|Race day attire|
"Wow! Just wow! Details later, cause I need to feed and party right now. But what a city!"
After crossing the finish line of the NYC Marathon on November 3rd and getting home from Central Park; I only had time for a quick Facebook update before the arrival of the guests for our post-Marathon party. The words above were all I could come up with. Because... Well... Wow!
A race for the whole World
In NY, we like to claim to be the center of the world. Of course if you are the center, you might wanna invite the world to come over and play every now and then. And we do. About 50 million people visit our fair city every year. The UN meets a few blocks away from Times Square, where the world celebrates the new year. And of course there is the NYC Marathon.
Everyone says the Marathon is an international event, but to get the whole picture you have to attend the opening ceremony on Marathon Friday, two nights before the race. This is something NYRR started in 2011 to celebrate the international participation, so it is still "defining itself"; but to see runners from around the world walk through the finish line, carrying their flags, waving at their cheering fans is simply inspiring. There were about 28000 US runners among the more than 50000 total starters (yeah, 50000!), which leaves us with 22000 internationals. I don't think there is another marathon that comes this close to a half and half split.
After a restive Saturday filled with careful carb-loading and hydrating (and apartment hunting for some reason), I did what every runner does on marathon eve: I prepared my gear, setup 3 separate alarms (two for 5AM, one for 5:30), drank some more water, told Courtney to setup a fourth alarm (because, you know, I may be setting mine wrong. Better safe than sorry!) and went to bed early for the traditional toss-and-turn. I don't know what time I fell asleep, but I was up with the first peep of the first alarm.
After my tried and true pre-run routine (a giant mug of latte with lots of sugar consumed while watching my favorite running themed Youtube videos), I was on my way at 6AM and on board the number 4 train 15 minutes later. As we got closer to the south tip of the island, the number 4 train became "The Runner Express". Quiet looks were exchanged, good luck was wished.
There were many things to see on the Staten Island Ferry. The Statue of Liberty, The Ellis Island, downtown Manhattan in all its glory... And of course the multi-colored throw-away clothes! Boy, were we a badly dressed bunch! It was almost an anti-fashion week. In a controversial decision, NYRR decided to partially eliminate bag checking. There was an uproar and they brought back the option, but a lot of runners chose the "Early Exit" option, which meant you couldn't send a bag from the start line to the finish, which meant the clothes that kept you warm on your way to the start would be left there. Hence the grown men in Donald Duck sweatshirts and grown women in large flowery sweatpants. If you frequent one of the NY area Goodwill stores, they will appear on the racks soon.
To steal from Boromir, "One does not simply walk onto the start line of the NYC Marathon". After getting to Staten Island, you are transported by bus to a staging area and you wait an additional hour or two there. I was assigned to the Orange Village, aka Grete Waitz Village. To the uninitiated, the staging area would look like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people lying on the ground, walking around, waiting in lines for port-a-potties, congregating around coffee tables, huddled in a giant tent like emperor penguins... Guys in throw-away jumpsuits and constant PA announcements in 8 different languages perfectly completed the scene. The shock wore off after a while though and I started to enjoy myself. I got some coffee and a bagel. On a regular morning, Dunkin' Donuts' overly sweet bagel would be considered an abomination, but before a marathon it wasn't bad at all. I started to say goodbye to my throwaway clothes one by one and finally faced the cold.
When the time for my wave came I walked to my assigned corral. There was a long line in front of it, so like a good New Yorker I found the end of the line and started to wait. 5 minutes, 10. Chatting with fellow runners. Hey, there goes the second wave! 10 more minutes. 15 more. Hey wait, aren't we supposed to start soon? I don't know how we went wrong, because there were people who seemed to have done the race before (at least they were giving advice like they did), but somehow we missed our corral time while waiting on that line and the marshals wouldn't let us in.
And so kids, this is the story of how I found myself at the very front of the fourth wave! Yes, my start got delayed for 25 minutes and I missed the pace group I was planning to go with; but I got to enjoy the view from the Verrazano-Narrows a bit better. When the Marathon gives you lemons...
Start slow, if you can
My coach, if I had one, would probably recommend going easy the first few miles of the race. This is easier said than done. First of all, I had been waiting in the cold for the last two hours. Not to mention years of anticipation. The last minute change in start order also pumped in some adrenaline. Long story short I was ready to go. We were all ready to go! And then, as if all this is not enough, they fire a freakin' cannon behind you. BOOM went the cannon and off we were singing "New York, New York".
The first mile of the NYC Marathon is also the steepest. You are climbing up the Verrazano-Narrows bridge for an entire mile. On the upside, you have a breathtaking view of the harbor and downtown Manhattan. Mind you this is coming from someone who has been living in NY for 3 years and has seen the city from every imaginable angle. For the first time that day I was kicking myself for not having a camera with me (thanks to Instagram this post has some color).
Second mile poses the complete opposite problem, as you go down that hill you just climbed. Going into Brooklyn I was running at a decent 9:30 pace trying to convince myself to slow down. As we got off the bridge, a band of drummers greeted us. Then a few spectators. I high-fived a couple of kids while turning a corner, first of many that day. And from this point on, the crowds kept growing and growing and growing.
They should have sent a poet
In the movie Contact, one of my favorites, scientist Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) is sent to an alien planet through a wormhole. It is so beautiful, so enchanting that she can't find the words to describe it. She says, "They should have sent a poet". Those words sum up my feelings regarding the NYC Marathon spectators.
Running, especially distance running, is hardly a mainstream sport. If you are not a runner yourself, chances are you won't know the names of the top athletes even if they are accomplishing superhuman feats. You won't read an analysis of yesterday's race in the paper and you won't stumble upon a live broadcast of a marathon while flipping through channels. Marathon runners are considered crazy but harmless enthusiasts and left alone to do their thing. Often even by their families.
But for one day in November, we get to star in the biggest show in town. Miles and miles of NY streets are lined with people. 2, 3, 4 deep in places. Some people are there for friends or family; some just to be a part of it. They look in your eyes, they cheer you on. Little kids stretch their little hands for a high-five, grown-ups hold signs that make you laugh for a split second. Old ladies sit out in the cold watching the runners go by. You raise your arms and a whole street erupts in cheer! Even though you are in 35124th place!
Which was the best borough? Can't tell ya'. Staten Island housed us for hours, but we didn't get to thank the locals. The view ahead on Brooklyn's long avenues was amazing. A sea of color moving through the city. In Williamsburg, where streets are narrower, you could almost high five both sides at once. Are you worried about that hill? Walk if you want, but are you ready to disappoint your fans? Queens' three miles started quiet but progressively got crazier as we approached the Queensboro, where my friend Ashley was waiting. I had to high-five her over 4 other people. Manhattan, my home court, and as always the loudest section, was where I saw Courtney and some other friends. Quick high-fives again and promise of beer later. We only spent a mile in The Bronx, but that was enough to reenergize everyone back into Harlem and then Manhattan's famed Fifth Avenue. Cheers from thousands of people mixed with the gorgeous afternoon sunlight washing the Museum Mile carried us all the way back to the Park. And once you get to the Park, as a New York runner, you are home again. I gave the ol' cat a knowing smile and got ready for the victory mile through Plaza Hotel, Central Park South and Columbus Circle. The iconic finish line at The Tavern on The Green was right around the corner as it always is.
As a scientist I rarely get this kind of encouragement. OK, that was a lie, I never get this kind encouragement! After a good presentation I might get a bit of an applause, but that's about it. I must be a natural though, cause I picked it up pretty quickly. I learned to feed off the crowd. I started to feel bad about taking walk breaks. I stuck to the 9:30 pace as long as I could, knowing it would hurt after a few miles. But hey, how often do you get to run the NYC Marathon? And even though my legs started to get tired around mile 10 and started to cramp around mile 15, I was determined to run as much as I could. Going through upper Manhattan and Harlem was really really tough, with both legs cramping, but I knew that I would get a jolt of energy once I got back to the Park. So, I kept at it. Run 100 steps, walk a bit. Run to the water station, walk the hill. Run down Cat Hill. Going through the finish line, I was happy to know that on that day, on this course, with my legs, I had done my best, leaving nothing on the course. And isn't that the point of running a marathon anyway?
Monks draped in orange
Like New York's traffic, New York Marathon's exit is famously congested. It is not easy to move 50000 tired people in a semi-orderly fashion and get them to their bags and families. You get your medal, get your photo taken if you wish, get a mylar sheet and a recovery bag with food inside. After this you join the crowd and start walking towards the exit. Those of us who opted for the "Early Exit" were led towards 77th Street about half a mile from the finish. From here they took us out of the Park and onto Central Park West Avenue, where we were adorned in our famous ponchos! This was the second time I regretted not having a camera, because the view ahead of me, hundreds of runners in bright orange ponchos walking slowly towards the NY city skyline and setting sun was just haunting. Somewhat appropriately we looked like reclusive monks of the running cult. About 45 minutes after the finish, I was reunited with Courtney, ready to walk back home.
The poncho kept me warm, yes, but the greatest unintended feature of this new fashionable apparel was that it marked you as a "runner". So, on the way back, I got maybe ten more "Good job!"s from strangers, blocks away from the finish line. The city after pushing me towards the finish line the whole day, was giving me one last pat on the back.
As I said I didn't leave anything on the course on Marathon day and my legs are feeling it now. There are no injuries, but my leg muscles are sore like they have never been before. Every time I get up after sitting for a while, I wince and then smile remembering that great day. I keep repeating that famous marathon sign: "Pain is temporary, pride is forever".
A friend asked if marathoners plan their next race quickly to combat post-marathon depression, which made me think about my future plans. I was planning to run the NYC 60K again, but I think I am going to skip it this year. So far in my running career I have mostly been coasting, finishing races with my stubbornness rather than fitness. Next year I am planning to concentrate on shorter races to get fitter and faster. Develop a good base and miss distance running a bit. I am thinking about doing NYRR's 9+1 plan once again to qualify for 2015. (Did you really think I was going to stop doing this after one time?)
Oh, and, one final thing!
Dear NYRR team, volunteers, police officers, medics, city employees, my fellow runners, friends and spectators; dear New York City: Thank you very very much! You don't know this, but the last year of my life has been pretty hellish. I have been stressed, depressed, discouraged, unhappy and every time I was stressed, depressed, discouraged or unhappy I looked forward to November. NYC Marathon became my light at the end of the tunnel, gave me strength to go through the day. You made that day special for me, gave me memories that will last a whole lifetime and made me love this great city even more. So, from the bottom of my heart Thank You, Thank You, Thank You!
And see you soon!
And see you soon!
|My bib and medal|