2013 Pittsburgh Marathon: my 135th race was the worst I finished, but I did!

Franklin Chen, runner of steel

Franklin lying down

Yesterday, for my birthday, I ran the Pittsburgh Marathon for the second time. The first time was ten years ago, in 2003. That was an ordeal in which I had aimed at finishing in 3:30 and in fact run the first half in 1:45, but then faltered badly to struggle to finish in a chip time of 3:53:25.

My second Pittsburgh Marathon went even worse. I had wanted to finish in 4:00, but instead finished in 4:38:21.

This was my 135th race in my life, and the worst of them all that I actually finished (I failed to finish one 30K race because of severe illness that should have kept me from going to the start line at all).

Here’s my report on what happened, why, my thankfulness for all the good that came from the experience, and my running plans for the future.

Coming back from injury and burnout

I think it’s important to understand that my poor performance did not come from nowhere. I had battled injury and burnout for some time. Logically, I should not have gone to the start line at all.

Night before

I got zero sleep the night before the race. Terrible, but my body was probably confused by the carb-loaded diet as well as my insistence on spending the whole day napping because I was so tired. I had felt that I had to do that napping because I was not going to be able to sleep well at night anyway.

Early morning on race day

Super early, Abby drove us to the North Shore to park. Then we napped for a bit before heading to the nearest light rail (aka “T”) station to wait for a ride downtown:

Abby and I wait for T

We got downtown finally, I dropped off a bag of post-race flip-flops at Gear Check, time was starting to run out, and I got in line for a Port-a-pottie:


It was 15 minutes before I did what I needed to do. Then I had to quickly head to my corral.


Franklin before marathon

What I wore:

Entering the corral

This is the second race in my life in which I have carried a phone. I planned to use it only in case of emergency, and in order to meet up with Abby afterwards, but as you can see, while I had a chance, I took some photos also.

Corral C

I was assigned to corral C because of my estimated finish time of 4:00 that I had written down when signing up for the marathon months ago.

This was my first mistake. Given my comeback from injury and inactivity, the truly logical thing for me to have done was to set a very conservative goal of simply finishing the marathon without terrible suffering. Given that I ended up finishing in 4:38, I might as well have moved back into another corral and planned to finish in the 4:20-4:30 range, in which case I bet I would have done that with minimal pain and suffering.

In the future, I resolve to face the facts on the ground in any event as strenuous as a marathon. It doesn’t make any sense what I did, especially given that I was perfectly smart when in March I did my first half marathon in nine years and ran it conservatively and had a great experience! I am capable of logical reasoning and have actually executed it in the past. But apparently the marathon puts me into a hyper-emotional frame of mind.


Also, I had chosen not to sign up to follow an official pacer, because on all my long training runs, I had found my own pace by feel, and done well ignoring pacers. My plan was simply to go slow and then get faster. I did look around for pace signs. I only saw one from where I was standing: a sign near the front of the corral for finishing in 3:50. I looked back and saw no other signs.

This was my second mistake. Given that I had not done any serious running for ten days, with my longest run being only two miles, and my last “long” run was an eleven-mile run fifteen days ago, I should have realized that whatever “feel” I had for pace was gone, and I should have moved back in the corral till I found a 4:00-finishing pacer, at least (but as mentioned earlier, what I should have done was move into a slower corral altogether and then found a suitable pacer there).

Race start

There was a moment of silence for Boston.

Star-Spangled Banner, then the waves began. A photo as mine was approaching the start line, around 7:05 AM:

About to reach the start line

Then we went.

Wrong pace

I honestly thought I was going slow. I was hardly breathing at all. I was going so “slow” that I pulled out my phone to take some photos. But then I got very confused, because the 3:50 pacer was still in my sight after many minutes:

Early in the marathon

I could not process this information. Part of me wanted to slow down, but I felt like I was barely running. Part of me believed that the pacer must be slow, but come on, these pacers are supposed to be reliable.

So I made the mistake of not trusting the pacer. It sounds crazy, but I really felt like I was going too slow.

Slowing down?

At some point, I lost sight of the pacer, so I felt reassured that I must have slowed down properly. Here’s another problem: I did not keep track of my mile splits because the mass of people made it hard for me to actually reliably spot any mile markers on the course; I don’t even know how many actually existed.

Crossing bridge

I even took a photo of myself 40 minutes into the marathon feeling fine.


There were spectators on bridges, some of them positioned seemingly precariously.

Spectators on bridge

At some point I realized that I could see the 3:50 pacer up ahead. I got worried. It was unlikely that I was magically super-fit now. But I didn’t feel like slowing down.

At some point I must have started slowing down, because eventually I saw a 3:55 pacer pass me.

Still, it appears from the alert system that I signed up for (to notify my parents by email, and Abby by text message, and my Facebook friends and Twitter followers), that I did the first 10K (6.2 miles) in 55:29, meaning an average pace of 8:56 and estimated finish time of 3:54:04. That’s much faster than the 9:08 pace I had intended for a 4:00 finish.

Really slowing down

I started really slowing down before even reaching the Birmingham Bridge. I knew I was getting into serious trouble. It was crazy, but my left knee was bothering me, and my left quads had started to twitch. So I had gone only about 11 miles and I was already struggling.

On Birmingham Bridge

You have to understand how nonsensical it is for me to be having muscle cramping after running only 11 miles at a pace that is actually slow for an 11-mile run.

Even if we assumed, falsely, that I got to mile 11 at the same pace as during my first 6.2 miles (8:56), note that I ran an entire half marathon (13.1 miles) in late March, only in the beginning of marathon training, at an average of 8:28 pace, and was totally fine with no cramping during the race. And after a couple of weeks of further training, I had felt much stronger during a 16-mile run.

So basically, it was a cruel joke I played on myself that I was in such poor condition that I was cramping up after 11 miles at a slow pace. I was very angry at myself that I had made a complete travesty of my marathon, just like in 2003.

Halfway, and change of plan

I slowed down more in Oakland to keep the left quad twitching under control.

According to the alert system, I got halfway in 1:59:46, average pace of 9:09, and estimated finish time of 3:59:31. But of course, by then, I knew that I was done for. I was just going to continue slowing down and suffering, for over two more hours, if I finished at all.

When I finally saw the 4:00 pace group pass me, somehow that was a real blow to me.

At 9:27 AM, not too long after the halfway point, I texted Abby: “Severe pain. Very slow, just aim finish. Maybe 4:30.”

Now my main thought was to focus on making it to Annie (of the Pittsburgh Recorder Society), who was going to watch for me in Highland Park, just before mile 20. I had told her to expect me around 10 AM, and Annie had even posted to the Pittsburgh Recorder Society Facebook page telling everyone I was running.

I was so not going to make it for 10 AM. But I wanted to go slowly enough that I could hold off the quad cramping.


At around 9:49 AM, Chris passed me and said hello. I told him I was doing very badly. He wasn’t doing as well as he had hoped, but was moving along, unlike me. Here’s a photo I had the presence of mind to take only as he had already gone way ahead (in the blue shirt):

Chris up ahead in blue shirt

At 9:54 AM, I made a video statement on my phone, just for myself: “I’m after mile 17 or something, in Homewood. I’m doing really badly, but I’m still running, and that’s all I can say about that.”

Despair after mile 17 in Pittsburgh Marathon


At 10:11 AM, not yet at Annie’s, I was contemplating quitting, because the pains I was experiencing (right quads twitching also, and even my arms and hands, mysteriously, in spots where I had old injuries years ago, plus a really bad blister on my right foot where I had all those skin problems earlier, and less bad but very annoying constant chafing of the Luna Sandals straps) were so terrible. I decided to just take a break at a fluid station and squat and stretch. I texted Abby: “Very bad shape. Rested some.” I also finally posted to Facebook, “In very bad shape. Trying to finish anyway.” I was not actively reading Facebook during the marathon at all, but did notice a lot of notifications, and assumed they were words of encouragement from my friends; I didn’t want to read them until I was done, because I felt I might let them down. Abby replied, “What is your plan?”

At 10:19, I said, “Don’t know. Walking, blister and cramping.”

A note on the blistering and chafing: it got really warm and I got sweaty, so that was part of the problem. I had not run in these sandals in such conditions before: I had mostly run in dry, cold conditions of 35-50 degrees F. Also, I had forgotten about road hazards: there were cups of water and Gatorade all over around the aid stations and my feet were sticky and wet for much of the marathon. It was a rather unpleasant feeling.

I kept running/walking. I saw Annie. I decided there and then, seeing her, that I was going to finish, rather than just bail out and crash on her couch or something pathetic like that. I shouted that I was in severe pain but planned to continue on! She took a photo of me, which I knew was going to be on Facebook before too long, so I’d better make good on my promise to her!

Franklin in Highland Park

At 10:29, I texted Abby: “Got to Annie. Running again.”

I then focused on just continuing to move, slowing to a walk if I needed to in order to deal with cramping.

Mile 22

At 10:51, I reached S Aiken, just before mile 22. This is an important point in the course for me, not only because it begins a downhill, but also because it is where my friend Nathaniel cheered me on ten years ago when I was also suffering.

S Aiken

Strip District

At some point, I was getting discouraged again and started walking, when I accidentally spotted Deb and Mark watching. Seeing familiar faces among the spectators is definitely helpful! Upon seeing them, I felt ashamed of my walking and my negative thoughts. I went up to them, and they were going to take a picture of me, and I got all determined, and screamed, “I’m going to finish this thing!!”

Franklin determined to finish

I kept on running, and did not stop, even though I saw many people walking, and also saw many relay runners zooming by. I decided that I was not only going to finish (it was now clear that I could), but that I was going to finish as strong as I could, even though it would count for nothing. I was going to run at the edge of quad twitching, all the way to the end. It was going to hurt far more than if I just ran very slowly to finish, but I didn’t come this far just to walk if I could run. I was determined to push.

Franklin in Strip District

As I got closer and closer, I periodically texted Abby the street I had just crossed, so that she would know roughly when I was going to finish.

Finish line

And so I finished. I finished in a state of my quads twitching like firecrackers. I got my medal. I kept on walking. I grabbed a bag of chips and water. I forgot to look for other stuff, like Smiley Cookies (that Abby later said she saw were being handed out). I just wanted to stop the twitching, get my bag from Gear Check, get out of my Luna Sandals into some comfortable, cushioned flip-flops, use a Port-a-potty, and finally find Abby and the “CMU tent”, which I assumed was just a section of the Pittsburgh Corporate Challenge Tent. (I had bought a bracelet for Abby earlier so that she could have access to the tent.)

After finishing

I could barely walk after I started cooling down, because I got stiffer and stiffer. It took me forever to make it to the Finish Line Festival area, and I was so mentally drained that I had to call Abby to have her tell me where the tent was.

Videos (update of 2013-05-23)

Videos of the Pittsburgh Marathon have been posted.

I found myself in one of the sets of videos, for those who finished in a clock time between 4:40:00 and 4:50:00.

You can see me at around 4:44:35 and finishing at about 4:44:40 here:

The tent and the Pittsburgh Campus Challenge

When I signed up for the Pittsburgh Campus Challenge through Carnegie Mellon University, there was advertised to be “gourmet food, private massages, and more” in the tent. The reality was actually quite different.

Abby said it was a good thing she made it to the tent before too late (she had gone back to nap in the car after seeing me off), because by 10 AM, half marathoners had eaten much of the food already, and she had remembered to save some for me for later! There was still food left, but much of the good stuff was gone. And it wasn’t really “gourmet”. There was dry fried chicken, rolls, pasta left, as far as I could tell, other than the pancakes Abby had saved from earlier, and a Panera Bread sandwiches she also saved for me.


Tent food

There was a signup sheet for massage by Massage Envy, however, and a very long wait, as I got my massage after one hour and twenty minutes, which was actually OK because I was so sore I simply needed to be left alone for a while to just eat and eat and rest.

CMU won!

When I came into the tent, there was confusion because I didn’t have a sticker on my bib indicating that I had access to the tent. Apparently I was supposed to have gotten a sticker at some point, but I don’t remember getting instructions about that.

When they learned I was with CMU, however, they gave me the prize for CMU winning the Pittsburgh Campus Challenge, to hand over to Pattye at CMU. We beat Pitt!

Pittsburgh Campus Challenge prize


My feet were terribly sore. I got one blood-filled blister:

Blister on right foot

But otherwise, the damage was not as bad as I had thought. During the marathon, I had wondered sometimes about all the stickiness I felt on my feet, but it was not blood after all; it was a mixture of energy gel, Gatorade, orange juice, and whatever else was left on the road that got onto my feet:

I had two chafing spots from the straps, but they were not serious. All in all, my feet were in much condition after wearing the Luna Sandals than they were ten years ago after wearing standard socks and running shoes. The drawback is that my feet were horribly sore, although after one night of rest, the foot soreness is actually all gone.

One day later

However, I do have a different problem: one day later, numbness in my left foot remains, because I had adjusted my strap for my left foot too tightly, out of fear of it coming off. Overly tight strap was a big mistake. I did make an adjustment at some point during the race, but I could at least have loosened the strap earlier when I felt discomfort.

In all my previous runs, my left foot has never fallen out. I hope the numbness goes away in another day.

My feet the day after


My legs were utterly trashed, as might be expected given how I had tortured them for so long. At first, I thought it was just my quads and hamstrings, but once I pulled off the calf sleeves, I realized that my calves were trashed too, but had completely avoided cramping because of the compression. I count this as a total success for the calf sleeves, because in the marathon ten years ago, my calves were seizing up in the second half, not just my quads. I will always wear calf sleeves in the future in long runs or hikes.

Em of Massage Envy was very helpful in getting me able to sort of walk, so that I could go with Abby back over to the North Shore to our car (I had to walk across the bridge, then waited as she brought the car over).

Massage Envy

Overall, I think wearing the Luna Sandals was the correct decision, despite the drawbacks. I did not have toe jamming, toe blistering, toe cramping that I believe I would have had in other footwear. I did not have ankle soreness of any kind. Or shin splints. I did not have any right knee pain at all, just left (and almost certainly because of my fall on Thursday). I could have used more cushioning though. But my order of the thicker Luna Sandals (the new Mono model) has not yet shipped.


I have a lot to be thankful for even though in some sense this marathon was truly a debacle for me.

I am thankful that this race returned to Pittsburgh after suspension in 2004-2008, as Dick’s Sporting Goods rose up to be the title sponsor. I am amazed by how large and popular the Pittsburgh Marathon has become since I last ran it ten years ago. I think it’s great that the city has this annual celebration of its neighborhoods and of the running community. The Pittsburgh Marathon is not just about the marathon, but about just regular fitness running, free workshops on health and exercise, and celebrating a sport that brings everyone together.

I am thankful to Pattye Stragar for spreading word of the Pittsburgh Campus Challenge through the CMU fitness mailing list.

I am thankful to Steel City Road Runners for their well-organized Saturday long runs that got me out during the cold months when I otherwise might have chosen to just sleep in.

I am thankful to my friends who encouraged me as I progressed through my training and in my discouraging days before the marathon.

I am thankful to Annie and Deb and Mark for being spectators I saw and knew who gave me additional motivation to keep going.

I am thankful to all the spectators and volunteers I don’t know who offered cheers, water, orange slices, music, and everything else that reminded me that humanity is caring and helpful.

And of course, I am particularly thankful to my wife Abby, who has been so patient these months as I have pursued this marathon thing that she thinks is crazy (OK, I know it is crazy), and helped me every single day. Abby, this whole experience has truly deepened my appreciation of you, and I will never forget what we went through together to make this birthday present happen.

Did I achieve my goals?

Let’s go back to my blog post from three months ago where I stated my goals for the marathon. What did I actually achieve?

So it would seem that I basically failed, as far as the marathon itself.

But I think I succeeded, in a larger context:

Why did I fail so miserably?

I believe I failed mostly because I didn’t have the proper training. I started too late, I didn’t have enough time to more gradually absorb increased training volume, I could have used an extra month or two of more long runs.

I also did not adapt properly to setbacks that should have led me to change my goals drastically. There was a downward spiral in terms of injury, fatigue, and loss of calm reason.

What next?

Done with the marathon

I told Abby that this is it: no more racing marathons again, ever. I mean it. I’m facing the reality that this is not the right event for me. I believe I could do a good marathon, but what it would take is not worth the effort. The sacrifices that I made, and Abby made, were considerable. There are other things we could be doing.

So I look forward to our returning to “normal” life as I recover.


That said, I totally enjoyed getting back into year-round running. I will never go into winter hibernation again. I still have to figure out ideal footwear for the coldest and snow/ice/water-ridden conditions for next winter, of course.

Half marathons

Doing Just A Short Run again gave me confidence that I can “master” the half marathon distance. I would like to continue doing half marathons. I have decided to do the Montour Trail Half Marathon in September. This means I will have to skip the CMU Pretty Good Race, which is always held the Friday before this Saturday race, but it’s time for me to get back into doing half marathon and 10K and 5K (and even mile) races, distances that I can actually work on being able to run well without wrecking myself.

Heck, I might even run the Pittsburgh Half Marathon a year from now! (Although I don’t actually want to think about that for a while.)


In isolation, the 2013 Pittsburgh Marathon may be considered to be a total debacle for me, the worst race I’ve finished out of the 135 races I’ve showed up for in my life. But I’m glad I went through the process of training for it, and I’m grateful for it as a vehicle of self-discovery: I faced some unpleasant truths about various poor decisions I made. And I’m grateful for the opportunity to share my journey with friends and family.

As Emil Zatopek said:

If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon.

(Update of 2013-05-09)

The second day after the marathon, I was still in physical and emotional pain, and wrote a little rant expressing my disappointment.

The third day, I was able to walk normally and was emotionally recovering as well and was embarrassed by my rant.

The fourth day, I went out for a short run and reflected on what running is really about for me.

(Update of 2013-12-22)

I just wanted to point out a much healthier attitude and experience of a marathon gone badly: this is a really beautiful article that every disappointed racer should read.

I recognize that I trapped myself during March and April with increasingly unbalanced expectations of my marathon, and lost all calmness and perspective. I still don’t know whether I will run a marathon again, but if I do, I vow to do it with a clear mind and body.

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