It was just past 6:00 in the morning when I turned the key to lock my apartment and headed down the two flights of stairs toward the front door. Bundled in layers of ill-fitting sweats I stepped out into the chilly November air to begin my long trek to Staten Island. I couldn’t decide whether the still darkened streets were eerily quiet or just peacefully calm. Though I had been up since 4:45, I was filled with energy— fueled by a full tank of nerves and excitement. After looking forward to this day with increasing anticipation for more than a year, it seemed surreal that when I returned home later that afternoon, I’d have finally earned the right to call myself a Marathoner.
Nearing 1st Avenue I could see a dozen police officers reporting for their Marathon duties. I glanced down at the famed blue line, then looked north with a bit of trepidation. Taking a deep breath I continued toward the subway as fellow runners appeared out of the shadows. As if following a pied piper, one by one we vanished down into the subway. The platform was lined with huddled masses wearing plain throwaway clothes providing a sharp contrast to familiar colored running shoes.
Together we plunged into the brightly lit subway car, where chatter seemed to center around how the cool and windy weather might impact the day’s race. Listening to the weather forecasters’ dire warnings about the day’s predicted winds and unseasonably colder temperatures had given my second – and third – thoughts on my own racing attire. Since I have a tendency to warm up considerably while running, I had originally planned on wearing a sleeveless top, shorts and arm warmers. But the near hysteria had given me pause as to whether I should also wear a long-sleeved layer underneath. After changing my mind several times that morning, I decided I’d rather be a bit chilly than warm. While 26.2 miles later I knew I had made the right decision, during the 20 minute subway ride I wasn’t so sure.
Passing the satellite trucks parked in front of the Staten Island ferry terminal, I could feel I was about to be a part of something special. Cresting the terminal escalators my eyes scanned a sea of people ready to board a sunrise cruise to the starting village. While boarding passes weren’t necessary, the approving whiff from an official counterterrorism German Shepard was required.
Not more than five minutes after arriving at the terminal, we were ushered onto the next departing ferry. I shuffled through the entrance on the right side, as I wanted to take in a view of the Statute of Liberty. Perhaps I was projecting, but I found the ride rather subdued. Knowing that I should trust my training and actually believing that my training had me prepared were two entirely different things. As I watched the Manhattan skyline drift farther and farther away, I became fixated on the fact that the next time I stepped foot in Manhattan, it would be by foot- 16 miles later.
By train, boat and then bus, I finally arrived at the starting village. After meandering around looking for the green village, I wised up and followed others wearing matching colored bibs toward the corresponding corrals. (I later learned that some of the signage had been removed due to the high winds.) Pulling out an old heat sheet, I plopped myself down onto the grass and stared up at the bridge.
I turned and looked up at the giant screen counting down the minutes until the wave one corrals would be closing. The screens cycled through instructions in various languages as the speakers presumably echoed them. It was reminiscent of an international airport, underscoring that runners from around 130 countries had traveled to New York for this truly global event.
Standing at the gates ready to enter the corrals, I watched the wave one runners make there way through the start. My nerves were competing with unbridled excitement. Those emotions were quickly numbed, however, as I shed away the layers of throwaway clothes and prepared for the short walk to the bridge.
The familiarity of the announcer’s voice, which I immediately recognized from the two dozen races I’d already run this year, had a calming effect as I adjusted my arm warmers and readied my Garmin. Before I knew it, the reverberations of the cannon ignited a flurry of cheers and many, myself included, joined along in a rendition of Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” The journey was finally beginning.
Almost immediately after crossing the start I felt a ferocious blast of cold air— the winds were ridiculous. From both the left and the front I felt like I had entered a wind tunnel exhibit at some science center. Having lived in Florida a few years back, the unrelenting gusts were literally stronger than the Tropical Storms I had come to know. With my left hand clutching my bib to avoid a disastrous wardrobe malfunction, my buck twenty-five frame was mercilessly being tossed from side to side. I hadn’t even made it past the first mile when panic set in: how on earth would I make it 26.2 miles like this?
As I descended the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge bridge into Brooklyn the gusts seemed to dissipate just as quickly as they had appeared. With one borough behind me, I began to settle in to a rhythm.
Preparing for the Marathon I had thought of the Brooklyn portion of the Marathon like I did the third year of law school: long, boring and lacking substance, but which must be endured before hunkering down for the far more challenging Bar Exam.
But Brooklyn pleasantly surprised me. Entering 4th Avenue at around the 5K point, I felt like a conquering hero. For mile after mile the course was lined with loud and energetic crowds. For mile after mile I couldn’t help but smile. The enthusiasm was contagious- I felt fantastic. My legs were tapered and felt fresh. I couldn’t believe how quickly the miles were clicking by. Though I had one earbud in my right ear, my iPod remained off through most of Brooklyn. I wanted to savor the incomparable atmosphere. More than once I found myself shaking my head and saying to myself, “Holy ****! I’m running a ****** Marathon! Who would ever believe?!”
I knew it would be easy to lose myself in the excitement, so I made a conscious effort to keep tabs on my pace. Occasionally I’d glance at my wrist and force myself to rein it in a bit. I had never intended to adopt a mantra for the Brooklyn portion of the course, but as I recalled a phrase I’d read during my training, “Bank now, bonk later,” I found myself uttering it every time I’d check my Garmin.
With this being my first Marathon, I knew it was unwise to focus on a time goal. But based on my training, I thought sub-4:00 was reasonable, and that between 3:50 and 4:00 wasn’t out of the question. I was also quite cognizant that covering 26.2 miles was very different than 20 or 21 miles. Would the weather be a factor? I also didn’t know how my body would acclimate, but believed that after today I’d gain perspective as well as a benchmark. I viewed today as a first step, one that I could build on in subsequent outings. I found the learning aspect of this day to be just as thrilling as the prospect of finishing. Because I was taking the long view, I didn’t obsess about whether my splits were on pace to a achieve a specific time. Rather, I wanted to err on the conservative side – my primary objective was to avoid the regret of going out too hard and crashing later.
For the most part, the wind was not a factor while trekking through Brooklyn. On a few occasions, most noticeably around mile 8, a few gusts cut across the course requiring a quick hand to the bib to ensure my number remained securely pinned. The streets were generally smooth sailing and proved a sharp contrast to the largest bridges.
I had decided to employ an effort-based approach to the course’s five bridges, and as I prepared to cross into Queens over the Pulaski Bridge at the halfway mark I wasn’t sure what the wind would have in store.
I had heard the Pulaski referred to as a rather insignificant climb, though I wasn’t allowing myself to get lured into a false sense of security. But as I passed over the 13 mile and half timing pats in quick succession, I realized the descriptions had been apt. Admittedly, my perceptions may have been altered with this particular bridge being sandwiched between the mighty Verrazano-Narrows and the daunting Queensboro. Regardless, as I made my way through the third borough of the day, I felt strong.
Before the race I had read many accounts of the long lonely trek across the Queensboro Bridge. I was looking forward to finally arriving in Manhattan, but as I marched toward the bridge’s entrance in the 14th mile I was a bit fearful of how taxing the climb would be. Ascending onto the structure’s lower level I could begin to feel the wind picking up. I again clasped onto my bib in order to fight the cross currents. To my left runners were stopping along the edge to take selfies with the Manhattan skyline. And while I would never stop in the middle of a race to snap a picture, I couldn’t disagree with their choice of view. With the Empire State Building visible in the distance, it was breathtaking.
Despite the crosswinds, I loved the solstice of the bridge. It was peaceful, and before I knew it my legs could feel the descent beginning. I glanced at my Garmin to assess whether I needed to regulate my pace on the downhill. To my surprise, the pace was much slower than I had expected it to be. The winds were omnipresent, but didn’t seem obnoxious. Nonetheless, they had a slowing effect. I had committed to running the hills based on effort, and I wasn’t about to adjust that strategy now. I’d much rather complete the race realizing I could have pushed the pace at times, than overextend and cross the finish feeling defeated.
Cheers slowly began to break the stillness harkening the arrival to Manhattan. Circling around and under the bridge was amazing. To my right bales of hay were aligned alongside the course and I couldn’t help but wonder if I had missed out on a Halloween hay ride. Heading north along 1st Avenue, I would soon be passing within a block of my apartment, and I could feel myself picking up the pace. I remembered the saying, “The NYC Marathon is never won on 1st Avenue, but it can be lost here,” so I decided to ease up a bit.
Sure, there were spectators, and in pockets they were loud and plentiful. But, today at least, this three mile stretch didn’t hold a candle to Brooklyn. At one point I passed a group of twenty-somethings drinking out of red solo cups. They were sipping and looking bewildered, likely wondering why in the world thousands of people were choosing to run around in highlighter bright shirts and shorts. I couldn’t blame them, it would’ve been extremely cold to stand outside for hours cheering on a day like today- certainly not without an adult beverage.
Nearing the 18 mile marker I passed former New York Giant running back Tiki Barber. The energy he exuded in his pre-race media appearances seemed to have long since dissipated. He looked worse for wear, alone, hurting and walking ever so slowly. With the fifth and final borough straight ahead, today I was outrunning a former NFL running back.
The mile-long foray into the Bronx was short and sweet. After making it across the Willis Avenue Bridge I soon crossed mile 20. The expression, “The marathon begins at mile 20,” was suddenly stuck in my head. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t feel like I’d suddenly smacked into anything, let alone a wall, but I was admittedly fearful. Descending the final bridge back into Manhattan I crossed the 21 mile marker, which happened to represent the distance of my longest training run. I was entering new territory. Was I physically and mentally prepared?
When a weather caster forecasts a tailwind for the final miles of a marathon, he might as well be waving a red cape in front of a bull. Turning onto 5th Avenue just after mile 22, the promise of a tailwind to help me climb this infamous hill made me feel like a bull ready to charge through the dwindling miles. I was so not amused when that cape was quickly yanked away and I found myself surrounded by swirling wind gusts.
For the previous three plus hours the winds had been manageable along the streets, but on this unrelenting 20-block long incline, I was battling the wind to-boot. Everywhere around me walkers seemed to be popping up. For a quick second I thought I had been transported to the set of the Walking Dead. Then a ridiculously strong gust of wind caught me from the left. I was mid-stride, which rocked my left foot into my right ankle. I fought to maintain balance as I heard several audible gasps from the spectators lining the right-hand side of the street. Miraculously I managed to remain upright, but later noticed the force of my left foot had left a bruising scrape.
Alas, just ahead I could see runners beginning the turn into Central Park.
Entering Central Park was like a ticker tape parade. The familiar roads were lined with screaming spectators and errant fall leaves dotted the pavement. While I still had my mental faculties, my quads were quickly deteriorating. I fully understood that running 23 miles was much different than running 20 or 21. At this point I stopped looking at my Garmin. Math was never my strong suit, so calculating a prospective finish time would be futile.
I was quickly gaining an appreciation for the many admonitions I’d read promising that marathoning isn’t easy, the final miles are tough and painful, and that remaining focused on finishing strong is key. My quads were on fire. Weaving around the multiplying walkers wasn’t exactly easy, actually quite frustrating, but at least I was passing people.
In the moment, I felt like a plane losing altitude, deliberately descending toward the ground below. Surprisingly, my Garmin showed that I was actually holding my own and accelerating through the final two miles.
Exiting Central Park just after mile 25 was a blur. Along Central Park South my eyes were scanning ahead for Columbus Circle. I was so ready to finish!
Crossing the 26 mile marker, I looked at my watch. The minutes were nearing the four hour mark. If I was going to break four hours, I needed to kick, now. I could feel myself gaining speed. Another glance at my watch showed 20 seconds. Nearing the finish I threw my hands up over my head, ready to stop the watch as I hit the mat. It would be close.
What on earth?! Just ahead of me, a man had made it to the finish—but he wasn’t continuing onward. What was he doing?! This finisher stopped, and began to lay down across the finish line. Moving in slow motion, he stopped, sat down and then stretched himself over the finish. Is he really going to take a nap now?! I couldn’t believe it. I veered to the right. I was going to make every effort not to step on his face, but I wasn’t making any promises. After all, I was on a mission. I leaped up and over the line, barely avoiding knocking into the finish structure as I tried to avoid a collision. As one might expect, Marathonfoto captured the unusual finish frame by frame in comic strip fashion.
Five bridges, five boroughs, 26.2 miles and 3:59:55 later, I was proud to be one of 50,564 finishers of the 2014 New York City Marathon. I may not have been the fastest, but joining the ranks of the fewer than 1% of Americans who can call themselves a “marathoner,” feels pretty darned elite to me.