Running a new personal record (PR) at the Philadelphia Marathon requires careful preparation. A smart race strategy could be the difference between running a new personal best (and staying healthy) or a slow shuffle past the Art Museum toward the finish line.
The Philadelphia Marathon has a special place in my heart because it's where I ran my 2:39:32 personal best.
In 2011, my comeback marathon was Philly after a physically and emotionally difficult debut at the 2008 New York City Marathon. But the Philadelphia course allowed me to execute a near flawless race strategy, avoid many of the mistakes I made at NYC, and accomplish my goal of breaking 2:40.
Today, I want to share an unofficial Philadelphia Marathon Course Guide with you based on my own experience of running the race, those of my runners who have completed it, and about 10 hours of research into the course itself.
Of course, any course guide can only go so far – it has limitations. But, even if you take away just one key lesson from this guide and apply it to your race, I'll be excited that you had a better experience at Philly than you would have without it.
The First 5K: Patience is a Virtue
The Philadelphia Marathon begins on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway – a straight, flat road that can entice you to start too fast. With only eight turns in the first seven miles and virtually no hills, it's critical to stick to your pacing strategy.
Many runners make the mistake of starting too fast, leading to muscle cramps and the infamous "bonk" during the final 10k. Don't let that be you! Focus on running 10-20 seconds per mile slower than your goal pace for the first 2-3 miles. Warming up like this helps your body get used to Marathon Pace.
Crowd support during the first 2 miles is fantastic and fans will be on both sides of the road cheering you on. Soak in the energy, but don't let it pull you out too fast, burning unnecessary carbs (you did carb-load before the race, didn't you?) and wasting energy. Bottle it up and save it for the final 10k!
Miles 4-10: University City and the Philadelphia Zoo
Here you'll find college students tapping kegs and thick crowds cheering from both sides of the street. (Don't be surprised if you're offered beer multiple times. It's up to you whether you want to enjoy a cold one with 19 miles to go!)
Some of the smaller roads on this part of the course have potholes and deep cracks, so be sure to watch your footing. Soon you'll experience the first major hill of the Philadelphia Marathon during the eighth mile. It's important not to expend too much energy on this hill as you're still nowhere near halfway done.
Run at marathon effort (not pace) both uphill and downhill. You'll be about 30-45 seconds slow going up and about 20 seconds fast going down. There will be opportunities to make up time later on the course, so don't worry if you have one or two slower miles.
Once you reach the Philadelphia Zoo, crowd support is limited. After a few rolling hills, the last significant hill on the course presents itself in the tenth mile. Take the same approach and run marathon effort up and down the hill.
Miles 11-13: Let's Make Up Some Time!
For the next few miles, you'll be along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive as it winds next to the Schuylkill River. This section of the course is flat and fast so you can make up some time by running 5-10 seconds under goal pace. As long as your effort is about the same as marathon pace, you'll have no problems running just faster than goal pace. My fastest mile in 2011 was during the 11th mile where I ran 5:48 (too fast!).
Soon you'll cross the river and split from the half marathon runners and turn left around the Philadelphia Art Museum. It's painful to run so close to the finish line and watch others finish (while you're not even halfway there), but enjoy the crowds at this point – they're at their loudest and thickest for the rest of the race. It makes running slightly under goal pace much easier.
Miles 14-19: The Loneliness of Kelly Drive
The most difficult aspect of the Philadelphia Marathon is the second half of the course where crowd support is extremely limited. Here it's critical to focus on how your body is feeling. Is your breathing controlled? Are you running smoothly, efficiently, and relaxed? Are you in a positive state of mind?
The course is mostly flat from miles 14-18 so you can run at goal pace or just under. Try to tick off as many consistent mile splits as possible to make up for a few slower miles during the early hills.
An awkward part of the Philadelphia Marathon course is a short out-and-back during the 18th mile. After taking a sharp left onto a bridge crossing the Schuylkill River, you'll run downhill to a turnaround point, where you'll then make a 180 turn and go back up to Kelly Drive. Make sure you don't run too fast on the downhill toward the turnaround point.
At this stage of the race, you'll be experiencing the beginning of the marathon's cumulative fatigue and muscle cramps are more common. Excessive pounding on your legs while running downhill can make for a painful final few miles, so stay controlled while running downhill.
Miles 20-25: Time to Get Tough
After you return to Kelly Drive, you'll then be running into Manayunk and the turnaround just before the 20-mile marker. Manayunk has fantastic crowd support, conveniently right when the marathon becomes extraordinarily difficult so draw from this energy.
If you're feeling good and want to take a small risk, surging to about ten seconds faster than goal pace during mile 21 or 22 can be a helpful strategy for runners who are chasing a personal best or Boston Qualifying time.
After the turnaround point, you'll be running back toward the Art Museum on the left side of the road. Slower runners approaching the 20-mile mark will be on the right side of the road running the opposite direction. Make sure you're running the tangents as best as possible and not running too close to the double yellow line (brushing a runner with your elbow is not what you need this late into a marathon!).
Mile 25 – 26.2: Soak in that Marathon Energy
As you make your way to the Art Museum, the crowds will get thicker and you'll begin to hear the deafening cheers from fans and the announcers. Give the last mile everything you have – there's rarely an opportunity in a runner's life when they're being cheered on like an Olympic athlete, so enjoy it!
Once you pass the Art Museum, there's less than a quarter mile left. Take in the crowds, the sights, the energy, and the magic of completing 26.2 miles. There's nothing like it.
Once you cross the finish line, you'll get a medal and several food and hydration options and then, it's time to celebrate – you just finished the Philadelphia Marathon!
Congratulations, months of hard work have been realized and you're now a marathon finisher. Maybe you have a new personal best, or a Boston Qualifier, or simply another marathon completed. Regardless of your time, running 26.2 miles is a feat worth celebrating so enjoy yourself on the course.
Read all of the profiles, tips and coverage of the 2014 Philadelphia Marathon at philly.com/phillymarathon. Don't forget to join us there on race day to follow the action live.
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