« Calling Edward TufteThat Lucky Old Sun »
11.04.2003

The New York City Marathon: Now It Can Be Told

My own race day starts at half past five in the morning, on a sofa somewhere in midtown Manhattan. My girlfriend's brother has graciously let me stay in his immaculate 42nd street apartment, and now his little calico cat is licking my elbow, and the alarm clock is blaring to wake me up.

I have caused a storm of controversy in my girlfriend's family with my radical theory that carbo-loading and restful sleep two nights before the marathon are much more important than what happens on the eve of the race. I am about to put the theory to the test - I'm fueled up on bad Chinese food and my night has consisted of tiny catnaps, interspersed with worry.

To prevent an anxiety meltdown, I have laid everything out the night before: battered shoes with Official ChampionChip Marathon RF tag securely attached, running shirt with Official Marathon Race Number securely pinned, running shorts with $20 in cab fare tucked into a secret pocket (I'm putting pecunia non olet to the test). Over this goes an old ratty set of sweats that I will abandon at the starting line. I step out into the New York morning with my Official Marathon Plastic Bag, where I have put my pre-marathon essentials:

  • Tom Clancy novel
  • Pack of Pims cookies
  • 1 Liter orange Gatorade

The cookies and Gatorade are for devouring. The Tom Clancy novel is to fill the time - I've picked a book that's good for mindless reading, yet annoying enough to jettison without regret when it comes time to start the race.

People who say that running a marathon is purely mental are, in my opinion, talking nonsense. But it's true that the race tends to bring out all kinds of mental challenges. On the morning of the race, the challenge is controlling anxiety. It occurs to me that I've gone too far in the anxiety direction as I walk out of the apartment building. I had spent much of the night worrying that I wouldn't be able to find the bus pickup point, but now I see hundreds of people in track suits, all carrying Official Marathon Plastic Bags, converging on a spot a few blocks west of me. Also, the mile-long string of chartered buses idling along fifth avenue is hard to miss, as are the dozens of flare-carrying volunteers and the horde of runners standing meekly in line for each bus.

"Smile!" yells one of the volunteers. She's got a megaphone, and it sounds vaguely threatening. "None of you are smiling! It's gonna be a great race."

To a first approximation, the NYC Marathon is all about standing in line. There's the line to pick up a race number, the line for the chemical toilets, the line to get out of Central Park. The only unusual thing is that, for four or five hours in the middle, the line moves really quickly.

Serious queueing up had started the day before, when I had accidentally tried to cut the registration queue at the Javits convention center, only to be courteously directed to the back of a line that wrapped all the way around the block, down to the water, and around the corner, something approaching a quarter of a mile. Registration was also my first brush with the marathon volunteers, who somehow combine ruthless efficiency with the sunniest cheerfulness. Imagine a Switzerland populated by Mormons - yet somehow all these people come from New York!

The buses whisk us from Fifth Avenue to a staging area just outside of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Earlier buses have arranged themselves on the toll plaza to form a natural corral shape (the level of organization behind the marathon is terrifying), funneling arriving runners into Fort Wadsworth. Swiss Mormon volunteers are already there, at 6:50 AM, to cheer us on. They look to be high school kids. I don't think the Last Trump could have gotten me out of bed at 6:00 AM on a Sunday back in high school.

The sun is just popping over the horizon as I walk through the gates - it's cheery and red, playing innocent. The forecast has been for clouds, but the morning skies are clear and temperatures are threatening to climb into the seventies. For marathon running, that's a scorcher. I cheerfully add it to the list of things I have no control over.

The next three hours pass quietly. More and more people are arriving - I start to see costumes and flags here and there. There's a series of bands playing, but no one is really paying attention to them. People huddle over by the giant tent that says "BAGELS", or the one that says "COFFEE" - others stretch on the lawn. The line for the chemical toilets reaches horrifying proportions; someone finally knocks down a bit of storm fence and the impatient and shameless go off to pee in the woods.

As the starting time approaches, we get up and go to our assembly points. I abandon my sweats and the irritating novel to join the crowd. I can see water bottles flying to the left and right. The crowd starts moving forward, and we pass back out through the even longer bus corrall, the same high school kids cheering as hard as they can (God, they are wonderful). Soon we're almost at the bridge, waiting for the start. A woman in front of me is explaining how the transmitter on her shoe talks to her wrist, so she always knows her exact pace. We are all packed in together like pickles in a barrel.

Mile 0

BOOM! There's a loud cannon blast from the base of the bridge, and everyone gives a cheer. I can see the first runners moving a few hundred feet ahead, and then my own sector breaks into a slow jog, with clothing and water bottles hurtling off overhead. As we get close to the actual start line,there's a sound truck with a bunch of cops sitting on it. The truck is blaring "New York, New York", and the cops and runners all cheer like crazy. I've never felt so pumped up in my life.

Running onto the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, I can hear a delighted, surprised whoop up ahead, and it moves backwards through the crowd towards me at the same speed we are running. Suddenly I step onto the bridge and start whooping myself - the bridge is bouncing up and down beneath our feet, it feels like we're running on a trampoline or a huge, molasses-filled waterbed. Turns out these suspension bridges really are just dangling there.

We are running as one big mass - there is no lateral room for movement, and no way to set your own pace. A few desperate runners have hopped up on the curbs or the median divider, trying to run at speed. Some male runners are lining up along the guard rail for a ceremonial salute, dribbling used Gatorade onto the enormous container ships passing underneath.

Mile 1

It takes us 13 minutes to run the first mile, and we're still on the bridge. That's slower than a brisk walk. A man in a full-body Superman outfit is standing motionless on the three-foot-high concrete divider, pointing in the direction of Brooklyn in a Superman pose. We all cheer again. Up ahead I see a big hand-lettered sign reading 'Yo Brooklyn!', and there's the faintest sound of cheering from down below.

Mile 4

We're on Fourth Avenue, Brooklyn, surrounded by mobs of people. It's still hard to run at a comfortable pace - we reach the first water table and I almost fall over the runners in front of me, all of whom stop. Little kids are leaning out from the sidewalk for high-fives, there's a school band playing somewhere.

Mile 6

I spot an bookish but attractive woman with a big sign:

MARK!

[photo of Mark, a bookish but attractive man]

4 hrs = SEX!

I wonder if they're a couple, or if this is a surprise motivational treat.

Mile 12

We're in Green Point, Brooklyn - one of the few places outside Poland and Chicago where a Pole can spend his whole life without having to learn a second language. These are my people! I wait until I see a group of Slavic faces and yell "Czy sa tu jacys Polacy? (Any Poles here?)" The crowd cheers! I am intoxicated with my powers; I spend the next mile stirring up Green Point, and the rest of the race calling out Viva Mexico! after discovering that Mexican spectators go even more apeshit than my own countrymen. I try Viva Mexico! out on one group of brown faces and a mariachi band strikes up! Huge Mexican flags pop out of nowhere, there is mad cheering. Mexico has had some major marathon heroes in recent years, I don't know if the intense New York fans are a cause or result.

Mile 13

Halfway there! A race organizer with a megaphone tells us we're on a 4:20 pace. Not bad, considering the forced slowdown at the beginning. I can feel my legs working, but I'm not quite tired yet.

Mile 15

Tired. We're on the 59th street bridge, crossing into Mahnattan. Unlike the Verrazano Narrows bridge, this part of the course is on the lower level, so the impression is of an infinitely long, metal-ribbed tunnel going uphill. It's an agonizing climb, up and up, everyone around me is staggering. A group of runners comes up from behind me, singing:

Slow down, you move too fast
You've got to make the morning last
Just kickin' down the cobblestones ...

And then everyone joins in:

Looking for fun and feeling Groovy.

The European runners in front of me exchange a worried, trapped look. They are stuck on a bridge with hundreds of natives who have obviously just gone loco.

Mile 16

Authorities on the New York marathon all tell you that you slowly begin to hear an enormous roar as you descend into Manhattan. That may be true if you're running a 3:00 marathon pace, but on 4:20 the effect is much more subdued. I think back to last year, when I yelled myself hoarse, and commiserate with the crowd. They are maintaining huge enthusiasm, but a lot of them have no noise left to give.

I round the bend coming off of the bridge and there is my girlfriend, ready for the Krispy Kreme handoff. She has picked up a Boston Creme and a Chocolate Frosted, whose job it is to give me enough sugar to reach mile 26. I kiss her and wave the bag triumphantly at the crowd, yelling "Krispy Kreme!", but they don't seem impressed. It will take me three miles to eat the chocolate donut, in between trying to breathe. The Boston Creme will be abandoned in the Bronx.

It is hot and a lot of people are walking. We come to a sponge station and I wipe my forehead - I can taste the salt from my face, I've been sweating like crazy for nearly three hours.

Mile 19

We're at 115th street, and the crowd has thinned considerably. My legs are much more tired than I expected, and getting stiff - I stop at a water stand, and walk a block before running again. The next five miles will be walk-and-run, trying not to let my legs seize up like they crave to do. A man with a big synthesizer is playing some easy listening jazz number. I resist the urge to trample him (must conserve energy). Who the f*** plays elevator music to motivate tired runners?

Mile 20

Crossing over the Willis Avenue bridge into the Bronx. Sections of this bridge are made of iron latticework, so it's been covered with a kind of red carpet that gives this part of the race a ceremonial feel. We're all crazy tired, and it's a long climb into the Bronx. I see a runner in a shirt that says "Italia" stagger off to the right, missing the electronic mat that's supposed to measure our 20-mile split time - an automatic disqualification. "Hey, Italia!" I yell. "ITALIA!" He looks back, and I point at the mat, gesturing for him to turn around and run over it. He stares for a minute and then understands, looking mortified.

Immediately over the bridge stands a big mustachioed cop with sunglasses, straight out of central casting.

"Welcome to the Bronx, ladies and gentlemen!" he yells. "Do you know what people do when they come into the Bronx?"

"What?" we all say.

"THEY RUN OUT OF THE BRONX!"

Message received.

We're running through a black neighborhood, and some of the locals are blasting hip-hop. This is an infinite improvement over Smooth Jazz man. Near the Bronx-Manhattan bridge, a big guy in dreadlocks with a live mike is improvising reggae riffs about passing runners.

Mile 21

A male runner is leaning forward exhausted against a lamppost. He has two brown lines of blood down the front of shirt. White cotton shirts should come with a label: "WARNING: Wearing a natural-fabric T-shirt for runs exceeding ten miles may result in severe nipple damage". I cringe about as badly as you are cringing now - I've been down this road myself, before a nasty training run convinced me to shell out for a proper running shirt.

My legs are scaring me - when I slow to a walk, the fronts of my thighs feel like they're about to seize up in a massive cramp. I have had one cramp in all my training runs - felt my calf suddenly seize up into a knot, pain like I had never experienced. I'm afraid that cramps in my thighs will make it too painful to walk, and take me out of the race . I pass a woman yelling "Candy! Salt! Salt or candy!" I ask for salt and get a large pinch of Morton's finest. It's too strong to eat straight. Another woman hands me a water bottle and I dump the salt right in - the best drink I've ever tasted.

Mile 23

Fifth avenue, with Central Park on the right. The crowd is getting massive again; for some reason I am resenting them a little bit. They just want to see the train wreck that is an amateur runner after 23 miles.

Remembering Nipple Man, I gratefully accept a Vaseline-coated tongue depressor from a medical volunteer, and grease myself up. Running is a beautiful sport.

Mile 26

At this point I am just running towards the light.

FINISH

Everyone smiles and raises their arms as they cross the finish line. There are photographers up above who are taking our picture; we'll be able to buy a print after the race, if we like. Clever entrepreneurship or crass capitalism? After 26.2 miles of running, I could not care less what it is. I raise my arms and run over the finish line like a good sheep.

Picture of me after finishing marathon

Suddenly the whole pack is walking again, just like we were right before the start of the race. A line of very kind volunteers is standing there with medals, putting one around each runner's neck. Another set of volunteers hands out thin aluminized mylar blankets, and suddenly I am standing in a forest of silver and yellow ING Marathon logos, with a faint rustling all around. A third set of volunteers hands out little goodie bags (contents: water, apple, banana, raisins, and 'high protein energy bar', presumably to replace all the protein we lost when our calves fell off at mile 23). All this time we are moving slowly up Central Park, between a fence and a line of UPS trucks where runners can pick up their belongings. A number of people start to make calls on their cellphones. There's a number of people lying on the lawn, being tended to by medical volunteers. A woman to my right is barfing up a few quarts of water. I feel strangely teary-eyed, but remember that weird emotions are common right after the race, and eat my banana in peace.

It takes the better part of an hour to shuffle out of the park, and all the way up to the Blue reunion area on 79th street. I find my girlfriend near the 'C' sign, next to a pack of other Poles all dressed in red. I get flowers! I have finished!

The next hour consists of me and five thousand other runners with their families walking west, trying to find a cab. We get picked up by a Brazilian driver who can't stop congratulating me and asking about the race, unfortunately in completely inaudible tones. He tells a long story about his own running past, but I can barely hear any of it. I smell like a hamper full of gym socks. This is the brief golden hour during which I believe P. Diddy has actually dropped out of the race. My girlfriend has not seen him from her own vantage point, and rumors are flying that he got hit hard in the race and had to drop out. I feel vindicated and secure - my entire race strategy depended on being able to out-endure Diddy, and it looks like I've succeeded. I eat the filling out of a Reese's cup, calling blessings on the head of whoever decided to make peanut butter cups extra salty.

4:30 PM - Showertime. This is the part of the race where you discover exactly where you got badly chafed. You discover this because the shower washes salt from your body into the wounds. The apartment fills with my screams.

5:00 PM - A brief, half-hour nap. There is no position in which my legs do not hurt. I must still be a little salty because the cat is in a licking frenzy at my elbow. I feel something heavy and uncomfortable settle on my head. It my girlfriend, using me as a pillow.

5:30 PM - My girlfriend, her brother, and both cats are all asleep. Apparently my fatigue has permeated the room and knocked out the unprepared. I sneak outside with the laptop to find a wireless network, and read the crushing P. Diddy news. It seems like half the internet has covered my defeat in real time. For a second I am embarrassed, but then I come to my senses. I've spent the entire day surrounded in goodwill - from the thousands of volunteers and organizers who arranged the amazing spectacle, to the millions of people who cheered us on, to all of the Good Samaritans who handed me bananas, oranges, water, salt - things they had paid for and brought out to the race for the benefit of total strangers. And now I see that online friends have been following my progress, sending email, cheering me against the machine that is P. Diddy.

It's the kind of display I don't know how to recover from. I don't know how better to see the best of New York City than through this race. I'm overwhelmed, happy, tired, unable to climb stairs, and hungry like the wolf. It is a very, very good feeling.

Thank you to everybody who sent in encouragement, or went out to see the race this weekend and cheered us all on. I owe New York City big.

If you enjoyed this post, send me to Antarctica! I'm soliciting contributions to cover the cost of a six-week voyage to the Ross Sea in early 2016.

Read all about it on this Kickstarter page.

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