The dust is settling on the New York Marathon. I’m sure there are still a few people proudly wearing their medals as they tour the city (I even spotted some wearing them at the airport Tuesday night), but for the most part the 50,000 people who ran through the five boroughs of New York City have gone home and back to their lives, including me. One thing is for sure – I will always remember my experience running the New York City Marathon.
As most people reading this know, this was my first marathon after having my first child just over 1 year ago. I spent the two years prior to getting pregnant trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon (unsuccesfully) and the New York Marathon was a bucket list race that I intended to run “for fun” rather than with any goal in mind. However, I still trained hard for the race, though not as diligently as I have for past marathons, and hoped that my training would prepare me to be able to enjoy the majority of the race.
I think going into the race I fantasized about it a little too much as this grand “fun run”- I possibly didn’t mentally prepare for the suffering that accompanies any marathon, no matter how fast or slow you intend to run it. I perhaps spent too much time on my feet in the days before the race, indulged on new foods, and didn’t take into account the effects of travel, stress, the time change and a late start time (10:15 a.m.). Maybe my body didn’t recover and adapt to training quite as well as it used to due to poorer quality sleep as a result of raising an infant, or simply just the fact that I’m getting older. It could be that the cold I fought for two weeks prior or the race wasn’t completely gone or that my “super taper” left me sluggish instead of extra fresh. Whatever the reasons (and I’m sure there were many), sadly the New York Marathon included a lot more suffering than fun.
I won’t write a novel about the pre-race logistics (I do hope to write a separate post about our five day baby free vacation in New York!), but here was the gist: we arrived Friday early evening after an early direct flight leaving San Diego. We ended up taking the subway to our hotel and were greeted with a free glass of wine, which we drank plus one more at the hip rooftop lounge and then took a walk around the city. We enjoyed delicious, rich and carb heavy food that night and the next day. Saturday we walked to the expo (just a 1 mile walk from our hotel) and back as well as several other miles of moderate sight seeing, though I did also get in a short nap and a couple of hours of reading. I decided not to do a shakeout run the day before the race because I figured how walking was enough time on my feet. I struggled to sleep both nights thanks to the three hour time difference but made up some of the sleep the night of the race thanks to the time change (fall back).
On race morning, I met my friend Melissa at the New York City Library at 5:30 AM and we took the bus straight to the start in Staten Island after a 15 minute or so wait in line. We spent a couple hours together in the start line village before she took off to get in her corral (there are four start times for the race – she started in the first wave and I was in the second). The weather wasn’t as cold as anticipated – it was in the high 50s rather than the mid to high 40s I had expected. I decided to wear shorts and a tank top with arm warmers and gloves that I could throw off when needed. A friend let me take some pants and her husband’s huge winter coat from their Goodwill bin so I wasn’t cold at all while I waited nearly four hours for my race to start. I did not check a bag so I donated the clothes before I headed into the corral.
Due to the late start, I ate quite a lot before the race: a banana in the hotel room, a peanut butter banana sandwich and a half cup of coffee on the bus and four cups of gatorade, a dry bagel, a little more coffee and another banana from the free food offered at the start line village. I also took a Gu 15 minutes before the race, along with a small bottle of water.
There wasn’t much space to warm-up at the start and I didn’t really bother to do much stretching until I was actually in my corral. My legs had felt pretty tight, particularly my left IT band and glute, in the days leading up to the race and I had done a lot of stretching to try to get the kinks out, but it didn’t seem to help much. I was a little flustered getting into my corral as I had arrived ten minutes before it closed but there was a long wait to get inside (they checked bibs). I made small talk with a girl I met in line and we wished each other luck as I got sucked into the crowd.
As the corral started to move forward and toward the Verrazano–Narrows Bridges, I started to get nervous. I was excited and a little anxious for the journey ahead. With about five minutes to go I looked down at my phone and saw a text come through from my mother in law, which included a photo of Siena (Mike’s family graciously watched Siena so we could enjoy five days away in New York together). The music was blasting, I was surrounded by runners about to embark on a 26.2 mile journey that I had spent the last five months preparing for, and now I was looking at a photo of my daughter. I suddenly got very emotional and shed a few tears of happiness. It was time to run a marathon!!!
I had heard that they play “New York, New York” at the start, but all I heard was the national anthem and then the cannon go off. Time to run! The start line is just before the beginning of the bridge which means the first mile or so is a gradual incline as you climb to the crest. I knew this would be a slow mile and didn’t pay much attention to my watch. Instead, I just tried to keep up with the flow of the runners and soak it all in. The view was spectacular – thousands of runners moving forward together in a sea of spandex. I was smiled and just went with the flow of the crowd.
Half of the 50,000 runners are foreign so I could hear snipers of excited conversations in foreign languages, but more than anything, people ran in silence. Already people were jumping onto the median and taking photos or videos. The views from the bridge were pretty incredible – you can even see the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan in the distance.
I quickly noticed that my legs didn’t feel fresh, but reminded myself that it often takes five or more miles for them to feel good (especially without a shakeout run or warm up). The bridge is about 1.5 miles long and as soon as we exited the bridge, the cheering started. At first it was just a few spectators sprinkled around but as we made our way through the streets of Brooklyn, then crowds really started to pick up and I was enjoying the people watching and cheering.
Around this time I found Nika, a fellow Oiselle runner who I had gotten to know via Facebook chat just the week prior after learning we were in the same wave and corral. Although we’d missed each other in corral, we were now running side by side. We checked in with each other and both admitted we already weren’t feeling our best, but confirmed it was early in the race and things could turn around. After a short time I lost her when she stopped for an aide station (as usual, I decided to carry my water bottle with me).
Miles 3-8 were incredible. I remember thinking “This is the BEST RACE EVER!” My legs started to feel better and I started running on the right hand side of the road so that I could interact with the crowd more. I was accepting every high five I got and soaking it in as they cheered for me by name. I had a huge grin on my face for five full miles – I was running the New York Marathon and loving it! I didn’t pay attention to my watch but knew that I wasn’t going too fast – somewhere in the high 8s or low 9s depending on the subtle grade of the street or what the crowd was doing, which was essentially what I’d guessed I’d be able to do based on my training.
As we made our way through Brooklyn we passed through diverse neighborhoods (including a Hasidic Jewish community) but the neighborhood that I enjoyed the most was the latin area where they screamed for us in Spanish. I happened to be running right next to a man from Colombia at this point and the spectators were cheering loudly for him “Vamanos Colombia!” Every time they did, I thought of my best friend Asia who happens to be traveling through Colombia right now during her extended backpacking trip. It was almost like having her right there with me!
We also passed through a neighborhood that I can only assume is where New Yorkers head when they have a child because there were babies everywhere. I thought of Siena every single time I saw a baby on the course, but during this portion in particular!
Mike was out on the course and I got to see him around miles 9 and 12. Luckily he happened to be on the right side of the street because that is where I ended up spending the majority of the race, as my wave had started on that side and I was blocked from crossing the medan most of the race. Mile 8 is where all three corrals combine (there are three different routes for the first 8 miles due to the volume of runners) and it got incredibly crowded again, which I knew it would. I just kept up with the crowd , allowing it to set the pace.
I was happy with my decision not to wear headphones – it seemed like every third block had some sort of street performer, live musician, band or group. There was a gospel choir singing on the steps of their church, a large group of young musicians playing in a drum line, rock bands playing familiar hits, solo artists strumming their guitar, and DJs spinning dance jams. A high school band played the Rocky theme song, encouraging us all to stay strong and keep going.
After several miles of high fives and cheers, I moved to the center of the course again to focus on the race a bit. My left shoulder was starting to hurt because I’d been holding my water bottle only on that arm for a long time. I also noticed my lower back was aching a bit and my legs were getting heavier and heavier. Although my legs did feel decent for miles 3-8, the heaviness they now felt was not reassuring. By mile 10, my legs felt like I was on mile 18 or so of a long run – not a good sign.
Somewhere around here is when I ran into Nika again. We both were feeling it and agreed to try to stick together for a while to help the time pass. We stayed more toward the middle so it gave my arm a break from the high fives and we chatted about our lives and about running, which definitely helped pass the time. I remember looking at my watch at about 90 minutes in and thinking to myself that I only had 2.5 hours left to go – and that if I could push during childbirth for 3.5 hours then I could do this! I already knew that this marathon was going to be a rough one – though I still hoped for the best.
I walked through an aid station with Nika and drank a couple cups of Gatorade as well as refilled my water bottle. When we started running again, my legs felt even worse (which I why I had promised myself I wouldn’t stop!). We crossed the half way point of the race together and both noted that we were just over 2 hours in; I knew my goal of a sub-4 hour marathon was out the window. I hadn’t been paying much attention to my watch prior to this because I’d promised myself to run based on feel, not the watch, but I now realized I was farther behind than expected. It was almost a relief to know it so soon in the race – at this point my only goal was to finish, which was this point was something I wasn’t questioning.
My legs continued to ache, feeling like they were being weighed down by cement blocks. I began to realize that the only other time I’d felt so much fatigue in my legs so early on in a race was the Ironman. I also knew that meant I had a long road ahead of me. I broke from Nika for a while to head to the side of the crowd for more high fives and cheers – it helped temporarily but not for long. I met back up with Nika and struggled to keep pace with her as we stared the ascent onto the Queensboro bridge.
I knew from race recaps and the book I read prior to the race that this bridge was long, hilly and did not allow spectators and was a prime place for dark thoughts to enter your mind. Instead of trying to push the dark thoughts out, I let them all in just like I let Nika run ahead, never to be seen again. At this point it felt like the entire crowd was pushing past me. I decided on the bridge that I’ll never run another marathon. It was a dark place!
When we finally exited the bridge, as expected, the crowds were 5-10 people deep, screaming for the runners. A man came up next to me and said something to me to which I replied “lots of dark thoughts on that bridge but now we’re in the light.” I tried to push those bad thoughts back out of my mind and enjoy the nice decline into the city, though I knew that the majority of the hills were ahead.
Mike had mentioned potentially being at mile 18, so by Mile 17 I was searching the crowd for him. Around this point is the first time I started to cry. My legs were screaming in pain – and I had SO much farther to go. I imagined finding Mike and giving him a huge hug. All I wanted to do was get to him. I also decided I’d give him my water bottle because I couldn’t imagine carrying it to the end. My whole body was tired. I wanted to stop and lay on the ground and take a nap. I was not having fun and I was upset that my race was going so terribly. I didn’t care about my time – I just wanted to enjoy the race, and this one in a life time opportunity to do so was not going as planned. Pity party commence.
The pity party continued for several miles. I tried to use the crowd for support several more times but to no avail. I hit my low in the Bronx. I tried walking, but found that my legs felt like jello underneath me and walking was just as painful as running. It was almost scary to walk because I wasn’t sure if I’d ever start running again. I let myself walk a few times, but every time scared myself into continuing. After collapsing just yards before the finish line at CIM, I no longer consider the marathon “mind over matter.” I was genuinely scared that my legs weren’t going to let me finish.
At one point, I did stop and stretch, hoping it would help my cramped legs. I got out my phone to use the Find my Friends app to locate Mike, and saw that he was at 92nd street which was only a couple miles away. A man saw me on my phone and thought I was quitting – he said “Don’t quit now! We only have 5 miles left.” I realized then that I had no intention of quitting. I would NOT quit. I was going to cross that finish line on my own two feet.
Once we were back in Manhattan, the crowds picked up even more. I started to feel a little better, although I still allowed myself short walk breaks. I’d pick a point to walk to and usually would end up running before I even got there. I knew the faster I went the sooner I’d get to the finish line and it’d be over. I counted down the blocks until the 90s when I thought I’d see Mike, but I didn’t see him. I considered chucking my water bottle angrily, but ended up keeping it. The big hill at mile 22 I’d read about didn’t seem very big to me – if anything it hurt less because it changed up the terrain. It was almost a relief when I saw it and started up it.
There are approximately TWO MILLION spectators at New York Marathon and you can feel it. Spectators don’t just show up for their friend or family member to run by – they cheer for everyone. Every time someone called me by name I looked them in the eye, waved, fist pumped or simply smiled. I continued to do this despite the pain of the final miles. It was these cheers that got me to the finish line.
Once I entered Central Park, I knew the end was near. I was so relieved! When I finally saw Mike at Mile 24, I stopped and hugged him and cried and said “I’m in so much pain!” I knew I would cry when I hugged him, but luckily by now I’d almost gotten over my pity party. He told me I could walk the final 2 miles and I answered him by shoving the damn water bottle in his arms and running off (well, honestly it was more of a shuffle). I didn’t walk again.
No matter the speed, I wasn’t going to stop. There are several rolling hills in Central Park but I embraced them. I saw a Oiselle runner at the bottom of one and shouted to her and encouraged her. I smiled and cheered at the people who were cheering me on and calling my name. I embraced the pain and knew it would be over soon. As we near the finish line, a tiny fear entered my mind – what if my body stops short before the finish line again?
My response was to change the screen of my Garmin to one without the total distance (I knew I was about a half mile off the mile markers and didn’t want to know when I actually crossed 26.2 miles) and repeat to myself “You will not stop until you cross the finish line” over and over. As I made the final turn and headed up the final hill in Central Park to the finish line, I threw my arms up in the air, smiled and then cried for the fifth time that day as I crossed the finish line 4 hours and 27 minutes after I started.
I finished the New York City Marathon. I fought harder during this marathon than any previous one. While I can’t help but be disappointed that it wasn’t the 26.2 mile party that I hoped it would be, I’m proud of my race. Every marathon has its unique challenges and we never know how our bodies are going to cooperate on race day. Mine didn’t give me the race I training for, but I crossed the finish line healthy and on my own two feet, and for that I am thankful.
To the volunteers, spectators and people of New York – THANK YOU! You were gracious hosts and incredible cheerleaders. To the woman who gave me her seat on the crowded subway on our way back to the hotel after the race – your generosity was appreciated. To my friends, family, blog readers and social media followers who reached out in support before, during and after the race – I appreciate every word. To my husband Mike who accommodated my training, made sacrifices for me to get to New York and ran around the city on race day to cheer me on – I love you so much and I can’t thank you enough. To the marathon – you tested me, broke my heart and made me fall back in love with you all over again.