First-Time Finisher: Q&A with Philly Marathon Veteran Abby Dean

Annie gets advice from Abby Dean, an Olympic Trials runner and six-time Philly finisher.

Photo from Abby Dean

I’m writing this at about 11 a.m., and in approximately 72 hours, I will (God willing) be over halfway done with the Philadelphia Marathon. Since the theme of my week so far has been bagels and mortal terror, I thought it smart to chat with a Philly marathon veteran—someone’s who lived to tell the tale, and might be able to give me some pointers for race day.

Abby Dean, who came in 29th at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials (2:41, WHAT?!), has finished six Philadelphia Marathons and is planning to run again this year. Yesterday, she imparted her wisdom about how to chill this week and how to get past the infamous Wall, and she gave me the nitty gritty on the Port-A-Potty situation.

So, did you hit your Trials qualifying time at the Philly Marathon?

I did. I think it’s a great course to hit qualifying times on. I originally tried to make the time in Chicago, which is renowned for being such a fast course, but the year I ran was the year where it was such ungodly hot weather. They called off the race a few hours after the first start. I finished, but I didn’t get my qualifying time, so I decided to try again at the Philly Marathon. There were six weeks between them, or something like that. Philly’s great, because it’s a fast course, but it’s challenging enough that you don’t fall asleep while running it.

You’ve had a number of surgeries for running injuries in the past. With those behind you, how do you make sure you show up to the start line feeling good?

I’ve had three hip surgeries, plus a hamstring surgery in 2009, after I tore all three tendons right off the bone. I started running again, but then it flared up and I had to take another six months off. This is a really rough time with training because you can start to get run down. At this stage, the best thing is to make sure you’re getting enough rest, not catching cold and getting the right nutrition. Over the course of training, it’s a good idea to try to have a coach or someone looking onto your training. It’s easy to want to try to do as much as you possibly can, and it helps to have someone who can give you a second opinion, and tell you to back off. Throughout my training, I make sure I get enough fluids, that I’m eating good recovery foods, and that I’m doing strength training early on to prevent injuries. Dynamic stretching is important, too, especially as you get older.

So I’m kind of at a loss as to what to do with myself this week. What does your training look like the week before the marathon?

Typically, during training, I take a day off every other week. Last week, I took a day off, and this week, I’ll take two days off. So my volume has dropped. I also do 40 to 50 minute runs instead of an hour. I’ll only do one workout this week versus two or three. So really, it’s just a matter of droping volume and intensity, and making sure you’re getting enough rest.

I’ve been using this week as an excuse to nose-dive into pasta dishes. What kind of carboloading do you do, typically?

Well, you definitely do want to be getting more carbs, but not necessarily too many, since you don’t want to feel bloated. I eat more bagels, rice, and pasta. The night before, I make sure I don’t eat anything that will upset my stomach. You’re gonna be out there for a while, so it’s important to not eat anything that will bother your system.

How about on race morning? With the early start time, I’m not sure what makes sense for eating that morning.

I really try to have a meal two hours before the start. So I make sure I’m up and eating by five. If I don’t, it’s just not fun during the race. It’s early, but for me that really works best. And you mostly want to make sure you’re getting enough sleep two nights before the race. I don’t sleep much at all the night before the race, because I want to get up with enough time to get to the start line.

Yeah, I was going to ask about the Port-A-Potty situation. Can I plan to be in line for 45 minutes?

Yes. That’s why I get there so early. The lines get unbelievably long. It’s stressful before the race, because it’s completely unavoidable.

Have you ever stopped during a race to use the bathroom?

I’ve never stopped, but I know plenty of people who have. For me, stopping is really hard because my muscles seize up and it’s just hard to get going again. But I know someone who stopped and still qualified for the U.S. Trials. There’s plenty of places to go along the course, especially on Kelly Drive and West River Drive.

So I have some people asking where the best place is to cheer along the course. What spots have you found yourself looking for a friendly face?

There’s a ton of people at the start, of course. It gets pretty deserted on Front Street, but that’s only mile 2 or 3, and then Chestnut Street is amazing. Kelly Drive can be deserted, though, especially on the way back. That’s usually the point, too, where you’re asking yourself, “How many more miles?”

I’m trying to gird myself against this so-called Wall. What have you done to get past really tough points in the race?

I try to avoid the Wall completely by not going out too fast, for one thing. Also, I eat the gel packs early enough in the race so that my blood sugar doesn’t get low later on. For me, the key to getting past tough points is just to not panic. If I’m starting to feel bad, I just focus more on my form, and that can really turn it around. If you panic, it can snowball quickly.

Assuming I do get past said Wall, what should I do immediately after that race so that I can still move the next day?

Well, it’s important to keep moving around a little bit. Walk around, get warm clothes on immediately, and try to get some nutrition in you. It can be tough because you’re muscles are sore, and you’re generally pretty nauseous, but if you just sit, you’ll seize up. Plus, if you stay in your running clothes and start shivering, you’ll be very uncomfortable the next few days. If you can, try and get a massage at one of the tents.

Do you try to stretch?

I can barely stretch. I’m just too sore afterward. But really, no matter what you do, expect to be sore for a few days after.

What about the week after the race? Do you take it off from running?

I think the first time I took the next five days off, slowly easing back into running with walking and cross training. Now, I take a couple days off, and then start to work in a little cross training. It takes a long time to recover from a race. For your first time, I’d say take at least five days off.

Now most importantly: where do you go to celebrate afterward?

I’ve always gone to Devil’s Alley. Usually all I want afterward is a burger or a big plate of pancakes. It’s really all I can handle. They have both of those—and drinks—so that’s usually my place. But to be honest, I’m typically so nauseous after a marathon that it’s hard for me to do much celebrating that day.


Research editor Annie Monjar blogs about training for the Philadelphia Marathon each week here on Be Well Philly. Want to catch up on the series? Here are her earlier posts, starting from the beginning:

• Taking the Marathon Dive
• Running a Marathon is @#^%*! Expensive
• The Great iPod Debate
• Knowing When to Take a Day Off
• A Good Trail Is Hard to Find
• Is Yoga Worth It for Runners?
• Group Runs Are for Angry Birds
• Does a Runner’s Diet Matter?
• The Morning Run Conundrum
• Why You Should Care About Pro Runners, Not the Eagles
• Hitting the Marathon-Training Wall
• Cue the Race-Day Nightmares
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