Wednesday, November 7, 2007

New York City Marathon - The Story


My first marathon, the 2007 New York City Marathon. My friend Melissa was right with me, finishing in 4:42:25. Melissa knocked about 7 minutes off of her previous marathon PR [that's "personal record" to the non-running world]. We were satisfied and pleased with our overall performance. Our average pace was 10:47 per mile. Could I run a marathon faster? Probably. I'd have to train differently, make some adjustments.... I can't believe I'm even considering the vague possibility of doing this again.

The marathon experience really starts on Saturday, at the Javits Center on the West Side of Manhattan where we picked up our numbers and checked out the expo. Every race volunteer that we spoke to was enthusiastic and helpful. They all seemed excited for us - I wondered if I was naive to be so excited at the prospect of punishing my body over 26.2 miles. We cruised the expo, and of course were suckered into buying NYC marathon merchandise, tangible proof that we were here. (It's also motivation to finish, since it's just embarrassing if you wear the stuff later, someone asks you if you ran the marathon, and you say, um, well, no, not quite.)

Not wanting to spend too much time on our feet, we bade farewell to our friends Elynn & John (NYC residents and fellow Team Caveman runners). They were so helpful in giving us hints about marathon logistics, since they've done this thing several times before. We planned to meet up with Elynn and John at the start, and again after the finish.

Miriam & Irwin (my aunt and uncle in law) were kind enough to invite us over and make us a spectacular pre-race pasta feast. At dinner time, Irwin produced a clawfoot tub-sized bowl of pasta, laden with grilled chicken and vegetables. One glass of wine, chocolate pudding and fruit for dessert, and we were on our way back home by 8:30. (The food and bed schedule the night before a marathon is much like the Early Bird Special at a retirement home).

Set the clocks back one hour, make final decisions on which pair of socks to wear, pin numbers on shirts, lace chips onto shoes, lay out all the race clothes, check the weather one more time, make sure you have enough BodyGlide, give Seth maps of the racecourse and a schedule of times per mile, fill the water bottles on the Fuel Belt, pack two - no, three - Espresso Luv GUs, drink Gatorade, try to memorize the mile markers where our friends will be waiting, pack clothes to wear after the race, pack snacks for the wait before the start, sunscreen, lip balm, reading material, toilet paper (they sometimes run out), do we have everything? I hope so.... Set three separate alarms for 5:30 a.m. (four, including Melissa's cell phone), get into bed by 10:15, try to sleep.

The alarms all go off within 30 seconds of each other, and I jump out of bed, take a quick shower just to wake up, and pull on all of my clothes, heart pounding already. We make toast with peanut butter and honey, and grab out pre-race caffeine out of the fridge (Melissa prefers Coke; I like the Starbucks chilled espresso drinks). Seth is awake and surprisingly chipper. We load ourselves, our stuff, and the dog into the car and drive down the NJ Turnpike to the Meadowlands, where an official marathon shuttle bus will take us to the start on Staten Island.

5:45 am - getting ready.

Roberta and Melissa, ready to board the shuttle to Staten Island. (No, Rufus did not run the marathon - he just went with us to the shuttle.)

There are plenty of buses, and we don't have to wait at all. We hop on, sitting across from a 20-something guy with a low race number - he looks fast. We chat with a guy from Minneapolis who has been in town for several days before the race, sightseeing with his girlfriend and family. He's run a few marathons before. He plans to do more sightseeing on Monday and Tuesday after the race, the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty. It sounds like a packed schedule - we hope he knows what he's in for. We hope we know what we're in for.

We arrive at Fort Wadsworth, on Staten Island. There are runners camped out everywhere - on the grass, on the curbs, on the asphalt. The best part: more port-a-potties than I've ever seen in my life, which equals no lines! Impressive - definitely the best port-a-pottie to runner ratio I've ever seen at a race. We wander around the start area, and try to connect with Elynn and John. I have a Green start number, so when we wander by the Green area, I take the opportunity to check my bag. They load them on UPS trucks, and the bags will be waiting at the end of the race. Again, the volunteers are cheerful, and kind, asking about our pre-race eating, and how we feel. We finally find Elynn & John, and camp out with them for awhile, eating a few snacks, and reading some trashy People and US magazines that I picked up just for this occasion.

It's getting close to race time, so we go to check everyone else's bags. This is a total nightmare. Out of all the excellent organization of this race, for some reason, the Blue baggage check area is a total horrendous, packed mob scene. You can't move, can't get to the trucks, it's cramped and confined. Melissa and I barely make it out alive. We run into another runner later who never got to check his bag, and actually carried it in the race to Mile 5, where he handed it off to his girlfriend.

We've all elected to start in the Blue Corral area, because it goes over the top of the Verrazano Bridge - the best view! We're all pretty far back in the pack, so no one really cares what we do. Melissa and I consume our caffeine; and we start shedding our "disposable" sweatshirts and pants. I lose my visor in the fray - oh well - I regard it mostly as a hair & sweat control device anyhow. It's still chilly, but we know when we start running, we'll be warm soon enough. The detritus left behind by 39,000 runners is almost unfathomable. Piles and piles of sweatshirts, hats, pants, gloves, t-shirts, garbage bags, and god knows what else. It all gets collected later by various organizations (Girl Scouts, etc.) and given to charity. Which is where most of it was destined for anyhow - people wear some ugly stuff to the start.

We hear the starting gun, somewhere on the bridge. It's 10:10 am, the official start. We can't even see the bridge yet. It will take us several minutes to get over the starting line. Suddenly, the pack starts to move. We walk down a road, down a grassy hill (please don't let me turn an ankle!), around a sharp curve, and there it is - the bridge, the start! Everyone starts jogging. I hastily chuck my sweatshirt, and start running, hitting the button on my watch as we step over the starting line.

We know the first mile up the Verrazano Bridge is the steepest hill of the course. We try not to go to fast, but our hearts are pounding, our breath comes fast, and it feels effortless up the hill. The view is amazing - it's a crisp, clear morning, and we can see Brooklyn glinting in the silvery morning sun. Many of the European runners are running to the side of the bridge with cameras, frantically snapping photos, then running ahead to another spot. I'm just trying to take it all in. Odd gloves and hats still litter the roadway ahead. But we have plenty of room to run - the runners are on both sides of the bridge, and on the lower level also.

We hit Mile 1, and fly down the other side, and hit mile 2 quite a bit faster than our planned 10-minute mile pace. There are the crowds, holding signs that say "WELCOME TO BROOKLYN." We high-five little kids on the side of the road. We can't believe the noise, and people are yelling our names! Wow, this name on the shirt thing really works! Melissa says we should slow down, and she's right, it's just hard, because I feel so good. But there are many miles to go before we sleep, so we try to ease off our pace.

There are live bands, DJ's, kids handing out water, candy, paper towels, oranges. Everyone is cheering. We hear our names in Spanish accents, British accents, Asian accents. We see the river of runners, myriad and bright, rolling down 4th Ave. ahead of us.

Around Mile 7 I look up, see St. Mark's Ave. Hey, my childhood friend Jaclyn lives on this street, I know she planned to come out. I scan the crowd, and there she is, with son Noah on her shoulders! I can't quite get over to give Noah a high five, but I yell and wave like mad, wishing I could stop to hug them and chat, but we have a race to run. I can't believe I saw them.

We look for our friends Marlene and Joey around miles 3 & 4 [actually Mile 8 - see below]. They plan to wear yellow and carry a SpongeBob balloon. We see them walking away, behind the crowd, and yell - a reverse cheer. They see us, jog to us, ask if we want anything. We say no, we're great. We'll see them later on. [Errata: Joey corrected me and told me this actually happened at Mile 8 - those Brooklyn miles just flew by!]

Mile 11, we're supposed to see Seth and his friend Dan. We scan the crowd, but don't see them. It's OK - their most important duty is at Mile 20 or 21, where they'll give us whatever we need in the Bronx for the last push into Manhattan. But we do see Marlene & Joey again, and stop for a few words of encouragement. They're our relay running teammates, and New Yorkers, and have run plenty of marathons themselves, so they know how to get around, where to best see runners, and know what we need, whether it's water or a kick in the butt.

We're in Williamsburg now, and the Hasidic Jews stand reservedly, smiling curiously at us. There are fewer crowds here, and quieter ones. Some Hasidic girls stand quietly on one side of the street, politely holding out baskets full of candy for the runners.

The street narrows, our pace slows considerably due to the congestion. I'm frustrated - I don't want it to be so slow.

At about Mile 13, I see my favorite sign so far: "Your only choice now is to fucking finish!" And we're at the halfway mark.

A DJ on the left side of the road thanks us for coming to the borough of Brooklyn. "Your next stop will be the borough of Queens." We go up, over the short Pulaski Bridge. I tell Melissa that it feels good to run uphill. "Uh huh," she says. I'm not sure she entirely agrees.

We have to stop for a minute so I can adjust the insole of my shoe. It's not sitting right, and I'm afraid of blisters. Melissa takes the opportunity to stretch.

A quick jaunt through Queens, with plenty of loud, cheering crowds. Then we head onto the Queensboro Bridge for another climb. They're routing us onto the bottom level of the bridge, which I did not expect. It's really dark - like moonless night dark, and very disorienting. I'm trying to get my bearings, when splat! I do a full-out belly flop. I have no idea if I tripped, if someone bumped me, or what happened. I jump up and do a quick check: no skin lost, no blood, nothing seems to really hurt. I landed right on my chest and stomach, and I was going uphill, all of which probably saved me. No one tramples me, and lots of people ask if I am OK. I am, so we keep running. More daylight is coming in now, and we can see glimpses of Manhattan through the sides of the bridge. Runners dash over to the openings in the bridge to stretch, take photos, or just look.

Downhill, the other side of the bridge, and we are entering Manhattan, the powerful roar of the crowd drawing us around the hairpin turn off the Queensboro Bridge, and up First Avenue.

The street is wide, and there is plenty of room to run here. But I'm not feeling so great - I think the shock of the fall and its resulting tensed muscles are taking their toll. My hip flexors and back feel very stiff and tight. I tell Melissa I have to stop and stretch so it doesn't get worse. We stop around Mile 18, and take the opportunity to suck down some GU as well. I'm dismayed - I didn't anticipate feeling this bad until about Mile 20. Still 8.2 more miles to go. I tell myself that I can run 8 miles with no problem.

Somewhere in here, we are passed by a guy wearing a snowman costume. We think, I don't want to get beat by a guy in a snowman costume! Turns out we didn't. We were, however, beaten by a guy in a cape and a clown.

We get a boost when we see Seth's Aunts Miriam and Johanna, and family friend Sheila at 120th Street. They are so excited to see us. Miriam snaps pictures, and they have water and Gatorade for us. And we're off, still running.

We see Joey and Marlene again before we go over the Willis Avenue Bridge to the Bronx. I get one last GU, they tell us we're doing great. We believe them, and we keep running.

Over the bridge, which is creepy, because it's metal grating. They've put an orange carpet down on one side for the runners. Melissa opts to run on the metal grate where there's more room, but it feels too bumpy and slippery for me, so I run on the carpet. We're approaching Mile 20, the infamous "Wall" of all marathons. We step past 20, and I am running farther than I have ever run in my life.

We scan the thinning crowds for Seth. We see him on the right, on the Madison Avenue Bridge, frantically waving his arms. We don't really need anything, but Melissa ditches her water belt, and it's great to have the moral support, and to see him. Seth says he knew I'd finish when he saw me there, just before Mile 21. I wasn't so sure. I wasn't counting on anything until I saw the 26 mile mark.

And we're off again, over the bridge, onto Fifth Avenue. Wow, is everything starting to hurt now. Miriam, Johanna and Sheila apparently see us again, just past Mile 22, but we miss them. I think we see Marlene and Joey again, but this is where it starts to be a blur.

I know the crowds are huge, and people are calling our names, and there are just 4.2 more miles to go. It's supposed to be uphill in this stretch, but I can't differentiate the labor that it takes to go uphill from the labor it takes to just move. But I hurt, but I can't stop running. I think, "one mile at a time." Our conversation is terse now - mostly: "Are you OK?" "Yeah." Oh my god, Mile 23, only 3.2 to go, just a 5K, which somehow sounds shorter. And we're alongside Central Park. One mile at a time. I want to cry. I want to stop running. I want to stop running and cry. (Melissa told us later that her mantra at this point was "I want to take my broke ass home." That about sums it up.)

One mile at a time. Those mile markers cannot come soon enough. We're entering Central Park, and the crowds are huge and roaring. I wish I could appreciate them more, I wish I could smile, but I'm in my own bubble of effort and pain. I hear my name, go Roberta, you're almost there, you can do it, go Roberta! A guy yells at Melissa: "PORTER! You own this race! Take it! It's yours!" That perks us up. It is ours!

One half-mile to go!

The road through Central Park is narrow and winding and crowded with runners, and the hills roll up and down. I'm sure the downhill hurts, but I don't care, I just fly down as hard as I can. I can't stop running now, not in front of all these people! Melissa looks strong, she's speeding up, I have to keep up with her, we have to finish together. We hit Mile 25. Melissa says, "Anyone can run a mile." She's right. The marathon organizers have thoughtfully marked a countdown, so you know when you've knocked off that .2, and you have ONE MILE TO GO. Then it's 1/2 mile, then it's 500 yards, it's all uphill to the finish line (how cruel!), 200 yards, 100 yards, I'm supposed to smile and look for the camera somewhere in here, but we just kick it as hard as we can to step across the finish line!

Melissa actually throws up from the effort. We hope the photographers got a good shot, because that's hard core! She spent the money! A medical volunteer grabs her and leads her off to the side to make sure she's OK. Melissa is fine. She feels great, apparently better than I do, and she's smiling. We keep walking and get our finisher medals. They hang, heavy and triumphant, swinging around our sweaty, aching necks.

Walking hurts - I can barely move. Breathing hurts. Everything hurts. Everything. I had no idea I would feel this bad. I want to lie down. Or cry. Or lie down and cry. And sleep for about 3 days. Melissa says I should feel like this - it means I pushed my body and my spirit to its utmost. I have nothing left.

The volunteers give us heat sheets to keep us warm. We get several photos taken by the race photographers. Posterity.

I have been hit by a semi and dragged onto railroad tracks where the semi stalled, where I was then hit by a train, which derails, and it happens to be the circus train, so all of the animals escape from the train and have stampeded over me, from the hard sharp hooves of the zebra to the flat pounding feet of the elephants.

The race volunteers give us plastic bags that have water, Gatorade and bagels in them. They're handing out apples. Melissa immediately starts scarfing down a bagel. I can't even comprehend a bagel right now. I try a sip of Gatorade, but it's some dreadful berry flavor, and sickeningly sweet. I toss it away. I tell Melissa that I feel like I have the flu. I have no idea what I need or what will make me feel better. The only thing that's comforting to me is that other people sitting on the curb around us look worse. They look shell-shocked and pale, stunned, wrapped in their heat sheets. I try some water, and sip it slowly. This seems OK.

I've been told that you have to walk it off for at least 20 minutes, to let the blood that's been displaced to your legs return to all of your vital organs. I do actually begin to feel better, especially after a quick stop at the medical tent for some Tylenol. I'm hoping this will enable me to get beyond a shuffle, as all of my leg muscles have locked up, from my waist to my ankle. We get our bags, the crowd thins out as runners stagger out of Central Park. Melissa calls Seth to tell him "we are alive!" I struggle to bend my legs enough to get my windpants on. Warm, dry clothes are a vast improvement. I might be capable now of making it to the bar. A beer is starting to sound good.

We hobble out of the park to where Seth and Dan are meeting us at 79th and Columbus. We gimp slowly down the street to the subway. Like a mountain climber, I use the handrails to lower myself gently sideways down the stairs. We're wearing our finisher medals proudly displayed. We cram onto the train; people look up at us, see the medals, smile and say, "Congratulations!" The euphoria is lasting, (is the Tylenol kicking in?) the pain is fading.

I just ran a marathon!

Melissa: dog-tired the day after the marathon.


Fiorella said...

I love it! Bravo bravo! Your story is very inspiring! Love,

Call me El Conejo said...

Truly captures the insanity of the effort - but fantastic! Be proud, and feel free to mock Seth or I if we decide to train for cycling!

KVE said...

Good Job Chica!!! Reading all about it made me feel as if I was right there next to you guys!!



fran said...

What an account! Your story made me laugh and cry. We are so proud of you. Love, Fran