Getting to the start line of the NYC Marathon is a laborious event in itself. Nearly 55,000 runners need to make their way to Staten Island. The limited choices of how to get there and the sheer number of people needing to do so. My start time was 10:35AM, yet I would be getting on a 6:15 ferry. There are actual chat groups about the ferry – getting on different one than assigned, how long it takes, blah, blah, blah. Nonetheless, it is a thing you have to do. After teetering endlessly on whether to take a later ferry or my assigned one, I ultimately went on my scheduled 6:15 AM one. I loved the idea of getting an extra hour of sleep. But the reality is, even having set my alarm for 4:30, I was still wide awake at 4:00AM because that’s what race day does to you.
My teammate Patrick met me at the hotel and we took a Lyft to the ferry where we met a bunch of other teammates. The ferry was jam-packed. As the sun rose over Manhattan with Lady Liberty off in the distance, the day felt like it was starting off right. We docked at Staten Island and waited a bit for the bus to arrive to take us to the Athletes’ Village. There we set up a make-shift camp with a patchwork “quilt” of a “picnic blanket” – a combination of heat sheets, ponchos and trash bags to keep ourselves dry on the soggy lawn. We wore layers of throwaway clothes (which get donated to charity) and waited for our start times nearly 2.5 hours from when we arrived. They have various goodies in the village like bagels and stroopwaffles. Being there with friends helped pass the time; we joked, ate and waited to put our bodies through a serious challenge.
Note: In hindsight, we could have left an hour later and have been fine. However, any way that one can eliminate the feeling of stress or anxiety leading up to starting a marathon is key because there are so many other things to stress about. For example, every runner will tell you, the first major worry on his mind on race day is looking out for number one by taking a number two. Until that objective has been achieved, every other problem seems as insignificant as what happened to that lady from Dance Moms.
As we were saying our “good lucks” to our teammates leaving us with earlier starts, I checked my watch, which I had fully charged the night before. It said 0% and was flashing the battery signal! My heart sank deeper than the Titanic. I thought it must just be some weird bug so I restarted it. Nope. Dead battery! Completely dead f*&U$%g battery. Damn you, Garmin! My first race obstacle already presented itself and the start cannon hadn’t even fired yet. I was also more than a little perturbed that my watch wouldn’t capture my distance and steps that would populate all of the nerdy runner apps I use. But nothing could be done about any of that now on this island. It was time to refocus. I was about to do something that I never do – run without any idea of my time, heart rate or pace. And this wasn’t just a three mile run on a Tuesday. This was a marathon! But as the saying goes, “the show must go on.” “Don’t panic. Breathe,” I told myself. I had a MyZone heart rate chest strap on which would give me my heart rate on my phone. But I didn’t want to risk a dying battery and inability to reach Graham or call an Uber at the end. I also didn’t want to have to run with my phone in my hand and keep unlocking and looking at what was going on because this was both unsafe and not sustainable. My only alternative was to do this run by feel. I had to really own it.
My plan all along was to run with the 4h30m pacer to see if I could take more time off my recent personal best at Chicago (4h39m). With my watch debacle, this seemed like even more incentive to do that because if I stuck with the pacer, I would at least know that I was on target. I worked my way through the crowd to find the pacer and positioned myself about 20 feet behind in a sea of people. It was about time to start. The announcer got us jazzed up by playing “New York, New York” and confetti was flying over us on the bridge. It was definitely atmospheric. The cannon fired with a boom. We were off! Within feet of starting, the pacer, who normally runs holding their sign in the air, was no longer doing so. I was now running this completely on my own! No watch. Nobody to pace me. Fortuitously, we started almost exactly an hour after the first wave. This meant I was able to use the time on the mile markers relatively easily to calculate my general pace. The first two miles of the race are on the the Verrazano Bridge. Mile one is an incline and mile two is a decline down into Brooklyn. The incline was definitely tangible on cool legs but not horrible. It’s actually a helpful way to not make your first mile fast, a notoriously bad thing to do. Spectators are not allowed on the bridge, so heading into Brooklyn and hitting the first crowds was exciting. The first few miles were good fun! I was on pace and feeling great. Brooklyn was out in full-force. Bands played, kids lined the streets eagerly waiting to give high-fives and signs were already fabulous. I knew I would see Graham and my friends at mile 7. I kept an eye out and spotted them. It was my first boost of the day. Onward I went through Brooklyn. One of my favorite spots was a huge black Baptist church with a full-on choir on the stairs jamming out music. I wish I had either captured it on video or would have had a chance to stop and listen. The energy that they put out was magical. Contrasting that area with the very quiet Hasidic neighborhood of Williamsburg that soon followed was distinct. Right around there, I ran into my teammate Dario. It was great to see a familiar face running. It is hard to explain, but the boosts of seeing people you know is an endorphin rush of sorts. It really does nourish the soul. Around mile 12, I saw Graham for the second time and this time he was close enough that I could get a hug. It was the perfect lift just before hitting the half. I felt great and was keeping time and targeting a 4h30m race.
Two more miles through Queens and then I would be at the Queensborough Bridge – another two mile bridge with no spectators for miles 15 and 16. These miles are often tricky because the burden of the distance starts to set in. I had mentally prepared for what many described as the “hardest part of the race.” I made it a point to be introspective. I also did this thing where I would send good vibes to other runners. Or I would think about the people some were memorializing on their shirts.
Manhattan provides a booming welcome after the silence of the bridge. Turning onto First Ave there are crowds of people and a straightway that seems like it goes on forever. I made it through and was in the fourth of five boroughs! Excitement is what I needed because my legs were getting heavier. My feet remembered what the repetitive slamming of nearly 50,000 footfalls felt like. Any marathon provides soreness, subjecting your body to it shortly after a prior one is a perfect way to remind you exactly where your weak spots are. And man was I happy to see pumps of BioFreeze ahead – a gift from the gods for numbing that effectively masks the fact that underneath the cool sensation, you are in fact, in pain. I lathered it on my quads, hamstrings and glutei. The glutei part woke me up a bit!
Seeing my friends and teammates Sarah and Angel came just in time to give me another push through the next series of hills on First Avenue. I gave them each a quick hug and then left, my legs feeling more energetic and my spirt more nourished. Up First Avenue I continued. At the top, just before mile 20 there is the Willis Avenue Bridge. This one just adds insult to injury because it’s at a point where you are basically ready for the race to be over, yet the reality is, this is where the real work begins. It’s also another incline and while gentle, my legs really felt the burn. I turned to my mantras – “I can. I will. I must.” and “I feel strong. This feels good.” (Note: it sort of doesn’t. It doesn’t feel good at all. But the point is tricking the mind into thinking it does.) It was also a time when flipping the mileage becomes helpful. “Only 6 more miles!” “Just two more 5ks!” It really comes down to whatever works.
I knew Graham would be waiting for me between mile 22 and 23. Leaving Harlem and getting onto Fifth Avenue. The final stretch. I got one more hug and he encouraged me telling me “You’re doing this! You’re gonna finish this strong!” I was starting to ache. The miles were getting really heavy on my legs. Distraction became key. The distance between mile markers while not changing, felt like it was getting longer. Deep down, I did know that I was going to finish. I knew I was also (hopefully) going to finish pretty darn close to the time that I had hoped. I knew that 4:30 wasn’t possible. And even though a precise time track escaped me from my watch, and math was getting harder, I knew I was staying close. Quite possibly even slightly faster than Chicago. The tears came, as they always do. While I surmise that some people find my posts are boastful, I promise you that nobody is more surprised than I am each and every time I run a marathon. It is almost as if I am viewing what is happening through some type of virtual reality. I can feel myself there. But one some level, it feels surreal. I have to remind myself – “This is YOU. You ARE doing this. It really is happening.” That feeling is one that is incomparable. That, and looking at all the people around me – young and old, hurting or gliding, everyone there with a common purpose. As the tears were unabashedly streaming down my face, I spotted a bib on the back of the woman in front of me. It said “I’m running in memory of my mom who died in 9/11 and all those who died that day.” Let’s just say that this didn’t help my state.
Knowing that I had just a bit more than 3 miles left, I knew I needed to get back to work in a focused way. I could cry more later if I wanted. But we had a job to do. My timing was perfect because soon after I saw more friends and teammates – Coaches Jen and Kinnier on one side and Bill, Matt and Duncan on the other. That gave me just the pick-me-up that I needed to get the job done. I was in Central Park and ready for my final push. Given that I thought my time was close, I decided to give it my all. I was exhausted but my heart rate felt fine, my breathing was on point and my legs while getting rubbery, had something left in them. I knew if I left anything on that course and came up shy by a really small margin, I would second guess myself forever. So push I did and negative split my last 3.2 miles (runner’s speak for going faster than the previous miles). The final stretch felt interminable. 800 m to go. I can’t see the finish line yet. 400 m to go. I can see it now. But it feels so far away, like farther away than world peace. Keep pushing! 200 m. Ok, Joe. Leave it all out on this course. Do. Not. Leave. A single thing here. I crossed the line at 4:42:11. Given the challenge of the course, my lack of tech and a marathon three weeks before, while it was 3 minutes slower than Chicago, it was still an accomplishment. I crossed that line and the tears returned. I wasn’t the only one. There is something indescribably special about looking around you and knowing that while you did something as an individual, you shared it with others.
While I have said it before, my best summation of running a marathon is that it is quite simply a “triumph of the human spirit.” Each race is unique for a multitude of reasons – course, weather, how you feel. Each race has its challenges. Whether you’re doing it for the first time or the fortieth time, there is a respect for the distance because it is a distance. There are so many times when the mind tries to get you to stop, even pleads you to stop. Yet training provides the fortitude to silence that voice. Because at the end, when you cross that line, your reward is feeling limitless. If marathons have taught me anything, it is, I can do anything if I put my mind to it.