Allie Gabriel: Running Philadelphia in Honor of Her Late Grandmother

Allie Gabriel just completed her first marathon in Philadelphia, accompanied the entire way by her father. Allie ran this marathon in honor of her late grandmother, a strong lady I wish I had met. After reading about her below, I’m sure you’ll feel the same.

Allie balanced training with her PhD studies, also while combating a chronic calf injury. Read her wise words below, and check out her blog, The Constant Pursuit, for full coverage of her race.

It sounds like one of the inspirations of your marathon was your late grandmother for whom you had great admiration. Tell me about her.

My grandmother (who I refer to as Omi in my blog [German for grandmother]) was the most fabulous woman you could have ever met. She was tough as nails and yet incredibly compassionate at the same time. She was a Holocaust survivor (she was separated from her family at age 14 in Germany during the war and, luckily, was reunited with them later on in England before they moved to the U.S.) which made her so resilient and insightful. She loved theater, leopard print anything, and her family and friends more than anything. Honestly, we were best friends. I used to call her to tell her the latest, be it my running adventures with my Dad or the guy I was currently seeing. Losing her was the hardest thing I have ever gone through. It was a year on December 12th, and it still hurts like it was yesterday. She is definitely my strength as I take on whatever challenges come my way.

You are studying to earn your PhD. How did you balance studying with running?

It is incredibly challenging to balance the two things together in regards to the amount of time I want to contribute to both activities. Luckily, I have an advisor in graduate school who is also new to running marathons, so we’d often spend three-quarters of our meetings talking about school-related endeavors and then spend the last quarter talking about training!
Even though time is limited, I actually find that running has helped keep me grounded. After two and a half years of my PhD program (with two and a half to go), I thoroughly believe everyone needs an outlet when it comes to dealing with stress. My on-going joke is that running used to be what kept me sane when I started my program in July 2008, but now it has become an insanity all on its own! I do think running has helped keep my stress low, and has even helped me with my course work and research. It sounds strange, but whenever I have an exam coming up, on my runs I’ll run without an iPod and just think about the material and integrate it (trust me – it makes a “quick” 5 mile run fly!). Or, if I’m struggling with getting a paper together, on my run, I’ll go ahead and try and mentally write sections. Then when I sit down, it is much easier.
All in all, it is hard to strike a balance, but I’d rather be too busy than bored, so both graduate school and running keep me on my toes.

You were able to run the marathon with your dad. How did sharing this with him impact your total experience?

Having my dad with me every step of the Philadelphia Marathon was better than anything I could have ever asked for during my first marathon. He is a two-time Ironman, multiple marathon completer… actually, just an all around animal when it comes to endurance events if I’m completely honest. It was great having him there because we had an exact plan going into the race in terms of walking breaks, Gus, water, pacing, etc. which definitely helped calm my pre-race jitters. We have run multiple half marathons together, but having him with me as we crossed the marathon finish line completely took the cake. I almost can’t remember the last half mile because I heard people in the crowd cheering, heard my dad yelling, “This is my daughter! It’s her first marathon!,” heard more cheering of my name, and just completely lost it. I think I cried the entire last half mile (and you can check out my race photos online for proof).

When we crossed the finish line, the volunteers just left us alone because we both hugged each other so hard and just collapsed into tears for a couple reasons. One, we just ran 26.2 miles together! Two, ouch. But, most importantly, all of the races we did in 2010 were a tribute to my Omi, and this was the one we had been gunning for all along. It will be something I never, ever forget. I have high hopes for my future in running marathons, but I don’t know if a race finish will ever be able to top that one.

You had AB and C marathon goals? What did this mean and why did you have a tiered goal system?

Going into the marathon, my dad kept saying that in your first marathon, the goal is just to get to the finish line. I completely buy that, and still do. But, I am way too Type-A to have not gone into the race without a time goal in mind. I purposely chose a tiered system because I didn’t want to be disappointed if I didn’t hit my time goal and, honestly, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of my body holding up over the course of a marathon. In my head, my “A” goal of 4:15 was a bit of an ambitious stretch since I had just gotten completed comfortable running a sub-2 hour marathon easily. I also knew that the “C” goal of 4:45 should be “easy,” or as easy as a marathon can be, for me given my past racing and training. So, I was really shooting for the “B” goal that would be a challenge yet realistic. This worked really well for me, and it kept me grounded during the race and made my 4:24:57 race time a real success.

Sounds like you faced several injuries as you trained. What were these and how did you overcome them?

The biggest injury I had to face was a severe calf strain which occurred in May 2010 after the Cleveland Half Marathon and lasted through mid-July of that summer. It was a combination of mildly pronating on my left leg and complete overuse. I went through a hot streak with racing, and ran the Sandy Ridge Half Marathon, Cleveland 10 Miler, Pittsburgh Half Marathon, Newport 10,000, and the Cleveland Half Marathon in six consecutive weekends. I was feeling strong leading up to Pittsburgh, but in Pittsburgh I completely slammed into “the wall” and had my worst running experience to date. At Newport, I noticed my left calf/ankle area was really tender and it was difficult to push through the race (it was “only” a 10k so I was foolish and ran through it). In Cleveland the following weekend, a running miracle happened and the pain was gone… until two days later when I could barely walk. After attempting to run and having my left leg give out on me completely, I decided to go to Akron Children’s Hospital to their sports rehab facility. There was no stress fracture, but my left calf muscle was severely pulled leaving my left leg in a highly weakened state.

Honestly, this injury is still mildly lingering today. It was one of those “run through it” kind of injuries, where I was spending my summer running only 2-4 miles at a time slowly and cross training a lot. Luckily, I love swimming, so that wasn’t an issue. I hated the stationary bike, though, and impulsively bought a hybrid sports bike so I could continue working out in the summer months outside. I call this my blessing of an injury, because even though my running was halted, it had me cross-training so much that I completed my first sprint triathlon in July and plan on doing another one this coming June in DC.
It also taught me the value of cross-training – I absolutely felt my strongest when I was running only 3 days a week but swimming/biking 3 days as well. I need to remember this as I re-amp my training again after my comprehensive exams are over in May.

How did you decide on the Philadelphia Marathon?

Philadelphia actually was not my first choice for my fall marathon. I’m a bona fide New York City girl at heart, and my dad and I had started off our 2010 racing year running the NYC Half Marathon in March, so I really wanted to end things in NYC as well in November. When my Dad and I didn’t get into the lottery, we had a few choices we were considering. We were thinking about Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia. By that time, Chicago had filled up, and we really had wanted to run the marathon in November which knocked out Detroit. Philadelphia came highly recommended to us by some family friends, so we went with it! It worked out great, because it gave me time to recover as much as I could from my injury and gave me an extra month of fall training.
As for the experience, Philadelphia puts on a great marathon! It’s a big city race that still keeps a small race feel. They put your name on your bib number, which is amazing since people will call your name as you go through the course. It was relatively flat, and the crowd support on the first half especially was fantastic. The medal was awesome, as were the other amenities (race shirt, expo, etc.) The only downside to the marathon is that the second-half of the course is an out and back to Manayunk. This has its good and bad points. On the good side, you know exactly what you are going to finish on and where the mile markers are going to come up. On the bad side, it’s an out and back. My dad and I got passed by the finishers around mile 16 which for us was definitely deflating. Moreover, the crowd support really dwindled so if you weren’t having your race, you were really going to be alone out there feeling it.
But, the finish is great right by the Rocky steps, and the people out in Manayunk (as well as the gorgeous scenery) make it worth it. I would definitely recommend the race!

Will you run another marathon?

Absolutely! My boyfriend and I are contemplating running the Chicago Marathon in 2011 and I am also in the lottery again with my dad for the New York City 2011 Marathon. That would be two marathons one month apart – but it sounds like an awesome challenge.

What advice would you have for other first time marathoners?

It sounds a little strange, but I think one of the best decisions I made was to “race my way into fitness” as my dad put it. My dad and I ran a total of 7 half marathons leading up to Philadelphia, many of them together to get used to racing with each other; while a couple of them were “fun” runs, we made sure we were always hitting two hours give or take a couple of minutes so we knew we could hit the first half in Philadelphia in that time to give us a nice cushion for the back half of the marathon. I also chose some shorter races (a 5 miler, a couple 5ks, and the sprint tri) to start learning how to push my body harder and faster. This helped me learn how to run on burnt out legs (I’m not a 7 minute miler…yet! But, in the shorter races I raced like I was).
I also would really, really recommend running with other people. I train with a trail running group, Crooked River Trail Runners, so I have a great community to learn from and train with. It also doesn’t hurt that my dad and boyfriend are both double-digit marathoners; in fact, my boyfriend did almost every long run with me which made a world of difference. Plus, the more people you run with, the more inspired you’ll get by other people’s running stories and you’ll also get connected to races or events you may never have considered running. Runners are a crazy-breed; find some and you’ll be set!

Melinda Hinson