The Philadelphia Marathon was a great return to big-city marathons

Runners wait to begin the Philadelphia Marathon. There are country flags on both sides and skyscrapers in the distance.
I ran the Philadelphia Marathon on Sunday, Nov. 21. (Vanessa Junkin photo)

As I ran through the streets of Philadelphia on Sunday, Nov. 21, there were people cheering for me by name and plenty of fun signs to look at. It had been more than a year and a half since my last road marathon, which took place March 1, 2020, only a couple weeks before everything started shutting down because of the pandemic, and I missed the amazing crowds that come out to support runners in big cities.

My race weekend started Saturday morning. I woke up early and left the house a little after 7 a.m. for the two-and-a-half-ish-hour drive to try to make it to a session at the expo with pro marathoners Meb Keflezighi and Aliphine Tuliamuk, along with moderator Bart Yasso of Runner’s World and Yasso 800s fame. I parked at about 10 a.m. and after quickly getting my vaccination QR code checked along with my race shirt and bib, I was able to make it in time for most of the 10 a.m. session, during which Keflezighi and Tuliamuk answered questions from the audience.

Photo of Vanessa Junkin and pro runner Aliphine Tuliamuk. Vanessa is holding race bib.
Here I am with Olympic Marathon Trials winner Aliphine Tuliamuk.

I was also able to meet all three of them afterward. I’ve met Keflezighi at two races before — the Vermont City Marathon and my most recent marathon, the Publix Atlanta Marathon — and I have met Yasso at several events, including our local Algonquin 50K, which we talked about. This was my first time meeting Tuliamuk, though I did see her win the Olympic Marathon Trials last year. Tuliamuk and Keflezighi also both signed my bib.

The expo was held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, right by one of my favorite spots in Philadelphia, Reading Terminal Market. I explored Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens for the first time and checked in to my Airbnb in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood. After dinner, I made it a relatively early night for an early wake-up call the next day.

I picked an Airbnb that was close enough to the start for me to walk. It was about a mile to the nearest security entrance for the race. Before leaving the Airbnb, I had some oatmeal and some Nuun (which had caffeine, which might not have been the best idea). At first, I didn’t see other runners, but as I got closer, there were plenty. I was in the second-to-last corral, so once I made it to the closest entrance, I was directed to a further spot. I didn’t check a gear bag, but the security lines were long and I was a little worried not everyone would get in on time, but with plenty of people who had lined up behind me, I figured they couldn’t start without all of us.

Meb Keflezighi and Vanessa Junkin pose for a photo. Vanessa is holding race bib.
Here I am with Olympic medalist Meb Keflezighi.

The starting corrals were along Benjamin Franklin Parkway, with flags from many nations lining both sides of the street. We used to have a country flags game when I was a kid, so I tried to quiz myself a little bit as I waited. I didn’t bring any throwaway clothes, but I really wasn’t that cold for being in shorts. I knew the temperature would warm up enough to wear shorts, and I was definitely glad I wore them, as I prefer shorts to pants for running. Over my short-sleeve Eastern Shore Running Club shirt, I wore a light jacket that I tied around my waist around Mile 2.

The course made its way onto Arch Street and through Chinatown. After hearing from Keflezighi, Tuliamuk and Yasso the previous day, I figured I would try for negative splits — always ideal. I thought I’d try to keep my miles under 12:00 for as long as I could and then see if I could speed up. However, I ended up making the first mile of the day my fastest, at 10:55. I ran the next two miles in 11:11 and 11:14, and it seemed easier than it should to keep up those paces, but obviously, I was only a few miles into a 26.2-mile race, and I reminded myself of that.

The race continued into Old City, then onto South Street and through Center City. I enjoyed reminiscing about past trips to Philly when I saw different landmarks and buildings along the way. Although I’d been able to go before the race began, I stopped at a porta-potty during Mile 4, slowing that mile down to 14:30. I noticed I was still on track for sub-12 as I continued along, and my next three miles started with an “11.”

Selfie of Vanessa Junkin and Bart Yasso.
Here I am with Bart Yasso.

Relatively early on, I saw someone dressed up as Santa Claus. I told him good job and he responded “Ho Ho Ho.”

During Mile 8, after we crossed the Schuylkill River into University City, I noticed what felt to me like the first significant hill of the course. The flat terrain had felt good, though I did notice earlier than I would have liked that I was having a problem with coughing. This has been an ongoing problem for me that has seemed to not be as much of an issue with better hydration, so I made an issue to drink more water in the days leading up to the race. I also stopped at every water stop along the course, and there were a ton. In addition to continuing to stay hydrated, I also like the brief breaks that water stops provide during a marathon.

During Mile 10, there was another significant hill, and I heard someone ask if it was the biggest hill and someone answer “yes.” Strava logged the “Lansdowne Dr Climb” as 0.27 miles with a 4.6 percent grade and the “Mile 10 Climb,” which covered some of the same area, as 0.57 miles with a 3.1 percent grade. I walked this hill and the last one I mentioned, and would continue to walk the uphills throughout the race. I live in an extremely flat area and with such a long race, I figured I would save my running energy for flats and downhills.

After making it up the hill, we did a two-mile loop by the Please Touch Museum before heading back down the hill we’d just come up. It was nice to see the runners heading down the hill as I ascended, because I knew the descent was in the future. A Strava segment going down the hill called “down champions climb” was 0.32 miles with a -3.5 percent grade, and that I was able to run at a 10:41 pace.

After that, we crossed the Schuylkill River again and made another lollipop-type loop, this one around the Fairmount Park athletic fields. Before making it to the loop, I decided to stop for the bathroom again, and lost a small amount of time before seeing the condition of the porta-potty and deciding to wait for the next one. You know a porta-potty must be in bad shape when a runner decides not to use it on the course. There were other runners being picky at this stop because not all of them had toilet paper, but another runner was trying to get them going. I made it to another one during the loop, my second bathroom break of the race.

Running items laid out for a photo, including ESRC Racing Team shirt, signed race bib, watch, shoes, jacket, hat and mask.
Here’s my flat runner, including my signed race bib.

After the loop, I ended up running near an extremely encouraging runner who was pumping up the people who were running the other direction. He said he was racing in every state, and he would have 38 left to go after this one. Another runner near us said she was running her last marathon — Philadelphia had been her first and would be her last.

We entered an out-and-back section on Kelly Drive to loud, enthusiastic cheering. For me, this was by far the toughest part of the course. The out-and-back began at Mile 16 and continued until almost Mile 25. There was some crowd support, but it was more spread out, and the scenery was pretty similar for most of the out-and-back. I liked the fall leaves and the Schuylkill River, but knowing we were heading out for more than four miles and then would be turning around to run almost the same four miles again was tough — there was one slight section that was different.

At one point, I heard someone encouraging a runner who was heading the other direction that there was only a 5K left to go. However, I still had 8.5 miles. It seemed that most of the “out” part of the out-and-back was a gradual uphill, though there were some downhills. I figured being so close to the water, it would be flat. However, I kept it in mind that I would get the downhill that the runners going the other direction were getting.

Vanessa Junkin running up hill with person cheering to the left.
Rachee got this photo of me coming back during the out-and-back of the Philadelphia Marathon. I think I’m only running up the hill because I saw her… (Rachee Fagg photo)

The turnaround was in Manayunk, which offered the first different scenery we’d had in a while and looked like a cool neighborhood. There was also a Philadelphia Marathon mural near the entrance to Manayunk. Someone held a sign about starting the “Manayunk 10K.”

I’d slowed down and done a decent amount of walking, but I thought a sub-5:30 finish might still be in reach. I tried to pick it up on the downhills and flats. Originally, I’d been thinking I would go for sub-5:15, but the more walking I had to do, the more out of reach that got.

As I continued back on the out-and-back, there weren’t anywhere near as many runners heading the opposite direction this time. Along the way, I got to see Jill, who mentioned she’d be out there cheering, twice, and Rachee, a fellow BibRave Pro, who was also out there cheering. I also saw BibRave Pro Joe as he ran back as I was heading out.

As I ran, I also got to see John, Vanessa and Greg, who I know through Beast Pacing. It was nice to see several people I knew even though it wasn’t a local-for-me race.

Along the way, my watch had gotten off from the mile markers, which happens in all races — it’s more pronounced for me the longer a race is. During the “back” section of the out-and-back, I was hitting the mile markers about 0.4 miles after I hit each mile on my watch. However, I gave the last bit of the race what I had, as I knew it would be over soon.

Selfie of two runners, Vanessa and Joe.
Here I am with BibRave Pro Joe after the race.

After finishing the out-and-back section, the last mile-plus was also on Kelly Drive. As I saw the finish line coming into view, I realized I would very likely be seeing a 5:34 finish. I knew that my slowest marathon finish was a 5:34 at the Marine Corps Marathon in 2019, so I pushed as hard as I could so that I could try to not run my slowest marathon. My final time was 5:34:20, 25 seconds faster than I ran my marathon in Washington, D.C./Arlington. I ended up with 26.64 miles on my watch — not uncommon for a large race, as can be difficult to follow the tangents, there are plenty of people on the course, and there were also tall buildings that could have interfered with GPS.

I received my gold finisher medal with a ringing Liberty Bell and picked up some post-race food, finding a spot to sit on the ground near Greg and a couple of his friends. Someone I was sitting by afterward talked to me about how strong my push was at the end, which was nice to hear. After having a banana and a few sips of water and sitting there for a little bit, I got a few photos and made the slow walk back to my Airbnb.

On the way back, there were a few men hanging out by the sidewalk I was walking on. One asked if I finished, and I said yes. Another asked what place I got. I thought there were 20,000 people running (that was probably for the whole weekend), so I guessed 15,000 or 16,000 something. But then I figured I would look it up. When I checked that day, I was 6,665th. I figured there may be some adjustments after race day, and now I see that I came in 6,688th.

Vanessa Junkin takes selfie holding Philadelphia Marathon finisher medal.
Here I am with my Philadelphia Marathon finisher medal.

I really appreciated the crowds along the course. Because my name was on my bib, I heard lots of personalized cheers for Vanessa, which was motivating and made me smile. I saw lots of fun signs, such as “The Gang Runs A Race,” from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “It’s a Bones Day,” from the popular TikTok series and even a large cat head that was being held up on a stick. I always think it’s fun to see the signs that reference things happening in the world, and a couple signs mentioned Britney Spears, for example. There were “Touch here for power” signs and a sign that had runners vote for Wawa or Sheetz (I chose Wawa). There was another one that read, “We’ve been trying to reach you about your car’s extended warranty.”

When heading past an apartment building on the “out” of the out-and-back, people were playing the song “Crazy in Love,” which I thought was funny because the lyrics went, “Lookin’ so crazy.”

There were also people dressed up along the course — foxes, a “Dino-Sore,” and Pikachu, for example. There was beer offered along the way — I didn’t take that, but I did take a piece of candy from someone offering fun-size pieces by the end, though I ate it after finishing. I brought Clif Shot Bloks to take along the way and also had some Gatorade from the aid stations as I could feel it was getting a little warm at times. Overall, the weather was perfect.

Vanessa Junkin poses by fountain with statues above.
Here I am by a statue after finishing the Philadelphia Marathon.

Although I only came in 25 seconds ahead of what I ran at Marine Corps, I didn’t feel horrible like I did there, though the breathing problems were certainly annoying. I kept coughing and people would continually say “bless you,” even though I hadn’t sneezed. I felt so worn down at Marine Corps, and at this one, although I slowed down, I think my effort was more evenly spaced out. I did not end up with negative splits, but I was pleased that I completed the first half in 2:40:12, since I will be pacing the 2:45 half marathon group at the Rehoboth Seashore Half Marathon on Dec. 4. I was able to run faster than my pacing time, and that included a bathroom break and some hills (plus, I was saving some energy for the remaining 13.1 miles).

According to the results, my average pace was 12:45; because my watch logged 26.64, I had an average pace of 12:33 on my watch.

I was impressed by how smoothly the race went. Runners had to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and there was an easy process for runners to have vaccination cards verified ahead of time and just show a QR code. I heard some people waited in an expo line Friday (which would have also included half marathon runners), but on Saturday, it only took me a couple minutes to get my bib and shirt. The water stops and volunteers were great, and the course was easy to follow.

However, I’ve heard this race is flat, and it certainly wasn’t Salisbury- or Rehoboth-flat. The elevation tracked on my watch is always wrong, but Strava’s elevation corrections show 650 feet of elevation gain and Garmin shows 998 feet. Clearly, both of those can’t be correct, but it was not like running in Salisbury.

I went to bed on the early side Sunday, but beforehand, I had dinner at Varga Bar, one of my favorite spots, and enjoyed a latte and croissant from Vibrant Coffee Roasters, which was right across from my Airbnb. I returned to Vibrant the following day for an iced coffee and delicious Bakers Toast.

I’d originally signed up in 2019 to run this race in 2020, but of course, it was canceled because of the pandemic. This was my 13th marathon and my ninth marathon state. Philadelphia was a great place to return to big-city marathons.

Gold finisher medal with Liberty Bell and City Hall on it with the real Liberty Bell and City Hall in the background.
I took my finisher medal to the Liberty Bell the day after the race. (Vanessa Junkin photo)


Mile 1: 10:55
Mile 2: 11:11
Mile 3: 11:14
Mile 4: 14:30 (bathroom stop)
Mile 5: 11:19
Mile 6: 11:40
Mile 7: 11:52
Mile 8: 12:54
Mile 9: 12:18
Mile 10: 12:59
Mile 11: 12:01
Mile 12: 11:21
Mile 13: 12:11
Mile 14: 13:27
Mile 15: 14:37 (bathroom stop)
Mile 16: 11:56
Mile 17: 12:48
Mile 18: 14:01
Mile 19: 13:25
Mile 20: 12:17
Mile 21: 13:28
Mile 22: 13:34
Mile 23: 13:03
Mile 24: 12:15
Mile 25: 12:39
Mile 26: 13:01
Last bit (watch had .64): 7:15 / 11:21 pace

Official Time: 5:34:20 / 12:45 pace; Watch Time: 5:34:22 / 12:33 pace

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7 thoughts on “The Philadelphia Marathon was a great return to big-city marathons

  1. Congratulations!! I’m glad you had a great experience! I ran the full in 2016 and that long stretch on Kelly Drive is so mentally tough!! Manayunk is one of the best parts of the marathon. It does seem that the race is hillier than it was in previous years, but you did a great job handling them!

    The spectators just seemed exponentially more energizing and exciting this year!

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