Sunday, November 3, 2013

Race Report: New York Marathon 2013

I remember the moment it happened. Like so many before me, I cracked in the Bronx.

Crossing the Willis Avenue Bridge at mile 20, the upwind four-mile slog on First Avenue was finally behind me. But I was suffering. My legs heavy, throat parched, I knew the phantom wall loomed. So I bore down.

The simplest marathon advice I've ever heard is to run the first 20 miles comfortably then race that last 10k. Great plan, hard to execute.

20 miles into a marathon is where most runners hit the wall. Glory fades, confidence gives way to misery and the wheels start to come off. You’re exhausted and your mind is in a precarious state. Your pace slackens and you start getting passed. It’s the getting passed that crushes your will. And your race is over. It’s all you can do to finish.

But what most runners don’t know is that the wall doesn't exist. What people experience as the wall is actually the mind’s inability to overcome the body’s urge to stop. You still have the energy to push through, to keep your pace, even to speed up. To race that last 10k. But at that point in the race your body wants nothing to do with it. 20 miles is far enough, thank you very much.

Hitting rock bottom in a marathon is the easy part – it’s kind of the point. Bouncing off is the hard part.

Seven hours earlier, pulling myself out of bed at three-something in the morning, that imaginary wall seemed worlds away.

The subway floor was all running shoes, a smattering of neon colors crammed together, their owners bundled up in expectation of the Staten Island wind. The worlds’ shoe brands were well-represented as the 5am 1-train rumbled downtown to South Ferry.

Nervous feet jostled a spent condom, crumpled and limp. Newcomers piled in and didn’t notice, all but the tip disappearing under a misplaced foot. The guy next to me chuckled, snapped a picture with his phone.

The logistics required to pull of the New York City Marathon are staggering. Just to get to the starting line I had to take a subway to a ferry to a bus and walk a half mile past what seemed like the entirety of the NYPD. I then had the privilege of waiting around for three hours until I could get into my starting corral where I would wait another hour.

But all that waiting builds the anticipation and when the cannon booms and the crowd surges forward onto the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, holy shit you’re actually running the New York City Marathon.

Riding outside on the ferry, I soaked in the views, began the slow absorption of the scene. I was hyper-aware all morning. After a night of fitful sleep, I was wired and bit delirious. Alone, no intention of talking to anyone, I paid attention to the details.

Two Coast Guard escorts, guns mounted, shadowed the ferry as it sliced through the black water. A drunk girl, one of a few non-runners aboard, hollered at our shadows. To her dismay, they either couldn’t hear her cries or chose not to respond. She kept yelling anyway, strikingly out of place given what the rest of us were there preparing to do.

A Russian runner asked a British guy to take his picture as we passed the Statue of Liberty. The British guy tried to zoom out, but couldn’t. The Russian guy didn’t seem to care that the picture was going to be too close. Communication was a struggle. Time was running out and the Russian kept looking nervously behind him as Lady Liberty slid slowly away into the black. Finally the Brit gave up and snapped the picture. The Russian thanked him and looked, displeased, at the result as he walked away.

It was one of those weird moments when you realize that runners travel halfway around the world for the chance to run this race, which is part world-class sporting event, part tourist attraction.

Doing my best to stay warm in my throw away sweats, I wandered around the starting village. At this early hour, the seemingly endless supply of port-a-potties was sufficient and there was no waiting – a race-day rarity.

I found a quiet place to lie on the ground and closed my eyes. I let my mind go blank, thinking about the race. It wandered, and I let it go. It started filing through the major milestones of my life since that Monday in August 2001 when I bought a one-way ticket from San Diego to New York that left on Friday.

That one decision that set my life on a path I never could have predicted. The jobs, the adventures. Meeting my wife. The nights I don’t quite remember. Pickup football at the East River Park in the middle of a blizzard. Sunday morning walks with the city all to myself.

I didn’t lie down with the intention of reliving my previous 12 years, but it seemed like a natural thing to do to pass the time. I hoped the memories of my New York experiences would push me through the race. I ended up thinking of none of these as I ran, but the exercise helped put me in a good place when the gun went off.

With 30 minutes before my corral opened, I started to warm up. Jogging, I wove through the throngs. My legs felt good. Everything felt good. I just wanted to start running.

A final trip to the bathroom and I found my starting corral, the second in a long line of orange bibs. For the first time all morning it started to feel like an actual race. The runners around me looked like real runners. Space at a premium, some were trying to stay warm while others listened to music and tried to relax.

At just before 9am the corral fence dropped and we were led towards the bridge. It felt like what I can only imagine it feels like to march off to battle, save the whole thing about impending death. Lined up just short of the bridge, the crowd started to hum.

The elite women go out 30 minutes before the rest of us, part chivalry part practicality. The race announcer said something I’ll never forget. It set the hair on the back of my neck on edge.

“Ladies, the streets of New York are yours!”

The streets of New York were really ours. For a single day runners had the right of way. It was only a sliver of the city, but it was ours.

Adrenaline pumping. I started a bounce, trying to warm back up. I had to pee again. Fortunately, there was a line forming to go up against the buses separating the starting groups. Even the women got into the act, with three or four forming a wall to protect the decency of the one squatting against the tires. Another of those little details that gives the New York experience a unique depth.

With five minutes to go, I shed my sweats. After all the logistics, all the waiting, I was ready.

Bloomberg blessed the race, the canon boomed and we were off.

We rose steadily up the bridge and the crowd started to thin out. Every article I had read about race strategy says everyone – everyone – goes out too fast. They sail down the bridge and into Brooklyn, feeding off the adrenaline built up from hours of waiting in the wind. 

I glanced to my left, recalling advice not to miss the view from the top of the bridge. A police helicopter hovered, suspended at bridge-level, the Manhattan skyline looking impossibly far away. I snapped a mental picture and burned it into my memory.

I flew down the bridge just like they said I would. I felt amazing. I love running gradual declines and can burn out fast miles with little effort. I passed a ton of runners and slid off the bridge, turning left into Brooklyn. And with that, the marathon was on. All that anticipation, all those logistics and condoms and ferries and crowds were gone. It was just me and the road.

The streets of New York were mine.

Everything I read said take it easy in Brooklyn. Don’t blow yourself out in Brooklyn. Slow down through Brooklyn. Let them go, you’ll catch ‘em in the park.

I ignored it all. I didn't care. I felt too good.

I kept looking at my watch and audibly laughing. I’d feel like I was running too fast and consciously slow down, then look down and see my pace at something like 6:05, 6:12. Hilariously too fast. I knew it and I didn’t care. I was just running.

I’ve never run that fast for longer than a 10k. My pace after five miles was 6:26, just off my half marathon PR pace. Way too fast. You’re supposed to run the first eight miles of a marathon 10 seconds behind your goal pace. I was 10 seconds faster. Way. Too. Fast.

But I really didn’t care. I was here to run. I was lucky just to be here, healthy. I figured why not go out and see what I've got. See if I can hang.

I heard a great anecdote recently about a world class ice climber and his reaction to setting the world record for a particular ascent. He wasn’t satisfied or necessarily proud. He acknowledged that while he had in fact pushed human limits, he hadn’t pushed his own. Already having the world record, he spent the next year training to go back and better his own mark.

You don’t have to be a world class athlete to have that attitude. 

The amazing thing about running is that save for a very few elite athletes, none of us are going out there to win the race. We’re racing against ourselves. We're pushing ourselves as far as we can reasonably go, both physically and mentally.

What's unique about New York, at least my take having now completed the race and heard the stories of others who did, is what a different mindset you need to have to run a great race. Those first 10 miles are just too fast – the only way you can hope to start slow enough to give yourself a chance to finish strong is by running for something more than yourself. (Or to be like Maura and have a well of self-discipline few are lucky enough to possess.)

The vast majority of people who go out there with a goal time melt down. The wheels come off in the Bronx and even though they trained their body, their mind isn’t strong enough on race day to contain the excitement, to keep the adrenaline at bay. They can’t let the foolish pass them in Brooklyn, silently wishing them luck and whispering, “see you in the park, bitch.”

So most people who go to New York with a goal time come up short. There are exceptions, of course, like my wife who PR’d and had an incredible, cathartic experience, bursting into tears of joy at the finish line. But she was also running for much more than just a number.

The runners who have the best New York experience are the ones out there without a watch.

Like my friend who didn’t train at all in the months leading up to the race. He didn’t have the time. He has a wife and kids and his own business and a mother dying of cancer. He would have loved to train, but he had to keep flying to Arizona to meet with attorneys, doctors and morticians.

He showed up in New York, put on his shoes and ran.

For the first half the race, he kept passing then getting passed by a woman wearing an orange shirt from Fred’s Team, a charity whose race donations support the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. On the back of her shirt, the woman had written “I miss my mom.”

My friend’s mom had passed away one month earlier, to the day. He grew up in New York.

Whenever he passed the woman and saw her shirt, he burst into tears. He’d pull it together, walk a bit, she’d pass him, he’d pass her, tears again. The cycle continued until the base of the Queensborough Bridge, 15 miles into the race. He came upon the woman standing on the side of the course, hands on her knees. She wanted to quit.

He stopped, put his hand on her shoulder and said, “Hey, you want to run with me a little?”


He told her his story. How he had been crying the entire race, the tears set off whenever he saw her shirt. About his mom who had just passed away. He missed his mom too.

They finished the race together. They exchanged no contact information. They will never see each other again. He knows her first name and that she’s from Maine. That’s it.

It’s those small experiences that make long distance races what they are. It’s what keeps us coming back. It’s that for the rest of us, those that won’t end up on the podium, no matter how fast or slow we run, we’re all out there suffering together. Physical, emotional pain, it doesn’t matter. I can run an entire race, hours on my feet, and when asked how it was, the first story I tell is about the random guy I ran with for 15 feet, about how we encouraged each other just enough to get through a hard time.

It’s that ultimate paradox of running, how it can be so personal, so private, yet in a matter of seconds you form an illogically deep bond with a  total stranger and can be forever changed. You never see that person again, and you don’t want to. It would almost ruin the moment.

I started to crack as soon as I hit the Bronx and I knew it. I’ve cracked before and I know what it feels like. I bore down. I went to that place where the world fades away and my vision blurs. The edges get hazy and disappear. Purely present.

For a moment, I felt good again. I remembered back to San Francisco this year, when I hit bottom coming out of the park but pulled it together and raced the last 10k. My heart rose and I was racing. 

And then I made a fateful mistake: I looked at my watch. My pace read 7:30. A full minute slower than I wanted to be at that time.

And I cracked.

In hindsight it was probably just a blip in the GPS, the unreliable current pace I know is usually wrong. But at the time it was a killer. Your mind is so fragile that it doesn’t take a lot to break. And at that moment, knowing I had just found my groove, only to be told that my groove wasn’t nearly fast enough, and that I still had six miles left, I couldn’t recover.

If I ever run a marathon again (I am sure I will), I’m going to turn my watch off at mile 20. All that matters is whether you are passing people or getting passed. All that matters is your state of mind. Getting passed will crush your will and your last 10k will be miserable. Passing people will give you wings. You’ll find energy reserves you never knew you had.

The course winds through the Bronx and I struggled. I was lost. I had abandoned my water and food plan and was just stumbling through aid stations, throwing water at my face. Illogically, I shunned bananas I knew would give me fuel. I’d surge for a few seconds, then lapse again into misery.

I hit the 5th Avenue incline at mile 24 in a bad place. I was getting passed regularly. My pen-written initials had washed off my shirt. No one was cheering for me. I was alone, struggling up what felt like a mountain, watching my average pace tick up, second by second.

I finally hit the park and tried to pull it together. I ran easily for a few minutes, collecting myself. Just a couple miles to go.

I walked through the next aid station and passed a guy with his hands on his knees. I tapped him on the shoulder, “come on man, let’s do this.”

“I’ll be right there.”

I hit the next incline and there he was, running on my left shoulder. “Let’s go.”

We pushed that hill together, wordlessly sharing our pain. I snapped out of my funk. I felt strong again – or as strong as I could hope to feel at that point.

We hit the crest of the hill and I let my legs tumble down the other side. I looked to my left and he was gone. I turned briefly around but couldn't find him. I never saw him again, but that tiny interaction, that modicum of camaraderie was all I needed to finish the race.

I started to look around, appreciate autumn in the greatest city on earth. The leaves seemed to fall from the trees in slow motion all around me. The crowds got louder as I rolled through the park. I stopped looking at my watch. It didn’t matter anymore.

Popping out of the park briefly, you’re met with one last insulting incline up Central Park South. I finally started passing people, even though my legs felt like lumps of clay.

Back into the park and you pass under the mile 26 marker. From there, signs count down the meters to the finish. 400, 300, 200, 100. And it was over.

Steps across the finish line, my legs basically stopped working. Walking was nearly impossible. I chatted with a fellow finisher, he in better spirits than me. We had both PR’d, but he’d obviously run a smarter race – I remember seeing him pass me in the park.

A volunteer tossed a medal over my neck, I tried to smile for the camera, picked up a bag of post-race supplies and followed the crowds through the park. I couldn’t believe how far they make you walk. It just kept going. I really wanted to stop walking.

I finally made it out of the park but they make you keep walking down Central Park West. I picked up my orange finishing parka and hobbled to the side of the road to soak in the last rays of sun before it disappeared and shadows descended on the crowds. Dazed, I had an hour and a half to wait for Maura.

I sat down on the sidewalk and just watched the people go by. Runners, fans, tourists wandered past. Everyone once in a while, I’d catch the eye of another runner. An almost imperceptible nod of the head and in that look of half misery half pride, we’d have a moment. Congratulations, a silent acknowledgement of suffering shared.

I finally found Maura and she was all smiles. She had crushed her PR and had an amazing race. Someone gave her an Ecuadorian flag in the park and she finished in tears.

It took me a few days to digest the race. When you crack like that you literally run out of emotion and it takes a while to recharge. At first I felt disappointed, even ashamed that I couldn't pull it together and finish strong.

But as time passed I thought back to the fact that a month before, I could barely walk. And that somehow my body had cooperated and when that cannon went off, I was ready to race. And I did. I pushed it, I left it all out there on the course.

I ran through New York as well as I could have that day. The first half marathon through Brooklyn was sheer bliss. I ran strong and felt amazing. I gave the crowd high fives, I clapped and thanked them for coming out. I ran smoother and faster than I've ever run and learned that I do in fact have a gear I never thought I did.

I didn't go out there with a goal time, I went out there to challenge myself. And that's the point.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo sir. Well done. I'm almost inspired to do a marathon. almost....