Tuesday, November 16, 2010

NYC Marathon Race Report

We had unfortunately been assigned to the "Green" course.... which meant that we didn't get to run across the top of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge... you know, the famous picture of the masses of runners streaming across it? Well, we were on the lower deck. Bummer.

So we started the race with the biggest hill of the race -- up up up to the apex of the big bridge. I remembered sailing under it on the QE2 years ago, so I knew how high it must have been. As it was just past the start, things were pretty crowded so we just kept moving. The wind at that altitude was very strong, too -- making the bridge the single coldest point of the race. We may have actually been better off on the lower deck... then again, we didn't have the sunshine.

But soon we were on the downhill slope, and saying farewell to Staten Island... how nice to get one borough completed so quickly! On into Brooklyn, where we ran on an expressway for a while, before winding our way up to 4th avenue. The whole way we were greeted by cheering crowds, but 4th avenue was special. Tons of kids -- which led to lots and lots of high-fiving -- and plenty of music and dancing. By this point I was warm and loose and feeling surprisingly good for not having run a step in 4 weeks.

At one point we met up with a woman called Lizzie, visiting from Ireland to run her tenth NYC Marathon. We chatted with her for a while and she asked if she could run with us because she wanted to finish in 5:30. Of course, we had no idea what we were planning on -- and apparently at that point were well ahead of a 5:30 pace -- so we went our separate ways. On we went, at one point passing a band that looked suspiciously like Blues Traveler (who were also playing a show that night). But who knows?

I will say that, while there were lots of bands along the route, there weren't nearly as many as along a Rock 'n' Roll marathon route. Then again, there were exponentially more fans, so what's more important?

Finally, at mile 8 all three courses blended and we ran as one. Again, felt really good here. We were passing people and being passed, but for the most part moving slightly faster than the people around us. We turned on Lafayette and passed several houses with parties and barbecues in their front yards. It was clear that people treated the race as a huge rolling block party -- as an event to be celebrated rather than an annoyance to be tolerated. Well, until we turned into Williamsburg, a traditionally Hasidic neighborhood that has requested that the race be routed around them. So it was pretty quiet through there -- though we did see a couple of young mothers with their children sitting on stoops, smiling shyly.

Then a couple more turns and we were headed to the Pulaski bridge, crossing into Queens. We had spent much of Brooklyn running near the Blues Brothers, and stopped to snap photos of them (and they of us) as we crossed the bridge with the gorgeous Manhattan skyline in the distance. We crossed the halfway point in 2:36, a completely acceptable half marathon time for us, and I still felt remarkably good.

To be frank, I don't have a lot of memories of Queens, good or bad. I seem to recall passing streets lined with shops (rather than residential streets), but perhaps that was actually in Brooklyn. Who knows?!? I also remember sighting "TNT Elvis" -- a guy who raises money for Team in Training and runs in an Elvis jumpsuit. (Duh, right? What else would TNT Elvis wear?) The nicest touch is that the sequins are all purple and green. Sweet. We just kept running and running, and suddenly headed onto the Queensboro bridge. Three boroughs down, two to go.

Queensboro was a steep hill up as well -- we weren't the only ones who decided just to walk the whole way up. (It's always a bit amusing to pass people "running" while you're walking up a hill.) I laughed because it reminded me of scenes from Grand Theft Auto 3 Liberty City. Except the police weren't chasing us. Which is a good thing, because it would have been difficult to elude them.

We came down the super-steep bridge ramp and hit Manhattan for the first time. A roar came off the crowd, someone shouted "Welcome to Manhattan! Three down, two to go!" and we all whooped. One woman -- a short but broad woman built a tiny bit like Sponge Bob -- who we had been with since Brooklyn (seriously), with "Moskie" or something like that on her shirt, snarled, "Yeah, but it's not First Avenue yet."

Okay, another hundred feet or so and we turned on to First Avenue. (Happy now, Moskie?)

I had always been told that running down First Avenue in Manhattan is a huge thrill -- that the screaming crowds are 6 or 7 deep for blocks and blocks. But I figured that while that might be true for the frontrunners -- or even the medium runners -- that it wouldn't be true for us slow but steady types. Boy, was I wrong. The wall of sound that came off the people was amazing -- people packed up against the barricades on both sides of the street, just shouting and cheering. It completely perked me up.
That said, First Avenue stretched on and on and on...but at least it felt mainly like a long, slow downhill slide to the Bronx.

Everyone had always said that the Bronx was the hardest part -- not because of the terrain, or the roads, but just the placement of the course. You leave Manhattan and cross into the Bronx just before mile 20, and cross back into Manhattan just before mile 21. Mile 20 is, for many runners, The Wall. The NYRR had done well -- placing a gel stop around mile 17 or 18 so that everyone got some fuel to help them "smash the wall". And the Bronx had done extremely well, calling themselves "the Boogie-Down Bronx" and having what seemed like more music and dancers along their mile than along any other spot. I barely remember the Bronx -- other than seeing the dancers, doing the hand motions to some song as we headed out of the borough, and of course seeing my new favorite race sign:


We crossed back into Manhattan in Harlem -- and were greeted by gospel choirs, lots of friendly faces, and little old ladies handing out paper towels. I think it all caught up to me right around this point. I nearly tripped over one of those cord-cover things... which made me realize I wasn't picking up my feet at all. That said, I knew that with under 5 miles to go, I would finish, so it wasn't as if I was worried... I was just tired.

A few turns to skirt a park and we started heading up 5th Avenue. My fatigue had really hit me at this point. And the crowds were certainly thinner as we approached the park. And did I mention that it's essentially one long hill? I had slowly reduced our pace from our standard 5:1s to 3:1s and now 2:1s... but by the time we hit the last few blocks before the park I was pretty much just walking. Again, I was tired, but I knew I would finish, so I was okay. Not sure if that makes sense... but it's how I felt.

We turned in to Central Park near the reservoir and ran on the downhills and walked on the uphills. Wil was awesome, as usual, and kept me moving -- and smiling -- the whole way. We passed the 40 km marker... and shortly thereafter the 25 mile marker, and felt buoyed by them. Not buoyed enough to run, mind you, but happy.

We left the park for the little stretch along Central Park South and headed past some real troopers -- I mean, those people just have been there for hours. We also were joined by a man wearing a Spider-Man outfit at this point, oddly enough.

Then the turn at Columbus Circle and back into the park. Usually at the end of a race you see the "13 mile" or the "26 mile" mark and, no matter how bad you feel, you can pick yourself up for a "sprint" to the finish. I always think back to the guy at my first triathlon -- a sub-elite so much faster than me that he was returning from his bike leg before I even got on my bike... and was packing up when I was going out for my run. He looked at me and said, "Leave nothing in the tank" -- which Wil and I always say to each other as we hold hands and run across the line.

In New York, however, the 26 mile marker came on a curve -- and the finish line was invisible. While I tried to do the math in my exhausted head ("Point two of a mile... how long is that?!?") I couldn't make myself run. I think the tank was pretty much empty. But a few more steps and we could see the finish line -- three chutes wide. I grabbed Wil's hand and ran as fast as my tired legs could carry me. (Not very fast.)

I remember bursting into tears -- happy tears, but tears -- and hugging and kissing Wil. I also remember the volunteer with the medals beckoning us to come to him, and handing Wil a medal to place on me, and then handing me one to place on Wil. Very sweet. (This makes me tear up even now...)

Then I remember space blankets -- glorious mylar heat sheets -- which we all tied on in a variety of styles. Then we were handed bags of food -- none of this picking slowly through boxes of bagels. Nope -- here's your bag of food, now move along. Perfectly efficient!

We had to trudge a very long way, and people were moving very very slowly. It was also getting cold very quickly.

See, between the time change and the late start, one of my goals (besides just finishing) was to finish before sunset. We managed that, but it took us so long to get out of the park, that by the time we emerged into the street it was dark and very cold.

One really nice post-race story -- Wil overheard a man ask a woman if he could borrow her phone. She hesitated and then said no... but then felt bad and explained that it's because she was from New Zealand, and it was one thing to pay international roaming to call her mom, but another to give the phone to a stranger. Wil volunteered his phone, and the man made a quick call. We asked him how his race went, and he said he'd been a bit slower than he had hoped -- and that he had gotten separated from his girlfriend, but that they had made arrangements to meet and he was just confirming.

We told him congratulations, and he said something about we didn't know how appropriate that was. We hesitated -- was he a heart-transplant-recipient? An amputee? A cancer survivor? He saw our hesitation and said, "Oh, well, I was hoping to finish with my girlfriend and propose at the finish line." Awww. We wished him all the best, and went our separate ways.

On the way back to the apartment we passed some young Brits, who said, "How are you walking normally?!?" Ah, practice. Just practice.

We went home, had showers, and headed out for our well-earned massages. Fantastic day!

When I think about the race I'll always remember the sound of the crowd, the amazing numbers of cups at the giant water stops, running in a huge group, and the feeling that you were in a city that LOVED the marathon. I don't expect to run the race again-- heck, I don't expect to run another full marathon! -- but I am thrilled to have run what has to be one of the world's greatest races.

For posterity (or as least as long as the link is live...), here's the course map of the 2011 NYC Marathon.

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