Northwest Philly first-timer: Why I’m running Sunday’s Philadelphia Marathon

 A scene from last year's Philadelphia Marathon as runners enter and leave Manayunk. (Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks, file)

A scene from last year's Philadelphia Marathon as runners enter and leave Manayunk. (Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks, file)

The annual Philadelphia Marathon kicks off at 7 a.m. on Sunday. The route will take 30,000 runners from the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum to City Hall, down to Old City, along the Schuylkill River, up to Manayunk and back to Center City. 

Here’s a list of cheering and spectator spots.

It was 7:45 a.m. on the first Sunday of November. The alarm on my phone was bleeping an all-too-familiar clatter of noise. I slapped it aside.

“Just five more minutes” is what I told myself.

As every five minutes went by, I wanted just five more minutes. But when 8:15 rolled around, it was time to face the inevitable: I had to get up, and I had to go for a run.

A 20-mile run.

In 40-something degree weather with winds hitting 30 miles per hour.

“Why am I doing this?” I asked myself again.

Good question, better answer

Four months ago, I decided it would be a good idea to run the Philadelphia Marathon.

And after months of sacrificing my weekends (and toenails), I had reached the pinnacle moment of my training — the longest run I would attempt before I take to the 26.2 miles in Philadelphia on Sunday.

Yes, it will be my first marathon.

Most people who train for marathons do so for a reason.

They have something to prove or something to overcome.

They want to lose weight, raise money or remember a loved one.

Oh, I guess there’s a handful of folks who actually want to, you know, win.

I’ve always considered myself athletic, though I’ve never been an “athlete” by today’s standards. I played middle-school basketball for a while. I almost scored a basket once…until I realized I was on the wrong side of the court.

So what made me — an insignificant 20-something non-athlete — decide to run 26.2 miles?

Well, I’ve always held this notion that if I can’t do something “perfectly,” then I just want to give up on it all together.

Lessons already learned

It’s become more and more of a weakness as I’ve gotten older because rarely in life does anything go as perfectly as you’d wanted or expected.

I knew training for a marathon would be tough. I thought it could teach me a lesson. I can assure you, it has.

It has taught me that toenails are overrated, but carbohydrates are definitely not.

It has taught me the value of water and sleep and stretching and beer.

It has taught me that while the body is a remarkable thing, there is nothing like pushing yourself past that voice in your head that keeps telling you to quit.

Yes, I trained for a marathon to push my physical limits, but more than anything, I wanted to push my mental limits.

I wanted to show myself that just because a gust of wind blows, my sock starts to rub, my shirt keeps getting twisted, somebody won’t stop texting me, someone is faster or fitter than me or every mile ran isn’t my best mile, it doesn’t mean I have to give up.

So that Sunday in Roxborough, I rolled out of bed, rubbed my eyes and asked myself once more “Is this really what I want to be doing right now?” (It wasn’t.)

Then: “Why did I let myself get so far into this?”

And finally: “Why did I make this personal quest so transparent to my friends, my family and, for God’s sake, the general public?”

Looking backward and forward

Anxiety swelled into my ribs as it had before every long run during the past 15 weeks.

At week one it was “There’s no way I can run 8 miles.”

But, those 8 miles soon turned into 11 mile. Then, it was 13, 15, 17 miles.

Despite the self doubt, deprecation and all the times I told myself it couldn’t be done, I got out of bed, laced up my sneakers and took to the pavement every weekend.

(Almost) every Sunday morning since July, I’ve made my way down Manayunk Avenue, over the Falls Bridge onto MLK Drive, around the Philadelphia Museum of Art and onto Kelly Drive passing the boat houses and the grandstands, and back on to Main Street.

Then, it’s onto the towpath until my mileage has been gained and I’ve earned myself that latte or bagel.

Somehow, through this summer’s heat, and this winter’s first chill, through four hours of sleep and sometimes a hangover, I’ve done it little by little, week after week.

Approaching the starting line

And now here I am, just days away from what 18 weeks ago seemed like a daunting, impossible feat.

As individual moments, it was hard to see the significance of every run. I went kicking and screaming on more than a few occasions.

But looking back now, I can see how that hard-fought battle got me to the physical and mental state I am today.

I don’t know what Sunday will bring. I may trip and break a toe before I even get to the starting line. Throughout the course of the race there’s a good chance I will feel hatred toward the spectators with their coffees, donuts and chairs at least once.

There’s a good chance I will feel hatred toward myself for coming up with this preposterous challenge at least more than once.

Another runner will most likely get in my way.

I will probably get frustrated and start to cry around mile 13.

But then, I will see the runners around me, enduring the same pain, doubts and pride for all their many different reasons. That’s when those tears will turn into tears of inspiration.

It’s likely I will sing; and maybe dance. I will definitely do a lot of high-fiving. And, I know more than anything else there will be times when I’ll want to just flat out quit.

But what the last four months has taught me is that no matter what is going on around me or inside me, all I have to do is put one foot in front of the other and keep it moving. And that is why I’ll continue to run.

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