November 13, 2007

New York Marathon: A Race Report - or - Make The Bad Man Stop

Five facts to remember for the following race report

1. I've been battling achilles tendinitis since August. It's been a very frustrating battle.
2. For the two months prior to the marathon, I only ran 31.7 miles on the road.
3. 95% of my marathon training was done on the elliptical.
4. Elliptical work does bupkis for strength training.
5. I have no quad strength anyway.

OK, now on to the details...

Last year, Catherine and I were lucky enough to win a couple of precious lottery slots to the New York Marathon. However, since we were still recovering from Ironman Lake Placid we were barely able to muddle through 4 miles without sounding like my gripe-heavy Jewish family, always trying to one-up each other on our physical maladies.

You tell me your hamstrings hurt? I might question Catherine within the first mile of our run. Oy gevalt, you don't know from hurt. With the pain I feel I could only be so lucky to have my hamstrings seize.

Needless to say, we deferred our slots until this year.

Catherine and I both grew up in the New York area. She spent the first 16 years of her life in Brooklyn while I was primarily a Connecticut boy. Our memories of youth are jam packed with the bustle and energy of the Big Apple. Though we both spent our entire adulthoods in California, we still consider ourselves east coasters. New York will always hold a special place in our hearts (which, for the record, can be easily located by going to the place in our hearts that loves pizza, and taking a quick right.)

Surprisingly, neither of us have run the NY Marathon before. My father has run the race five times and my mother ran it once. I've spent many a cold November afternoon of my youth standing on the sidewalks of First Avenue and clapping my mittened hands. In fact, if you dig up the December 1979 issue of Runners World, you can see a photo of me, 12 years old and freezing, standing on the sidelines of First Avenue as I wait anxiously for my father to zip on by. I still remember my super comfy, green, two-toned, wool-lined winter coat that I wore that day. I miss that coat. But I suppose that's a different walk down a separate memory lane.

To avoid delving any further into the cobwebbed memories of my captivating childhood, let's just agree that I've already set the tone about Catherine and I having a connection with New York and feeling excited to run the New York Marathon. We all on the same boat for that one? Great. Now we can move on.

I'm told that the beginning of the 2008 NY Marathon was different than other years. I hope that is right, because this year it sucked. And that, my friend, might be putting it nicely.

The logistics for the beginning of the New York Marathon was, without question, the worst pre-race experience I've ever had in my three decades of competing. Bar none. Whomever was in charge of pre-race logistics should be fired, stripped of their clothing, save for knee high multi-colored striped socks, and then forced to skip around Central Park naked, in the dead of winter, carrying a live ferret, for no other reason than to be humliated.

Here's the deal. Like many other events, there's a drop off zone at the beginning of this race. You shove all of your post-race needs into a plastic bag and hand it off at your pre-assigned UPS truck, who will than magically transport your belongings to the finish line so you're all comfy and cozy as you meander aimlessly through the streets of New York and proudly display your finishers medal for all to congratulate.

We got to the pre-race staging area about 60 minutes before race start, which in a normal race should be ample time to prepare ourselves. We had our plastic bags in hand and all we needed to do was drop them off at our specific UPS truck and head to the race start.

There were about 70 UPS trucks lined up for drop-off. All of the trucks were parked side-by-side in one corner of the staging area. That's where the problem began - the part where all the trucks were in one small corner.

There were over 39,000 people who started the New York Marathon this year. In order for said 39 thousand people to drop off their bags, they had to enter the roped-off area where the UPS trucks were waiting. In order to enter the roped off area, you had to get through a 10 foot wide entrance space. At first shrug, ten feet doesn't sound too bad for an entrance. I mean, it's wide enough to fit four, maybe even five people at a time. Unfortunately, it's not quite wide enough to fit 39,000 people. It's especially not wide enough to be an entrance AND an exit, which it was on race morning.

So here we were, less than 60 minutes before race start and it was chaos. Thousands of people were cramming, scrambling, pushing, shoving, yelling, rushing and elbowing their way through. It was like a riot. It was chaos. People were packed so tight there was no room to move. You didn't walk, you were pushed. There was no escape. People were scrambling for any relief. Anxiety and stress were building. At least one person fainted and had to be carried away while others were jumping on the tops of UPS trucks in the hopes of mere survival.

Catherine and I tried to hold hands so we didn't lose each other but with the pushing and shoving our arms got bent. We reached as far as we could, desperately clinging to one another. At one point, I honestly questioned whether I'd make it out of there alive. We got pushed and shoved and jammed and jostled and poked and pressed and nudged and thrust. I wasn't old enough to be at the Who concert in Cincinnati when those people got trampled to death, but I imagine it wasn't too much different than the beginning of the New York Marathon, but with better music.

For at least 15 minutes we were imprisoned in the clammering masses, hoping to dear God we'd get spit out the other side. And then, just like that, we did. Suddenly we could walk. We could breathe. We exhaled joyous sighs of relief as our bodies shook in shock from the post-traumatic anxiety.

We followed the crowd towards the starting line, flowing with the current of athletes. A few minutes later, as we continued walking forward, we heard an air horn go off. I looked at my watch. 10:10 am. The race had just started. Go figure.

For us non-elites, the starting gun doesn't really mean much. We remained at a standstill as we watched masses of runners stream across the Verrazano Bridge far in front of us. Slowly our line crept forward, inching step-by-step. We flowed on in the current of the crowed, walking around the corner, down the stairs, onto the roadway. Nearly six minutes later we made the U-turn to see the bridge rising majestically in front of us. In a few steps we reached the starting line and, with the crowd finally thinning out, we were able to start running.

Welcome to the beginning of the New York Marathon. It seemed the hard part was already over. Now all I had to do was run 26 miles and change.

To begin running the New York Marathon is an amazing experience. The first mile is a consistently steep climb up the Verrazano Bridge. It is a rare moment when you can truly experience the enormity of such a structure while being free from the limited confines of a plane or car. It made it all the more symbolically appropriate to start the marathon in this fashion. Like the experience of running across the bridge, the New York Marathon is an enormous, awe-inspiring endeavor. It is a mind-boggling task to shut down one of the most active cities in the world and guide 39,000 disparate soles through an intimate tour of the far-reaching corners of this town. These are the types of things that you think about when you start your first New York Marathon.

Another thing you may start thinking about on that first mile is how much your achilles is hurting. As I kept a steady pace up the hill, the exterior beauty of this amazing experience battled with the internal frustrations of my damn achilles pain. I forced myself to stay slow, to let my legs warm up. I prayed that the pain would not become debilitating. It was too soon to be limping.

On the other side of the Verrazano Bridge lies Brooklyn and a steady stream of cheering and clapping fans. Without question, the spectator support in Brooklyn is the best of the burroughs. Singing, screaming, cheering, laughing and yelling, the Brooklyn-ites sure know how to make 39,000 people feel special. As we made our way through the mob-packed streets, Catherine and I couldn't stop smiling. The miles began to roll by. 2, 3, 4. Suddenly I realized my achilles pain had subsided or, at the very least, was reduced to a mild twinge. Mild twinge I can deal with.

By mile 5 I realized that Catherine and I were on a pretty good clip, at least 1 minute per mile faster than I expected to run. I was ecstatic. At the same time, I knew from a run I had done two weeks previously that my quads would not be able to hold out for long, especially at this pace. By the end of that 10 mile jaunt, my quads were in so much pain that my legs nearly seized up. I realized it was not a matter of IF that would happen in New York, but a matter of WHEN.

Still, after 6 miles at this pace I was feeling pretty good. Catherine wanted to break 4 hours in this marathon and I was thinking that she had a really good chance of making it happen. As we crossed the 10k mat, I committed myself to her goal. If I could just keep her pace as long as possible and drive her forward, it will help her break that 4 hour barrier. I'd stay as strong as possible until my legs gave out, then I'd let her go and hobble my way to the finish line. At least that was the plan.

By mile 7, the quads started whispering quiet warnings to me, but it was nothing that demanded immediate attention. I stuck to her pace and stayed by her side. We wisped through the streets of Brooklyn and moved with the masses towards Queens.

About the time we hit Queens I looked over at Catherine and saw a grimace on her face. SHIT! she screamed. I could tell her legs were beginning to hurt. I know that look on her face all too well. She had been battling pain in her right leg for months. Though she was able to log in some serious training miles, most of it was done in discomfort. And that discomfort just reared it's butt ugly head again.

We slowed down the pace and struggled along for a few more miles, but by the time we got to mile 15 I could tell Catherine was reaching her limit. Tears were forming in her eyes, the anger and frustration steaming out of her pores.

My quads were growing more tired but they hadn't yet given out. I pushed a few steps ahead of Catherine to give her the space to sort out her pain. Mile 15 is a long, lonely uphill across the 59th Street Bridge. There are no spectators, no sunshine, no sky to look at, nothing but the pitter-patter of shuffling feet pounding like a metronome in your mind. And then, all of the sudden, everything changes.

The bridge ends at Mile 16 and you are dumped onto First Avenue. First Avenue is the epicenter of spectatorness at the New York Marathon. Continuing on for about 4 miles, the race opens up to it's widest berth, six lanes of open road for runners to spread out their arms and soak in the energy from the mass of spectators that lines the corridor, reaching 10 people deep in certain areas.

Emerging from the confines of the 59th Street Bridge, there is a sense of relief when you reach the openness of First Avenue. As we tried to soak in the experience, I tried to ignore the growing pain in my quads as Cat sunk deeper into her own personal agony . By mile 17 1/2 it was too much for her. We stopped by the side of the road as she tried to stretch out the pain. After a few minutes we moved back into the flow and pushed forward. It was slow and agonizing to watch her run, but run we did.

It didn't get better for Catherine and as we hit mile 19 1/2, just a few short blocks before the bridge to the Bronx, Catherine could go no further. Her right leg had seized, she couldn't run. She was done. End of story. Over. Finis. Kaput.

I walked with Catherine for a block to make sure she would be alright and then I bid farewell, gave her a kiss and started my jog again. Though the pain in my quads was steadily increasing, my breathing felt fine and my mind was clear and focused. I picked up the pace a little bit, back to our early race rate and tried to motivate my mind to push forward through the rest of the run.

Miles 20 and 21 breezed by and soon enough I was out of the Bronx and back into Manhattan. As I reached Mile 22, I could feel my legs take a turn for the worse. The pain increased dramatically. Knowing I still had 4 more miles to go and a fair bit of uphill, I slowed down a little.

The climb up Fifth Avenue to mile 23 is horrendous. Block after block you trudge along, knowing that you will eventually get into Central Park but with every step the carrot gets pushed further away. Your legs are tired and Fifth Avenue is an endlessly long steep uphill. It was dreadful.

After what seemed like hours, I reached 90th street and took a right turn into Central Park. Mile 23 marks the entrance to Central Park. Mile 23 also marks the moment when my legs finally gave out.

There is a water station on Mile 23, as there had been at just about every mile throughout the race. Having worn a fuel belt, I had very little need to stop at any point during the run. In the days leading up to the race I had told myself that I should walk the aid stations. That method got me through the Ironman marathon without issue, I didn't see any reason why it shouldn't work at the NY marathon. But, alas, I found myself running through every single aid station. There were a couple of short stops to refill the water bottles, but that's it.

So here I was at Mile 23 with my legs burning like waffle irons and I figured that there's no time like the present to enact my super special aid station walk-run strategy.

The moment I stopped at the Mile 23 aid station, I knew the strategy was for shit. Abort mission! I screamed in my mind. Abort mission! But my legs didn't feel like running again.

I grabbed a Gatorade and sipped on it as I lumbered painfully down the road. When I reached the end of the water station I knew it was time to run again. That's all part of the strategy. I've got to stick to my plan. Still, I knew it was going to hurt. I psyched myself up, reached for the lonely place deep inside and began to move forward into a slow jog.

I felt a million and one machetes slicing through my quads. I screamed in pain. I actually screamed. I inched forward in a dead man's shuffle. I could barely pull my legs off the ground. The impact of each step was like a hot poker searing through my body. But I kept going. Slowly and deliberately, I kept moving like a turtle with broken legs and red running shorts.

As I passed Mile 24 the road turned to a steeper downhill. Downhills hurt my quads even more. I slowed down the pace and tried to weave across the road to lessen the impact. I wanted to quit. I looked for a place where I could sneak off and slip into the grass. To lay down under a tree like Ferdinand the bull, maybe smell some flowers and take a very long nap. I had enough. But the gates and fencing didn't just keep the spectators from crowding the course, it caged me into this race. I was stuck, with no escape. I was a prisoner to my pain. So I kept jogging.

As I finally reached the end of Central Park and the last of the downhill, I glanced at my watch. That was a 12:20 mile. Ouch.

I passed the mile 25 banner and took a right turn on 59th street. The next mile was an uphill to Columbus Circle, then a right turn into the park and an uphill to the finish. Uphill I can do. Uphill isn't nearly as painful. Besides, I've only got one more mile to go and then the pain will be over.

Make the bad man stop.

Only 1 mile to go, I told myself again and again. I can do this, I know I can. I can make it. As I picked up the pace a little bit more pain seared through my bones. A twinge turned into a pange which turned into a stab. Only 1 mile to go, I kept saying to myself.

I tried to ignore the pain and picked up the pace even more. I can do this. I can make it.

I turned the corner into Central Park and passed the 26 mile mark. I could see the finish line in the distance. Spectators lined the course, 20 and 30 deep. I hurt. I hurt bad, but the adrenalin masked the pain. I began to scream shouts of joy, of disbelief. Did I really complete the New York Marathon? Did I really run this distance with such ridiculously crappy training?

Yes, I said to myself. I did. I sure as hell did.

The moment I ran over the finish line my legs stopped moving. Enough of this shit, they said. And I kinda agreed. Enough already.


The New York Marathon is a truly amazing race on a truly amazing day. Every year, on the first Sunday in November, the magic of the city gets amplified to incredible proportions.

The beginning and the end of the race were horrendous this year, a clusterfuck of organization. But I can only guess that the thousands of complaints will create a much more efficient solution in years to come. I look forward to seeing how it happens.

By the way, Catherine ended up walking the last 7 miles of the course in pure agony and crossed the finish line, though mostly because that was the only way she new how to get back home.


1HappyAthlete said...

Congrats to both of you for sucking it up and finishing what is argualbly the world's best marathon.

Enjoy some very well deserved time off!

No Wetsuit Girl said...

Riveting! It sounds like terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day... the kind that you remember with pride for the rest of your life. You definitely earned that medal! And extra congratulations to Catherine, 7 miles walking, damn! I've definitely been there, "Must finish, because I don't know how to get home from out here". It's a good strategy if you ask me.

Congratulations again to both of you!