If experience breeds wisdom, few people know as much about marathon running as Mark Sullivan—particularly in Philadelphia.
On November 18, Sullivan will run in his 19th consecutive Philadelphia Marathon, making him one of two individuals confirmed to have run every year since the race started in its current form in 1994. Overall, this will be Sullivan's 155th lifetime marathon, a number that includes 26 consecutive Boston Marathons (Sullivan is one of less than 50 people worldwide to have competed in the Boston event for 25+ consecutive years.)
But it's the race through the City of Brotherly Love that's closest to his heart. Aside from competing, Sullivan will offer a pre-race seminar at the Health & Fitness Expo on November 16 & 17 at the Convention Center where he will offer a preview of the race, explaining what competitors and spectators should expect. He spoke with Sports Doc to provide a preview of the course.
Start of Race-Mile 1: "A Wide-Open Venue"
"The race starts and finishes on the Ben Franklin Parkway. This is a great location for so many reasons, mainly because it's such a wide-open venue. In places like Boston and New York City, the start and finish lines are so far from one another—if you wanted to see the beginning and the end of the race, you'd have a hard time. Not here."
"For a runner, this is great because of the openness of the area. You can walk right up to the start line from your hotel. Once the race starts, you can run fast right away, which is a huge advantage over more congested courses. Anyway, you'll turn onto Arch Street and pass the Convention Center—runners will recognize this, that's where you'll pick up your information packet in the days before the race—and that's about the one-mile mark."
Miles 2-4: "Very Scenic—one of my favorite parts of the race."
"This part of the race takes you through Chinatown, before you turn onto Race Street and head down towards the Waterfront. You'll reach Columbus Boulevard, which is a very scenic, enjoyable part of the race. It's still early in the morning, and you're looking out over the water, with all the bridges in the distance… I really enjoy that stretch."
"You're on Columbus for about 1.5 miles, then a turn onto Washington Avenue takes you down a short stretch to Front Street."
Miles 5-7: "It's crowded, it's exciting—but be careful!"
The four mile-mark comes up quickly after the turn onto Front Street—and that's where Sullivan says things get interesting.
"Here's where you get to run along South Street, and that's a different experience. It's such an eclectic area with the little shops, and at that hour you've got some people out there—a good number of spectators, but no huge crowds."
The huge crowds aren't far away though. "So as you run up 6th Street, you'll pass Independence Hall… and here you go onto Chestnut Street. This is a big part of the race—you're past five miles, you're getting into the meat of the race, and there are some big crowds. This is where I always stress staying under control. It's very noisy, very exciting, but if you let the crowds get you too psyched up, you'll start running too fast and believe me, that catches up with you quickly."
Miles 8-10: "…in my opinion, the toughest part of the course."
If you don't heed Sullivan's words and overdo it on Chestnut Street, you'll find out here. "We'll cross the bridge at 30th Street Station, and start heading out towards the zoo," said Sullivan. "Most of Mile 8 is uphill, and people aren't always mentally prepared for that. Runners need to be aware of this ahead of time, because this course is advertised as flat."
Passing by the Philadelphia Zoo affords runners a short downhill stretch before resuming the incline on Lansdowne Drive and South Concourse Drive. "This area is very steep, and in my opinion it's the toughest part of the course. This affects a lot of people, and I've had so many runners tell me 'I'm so glad you warned me about that stretch.'"
Miles 11-13: "The calm before the storm."
"You run down the Avenue of the Republic, past the Please Touch Museum and over a short, steep hill onto MLK Drive. At this point, you're back on flat ground—but it can be challenging because for the first time, it's very quiet. I'll be honest, this may not be the most interesting part of the course."
"But around mile 12.5, you start to hear the crowds at the Art Museum, which is the point where the half-marathon ends. If you're running the full marathon, again control becomes essential. To this point, you may be running among some half-marathoners, and they'll start making a sprint for the finish. Don't get drawn into that. Run your own race."
Miles 14-16: "Time to take a self-inventory."
"We pass the halfway point at the Art Museum, which is the end of the half-marathon—it's a very hectic, exciting area. But then you're suddenly onto Kelly Drive and again, it gets quiet. This is a good time to take inventory of everything you've encountered thus far. How's my pace? How am I feeling? The crowds have carried you to a large degree to this point. Now it's all up to you for the next few miles."
Miles 17-18: "Put on your best game face, and you can gain an edge."
"Right around the 17-mile mark, you'll take a left turn and head out on a quick out-and-back loop on the Falls Bridge. To me, this is a nice break. You've been going along, looking at the same things. Mentally, you know you're done with that part of the race. On this loop you're face-to-face with some of your closest competitors, and that doesn't happen too often. You're seeing people you've passed, people who've passed you. This is the spot to put on your best game face, and mentally you can gain a little edge over the competition."
Miles 19-21: "This couldn't come at a better point in the race."
"After you finish with that loop, you're back on the road and working your way up onto Main Street in Manayunk. Remember how I said it was so quiet after the Art Museum? Forget that—now things change. Now you're in party central. But that's perfect because you're back to reacting to the crowds, only this time they're helping you. Earlier, they were pushing you too much—now they're pushing you and getting you back to where you need to be."
"A lot of runners like to say that the halfway point of the race is the 20-miles mark, because those last six miles are going to take as much energy to complete as the first 20 miles. Well, you hit that mark right there in Manayunk, and for me that couldn't come at a better point in the race. There's so much energy and excitement—this is a fun spot for the spectators."
Miles 22-25: "This is what makes Philadelphia special."
"One change this year is going to have us running across an overpass before heading back on Kelly Drive. But now you're moving towards the finish, and passing people on the other side of the street who are on their way out into Manayunk. This is great, because there's a lot of interaction between runners here. People on their way back are encouraging the runners on their way into Manayunk. It's very inspiring."
"This area has a lot of cheer zones, and I have to mention the water station volunteers. These people do a fantastic job—they're very upbeat, cheering you on the whole way. This part of the race can be a lot of fun. Coming from Chestnut Street early on, now you're running through what looks like a little suburban park. It's so unique, it's what I enjoy about this race. You'd be hard-pressed to find another urban marathon so dependent upon parks."
Mile 26-Finish: "Get your last burst of energy—you're almost there!"
"At this point, there's a slight uphill, and that's the last thing you want to see. You're less than a mile from the finish! But if you're prepared, if you're expecting it, you're going to make the charge for that hill. Get that last burst, because once you're up the hill you're rewarded by a downhill to the finish."
"And then there it is—you come around Eakins Oval to the finish line. Boy, is this great. You get your picture taken crossing the finish line with the Art Museum in the background and Mayor Michael Nutter waiting to greet you and shake your hand. That's another great thing about Philadelphia—Mayor Nutter isn't just there. He's an energetic and enthusiastic as everyone else you've encountered."