When this year’s New York City marathon week kicked-off, I couldn’t help but stare at the calendar in disbelief that November was approaching so quickly. The 2015 event would be my second 5-borough trek and third marathon effort in twelve months.
In preparation for this race I’d upgraded from a “conservative” training plan to a “moderate” program, and was really relishing the training journey. I’d emerged from the hot and humid summer months a stronger runner, and had even achieved a couple of personal bests in the half marathon and 5-mile race distances in the recent weeks. I’d integrated more runs over the Queensboro bridge into my training, and had even made an effort to schedule a handful of treks up the 5th Avenue hill. There was no doubt, I was certainly fitter and more prepared this year.
My pre-dawn journey to Staten Island could’ve inspired an apt sequel title for a sequel to an old 1980s Steve Martin and John Candy comedy. In this version, which I’d dubbed, “Trains, Ferries and Buses,” I was sure the odd couple would’ve found great comedic material from an underground ride in subway cars with marathoners wearing brightly colored shoe and clinging onto clear plastic starting village bags at one end, and disheveled party-goers still decked out in a random assortment of Halloween costumes at the other.
Once at the ferry terminal, I momentarily found myself quite confused trying to figure out who was heading to the starting line and who was heading home to Staten Island after a night of partying in Manhattan. A race the day after Halloween – in New York – had definitely brought out the creative sides of some runners. Just ahead of me in line for the 7AM ferry, I could make out Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and who I suspected would eventually become the Cowardly Lion. I supposed that if the marathon organizers tired of using the “Get Your New York” slogan, they could consider borrowing the USA TV Network’s tagline, “Characters Welcome.”
Though I was wearing a throwaway hoodie and sweatpants over my shorts and tank top, these layers were largely unnecessary. It was a sharp contrast to when I entered the start village last year. Then, the gusty winds, at times in excess of 40 mph, were most unpleasant, and I still had mild case of PTSD from that epic struggle over the Verrazano. This year, the wind was nonexistent, and the temperatures were hovering near 60.
When the wave two runners were marched from the athletes village to the start line, the excitement was palpable. The helicopter tasked with providing the national television audience with those iconic starting line images hovered overhead and began to draw nearer. Waving arms erupted into cheers as the “eye in the sky” passed directly overhead. I had always (mistakenly) assumed that a mounted camera was responsible for the fine aerial coverage. I gasped as I saw a cameraman hanging mostly outside, tethered to the inside of the aircraft by a number of presumably strong straps. Shaking my head in disbelief, I hoped his insurance was paid in full.
In no time the twin canons’ reverberations signaled the beginning of the day’s marathon journey. Through wafts of gunpowder I made my way up the Verrazano. It’s often said that though it’s the steepest incline on the course, it doesn’t feel that way. It’s been suggested this is due to one’s adrenaline and freshly tapered legs, but I don’t think that’s the case. It’s simply a slow go. The NYC Marathon is self-seeded, in the sense that runners input their own predicted finish time upon registering and they are corralled accordingly, without verification. More than a few of these projections were based in as much reality as an episode of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” Combine that with the sort of congested start one would expect at any large race, let alone the world’s largest marathon, and it’s going to be a slow start. Though in the grand scheme of things, an unavoidable slow start isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Following the up and down of the Verrazano Bridge and with Staten Island in the proverbial rear view mirror, I settled in for the long trek through Brooklyn. My primary goal for the day’s journey through New York’s most populous borough was to keep my pace around my target range, which my training plan had pinpointed to be between 8:22 and 8:35. As the miles ticked by, my Garmin showed I was holding relatively steady in the middle-to-upper range, though I knew that “officially” I was more likely slightly exceeding the upper portion of this range by a tad (after all, it’s impossible to run the tangents on such a congested course).
I had adopted the same fueling and hydration approach as my two previous marathons – one gel every six miles, and grabbing either water or Gatorade at nearly each aid station. Despite this seemingly smart (and proven) hydration strategy, by the Brooklyn midway point I noticed I had worked up a greater sweat than I’d expected. The back of my hair was damp, and I noticed some salt had already begun to accumulate on my temples. I double and triple checked my Garmin, to confirm and reconfirm my pacing was on target. It was, and it by no means could’ve been considered aggressive. Looking around for some sort of validation, I noticed a number of other runners nearby also seemed to be noticeably sweating more than I would of expected. I made a mental note to grab Gatorade instead of water at a majority of the aid stations to help replace the sodium I was losing, focused my thoughts on the long march towards Queens.
When I walk outside my Upper East Side apartment and stand on the street corner, I have a clear view of the Queensboro bridge. But until last year’s New York City Marathon, I’d never run across it. The steady incline, which comes at mile 15, is often described as a long, lonely and quiet portion of the course, which adds a physical and mental challenge for marathoners before they’re jolted back to life by the thunderous crowds that will be waiting in Manhattan once they exit the bridge at mile 16. Since last year’s race, I’ve run over the Queensboro countless time as I logged training miles through all seasons. Its hills were a great addition to my regimen, and I’d actually looked forward to this segment of the course. Based on my year-over-year splits for the Queensboro Bridge miles, the training runs had certainly paid dividends- I’d managed to shave more than a minute off my pace this year.
As I headed up 1st Avenue toward the Bronx, the Manhattan crowds were certainly more plentiful and raucous than last year- though they still hadn’t eclipsed Brooklyn’s amazing revelers. Some might say that Manhattan’s crowds seemed to be more fair weathered than the outer boroughs. Though I won’t judge, I think it’s safe to say weather played a bigger role than initially expected – both on and off the marathon course this year.
In the days leading up to marathon Sunday, I had watched the prospect of rain enter and leave the race day forecast. I’d also noticed the projected temperature range inch upward from the mid 50’s to the low-to-mid 60s. As one whose body temperature “runs hot,” I took issue with those forecasters describing the conditions as “ideal,” but wasn’t going to lose any sleep over it. In fact, I didn’t give it a second thought. After all, I’d completed any number of training runs, not to mention races in much warmer temperatures, albeit not a marathon. Why should this be any different?
With the Willis Avenue Bridge in sight, I’d soon be crossing the 20 mile mark for a quick one-mile Bronx “run by.” With my mile splits having consistently remained well within range throughout the race thus far, after hitting the 20 mile mark I began to feel progressively unwell.
Making my way through the Bronx, I initially wondered if I had hit the fabled wall- something I’d avoided on my two previous marathon outings. But as I took a self inventory, I soon realized that likely wasn’t the case. My legs felt just fine, and I definitely wasn’t fatigued. The pace I’d kept thus far wasn’t too different from my typical long run pace. I had fueled on schedule, and knew that my glycogen levels weren’t depleted. But as I neared the Madison Avenue Bridge and the 21 mile mark, I felt hot, dizzy, nauseous, and ever so thirsty.
Every runner’s body is different and responds to the surrounding environment differently. It seemed the 60 degree temperatures had been deceptively warmer than I’d anticipated. And while 60 degrees would have been just find for a half marathon, I was learning that, for me at least, the temperature’s impact on this day’s marathon distance was becoming very real.
I’ve not completed enough marathons to be anything other than a novice, but I’d distilled all the guidance I’d heard into a theory that’s guided my approach to the 26.2 mile distance: ultimately, successfully completing the marathon is a balancing act. One must always keep their pace, nutrition and hydration in equilibrium. And because that point of equilibrium will be impacted by environmental, course topography and other external factors, it’s a 26.2 mile balancing act that could give Philippe Petit a run for his money.
By mile 21, I was out of equilibrium. Though nutritional fueling wasn’t a factor, my hydration had not met the needs required by my pace. I’d ignored the salty sweat warning signs back in Brooklyn, which should have prompted me to increase my hydration. The amount (just a few sips) of water and gatorade I’d taken in at each aid station hadn’t been enough, I should have either gulped down more before tossing my cup, or adjusted my pace. Now, my body was involuntarily forcing me back into balance. The 60 degree weather may have been ideal for the spectators, but it certainly wasn’t for me. I was pushing the limits of dehydration.
The final 5 miles were a chore. I had no choice but to slow down considerably, otherwise I’d of at best been sick, and at worst needed attention. I adopted a modified fartlek strategy in order to make it to the finish line in an upright position. I’d run, then slow when my body screamed for balance, and repeat. At aid stations I grabbed both gatorade and water, and focus on making it to the next station for more. It was a humbling experience.
Heading into the race, the portion of the course I had most feared was the never-ending 5th Avenue hill. I remembered how brutal it had been the year before. Ironically, the topography of the 5th Avenue didn’t seem to bother me this year. Throughout the final 5 miles, not once did my legs feel fatigued. Fitness-wise, I was in great shape, though dehydration had managed to trump all else.
In those final five miles my pace ranged from just under to a little more than 10:00 a mile. In the moment, I was embarrassed, frustrated and upset. When I finally crossed the finish line I had one thought on my mind: opening the recovery bag so I could chug the nice big bottle of Poland Spring water I knew would be waiting inside. It may just have been the best tasting pint (that wasn’t amber colored) I’d ever tasted.
When I mustered up enough courage to check my time I learned that, despite the rough final miles, I had managed a 3:55:37 finish. Though I was capable of better, I’d still completed the course nearly 5 minutes faster than last year!
In the immediate aftermath, I’ll admit that I was letting the last few miles cloud my perspective of the entire day. But after finally making my way home, showering and getting something to eat I turned on my computer to see live posts from the finish line, as finishers continued to stream in. Darkness had fallen and the course had officially closed, but marathoners of all ages, shapes, sizes and abilities continued to jump for joy as they received their medals. Their journeys were inspiring, and provided a much needed reality check. They may not have adorned laurel wreaths, but their perseverant attitudes made them true champions. Seeing these images provided some much needed perspective.
When I finally closed my eyes to finally get some much needed rest, I knew I’d sleep soundly knowing that after the day’s 26.2 mile tour of New York I’d gained far more than just another medal. The lessons of the day, as humbling as they were, would ultimately make me a better runner.