The New York City Marathon is an iconic road race that sits high on the bucket list of every distance runner. The event is far more than just a foot race. It’s a celebration of running, the resilience of the New York City, and collective goodwill.
On November 3rd, 2013 the normally frenzied streets of New York City were emptied and opened up to a crowd of more than 50,000 crazed endurance athletes from all over the world. Over two million spectators came out to support and encourage the marathoners along the 26.2 mile course from Staten Island to Central Park. It was the enthusiasm and positive energy provided by these compassionate strangers that carried me to the finish line.
I decided at some point in the spring of 2012 that I wanted to run a marathon. The New York City Marathon has always been a special race for me, so I decided to enter the lottery and let fate decide. A few months later, I found out that I was a lottery winner and marathon training began.
On November 2, after months of training and suffering through a week of taper tantrums, it was time to head to the Big Apple and take on the marathon. My family decided to make the trip a race vacation. We took a 6-hour bus ride into the city. The bus was clean and comfortable, the seat room allowed for me to stretch my legs, and there was a bathroom and free snacks.
We arrived in New York City the day before the race. After checking in to our hotel, we headed to the Marathon Expo to pick up my race bib and race swag. We enjoyed an early pasta dinner in Times Square and called it a night.
The Night Before
I set out my race clothes and visualized everything I would do the following morning in preparation for the start of the race. I had already purchased some “throw away” clothes for the long wait at Fort Wadsworth. Ultimately, the discarded clothes would be given to those who are in need. And, having no baggage would allow me an early exit to the Family Reunion area after the race.
I chose to wear a hat, cotton gloves, sweatpants, zippered sweatshirt, and bulky winter jacket over my running clothes. I pinned my number on my shirt and added a blue and yellow ribbon to pay tribute to Boston. I also packed a travel-size container of Vasoline, a trash bag (for sitting on the wet grass), a water bottle, and a pouch of Gatorade Prime in the clear plastic bag given to me at the Expo.
I set my alarm and spent an hour or two tossing and turning before falling asleep around 10:30. I was thankful for the time change that occurred that night. Hopefully, my 4:30 alarm would feel like a 5:30 wake up.
Transportation to Start
I awoke at 4:30 and dressed by the light of the open bathroom door. I knew that I was about to embark on an adventure that would leave me a changed man, but the thought was too overwhelming to contemplate. I was focused on one thing: finding my way to the New York Public Library on 42nd and 6th to board the bus to Ft. Wadsworth.
I dressed in my throw away clothes and said good-bye to my sleepy, but supportive family. We planned to see each other at mile 17 on First Avenue around 11:45 later that morning. Failing that, we would always see each other after the race in the S section of the Family Reunion area. After some motivating words, hugs and fist bumps I was ready.
There were lots of other runners walking the dark sidewalks outside our hotel. It was an easy 1-mile walk down to the New York Public Library. I made some small talk with a few other nervous runners and followed the crowd.
It was at the bus line that the enormity and scope of this event really hit me for the first time. There were dozens of buses and hundreds of volunteers and police personnel directing runners. Our race numbers were repeatedly checked and we quickly filled the seats. Seconds after sitting down the bus rumbled off towards Staten Island.
I met a nice woman from Florida who was running in her 16th marathon. She had been one of the runners stopped at the 25.5 mile mark of the Boston Marathon. She said more than once that it had been such a beautiful day for a race. The 2013 NYC Marathon was a chance for the world to move forward from the wreckage of Hurricane Sandy and the tragedy in Boston.
The buses arrived outside Fort Wadsworth just before 6:00 am. All our bags were checked and every runner was patted down and wanded by NYPD officers. The entire process was very efficient and I found myself in the open space of the staging area a few short minutes after leaving the bus. Volunteers directed me towards my assigned location based on the color of my start wave.
As I passed the press area I saw at least twenty television and media vehicles with satellite dishes. There were multiple helicopters in the air overhead. Huge video screens displayed messages and information for runners. A bluegrass band was playing on stage as I passed through the common area. Mounted speakers placed throughout the park repeated information over and over in many different languages.
There were hundreds of porta potties available in the staging area. Poland Spring water, Dunkin Donuts coffee, bagels, and PowerBars were available. Many runners were sitting against the chain link fencing that bordered the staging area. Many sought refuge from the cold winds by huddling together between the dozens of UPS vans or behind the porta potties.
Time slowly passed until the first wave was called to the starting corral. Once in the corrals, the waiting started again. Runners chatted about race strategy, the course, and the weather. There were plenty of porta potties in the corral. I was able to get in and out twice with zero wait time. Amazing.
We were called forward as the wheelchair racers started their race. My sweat pants and winter jacket went in the goodwill bin and I headed to the starting line with my hat and gloves. The elite women went next. We heard the announcements and the crowds cheering, but couldn’t see what was happening.
Runners tossed their clothes towards the sides of the starting line area like exploding popcorn kernels. Some of the clothes made it into the trees; some were dropped for the rest of us to hurdle as we passed. More announcements were made, the elite men were introduced, and then we all went silent as the national anthem played.
Goose bumps and shivers started at this point. Not from the cold, but from the sound of children singing our national anthem and thoughts of Boston, Hurricane Sandy, and all the threats that face our nation. It was with a mixture of national pride and nervous anticipation that my first marathon race began. The howitzers boomed and the pack surged forward.
Miles 1 – 10
Mile 1 was an uphill climb in a massive crowd of runners. It was a slow uphill start at 09:07 pace. Helicopters buzzed off to the left and right of the empty bridge and emergency vehicles sped down the unused right hand lane to clear a path up ahead. I admired the view of the city and marveled at the experience.
Mile 2 and 3 went by very quickly. Mile 2 was my fastest at 6:17. (crazy…) It was mostly downhill and the pack thinned enough to allow for some movement. It was also during mile 2 that runners began to see the first spectators.
Running through Brooklyn was a wonderful experience. The crowds were loud and supportive, my legs were fresh and full of energy, and my spirit soared as I just tried to take it all in. Each neighborhood had its own unique character and the cheering crowds made every runner feel like a rock star.
At this point, the miles were flying by and race was too easy. I ditched my zippered sweatshirt at mile 3, my gloves at mile 4, and my hat at mile 6. I hit mile 10 at 1:13:42 averaging about 7:22 per mile and feeling very strong.
Miles 10 – 20
From Brooklyn runners continue into Queens. The crowds thin out a bit from miles 13 to 16 and the race distance starts to sink in. Runners face a couple of uphill climbs over bridges during this quiet stretch. The wind became a real nuisance as constant gusts of up to 20 miles per hour buffeted runners.
I turned the corner off the Queensboro bridge and increased my pace as the crowds roared. I searched for my wife and children in the crowd. I ran down the center of the road hoping that they would see me. I heard my wife’s voice above the crowd and made eye contact for the briefest of moments. It was enough to keep me going.
Miles 21 – 26.2
Early in the race, I had allowed myself to think about crossing the line in under 3:15:00 and qualifying for Boston. As I began mile 20 I was still on track and the window was open just a crack. A couple of quick miles near the end of the race and it would be mine.
Just after entering the Bronx at mile 20 I started feeling a twinge in the quadriceps of my right leg. It was a tickle that turned into a cramp and then became a full-blown dagger of pain that shot through my body with every other step in the space of 5 minutes. Uh-oh.
After entering Manhattan at mile 21 the race became a series of shorter goals. The miles were too long to contemplate, and I began chopping the distance up into smaller chunks. Make it to the water stop. Make it to the end of the block. Just make it. Don’t stop, or you won’t be able to start again. Pretend the pain isn’t there. Enjoy the moment. Suffering is optional. I tried everything I could think of.
By mile 24 my right calf joined in as well. My pace had dropped to 9:14. I was hurting. The crowds were roaring with energy and encouragement, but I was in a little world inside my head fighting a private battle. As crazy as it sounds, I had been looking forward to this moment. Even as I was struggling, I was finding satisfaction in the answers to the questions that had led me to run a marathon in the first place. I was determined to be a hero.
Mile 25 was my slowest in the race: 9:34. It was more of a shuffle really. I was now using my family members to keep me going. Do it for Tina. Set an example for Peyton and Abigail. Make your parents proud and your brothers envious. Whatever it takes to keep moving forward. Ignore the headache that feels like it’s piercing your right temple and threatening your vision, and do what you have already done almost 35,000 times today… take another step forward.
Mile 26 looped runners around the end of the Central Park and back into the park on the opposite side. I remember the crowds were thick and the runners were passing me in droves. I saw a sign that read 800 meters to the finish. Two laps around the track. I used to do this in just over 2 minutes back in high school. Easy. Almost there….
The last .2 of a mile seemed to move in slow motion. I was aware of what was happening, but I was processing things at a slower pace than normal. I registered that a man to my right had fallen down in the final stretch and was struggling to get up. But, as he tried to stand, his legs failed him. His body could no longer carry out the commands his brain was sending. He gave up on standing and started to crawl towards the line. Two runners picked him up by the arms and carried him towards the finish. All of this happened in a window of 10 seconds or less, but it seemed much longer to me.
I crossed the finish line moments later in a time of 3:26:15. I was forcefully directed to keep moving down the chute with my recovery bag and a heat blanket. Keep moving? The heroic physical struggle, my mentally exhausted state, and the emotional triumph of finishing my first marathon were almost too much. Only one thought came to me. What a glorious world we live in. I am so thankful to be alive, and to experience this day.
The Forced March
After finishing the race, runners walked towards luggage pickup or the exit. I limped and stumbled forward for what seemed like a very long time. I knew I needed to find the pink sign that matched my pink bracelet and then I could find my family under the letter S. That’s about all I could handle. I was intermittently aware of the pain I felt shooting up and down my legs, but I also knew this walk was good for me.
Every volunteer said we were almost there, until finally one of them was telling the truth. I exited the corral only to find that the line had turned back on itself. That’s okay. I see letters up ahead and that means family.
A volunteer placed a bright orange marathon poncho around my shoulders. It was such a compassionate gesture that I almost broke down. She even closed the front of the poncho for me and I couldn’t have been more thankful. Someone was taking care of me and understanding how difficult that race had been. Race volunteers are so important to runners.
I continued to move forward in a halting limp that my wife said resembled the gait of all the other orange zombies making their way into the Family Reunion area. We all had the same vacant stare and exhausted look on our faces. We were battle-tested and had survived. I spotted my daughter first and then my wife. My son was busy congratulating as many runners as possible and counting the smiles he got in return.
I hugged each of them and said very little. “I’m okay. We just need to walk back to the hotel room. I’m so happy to see you guys.” The depth of my emotions surprised me and kept me from saying much more than that for the next hour.
As we walked a mile or so back to the hotel, I was congratulated by many people and once again impressed by the kindness of strangers. Empathy and compassion are natural among runners who suffer the miles together.