I’ve been waiting since March (when I learned I got into the marathon) for this, and now I find myself surprisingly short of words. I really need to give an account before the memories slip away, so here goes.
We arrived in New York on Friday evening, too late to do much of anything other than to see my daughter, Rachel, and son-in-law, Travis, and grandson, Kenneth. They met us at our hotel (just a few blocks from their apartment) with some dinner, and since I was presumably still fueling for the big run on Sunday, I ate it with enthusiasm. Then it was pretty much time to fall into bed and attempt to rest/sleep (for the big run on Sunday).
On Saturday morning we met at a nearby bagel shop (still miss my Kansas City bagels) just by the subway stop and were soon hurtling underground toward the expo. Big (and most small) runs have expos where you pick up your race bib and shirt (or whatever the giveaway is) and then tour dozens of booths set up by vendors, generally hawking running products or services. I had all of the gear I needed, but I did come across some chocolate mint GU (the energy gel I use) that I haven’t been able to find in the Midwest for years. I bought ten packets of the stuff. I also accosted the poor guys at the Hoka booth and talked them into giving me a free shirt. I run in Hoka shoes (though I was wearing black dress shoes at the expo since my running shoes don’t provide support but rather cushioning). I’ve been wanting a Hoka shirt for a long time, but the few times I ever saw a Hoka booth at the various expos, they never had shirts. This time they did, so I got one finally. I also wanted to price out a finisher hoodie since I wear a hoodie nearly constantly at work and play, and one that makes clear to the world that I ran the New York City Marathon is one I intended to wear (assuming I did finish). I only intended to buy the hoodie after the race, just in case. I had heard comments about the Kansas City Marathon expo being “small” and that amazed me since it is held in a convention center with scores of vendors and thousands of people. But the NYC Marathon expo made it clear why people had said that. It was huge. Hundreds of vendors and thousands and thousands of people. There were interactive stations, photo ops, celebrities, and all kinds of stuff that could have meant a full morning there had not something come up. Grandson Kenneth was with us and was begging to sample every edible or drinkable giveaway. Down it all went, and then soon, up it all came. We had no change of clothes (or even a clean stroller) for him, so our visit to the expo was cut short. I regret not getting the full experience, but I don’t think the people at the expo would have appreciated the boy’s new fragrance. (This was not a problem in the subway however.)
Saturday evening included a pasta dinner at my daughter’s apartment followed by an early bedtime. And then, as these things happen, Sunday morning came.
I was awake long before dawn (even longer given the time change) and took my time to brush and floss and shower and fuss and fret and start putting on my running clothes. The only newish thing about my kit was the blue shirt you see above, and I had run in it a few time already, having previously confirmed that it was ideal. My shoes were also newish, with less than twenty miles on them, but that’s, of course, intentional. And they’re the brand and model I have run in for years, so there were no surprises there. Aside from that, everything was standard, though I did have a long-sleeved cotton throwaway shirt and my red throwaway jacket (that I’ve had for years and just could never manage to throw away).
I met Rachel at the subway stop betwixt her apartment and our hotel and we proceeded underground to get ourselves to the Staten Island Ferry that would take us to the start. This part worked smoothly. The ferry station was packed when we got there, but we were able to get on the first ferry available (many had already come and gone that morning). The ride to Staten Island was swift and smooth. And it was at this point that the smoothness ended. We had to wait an hour and a half for the bus to take us to the Athletes Village. I didn’t really know any better since this was my first time to this marathon, but Rachel kept assuring me we should have been moving more quickly. The bus ride itself apparently took longer than it should have as well. We were at a standstill at several places, the last being at the top of the hill above the Athletes Village. Then the bus began moving and went down the hill, passing what I came to learn later was the security checkpoint.
Everyone involved in conducting this marathon was warm and welcoming, including the thousands of police, many in full riot gear. I understood the need for security, and I was pleased that it was something that was functioning smoothly. But apparently the delays with the busses meant that the intended security check at the top of the hill was bypassed. We were merely wanded as we each stepped off the bus. The wands were chirping vigorously, and I know the eight foil packets of GU pinned to my waistband with safety pins made the wand chirp in my case, but aside from that all I had were some candy bars in the pockets of my throwaway jacket and a general numbness in my soul.
I had predicted my finish time when I had entered the lottery for this run, and this placed me in a wave behind Rachel. But we intended to run together, and with 50,000+ runners, meeting up somewhere on the course was impossible. She could have stepped back to my wave — this is allowed — but she suggested instead that I sneak into her wave. My wave would run on the lower deck of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge while hers would run on the upper deck. Since I was wearing the long-sleeved throwaway shirt and the red jacket, my bib was hidden and the gatekeepers couldn’t see by its color that I was attempting to enter the “wrong” wave corral. (I finally did throw away my throwaway jacket, tossing it into one of the dozens of bins waiting for the discarded clothing in the Village. I hadn’t needed it at all aside from using it to carry my candy bars.) By this time, with the delay of the busses and whatever else was going on, no one cared. I waltzed right in un-accosted. Then it was a simple matter of waiting for a half hour or so for our mass of humanity to be walked onto the bridge ramp and up to the start line.
The first mile of this run is uphill, getting to the halfway point of the bridge. It’s also the highest point of the whole race. There was the usual speechifying at the start, which must have been repeated several times before us and likely several times after, and then the anthem was sung. An actual cannon was fired to announce the start, and we were underway. Shoulder to shoulder. I had started my watch to have it find some satellites, and I was surprised that it was not finding them. Atop that bridge, up in the air like I was, I thought I would instantly get a signal. We were shuffling closer to the starting mats, and I wanted to press the go button simultaneous to crossing the start. But it all came together and I was able to start my watch as I crossed the mat. And we were off.
We ran a few hundred feet, and then we fell to walking. As packed as the bridge was, with the mile-long climb before us, running was not much faster than walking at that point. And we wanted to conserve our energy for the long, long miles ahead of us. We alternated running and walking, Rachel taking selfies and posting them on the fly. But when we crested the bridge, we began running continuously. We were part of a huge, colorful mass of people, and yet as we descended the bridge I saw more masses of colorful runners approaching us from two other directions. These were the other waves, the folks running on the lower deck of the bridge and routed different ways to relieve congestion right at the start. But it wouldn’t be long before we would all merge.
After leaving the first borough (Staten Island), we entered Brooklyn and soon were on 4th Avenue. It seemed like every nation on the planet was represented in this run. Many runners had their nationality printed on their shirts. Some I could figure out by the language they spoke (Italian being the easiest for me to pick out). Mostly people were passing me, but I was passing others. We just poked along, walking when we had to, but running mostly. We would stay on 4th Avenue for about eight miles, passing within two blocks of Rachel’s apartment (and our hotel). Travis and Kenneth and my wife, Libby, were supposed to meet us somewhere around mile seven, but I didn’t need to watch for them. Travis was tracking us and Libby was tracking my phone (in my secret waistband pocket), so they knew when we were coming. Plus, I was wearing that colorful blue shirt. (I had shed my long-sleeved shirt around mile five, courteously draping it on a barrier rather than throw it down in the street as hundreds of others had.) And I wasn’t moving fast, so I wasn’t going to zip past unnoticed.
They did spot us, and we pulled over for some hugs of encouragement and a few photos. Travis was carrying gummy chews, and while I never found much benefit from them, I also never really tried them much, so I nibbled on a few at Rachel’s encouragement. (This was her tenth marathon, which is a vague goal I have.) But then it was onward.
It seemed as though at every other block, someone called out to Rachel. She’s part of a running club in Brooklyn, and they are a tight group. More hugs and, in my case, introductions. A few photos. And then onward.
I was not having a good run. I was walking more than I had hoped, but the inescapable fact is that I had not trained sufficiently for this. I had told myself back in March that you don’t go to the New York Marathon without being at your peak, and then I let myself down. But that was in the past at this point. I was pounding the streets with whatever training I had in my lungs and muscles and mind. My goal had never been to set a personal record — this course is notoriously tough for that — but merely to finish and “have fun.” We eventually made it through Brooklyn and entered Queens. The crowds were unflagging. Plenty of people lining the roads and in some cases people in the road, causing bottle necks. I understand their excitement though. I’m told that this city loves its marathon, and that certainly seemed to be the case.
At about mile ten, I got a visit from an old friend. The IT bands at my knees started hurting. This is what plagued me at my first marathon in Portland three years ago, but after that, the problem had gone away, so I thought I was free of it. Not so. The pain wasn’t nearly as bad as in Portland, but it was present with each stride, and we weren’t even half way. I was carrying eight ibuprofen with me and had taken three earlier that morning. So I swallowed two of them and pushed on. I also got Gatorade and water at each of the stations. It’s easy to get dehydrated without knowing it on a big run. Rachel was carrying a water bottle, and had there not been water stations just about every mile, I might have done so as well. I had seen photos of the water station volunteers in the months running up to the marathon, and they were always wearing ponchos. I assumed that those photos were taken on a rainy day, but that wasn’t the case. There was water (and Gatorade) everywhere. On the ground and on the volunteers. Also on the ground were thousands and thousands of discarded cups. Now let’s say that 30,000 runners had already passed through by the time I was shuffling past any given water station. That means 60,000 feet had crushed the paper cups in the water. They had turned into a gray slurry in some places that meant careful attention to footwork. What a mess, but I also thought that I should probably volunteer to work a water station at some run just to do my part.
The miles went on. We finally left Queens by crossing the Queensboro Bridge. This is an odd part of the course. It’s on the lower deck, so you can’t seen the sky, and spectators are not allowed on it. So for the first time in the whole run — we were at about mile 15 at this point — we didn’t have cheering. I’d read that this can be unnerving, and since it’s a bridge, it’s also uphill half of the way. We were walking much more by then and though we did stab at a few hundred feet of running up the bridge, we mostly walked it. Significantly, my watch lost the satellite signal under this bridge and it switched to elapsed time mode rather than pace. I didn’t realize this for a long while and assumed my 48-minute miles were just caused by the tall building interrupting the satellite signals. As my “miles” got progressively slower, I finally understood what had happened but I was reluctant to try changing the mode on the watch since I didn’t want to accidentally delete the run or something. I should probably look into that.
Coming off the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan is supposed to be a fantastic moment for every runner. This is where you meet the Wall of Sound. The crowds are back at this point and are noted for the vigor of their cheering. That wasn’t the case for me. Yes, there were crowds, and they were cheering, but they had evidently thinned by the time my pokey legs had gotten me this far on the course (about mile 16). I’ve said here before that crowd encouragement really doesn’t do much for me, especially when they say things that just aren’t true. (“You look great!” or “You got this!” or “You’re nearly done.”) Travis was waiting to meet us at about mile 17 as we were embarking on a nearly four-mile trek up 1st Avenue. He had more chewy candy as well as a phone charger for Rachel. He also had some long-sleeved shirts for each of us, which was great since we were into the afternoon, and the partly sunny day had become partly cloudy. Plus there were sudden gusts of winds all of the time. I was grateful for a few moments of rest, but we still had a long way to go, so once again we were running.
At about mile 19.5 we crossed the bridge into the Bronx. The course runs less than two miles in this borough, but it counts. The crowds were very sparse here, and we went whole blocks without seeing anyone on the sidelines. That was fine with me. I was deep into pain and delirium by then, literally experiencing tunnel vision some of the time. At mile 21 we left the Bronx crossing what several hand-lettered signs called the “Last Damn Bridge.” Then we were back in Manhattan. This is a residential area mostly, and the finest brownstones of the whole marathon were waiting for us in Harlem. We were on 5th Avenue here, and this was a three-mile continuous uphill stretch. The conventional wisdom is that a marathon actually begins at mile twenty, and that’s about where this long hill began too. It’s a mild incline, but it feels endless. My knees were hurting, my hips were hurting, and my quads were hurting. Each transition from running to walking and walking to running freshened the pain for a few strides. And I had paid a lot of money for this privilege.
At mile 23 Travis was again waiting for us. He took the photo below, and we look surprisingly fresh and capable. I can’t speak for Rachel, but I was totally spent. (It may even be possible that since Rachel knew where Travis was going to be, we would begin running a block or so before that point so it appeared that we were, you know, running here in the end stretch. Then, after another block or so, once we were out of his sight, we would walk again. Possibly.)
Not long after mile 23 we entered Central Park and began the
twothree-mile end run. There are rolling hills in here, and though there is more descent than ascent (most of the ascent already completed on 5th Avenue) we were still walking. Twilight was falling and I knew I would be crossing the finish line in the dark. But I would be crossing that finish line!
Travis met us one more time at about mile 25.5 and we handed off our long-sleeved shirts so we could cross the finish with our bibs showing. Not only would that allow the photographers to identify us, but it would allow spotters to pull out any bandits — people running the race without paying the fee and wearing a bib. It’s a thing.
The combination of the falling darkness and my recurring tunnel vision meant that I didn’t really experience the Central Park portion of the run as I had hoped. It was a slog and a grind by this point. There were still plenty of spectators cheering, though as we approached the finish arch, the bleachers beside it were empty. I did not care.
I ran it in. It was not pretty (as the expensive-and-I-will-not-be-buying finish photo shows), but I gave it all of the energy I still had in me. I crossed the mat, turned off my watch (which had been giving me a low battery message for about ten miles) and then staggered toward the volunteers who were kindly hanging medals on our necks.
My right knee spasmed one more time and I must have staggered because a volunteer hurried over to me to see if I needed help. I walked it off, but he encouraged me to visit the medical tent (far ahead) to “have it looked at.” I was then handed my recovery bag, which included water, Gatorade, a recovery drink that tasted like incense, an apple, and a small bag of pretzels that I devoured. All along this mile-long exit chute were people sitting in chairs high over the crowd. They were apparently there to watch for runners in distress. Even in the gathering dark these stations were staffed. I paid for that privilege too.
I had selected the poncho option (rather than checking a bag that might have had a warm jacket waiting in it). Somewhere ahead my poncho was waiting. Folks, this is a glorious garment! It is made of a wind-proof material that is fleece lined and reaches below my
knees hips. It also has a hood. And rather than sleeves, it had two pouches up by the shoulders where you tucked in your hands across your chest, to stay warm. I was greeted by a volunteer who lovingly wrapped it around me and raised the hood. I was certainly not the last finisher. There were hundreds of people around me, wrapped in these blue ponchos, staggering slowly toward the last few feet of our day. I think it was at that moment that I really felt part of the event most. Before that it was just me against the miles. But among these exhausted and elated people, I was one of them.
There was a family meet up area (not-very) near Columbus Circle, and Travis was there, waiting for us. I wasn’t moving fast, but I managed to follow not far behind him as he lead us to a Chipotle where I managed to eat most of a burrito.
I remember a cab ride back to my hotel in Brooklyn. And while I tossed and turned with aching legs, I did not have any wake-the-dead leg cramps during the night. I walked as much as I could in the following days, and I’ll probably lace up for a run in a week or two.
And now it’s time to figure out where my new horizon will be.