Philadelphia Marathon Course Strategy
Updated: Jul 21, 2021
Philadelphia Marathon: The Worst is in West Philly
Fallback Point: Mile 9 (the hills in West Philly will take everyone out)
Note: The 'Fallback point' in a race is the point when the crowd starts breaking up and the people who have gone out too fast start 'falling back'. You will start passing people and it can feel empowering...or disorienting. Be aware so you don't inadvertently pick up the pace or waste energy dodging people!
It's important to note that Philadelphia Marathon is 2 weeks after Daylight Savings Time ends, so be prepared for shorter days and colder nights. For some, this is uncomfortably late in the season when most of the bigger marathons are over; be sure you have a training buddy for those final long runs before you register.
I LOVE PHILADELPHIA. This isn't a popular opinion, but I really and truly LOVE Philadelphia, so I'm totally biased towards this race. It has a few hills, but you NEED those- the 'flat and fast' logic falls apart beyond the 10k distance because the rate of muscular fatigue increases at an increasing rate beyond the one-hour mark. You WANT a few hills here and there in your races just to keep your muscles fresh, give the bigger chains a break.
Every uphill has a downhill, and downhills are FUN. They feel GOOD. They are little breaks peppered throughout the race, so when faced with an uphill tell yourself, 'YAY! downhill coming right up!" and get ready to glide!
The toughest parts of this course are the bigger hills that will slow you way down in West Philadelphia, and the rolling hills on the out-and-back to Manayunk. Those flatten out around the 21-mile mark, save your energy for that! Any time you 'lost' on the hills you can claw back here if you were conservative and banked energy earlier in the race.
Section A (Miles 1-8): PHILLY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The race starts near the house I lived in during grad school (21st and Walnut St), and the first section winds through downtown and all my familiar stomping grounds. Rather flat and uneventful unless you happen to LOVE Philadelphia as much as I do. When we cross the Chestnut St Bridge and approach the dogleg right turn on 34th, look left as this is the closest the course will take you to my alma mater UPENN.
Section B (Miles 9-13): Killing Time in West Philadelphia
Before 2010 the only way you’d be safely running in this part of town is in a marathon. The zoo was *sort of* safe, and there were (still are!) some cool privately-owned museums, but no joke it was dangerous here.
Going back to the turn on 34th st, we will run through Drexel’s campus then through the heart of “West Philly”, including the housing projects that gave Philadelphia its bad reputation. This will be the hilliest section of the course, so take it as a gift, lock your cage and bank as much energy as you can for the later part of the race.
Section C (Miles 14-19): Out to Manayunk
Around the halfway point look left and you’ll have a great view of Boathouse Row. You’ll pass the sculpture gardens around Mile 15, and Mile 16 you’ll see the crew finish line for rowing races on the Schuylkill River.
The last thing you’ll see before the turnaround is the Manayunk Bridge, a cute little old rock bridge that stands out (all the others are iron). Prepare yourself for the race to the finish!
Section D (Miles 20-26.2): BACK HOME!!!!!!!!!!!!
I love this section so much, I cannot begin to tell you. I lost my way as a person and as a runner for a few years, then found myself again on this exact trail. I ran out and back on Kelly Drive nearly every day I was in grad school and never got tired of it. The view won’t be quite as nice since you will have runners on your right between you and the water, but by this point the fatigue is setting in and the only view you want is that of the finish line. Lock your cage, settle in and GO. After the 50m uphill bump at mile 21, it’s downhill coasting all the way to mile 25. The final 1.2 miles is uphill, unfortunately, so be prepared for that. NO HEART RATE CAP!!!!!!!!!!!!
Be sure to get a photo with the Rocky Statue! It’s at the bottom of the stairs at the Art Museum, YAY!
Cincinnati’s Flying Pig Marathon: Hills, Hills and more damned Hills
Fallback Point: Mile 4.5
This is a terrific, well-established, super fun race that the whole town supports. This is rare and exceptionally cool; most large cities hesitate to shut down the main thoroughfares for any reason, and you’ll get to explore Cincinnati on foot. I can’t say enough good things about this, plus the dynamics of race weekend.
That said, you should also know that this is a hilly course. I recommend doing this race for SO MANY REASONS….but a PR isn’t on the list. You will need to be very diligent about strength throughout the course of your training, as well as incorporating hills into all of your long runs. You need to eat hills for breakfast and have room to snack on them again when you are full and tired. You also need to be ready to run a smart race.
Miles 1-5: The Kentucky Loop
*Note for out-of-towners, this first section has all of the tourist attractions in it. GO SLOW. TAKE IT IN. LET THE CROWD GET AWAY FROM YOU. YES I AM YELLING.
You start in ‘pigpens’ by the Bengals Stadium then pass the Reds Stadium; the riverfront scenery in between is absolutely unforgettable. DO NOT GET CARRIED AWAY HERE. This is a big race, expect congestion and people around you running way too quickly attempting to get away from that congestion. Races thin out naturally, do not waste a lot of energy trying to keep up. Let people pull away from you, you’ll pass them in the next section.
You will cross a bridge into Kentucky, the Newport Aquarium will be on your left. Cross another bridge at mile 2, then dogleg right and cross another bridge back into Ohio.
When you pass St. Francis Xavier Church on your right around mile 4.8, the real work begins. You’ve been climbing gently since you crossed back into Ohio, but here the slope shifts drastically. Hold back on the uphill, recover on the downhill. DO NOT TRY TO MAKE UP TIME ON DOWNHILLS YET. SAVE YOUR ENERGY.
Miles 6-18 The Killer Climb
The next ten miles weave through various industrial and residential sections of town, with half marathoners splitting off around mile 9.
Mile 6 and we dogleg right through the Art Museum. Enjoy the views until you hit mile 7, when you enter a residential area. Be ready to hang out here for awhile, focus on your effort levels as the scenery shifts. My tip for mentally managing sections like this is to pretend that this isn’t a race, it’s just another long run. Lock in, hang on, the crowds will return.
Around mile 9, the halfers peel off and you will find yourself running downhill. Savor it use this time to recover because it won’t last very long.
Once you hit miles 11 and pass the observatory, hang on until 11.5 where you will get more sweet recovery for half a mile. Soft uphill from mile 12-12.6, then BIG downhill for one sweet mile as you pass the Hyde Park Country Club on your left.
Be prepared to climb again as you approach Red Bank Road, coast down Bramble towards the park.
Coast through Mariemont (miles 15-16) and Fairfax; wait for Wooster Pike/Columbia Parkway at mile 18. Lucky for you, Mariemont has THE most enthusiastic spectators on the course, their cheers will carry out to the highway. They also hand out free bacon in cups!
Miles 17-18 are generally considered to be the most unforgiving of the entire race, so know that the worst of the course is behind you now. Also know that you are far from finished.
Mile 18-20: The Highway
Take a minute to APPRECIATE the Parrot Heads Club manning the Mile 18 water stop. They do this every year and it is awesome!
You will coast downhill for two miles, cross to Eastern Avenue just before mile 20, small hill as you approach Alms Park, then you have much smaller, but incessant, rolling hills to the finish line.
Miles 21-26.2: The Home Stretch
Once you see the Ohio River on your left at the big bend in the road at Mile 21, you are nearly finished! Regardless of how much strength work you did during this marathon cycle, you will probably feel very tired. All of the little rollers from here to the finish will feel insulting. Hang on, don’t hurry, your last big hill is at mile 24.3, relax going up then once you pass the 25 Mile Marker, PUSH to the finish.
Side note about the finish area: it is rockin’. This is one of the best finish line parties I’ve ever seen. Take time to enjoy it!
 The “Fallback Point” is the point in the race when everyone who went out too fast starts walking. It feels like you are pulling away as the people you were running with start falling behind you. Generally speaking, if you run a smart race, this is the point past which no one will pass you. In fact you will start passing pretty much everyone. This is a mindgame- you will feel strong relative to their weakness and will be tempted to speed up and pick people off, RESIST THE URGE.
MK Fleming is the founder of Fitness Protection, LLC where she trains runners for $29 per month and gives marathon plans away for free. Click here to download her most popular Marathon plan, Tenacious AF, free!