Chasing the Sub-3 Dream in Philly

While waiting for the horn to signal the start of the 2014 Philadelphia Marathon, I couldn’t stop shivering. It was frigid outside. Perfect for running, but not perfect for standing around in shorts and a singlet. I had jogged for about ten minutes and had done all of my skips, leg swings, and A-skips in an attempt to warm up, yet still found myself back at the start with a tad too much time to spare. As the start time drew nearer and marathon participants gathered closer to the start line, a gentleman behind me exclaimed, “I’m getting cold just LOOKING at you!” While I should have been going over my game plan or giving myself a pre-race pep talk, I could only really think about two things: the fact that I was REALLY cold, and wondering if I had time to pee. I decided the answer was “no” and hoped I wouldn’t regret it.

The first six miles were filled with a healthy mix of excitement, hope, uncertainty, dread, and just a hint of panic. My goal for the 26.2 mile race was to finish in under 3 hours, which would require 6:51 minute miles. Luckily for me, there was 3 hour pacer, making his presence known by carrying red balloons and a sign marked 3:00. My plan was to tuck in behind his group and only allow myself to pass them after the 20 mile mark.

Mile 1 – 6:56
Mile 2 – 6:55
Mile 3 – 7:04

Throughout these miles, I saw my parents and sister not once, but twice! I gave them a big wave and a smile both times, and afterward they told me how happy I looked.

Mile 4 – 6:52
Mile 5 – 6:45
Mile 6 – 6:48

Then naturally, as anything can happen on race day, my grand plan unraveled pretty quickly. First of all, the pace felt uncomfortable, and that worried me. 6:50s should have felt easy, at least in the first 10K! Second of all, I was definitely regretting not making one last trip to the restroom before the start. I really had to go. I considered not stopping and holding it. I considered not stopping and peeing my pants. I wouldn’t have been the first marathoner to do it! Then I thought it over and decided if Paula Radcliffe could make a pit stop and still go on to win the London Marathon (2005), I could somehow make this work. The 3 hour pace group had been slowly slipping away from me, but I decided to reel them in a little and minimize the gap as much as possible before making my stop.

Mile 7 – 6:24

I turned a corner and the glorious restrooms were in sight. It was game time. I dashed over, picked a stall, and snapped the door shut. I was hyper-aware of how every second I was in there was another second away from my goal. I had a moment of sheer panic when I couldn’t get the paper to tear off of the brand new roll of toilet paper. THE CLOCK WAS TICKING. I clawed at the roll, desperate to peel away the paper which wasn’t budging. It was like a bad dream. I did what I could and afterward the roll looked like it had been attacked by Wolverine. I didn’t care. I had to get out of there! When I emerged from the room, the 3:05 pace group had just passed by. Oh no.

My immediate reaction was to want to rush back up to the 3 hour group, but I knew if I did I would risk burning out. I picked up the pace just enough to continuously pass the runners between me and the pace group, but not so fast I was leaving them at a standstill.

Mile 8 – 7:56

The time lost wasn’t as bad as I thought. I didn’t time the length of my stop, but it couldn’t have been more than a minute or so.

Mile 9 – 6:42
Mile 10 – 6:55

Right around miles 9 and 10, just by the Please Touch Museum, I caught a glimpse of the red balloons marking the 3 hour pace group. They were still pretty far ahead. I panicked slightly.

Mile 11 – 6:37
Mile 12 – 6:38

As I passed the 12th mile marker, I glanced at the clock displaying the overall time, which read 1:23-something. It was then I realized I was absolutely fine. I may not have caught up to the pace group, but I would make it to the halfway point in 1:30 and change, which was right on target.

Mile 13 – 6:56

Mile 13.1, halfway split – 1:30:30

After passing the halfway mark, I felt so calm. My legs felt fresh and my breathing was relaxed. For whatever reason, a mantra came to me that stuck with me through the remainder of the race: “You have a job to do. Now get it done.” Something about that phrase made it all seem so simple. I thought back on my training and how much time I had dedicated to getting from point A to point B in a very specific amount of time on this very specific day. The work had already been done. All I really had to do was carry it out. For the first time during the race, I felt totally confident in what I was doing.

The next stretch of miles took the runners along the Schuykill River. We were becoming pretty spread out, especially since the half marathoners had split off toward their finish. It was a little windy and I thought about how nice it would be to be running in a group and not all by myself.

Leading the way in no-man’s land.

I tried to keep picking up the pace with the hope I would catch the 3 hour group. How lovely it would have been to just latch on and coast to the finish with them!

Mile 14 – 6:33
Mile 15 – 6:43

At mile 16, I saw my friend Steffi handing out water at an aid station. She might have even handed me water. She cheered me on and it gave me a huge lift. Thanks Steffi! The course then took up into the main street of Manayunk. I loved this part of the race. It reminded me of the quaint New England towns I ran through during the Boston Marathon earlier this year. There were tons of spectators lining the street and cheering, which made for a really fun and energetic atmosphere.

Mile 16 – 6:49
Mile 17 – 6:51
Mile 18 – 7:08
Mile 19 – 6:41
Mile 20 – 6:47

Getting to mile 20 was a big one for me. The mile mark was just after a hairpin turn in Manayunk, and that turn would be my last one before heading to the finish. My plan was to give it everything I had in the last 10K and not hold anything back. I knew that time had come. There was nothing to lose.

Mile 21 – 6:41
Mile 22 – 6:37
Mile 23 – 6:44

Miles 21-23 were my absolute favorite part of the race. Typically those would have been the miles where the pain would really set in. I’d get a deep churning sensation in my stomach and my legs would revolt. This time, however, those miles were simply euphoric. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I felt as if I were firing on all cylinders. I was passing people left and right, and they actually cheered me on. I cheered for them right back. My legs were becoming fatigued, but that was okay. That could only be expected. It was the fact that I was pushing and my legs were allowing it.

Mile 24 – 6:44

You know how I said I was firing on all cylinders? Apparently I could only take so much of that. The screws were coming loose. If I had a little red warning button, it would have been flashing. My right IT band, which I’ve had all kinds of problems with, started to throb. My head started to feel a little foggy. I wasn’t thinking. It was almost like I was on autopilot. You have a job. Get it done.

Mile 25 – 6:55

The end was near. I spent the 26th mile desperately hoping each next curve in the road would bring a glimpse of the Philadelphia Art Museum, the landmark I would pass just before the finish line. I told myself that I could continue to cruise, but as soon as I saw that museum, it would be time to go. Somehow I continued to pass other runners, only for the sheer fact that maybe I was hurting slightly less than they were. A man called out, “You were the one shivering in front of me at the start!”

Mile 26 – 6:56

The art museum finally made its grand appearance. I took off my gloves, you know, just so everyone around knew I was SERIOUS. I contemplated symbolically throwing them on the ground (they’re just cotton throwaway gloves), but then thought I should save them for next time. Why was I even thinking about that? Focus! My knee throbbed. I felt somewhat delirious. I had tunnel vision. I entered the final stretch of the race in front of the museum, with throngs of people cheering on either side. I knew my family was watching and I tried to listen for them. I saw the clock reading 2:59-something and kicked it in as hard as I could across the finish line. Then I stopped. Stopping was glorious.

Gloves off, eyes on the finish! Also slightly disoriented!

I spent the next few minutes in a sort of stunned zombie walk through the finisher area. A volunteer wrapped me in a mylar space blanket and another ceremoniously placed a finisher medal around my neck. I found a huge cart of salted soft pretzels and it was the most beautiful site in the world. I realized that my back really hurt. I bent down and put my hands on my knees, which made it hurt even more. Then I started to sob.

I continued the long shuffle to the exit and somehow found my parents and sister right away. My Dad ran over to me and the first thing he said was, “You did it!” Somehow hearing it from him made it actually seem true for the first time. My sister showed me my finish time, which had been automatically sent to her phone, and it read 2:59:22. They all gave me big hugs, we took some photos, and just like that it was done.

I’ve had a few days to reflect since the race and I feel like I’m still processing 2:59 and what it means. I gave that race everything I had. Once I crossed the line I there was nothing left in the tank. I actually did throw out my back (though after two chiropractor visits and a sports massage it’s a lot better now). My hope is that I haven’t hit the ceiling, and that this is merely a checkpoint on the way toward greater goals!

7 responses to “Chasing the Sub-3 Dream in Philly”

  1. TWINS RUN (@TwinsRun) Avatar

    Congrats! We added your link to our list of race recaps! :-)

  2. emaiuolo Avatar

    Amazing!!!!! I was freaking out until that last 10k for you! Amazing amazing job!! You’re ALWAYS a ROCKSTAR!

  3. Dave Avatar

    What an epic race, Liz. So tough to battle demons in the beginning and your body near the end. A well deserved sub-3.

    1. Liz Anjos Avatar
  4. 404 Runner Not Found: Chicago Marathon Recap – Running Liz Avatar

    […] and thirteen and cruised through the half in 1:29:09. Side note: En route to running a 2:59 in the 2014 Philadelphia Marathon, I had gone through the halfway point in 1:30:30 which included a 60 second pit stop. When I […]


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Who is Mercury?

Liz Derstine, trail name “Mercury”, is a distance runner, endurance hiker, writer, and musician residing in Boston, MA. She holds fastest known times for women on the Appalachian Trail (supported, northbound), Long Trail (self-supported), and Pinhoti Trail (self-supported).

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