I ran the New York City Marathon on Sunday, November 1, 2015. Running a marathon was never on my “To Do” list. This changed however, on May 29, 2013 when I received an email from New York Road Runners informing me that I won a lottery spot in that year’s ING New York City Marathon. (I suppose entering the lottery indicates that, on some level, I did want to run). I’ll never forget the adrenaline rush I felt while sitting at my desk reading this incredible email. With a pounding heart full of excitement and nerves I shot up from my chair and screamed across the office “I got into the marathon!” All of a sudden, in this one moment, a great expanse opened in my mind; something that always seemed impossible, something that “other people” accomplished was offered to me, as if luring me down a path that I had previously been too afraid to traverse on my own inclination. I accepted this challenge and gift with trepidation and circumspection.
I did not run the marathon in 2013 due to a cascade of injures incurred from racing the Brooklyn Half Marathon that year and not recovering properly. For me, running has taught me about patience and balance, two virtues (if balance can be a virtue) that life continues offering me opportunities to practice. I spent the next year focused on learning about my body, my imbalances, weaknesses and vulnerabilities, as well as my strengths, in order to understand how to protect myself from injury. In 2014 I accomplished my “9 +1” (run nine races and volunteer at one) through New York Road Runners, thereby securing a guaranteed place in the 2015 TCS New York City Marathon. I am grateful that I had to earn my spot. Training diligently and showing up for races, short distances and long, sometimes in the freezing cold and others in oppressive heat, is a form of hazing; to earn a place in the marathon, you must really, really want it. As a result of this hunger, I have become a smarter and stronger runner.
The beauty of running, like that contemplated and discovered in a beloved painting, book or performance, exists in the heart, mind and body of each runner, providing an intimate experience that is transformative in many subtle and nuanced ways. Like dreaming of a familiar house where one finds undiscovered rooms, training for and running a marathon has opened a door to new territory in which anything seems possible.
My training for the 2015 TCS New York City marathon began on June 15, seven weeks after my wedding. My primary goal was to remain injury-free which, for me, is no easy feat. I trained carefully, cautiously and very consistently, following the New York Road Runners 20 Week Virtual Training program. In addition to running, I maintained a regular resistance-training regime and also scheduled regular massage therapy appointments. My training became a second full-time job and I loved every second of it. I have much nostalgia for my Saturday long runs, all of which I ran at absurdly early hours so as to avoid the oppressive heat and humidity that plagued New York for several scattered weeks this summer. The early hour also meant fewer people on the roads and paths. These golden morning hours, spent on my own, my breathe the only sound on which to focus, are gifts to myself that I hold very close to my heart.
The last few weeks before the marathon came up very quickly and, lo and behold, I was not injured. All of a sudden the race was around the corner. I vacillated from excitement to nervousness. According to my training program, I was ready and I just had to relax and take care of myself. During this time I became acutely aware of every uneven sidewalk and damaged curb. I was terrified of twisting my ankle on the streets of New York or stubbing my toes in my apartment. I made it this far and did not want anything to preclude my participation. To my own surprise, as the days to the marathon narrowed, I became calm and relaxed, all the while in complete disbelief that I would soon actually be running a marathon. It still seemed like a distant goal. No doubt this state was achieved with the help of the devoted and ever-encouraging New York Road Runners coaches who I emailed incessantly those last few weeks and days. I am forever thankful for their kind attention and expert advice. It is through these exchanges, as well as the tips and notes in the Virtual Training program and the Virtual Training Facebook page, that I developed a race strategy with tiered goals: to finish; to run negative splits (running the second half of the race faster than the first); to hold back coming off the Queensboro Bridge; to finish within my prescribed pace range; to finish below my prescribed pace range. I had many goals but I was pretty confident that they were in the correct order.
I spent the day before the marathon at home relaxing. My parents arrived in the afternoon from Washington, DC and checked into The New York Athletic Club where my husband, Rick and I met them. There we made a spectating and post-race meet-up plan and then we said our goodbyes. Rick and I headed off to my obligatory, cherished, and much anticipated ‘night before the marathon’ pizza dinner. For nineteen weeks I ate pizza every Friday night before my long runs so this night would be no different; our date was clockwork: arugula salad, large plain pizza and two cokes, please! I discovered pizza as a pre-race meal by mistake, eating it before a shorter race and then feeling like a million bucks during the race. I’ve stuck with it ever since. Our earlier than “Early-Bird Special” meal ended around 6pm at which point, with equal part excitement and disbelief I said goodbye to my husband. We agreed that we would sleep separately that night – I needed to be alone because I had absolutely no idea what the night had in store for me. Would I sleep, would I be up pacing, would I be sick with nerves? I did not yet know for sure, but runner consensus informed me that I would be too excited to sleep.
I read somewhere that feeling nerves and butterflies in the stomach before a race is due to the inherent unpredictability of the race experience. No matter how much training and preparation undertaken, anything can happen. Appreciating and respecting this thrill, for me, was the Pandora’s Box of my race experience; I trained, I prepared, I was about to show up and execute a plan but beyond that, everything was out of my control. It would be an experience to experience. When I arrived home after my pizza dinner I calmed my butterflies by attending to all the things “I can control” such as, laying out my race outfit, charging my GPS watch, filling my race belt with all necessary items: fuel, ID, Metrocard, debit card, tissues, $20, phone and apartment keys. Next I chose two of the four pace bands I picked up as a second thought at the Marathon Expo and put them next to my GPS watch. The first pace band selected was the best time within my predicted finish time. The second was ten minutes faster. Again, I had no idea what tomorrow would bring, or how I would feel or respond to the challenges of the day, so I wanted to provide myself with some mental legroom. Though this was my first marathon, I’ve lived long enough to know that success demands flexibility.
My final race day preparation was to decorate my race singlet with my name boldly spelled out in red-on-yellow duct tape so complete strangers could cheer me on, screaming “ANN” along all 26.2 miles of the course. I’m an introvert so the idea did not initially appeal to me but several marathon veterans told me that I must do this, so I did. Little did I know at the time how intimate and powerfully motivating a personalized cheer from a stranger is.
I stood in my living room gazing down at my various race day piles trying to think of anything missing. I wracked my brain, visualized head to toe what I needed, double-checked my supplies and then called my husband to say goodnight and revel together in the joy of our accomplishment. I was ready. It was 9:30pm and to my surprise and amazement I fell asleep in a cocoon of happiness, not stirring once until the first of three alarms sounded at 4:55am.
G etting to Staten Island is an odyssey in and of itself. Suffice it to say, I was not nervous until I realized that we would arrive at the start village after 9:30am. With a 10:15am start time, arriving after 9:30am felt like cutting it close. I was on an official Marathon Transportation bus with my friend and running buddy Jim, and his brother Tom, so we did not have to worry but I was anxious nonetheless. I wanted to have enough time to warm up, use the loos, and just sit to quiet my heart and mind for a few moments. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise but we did not have time to spare. I acknowledged that this was part of the experience and just hoped that my plan of drinking a large amount of water all week and not much that morning would work, that my stomach would be ok, and that my hip would not ache as it had on one of my recent long runs, forcing me to cut it short and hobble around for two days. Here I was, at the starting line. It was time to let go.
Jim, Tom and I were The Three Amigos and agreed to start together in Wave 2, Orange, Corral A. Tom is a seasoned marathoner – New York would be his 41st. Jim is also an experienced marathoner – New York would be his 5th. I was definitely the rookie in the family however, both Jim and Tom had nagging injuries, Tom’s more serious – he threw out his back after running an ultra marathon in June and essentially hadn’t run any substantial distance since. Jim was suffering from a knee injury that was unpredictable and easily aggravated. The goal for all of us was to start nice and easy. Because we were in Corral A we were yards from the start line, crossing at 10:16am, one minute past the gun. Waiting for the gun was an emotional experience – so much preparation, so much dedication, so much energy, charisma, heart and soul all around us. I teared up for a moment, feeling deep joy, satisfaction and gratitude. I knew that I was doing something that would change me forever.
I was told that adrenaline would obscure the physical sensations of the arduous and steep ascent up the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Sadly, I felt every damn step, worrying that it was because I didn’t get to warm up, worrying that I’d be in big trouble if this is how I felt at the start. Then I remembered that I feel absolutely terrible the first two to three miles of EVERY run. Panic averted. We were right on pace (slow) and people were passing us left and right, including someone who caught my eye at the start – a young, handsome fella wearing all black who had rather thick and floppy, almost feminine hair. I remember being annoyed by him – he looked a little too self-assured, particularly contrasted with Tom who was focused and attentive but displaying no signs of over-confidence when, given his experience, certainly could. As we descended the bridge, entering Brooklyn my watch vibrated indicating mile 1. INCORRECT. We passed the mile mark almost exactly at the crest of the bridge. Right there, I realized that my GPS watch was inaccurate. I mentally switched gears and decided that instead of doing math for the next four hours I would now run the marathon based on my internal “rate of perceived effort”, keeping an eye on my gross time and comparing it to the two pace bands that I very fortunately decided to wear, thank you Virtual Training Facebook page! In hindsight this watch malfunction was a huge blessing in a disguise because it allowed me to enjoy the race rather than be a slave to numbers on my watch.
B y Mile 3 I was feeling pretty good and starting to settle into a nice and easy pace. Jim and Tom were also doing well. These early miles felt like a regular long run but with thousands of people joining me. By mile 6 I could feel that Tom, Jim and I were no longer in synch. Tom pulled up to me and said, “Ann, go ahead. If you want to have the race you’ve trained for, you’ve got to leave us now”. I appreciated Tom’s understanding and wished him well. It was not until a few days later that I realize I never turned around to wish Jim a safe and fun race. I will never make that mistake again. As I split from the boys, sensing the distance growing between us, I again had to mentally recalibrate. I took a few seconds to remember my goals and to focus on NOT running as fast as I wanted to at that point. This was just the beginning.
I live in Park Slope so running down 4th Avenue felt as close as possible to what I imagine celebrity to be. I knew exactly where to look for my friends and saw every single one, plus other surprises along the route of screaming masses. The energy and spirit was unbelievable and I know from pictures that I had a smile plastered across my face the entire race. Turning onto Lafayette Avenue was a thrill, as I knew in a few short blocks I would see Rick and one of my two sister’s, Alison, as well as additional friends. I gave and received many hugs and high-fives during this part of the race.
Mile 10 along Bedford Avenue was a welcome respite from the incredible stimulation of the previous miles. I found the quietness of this particular stretch of the race to be calming and centering; I checked in with my body to make sure I was maintaining an appropriate speed that would allow me to increase my pace later on. I glanced at my gross time, compared it to my pace bands and noted that I was several minutes slower than I hoped. No worries, I thought, I still had not reached the 13.1 mark.
After cruising through the mile 12 fluid station, guzzling water on the run I heard my name called from the right hand side of the street. I looked over to see my good friend and kindred spirit, Phil jogging along the curb. Though it was a warm day he was dressed for autumn, donning the colors of an acorn, hat included. Phil is a friend from college who I see periodically throughout life whenever our paths cross. I had seen Phil the week before and was under the impression that he was on a flight to Oregon but there he was, saddling up to me while laughing and cheering me on. This unexpected sighting during a relatively quiet yet momentous part of the race, just before the halfway mark, was a wonderful boost that kept me laughing for several more miles.
N ext up were friends waiting for me just past 20K. I felt good. I was loose, energetic and still holding back. I was overjoyed to see my friends and hugged each and every one of them, peeling off with a smile as big as the moon. I reached the Pulaski Bridge, crossing the 13.1 mark a full 7 minutes slower than I hoped. I was quite surprised by the slower time because it felt like I was exerting more effort than this time indicated. It was hot out and obviously I was feeling it, as well as the uphill climb since mile 8 at Lafayette Avenue. Despite the time discrepancy however, and because my top goal was to run negative splits, I knew that I had a lot left in me and that I could make up some of this time in the second half of the race. I returned to the vision of seeing my husband and all of my friends along the course thus far. The energy evoked from the thought was an indescribable jolt that armed me with the concentration necessary to muster strength and focus to tackle the Queensboro Bridge, which I could see looming ahead in the near distance. There it was, the “Mothership” that everyone talks about when they talk about the New York City Marathon. Similar to my plan for the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, my goal for the Queensboro Bridge was to ease off my pace slightly so that when I descended the bridge, making the turn onto 1st Avenue, the adrenaline from the roaring crowds would not take me to an unsustainably fast pace that would ultimately ruin the last six miles of my race. As this was my first marathon I did not have experience with “ruining” my race but I knew I didn’t want it to happen to me so I crept up the Queensboro Bridge. As I reached the crest I was startled by the reality that a fellow runner required medical assistance. I was similarly touched by two runners running up the bridge in the opposite direction in order to lead the arriving assistance to the afflicted runner. It was a moment that illustrated solidarity, kind-heartedness, and sacrifice that binds runners to each other. We were, all 50,000 of us, in this together.
A s I came off the Queensboro Bridge and turned onto 1st Avenue I did not experience the “wall of sound” from thousands of screaming bystanders lining the street, which so many runners describe. Perhaps it was because I found myself in a pocket by myself with hundreds of runners ahead of me as far as the eye could see and hundreds of runners behind me, and only a few people around me. All I heard was quiet and stillness. All I saw were countless faces staring, mouths agape. I’m not sure if it was shock or awe, or their own tiredness, and I did not know it at the time, but this part of the course foreshadowed the apocalyptic scene I would soon find.
1st Avenue is a nice decline, which meant that, unfortunately I could see just how far I had to run to get to the Willis Avenue Bridge leading to the Bronx. There was a sea of bobbing heads ahead of me and the street was wet and full of discarded and trampled cups. Manhattan was an entirely different beast. I immediately saw two friends welcoming me to Manhattan. The first street sign I noticed was 64th Street, which is just past mile 16. Rick and Alison were waiting for me at 119th Street, just beyond mile 19. I knew that to get there in good spirits I could not look at the street numbers until then, otherwise it would be an agonizing slog up 1st Avenue and it did not need to be. I still felt great and so I began focusing on the crowd, enjoying the cheers and giving back some love that was given to me – smiles, nods, and thank yous! Mile 19 couldn’t come soon enough and I greeted Rick and Alison, water cup in hand, with a huge smile. I did not stop to give hugs for fear that I would not start running again. As I zipped past I turned around and yelled “See you at the finish line”. I couldn’t believe my own ears. There was still a long way to go but I knew I was going to cross that finish line no matter what.
At this point in the race the street was a challenging obstacle course filled with flagging runners, banana peels, discarded cups, sponges, and sticky gel packs that made me feel as though with each step I was lifting my feet from quick sand. The route was carnage and I realized that my focus must turn to dealing with these obstacles – not slipping, tripping or accidentally tripping other runners. I carefully navigated the rest of 1st Avenue while simultaneously beginning to increase my pace.
W hen I reached the Willis Avenue Bridge I was excited because I could feel the finish line getting closer, however this excitement was tempered by my first pangs of fatigue. I’ve read many elite marathoners state that a marathon begins at mile 20 and it was at the Willis Avenue Bridge that I really began to understand this phenomenon. I also read that to handle the challenges of the last 6 miles it is helpful to repeat a personal mantra. All during training I tried to find a phrase that resonated for me but could not think of anything that didn’t feel hokey or contrived. All of a sudden as I climbed the Willis Avenue Bridge, angling around runners while feeling slightly dizzy from the striated pavement of the bridge, one sentence popped into my head; my mantra arrived out of thin air: “this is what you trained for”. Pushing through the tiredness, not succumbing to the fatigue all around me, and continuing to increase my pace was what all those hours of training runs, push ups, sits up, strides and squats were for. It was indeed in the Bronx where my marathon began. Once again I redoubled my focus and concentrated on getting to each next mile marker.
The course in the Bronx is wide with many turns. As I rounded one corner I came upon that “wall of sound” that had eluded me on 1st Avenue, however this wall of sound was not one of screaming spectators but rather that of a female singer belting out the words “…it’s in your heeeeaaaad, in your heeeeeaaaaad, zooooombie, zooooombie, zooooombiiiiiieeeee”. I laughed instantly, saying out loud to myself “yes, it IS In my head”, pumping my fist in gratitude. I couldn’t help but notice the passion and urgency in the singer’s voice, mirroring that of every runner out there giving their own heart and soul to the race for thousands of reasons. Her song spoke as a call to arms. A call to “dig deep” as they say and find that reserve tank to push me through to the finish line. I am sure I will never meet the woman on that stage but her conviction and dedication to the song, and to the spirit of the day, was incredibly motivating.
MANHATTAN – THE FINISH
G etting to mile 21 was a huge victory: fewer than six miles to go, no more f#&*ing bridges, and of course, the finish line. What stood between me and the finish line, however was the sleeper hill that is 5th Avenue between Marcus Garvey Park and 90th street at which point the course moves into Central Park. I heard that this stretch along 5th Avenue was tough but I had no idea just how tough until I ran it. This was by far, the most challenging part of the race for me– mile 22 – mile 24. Still increasing my pace, I decided that the best way to deal with the two-mile incline was to just go for it knowing that I would be able to catch my breadth along the ¾ mile stretch in Central Park behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art that is totally flat. Get to 90th street without looking at the street numbers was the goal. I found myself at the 23-mile mark fluid station with a GU gel in one hand and water in the other. All during the race I was careful to consume my gels before reaching the fluid station so I would always have a free hand. The crowds along 5th Avenue, combined with the mass of runners, kept me from timing this one correctly. I certainly did not want to choke on my GU and I was having a hard time ingesting it anyway. I planned to take this last fuel a mile earlier but couldn’t stomach it and knew that if I wanted to finish strong I could not delay it any longer. It was at this point, with both hands full that the thought of stopping crossed my mind. I began to slow down but for whatever reason, perhaps it was my mantra, I didn’t let myself, knowing that if I stopped then, that that was it, I would lose my race and I would become a hobbler like all the hobblers around me. I did not want to be a hobbler so I ate my GU, sipped as much water as I could and sped up. As I wiped the water from my face I looked ahead of me and to my delight and surprise saw that floppy-haired guy who I noticed at the starting line and who sped off in a rush ahead of everyone. I could not believe that I was catching up to someone who dusted us at the start. Seeing his hair flying around was proof that everything suggested and promised to me by the New York Road Runners coaches about the importance of a race strategy was true! This sighting made me so proud of myself and so grateful to the coaches for insisting on the importance of being steadfast. I was truly amazed.
Finally making it to 90th Street, we entered Central Park, which is familiar and welcome territory. I relished in the reprieve of the flat stretch of road behind the MET that had been my oasis in the desert of miles 22-24. Running Central Park on the east side down to 59th Street is a bit of a blur as all of my energy was focused solely on passing whoever was in front of me. Coming out of the Park and turning onto 59th Street was another challenge and a huge letdown – a hill, again, and one that I was not aware of! I was not yet hanging on for dear life, but 59th Street was tough terrain because the road was a narrow climb. My legs were tired and the bottoms of my feet were burning with pain. Despite the agony I was excited; I was soon in the home stretch and as I rounded the corner back into Central Park I absolutely gunned it the rest of the way. About 1/10 of a mile from the finish line I heard my name called in a familiar voice, looked to the right and saw my sister taking my picture. This was just what I needed to propel myself up the final hill and across the finish line. As I crossed the line, my arms instinctually shot up into the air as I reveled in a fog of joy, amazement, pain and disbelief. I finished!!
I ran the marathon in 4:11:59, running the second half of the race 6 minutes and 21 seconds faster than the first half, and finishing within my goal finish time of 4:07 – 4:14. As the days after the marathon passed, strange questions I never thought I would ask began slipping into my mind: “if 4:11:59 was what I ran without feedback from my watch, could I shed the required 27 minutes to qualify in my age range for Boston”? “Crazy to even consider this”, was my next thought. I do not know if I can become fast enough to make this possible but I do know, now from experience, that my curiosity is the sign of another door opening, and that what lies beyond will be a rich and valuable experience trying.