I woke up at 5:30 this morning and realized it was time to get up and run a marathon. Every race morning I ask myself - what were you thinking? That was particularly true today. I still had no idea what to expect, but I felt as good as I could given the circumstances.
I had an english muffin, coffee and bundled up in multiple layers to brave the chilly wait at the start. I grabbed a cab to the Staten Island Ferry, my mode of transportation out of Manhattan. The station was filled with runners and there was energy in the air. I felt sorry for the two or three people who had to take the ferry and weren't doing the race. They looked confused, as if they'd stepped into some alternate universe by mistake.
The ride across the harbor was calming. I listened to music and thought about how far I'd come. I stood by a window on the Statue of Liberty side of the boat so I had inspiring views the entire time. I was as ready as I could be.
We had to take a bus to the start area, which was divided into villages by colored starts. I was in the orange village so I grabbed some water and found a patch of grass in the sun to set up shop. I had two big sheets of mylar to sit on and wrap up in. It was freezing, about 38 degrees when I arrived. I stayed huddled in my little makeshift tent for as long as possible. With 10 minutes before the cut-off time, I finally braved the cold, stripped down to shorts and a tank top, put my cozy warm clothes in a bag and checked it. I made a skirt out of one sheet of mylar and wrapped my upper body in the other. Using the porta potty like this required some serious skill.
They did wave starts this year for the first time and I was in wave 2 at 10:00. It was about 40-42 degrees and sunny when we started, just about perfect weather for a long run. Aside from the occasional brisk wind, I felt warmed up pretty quickly, although my hands were chilly the entire race.
Even with waves, the start was so congested it took me about 20 minutes to cross the start line. The first mile is spent weaving in and out of people on the Verrazano Bridge trying to find a comfortable place. People throw clothes down and people trip on them. People stop to take pictures and people run into them. You really have to stay alert, but you can't forget to enjoy the views: thousands of other runners on the bridge with you, Manhattan to the left and the Atlantic Ocean to the right. This was my third NYC Marathon and the view never gets old.
I hit a decent pace in the first mile, 9:19, but it was slower than the 9:00 or under I was hoping to average. I had recently reduced my goal from sub-4 to 4:15 to deal with the reality of my situation, but deep down I still wanted the sub-4 and a 9:00 pace would get me there. I enjoyed the downhill of the bridge and the gradual thinning of the runners to get to 8:05 on mile 2. I did the next 6 miles comfortably at an 8:45-8:59ish pace and was feeling good. The first 10 miles of this race are literally a blur. You pass through incredible Brooklyn neighborhoods with more spectators and music than you can imagine. Because I was watching my pace so intently, I had to remind myself to enjoy it. Regardless of my finish time, I wanted to have fun in this race.
I continued to maintain a sub-9:00 pace through the half-way point except for two miles at 9:09. I was well on track for a sub-4 finish with a little buffer even. I was feeling great. And then the bridges came. There is a bridge right at the half-way point that I don't remember sucking so much. But it made my legs tired. You get about two miles to recover, then hit the mother of all bridges, the 59th Street Bridge. To say this one sucks is an understatement. I went from cranking out sub-9s comfortably to a very humbling 11:00. The incline is a mile and it sucks the life out of you at a very critical time in the race. People start dropping like flies at that point. I was able to redeem myself with a fast downhill mile and the second you hear the roar of the crowd on First Avenue, you get a little kick in your step.
First Avenue is unreal. The crowd is several people deep and there are bands and cheering stations lining the entire stretch. It's like a massive block party only you're not invited, you're the entertainment. This is the last place on earth you want to be shuffling, walking or looking miserable. But it's also mostly uphill so you have to be smart. I stayed in the middle so I didn't feel compelled to interact with the crowds, but was still drawing energy from it.
My pace continued to be strong, but the pain was really setting in around mile 18. I was prepared for pain after 20, but not this early. It was unsettling. When I hit mile 20 I had slowed to a 9:38. I was able to rally a bit on the next two, but I was suffering. Miserably. My 6-minute buffer had dwindled away and a sub-4 was looking unlikely. Upon this realization, I took about 4 walking steps at a water station thinking I should go ahead and give my body a break. What was the point of pushing through so much pain if my goal wasn't possible? But after 4 steps something inside me said to get going again. It was too soon to give up.
The final stretch of 5th Avenue was unbelievably crowded due to the spectators squeezing the course into a tiny path. They mean well, but they have no idea how hard they make it for the runners. I had to push past runners and spectators to keep moving ahead. There were a lot of walkers at this point. A lot of defeat. The urge to stop and walk with them was overwhelming. But I kept pushing.
I hit mile 23 at 3:29:44 and did the math. I was in a world of hurt, but if I had enough left to keep up the pace and maybe pick it up a bit, I could make the sub-4. I got to 24 at 3:39:05 and 25 at 3:48:09. I had 12 minutes left to cover the final stretch. Under regular circumstances, this would be no problem. But at the end of a marathon, sometimes your body just won't do what your heart and mind want. I watched tons of people quit over the last 5 miles, people who trained and had goals as well. So I didn't feel it was a done deal. I still had a lot of ground to cover.
We hit Central Park South, the final stretch before the turn back into Central Park and the finish. At this point I was running faster than I had in the entire race, covering 25-26 in 8:22. The pain was gone and I could think of nothing else but that finish.
The turn into Central Park is a narrow path. Runners were stopping to take pictures and have fun with the crowd, but I was on a mission. I had to shout out for people to move and had to really push hard to get through. I had just minutes between me and my goal. When I reached the 200 yards to go sign, I knew it was mine. I screamed, jumped up in the air and had a little Usain Bolt-style moment of celebration before crossing the finish line. I got tons of support from the crowd because you'd have to be blind not to see how much it meant to me. I finished with 1 minute, 46 seconds to spare.
I felt surprisingly good at the finish. I was unable to eat or drink, but I was walking and talking comfortably. I think my elation over making this seemingly unreachable goal carried me through. I couldn't stop smiling.
I ran this race with less than perfect training, a slightly broken shoulder and a cold that kept me from taking a deep breath. And I had the best race I could possibly have asked for. Sometimes it all just comes together, and it seems it finally did for me.
I've always loved this race, it is by far one of the most incredible experiences you can imagine. But it will always be even more special to me since I did my first sub-4 and set a PR by 57:00. I'd say that makes up for much of the disappointment in the past few months. For a brief moment, I'll be on top of the world.
Running - New York City Marathon
Distance - 26.2 miles
Time - 3:58:14