The New York City Marathon is a race that I have wanted to run for about as long as I have known of its existence.
Those in the know are aware that it isn’t the easiest race to get in to. So I made my commitment to this race more than a year ago, when I ran nine New York Road Runners races and volunteered for one more.
I made no secret here at RachelOnandOn about my sub-4:00 fantasy goal time for this race. But by the time I lined up at the start, I had decided to change my strategy.
Months ago, I chose a training plan that is the foundation for Run Less Run Faster. Though, as my training went on, it became apparent that while I was certainly running less, I was certainly not running faster. Just getting myself out the door to run those last few race-pace long runs was a tremendous feat. I was always afraid that I would return home not having met a goal. I met my goals, but I felt myself getting slower, and I missed running more frequently.
The training plan was, however, ideal for two things: (1) getting me to the finish line of my first marathon, and (2) getting me there with a reduced risk of overuse injuries.
On Thursday evening, three days before the race, my nerves kicked in. I was shaking with fear, anxious, and frightened about whether my training plan had adequately prepared me for the challenge ahead and how hard I would be pushing myself to achieve the goal I had set. These feelings stayed with me until Friday evening, when I had a pretty amazing conversation with El Profesor.
I am so elated that I truly heard what he said; and instead of spending 26.2 miles beating myself up for not running a sub-4:00, I was able to appreciate what was one of the happiest days of my life.
I am not sure if he knew that his words would change everything for me — that they would reshape my goals for the marathon, set my mind at ease, or make it possible for me to sleep restfully in the two nights before the race.
“It doesn’t matter if this is the only marathon you ever run,” he told me, “or if you run 100 more. You only get to run your first marathon once.”
On Saturday, I took my restless body to yoga, ate plain foods and packed my bag for race day. I laid out all of my clothing and fuel. I watched Love Actually on the couch with El Profesor and went to bed at 10.
I had set my alarm for 5:15, but woke at 4:15 (my body was clearly confused by the concept of gaining an hour) and again at 5:14 when I shut my alarm before it went off. I set about getting myself ready in the dark and ate a bowl of oatmeal before leaving.
I had decided to take the subway to the Staten Island Ferry, so I gave myself some extra time before the 7:30 ferry and left my apartment at 6:15. I made new friends at every turn. I chatted away on the platform and the whole ride downtown.
I arrived at the ferry just as the 7:15 pulled away, so I waited around in a cluster of runners for the next ferry to board. When I got on, I thought I should sit outside so that I could take in the sights – like a tourist – though I’ve lived in New York almost my whole life. It was pretty cold, though, and I’m not great on boats, so I settled on sitting by a window and watched Lady Liberty pass me by.
I met a woman who told me that, in her culture, being nervous is a good thing – because it means that you respect the distance. I took comfort in that.
Runners then shuffled from the ferry to the buses that would take us to Fort Wadsworth. From there, we walked to our designated starting areas. We were broken up by wave start time and wave color. I was in the green wave, which meant that I would be starting on the lower level of the Verrazzano Bridge. Just about the only thing I was still nervous about at this point was the risk of being pissed on by someone on the upper levels of the bridge (this is actually a huge problem, and the announcers comically made repeated warnings in a number of different languages about elimination from the race for urinating in undesignated areas).
I made my way to the front of the port-o-potty line, ate a banana and an energy bar, found my corral and stripped away my throwaway gear. By the time my corral was called to staging, I realized that three hours had passed since I left my apartment – though I was occupied the entire time with the process of being ushered from one place to the next.
At 10:05, green wave 2 took off across the Verrazzano Bridge.
I had decided that I would take it all in.
I would admire the Statute of Liberty as though I’d never seen it before.
I would sing the lyrics to “New York, New York” in my head while it blasted on nearby speakers.
I would cherish
every mile every footstep in Brooklyn – oh, glorious Brooklyn! – from the children who greeted us at the base of the Verrazzano, to the pristine brownstones, to the high school bands, to the gospel choirs, to the rappers praising Biggie, to the DJ blasting my theme song, to the girl holding the “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” poster in McCarren Park, to my in-laws cheering me on and screaming my name at Mile 12, and on and on.
I would barely notice Queens – that part of the race that merely ushered us from Brooklyn into Manhattan.
I would negative split after descending the Queensboro Bridge – oh wait, that didn’t happen.
Let’s say that I both did and did not have a strategy at the start of the race. I had given up on a specific finish time, but I did plan to pick up the pace after bridge #3 of 5. The ascent took a great deal out of me, though I ran by effort rather than by speed. But the descent was a surprise. We were hit with a good amount of headwind, such that I still felt like I was running up when, in fact, I was running down. By the time I turned on to First Avenue, I was beginning to feel the effects of the distance.
Until that point, I was just happily running along – no need to stop or stretch – and watching the miles fade away.
By Mile 18, I felt myself slowing down. My running buddy unexpectedly jumped on the course, and after a quick hug, we were off. She paced me for a 1/2 mile, helping me achieve my fastest mile of the second half of the race. I was thrilled to share this experience with her. And grateful – grateful beyond belief.
Mile 19 was the first time that I would see El Profesor on the course. Minutes before, I’d spilled Gatorade down the left side of my body, so we shared a sticky, lemony scented embrace before I rallied on. Up in to the Bronx, and down through Harlem, I would see him again at Mile 22.
The space between those three miles was when I began to feel the wear-and-tear of the race. 20 miles was the most I had run in training, so getting beyond that (especially without the gratuitous breaks I’d allowed myself on training runs) was a whole different kind of challenge.
At Mile 20, I told myself it was entirely different race – just a 10K – and it would all be over in an hour.
I noticed that my legs weren’t turning over quite as quickly, so I slowed down and walked through a couple of the water stops. Though, that only made things worse and increasing my pace was more challenging after slowing to a walk. So I resolved to keep moving. I knew that I had my cheering squad waiting for me at Mile 22 (El Profesor, our friend J, and madre, padre y hermano del Profesor) and ran to them.
El Prof high-fived me and told me to keep going. Next was my mom at Mile 23. I saw her at 5th Avenue and 92nd Street, just two blocks before entering Central Park. She high-fived me and offered me snacks. I told her that I was good, but I needed to keep running.
I knew at this point that I wasn’t running fast, but I sure was running.
El Profesor told me to slow down at the finish, to take it all in. I know myself, though, and I knew there was no way I was going to slow down as I approached the finish line.
Instead, I took a deep breath as I entered the park.
I focused my eyes on the bright red and orange leaves gently blowing from the trees, my ears on the sound of cheering friends and neighbors, and my skin on the crisp autumn air. After that, I just kept running.
And before I knew it, I was approaching the finish.
I felt spirited, and at peace, and strong, and all oh holy shit I’ve just run a marathon!
I rolled up my arm sleeves and raised my right hand to form a peace sign as I ran across. Damn marathonfoto for totally not taking a picture of that. Because I looked super cool, I bet.
This was not one of those races where I had to coax myself from the starting line and across the finish with mantras.
All that I had to do was put one foot in front of the other, and smile every step of the way.
I finished in 4:23:54
And I couldn’t be more proud.
Is there another marathon in my future? Probably; though not for a while.
And I’d have to say that I don’t know how I would feel about running New York again. I know that there is no way to replicate the experience that I had running this race last Sunday.
Because this race was about as perfect as races get.