The smell of poop invading my nostrils was not at the top of a list of things I wanted at that moment. What I wanted was to see a sign for mile marker 26 appear around the next corner.
It was around mile 12 of the 2014 New York City Marathon that I began wondering how I was going to keep going. Not a great position to be in with 14.2 miles left to go. I hadn’t trained like I was supposed to, and I was paying for it with hip pain in every step and legs that were refusing to work. But I was determined to finish, even if it took me all day.
The morning had begun with a 5:30 cab ride to catch the Staten Island Ferry for the start of the race. The previous night had been freezing, windy and soggy, but things were fairly quiet (yet still very cold) in the twinkling hours of day in midtown Manhattan. While waiting to hail a cab, I noticed other runners walking to the other mode of transportation provided by race organizers – a bus. (Tip: If you run this race, take the bus.)
The Whitehall Terminal building in lower Manhattan was packed with runners, along with one very confused Staten Islander who was still wearing his club clothes from the night before. He kept asking people how far they were running that day, as if each person’s marathon distance was decided individually. Had that been the case, I would have chosen a quick 5 miles and collected my medal. The ride out to the Staten Island was quicker than I thought it would be, and it was pretty cool to see the Statue of Liberty and the skyline of the Manhattan Financial District so early in the morning, but the winds were ferocious and the temperature felt like it was still dropping.
The ferry docked at the St. George Terminal on Staten Island and we shuffled our way through the building and out the door to a long line of buses – our final mode of transportation to the runners’ villages. I sat by an older Australian man on the bus and we made small talk.
“It never gets this cold in Australia,” he worried.
By the time we arrived at Fort Wadsworth, a former military area that’s now maintained by the National Park Service, the winds were steady with gusts that drove straight through to your bones. I found the Green Village and looked around. There wasn’t much there. Like everyone else, I’d worn throwaway clothes, but my head was freezing…until someone handed me a pink and orange Dunkin’ Donuts cap. I hope whomever the marketing person is that came up with this giveaway got a huge promotion or at least a bonus on Monday because EVERYONE was wearing them – even at the start line when all the TV cameras were panning over. Kudos, DD.
There were no tents or shelter for us to sit in, so for most, the goal was to find a dry parcel of asphalt to sit down on and try to keep warm. Some people had space blankets, but most were like me – shivering and trying to conserve as much heat as possible. I must’ve looked pitiful, because a couple of Good Samaritans gave me their blanket when they left for their corral. It was a hot pink Victoria’s Secret number but I didn’t care. It matched my new hat, anyway.
After what felt like 3 days of sitting in the cold, my corral was finally called and I made my way to the start line. I chatted with the people around me, and the conversation centered on when to ditch the throwaway clothes. The consensus was to keep them on until we crossed the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and then toss them somewhere in Brooklyn. Spoiler alert – I wore my old painting sweatpants for the whole race.
It was freezing when my wave started, but I wasn’t prepared for the bridge. The winds were screaming (and I later learned that the race was slightly delayed because race officials were concerned that wheelchair participants would BLOW OFF the bridge – so their start was pushed into Brooklyn). I wore all my throwaway clothes, but it didn’t really help. The winds were so fierce that people were being blowing into one another. Bibs were almost ripped off. And paces were considerably slower than usually. I have never wanted to be over a bridge more in my life than at that moment.
There were three waves to the marathon, and mine, the Green wave, took a different course into Brooklyn than the others. We ran along an expressway and then through a deserted neighborhood until we rejoined the main group shortly after mile 3. The crowd support was pretty non-existent for those first few miles, which caught me off guard. I thought it would be 20-deep the whole way.
I was making good pace for me, and the crowds picked up as we ran down 4th Avenue. I made a pitstop at mile 6, but otherwise, things were going well. I hadn’t anticipated the gentle rolling of the streets, but at least the inclines provided a respite from the blast-you-in-the-face headwinds we were running into.
One of my favorite parts of the race happened at around mile 7. A big gospel choir was singing outside a church. Who doesn’t wanna clap their hands and be happy when a gospel choir sings?
I’m gonna be honest. I don’t remember a lot about Queens. When my hip started hurting at mile 10, my mental state started to wane and I was just praying for a finish. I remember being on an expressway with beautiful views of Manhattan, but nothing else really sticks out. Except the poop smell. And the beginning of the hellish Queensboro Bridge.
I had slowed down considerably by the time we reached the foot of the bridge, and most of the people around me looked like I did – tired and slow. A few were still cursing about the wind, and their frustrations were exacerbated when we all started to climb Mt. Queensboro. I ran what I could. Walked when I needed to. But when we finally reached the apex of the span, I wasn’t going to waste a huge downhill, so I picked up the pace all the way to bottom.
Manhattan, Part 1
These were the crowds I’d been expecting. I thought it would be hard to top the support we got in Chicago last year, but this was nuts. People everywhere. A deafening roar that was so loud I couldn’t hear the self-doubt in my head. I plodded along, desperate to see my beautiful sisters (who, once again, came along to watch their brother attempt another marathon) at 17.5. I spotted the restaurant where they were supposed to be, and almost panicked when I didn’t see them right away. I really needed a hug and the mental boost of seeing them. I heard them yell my name over the crowd, and I must’ve been a hot mess because they both had concerned looks on their faces when they saw me. They brought me a banana and a protein bar. After I woofed those down (and some well-wishing on their part), I set back out up First Avenue with a billion other runners toward the Bronx.
I’d been pacing off a woman in front of me for a few miles before we reached the Willis Avenue Bridge into the Bronx. When she walked, I walked. When she sorta-ran, I sorta-ran. I finally caught her and introduced myself. Her name was Cynthia and she was a New York native. We chatted and ran together for awhile, crossing into the Bronx. She’d run the marathon before and said there wasn’t much to this part of the course. She was right. We were in the Yankees Borough for maybe a mile before we turned back and headed toward Central Park in Manhattan. At last, the winds were at our backs.
Manhattan, Part 2
When will this thing end? It felt like it had been hours since I’d seen my sisters, and I really just wanted to see them again to give me a mental boost to finish this thing. They were supposed to be at mile 24.5, and I was at 21. Over my entire running career, three and a half miles have never felt so long. There was one last incline at mile 23, and I thought I could muster enough phantom energy to tackle it. But when I tried to pick up the pace, I almost fell over. It was a sobering moment, and I briefly questioned whether I should stop at a medic tent to see if they could do something about my hip. But like all irrational runners, I was afraid they would pull me from the race, and there was no way I was going to let that happen. So I just sideways-hobbled my way up the hill and into Central Park.
As mile 24 approached, we began a long descent. I was really hoping my sisters weren’t on the decline because I didn’t want to waste the downhill by stopping midway through. Maybe they recognized that because they were at the bottom of the hill. We took one last photo and then I set out to finish the race.
I wobbled around the corner, down 59th and back into the park. I’m pretty sure I’ve never been so relieved to cross a finish line.
Official chip time: 5:41:45
C’mon New York. No post-race celebration? After I received my medal, organizers made us walk up to the 67th Street exit before we were just turned out onto Central Park West. No vendors. No massages. It was a very different experience from my other marathons, where the post-race portion of the event is a huge, celebratory party of the accomplishment. Even Marine Corps managed to put on a carnival-like soirée in the face of Hurricane Sandy. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement.
Since my sisters had never been to New York, we spent the next day checking out the major attractions of the city. I walked a LOT, but all in all, it was probably good for my knotted-up legs.
I know most of this recap probably sounds like I didn’t have a good time. I own up to not training properly, and the course was more difficult than I anticipated, but I’m still humbled by being able to finish – no matter how long it took me. For that, I’m thankful.
So what does my running future have in store? I’m not sure. I’m fairly certain I’m going to take a break from marathons – at least for next year. But who knows? I might sign up for one tomorrow.
Until then, keep running, friends.