My Self-Absorbed, Cheesy Marathon Story

by 

Christopher Paslay

*Warning: The marathon story I’m about to tell you is all true, every word of it.  But be forewarned: it’s very cheesy and incredibly self-absorbed, and has little to do with education and schools.  I apologize for this in advance.

My left knee was throbbing.  The pain started as a warm ache but slowly built into a hot friction burning my knee joint like an unoiled hinge.  It was hard to comprehend the reality of what was happening, that my left knee was seizing-up on me with 17 miles to go in the race.  I was running downhill on 34th Street by the Philadelphia Zoo, a section of the marathon that was supposed to be easy, a lead-up to the largest hills on the course which were approaching straight ahead.  Three weeks ago I’d put in a 21 mile run on the very section of the course I was running now, cruising the steep elevation up Lansdowne Drive into Fairmount Park, around Memorial Hall and the Japanese Teahouse, down across West Girard Avenue and back up 33rd Street to Reservoir Drive, around Edgley Drive and finally down Fountain Green to Kelly Drive.  I’d run these hills on three separate training runs.  I knew them.  I was conditioned.  I was ready.

I stomped my left foot on the street as I ran, hoping to shake out the pain.  I kicked my leg outward, trying to loosen the joint, but felt no relief.  The throbbing continued, and it started to sink in that there was a real problem here, a problem that could force me to . . . no, I wouldn’t think the unthinkable.  This wasn’t part of the plan, part of the training and preparation.  This wasn’t what I visualized at night in bed, or during my long drives home in my car at rush hour.

The throbbing increased and it occurred to me what it might be: iliotibial band syndrome, commonly known as ITBS or “runner’s knee.”  This is when the ligament extending from the pelvic bone to the shinbone becomes extremely tight and rubs against the thighbone.  It gets progressively more painful the longer you run.  Like a hinge with no grease, opening and closing, over and over and over again, the friction building like a hot iron.  I’d gotten ITBS only once before.  It came on suddenly at mile 19 of a practice marathon I was running on Kelly Drive in November of 2020 – a “virtual race” when the Covid-19 lockdown forced the cancellation of the 2020 Philadelphia Marathon.  The pain was so bad I was forced to stop running and powerwalk the remainder of the race, which resulted in an embarrassing (for me) time of 4:16:35, which came to 9:48/mile pace.

The pain was almost that bad now.  I dug in and ran up Lansdowne Drive, every stride seeming to jar the hotspot on my knee.  The hill went up 80 feet for a half-mile before it leveled off, a gradient of almost 10%.  I knew the elevation to the degree, as I’d obsessed over the route for weeks, studying the entire 2021 Philadelphia Marathon course on the internet via GPS.  But I did more than look at pictures; I ran every inch of the course multiple times, in segments of 21 miles, 12 miles, and 8 miles, up and down every hill and decent, pounding the city streets and asphalt roads through Fairmount Park, until I was confident I had command of the course.

I’d been training for this race, in fact, for several years.  In 2017 I’d run the Philadelphia Marathon, my very first marathon, and bonked.  To “bonk” means to run out of energy and gas so suddenly that you are rendered a puddle – a zigzagging mess staggering to the finish line.  When you bonk your whole race blows up right in your face, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  You go into damage control mode, realizing your wonderful time is slowly slipping away, like a train pulling out of the station without you.  In 2017 I was cocky and inexperienced – a virgin marathoner – and had gone out too fast.  My aggressive pace caught up with me at mile 17, when my legs turned into sandbags and I seemed to be running in place.  It was a completely overwhelming and crushing feeling.  To be at the end of your physical strength, and to need to keep running for 9 more miles, isn’t easy to deal with.  With no glycogen left in your muscles, it’s physically impossible to keep up any real pace.  To keep running at all, no matter how slowly, is as much of a psychological battle as it is a physical one.

After I bonked in 2017 (I ended up running a 3:56:44, which was 9:01/mile), I was on a mission to run the marathon again in 2018, but this time I was determined to hit my goal of breaking 3:50:00.  I buckled down that year and ran hard through the winter and into the spring, running a half-marathon in March in 1:45:15 (8:01/mile), a 10K in April in 46:20 (7:28/mile), and a 10-miler in May in 1:17:10 (7:43/mile).  I hit the weights in the summer, focusing on strengthening my core and lower back.  At the end of July I officially began my 18 week training for the 2018 Philadelphia Marathon, a program designed by running and coaching legend Hal Higdon which allows you to build your miles up to 40 per week at peak training, culminating in a 20 mile run three weeks before race day.  Running half-marathons and 10-milers, as I’d been doing since 2005, wasn’t the same as preparing for the Big One – the 26.2 mile race.  A full marathon is a whole different animal entirely.

My running was going great until I woke up one morning with a stabbing pain in my left knee.  It turned out to be bone marrow edema (BME), which is when fluid gathers deep inside your bone as the result of a stress fracture.  But I didn’t know I had a fracture in my knee, so I kept training.  It hurt like hell, but I wasn’t going to miss any workouts.  I took a bunch of prescription strength ibuprofen that my wife kept in the cabinet and tried to ignore the pain.  That Sunday, two days after I woke up with the knee ache, I was scheduled to run the Philadelphia Rock ‘N’ Roll Half Marathon as a “check in” race midway through the 18 week marathon training program.  The philosophy was to run the race at marathon pace, and to see how much you have left at the end.  But I ran the race like I did all half-marathons, full throttle.

My knee wasn’t perfect, but held up for most of the run.  Coming down a hill at mile 9, though, I landed on it at just the wrong angle and sparks of pain shot up my leg and through my back.  I didn’t stop running, of course.  I continued with a slight limp for the next mile, refusing to slow down, until the pain faded some.  I actually finished the race strong, running a 1:46:17 (8:07/mile).  The next morning I woke up and couldn’t put weight on my left leg.  When I stepped out of the shower, my knee buckled and I had to grab the towel rack to keep from falling.  So I limped around the house for the week, taking aspirin.  Amazingly, I somehow went for a 17 mile run the following Saturday.  When I got home, after I cooled down, I couldn’t walk on my left leg at all.  I was forced to see an orthopedic and after an x-ray and MRI, was told I had a stress fracture.  And that was it for my hopes of running the marathon in 2018 and getting redemption for bonking the previous year.

In January of 2019, just when my left knee was healing, my right knee flared up with tendonitis.  This was a direct result of my left knee injury, which threw my body out of balance and caused stress on my right side.  The spring of 2019 was a complete mess, with both knees acting up and not allowing me to do any real running.  It wasn’t until July that I was able to train regularly again, short, one-mile runs at first, slowly building to 5Ks by the end of the summer.  But I’d lost most of my base, and had little strength or endurance.  I wasn’t ready for the full marathon in 2019, but I did register for the Philadelphia Half-Marathon, which I ran in 1:49:06 (8:19/mile).

In March of 2020, just when I was getting back in decent shape and ready to run the Love Half Marathon, the race was cancelled because of the pandemic.  A month later, on April 25th, I got sick with Covid-19.  I caught it from my wife, Debra, who worked in a hospital where half the staff ended up Covid positive.  Deb got off easy, with a dry cough for about two days.  Me, on the other hand, I got knocked through a loop, with horrible fatigue and wicked body aches that lasted five days.  I had a really nasty cough, too.  I thought I was feeling better after a week, and went for a long walk through Manayunk, but when I got home, something didn’t feel right; I relapsed and was sick again for three days.  It took a good two weeks to feel totally normal again.  But when I went back to running, things were off.  By late June, my times were still consistently slower by 20 to 30 seconds per mile.  This kept up through the end of the summer and into the fall, and there were certain points where I could barely finish runs because of the heat – which never happened before.

I was convinced Covid screwed me up permanently, that my lungs were scarred or there was some slight, undetectable swelling in my heart that was slowing me down.  I was absolutely convinced I would never run the same again.  This was a depressing situation to say the least.  I defined myself, at least in part, by my running.  When I was running well I felt good, and when I was running like crap I could become moody and miserable.

So times were a big deal to me.  Marathon runners are an interesting breed, as they not only come in many shapes and sizes, but many ability levels.  As the cliché goes, time is relative.  Breaking 4 hours in the 26.2 mile race is a damn fine accomplishment for many people, but for those interested in qualifying for Boston, breaking 3 hours is the goal.  For two-time Olympic gold medalist Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, going under two hours is the mission – which he did in 2019 in Vienna with a special pacing team supporting him, clocking an astonishing 1:59:40.  But it’s Kipchoge’s 2:01:39, which he ran to win the 2018 Berlin Marathon, that is the official marathon world record, as the Vienna race was not done under sanctioned race conditions.

So marathon times are relative.  For Al Roker, running the 2010 New York City Marathon in 7:09:44 was an accomplishment.  For Oprah Winfrey, her 4:29:20 in the 1994 Marine Core Marathon was a lifelong achievement.  The same goes for Kevin Hart’s 4:05:06, Alecia Keys’ 5:50:52, Pamela Anderson’s 5:41:03, and Will Ferrell’s 3:56:12.

Some runners don’t care about time, and run unencumbered by limits or expectations.  Not me.  I’m way too competitive for that.  Which is to say the times I run are judged most harshly by me, myself, and I.  I’m the one putting pressure on myself to perform and meet some preestablished goal.  I’m the one who defines himself by his performance, who experiences the euphoria of a stellar run or the deflating heartbreak of a horrible race or worse, a “bonk.”  Injuries are hard to take for anyone, but they are especially deflating and excruciating for me.  The same goes for race cancellations, which I fume and smolder about for weeks after they happen.

My obsession with the 2021 Philadelphia Marathon was a culmination of my competitive spirit and fixation on times, but also the build-up of so many setbacks: bonking in 2017, the double-knee injury in 2018-19, and of course, my bouts with Covid and the race cancellations in 2020.  I’d been focused since 2017 on finally running a marathon and making things right, and it seemed that 2021 was finally the year.

Then my knee started throbbing, right at mile 9 of the race.  A goddamn hinge with no grease.  Opening and closing, over and over and over again, friction, friction, friction.  And was it even ITBS?  Who knew.  It freaking hurt, that’s all I knew.  The pain and the reality that there were 17 more miles to run was all that filled my head.  Maybe I’d fractured my knee again, like in 2018?  If this were the case, it was all over.  Soon I’d no longer be able to support my weight, and my left leg would just give out.  Kaput.  I’d be out of commission for another 8 weeks, at least.  Time to go back to the orthopedic and get more x-rays and MRIs.  And what kind of damage was I actually doing to my knee continuing to run on it, anyway?  To pound the cement for another two-and-a-half hours?

I pushed through the pain and got to the top of Lansdowne Drive, trying not to think the unthinkable.  My knee didn’t really hurt that bad, did it?  Oh yes it did.  My mind was having difficulty processing the situation.  Throbbing pain in my left knee just didn’t compute.  Throbbing knee pain, huh?  This couldn’t be happening.  I’d trained too hard and prepared too long, obsessing over every detail, the weights, the stretching, the early morning long runs on the treadmill at 3:45 a.m. before work, the gel packs and water belts, the expensive running gear and new sneakers every 300 miles, and of course, the carb loading.  And the matter-of-fact proclamations made to family members and friends that I had this marathon all lined up and nearly in the bag.  I might not break 3:50:00, but I’d surely break 3:55:00, which would be a PR by a couple minutes and give me a sub-9:00/mile pace, which is what I longed for since 2017.  An 8:59/mile pace or better sounded so good.  It was right there for the taking, I just needed to run the race; I was so sure I’d complete the 26.2 miles I actually wore my 2021 Philadelphia Marathon “finisher” T-shirt on the Saturday before the race, setting the jinx in motion.

The course leveled off and flattened, but my knee didn’t feel any better.  I crossed the 10 mile mark at 87 minutes and some change, which meant I was running around 8:50/mile or so.  This was a good thing, as I was right on schedule with my race pace at this point on the course.  But I wasn’t happy at all.  In fact, I remember thinking it was all for naught, that the perfect execution of my race plan was worthless.  My left knee was on fire, and the pain was real and deep and not going anywhere.  Yet somehow, under the dejection, it still didn’t fully register.  There’s a throbbing pain in my knee?  Wait, what?  No, no, no, this isn’t right.  A pain like this – ITBS or a fracture? – this can’t be.  Not with 16 miles left to run.  I’ll never finish the race, not in a million years.

In a haze of denial, I continued past Memorial Hall and the Mann Music Center, remembering the two training runs I’d done here just weeks before, feeling a bittersweet combination of nostalgia and heartache.  That’s when reality hit home and I wanted to cry.  It was over, the race and everything that went into it was over.  My knee was busted and it was time to come to grips with it.  It was time to accept reality and dropout.  The thought that came next was How do I dropout?  When should I do it and where?  My mind couldn’t work through this information.  The race was winding past the Japanese Teahouse where my wife Debra and I got married in 2007.  It was really going to suck having to tell her the bad news, that I couldn’t even finish the race.  She’d be disappointed and feel really bad for me, no doubt.  She’d give me the requisite sympathy, the hugs and the I’m sorry, and that would be that.  She’d move on, but I certainly would not.  The Thanksgiving holiday coming up next Thursday would be miserable.  I’d be angry and depressed and extremely hard to be around.  I’d be moody and cynical and this would definitely take its toll on Deb and her mom.

My knee hurt so bad that I was no longer able to keep the same stride pattern.  My 8:50/mile cadence was pounding the same hotspot so I had no choice but to speed up, to open my stride and adjust the placement of my weight on my legs.  This dulled the pain slightly, but only slightly.  Pushing the pace increased my heartrate and released endorphins and kept me going.  I was probably going a bit too fast here, but what did it matter?  I wasn’t going to finish anyway, so why not put the gas down and just go for a bit?  So I went – back down Lansdowne Drive, my knee jarring excruciatingly all the way down the hill.  Up ahead, there was a trail of slower runners first making their way up the monster hill in the opposite direction, and I heard this husky black dude shout playfully, “What did I get myself into!”  He was sweaty and breathing heavy, but hanging in there nonetheless.  That’s when I thought to myself, At least your knee isn’t on fire.

I crossed West Girard Avenue, a stretch of the course I’d trained on twice in the past month, and the anger came back again. This was total bull crap.  How was it that I could cruise this stretch of road so easily in training, yet when it counted, my freaking knee would go bad?  Why couldn’t this just have gone the way it was supposed to go, the way I had planned it for so long?  I should be relaxing and enjoying this part of the course, holding back just a bit and conserving my energy for when it really counted – the last 6 miles of the race.  I should be smiling, taking in the cheering crowds waving signs, shouting you can do it! and you got this!  I should be loose and relaxed, breathing in the cool, 50 degree autumn air, feeling the rhythmic bounce of my stride as I cruised along and enjoyed the fruits of my long and exhausting training.

I was running with a very slight limp, and I realized I was favoring my left leg.  This was not good, and would surely wear down other muscles and body parts, like my left calf (which was taking the brunt of the limp), and my right quad.  I had already been experiencing some soreness in my calves and quads during the long training runs, and despite tapering my mileage before the marathon, I was not fully recovered.  Still, I pushed on.  I went by a few runners going up 33rdStreet, which was the last major hill in the race.  Through the pain fog of my knee I saw flashes of spectators clapping and giving high-fives, heard their cheers and spirited enthusiasm.  Picking up the pace only gave temporary relief, and the reality that I’d have to dropout – and the nagging question of how, when, and where – popped back into my head.

I started to formulate a rough plan: I’d dropout at the halfway point, right after I crossed the timing mat.  This way, I’d get an official half-marathon time, and it would help mitigate the humiliation and embarrassment because at least I could tell people I made it halfway through the race before my knee went.  It would completely suck and I’d be miserable for weeks, but it was something.  I took inventory of my knee again and realized it was no better.  The pain, on a scale of 1 – 10, was an 8 or 9.  I sensed that it was getting weaker and losing some stability, although I wasn’t sure because it hurt so bad and I was favoring it.  There was more than half the race to go – well over 13 miles.  Finishing was out of the question.  Just the thought of running through Reservoir Drive in Fairmount Park, all the way up Kelly Drive into Manayunk, and then all the way back to the Art Museum on a bum knee made me feel weak and dejected, and I couldn’t hold the thought for long.  It just wasn’t possible, even if my own life depended on it, or the lives of my brother’s kids.  Dear God, what would happen if the lives of Ali and Mack depended on me actually finishing the race – and by “finishing” I mean running all the way to the finish and breaking 4 hours?  What if that were the situation now, could I do it?  Could I save them, with my whole family depending on me?

No, I couldn’t.  I’d fail them and myself.  It was too much distance to cover and my knee hurt too bad.  But none of this mattered, because it was just some bull crap scenario in my head.  I was going to dropout at the halfway point anyway.  I prayed to God for help but my supplication made me feel weak and desperate.  God only helped those who helped themselves.  The timing mat for the halfway point came up and I ran across it.  I checked my watch and realized I’d run a 1:53:55.  Wow, that was faster than I thought.  I was slightly ahead of my goal time, which was 1:55:00.  This would have worried me, because my plan was not to go out too fast for the first half so I could save myself for the last, most brutal part of the marathon – the last 6 miles.  But what did it matter now?

I passed more runners, angry that the very part of the park I was running in now I’d just run two weeks ago, pain free.  Did I over-train?  Maybe.  I’d obviously done something to agitate my knee.  The pain was becoming overwhelming, and I knew I was nearing the end of my ability to cope.  I looked around the park – the baseball fields and soccer goals – and all at once realized that once I quit, that once I dropped out, I’d be miles away from the finish line area where my wife was supposed to pick me up.  She’d pull over in her car and wait for me, as she always did during these races, but I wouldn’t be there.  She’d surely begin to worry, because after an hour when I still didn’t show, her mind would turn to awful outcomes like a stroke or a heart attack or some other kind of horrible tragedy – like you hear happen to guys my age every so often in big city distance runs.  And I didn’t have my cell phone to call her, either.  So what would I do?  By the time I got there she’d be gone, checking hospitals.  Did you bring in any dead marathon runners this morning?  Yes, my husband is missing.  His name is Chris Paslay, he’s 49 years old, five-ten, 170 pounds.  Blond hair that’s now mostly gray, goatee, blue eyes and –

I would have to dropout at a water station, and get help from the people working there.  When was the next water station coming up?  I didn’t know.  But that’s what I’d do: borrow someone’s cell phone and call Deb and tell her I f’d everything up, that I wasn’t going to be meeting her at 20th and Spring Garden at 11:30 because I’d dropped out of the f’ing race.  Suddenly, my whole entire outlook on the marathon seemed presumptuous.  I had assumed I’d run a certain time and achieve a certain result, when such things weren’t written in stone.  When I dropped out, I’d have to hobble to an aid station, tail between my legs, and ask for a phone so I could call my wife and tell her my time was DNF – did not finish.  Then they’d have to call the meat wagon to come and pick my sorry ass up and cart me to the finish area to meet my wife.  What an incredible Thanksgiving we were going to have this year.

I tried to remember her cell phone number, not even realizing it was printed on the bottom of my bib number under the emergency contacts.  I was coming to a water station now, a bunch of school students from various running clubs holding out cups of water and Gatorade.  I decided to eat a gel pack instead of stopping, taking a drink from my own water bottle on my hip.  I realized that dropping out was too much of a headache for me to deal with at the moment, that it was more appealing to simply keep running then give into that impending darkness.  My knee was throbbing, but oh well.  Let it throb.  I was disgusted by the whole thing, and angry.  Better to run on my knee until my leg broke in half than to deal with the depressing alternatives.

I pushed on, realizing the pain was coming in waves, that it would come and go.  Yes, if I could bite the bullet and grind out the pain for a bit, it would fade some.  Although I was in a pain haze I was still aware of my surroundings, unlike when I bonked in 2017 and everything – everything – was a blur.  I could see a green ballfield to my left, and woods to my right.  I saw, with some curiosity, a tall, lean man in his middle 50s limping on the side of the road, a runner who’d dropped out with some kind of leg injury.  I took only minor comfort in it.  I wasn’t stopping, not here, not yet.  I’d at least make it down Fountain Green and onto Kelly Drive, a psychological landmark that I intended on reaching.  I meditated on the road in front of me, put one foot in front of the other, not thinking about anything.  Ten minutes later, I was heading down Fountain Green, taking short steps, limping slightly.

It was a small victory, making it to mile 16.  My original race plan took special note of mile 16, because it was at this point that things could start to get uncomfortable.  Nothing major, like in the last 5 or 6 miles of the race, but it was around here that you began to feel the wear and tear of pounding the pavement for two-and-a-half-hours, and of climbing hills for the past 45 minutes.  And it was here that I’d planned to change mental gears and get tough.  But instead of slipping into race mode, I was hanging on by a thread.  My goal now was to make it to the 30K timing mat, which was in about 2.5 miles.  Yes, that was doable.  I’d cross the 30K, get a decent time, and then quit.  This way, I’d have an official 30K time to show the guys at work and then they’d know I wasn’t a total wussy.

For the first time the pain in my knee wasn’t the only obstacle I was facing. Now I was dealing with the regular fatigue that comes with running a marathon, with the standard aches and pains of sore, tired muscles and achy joints.  My left calf – which was the MVP of the race so far – was working overtime and burning like crazy.  My right shoulder and bicep were tight and sore, and my hips were getting tight.  Kelly Drive was two lanes, and the elite runners on the left side were now returning back from Manayunk, striding down the home-stretch to the Art Museum, their model bodies striding along at amazing clips.  I was running on the double yellow line, and had to make sure my tired body didn’t swerve into them as they passed me.

The 30K had to be coming soon.  I pushed on, putting one foot in front of the other.  I didn’t care about my pace, I just kept moving forward.  Mile 18 came and went.  The course bent to the right and went down an off-ramp, and that’s when I saw the 30K mat and crossed it.  Well now.  I’m at 30K.  Why not just do an even 20?  I’m so close to Manayunk, and I’ve run this route so many times before, I could do it in my sleep.  Hell yeah, I’m doing it.

I leaned forward and pumped my arms, put one leg in front of the other.  I stared at the ground, mediating on the road.  I turned onto Ridge Avenue and could see the craziness of Main Street Manayunk just up ahead.  Incredibly, I felt a kind of second wind coming, a small reserve of energy.  My thoughts turned to simply getting to the 20 mile turnaround point.  Yes, I could do that, absolutely.  Things might not be a total disaster after all.

It was then, incredibly, that my knee pain faded.  This was probably due to the all-round fatigue of my entire body, and the generalized pain of my joints and muscles from head to toe.  I took an inventory of my left knee and yes, the pain was still there, but if I was careful, I could let it sit quietly in the background, almost unnoticed.

Up ahead, I saw a spectator – a big black guy who was having the time of his life –  holding a big cardboard sign with a red bullseye that said tap here for power.  I went up to the sign and slapped the center, hard.

“Yeah brother!” he shouted.  “You got this!”  I felt a charge run through my body, and I knew for the first time in a long time that I was going to finish the race.  I motored up Main Street, right through the swarming crowds of cheering people.  It was awesome, seeing so many people at the race supporting you, handing out food, tissues, water and shots of beer, partying hard.  I reached the 20 mile mark and turned around.

“You’re on your way home now,” a man was telling us, and it was true – we were coming home.  The psychological impact of this was a huge lift, now that it was finally crunch time, the last 6 miles of the marathon.  I’d been mentally preparing for this moment for months, for years.  I wasn’t going to bonk this time, no way.  I refused to think about the long road ahead, or of trying to run back to the Art Museum.  It was baby steps, from one landmark to the next, one mile at a time.  I knew I could get to mile 21, as I’d gone that far three weeks ago in a training run.  The landmark was the CVS, the one down the block from the Main Street Regal UA Movie Theater, which I soon reached and grinded past.  Mile 22 was Falls Bridge, which stood at the top of a slight incline on Kelly Drive.  I didn’t look at the hill, or the crowds which were literally pouring into the streets.  I put my head down and pushed, one foot in front of the other, and soon I was past mile 22 and gazing ahead to the next landmark, the Strawberry Mansion Bridge.  I could see it through the haze but I didn’t look at it for very long, as it seemed impossible to reach.  I breathed deep, and meditated on the road under my feet, putting one foot in front of the other.  I passed a water station and saw dozens of crushed paper cups littering the street.

Mile 23 came and went like magic, and so did mile 24.

Incredibly, I hadn’t stopped running yet.  By now it was clear that there would be no walking during this race, not today.  I grinded out mile 25 and up the hill to the Art Museum to mile 26, hardly able to comprehend what I was doing.  The last .2 miles – 352 yards, were dreamlike.  My head was up now, and I was taking it all in: the cheering crowds on both sides, held back by steel gates; the announcer on the loud speaker, calling out random names of finishers; and the big digital race clock at the finish line.

I went into my kick, the final sprint at the end of the race.  My legs were destroyed and my shoulders were aching, but I pushed forward through the finish line and across the timing mat.

And then it was over, the race and all the glorious suffering.  I checked my watch: 3:54:41.  Holy crap, how did I do that?  I looked again, to make sure it was correct, and it was: 3:54:41.  A race volunteer put a finisher medal around my neck – a miniature Liberty Bell – and handed me a tinfoil heat-sheet to wrap around my body to keep me warm.

“Thanks,” I said, my voice dry and hoarse.  I walked through the finish area into the white tents and was handed a bottle of water, a banana and granola bar.  I was still processing what had happened, how I’d run a 8:57/mile pace and racked up a personal best by 2 minutes and 3 seconds.  I staggered through a crowd of people, knowing that if I sat down I might not be able to get back up.  I used my last bit of energy to exit the race area, going through the gate onto Spring Garden Street.  I limped the four blocks to the corner of 20th Street, and sat on the steps of a Baptist church, waiting for my wife Debra to pick me up.

Like clockwork she appeared in her blue Mini Cooper, honking and smiling.

“How’d you do?” she asked, handing me a towel.

I smiled and collapsed into the passenger seat, still trying to process what had just happened.

And I’m still processing it now.

I’m writing this on Wednesday, three days after the race.  My body is already starting to get back to normal, with the soreness and aches in my calves and quads fading by the hour.  My left knee isn’t broken after all, and it looks as though I didn’t do any real damage (it wasn’t a fracture, but most likely a bad case of “runner’s knee”).  I’ll need to rest it for at least a few more days, or as long as it takes for the irritation in the tendon to die down.  Both the race and my time have finally sunk in, and yet I still can’t believe I ran the marathon all the way through, without stopping or dropping out.  And while I have nothing to complain about in terms of the final outcome, there’s still a part of me that wonders what I would have run with a good knee, one that didn’t throb and scream at me for hours.

Maybe 3:49:00, perhaps?

Maybe.

I’ll find out next year, when I lay it all on the line in Philadelphia in 2022.

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