New York Marathon

 Chapter 4: New York Marathon

ew York is a great place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.” People had been saying this forever, but it seems exactly wrong to me. I had lived in Manhattan 3 separate times for a total of just over three years and I found it a truly great place to live. It had the energy to match what it asked of you. The world flowed around it and it seemed the CPU of the surge in information; everything from everywhere linked into NYC. The Big Apple, IยชNY, even the karaoke standard of “New York, New York” supported this. Well, it is an arguable point, but when I drove the moving truck across the George Washington Bridge 10 years ago, I would never have imagined that it would be a decade before I stepped back into the city and I would haven laid even lower odds that it would be a marathon that served as a pretext for the visit.
In the ensuing years I travelled quite a bit, but NY was never on the list, and knowing it so well, I felt that those scarce vacation days and funds should be allocated elsewhere. But as I became a runner and considered the adventure side of the equation, New York represented the apex of the known world. I had never seen one of the marathons when living there, but later I began to hear about groups of people making the New York Marathon a destination vacation. A group of over 25 people from Venezuela journeyed to NYC to run and later, as one of them recounted the fun, I admit thinking that it sounded cool and fascinating, even if it had no possible part in my future. It just had that big city buzz about it and the media reported it. Having walked all over Manhattan, the idea of covering all 5 boroughs struck me as strange and perhaps even reckless.            I had never visited Boston and didn’t know much about the marathon there, but I knew New York to be great and everything that I heard about the marathon made it sound like the ultimate sports event. I harbored no illusions of winning or even placing in the double digits in my age group; I knew that this would be a participation event. Then, and my recollection of the sequence of the events is forgotten, my brother-in-law who lived across the continent from us on the East Coast, said that he planned to run New York. Great, we will see you there. Eva heard about two words and she was on board for the trip. “New York? Yes I want to go? Marathon? I think that we can work that in. I’ve got some ideas of things that we can do and places to eat and there definitely are people to see….” And so I completed the application 6 months in advance and waited to hear if I would be lucky enough to be chosen to spend a small fortune to run an inhuman distance from the extremes of the city to end at the tourist mecca of Tavern on the Green. And I was that lucky.
Everyone has their own way of preparing for a marathon even if they don’t. This predated Galloway, there were no forums, the running boom was beginning but the marathon surge would still need to wait a few years. Shoe fittings were judged by pressing a finger down to see how close your big toe came to the end of the shoe. Information about the race was practically nonexistent. We had no elevation charts, though New York must be flat, right? There were a few plans on how to train for a marathon, but they were generally directed towards elite runners and included 6-minute repeats. For the rest of us, there were two basic pieces of information: (1) you need to run at least 20 miles once in your training and then plan to add another 6.2 in the race, and (2) you may “bonk” or “hit the wall”.  Bonking meant running out of energy and was fairly easy to understand. We had Power Bars for that, though no one would actually consider taking these along for a long distance run. “Hitting the wall” was a term of mystery and represented an invisible but real barrier somewhere around twenty miles where suddenly the body could go no further. It was not known why this happened, but it was clear that it was undesirable and had detrimental effects on the outcome of your race. Best to avoid these.
My first marathon had gone well, being a reasonable time, the only negative split I would ever have and a quick recovery afterwards. I assumed this one would be more of the same, though I felt only slightly more knowledgeable about the distance. I continued running with no other real purpose than enjoying the daily activity. My neighbors started commenting about seeing me out, I had a great California tan and I could wear running clothes to the grocery store at any hour. I found a trail that allowed for a long loop with spurs that permitted runs of any distance, provided water breaks, avoided traffic and put me among the other real athletes in town.
I took pride in the changes that were occurring to my body: my big toenails began to look weird, crack and grow unevenly. I had a tan that showed exactly the fit of my singlet and stopped just above my ankles where my feet were white with or without my socks on. I even developed a blue foot disease (coloring only) as a result of sweaty feet causing my Thorlo socks to lose their dye onto my feet. I could head to the community pool secure in the knowledge that there were concrete signs of my running, or at least enough weird cues so that I could start a conversation about running.
Almost all of my runs were alone, but running shared time with triathlon. I had launched into multiple activities simultaneously and they shared my efforts. With all the cross-training activities and no real running program, my weekly totals fluctuated but generally stayed in the low thirties with the occasional notable forty-mile week. I didn’t run in races as I considered my running to be personal and noncompetitive. This seemed a logical fit with a huge marathon, but not the case with a local 5k. I didn’t judge others; I just didn’t do short races then. I prepared for the race by running and I felt neither fear of the distance nor nervousness about the upcoming trip.
It was great to be back in New York. The convention was held at the New York Hilton and it exuded that big city feel. I heard athletes speaking French, German, Japanese, Spanish and a dozen other languages that I couldn’t decipher. People were walking around in running clothes, “jogging suits”, tracksuits and at least in midtown of this metropolis, there was a feeling of a marathon. The athletes were excited and you could constantly overhear conversations about running even if you might not understand the language.
Inside the convention area was the greatest ever congregation of runners, running paraphernalia and energy. This was the center of the emerging movement and every company that had any relation to the industry was here. Every high-tech food or piece of footwear was available for a real-life test. There was no concern about being on your feet because that’s what walking around in New York meant. We spent hours visiting the booths. It was impossible to know which of these items would help in the marathon, but I was not so green as to consider introducing something into the race with which I had not trained. These were toys for future runs.
One thing that never changes in New York is the high cost of being there. Fortunately, we had wrangled an invitation from some friends to stay over with them at their apartment and had plans with them for dinner the night before the race. We really wanted to see them and this was really the only time to do it, so no pre-race pasta dinner at the hotel tonight - not that I would have gone anyway. But that differs from hanging out with old party friends in some significant ways. They were animated and it was fun. They led us to a Greek restaurant near the UN and we ate heavy food, drank wine and ignored the hour – a perfect way to see them again. Our friend Miguel had previously run the marathon and shared a few tips – one might have been to get some sleep the night before the race. He made plans with Eva for breakfast followed by cheering.
Back at their two-bedroom apartment, an incredibly large one by New York standards, we headed off to bed. We got their young son’s room with lovely Disney sheets and bunk beds – at least I would lose no sleep from sharing a bed! I got the top bunk and put my head down next to Daffy Duck’s and eventually drifted away. I didn’t visualize the start the following day or a strong stride over the finish line, but I did have fairies dancing in my head and singing.
The morning of a marathon is special. Even if you are totally prepared, you do it so infrequently that it is out of the ordinary. I heard the alarm and reacted instantly to not wake everyone else up. Being a resident of the West Coast, the three-hour time difference and the ridiculously early hour combined to seem like a middle-of-the-night game. I could just as easily have been going to bed. I say that but actually it would have been easier to climb up the ladder than to make a startled dash down in the darkness to the floor. I didn’t step on any toys or miss any steps, so I had no new excuse not to run. Could it really be time to go? I slipped on my running clothes and planned to find out.
Outside it could have been any time: the sky was bright as it always is in New York. The stars sleep elsewhere because the city never sleeps. I was close by and only had to cover about 5 streets and three avenues to catch my 5:45 AM bus in front of the Public Library at Fifth & 42nd. There was a long line of buses and some were already leaving. People seemed to be arriving from every direction. I spotted my bus and no sooner was I on it than off it went. As I searched for seats, I spotted a former work colleague now based in Puerto Rico and exchanged pleasantries. It’s a small world after all.
Fort Wadsworth is the staging area waiting for us at Staten Island and was in full-scale mobilization. Organizers now warn everyone that they may spend several hours under or near one of the tents and that the weather may be cold. The average low for the start later in the day is 47 degrees, a very comfortable running temperature. I have located Paul and apparently, he didn’t get that memo either. Not only am I underdressed for the temperature, the wind is whipping through and there are on and off again snow flurries. Paul seems to be braving it better than me. I have spent most of the past 15 years in the idyllic tropical climate in Caracas or in sunny Southern California. I doubt that it has made my blood any thinner but I am in shock. We board multiple buses sitting there looking for a seat, but most turn out to be private and full of people that were smarter sooner than us. Later I will attempt to reach a partial solution by spending way longer in the port-a-potties than normal – and then getting back in line to do it again. They smelled, but they broke the wind. (humor) The tents had no sides and were jammed with people. The body warmth alone would have been helpful had we brought something to sit on that would provide a moisture barrier. But without that, we had to stand in the cold for about 3 hours.
Meanwhile, bagels were being offered. Where I lived in California had few venues for a good bagel and I had missed H&H. Still, I drank water and avoided eating. My digestive tract has an issue, if you know what I mean, with eating before a run. If I had been better prepared and on top of things, I would have eaten early and perhaps have had ample time to digest them. Certainly my body could use the fuel for a furnace for the run and to stay warm. Amazingly, other people could put away three or four, a couple of yogurts, bananas and even a few hot dogs (my exaggeration). I would have assumed that they would pay a price, but I know too many people that do this routinely with only positive effects. So I said no to a bagel, easily justifying my self-denial with comments on cold hard bagels not being appetizing. Little did I know that they would catch on and soon cold, hard bagels would become a staple of almost all post-race goody tables. I still don’t pick one up today.
Almost always I find that the time between arriving at a race and starting is just about right. I say hello to a few people, adjust my gear, stretch a bit and then visit the toilet as close to race time as possible. I then get to the race line and as I am getting positioned, the race starts. Today was different. I was ready for the race to start. Running would mean some warmth and I would maybe even use less energy running than shivering. So as soon as a movement to the start area began, I was on the move. Plus I needed to figure out exactly where to go.
The New York Marathon has long been an overwhelming number of people and they began a corral system and a color-coded system early. The colors indicated which holding area on which road you started. There are three different start lines that all come together after the first mile. They are theoretically measured so as to not give any one an advantage while lessening the initial bottleneck. Well I am sure that it lessens it, but 40,000 people – bigger than my hometown – just take a while to spread out. Within each color, there are corrals based on your estimated finish time. So in theory everyone within your group of more than a thousand should finish within a minute of you. Get to know them well. The corral fills quickly and I see the different levels of experience, modesty and wealth. My corral is all men and a large number, I see at least twenty, are urinating into bottles which are passed to the side or tossed in that direction. A full quarter of the people seem to have on a black garbage bag as a wind protector. Others are shedding shirts, sweater, gloves, ski caps and such and most are passed to a collection point on the side. This was my first experience with a collection of this sort for the homeless and it seemed fitting that it occurred in the city that many of us view as the epicenter of the homeless. It is exciting. It is cold. A cheer is rising from the crowd. Pushing and crunching, they herd us together and we move closer to the start line. I am lucky (I think) to have a number around 10,000, which puts me about halfway towards the front.
Mumble jumble, some noise and talking, a quick stretch and bang. Was that the start? Today’s marathons have gotten large and more than a few have starts in waves. New York is now 3 waves with three colors with seven corrals in each. We had one gun. Not a big deal unless you are old enough to remember when runners were all measured by clock time and not by chip time. This time is lost and for most people is too significant an amount to make up. That is why New York was considered back then a marathon to run for fun, for the experience and not for time. It is one of the reasons that the times from there seemed so slow. Maddening, as it seems, we don’t cross the start line until more than 9 minutes have passed. It is warmer from the number of people but not yet from self-generated exhaust fumes.
Now our level of excitement climbs. This is spectacular and surreal. Runners already extend a mile in front of us. They are all around us and ten thousand remain behind us. We are all jackrabbits just released from a cage and anxious to escape. The race starts on Staten Island and we immediately depart on the Verrazano Bridge. It is huge and awe inspiring. I have seen it hundreds of times from the southern tip of Manhattan but never like this. In what has been called a dramatic spectacle, both lane directions, inbound and outbound head out, and have runners with imported smiles advancing. There are runners on both levels. The wind that we felt earlier at the staging area is now whipsawing us as we cross the water. Some runners are discarding their black bags and as they toss them to the side, they come flying at bullet speed back to those of us behind. We duck, we weave, we virtually explode with the gigantic rush of adrenaline recently released in each of our bodies and this transfers to every runner as we feed off our energy and that of those around us. And it keeps coming; the bridge is not a narrow transom crossing an aqueduct like in Southern California. We reach mile one at 16:22 and there are still hundreds of yards of bridge remaining. Sixteen twenty-two for the first mile? I do some quick math and, oh, a 6:58 mile in a crowd, for mile one. Too fast. What would I have run without my posse? That’s okay, I need to make up some time and it was just one mile.
Since 1976, the New York Marathon is a point-to-point race and covers all 5 boroughs. We had started on Staten Island, crossed the Verrazano Bridge into Brooklyn, former home of the Los Angeles Dodgers. They had left in the middle of the night, but we arrive in plain daylight and preannounced. There had been no fans to yell us on as we crossed the bridge, but now faces of spectators appear at what is considered a world-class sporting event. We are running through New York, but it is obvious that the city is not a single place but an agglomeration of smaller neighborhoods. Almost every ethnic group not only shows up in support, but also mans an aid station and has pride in their community. It is always interesting when the viewers are the viewed and we stare out as much as receive. I high five a little boy. The spectators cheer but there is little interaction that requires effort on our part.
We wind through Brooklyn. Other than the climb of the initial bridge crossing, the course has had little serious elevation change. The weather has warmed up but my legs are still cold. I had debated wearing long pants, but worried about overheating or chafing. I am reconsidering that decision, but there is no changing it now. The course is almost straight and so the spectators and aid stations and mile markers come to us as we proceed unobstructed. Somewhere after mile 9, the road begins to have frequent turns and I am calculating angles to minimize the distance. When the official measurement of the race course occurs, all possible angles are considered and the shortest are measured. I don’t want to run too little, but I also don’t benefit from an extended course – and my math skill might substitute some for my running ability. We run just over eleven miles in Brooklyn and we reach the halfway mark. Everyone checks out the time and predicts their finish time. We reach different conclusions on how to count the start time, whether we will run a negative split and shave time off or whether we should add time at the end. But one thing is certain for those running near me, our calculation is about where we will finish and not about anyone else. It isn’t a race against these people around me. They are running with me. We might race in the last few minutes, but they are my best friends now. This calculation is about my race and my final time.
The marathon finish time is a single number. By convention, everyone drops the seconds and rounds down to the nearest whole number. Even then most people don’t have a real appreciation for what a race time means. Many people judge others by the hour. If you break four hours, you are fast. Less than four thirty, well that is almost like four hours. Or how fast is that per mile? A three thirty marathon means about an eight-minute pace. This respectable marathon time translates into what many perceive as slow. They can run (or could years ago) an eight-minute mile. Never mind that you have to string together 26 of them consecutively while taking water breaks and fighting through a crowd. They are unable to appreciate that a 13-minute time difference translates into a thirty- second change in pace. That is a huge change of pace for a seemingly insignificant incremental finish time. But as we calculate our anticipated finish times, we add and subtract and average. We can take joy that an 8:30 pace until now will average with a 9:30 second-half pace for a nine-minute pace and that even the 9:30 will be an average of the next section and that slower last quarter. We watch the times for each mile, but in the end they will only be conversational material as we discuss how we might have done better if we had run mile one more slowly or not faded so badly on mile 23. I make my calculation and I am not unhappy, given the slow start.
Just after this, without even gaining any elevation, we cross a bridge into Queens. I don’t know Queens very well. It has always been a place farther along the subway route where less-fortunate workers and families continued after I stepped off the subway, or how we got to the airports. We run two-and-a-half miles there and I run calmly without any hurry to leave, but without truly getting a feel for the neighborhoods. Maybe I should come back another time.
And so I leave by taking the Queensboro Bridge, better known to me as the 59th Street Bridge across the East River. The elevation gain measures less than the opening salvo, but it makes my legs feel a bit heavier. This is the point of the race where a couple hours have passed and the body is starting to really draw upon your energy reserves, the muscles have sustained some injury and the mental edge has dulled a bit. It is a bit boring as we head up to the bridge and then we runners are alone on the bridge with only our own thoughts and motivations. For some reason, I find it interesting that portions of the metal grating are covered with carpet. The carpet is obviously for the runners and I am uncertain as to the scientific benefit: does it reduce pounding as well as providing a less slippery surface? Does it keep some runners from freaking out that they may slip through a small hole? Not wanting to test the reasons, I stay mainly on the carpet even though I step out a few times to pass another runner already feeling the effects of gravity with ten miles to go.
Yes, mile 16 brings us into Manhattan. It is what most out-of-towners consider New York and what New Yorkers call the city. I am familiar with this area because we lived 2 separate times for a total of ten months almost in the shadow of the bridge. I am excited to run up First Avenue and so I rush around the almost circular exit ramp which takes us on a ninety-degree right turn by going left and circling back under the bridge and in front of the Roosevelt Island Tram (think Jaws from James Bond) as you head up First Avenue. I have a good pace going, but I am under control.
What I see as I come out of the underpass was perhaps the greatest scene possible for a person that runs and loves New York. First Avenue was mobbed. You could see about 3 miles straight uptown and it was a sea of runners outlined on both sides by shrieking, normally reserved, New Yorkers eight people deep on the sidewalks on both sides. I think that there was music, though there was no space for a band. Runners are cheering back as they leave the tunnel, leaving an eerie echo for the runners entering. It was impossible not to suddenly be supercharged and we all ran at our strongest, our best and our fastest. I had agreed to look for Eva at the right hand side uptown corner of First and 62nd Street and I knew it would be hopeless for us to see each other in this crowd of spectators, with the volume of runners streaming by, and the ridiculous speed that we were running now. This was a mental deflator and I was pushing it out of my mind when I see her waving and screaming my name. I wave and I am past her, headed uptown.
I hold that pace for 4 miles as I go up First past the places that other friends had lived or that we saw when taking a taxi to the Triborough Bridge. We cross a bridge into the Bronx and I feel the elevation gain, although it is minimal. It isn’t affecting me aerobically; it is causing fluttering in my hamstrings. That’s weird. I’ve never had that before. It seems that every block we make a turn and the course is contrived. This is the South Bronx – the supposedly worst section around, and rumor has it that for safety reasons, they minimize time there. Having seen the map since then, it could be the reason, it could be geography, or it could be the corporate sponsors. In any case, a mile later we are going across another bridge and my hamstrings flutter again. This time they don’t stop completely but I keep on. Just before mile 23 we come off Fifth Avenue and we enter Central Park. Immediately we start climbing the only significant natural hill so far. Even though this is an elevation gain of only 80 feet, my quads flinch and then my hamstrings. I decide to forfeit some time, even though now we are nearing the finish and time has value, and I stop and do cross-legged toe touches, stretching first my right hamstring and then my left. That feels better and I am back in the race. That was a short stop, but I still estimate that fifty to a hundred runners have passed me during that time. But I am reeling in a few of them, plus people that are obviously suffering worse than me from bonking or hitting the wall, and from many that have cramped worse than me. The cold weather during the morning wait is collecting its toll. Two more miles.
Mile 25 is rolling as if to taunt my muscles and I vary my speed, I lean forward, I stretch again and I decide how best to hang on. A full-blown leg muscle cramp is painful. That is a fact that I experienced sharply and despite its warnings, unexpectedly. The immediate treatment is well known: stretch the muscle. First things first: finding some place to safely attempt this. The road is full of runners that lack the lateral motion or agility to avoid a suddenly-stopped runner. And the sides of the road are filled with fans that seek to see their runner one more time as the finish line approaches. But I make it to the side and go back into the cross-legged toe touch position and lean down. We now all know that the hipbone is connected to the thighbone, but I learned about the interconnection of muscles that day. As I stretch my right hamstring, the cramp shifts to my right quad. I almost fall onto the street, but I grab my foot & pull it up behind me. And the cramp leaves my right leg and transfers to my left hamstring. I shift and play this game. I see the feet of way too many runners going by, and even realizing that each runner had two feet, I still know that I am dropping by hundreds in the final results. Yet, I have to stop the cramp to resume running and after a couple of minutes, it subsides and I jump back in.
Whenever you are almost out of gas, in running or in a car, you have to decide whether it is better to speed up and get there or slow down and get there. I started slow to test out the legs. Paranoia can be a virtue but I was rewarded by a flattening of the road, so I chose the speedy route. We passed by The Plaza onto Central Park South with less than a mile to go and I could steal energy from the crowd. I’ve walked that section many times, but it seemed much farther this afternoon – it was after 1 pm already. I made it to Columbus Circle and turned back into the park expecting to finish. But that extra portion added to reach the Queen’s stand always seems like more than .2 miles. I hung in there and passed 10-15 people for a moral victory that the final rankings would have but never reveal. I accepted my participant’s medal and felt relatively good about my finish time. I rationalized away some time due to the delayed start time and blamed the cramps on the cold. Even with those things, I was only 6 minutes slower than last time. In reality, that meant that I was faster. Or so I decided.
The cramps were gone but so was my core body heat. I was cold and my only clothes were back at the room. It was several more blocks before spectators and runners could meet up. Eva found me and shared clothing and together we found Laura (the sexy singing sister-in-law). She had seen Paul a few times on the course and had great stories, and together we went to find Paul and to relive the race over a deli sandwich.

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