The 2011 ING New York City Marathon

This is a story of love, and heartbreak -of joy and pain, of beauty and beasts- and it plays out in the streets of New York City.

I had been hoping to have my own story about this run, this journey of a century, for years. My grandfather was born here, and his family thrived, built and established Staten Island (I’ll let you do the math of origins here.)  This was the first marathon I had ever set my sights on – long before I could dream of guaranteed entry (which was how I found myself here this year via a good time in Boston,) or lotteries (which makes running this marathon a highly sought after experience.) And so, it was an item on my bucket list — another race in the Marathon World Majors that I can lay my claim to but also a 26.2 mile adventure that truly depicts the progression of one of the largest cities in the world. A soul search for the distance, a feast for the senses for the path, and a cultural adventure intitiated in running shoes — all at once.

I woke up the morning after Boston back in April and, while finishing my first cup of coffee, registered for New York with a projected time of 3:10. Having had the experience of running well, even though I started off too fast, my 26.2 mile test a few hours earlier had proved to be telling and I was sure that another 9 months of training, and racing, would help me drop those next 8 minutes. Like any other love story, I knew that the next one would be THE one.

The summer (Vineman victory) and fall (unexpected injury) have been full of surprises. In the weeks leading up to New York, I was reminding myself that I was lucky to be fast, but even luckier that I had the ability to run at all. And so I arrived in NYC a well-seasoned athlete. Given training setbacks and injuries of the past weeks, angst and discomfort, I had given myself license just to enjoy this race and do the best I could. This would be the largest marathon the world had ever seen -47,000 runners. Being part of the spectacle itself was yet another intriguing reason to run here. So, I agreed to keep calm, to listen in, and run wisely instead of firing up and running furiously — as I had in Boston. The object here was to enjoy the experience, and float to the finish remembering my own tale of Five Boroughs.  And so I smiles and breathed deeply all the way out to Staten Island in the early hours of the morning where the starting line awaited. Today, I would fall in love with running all over again, and all that is achieved by it, I knew.

The hours leading up to the ING NYC Marathon start are long, and a bit grating. Up at 4:30am for a good breakfast, putting on your clothes laid out the night before. Putting on layers and popping in earphones. You are moving methodically to the starting line for hours prior to your start and so there is much time to zone out and think about what you are about to do. You ferry to Staten Island, then bus to the village, walk to your start area and sit sit sit waiting in your corral to run,  listening to the anxiety and excitement of runners around you – from Italy, and France, Spain and Brazil. Your body, and all of its sensations is perhaps the loudest voice amongst thousands – from most indications, (now believed to be the booming flood of adrenaline) this could be the run of my lifetime under a clear, blue sky on a crisp November day dawned for running. The cannon fired, Frank Sinatra sang, “…I want to be a part of it, New York, New York….” and off we front runners went, over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and towards Brooklyn, where all of New York awaited us.

Into Bay Ridge – where my grandfather was born, into a neighborhood that was once prodominantly Italian, Irish, and Norweigian now boasts new Muslim roots. A sea of faces lines the streets with not an inch of empty space to spare – they are cheering, and screaming, holding posters that say “I am so proud of you, perfect stranger,” and for those signs not written in a latin-based language, I can only imagine that they boast an encouraging phrase too.

Running with 46,999 other runners is nothing you can imagine – Iooking ahead on the course, you can’t see the terrain for miles — just a rolling sea of movement, runners in stride. It’s completely crazy. And amazing. To fathom just how many people rally to run this far, and at the front of the pack, this fast. They have traveled across the world in some cases, some are wearing costumes, others don pictures of loved ones on customized jerseys. Most of them have never worn deodorant and this is colorfully apparent as you streak past one another.

Even as another face in the crowd, you feel monumental in your shoes — or, at least I did as I cruised under control and holding just a bit back through the miles; through Williamsburg with Hasidic Jews in traditional attire clapped, and into Green Point, Long Island City, and over the Queensborough Bridge. The halfway point came, and went, and as it did, I took a bit of inventory within, realizing that just now, as I was ready to steamroll my pace towards the finish, I was unsure  — my legs felt fresh, my gait strong but my feet were tired the way that only a marathon can tire them. Mile 15 came and something was changing – an equilibrium. My heart was racing a bit, and my stomach aching. I couldn’t take in any nutrition, and didn’t want water – a scenario that wouldn’t carry my into the finish strong, and one that I would struggle uncomfortably with for the next ten miles. I was gulping back nausea and thus my mind was starting to ask “are we there yet?”

No. We most certainly are not. This is the run of a lifetime, in case you have forgotten.

Past the water stops at Mile 16 and 17 and just before Mile 18 rolled into view, I spotted a billboard for a running shoe company. The slogan read:

“Don’t confuse ‘I did it’ for ‘I’m done.’

Hell no, I won’t.

Something had to be done in this lose/lose game. I could allow my pace to slow, and give into walking and feeling like two pounds of shit in a one pound bag. Or, I could embrace the setback, actually allow for what my body was asking, and attempt to get rid of this feeling so that my legs could feel free to churn again. The mindful being in me decided to take that latter, road less traveled. And so, I went, and puked on the Upper East Side.

I have never been sick on a course before, and was relived and surprised to find that I could actually bolt out of the door of the port-a-potty and get back into a 7:20/7:30 mile pace, feeling stronger and more settled in legs and belly as we entered Harlem, beat boxes booming and cat calls flying as the crowd passed . Up and over the Willis Avenue Bridge, the pack became quiet – from between the concrete beams of the bridge, we could see Manhattan and a stiff cool breeze, paired with the lack of spectators, meant that our running sea moved quietly, peacefully over the pavement -very much in the moment. Very much in Mile 20 of the New York Marathon. Just halfway over the bridge, I passed another woman, vomiting in the street and being held by a cop and a paramedic — her race was over. I buttoned up my mind and my stride – 6 miles to go and gazed at the cityscape quickly unfolding before me.  Love – for my body, mind and their fortitude and for this unique experience. Love for the journey that I was having in my running shoes. I gave myself this race and had allowed my body to do what it needed, in exchange for the opportunity just to run here. Mindfulness was not aside in pushing on for not finishing was not an option – being forced to quit this race was not something that my after race mind and body would take well.

My buttoning up couldn’t last forever and I found myself having to walk briskly again in the Bronx to cure blurred vision every so often, followed by a clear mind that reminded me to keep strong, pulling my split down. I tried taking liquids in in tiny sips – nothing wanted to stick so I tried to focus on our entry into Central Park and how good that home stretch would be.

Manhattan – spectators lined the course, 5 and 6 people deep, all cheering loudly and smiling in the sun. Not in the fanatical, screaming drunk way that Boston fans do, or in the colorful, I-just-wrote-a-rap-about-you way that the 3 boroughs before had. In the sophisticated, put-on-a-Barbour-jacket on a brunchy-Sunday way. In a this is “the happening” way. And that’s cool — having 47,000 people roll through your hood, puking and sweating in your streets is pretty exciting. A few of them looked at my face as if to read my demeanor, and I must have shot them a smile for they reciprocated and gave me little fist pumps and high fives. In that New York twang that I can’t get enough of:

“You go, girl, you go honey, you GO!”

Uphill, uphill, uphill and towards the Park and into Mile 23. Heartbreak – I couldn’t hold onto my sips of water anymore, and was sick again in Central Park. And, again burst out onto the course, bringing back my 7:20/mile pace and thinking of a glorious finish, even though my time now would be a far far cry from the 3:10 goal that I had toyed with  when I first imagined myself here. Pain.

Derek didn’t see me in the  few hundred meters before the finishline, where he stood waiting, worried I had had a catastrophic accident on the course in the dappled sun. I must have flown right by him (he says he noticed those struggling and had been looking for my face, but he didn’t see me arrive.) Beauty – how is it that the body can stand tall when the mind is fighting a crumble?

I smiled and slowed through the finish chute – feet and legs a bit sore but now damaged, stomach calm and too empty. Thirsty, and with a sore chest and back, I got myself to a medical tent. Beast – the true toll that this distance can place on your body when things go improperly, I thought as I lay in the care of the paramedics, shivering but warming under blankets and accepting care to bring my body back out of dehydration and balancing low blood pressure.

Joy – I recovered quickly, and was warm and moving again before long, having vowed to replace the several thousand calories that I had burned (and vomited up) since breakfast at 4:30am. I navigated the streets with my husband, he shaking his head as his crazy renegade of a wife munched on a soft pretzel with extra salt, standing more upright all the time and happy beyond belief.

I don’t know exactly what went wrong, but I blame a peanut butter bar (NOT homemade.) My illness on the course seems to be one of those fluke occurrences but, in a nutshell, I learned what my body does NOT like as a second breakfast, and reminded myself that I have a sensitive system that must be tuned like a machine.

But I also was reminded again that this machine is a strong one. Adaptable, capable, and the mind inside is functioning at full awareness, even when she is strained.

I was right. I did fall in love with running, and the journey that it is, all over again, right there in New York City. And I know now, more than ever, that I would do anything to be able to keep my body and mind moving forward. While my time in New York didn’t advance towards a 3:10 marathon, my mind and body did – because I dipped to the deepest and came back victorious because I had to consciously make the choice to stay strong, and because the goal, in the end, was just to experience whatever this run was meant to be — a story, a journey, of love and heartbreak, joy and pain, beast and beauty that is this, and any, test of self and soul (and sole.)