Race Review: Philly Marathon 2021
Will nearly 9,000 runners, the Philly Marathon is one of the top 10 marathons in the US. The race is typically held in late November, along with a half marathon and 8k in the same weekend.
I ran the full marathon on November 21, 2021, and I wanted to share my race recap for any future runners. Here’s what I thought of the event, plus my tips for making your race weekend as smooth as possible.
This post does have a few affiliate links to running products I use and love, meaning that I may earn a small commission on any purchases, at no extra cost to you.
The expo was held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in downtown Philly. I went in the late morning on Saturday and got my bib within a few minutes. Since COVID vaccination was required, you either needed to get your card pre-approved online or bring it to the expo. I got mine pre-approved, so I just showed my approval QR code before picking up my bib.
Once everything was scanned, I got a bracelet that we needed to wear all weekend (to show we’d made it through the screening). The bib pickup area was after that, and there was no line for me since it was spread out by bib number.
There were a handful of vendors, but the expo wasn’t the most interesting out there. One of the highlights was the meet-and-greet by Meb Keflezighi (2004 Olympic silver medalist in the marathon) and Aliphine Tuliamuk (2020 USA Olympic Trials champion). They also both were cheering along the course or handing out medals. I didn’t get a chance to see them since the meet-and-greets were at specific times, but my friend Henry got a high-five from Meb at around mile 7 of the race!
Since the expo was downtown, it was a good chance to explore the city a bit. Right across the street, there was the Reading Terminal Market, which had a ton of food vendors. It also wasn’t far from Chinatown, where we ended up eating (I highly recommend Spice C and the veggie Szechuan noodles).
The start/finish area was fenced off, so you could only enter at a few entrypoints, including one along Pennsylvania Ave near the Whole Foods, and another near Spring Garden Street. The race began at 7am, so I arrived at around 6:20am. It was still dark when I arrived, but the sun had risen by the start.
Runners were searched for any dangerous items, and masks were provided if you didn’t have one (they had to be worn until we were in our corrals). There were warming tents, a water station, and port-a-potties. I didn’t end up needing to go to the bathroom, but there seemed to be a good number of them. There was also gear check, but the lines were pretty long.
There were about 9 corrals total, based on your estimated finish time. The volunteers didn’t seem to pay too close attention to the assigned corrals, so it was possible to switch. My friend Henry was in a faster corral, but he joined me in mine to start. Each corral started about 2 minutes apart. There weren’t any pacers, so I found it helpful to start in the corral as close to your goal time as possible.
The temperature was in the low 40s at the start, and warmed up to the 50s by midday. This was ideal racing weather, though it was chilly at the start. I also brought an old sweatshirt to stay warm at the start, as any sweats discarded would be donated to charity. I raced only in a t-shirt and shorts, which was just right for me. Before the race, I made sure to apply Bodyglide to all the pesky spots that usually chafe.
I also carried a kid’s CamelBak with a small amount of water specifically for drinking between water stops. For shoes, I wore the Brooks Hyperion Elite 2 racing shoes.
My classic race face towards the end
The course ran through downtown Philly, past University City, the Philadelphia Zoo, and Manayunk. According to race officials, it runs through most cultural attractions of all marathons around the world.
The race starts at the foot of the Philadelphia Art Museum (home to the famous Rocky steps), goes towards the iconic city hall with French Second Empire style architecture, and heads along the river before looping back through the city. Here’s a breakdown of the miles:
- Miles 1-7: mainly in the city
- Miles 7-8: near UPenn and Drexel
- Miles 9-12.5: the park by the Philadelphia Zoo
- Miles 12.5-16: also in a park area
- Miles 16-24: out-and-back section along the river and through Manayunk
- Miles 24-26.2: along the river, back to the Art Museum for the finish
The course is fairly flat, but does have a non-negligible 583ft of gain. The biggest hills are at miles 7, 9.5, and shortly after mile 12. There was a small incline at around mile 7 that I assumed was the hill, but the actual hill was just a bit later, and was shorter and steeper.
I’d say that the hardest miles were actually miles 9-12.5, as this was the hilliest section and didn’t have much crowd support. The first 7 miles are extremely flat, and while there are quiet sections along the river (which I actually liked and found meditative), there are a ton of spectators in the city. It’s really easy to go out too fast in the beginning, so definitely save some steam for the hills.
Miles 14-15 were also quieter, but the out-and-back stretch to Manayunk had a healthy amount of crowd support almost the entire way. The turnaround point was full of energy and one of my favorite parts of the race. It was kind of emotional to finally be able to head back while having the crowds of people cheering everyone on.
Overall, the course was pretty solid and one of my favorites.
My main complaint would be that my GPS watch somehow ended up tracking 26.94 miles instead of 26.2. While I’m used to getting slightly more than the actual distance (like 26.5mi), this was a lot more. I saw others with 26.8+ miles on Strava too (though others had more reasonable distances). This not only makes you wonder whether you ran the right distance, but also makes the race experience more of a mental challenge—my watch was about 5 minutes off from the race mile markers by the end. I’m pretty sure there were GPS dead spots or something, as my tracking route looks funky, but you should just keep this in mind and maybe manually lap your watch to stay on-pace.
On a similar note, the participant tracking also didn’t work. There was no tracking app, but you could sign up to get email notifications for the 10k, 21k, and 30k points. My friend signed up for them, but never got anything, and other spectators had the same experience unfortunately.
There was yellow Gatorade and water at each fuel station, which was every two miles or so. At around miles 11 and 18, there were also Gatorade gels. All along the race, however, there were spectators handing out sweets like brownies, bagels, and donuts. There were even a couple beer stops!
I personally brought 6 of my own Huma gels to have one before the race and the rest every 4.5 miles. I also had a salt pill at mile 8 and 16 to replenish my electrolytes and prevent cramping. I didn’t have any of the free food along the course since I was going for a PR, but Henry was able to enjoy some of it since he was running for fun.
The stretch to the finish line felt pretty long, but it was lined with tons of spectators. Just like the start area, the finish area was closed off, so you had to meet your friends/family outside. I met mine just outside at the stairs of the Art Museum. If you’re staying on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue (like I was), be prepared to walk around the race finish area to get home.
There were sadly not too many vegan options at the finish line—there were bananas, juice, granola bars, chicken soup, hot dogs, and hamburgers. I ended up just grabbing a banana and orange juice. If you’re plant-based, I’d recommend asking your friends/family to bring you a salty snack, or pack one for yourself and leave it at gear check.
The shirt was a black, long-sleeve tech shirt with a pretty nice design. The women’s design had a v-neck while the men’s was a crewneck. I would’ve loved to see the option to opt out of the shirt and donate to charity instead, especially since this style of shirt is really common (I’d just gotten one at the Baystate Half Marathon).
We also got a clear drawstring bag, which was mainly provided for security purposes at race-day Gear Check.
The medal was the coolest part of the swag, as it had a cool design with the Liberty Bell, and it actually rings like a bell!
Congrats to Henry for finishing his second marathon in 2 weeks AND running a PR!
I had a lot of race week anxiety, so my sleep was a little off the three days before. I probably slept enough the first two nights, but on race night, I maybe got 5 hours of shut-eye.
The adrenaline pulled me through to race day though. The first 7 miles felt like a breeze, and I could tell it was going to be a PR day. I finished the first 10k in 54:20 (8:45/mile pace). I was hoping to pull off a 3:49 (8:45 pace), but knew that anything could happen between then and the finish.
Miles 7-12 were harder, and I started to have trouble breathing from miles 9-12 around the hills. I luckily got my breath under control and stayed pretty steady in pace. I finished the first half in 1:53:39 (8:40/mile), which put me on-track for a 3:47:18 finish.
I was able to keep up an average 8:45 pace until around mile 20, but then I started running 9-9:20 miles. For the first time, the main issue wasn’t my breathing—the issue was my burning quads and calves. I could tell that they were going to seize up if I overdid it.
I luckily avoided any cramping, and I ended up finishing in 3:53:46 (8:55 pace), which was a 5:40 PR.
I’m overall pretty happy with my performance, especially since I know I did my best. I actually did have terrible quad spasms/cramps right after the race, so I feel very lucky they didn’t happen during.
As I mentioned though, I was annoyed with the 26.94 mile distance on my watch. If I actually ran that distance, my real marathon time would’ve been around a 3:47 (8:40 pace), which I thought I had in me. I probably did run a reasonable marathon distance though, since I did try to run the tangents and my GPS path was weird and squiggly. I just wish my pacing had been easier to follow during the race.
Either way, this was a big improvement from my worst marathon experience in Providence earlier this year, where I finished in 4:20. I know I’m in the best running shape I’ve ever been in, and it feels good to see that reflected in my PR.
I’m also extremely lucky that I made it through this training cycle without any major mishaps. I did have a couple tight hamstrings that I was able to keep under control, as well as a couple weeks of burnout, but this was by far my smoothest marathon training cycle. This is likely because I stayed consistent with my strengthening exercises. And while increased my mileage, I also took at least 2-3 rest days per week.
I’m already experiencing some marathon “withdrawal” and am looking forward to the next one—after a bit of rest, of course!
All in all, I would definitely recommend the Philly Marathon. There’s good energy along the relatively flat course, and the city itself is fun to explore. Let us know what you thought of the race if you’ve run it before, and feel free to leave any questions in the comments!
I was cheering for my daughter running the marathon and I happened to see you at the finish line! What a small world. Congratulations on your PR! Your hard work paid off!
Also, I love the design of the medals!
Running Philly 2022 as my first marathon; really appreciate the great recap to help me visualize what I’m in for!
I’m glad it could help! Enjoy the race 🙂
Thank you Lily for sharing your story. Philly 2022 is also my first in-person marathon. Your recap helps! Congrats on your PR!
I’m so glad you found it helpful! Best of luck with your first in-person marathon. You picked a great one! 🙂