Last Fall, I wrote about my preparation for the NYC Marathon and even shared my struggle packing for the trip. I left for New York feeling confident in my training and hopeful that the weather wouldn’t be as bad as what the forecasts were predicting.
Alas, things don’t always go to plan.
As soon as I arrived on Friday, I met up with my college friend Dyan, who was my hostess for the weekend. She took me straightaway to Javits Expo Center to collect my race number. So far, so good:
We walked around Manhattan on Friday afternoon and evening, just enough to shake out my legs and adjust to the cool 50 degree temps.
By Saturday afternoon, it was clear that the weather was going to deteriorate for race day. I wasn’t feeling like running in 40 degrees with 30mph winds would be comfy in shorts. I wasn’t so worried about feeling cold as I was about having muscle issues, given that I’m not exactly trained to run in cold weather. So Dyan and I went to a sports store and I bought a pair of tights. One of the first rules of thumb of marathoning is never do or wear ANYTHING new on race day. At this point, though, I didn’t have much choice.
We went from there to Mass at Dyan’s local parish church. It was good to go and take some deep breaths and send up prayers of gratitude– for good health, for the support of my husband who encouraged me to take the time and spend the money to train and race, and for the communities of strangers I’ve enjoyed by being a runner and being a Catholic. In short, life is good.
Dinner was at an Italian restaurant on the UWS; it’s Dyan’s local place, and I’ve been there before with her and remembered I liked it. I ate an enormous bowl of bolognese, enjoying it very much. I opted to skip dessert, not wanting to feel too full to sleep well.
We went back to Dyan’s and watched the Irish struggle against Navy. I used the game time to organize all of my clothes, both for the race and for keeping warm ahead of the start. I felt well-organized and calm, and thankfully, ND won in the end, so I could go to sleep happy.
I slept great until 4.30am, when the wind blew down some scaffolding on the building next door. I was only able to doze on and off after that, both because I knew I had to get up relatively soon and because I was starting to get freaked out about the wind. I got up at 6, ate a banana & PB, got all dressed, and headed out to make my long journey to the start. As soon as I stepped outside, I knew that the forecast for high winds was no joke. There is a slight hill up the one block to the subway station, and I could barely make it up the hill the wind was so strong.
On the subway, I chatted with a group of 30 year olds all running their first marathon. At the ferry terminal, I chatted with a woman from Long Island who had put her name in the lottery 9 times before it was finally drawn for this year. On the ferry, I kept to myself, just trying to take in the view and the moment. It’s pretty crazy to be on a ferry with 5000 people, all of them runners. All with a common goal and thousands upon thousands of hours of training invested in it. The bus ride from the ferry terminal to the athletes’ village at Ft.Wadsworth (at the base of the Verranzano Narrows bridge) took FOREVER. I put my head in my hand and tried to doze. It was nearly 50 minutes later when I got off the bus and lined up at the security check. Dogs sniffed bags before getting on to the ferry, but getting off the bus each and every runner was wanded by NYPD.
I had only about 75 minutes until my start time, so I knew I had only 30 minutes before I needed to be lined up for my corral. I used the porta potty– hats off to NYRR for really and truly having plenty out there– and then went and stood in the line for my corral. As my wave was called, the line started to move forward. When I was about 15 people back, the volunteer closed the corral. Apparently, he was checking only for the corral assignment and NOT the wave assignment. People from wave 3 & 4 were able to jump the queue, filling the corral and closing it off to at least 50 of us wave 2 runners who now had to wait another 25 minutes to start. The worst part was that I’d already shed all of my extra clothes save my fleece jacket, and it was miserable outside. It was 37 degrees, and the wind was whipping around close to 30mph. I’d also already eaten my pre-race GU, so throwing off my timing by 30 minutes was incredibly annoying.
Fortunately, I’d chatted up a woman named Grace from Charlottsville who it turns out is 40, has kids who are 11 and 8 and a husband who is an independent IT consultant, and she’s a pilates instructor. So we had plenty to chat about as we waited.
When we FINALLY got into our corral and then led up to the foot of the bridge and the start line, all the nervousness was gone and it was pure excitement. Because I was in Corral A, I was literally standing on the starting line when the cannons were fired. I got a little choked up as Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” played over the loudspeakers and we took off up the rise of the bridge.
I cannot describe the strength of the wind. It was a crosswind as we ran the bridge, and I was literally being blown sideways. Grace and I were laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. We were reminding each other to look up, look out to the harbor, across to Manhattan, and take it all in. There were whitecaps on the harbor, which I hadn’t noticed (or hadn’t been there) when I was on the ferry just two hours before. People’s hats were flying off left and right. Some people stopped to take selfies on the bridge. My main memory of the bridge is hearing the thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack of everyone’s race bibs fluttering in the wind.
The first mile mark I saw was Mile 3, and when I checked my watch I knew I’d gone out faster than I wanted to. This is so typical in a big race, particularly after the aggravating false start and wait with the corral issue. I immediately walked for 30 seconds so I could pull back the pace a bit, telling Grace to go on. I was able to catch her again at the first water stop. We kept running, kept talking, and and had settled into a better pace. I took my first GU at Mile 5, and all was going great.
At the 10K, I checked my pace and decided another walk break would be prudent, so I again told Grace to run on. It was the last I saw her, but I was grateful for the company both pre-race and through the early miles. By this point, the crowds were sizable enough to be near-constantly encouraging. I was high-fiving kids, running strong, and really enjoying myself. I was even able to disregard the wind a bit, except for when I would stride and my up-leg would be blowing into my base leg, whacking it hard. I could feel that I wasn’t running relaxed, but at this point I was moving along well.
I knew that Dyan and my friend Lara–who took the train up from DC for the day just to cheer me on!– were planning to be around 7.5 miles on the left side of the road. It was so encouraging to start scanning the crowds, just knowing that out of the thousands of people on the street right then, I had real friends there just for me. I saw Lara’s face first, and then I heard them both scream. I remember throwing my arms in the air and smiling like a goof, so excited to see them. I knew I was about halfway through the headwind portion of the course, and I was still feeling pretty good.
At Mile 10, I took a walk break so I could eat my next GU. Suddenly, my stomach flipped. I felt nauseous. I’ve never had this happen before, so it was really disheartening. I started running again, noticing a slight downhill in front of me; I hoped that getting back into my pace would make me forget about my stomach.Unfortunately, instead of feeling better, I felt worse and worse. I tried to remind myself to just look up and enjoy the day. I was noticing the signs held by folks in the crowd, thanking every police officer at every intersection, high fiving more kids, and generally trying to get myself out of my head. A few minutes later there was a gospel choir rocking it out on the steps of a church. I got a lift in my stride.
My half-marathon time was right around 1:55, which was nowhere near the pace I needed for a sub 3:45 Boston Qualifying run (my Gold Standard goal), but I knew that wouldn’t happen once the windy day materialized. I was still hoping for a sub-3:50, though, and I was bang on pace.
Unfortunately, my stomach was awful. I was drinking water, but I didn’t dare try to take any gatorade, for fear that would tip me right over the edge. I got to Mile 15– the Queensboro Bridge– really wishing I was feeling better. More than 10 miles is a long way to run when you feel crappy.
I actually loved running over the bridge. Many runners hate it for two reasons: 1) There are no spectators on the bridge, and 2) The rise leading up to the top of the bridge is one of the bigger hills on the course. I liked the quiet break from the crowds, as it allowed me to turn inward and do a full body scan of how I felt. My hamstrings were really tight, which at the time I thought was from not taking in any electrolytes. (In hindsight, I think it was from running hunched over into the wind for 15 miles, not being able to take a real stride.) The crowd coming down off the bridge was awesome.
Between Mile 16 and 17, I was running on the right side of the road. From the left side of the road, I heard a loud cheer of “KAREN”– again making me throw my arms in the air and give me a lift. I assumed it was Dyan and Lara, who I knew were going to stop in at a watch party not far from that point. As it turns out, it was my husband’s uncle & cousin, who were in town from the Cape to cheer on their daughter/sister.
As I kept running north in Manhattan– away from the finish line–, I remember wishing I’d paid more attention to which street the course turned left on in the Bronx. I felt like the numbers kept counting up and up and up and up and there was No.End.In.Sight. I knew that seeing the thousands of runners in front of me going up a long hill meant I was going to do the same. But my hamstrings were tight, my stomach was queasy, and I had lost my good humor. I’d also read so much about how the Bronx was disappointing crowd-wise, so I was starting to go into a negative mental spiral. Little things– like my shoes sticking to the Gatorade-soaked street in the aid stations– was driving me crazy.
I got to Mile 20 right at 3 hours. That made the math easy. All I needed to do was run just under 10 minute miles, and I could still finish in under 4 hours. At that point, I stopped to walk for a minute, and I promised myself to keep trying to enjoy the day.
Finally, we got to turn left. And then turn some more. And then make another turn. I kept waiting for the horrible headwind to turn into a tailwind to blow me towards Central Park, but that never happened. At one point in Harlem, It continued to be a fierce crosswind, back to knocking my upfoot into my base leg. And not a block later, there was a gust so strong that it literally stopped me in my tracks. I yelped. It really was that bad.
The absolute best part of my day was when I was preparing to tackle the nearly mile-long hill up 5th Ave between Mile 22 and Mile 23, and I heard the unmistakable shouts of Dyan and Lara. I saw their smiling faces, heard their cheers, and it was so uplifting. It’s hard to explain how boring it can be to be a marathon spectator, other than the obvious: you only get to see your runner for a few seconds, yet you’ve been out all.day.long. in the cold and the wind. But to the runner, it is everything.
I made it up the hill– even managed to stay under my 10 min/mile pace I needed– with my hamstrings on fire. My stomach was slightly better, but every time I tried to push the pace even a bit, it was not good. I was thrilled to FINALLY turn into Central Park after Mile 23. I looked up and sought out the rock outcropping where I spent a glorious afternoon with some girlfriends– one of whom was taken by breast cancer far too soon– a few years ago. It made me catch my breath and remind me how much goodness there is in my life.
I hit Mile 24, and immediately got pissed because I knew if I’d been allowed to start in my assigned wave I’d be done by now. You’d think I could have held on to the goodness of girlfriends and good health a bit longer, but sadly that just wasn’t where my mind was. I’m unfailingly human.
So I pressed on, trying to soak in the crowds in the park. I felt stronger on the rolling hills than I had on the long, flat stretches through the Bronx and Harlem. As I turned right onto Central Park South, I was shocked at just how far away Columbus Circle seemed. I started to read the shirts of the people around me, appreciating the charity runners, the international runners, the old folks, the young folks, the huge number of women running, and all the beautiful shades of flesh on the street with me. It really was an international street party.
Turning back into the park and toward the finish, it all seemed to be ending so quickly. I knew I had less than 1/2 mile to run, and I knew I would finish under 4 hours. I reminded myself to look up and smile. I didn’t feel great, it was my worst time ever, but I was still so lucky to be there and be a part of it. The next thing I knew, I’d crossed the line and had a medal around my neck. My official time was 3:59:09. Don’t ever let it be said that once I have a goal in mind I’ll use any more energy than necessary getting there!! I was incredibly disappointed, even though my high level goal had always been to break 4 hours. I just knew I was way better trained than what my time reflects.
Thank God I had been warned that getting out of Central Park was the hardest part of the marathon. I’d received my medal and finisher bag (with apple, protein shake, water, pretzels, etc), but the finish area was so packed with runners that I couldn’t even really walk. It was a long, slow shuffle a mile northward before I could exit the park. Then I was shunted back southward for nearly a half-mile before I was finally freed of the great marathon logistics. It was another half-mile walk to the subway to get back to Dyan’s.I must say, the people on the streets walking to/from the subway were awesome. As soon as they saw me in my bright blue poncho, people shouted congratulations or held up their hand for a high five. Even a little girl who looked to be Rosa’s age who was riding in a stroller looked right at me and said, “Good job, Runner!” Melt.
I got back to Dyan’s and immediately peeled off my clothes and jumped in the shower. Dyan and Lara arrived just as I was getting out. It was great to see them and finally get to give Lara a hug! We chatted for 45 minutes or so, but yet another crappy part of being shut out of my corral was that it ate up 30 minutes of my Lara time. Boo! Hiss! I did get to ride the subway with her down to Penn Station to catch her train so we could chat a bit more. It’s incredibly humbling to have your friendship, Lara.
The rest of the day went quickly, with a trip to a diner for chicken souvlaki pita and fries for dinner. I stretched throughout the evening as we watched the media coverage of the race that Dyan recorded. I was uplifted by hearing the elite runners complain about the winds, using phrases and key issues I’d described to Lara and Dyan. That was incredibly validating.
I also loved reading through my texts and FB messages. To hear from so many friends was really touching. Around 10pm, I got a friend notification on FB— it was from Grace! She didn’t know my last name, so she must have searched the marathon results for “Karen from Austin” to find me. I love this, as it’s such a good example of what I love about running and runners. The friendship and camraderie is uplifting.
I had so much adrenaline I couldn’t sleep. I finally went to be around 11pm. I startled awake around 4am with the feeling that I was still being wind whipped. I was up for nearly 2 hours before falling asleep again. You’d think I’d sleep better after running a marathon, but that wind was so freaking intense, my poor nervous system just couldn’t shut off. Honestly, it took a good 36 hours after finishing before I really felt like myself again.
Despite the less-than-optimal results, I’m so thrilled to have been a part of the NYC Marathon. I maintain that distance running is a democratic and inclusive sport, and being part of that community gives me so much joy. Here’s to one day running Berlin and Chicago, rounding out my participation in the Five World Marathon Majors.