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The Key to the City

Something New / September 30, 2018

I toed the line of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Parkway Run 5k with no expectations.

Somehow, I felt free.

I had registered for the race a mere 40 minutes prior, paying my $35 in race fees. For the first time in four years I wasn’t representing Taylor Allderdice High School anymore and for the first time I was racing in my new home — Philadelphia.

While nothing spectacular occurred, 16 minutes and 28 seconds later I took 3rd place overall. After having spent the summer in the woods as a camp counselor not running, I considered it a good return to racing in the fall as I had gotten used to. I had set my sights on the Philadelphia Half Marathon in November as the goal of my fall, and as I jogged home I knew a fire had been lit under me.

I was ready to work.

Photo by: Casey Reinknecht

The winner of that day’s race — Bryn Mawr Running Company’s Chris Naimoli, whom I had met earlier that week — shot me a text in the afternoon following the race.

He texted me “You’re gonna be good. You have the leg speed, you just need strength.”

Getting a text like that from a wily veteran who was 39 years old and still cranking out 15:40 5k’s seemed to be a good sign, so I took it in stride.

Better things were going to come if I worked as hard as I had the past four years.

This time, it meant tackling a new race distance, in a new city, at a new school, as a new kind of runner. I was ready to run a race other than a 5k, and while I was going to miss the hills and dales that made up a cross-country season, I was excited for something new.

Changing for Good / February 3, 2019

Is this all I can do?

The day before I had raced a heavy-legged, mentally checked out indoor mile at Ursinus College. The post-race hills took my focus away from my sulking for the meantime, but now that I had nothing to do but sit with my thoughts, I found myself asking questions.

I had run a 4:44.16 indoor mile — something that 16-year-old Ethan would have been proud of. Not the Ethan who had run a 4:36 mile when he was 17 years old, and especially not the Ethan who was always chasing the best out of himself.

Just a few months before I had toed the line at the Philadelphia Half Marathon with a pathetically cobbled together training program, somehow mustering a 1:17:04 despite hitting the wall at mile 9. It took every ounce of mental strength I had to finish, because my body simply wasn’t prepared for a race like that.

The race the day prior was yet another shock to my system — why wasn’t I getting better at running? I could watch running videos all day long, but it wouldn’t help me if I didn’t run right.

I took a hard look at my training and I realized I was the problem.

I wasn’t consistent. I wasn’t getting out the door nearly enough. I wasn’t really trying, because it seemed quite hard to make running fit. When you take 18 credits in a college term and running wasn’t built into your schedule like in high school, skipping a run came a lot easier.

And yet, I knew deep down I wanted to keep getting better with running. That’s why I was still doing it three-four times a week, wasn’t it? I had gotten over disordered eating and weight loss in high school, and I no longer ran to burn off calories.

I still ran because I wanted to be the best runner I knew I could be.

I devoted myself that night to completing my first long run of the year, and at 8:50 a.m. sharp the next morning I left my dorm and headed to Lloyd Hall, meeting up with my team. I ran 14.3 miles at a solid clip of 6:50 per mile. I felt refreshed.

When I got back to my room from that long run, I saw that I had gotten a text from no one else than Chris Naimoli. He asked me if I had a training plan that I was following, and if I didn’t, he wanted to write one up for me.

When I saw that text, I knew my running was going to seriously change. I replied back almost immediately with pure honesty, admitting that my training was damn near pitiful and I would love a training plan.

Chris asked me, “So what do you want your goal race to be this spring? What do you want to race best at?”

I told him two familiar words: “Broad Street.”

He sent me a schedule, and told me to follow it to a tee, every day, for the next six weeks. After that base was built, we’d go from there.

I transcribed that plan on a post-it note and stuck it on the shelf above my desk that came just to my eye level. I then wrote down three words that had continued to rattle inside my headspace over the last twenty-four hours on a separate post-it note. Des Linden’s iconic mantra — keep showing up.

I knew I would need some reminding.

A Good Result, A Good Team / March 16, 2019

My first three weeks under Chris were 65.1, 65.2 and 65.2 miles, respectively.

Those first 21 days I ran mostly on treadmills due to the Philadelphia winter ramping up, and even one day when I had to slog through 5 inches of snow on a cancelled day of school to the gym. Even then, I found myself having a great joy in going to crank out my midweek medium long run of 10 miles at a steady 7:30 pace. If you had asked me just a month before to do that, I simply wouldn’t have.

I suffered a stomach bug the following week, but by the time I was back into the swing of things it was just like usual. I felt no drop off in fitness, and I felt no guilt to make up those days I had missed. Running was now an indelible part of my life again and it wasn’t going anywhere.

My first fitness test came on March 16, 2019 at the Haddonfield Adrenaline 5k. It was my first race since Chris had drawn up my training plan, and six weeks to the day after my disappointing indoor mile I toed the starting line in the second wave of runners.

I surprised myself with my first PR in over 18 months, running to a 15:36 5k PR and 16th place in a deep field on a windy and chilly March morning. It was the first time, too, where I felt proud to represent the new team I had joined.

Photo by: Philadelphia Runner Track Club

I was a proud member of Philadelphia Runner Track Club, and repping that amazing team just got a whole lot more important — I was serious again.

In actuality, I had joined the team back in September when I arrived in Philadelphia. I had chosen the route of academics over athletics for college, and while there weren’t any major athletic programs I had walked away from, the choice of running competitively for a college program had been turned down.

And yet, running with a team is so fun, and the joy I got out of running on a team in high school was something I didn’t want to leave my life.

In August of 2018 I had done some research on the various track clubs in Philadelphia, and this seemed like my best bet. I shot an email to the mens’ director Chris Mateer expressing my interest, and he replied saying that I seemed like someone who would be a good fit for the club.

During my second week in Philadelphia, I trotted to the University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field on a sunny and steamy Tuesday evening. I did a 12×400-meter workout with some guys on PRTC, and after seeing all the people there talking, laughing, running, smiling and embracing the community of like-minded people, I knew I was in a good place.

PRTC people were my kind of people. They were kind, smart, hard-working. They ran because they loved running, and many of them had joined the club after a multi-year post-college hiatus.

PRTC became my new team, and yet for a long time I had underutilized their vast network of training partners and support. If one thing is true about the running community of Philadelphia, it is that the more you give, the more you get out of it.

I was welcomed by PRTC despite not really being the usual clientele — I was the only runner who was younger than 23 years old on the club.

Yes, I was the only runner in the club who was still in undergrad, and to be honest, it didn’t seem to phase me that much. They were normal people and easy to talk to and bond with, and despite me surprising the people I met on various runs with my youth, they treated me just like the next member — which is all I wanted.

While I couldn’t go with fellow members to post-race bar hangouts, they did their utmost best to make me feel like I belonged on the team.

From day one I have felt like a true member of Philadelphia Runner Track Club.

Our club president, Kevin Brandon, told me that he was initially worried about bringing on a kid as young as me. But after Kevin met me, he said that he knew I would be a good fit.

I quickly became known as “The Kid” on PRTC, and I embraced that role with pride. I brought energy, innocence, youth and a sense of lightheartedness to a growing club of medical students, full-time workers, former college runners and parents alike.

With a new PR, a newfound confidence in myself and a training plan that was working, I kept my nose to the grindstone.

As I began my new training plan that Chris had given me, I began to be more active in PRTC’s social channels. I began to find more training partners for my Tuesday night workouts at Franklin Field. I began to lean all the way into the team aspect again. It paid off.

Chris’s training plan was simple, with no frills, and it was something I saw to work with me. He always reminded me “Every run has to have a purpose. If there’s no purpose, then why are you fucking running?”

I did strides for the first time, twice a week. I did a weekly Friday morning tempo on the Schuylkill River Trail, simulating the pounding that the Broad Street Run would give to me legs.

Chris was also never afraid to call me out on my bullshit. His bluntness was good for an over thinker like myself, and he quickly got quite skilled at reeling in my thoughts and wonders. He was, and still is, the perfect coach for me.

Running South on Broad / May 5, 2019

There’s something about waking up and starting your day when a city is still sleeping or dark, especially when it’s raining out. You feel like you’re getting extra time to the day, and that the rest of the day will inherently be better because of it.

I woke up at 5:00 a.m. on May 5, 2019 with a start. I seemed to have timed my early alarm perfectly in sync with the ending of a REM sleep cycle, because I felt absurdly awake despite having only gotten at most 5 hours of sleep. I often become an insomniac the night before races, and after two and a half hours of tossing and turning I sheepishly asked my roommate for some over the counter melatonin to help me fall asleep.

Thankfully it did the trick.

I had my peanut butter toast with blackberries and my coffee, doing my crosswords like I tended to do before my morning runs. I often am one to fret and analyze each aspect of a race in the days before, but when I would be doing the New York Times Crossword I found my worries being a lot less important for those 30 minutes. Instead, wracking my brain for all of my crystallized intelligence I had built up over my lifetime became my number one focus.

I took the Market-Frankford SEPTA train to City Hall with my friend Manal who was volunteering, and then I just made it onto the Broad Street Line taking me up to the starting line. I maneuvered my way to the Elite Tent — all PRTC members got access to an Elite bib, one of the perks of being on a fast track club and running in a big race in your city — and I let it sink in.

I was about to run down Broad Street in the rain, with 35,000 other people, and it was going to be freaking amazing.

Photo by Independence Blue Cross

Something about the rain calms me.

I grew up in Pittsburgh, the cloudiest city in America and the city with the fifth most rainy days per year in the United States. I am comforted and centered when it rains, and I have run in the rain countless times. It reminds me of home.

I toed the line with the horde of my PRTC teammates, cracking jokes and keeping the lighthearted spirits afloat in the grey hues of the morning. The colors of our sponsored Diadora singlets were all too visible by the fans on the sidelines, and we repped our city proudly.

We lined up, and before long we finally got serious. Well, sort of.

Photo by: Independence Blue Cross

The gun went off.

My goal of 53 minutes and 0 seconds was in my head, and I was more than ready to roll off 5 minute, 18 second miles like it was my day job.

“Pred, we’re going too fast!” I screamed to my teammate Alex Predhome when we hit our first mile in 5:07. I was 11 seconds ahead of pace, and even though the first mile was a slight downhill, I was worried.

I was running in a pack of PRTC and fellow friendly-yet-competitive runners alike, and while we were going smoothly along, I found myself oddly relaxed. We hit three miles at 15:31, and the first thing that popped into my head was “damn, that’s too slow!”

Had my confidence and expectations shifted that quickly, or was I kidding myself? Could this really be what was going on?

I did a quick systems check. My shins hurt, but that was was expected — I was pounding pavement, after all. Beyond that my body still was calm, so I trusted my gut.

I started moving.

I quietly pulled myself away from the large swath of red and white Diadora singlets and started to chase down whoever came into my sights.

I remembered I had two teammates and friends in Simon Voorhees and Chris Mateer in the pack ahead of me, and with that realization I knew my new plan of attack: get to them and stay with them.

As I was running through the campus of Temple University and their incredibly invigorating cheering stations, I noticed I was very quickly hawking down my friends. Philadelphia City Hall was getting closer and closer in my sights, marking the just-past-halfway mark of the race.

Tiredness wasn’t even a thought in my mind. I was too excited.

Simon’s and Chris’ pack had gone out at a brisk clip of 5:03 miles early on, and the majority of the members of their pack had fallen off, one to two at a time. What that meant for me, thankfully, was that there was always someone I was passing and/or chasing down.

It became one long game of chase, pass, repeat.

I was in a constant state of the hunt.

Photo by: Independence Blue Cross

By the time I reached the two of them, I was in such a groove I only had about three strides to yell at them “Fuck yeah boys, let’s go!” before they were in my rearview. I hoped they would join in my charge, but I soon realized that wasn’t going to be the case. I was on a roll.

I hit 5 miles in 25:45 with no signs of slowing, and then it was time to focus. I knew I had to take the turns around City Hall with the precise angles of a mathematician. 

With City Hall being the only deviations on the single-street course, they were really the only tangents of the race. This may not seem like anything of note, but they have a big effect on your race. In a race that’s all about rhythm, you can’t lose that focus just after the halfway mark.

I ran through the wall of sound that was the City Hall cheer station with a single-minded focus: keep on passing people and don’t look back.

I was passing people who had dusted me just a month and a half ago in the Adrenaline 5k. I was in a weird state of control, and knowing just when to go a little faster and when to reel myself in.

I felt grounded and keenly aware to my body’s responses to the race, yet so much in a state of flow and freedom.

Blazing ahead of schedule in a long race is, in short, terrifying.

When you race a mile and go out too fast, odds are you have two extremely fast laps that feel free and then two extremely painful laps before you cross the line. Go out too fast in a 10 mile race, and those last four miles could take away everything from you.

Around the 8 mile mark I came back to reality, as I entered into no mans land with just myself and the crowds to keep me going. I could make out my PRTC teammate Matt Kane in the distance up ahead, but he was a good 200 meters away and running at a steady enough clip that I couldn’t close that gap.

All I could do now was run with my nose to the wind.

With a mile to go I reached the truly quietest part of the course — past the Philadelphia sports stadiums. I expected this to be a dead zone for someone who hadn’t even lived in Philadelphia for a year, but to my surprise I could hear someone cheering for me by name.

“Come on Ethan, you’re doing great! Just a mile left!”

It seemed to be a scene out of a movie. I was so confused, and then I was SO hyped.

It was my coach, Chris.

He had run around 10 miles trying to catch me on the course after leaving his house in South Philly. Seeing him gave me surge of pride, energy and confidence, even as the rains were picking up and my body was really getting tired.

I charged down the finishing straight, as the fans at the finish line roared for this 19-year-old kid who had seemingly come from nowhere. I came to a stop at an unofficial time of 51:14, and I stood there at the finish line, waiting for my teammates. As they took their final steps down Broad Street, I knew I wanted to be the first one to celebrate with them.

That’s what a good team is all about — celebrating the reward of hard work together.

Photo by: Independence Blue Cross

I was in awe, but I didn’t know just how well I had run until I was back under the Elite Tent. I took my phone out of my bag, and I turned it on to see my dad family texting my family group chat exclaiming:

“YOU GOT 10TH???”

I asked myself and my friends, “Did I?”

I just stood there laughing. It didn’t seem real.

And, well, it wasn’t. Due to a results malfunction I didn’t get 10th, but I wasn’t far off.

I ended up getting 13th overall as the 7th American finisher. I was the 3rd finisher for PRTC, and I had surprised just about everyone in the club, myself included.

I went from being a runner who almost ran for a college program, to running worse than I had in years, to skyrocketing to a level of fitness I hadn’t even fathomed before.

In the ensuing weeks I came to realize that my race had left its mark not just in PRTC, but also in the city of Philadelphia. I was out on a run with some teammates of mine, and when we bumped into another group of runners one of them asked “Oh, are you that fast kid from Broad?”

I had to take that step back and look at what my running stood for.

When you’re on a school team or a college program, you represent the school and the program. But when you run for a track club, you represent the city you live in, and all the runners who call it home.

I wasn’t just running for me anymore. I was running for the City of Brotherly Love.

Broad Street was my key to the city.


3000 Meter Run: 8:39.23

5000 Meter Run (Road): 15:11.00

8000 Meter Run (Road): 25:11.04

10 Mile Run (Road): 51:14

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