SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 2, 2014
What lies behind me and what lies before me are tiny matters compared to what lies within me.
The morning of my first marathon, I woke to my alarm at 5:30am; groggily nibbled my way through a bagel and some water; packed five little ziplock bags with pieces of bagels, potato chips, and orange slices; refreshed two different weather websites multiple times before making a last-minute wardrobe decision; struggled to cut strips of bright yellow duct tape and affix them to my shirt in a level line; put my hair into pigtail braids and pulled them down at least three or four times before giving up on trying to make them more even; pinned the top corners of my race bib to my FlipBelt while tugging on layers of throwaway clothes; and dashed out the door at 7:45am, about 15 minutes behind schedule.
I walked to the subway station and waited a while before boarding my train to South Ferry. Gradually, I realized that almost all of my fellow subway passengers were also fellow marathoners; it had been less apparent than most race mornings on the subway because everyone was dressed in their throwaway clothes rather than race day chic. We arrived at the ferry terminal just minutes before my scheduled 8:30am ferry, and I boarded with almost no waiting, managed to find an available seat (no small feat), took a few bites of a bagel while the boat carried me and a flock of marathoners across New York Bay to Staten Island.
Once we disembarked, around 9am, I followed the crowds through St. George Terminal and emerged to find an enormous line of runners waiting to board the buses to the start village. I wound up in the outermost line, at the edge of the water, and brutal gusts of wind pounded us for the entire wait. I attempted to put a garbage bag over my clothes, but it was only with a lot of assistance from the nice gentleman next to me that I was able to seize control of the flailing plastic from the wind; he ended up actually pulling the garbage bag over me for me. About 20 minutes of waiting and a chaotic herd of Italians in orange jackets pushing by later, I boarded what turned out to be an excruciatingly slow bus that spent nearly 40 minutes driving us the three miles to Fort Wadsworth. I quipped to the people around me that we'd have gotten there faster if we'd just run from the ferry, but we all agreed that sitting on the bus beat waiting in the wind at the fort. Eventually, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge pulled into view, and a few minutes later, we were there.
As we stepped off the bus, we were immediately greeted by a group of uniformed NYPD counterterrorism officers, who had us each hold out our arms as they scanned us front and back, as well as our bags, with their wands before letting us proceed. A short walk later, I finally arrived in the start village around 10am, 2 hours and 15 minutes after leaving my apartment. The start village was big and spread out and full of people in a way that made me feel like I didn't quite know where I was going even though there were maps and signs and volunteers giving out directions. I tried to head toward where the Galloway group was meeting, behind the medical tent, but the tents had all been removed due to the wind, and the general area where I thought it might be was full of fenced off corrals and long, spindly lines of runners snaking across the landscape. By this time, my corral was nearly due to open, so I decided to make my way there instead.
I arrived to find the corral still full of wave 3 runners and joined the big cluster of wave 4 runners standing outside. The man guarding the entrance told us they were running behind, and we ended up waiting 15 to 20 minutes before we were finally allowed in. Once in the corral, I started sorting the contents of my start village bag into things to stuff into my belts and pockets (ShotBloks, Sports Beans, toilet paper, the extra battery for my phone) and things to discard in a plastic bag (the extra garbage bags I never sat on, my barely-touched bottle of water, the bagel with a few small bites taken out of it). I also used a porta-potty in the corral, which for some reason had no line, unlike every other block of toilets I'd seen all morning. This was actually the first time I had used a porta-potty in my entire life (for a long time, I was very squeamish about public bathrooms), and it was a pretty disgusting but better lit experience than expected; I was thankful I had packed my own wet wipes. After that, I had just enough time to pull off my throwaway pants and toss them into a donation bin, and then the cannon was sounding and we were walking toward the start line, the strains of Frank Sinatra crooning "New York, New York" floating overhead. A photographer took my picture. At the last possible moment, I took off my sweater and handed it to a volunteer. I stopped a few steps short of the start line to juggle my phone into my belt pouch before crossing. And then we were off.
The entire Staten Island leg of the New York City Marathon is the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. My wave ran on the lower level of the bridge, which meant that we missed the iconic views of the bridge itself. Instead, those first two miles on the bridge looked and felt almost like we were passing through a long tunnel that would transport us to the separate world that was the actual race. Thanks to the wind, there were no mile markers or timing mats on the bridge, which added to the already-surreal experience of starting my first marathon and crossing the Verrazano-Narrows: I had no idea how far I had gone or how long it had taken me to get there, but strong, sweeping crosswinds, gusting over 40 mph, pressed us sideways for the entire two miles -- a slow uphill first mile, followed by a slightly faster downhill second mile -- across New York Bay. I gained a new appreciation for the term "winded" over those two miles: after each run interval, it felt like I was resting from a much harder effort than I knew I had actually expended, and it was hard to get a full breath because of the way the wind swept in whenever I opened my mouth. I started to think of the wind, which was by far the predominant feature of my experience of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and which felt especially strong while walking, as an obstacle set by this passageway to test our mettle as marathoners before we could really begin the race. The people around me were focused and quiet, many of them also doing run/walk intervals from the start. I saw the 5:45 pace group run past me very early in the first mile.
I remember thinking, when I finally reached the far side of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, that I had never been so happy to see Brooklyn in my life. The wind calmed considerably once we were no longer over the water, and the ground was strewn with discarded clothing. Garbage bags floated overhead like streamers. My gloves went into my pockets. I pulled my wool buff off from around my neck and, liking it too much to discard it, wrapped it around my wrist. Already I was looking forward to seeing my support crew at mile 7 so that I could drop it off with them. This was also the beginning of the temperature quandary that I would face for the rest of the race: in the calm and the sun, my jacket felt too warm, but whenever a gust of wind would hit me, I'd feel cold and underdressed until it passed.
For those of us who started in green corrals, the first mile in Brooklyn was a weird stretch of empty highway. In the distance, we could hear the occasional sounds of music or cheering, but none of it was in sight. The first spectators I saw were standing on an overpass above the highway, and I waved to them as I passed. Gradually, the spectators grew more numerous: some looking over us as we took the exit ramp, more lining the street as we turned toward Fourth Avenue. Around the 5K mark, which was also the first timing mat, the 6:00 pace group passed me. They also seemed to be doing run/walk intervals, and they were a big enough pack that it was tricky for me to run by them while they were walking.
All along Fourth Avenue, there were plenty of spectators, signs, and DJs, although the crowds looked as though they'd already started thinning. I gave a few high-fives and slapped a few signs that said variants of "Touch Here For Power." In addition to the official water and Gatorade stations, I also saw spectators handing out tissues, paper towels, sticks of gum, and bodyglide on a popsicle stick. A lot of people cheered for me by name, which was really cool; I tried to flash a smile in acknowledgement each time. Because the course was a straight line and the streets were numbered, I knew exactly how far I was from seeing my support crew for the first time, and I spent most of the early stretch of Fourth Avenue mentally counting down the blocks until where they were waiting, really looking forward to getting some hugs.
After I passed them, my next mental checkpoints were the half marathon mark on the Pulaski Bridge, a bit over six miles away, and seeing them again in Queens a mile after that. Around mile 8, we turned off of Fourth Avenue and merged with the orange and blue starters into a single stream of runners. The next mile was one of my favorites of the entire course. One block is etched into my memory: running between Brooklyn brownstones on tree-lined Lafayette Avenue, autumn-tinted leaves branching overhead, and crowds of spectators, hundreds thick, lining the street on both sides, closing in enough to narrow our passageway, loud and energetic, cheering and clapping and chanting my name. It felt like the kind of moment they would snapshot in a magazine ad somewhere, to entice people to run the marathon.
I think it was somewhere on Bedford Avenue that I ran into my Galloway pace group leader, Liz. We didn't chat much since we were on opposite intervals, but checked in briefly to make sure we were both doing all right. I did see some of the Hasidic Jews I expected in South Williamsburg, but while it was noticeably subdued compared to some of the earlier parts of Brooklyn, it wasn't nearly as silent as I'd expected; there were still some spectators there, cheering. By this time, I was getting really tired of Brooklyn and was just focusing on reaching the Pulaski Bridge and the halfway mark. I'd kept a pretty good pace for the first 10 miles (high 13s and low 14s), but I could feel myself starting to slow and tire a bit. North Williamsburg and Greenpoint were pretty lively -- people were cheering not only from the streets but also from windows above, and I remember hearing someone call out "Go, Pink Hat!" and chuckling to myself about their vantage point -- but I was finding it harder to concentrate on the crowds by this point. Finally, we turned onto McGuinness Boulevard, where it grew suddenly quiet, and the Pulaski Bridge was in sight, and with it, the halfway mark.
It was such a relief to finally reach Queens. I remember thinking that I had never been so happy to see Queens in my life and wondering if this was a thought that was going to repeat every time I hit a new borough. I had been telling myself for the last few miles in Brooklyn that I would allow myself to check my phone for the first time since before I crossed the start line during my first walk interval after the half marathon mark, so that I could check my half marathon time. That time was 3:09:45, which I was pretty happy with, and I remember thinking that I was still on pace for a 6:30 finish. I wasn't listening to music, but I had been running with one headphone in so that I could hear my interval timer, so I knew that I had received quite a few messages on Twitter as I had been running, many of them right at the start, and I was looking forward to skimming through those messages. They were a nice boost toward the end of the longest stretch (a bit over 7 miles) without seeing my support crew in person.
Queens itself passed by pretty quickly. I was starting to get tired; my pace was slowing a bit; but I was still feeling decent, and it wasn't a struggle to keep going. It was less than a mile from the far side of the Pulaski Bridge to the 14 mile mark, a couple of blocks from there to my support crew (who were extremely easy to spot, since the spectators were pretty sparse by then along 44th Drive), and from there, a short turn under an overpass, and we had arrived at the Queensboro Bridge.
The Queensboro Bridge was long and surreal. Part of it was a feeling of "How am I here already?"; it felt early to already be at that landmark. Part of it was the way the landscape was so barren and industrial and quiet, although the quiet didn't bother me as I had thought it might, and I didn't turn on any music. Most people around me seemed to be walking, but I ended up sticking to my intervals, even on that long uphill. There were signs every tenth of a mile, but I'm not sure they actually helped; I think they just made a tenth of a mile feel long. Although Roosevelt Island and then Manhattan were technically in sight, it felt like we were in a tunnel or a dream, moving forward through an unchanging landscape without getting anywhere, until suddenly, at long last, we were near enough to the end to hear the crowds in Manhattan. And, like clockwork, I thought to myself how glad I was to finally reach Manhattan.
This was the only picture I took during the marathon. The entire length of the Queensboro Bridge looked exactly like this.
Manhattan, Part 1
First Avenue was loud and lively after the silence of the bridge, but it was definitely not the "wall of sound" I'd been told to expect by people faster than me; the crowds seemed like they had mainly dispersed before I arrived. And the difference between the marathon before the Queensboro Bridge and the marathon after the Queensboro Bridge was that somewhere on that bridge, the fight began. I was struggling, not doing worse than expected, just having to fight to keep going. Before, I thought I might be starting to get tired. After, I knew I was tired. Where previously I had flashed smiles to the spectators calling out my name, I now flashed expressions more closely resembling grimaces. I had gone a long way and still had a long way to go. I remember thinking that "16 miles down, 10 miles to go" might be the worst way to split the distance of a marathon, mentally. I remember thinking that when people had told me at mile 7 that I was "Looking good!" I had believed them, but these people at mile 17 saying the same thing were obviously lying.
I counted the blocks to the Galloway table, which was manned by people I didn't recognize, who nevertheless tried to offer me a lot of food. I ended up taking only a few potato chips (so much saltier and crunchier than the ones I'd packed in advance and gotten from my support crew all day!) and half a home-baked chocolate chip cookie (when I bit into it after having already left the table, I immediately regretted not taking two or packing some sweet baked treat in my own bags). I also ran into Liz there again, and Massiel, who'd been my pace group leader earlier in the season, showed up just in time to give me a hug before I took off again.
A few blocks after I left the Galloway table, at around mile 18, I heard the police escort for the first time. This was the group of police cars, vans, ambulances, and other official vehicles that were reopening the roads. A firm male voice announced, again and again, via bullhorn: "THIS IS THE END OF THE POLICE ESCORT FOR THE NEW YORK CITY MARATHON. THE ROAD WILL NOW BE OPEN TO NORMAL TRAFFIC. PLEASE MOVE TO THE SIDEWALK AND USE CAUTION." I knew before the race started that the roads would be reopened at a 6:30 pace, and my main goal, other than to finish, was to try to avoid being swept. It was stressful and heartwrenching to realize that they had caught up to me so soon, especially since until that point I had believed I was ahead of a 6:30 pace. I really felt panicky. I glanced over my shoulder and could see them a few blocks behind me. It was like, NO PRESSURE AT ALL but there's only a line of police vehicles with flashing lights closing in on you, telling you through a bullhorn that you have to move. I knew my support crew was waiting for me just before mile 19, and I felt like I had absolutely no choice but to push my pace as much as I could if I wanted even a few seconds with them, given that the police escort was less than a minute behind me. When I saw them, I think I blabbered something about how I had been chased by the police for a mile. Half a mile later, just before I reached the Willis Avenue Bridge to cross into the Bronx, the escort vehicles caught up to me and passed me. Fortunately, though, we only had to run on the side of the road at this point, in the bike lane, rather than on the actual sidewalk.
Even though the police escort had technically passed me, they were still pretty much right next to me going into the Bronx, and I was still seeing those flashing lights and hearing that announcement over and over again. This was the only time all race that I manually typed and posted a tweet. I just felt so demoralized and upset. The police escort was absolutely the low point of my race, and I had to hear them for over three miles (from mile 18 to past mile 21) before they finally got enough ahead of me to be out of earshot. I felt drained and discouraged. It was here, at the mile 20 marker, that I switched from the 1:30-1 intervals I'd been using all race to 1-1 intervals, which felt markedly easier to endure, although it was still a struggle to convince myself to start running each time the timer sounded. We now had to run on the side of the road instead of the middle, which meant that instead of being able to run the tangents, we had to weave from side to side across roads every time we made a turn. I saw timing mats that looked half dismantled, and it was hard to tell whether they were actually registering my chip and whether the people tracking me would have any way of knowing where I was. (In the end, it turned out that the mile 21 mat was the only one that didn't register for me, so my support crew didn't have any updates between 20 miles and 35K (21.7 miles).) I knew that no spectators would be left by this point, and I was right, although we did pass by a fence taped over with signs of support. On Madison Avenue Bridge leaving the Bronx, we did have to use the sidewalk, which was mainly single file, with just enough room for two if you needed to dart around someone to pass them.
Manhattan, Part 2
There were still a few supporters out in Harlem, although most people were packing up for the day, and it was getting hard to tell who was in the race and who was just walking along the street. Thankfully, the official Gatorade and water stations were still all there, and like they had done everywhere all day, the volunteers stood waiting with cups in their hands and gave them to us individually. At one point, one of them also handed me a piece of a banana. At this point, I was drinking both Gatorade and water, nibbling slowly on the food from my support crew, not really wanting any of it but knowing I needed to keep fueling and hydrating. The marathon felt like a slog or a death march. My brain and body were both shutting down, and every time I started the heavier breathing of a run interval, I felt an overwhelming desire to cry. I had five or six miles to go, which felt at once unfathomably far in the moment and short enough that it would be okay, especially compared to the scope of the day.
I saw my support crew at 109th Street on Fifth Avenue, near the northeast corner of Central Park, where my dad held up a sign that read, "The finish line is in sight." "No, it isn't!" I protested. I remember saying to them, "Oh, thank god, we can still run on the side of the street here instead of on the cobblestones." Three blocks later, at 106th Street, I was directed to the cobblestone sidewalk. I saw most of the runners get off the sidewalk and back onto the side of the road a block or so later, and I followed suit, but we were sent back to the sidewalk soon after and were stuck there until we turned into Central Park at 90th Street. At one point, as we were being directed onto the sidewalk, I said to a cop, "Please, no, I hate these cobblestones so much," and another time, I begged a volunteer to let us run on the side of the street instead, but to no avail either time.
Somewhere in this stretch, I got a small wood chip in my shoe that I tried to tolerate but soon realized that I needed to stop to empty it out. At first, I tried to do this while standing on one foot, but I had trouble balancing on one leg and getting my shoe back on at this point. Another runner passing by actually asked me if I needed help, and I said no, it was fine, I would sit down to do it. So I plopped down on the sidewalk, covering my exposed sock with pieces of dried leaves in the process, and then I had to get those off too. Eventually I got all that sorted out and got myself standing again, which felt like enough of a feat to leave me slightly out of breath; I think I actually skipped a run interval that started immediately after I stood because I was still winded, and also because I was using any excuse I could not to run on those cobblestones. I ended up walking from about 94th Street to 91st Street, which might have been the farthest consecutive walking I did all race.
At miles 8, 15, and 24, ASICS posted pictures of my mini at those landmarks to my Facebook page.
It was such a relief to finally reach 90th Street and the entrance to Central Park just because we were on a proper road again instead of those horrible, jagged, uneven rocks they call sidewalks on Fifth Avenue. Just after we entered Central Park, at the mile 24 marker, I finally turned on my music for the first time since we started. I put on a playlist labeled "Fast 5K," hoping that I could cover the last 2.2 miles in the amount of time I'd once-upon-a-time allocated for a fast 5K. And Central Park was nice. Knowing that the end was within reach, seeing the trees and the familiar roads at twilight, listening to the same songs that had carried me along those same paths so many nights before, it felt almost like an ordinary run. The run intervals started feeling better, especially down Cat Hill. And it was a relief to be running in the night, like a cloak settling protectively over me, no longer having to wonder when the sunset would catch me. Central Park was a welcome calm after all the stress of the last six miles, after police bullhorns and exhaustion and cobblestones.
At some point, a volunteer told us there was a photographer around the next turn, so make sure to smile, and there were quite a few photographers, actually, as we approached the exit to the park and the final stretch. The 40K and 25 mile mats were back to back (just over two minutes apart for me), and I heard my phone start to go crazy with Twitter notifications as I passed 40K. (It turned out that sarianna was rallying the troops on IRC to tweet at me.) I checked my phone every walk break after I heard a notification come in, and it was nice to see everyone so excited, cheering about how close I was.
Unfortunately, I had to run on the sidewalk for the entirety of Central Park South, and there were a lot of people to dart around the entire time. The cobblestones here somehow didn't seem as bad as the ones on Fifth Avenue. My support crew was waiting between 7th and 8th Avenues, but they were on the other side of the street, separated from me by two rows of fences and the road. They did yell my name loudly, though, and I waved back to them, and a cop I was passing saw my name on my shirt, matched it to the cheers he was hearing from my family, and cheered for me too. We had to go back onto the road at Columbus Circle to get into Central Park for the finish, and this was one of the most unbelievable moments of the race: we actually had to stop, line up single file, and wait for our turn to squeeze through a one-foot gap between two fences to get back onto the road. I really regret not being able to have the full experience of running along Central Park South on the road approaching Columbus Circle and that final turn into the park, seeing the unobscured lights in the distance, being able to just run rather than having to constantly pay attention to my footing and darting around pedestrians on the sidewalk.
Back in Central Park, signs lined the finishing chute: 400 meters to go, 200 meters to go. I checked to make sure that my bib, which had been folded up one way or another for most of the race due to the wind, was lying flat and showing my number. I tried to smile whenever I saw a photographer alongside the course. During my last walk interval, I walked just long enough to pull my headphones from my ears and tuck them into my water belt so that I wouldn't be wearing them for the finish before starting to run again. I wondered for a brief moment which side of the finish line to cross.
But mostly, in that final stretch, there was nothing except me and the finish line, glowing brightly under stadium lighting, and the tunnel between us. The world narrowed to these two things: me, the finish line. My eyes fixated on that point ahead of me; my legs moved toward it as quickly as they could, on autopilot; my face was frozen into a dazed grin of ecstasy and relief. And then it was over. I felt in disbelief that I had done it, in disbelief that it was done.
I smiled the smile of a madwoman. I lifted my hands over my head, then brought them to my mouth. I bowed my head for a volunteer to drape a medal around my neck, then brought it up to my lips. Another volunteer handed me a heat sheet, which I wrapped around my shoulders. I felt at once deliriously tired and as though my senses were all heightened. I posed for a few finish line pictures, completely unable to comprehend the photographer's presumably simple instructions about which way to turn my body. I checked my phone for my finish time. A volunteer waved a piece of tape at me, and I could not for the life of me fathom why, until she used it to secure my heat sheet in front of my chest. Someone handed me a finisher's bag, which felt so heavy and awkward on my arm that I didn't even attempt to open it.
There was a long, slow slog from the finish line at 67th Street to the no baggage exit at 77th Street, along which volunteers kept checking my bracelet and telling me "You're almost there!" like bad spectators standing in the wrong spot. Then I shuffled my way down Central Park West to 74th Street, where a woman draped a warm blue poncho around my shoulders and fastened it shut for me, pulling the hood over my head while asking me how I was. From there, I slowly made my way to 72nd and Columbus, where my support crew waited at the fence, and then to 72nd and Broadway, to catch the subway. On the first train, which was packed to standing room only, I said to a row of people, "I'm sorry, but can I please beg a seat from you?" and a young man hopped up, rather apologetically, and gave me his seat. All told, it took almost exactly an hour from crossing the finish line to walking in the front door of my apartment. I took a quick bath, then spent the rest of the night wrapped up in my soft, fleecy poncho, medal draped around my neck, eating takeout Korean fried chicken and pumpkin ice cream while chatting with my visitors.
The next day, there was perfect fall weather in New York, sunny and mild. I walked back up to Columbus Circle to get my medal engraved for free at New York Running Company, where the lady who sold me my shoes in September still remembered me and asked me about my race, and then to the finish line to pose for a picture and check out the finishers' merchandise on sale. For two days after the race, my quads protested vehemently every time I tried to stand from a sitting position, and then on the third morning, they were fine. Apart from feeling abnormally tired these past few days, there's been very few signs, physically, that less than a week ago, I ran a marathon. Sometimes I glance over at the medal on my nightstand and remind myself that this was real. But that medal is mine and only mine now, forever.
I finished the 2014 New York City Marathon in 6:40:42, a 15:17/mile pace, and placed 49193/50511 total finishers, 19692/20414 women, and 2942/2983 women ages 25-29. My step count for the day was 63916, and I covered about 28 miles by foot that day.
Everyone talks about how running a marathon changes your life. It does, and it doesn't. It's an enormous day, but it's still just one day of your life. In some ways, the training was the greater undertaking, all those pre-dawn mornings facing inconceivable distances.
Because this is what the marathon has taught me. Sometimes, you can't think about the distance. All you can do -- all you have to do -- is keep going. Don't stop. The distance is finite.
Our possibilities are infinite.
And no matter what happens in my life from here, this will always be mine to keep: three years ago, I was an obese girl who had never run a single mile in her entire life, who was trying to turn her health around by jogging in place in front of the microwave for a minute or two at a time while heating up frozen pancakes. Today, I am a marathoner.
I am a marathoner.