Philadelphia: A Marathon Journey

By Jenn Gagner, member of FHR since March 2013

I joined Forest Hills Runners in March of 2013, and my casual running experience escalated quickly from 2-4 miles at a time to really enjoying watching both my mileage and pace increase. It was a lot of hard work, but with the encouragement of the group I came to realize that I could be a lot faster than I had ever thought possible. This culminated in October 2013 when I ran my first marathon in 3:35:58 after following the grueling Hansons Advanced Marathon Method pretty much to the letter. Despite being well trained, I was caught unprepared by how much the few final miles of a marathon actually hurt. Despite my friend and training partner Laura pulling me along at the end, my dreams of BQ slipped away in those final 58 seconds.

Fast forward to February 2014 and the amazing opportunity came along to run the Boston Marathon for the MIT Strong team; truly a life changing experience and a memory I will always treasure. Despite slogging through training in the very cold winter, I was once again foiled by the overall difficulty of the course and the unexpected warmth of the day, finishing in 4:12. I walked the mile back to the MIT campus after the marathon thinking that I would just have to try again for a BQ in the fall. When Esteban announced he was doing Philly, everything seemed to fall in to place - a large team from FHR was going, and I should have plenty of time to recover and continue then training in August.

As with all plans, life happened. My IT band started to act up, I took several trips which prevented a lot of running, my sister got married, but in the end I found I was just rather tired - tired of running to a schedule, tired of always being a little disappointed I wasn’t hitting my pace goals or that my knee hurt. Frustrated that I wasn’t meeting my expectations. This was a vicious cycle, until the only real part I was enjoying about running was those workouts I did with FHR - the social Monday night runs, the Saturday runs; that reminded me how much I really enjoyed running. I started to really lapse in my training, and wondered if I should try to leave the Philly marathon and run the half instead, or just drop out all together. It came to two weeks before the marathon and I had run one 18 miler, and two 16s prior to that - and that was it. Having never gone in to a marathon this unprepared, I was worried I might not even finish or hurt myself during the race.

Then, two weeks before on a Monday night run, my friend Rosemary reminded me that our mutual friends from FHR, Drew and Jamie, were also running the Philly marathon and at a pace I was hoping to keep up. I immediately reached out to Drew and asked what their plans were and if I could tag along during the race. As always, Drew was cheerful, welcoming and upbeat about the coming marathon. A lot of my anxiety eased immediately. With that falling aside, I was able to rethink my strategy and remember the reason I started running in the first place - because I *like* running. I like feeling the miles fall away under my feet and the feeling that I can keep going. I love the energy of the races and seeing all the amazing people around me striving toward the same goal. I decided that I was going to try to stick with Drew and Jamie, enjoy the time I got to spend with my friends from FHR, and have the most relaxing marathon experience possible (... most people I told this to laughed at the thought).

The weekend came, and I traveled down to Philly with Esteban, Jill, and Maartje. It was a great car ride filled with plans and goals and everyone sharing their hopes for the race. Once we got in to the city, we went straight to the expo to pick up bibs, and then went to the hotel to have a relaxing evening before heading to bed. It was amazing to be surrounded by such dedicated, strong, and real runners. After catching up with friends, we all got dinner and then went to bed early. At 4:30 AM, all the alarms went off and we took turns getting ready and rockin’ out to our best race day tunes. We walked out of the hotel on to the street and joined the steady stream of runners headed to the start line.

After a watching a beautiful sunrise from the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, we gathered into the corrals and waited for the start of the race. Drew, Jamie and I had lost Aleta and Alli in the shuffle - Jill, Esteban and Maartje were off to chase their PR goals. After a beautiful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, we were off - each corral slowly moving up to the start.  

The first thirteen miles wound slowly through Philadelphia streets; crowd support was amazing. We admired all the great signs fans were holding, including the ever popular, “You’re so smart and pretty”, “Smile, you paid for this!”, and the hilarious, “Don’t worry, you never have to do this again,” with a large number of “Touch here for a power boost!” and many high five stations. We high-fived all the kids, cheered for all the bands, danced at all the music, and marveled at the amazing architecture throughout Philly. It was a great tour of the city. At some point, we caught up with Aleta and Alli and shared the first half of the marathon with them. It was a great time.

At 13.1 miles, the track split off and Aleta and Alli went their separate way toward the finish line, while Drew, Jamie and I continued onward. The next part of the race continued along the Schuylkill River and we lost a lot of the crowd support that was so prevalent in the city. However, we talked about life and running and future goals, and this kept my mind off the fact that my legs were starting to feel tired. Soon after, we started to see the race leaders returning as they headed toward the finish line on the out-and-back course; keeping and eye out for Esteban and Maartje was both diverting and immensely inspirational when we got to cheer them on as they passed.

Heading toward Manayunk, we picked up as we saw the bands but on the way back, Drew was dropping back a bit due to being ill the few days before the race. Jamie and I were still feeling good, so after checking with Drew we decided to press onward. This was, in some ways, the best part of the race for me - in previous races, I had usually fallen apart between miles 21-24, and had always ended up walking at least a bit. This time I felt it would be different. We picked up the pace but were still cheerful, making jokes, talking slightly and passing a few people who had passed us before. Working together, we were able to keep up a steady push in the last four miles, running negative splits and making a strong effort as we hit the crowd support right before the finish. Then, in my final kick on very tired legs as I hit the finish, I was cut off by a woman who zigged in front of me to high five a person the sideline. I had a brief flash of annoyance and almost said something, and the realized I should just chill out - that was what this race was about for me too, after all.

In the end, we all gathered by the F (for FHR!) sign at the end of the race to recap and stretch. I saw a few more FHR folk, and was so tired and happy. I had gone from being worried about finishing, to having an amazing race in which I finished happy, and smiling, having not walked at all and running negative splits at the end - different from both of my previous marathon experiences. When I first joined FHR, I got the best piece of advice about marathons from Stuart: “You have to respect the distance.” I have found this to be completely true - and yet, you also control what kind of race you have, and you get out of it what you put in. While I had pushed myself more in previous marathons, I found myself this time being carried forward by my friends and FHR - and it was a far more enjoyable experience. With this race under my belt, I realize that is possible to actually also enjoy a marathon, and I think a combined approach will make my future race goals much more attainable. I look forward to many more races to come, supported by and supporting my friends as we all chase our goals, whether they are to PR or to high-five all the kids along the way.

- Starting in the end of November 2014, each week we will be updating this blog with personal stories from fellow runners, race recaps, training tips, recipes, and more! If you are interested in becoming a blog contributor, please contact Katie Merrill at for more information. And remember, as Owen says, Be Amazing! -

Posted on December 8, 2014 .