), so the second half might get really ugly for me.

I tried to reason with Brian,”Remember that line from ‘Hunt for Red October’ where they’re running the canyon, and the navigator is freaked out because they’re not doing it at the speed that matches his math? ‘Too fast, it’s too fast Vasily?’ That’s us.”

In typical Gatens fashion, he met this prediction with the usual calm assessment: “This is fine. You’re fine. We’re fine. Everything is fine. We’ll see Jimmy and Max up here, get some Advil, you’ll be great.”

Approaching Mile 15. I look better than I feel. Brian continues his goodwill tour of Philadelphia

Sure enough, just before Mile 15, we rolled past Jimmy and Max, adventure racers with Brian that had come up to work the race (they’d been up since 2:00 AM having set the course). As we came into view, Brian simply asked, “What have you got?”

He never specified what he was asking for, but James and Max each rifled their pockets and produced an array of Tylenol, Advil, salt tablets, and one Pamprin (I didn’t ask where or why that was present). Brian grabbed a handful of 4-6 Tylenol and just disappeared them. “Want a few?” he asked. “I’ve never done that in training, I don’t think I should start now…” I reasoned.

“Bah.” Brian replied. “It’s fine. You sure?” I deferred. Brian shrugged.

“That’s okay. We’ll get you an espresso at Mile 20, you’ll perk right back up, no worries.”

We plunged down the steep descent to Kelly Drive, and then headed towards Manayunk.

There was a good crowd waiting on Kelly Drive, and once again Brian spotted an Eagles fan – a fellow with a group of friends in what can only be described as an Eagles Christmas Sweater, fully knit. We’d seen him on Market Street earlier in the day; Brian bellowed, “Hey, Go Eagles!” Instantly, the guy remembered him.

“YOU, no, I’m not talking to you.” Brian just smiled and chuckled, “Excellent.”

Kelly Drive is where the Philadelphia Marathon gets real. It’s an out-and-back, and you know exactly where you are at all times. You see the really, really fast runners headed in as they’re miles ahead of you, knowing that you’ll get there eventually. That said, it’s hard not to let it break you if things aren’t feeling good.

The drive has no ‘real’ hills to speak of, just has these little rises and falls of no more than a few feet. Depending on your day, they can be invisible or unrelenting and massive. As we passed through East Falls and turned into Manayunk, each little rise peeled away whatever I had left, bit by bit.

Beneath the azure sky of what had turned into a brilliant, perfect, crisp autumn day, my legs began to sunset themselves and fall completely apart.

I grabbed a beer on the way into Manayunk from the Hash House Harriers; just a bathroom Dixie Cup size, but it tasted GREAT. Still surfing on his anti-inflammatory cloud, Brian continued to work the crowd, alternating between running ahead and high-fiving kids while reminding them, “Stay in school,” then coming back to me to check if things were improving.

I just stayed really quiet. Which, if you know me, is a very big deal.

The crowds in Manayunk were incredible and out in force. For the first time in two years they had a marathon to cheer for. In September Hurricane Ida had put Main Street under 8′ of water, nuking many of the businesses into months of repair work. Despite that natural disaster, there was no way the town was going to stay away: 2021 be damned.

I did what I could to make eye contact, smile, and give thanks, but there wasn’t a lot I could spare – I let Brian do it. As we approached the turn at Mile 20, Brian turned back and said, “I’m getting an espresso. You want an espresso? It’ll help. You just need some real food and you’ll be as good as new.”

I declined. I knew what the acid would do in my stomach, and bursting into flames somewhere around Boathouse Row would be an environmental disaster that I couldn’t really afford. “You go ahead, I’m going to just keep going…” Brian took off, “I’ll catch up. You’re fine. This is fine.”

After the turnaround, there’s always some relief. Even though it’s just the simple fact that you’re headed HOME, a little change like that can be everything. Halfway in the marathon is Mile 20. Once you’ve run one, you’ll understand this – the race has been defined by how you’ve controlled yourself to this point, or how much it has gone to pieces.

I thought about the few times I had made this turn and felt invincible: 2015, 2014, 2012, 2010, 2008, 2002, 1998. All years I had put in the work, run a patient race, and then turned to face the final 10KM with legs ready to go and a mind that believed it.

Entering 10KM to go in a marathon with confidence and strength is to feel immortal. Months of work suddenly become worth it. Track sessions under the cruel gaze of a stopwatch and your own doubts suddenly pay dividends. The pain steps back; to know what it is to be on the edge of collapse, the edge of exhaustion, but to have control and power to not yield: You feel it once, and you’ll spend the rest of your running days trying to feel that way again.

Today was not going to be one of those days, and I knew it. I had done no speedwork. I had run 15 workouts. The race plan I’d brought to the table was nothing more than Paper Mache, experience, and hope. I knew it wouldn’t last, and I knew exactly what I needed to do in order to somehow stitch a steady race together: Start slow, back off, walk every water stop, and in the words of dear friend John McGurk, “Don’t Race Like a Dipshit.”

My race execution had been perfectly imperfect: None of those things were done.

I held on to a pace that burned through the matches I had far too quickly, and now another line from “Hunt for Red October” immediately sprang to mind, when the Lieutenant realizes that the torpedo his Captain fired with no safeties has turned around and will most definitely be blowing up their own sub: “You arrogant ass. You’ve killed US.”

At Mile 22 Brian caught back up to me, espresso-fueled and in an even better mood. The sky was perfect. The temperatures were perfect. The roads were dry, and we were headed home.

We turned onto Kelly Drive, and with a sound that was half-sigh, half-groan, I dropped my head, and what was left of my stride broke down completely. It is said that training is the opposite of hoping: You simply cannot substitute one for the other.

I didn’t say anything. Brian looked back and knew he didn’t need to: There are no words that can possibly help you when the hammer hits.

I remember being angry when I saw the phone come up over his shoulder to snag the photos. But as he took them he quipped, “You’ll want these. You will.” He was right, of course. It’s all part of the story -all of our stories can’t have Disney endings.

The races that make the good ones GOOD are the ones that tear you down and leave you shattered. The failures are what set the stage for the next try.

I still hated it, though.

We had four miles to go, and I was reduced to a 12-minute pace. The clock was already over four hours and counting, a far cry from my best of 3:42:08. There was nothing left to do but just keep it moving. I turned to Brian and said, “I’m so f*cking embarrassed.” He replied, “Why? It’s a gorgeous day. We’re outside. We’re running, well, walking. It’s fine. This is fine.”

Mile 23: Not even Ted Lasso could save me.

He made me stop and take the Ted Lasso shot. We were passed by a runner with a speaker on her waist pack, playing “All Too Well.” I asked her, “Is that the 10-minute version?” She said, “IT IS!” I replied, “Great! Three more Taylor’s, and you’re home!”

Brian stayed with me the entire way, never trying to cheerlead or blow flowers up my hindquarters. I was just so mad with myself; I was working my hamstrings by kicking my own ass all the way up Kelly Drive. “How did I think this was going to go? How could I have possibly thought I could have run a solid race on no mileage? What the hell was I thinking?”

I was plummeting backwards and checking my watch (not like it mattered, but I’m a racer – the clock ALWAYS matters). 4:30 was long gone, so was 4:40; 4:50 was burned to a crisp, and now it looked like I might not even break 5 hours, a time I hadn’t run since my second-ever marathon in 1997. Yet no matter how angry I was or how much I simmered, it didn’t matter: My legs were dead, and they weren’t coming back. That was the cold hard truth.

I was going so slowly at this point, I stopped sweating. I had taken my arm-warmers off by East Falls, but now I was untying them from my SpiBelt and working to untangle them from each other.

Brian looked back and saw me holding them stretched out in front of me and asked, “Are you getting ready to strangle me?” I smirked and said, “No, I’m too tired and there are too many witnesses here.”

The trudge went on, one foot in front of the other, slow mile after slow mile, until Boathouse Row came into view along with the final rise to the Finish Line.

I just wanted to get the race finished, so of course as I was there simmering and continuing to kick my own tail, I caught eyes with a spectator. We both had a moment where our brains went, “Wait – I know that person…” Which is how I found myself face-to-face with Erin McGarrigle, my daughter’s teacher from 5th grade in 2017.

“HEY!” She yelled out, and we hugged. Or I might have hugged her and realized that I probably smelled like I’d run a marathon and immediately recoiled five feet because randomly hugging someone, even if you know them, late in a marathon, is not really polite. “You look great!” she lied. “I’m so sorry…” I replied, because if Eeyore ever ran a marathon, that’s what he’d say. “Having a rough patch, sorry you have to see me this slow.”

I waved and started trundling back up the hill, still embarrassed to be having the worst day I’d had in 24 years of running, and now, with witnesses.

I could see Brian just up the road – he had stopped and was leaning against the fencing near a group of spectators the way Joe Cool leans on a pole. As I stumbled closer and closer, I could see him go, “Here he comes…”

The next thing I hear is this group of 10-12 people going, “Let’s go Bob! Let’s go Bob! Let’s go Bob!” It turned out to be Eagles Sweater Guy and his crew, still waiting for their runner. Brian had them pose for selfies and then looked to me going, “Look who I found!”

How can you not love that? How can you not love a moment like that. Even though I felt terrible, I could measure my pace using a sundial, and there was nearly nobody left around me, Brian found a way to make me smile, laugh, and just savor the last 500 Meters. He’d done it just by being who he is: Heckling a random group he met by playfully busting on them, which in Philadelphia, is an essential ice-breaking technique.

I caught up to him and Brian said, “Let’s go, Buddy. Finish is right up there.”

We finished the last of the Art Museum Hill and felt gravity finally let her grip go as we started on the downside of Eakins Oval towards the line. I could see the towers, the clocks, and the timing mats.

I also saw they’d already flipped to 5:00:02, so that was pretty much that.

We crossed the line in 5:00:47. However, Strava tells me I actually ran a 4:50 in “moving time,” but that doesn’t count the time spent standing still (getting Tylenol, waiting for Brian to chat up a volunteer, posing with Ted Lasso, awkwardly trying not to asphyxiate your kid’s former teacher).

5:00:47 it is, my slowest Philadelphia Marathon, and my 3rd slowest all-time, behind my first-ever (5:15 in 1996, Marine Corps on an 80F day), and my second-ever (5:08 in 1997, Marine Corps, on a 50F, rainy day). Still, Philadelphia #23 and marathon #42 went into the books.

Brian and I walked through the chutes, got our medals, got some Chicken Broth (NECTAR OF THE GODS), and started making our way towards the exit. He went back for a few more water bottles, so I found a sunny patch and waited.

As I did, a woman came walking out of the tent clutching a water bottle, a banana, and her medal, all while trying to hold her Mylar blanket closed. Her face was a sea of confused emotions, her eyes wide and seeming to stare off to infinity, like she was trying to find the horizon on an endless sea. It looked like she might laugh, cry, or scream, and wasn’t really sure which way to go.

I lowered my gaze into hers and asked, “First marathon?”

She froze, starting nodding, and then started sobbing squeaking out the words:

“I did it!”

“Yes, you did!” I echoed, and high-fived her as she walked past, now sobbing that happy sob most of us have done after that first finish.

“Thank you…” she replied, letting her emotions finally have their way. I felt lucky to see it – your first marathon is SUCH a moment, so pure, so real, so raw. That second you finally allow yourself to realize you did something you didn’t think you could do, that you beat all those doubts and finished, that first time magic only happens once.

Yet that memory never dies. “I did it.”

As Brian and I made our way up the Parkway knowing there was no way we would make our 12:30PM checkout time, we talked about how it’s easy to lose perspective as the years and the finishes stack up. Brian echoed a key lesson, “How many people do these things? Maybe 1-2% of the US population? Maybe? It doesn’t matter what the clock says, we finished. I haven’t run since, hell, I can’t remember. You barely trained, and here we are. Finishers, again.”

“We are lucky, lucky men to have these pursuits. We can’t forget that.”

He’s told me that before, but it’s always good to be reminded. After 2020-2021, after so many have lost so much, being able to run – no matter what the clock says – is more than enough. I’ll take it, I’ll recover, and Lord willing, we’ll be back.

Although seriously, for 2022, I am going to train. I mean it.

(I hope).

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