Marathon 1/7: North America, New York City, USA
The fear of the unknown if often greater than the fear of the actual event. And maybe this was true with my first marathon. I didn’t know what to expect, but despite this uncertainty I relished the prospect of running 26.2 miles and achieving something that I would, no doubt, remember forever.
I have always been drawn to goals where the achievement remains with you, for the rest of your life, it’s like an accomplishment that continues to pay dividends. Not only does the training make you more healthy, it also improves your stamina, fortitude and overall well being. And, unlike other goals that require lots of money or ones that are only achievable when external factors are aligned, a marathon can be completed by anyone with enough training and work.
When I applied for the New York Marathon, I didn’t realize how lucky I was to successfully register on my first attempt. I have since spoken to many people who have told me of their unsuccessful attempts to register on multiple occasions. If I had known of this difficulty, I surely would have been more grateful when I realized that my application had been accepted.
Despite this being the first marathon I ran, it was not the first marathon that I registered for. The year prior, I was scheduled to run the original marathon in Greece.
Side Note: The origin of the marathon derives from the legend of Phedippides’. The story goes that Phedippides was a messenger for the Greek army. He was sent between the city of Marathon and Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated in the battle of Marathon. Without stopping, Phedippides ran the entire distance, bursting into the assembly, exclaiming ‘we have won’, before dropping down and dieing.
I thought this marathon was an apt (if not slightly morbid!) way to start my journey into running a marathon on every continent. Despite completing all my training, including a final 21 mile run, I injured my foot and didn’t think it a good idea to push through and make the journey to Greece. Surprisingly I wasn’t disappointed, I knew that I had completed the training and the injury was out of my control. Maybe it was Greek gods looking down on me, when the lottery for applications to the New York marathon were being picked the following year.
As I was living in Washington DC, the journey to New York wasn’t as long and arduous compared to some of the marathons I have since run. I arrived the evening before the big day to make the most of the trip to the big Apple.
New York has always had a special place in my heart. I seen this amazing city as the capital of the world. Maybe it’s because the UN is headquartered there or maybe as it’s the biggest city in the United States, a country that has always been larger than life for me. Whatever the reason, every time I have been to New York, I have felt the energy running through me, and tomorrow I would be running through the energy of the city.
After walking down side walks with big flumes of smoke coming out of them, and exploring some of the obligatory tourists spots such as Time Square, which was immersed in the lights and sounds of the big city, I really started to feel like I was in New York.
As New York has a reputation for excellent Italian food due to the large number of Italian immigrants living there, I thought it was appropriate to have a dinner, rich in this culture which would be especially useful for the long run the following day.
Despite staying very close to Time Square, I still needed to wake up early. I went back to the hotel at around 10pm, checking to make sure that I had everything ready for my long run the following day.
I had a fitful night sleep. Despite setting numerous alarms, I awoke a few times in a panic thinking that I had overslept and missed this day that I had trained so long for.
At around 4am I woke up, took a shower and prepared my oatmeal using the coffee machine in the hotel room. As it was November, it was still cold, dark and gloomy, as I looked out of the hotel window, I knew that it would be a good few hours before things started to lighten up outside.
I double checked to make sure that I had everything, before leaving my room and heading into the cold, New York City streets.
I knew roughly the direction that I was meant to be heading to catch the bus which would transport us to the starting line. My fear of not finding the location soon evaporated as almost instantly I saw streams of other people dressed in their running outfits heading in the same direction, guiding me like a line of ants to the rendezvous point. As I followed the steam of people, the exodus of marathoners started to become larger and soon it turned into a torrent. It was quite a strange sight, seeing all these people at such an antisocial hour walking through New York in the same direction, half asleep, we must have looked like zombies, to anyone who didn’t know what was happening.
As the number of people waiting in line at the bus stop increased the anticipation and enormity of what I was about to do started to build. Everyone seemed excited and nervous, the same as how I felt.
The bus ride gave us a early morning tour of new York city as well as taster of where we would be running a few hours later. Eventually we arrived at the starting point on Staten Island. It appeared as if a temporary tent city had been constructed just for us. It looked liked something you might see at a festival row after row of tents.
I had two hours to wait before the start of the race, I was torn between conserving my energy and keeping warm in the cold, New York winter. In an attempt to keep warm, I poured a free coffee from one of the tents and started walking around this make shift tented city.
Between jumping up and down and consuming the free coffee, I realized that I had forgotten one important thing in my hotel room…… going to the rest room. I weighed up my options, could I hold it for 26.2 miles and at least 4 hours or should I use the porta potties that were becoming less and less fresh with each minute that passed. I decided that despite the short term discomfort of using a porta pottie, I would feel better if I did the deed. It looked like this day was becoming a day of firsts, not only was I going to run a marathon but I was only going to use a porta potties for the first time! This was something that they do not warn you about in the training books, or if they did, I overlooked it.
Finally we were called over to our starting carols. As there were over 40,000 people running, we were designated different starting sections, with each person having a specific location where they started from. As the sea of people made their way forward, it was interesting to see the eclectic mix of people ready to embark on this 26 mile journey. Some were running (or walking) for fun, dressed up in various costumes and outfits. Others looked like it was the race of their life, jogging on the spot in a state of immense concentration. As I walked to the staring carol I struck up a conversation with a man who was also on his own. This gentleman was at least 60 years old, possibly in his seventies. He looked like a veteran of running and I asked him if this was his first time running the New York Marathon. Unexpectedly, he told me it was, however it turned out that he had ran 98 other marathons and this would be his 99th!
As we waited in our carols, people started to take off their sweaters and sweat pants and discard them to the side. Looking over my shoulder there appeared to be a waterfall of clothes, splashing over the railings that fenced us in.
The rock music played over the PA system and after a little while it was interrupted for an announcement. The mayor of New York climbed to the top of an open roof bus where he addressed the crowd. He commend us on our training and reminded us on how we had been waiting for this day for a long time.
Often it is easy to forget and not appreciate the moment that you have been waiting so long for, and before you know it, it’s all over. The same could be said for life, often we are so busy that we fail to stop and be aware of all those special moments.
After the speech, the national anthem was played and shortly afterwards someone on the open roof bus, held up their arm and bang we were off with a shot! Everyone cheered but with such a large swarm of people, it took a few minutes before we started moving at barely a walking pace. Everyone was so excited, wanting to go faster but there was no where for us to run with the sea of people in front of us moving very slowly.
As the traffic jam of people slowly started to move forward, we saw an amazing view appear in front of us. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge stood like a giant stretched out doing a yoga pose. Instead of carrying it’s usual load of cars over the water, it had a stream of people running over it. The stunning and iconic view of New York city in the background made for an unforgettable memory to the start of my first marathon.
The bridge was a formidable structure as we approached it. Usually it carries cars on both the upper and lower decks, but today it was full of people on both levels. Luckily I was on the upper level, and as I stepped on the bridge I could actually feel it shaking, like a wobbling jelly. I later learned that this was due to the sheer weight from all people on the bridge.
Once we had crossed the bridge we were now in the borough of Brooklyn and the run had really started. Despite all the excitement, I made sure not to start too fast. My goal was to run the entire distance and I didn’t want to fail at this due to starting too quickly.
One of the great things about the New York marathon is that the route takes you through each of the boroughs of city. I’ve been to New York City a few times, but invariably I had never seen the ‘real’ New York City. I was too busy trying to see the ‘must see’ sites and due to the fact that it’s such a huge city there was always so much to see and do. As I ran through the boroughs I got a real feel for the real New York City and what it was truly like. The city has quite the contrasts from Time Square to the family neighbourhoods areas which had a more relaxed atmosphere.
Despite having my goal to simply complete the marathon without stopping to walk, at the back of my mind I really did want to finish within 4 hours. For the first half of the marathon I had been going at a good pace, a pace quick enough to reach this goal, but due to all the water stops I was taking to prevent dehydration, I needed to stop to use the rest room. At the half way point there was a number of porto potties. It must have been the quickest rest room stop that I have ever taken, I literally jumped in and out within 10 seconds, holding my breathe in the process.
From Brooklyn we ventured into Queens and then into the Bronx, high fiving spectators who warmly lined the path. In total there were over 2,000,000 supporters, all of which I was very thankful for.
Every mile was becoming tougher and tougher, every incline in the road that wouldn’t normally be a problem seemed liked a mountain. As we took the steep bridge over the Hudson river into Manhattan there was were no crowds to cheer us on. However with each step a rumbling sound seemed to get louder, at first it sounded like a murmur but then it became more distinct, like a crowd at a sporting event cheering their team on. As we turned the corner of the bridge, I realized that we were hitting 5th avenue, as we did I saw a sight that helped to keep me pushing through the pain I was experiencing.
Lining 5th avenue was a crowd of people 5 or 6 deep! Each person that crossed the bridge into Manhattan was being pushed closer to the finishing line by this ecstatic and enthusiastic crowd. Some carried balloons, others banners, cheering on their loved ones or the crowd collectively. I high fived a number of the supporters as I started my journey into Manhattan, the final borough of the run.
As we headed towards central park, each step was a chore. I looked at my watch and realized that my pace had slowed considerably. There was no question as to whether that I would finish this marathon, but would I be able to hit my goal of running it within 4 hours?
The green leafy interior of central park was quite the contrast of the otherwise concrete jungle of New York City. I imagined that if I lived in New York, something I had dreamed of when I was younger, this would be a place I would run daily. However today I was using every ounce of energy and stamina to simply stay on my feet.
With just one mile to go, I stepped up the pace in an attempt to achieve my goal. Every step was painful but I knew that pain was only temporary. As I rounded the final corner I could see in the distance what looked liked the finishing line. I summoned the last of my energy to end on a high note. As I literally jumped over the finish line in delight at my accomplishment, I felt a mix of emotions, a sense of relief, satisfaction and achievement.
I stumbled through, sitting down at the first opportunity and as I did I looked at my watch: 3 Hours 58 minutes and 6 seconds! Despite feeling a little faint and sick I felt very proud of myself. It is amazing what you can achieve with a little structure, determination and the support of 2,000,000 people. I will never forget my first marathon but more importantly the journey that the marathon took me on.
After thought: As I rested for a good half an hour, I took the subway to my hotel. Normally New York City has a reputation for being unfriedly and full of violence. One of the most warming memories I had was when I boarded the train, a number of people, without hesitation saw how tired and drained I must have looked and offered me their seats.