You have to try everything once.
It was no surprise that it was dark when I rose from bed on that morning early November. I had my running shoes and race gear set out the night before and I anticipated the distance that lay ahead of me within the next few hours. Grabbing a small bag of snacks and gels, I left my apartment mixed with determination, excitement and a small hint of fear. I had a suffered a muscle tear in my groin on the right side. Due to continued training and racing in the early spring/summer without adequate rest, I had exacerbated the initial injury and more serious problems had started affecting my left groin and leg. These plagued my marathon training for the beginning portion of the season and in those final weeks prior to the taper. Upon footstrike, my left leg began to buckle at the interior knee and if I continued running my upper thigh would awkwardly twist the quad, hamstring and adductors resulting in debilitating pain when walking, along with a great deal of internal bleeding. I tried every quick fix. I know that some of you out there may or may not understand where I was coming from…There is nothing more painful than watching a race, yet not running it after planning for it for over a year.
There is such a peace in the city whenever you walk the streets in those early hours. It's as if the city lets you in on something special before the roar of daybreak when millions of people wake from their slumber. I walked in this quiet to the bus deeply engaged in my own type of meditation. I needed to stay focused during the race. I had worked so hard to get to this marathon and I wasn't certain if I could even make it to mile 6 without complications or mile 10 without having to throw in the towel. Through all the blood, sweat and tears I decided to adopt the motto "Go out hard, go out strong or don't go at all"; despite the warnings from friends and strangers alike that this could end my running or walking for that matter. This was my one shot to prove to myself that everything works out in the end. Having been born in NYC, having that dream of marathon completion for over a year and the goal of a particular finishing time…well, I may be as cynical of a New Yorker as they come, but that's not to say New Yorkers aren't dreamers as well. I was never a track or x-country star, but I run because I can and I race because I love it.
I was greeted by a buzz of nervously caffeinated conversations about injuries, goals and so forth. Relieved when my running partner arrived, we boarded the bus and quietly reviewed strategies. I ignored every attempt he made at a marathon time prediction for me. Enshrouded by a heavy fog as we were on our way to the Staten Island start line, the impending marathon weighed heavily on my mind.
The runners were greeted by sunshine in Staten Island and the promise of a favorable day. Occupants of nearby houses waved to us, policemen said encouraging words…I felt as if we were local celebrities! We were walked to our corral, we waited, we reapplied runner's lube, we went to the bathroom several times. We were shuffled out to the start and the excitement began to kick in. I started near the front on the Verrazano Bridge with media cameras rolling and helicopters flying overhead. I turned to look at a river of thousands of runners snake up to the point at which I was standing. This was the New York City Marathon and I was finally there.
I remained focused and resolute, despite many runners having to empty their bowels at the starting line. Keep from shifting the weight to one leg, hydrate, stay focused. We were off and running sooner than I had imagined. The bridge was a fast one and by the mile 2 split I was careful to slow the pace down a bit. The fog had lifted and the sun still relatively low in the sky was strong by the time we reached the streets of Brooklyn.
Running, as independent as a sport can be, is a community that I am proud to be a part of - a body of one united by a common cause. It's something more special than the runner's high and the accomplishment of completing a marathon is something that cannot be taken away by the cruelest life has to offer. Being a runner is a defining trait…It gives a sense of purpose. It allows one to have a goal with the ultimate reward at the end, which is more than a few kind words and a pat on the back.
There is nothing to prepare one for the reception you receive as a participant in the New York Marathon. Elite athletes, veteran NYC Marathoners and novices here have always raved about the support of the crowds. I did not believe it. For the first half of my very first marathon, I had the biggest smile on my face as I took it all in and I was sure the spectators had the same sentiment towards the runners. It was tremendous to see the streets of New York and to see all the different people that contribute to making this city a great place to live - people full of vibrancy enjoying the moment, the weather and being outdoors.
I had started sweating more than I would have liked at mile 2. At mile 4 I had a pounding headache and heat exhaustion (which I am prone to) crept in. I was lightheaded and skidded on the surface of a puddle while trying to reach for water almost falling face first onto the pavement at one of the water stations; but managed to right myself before marring my mug for those finisher photos. I carried a bottle of ice cold water given to me by a fireman for a few miles and loaded up with Gatorade where I could. I maintained a fast clip, trying to be careful not to push too hard too much too soon. I was keeping at my goal pace which was surprising since I was limping a few days before. I pushed on. The headache faded.
There is no anger among spectators; but there was almost a fistfight among two international runners whom I was trying to pass on a narrow treelined block before Williamsburg. We were all running at about an 8:30 pace and we were a quarter of the way through the race. There was a bit of shoving and a punch was just about to be thrown, when a runner came behind the more aggressive man and placed a hand upon his shoulder, leading him away while whispering a few calming words.
From tree lined streets flanked by century old brownstones to wide avenues with live bands on each corner to more desolate industrial looking parts of town which were not forgotten by spectators, I sped through these outer boroughs more quickly than I had anticipated. Just after the mile 15 the Queensboro Bridge went on forever. There was silence due to the absence of crowds and the beat of the runners who were beginning to feel the race. We were past the halfway mark; the finish was remote, but the fear of hitting the wall was very real. At the rate I was going, I was going to qualify for Boston as long as I kept the pace; but varying factors made this difficult to obtain.
I saw my friends interspersed through the different boroughs. I was touched by all my friends enthusiasm for me and I even managed to exchange 'hellos' as I ran past my friend's band playing on Bedford and Grand Street. It's those special moments you carry with your for the rest of your life. To my friends, I owe thanks…the sign you made for me at the Pulaski Bridge and um almost getting arrested for trying to rollerblade alongside me while screaming my name at the top of your lungs on First Avenue where I hit my wall and to those in Central Park and elsewhere in the world that wished me well….you carried me through the pain, you were with me and that is something I cherish.
Before I turned off the bridge I heard the deafening roar of the First Avenue crowd. I can only imagine what gladiators must have felt stepping into the amphitheater for the first time. Seriously, you cannot hear yourself think and concentration is what I needed the most of at this point. I pulled myself together and smiled as I made my way around the corner and up First Avenue which was already littered with water cups, sponges and drenched as if a rainstorm had passed overhead. The sun was blazing overhead at this point and people were hurting. (So, it was 68-70 for most of the marathon, but a bright sun without the comfort of shade is rather unfavorable for a first timer prepping for November weather!) The last 10 miles is daunting, especially when you are tired. I took out my pace chart. At this point, the leg problems were fortunately kept at bay since I focused on each step. When signs of buckling would occur, I would shift my weight to the other leg. I hit the wall at mile 17-18 having had to cut back mileage 2 weeks before taper week. I pushed through it and lost a little time; but it was okay. I would have to race the last 10K/6 miles to make my ideal 3:40 time. I was good for it. I made my last gel last for as long as possible and headed into the Bronx.
This was my first marathon and the longest distance I had run was 22 miles. I had wanted to do 24 miles as a long training run, but I was discouraged. Those last miles were painful. My leg was buckling more, but the biggest concern was going the distance. My muscles felt like lead and water wasn't being absorbed into my system. With a bit over an hour to go, I entered Manhattan and began to pick up my pace on upper Fifth Avenue near Central Park. I only had 5 miles to go.
Okay, I tried to prepare for all variables, but you can never second guess the weather or other people. Spectators were spilling onto the course and walkers and walk/runners were congesting the road. Now, I'm talking about those who walk in a row of 3-4 wide chatting away. I had to zigzag at my 10K pace and this was exhausting, but slowing down or walking would have been sudden death. Every muscle in my leg felt as if it was going to lock, the lactic acid was so built up. I couldn't risk not being able to finish. I turned into Central Park and sped down the Cat Hill. Yes, I leaned forward and let gravity take me. I was running low on energy and needed to reserve everything I could. It was a bit congested exiting the park and the zigzagging was draining. I couldn't do another surge this far before the finish. I checked my watch and slowed my pace. I wasn't going to make my ideal finish time, so I decided not to kill myself. I slowed my pace as I passed the south side of the park and reentered.
I was told the end comes up more quickly than expected. This was not the case for me; but, by god, when I saw the markers and flags indicating the finish, I was relieved. At the same time I cursed at the marathon distance. I never wanted to run 26.2 ever again. I picked up my pace for that strong finish much to the surprise of those around me. I don't remember hearing the cheers of those in the bleachers near the end. Unlike the faces I'd seen at the start, it was all a blur as I crossed the finish line. I threw my arms in the air and I smiled. I had finished 3:54:17. I took one more step and my legs locked up; but it was over. I managed to get myself out of the park and walked home while being congratulated by strangers on the street and stopping to talk to and help fellow marathoners along the way. The celebrating would come later.
Triumph awaits all at the end. For me, the marathon was more than a city of strangers crying out my name and impressed by my fortitude. It was me pushing my body through 26.2 miles with more than 30,000 likeminded souls on that day and joining the ranks of even more people who had globally gone the distance. It was my gift to me. That's the beauty of it. So, I swore that I wouldn't do marathon distances anymore. Well, let's say I still have a goal time to achieve and besides...
You have to try everything more than once…
New York Marathon 2005