State 17: New York (2011 ING New York City Marathon)

Clothes, disposable and otherwise, ready to go

I woke up in the middle of the night with an urge to use the bathroom.  I was in my friend Jessie’s apartment on Central Park West, waiting for my alarm clock to tell me to get ready for the ING New York City Marathon, wondering if I should just get up and heed nature’s call or wait until it was time to get up.  Erring on the side of caution, I decided to check the time, just to be sure.  I had set it for 4:37 AM the night before and surely it was almost time to get up.

It was 4:38 and the alarm was off.

My reaction was a mix of panic and admiration.  Was my internal clock that good, that I managed to wake up at the exact time I was supposed to, despite my phone ignoring my preset alarm?  Had Daylight Savings Time glitched my phone, wiping out its time settings?  Perhaps it was divine Providence, whose omniscient grace had stirred me awake because finishing New York was part of my destiny.

Doubtful.  The more reasonable explanation is that I must have somnolently turned it off as it rang and woken up shortly afterward.  And that, my friends, is why your alarm clock should always be more than an arm’s length away from you.

Waking up before 5 for a race is nothing new.  Most races start between 7 and 8, so if you want to eat a decent meal, shake off the sleep and psych yourself up, you need some time.  However, I wasn’t scheduled to start hitting the pavement until 9:40 AM.  This should give you an idea of how massive a production this race is.  It goes beyond the confines of a sporting event and becomes an industrial complex, a meticulously engineered festival that, over the years, has fine tuned every last detail to ensure that nothing falls through the cracks.  The reason for needing so much time is that the race starts in Staten Island, on the complete opposite side of the city, and getting there takes time (it took two hours from the moment I left the apartment in Manhattan until the time I arrived at Fort Wadsworth).  That said, my cynical side has an alternate theory.  For that, we must look at the field of athletes.

The multiple banners reflect the international field

Most large, prestigious races have a diverse, international field.  Chicago’s crowds are filled with many runners from Europe, Canada, and Latin America, with a few pockets of athletes from just about everywhere else.  Miami hosts a huge Latin American contingent, along with smaller groups from other countries around the world.  New York’s race is different.  While there could be a 50/50 split between Americans and non-Americans in Chicago, it was easily 1:2 here.  Walking through the Expo with my college friend and former roommate Bryan, he mentioned that it felt like being in Diagon Alley, the fictional wizarding marketplace in the Harry Potter universe.  Everyone was speaking a foreign language, wearing odd clothes, buying foreign artifacts and engaging in a quirky subculture that you seldom get to see in such force.  So with all these international runners, there are bound to be some cultural idiosyncrasies to overcome, and the biggest one of all?  Punctuality.  That’s my theory.  New York Road Runners ask that everyone get to the start hellishly early in hopes of nipping that strange cultural universal in the bud.

As a very punctual person, it’s therefore a little frustrating when you make the journey (after taking two trains, a ferry and a shuttle) only to realize you still have two hours of sitting in 40-degree weather before getting going.  Fortunately, I made some friends and killed time in my $10 throwaway clothes.  By 9:00 AM, I was in my start corral at the base of the Verrazano Bridge, waiting to go.  There were buses surrounding the start, acting as walls keeping the runners from spilling out of the start area and into the highway (speaking of spilling, there was a line of guys waiting to pee between them).  The elite women started at 9:10, and thirty minutes later, everyone else was released to the sound of a cannon, encouraged by the sounds of “New York, New York,” ready to conquer the world’s largest marathon.

As if to give runners a taste of what’s to come, the first two miles of this race are run on a bridge, the first of which is all uphill.  At the bridge’s apex, a helicopter hovered to my left, getting footage of runners as they cross from the race’s first borough into Brooklyn.  I logged my first mile at 9:19 – slow, given the crowds and uphill climb.  The next mile would undo all the vertical gain and drains into the mainland.  I passed the marker and snapped my time at …

… 7:35.  Yikes.  That’s my fastest marathon split ever, so let’s reel this in.

Manhattan is so … so far away.

The next six miles or so would involve a straight shot down Brooklyn’s 4th Avenue, where local businesses and spectators were out in full force, cheering for the field.  It was the first of several long, straight stretches of course, allowing you to see literally for miles at the bobbing sea of athletes.  The course wouldn’t change much until around mile 8, where it turns right onto Lafayette Avenue, a beautiful stretch of road with a brilliant autumn tree canopy obscuring the sky.  From there, it turns back left, heading into what I believe is Williamsburg, home to a large Hasidic community.

New York Marathon Google Earth Rendering

New York Marathon Google Earth Rendering

Eventually we lose the trees and get back into the urban grays of the nation’s largest city.  Just before mile 13, the course bottlenecks on a two-lane street with an aid station on each side.  Immediately after, runners scale the Pulaski bridge and pass the halfway mark on their way to the race’s third borough, Queens.  I crossed in just over 1:51, hoping to be able to keep it up.  Two miles later, we reach what I consider to be the worst part of the race: the dreaded Queensboro Bridge.  Not only is it another mile-long bridge, but the first half seems interminable.  Every time I would look up, it looked like the top was just ahead, only to see it somehow recede later.  Eventually, I heaved in relief as it became a downhill run into Manhattan, the fourth borough, where large, roaring crowds greet on runners on First Avenue.

Many runners will tell you that’s the best part of the race.  I’m withholding judgment for now, but I will admit that it was very invigorating … but mostly because the last ten minutes were all on a desolate bridge with an icy wind cutting across your face.  Anything after that would have been a welcome change.  It only sweetens the deal that it’s an enormous road, free of cars, and full of rabid fans on both sides.  It’s also another section of race where you can see for the next three miles.  At this point, I was holding steady at an 8:30 pace, but I could tell my legs were starting to fade.

After the Chicago Marathon four weeks ago, I developed a dull pain in my left knee that I couldn’t seem to shake.  Since dropping out of this race was not an option, I had to cut my training down by as much as 70% to avoid serious injury.  I stuck to biking and stair climbing to keep my fitness, running only to “test” the knee, noting at what distance it would start to hurt.  During this race, I strengthened my belief in the magical power of adrenaline and sheer will.  Something happened because my knee wasn’t complaining in the least – not even an echo of pain.  Just three days prior, I had felt it during a three-mile run, and here I was, at mile 20, without any limps or grimaces.  That was very heartening and got me through the race’s last 10k, where my undertraining inevitably caught up with me.

Fifth Avenue – It may not look steep, but it was murder on my legs

It started as I entered the Bronx, the final borough.  My legs weren’t turning over as fast as they had been, the bottoms of my feet were getting sore and I started dipping into 9-minute miles.  Once out and back into Manhattan, that pattern continued as I struggled to keep my momentum without stopping.  We were now on Fifth Avenue, about four miles from the finish, and the worst was yet to come.  Despite hating the Queensboro Bridge, it wasn’t the most challenging part of the race.  That honor belonged to mile 23, an almost completely uphill climb, my legs on the verge of cramping.  I somehow kept it together long enough to enter Central Park at 88th street, past mile 24 and into the final stretch.

Many more turns like this until the finish

This was perhaps my favorite part of the race.  Despite running on empty and having trouble keeping my head up, I somehow managed to speed up for the last two miles through the ups and downs of the park’s serpentine roads.  Call it the thrill of running through the park’s fiery orange trees, thick enough to make you forget you’re in the middle of a city.  After rounding Columbus Circle, a volunteer with a megaphone yelled to runners that the 26th mile banner was just ahead.  But then, as if the course weren’t already challenging enough for someone from Chicago, a city flattened out by a cosmic rolling pin, we discovered that the last 0.2 miles are an uphill slap to the face.  Though the first and only cramp of the race shot through my right hamstring right at that moment, I kept moving forward, finishing in 3:54:00, my second fastest marathon time.  After crossing the finish, I was spotted by Jessie Frey, with whom I’ve shared many races (and one epic relay) and whose generosity allowed me to run New York City in the first place.  Extra bonus points to my high-school friend Adri Chaves for showing up at mile 26 to witness and cheer for my unglamorous teeth-baring final kick.

So ended my second World Marathon Major, sixth marathon and seventeenth state.  It was a great race, full of many challenging hills, vibrant neighborhoods and two million fans strong.  It’s no secret as to why it’s such a popular race, which makes getting into the event a feat unto itself.  Being able to run it was not only fun, it was an honor.  However, call it a bias, but given the choice between this race and Chicago, I’m sticking to the hometown experience.  With the exception of New York’s amazing runner tracking system, Chicago’s race is just so much easier to handle and still provides the same epic, world class event full of standout athletes, an impressive international field, and the best tour of a city you can get.

Me, Baxter, Jessie

But enough about the race, this weekend wouldn’t have been possible without the wondrous hospitality of my friend Jessie and my gentleman Baxter.  As two people who are generally known for spending lots of time in scary, far away places like Zambia, Bangladesh, and Baltimore, it was great to finally have them both in the Big Apple for some good old fashioned fun times and Pad Thai.  There was a time when we all lived in Chicago and saw each other every day.  Now, those opportunities happen every two years if we’re lucky, so it was great to be able to spend some quality time with them.

Me, Laura, Eric, Adri

And now it’s time for a break, a real one, from running.  I’m sure the knee injury was a product of being too enthusiastic about the marathon distance too soon.  I went from running one marathon a year to finishing four, three of which in just nine weeks.  It’s inevitable that something will go wrong with that kind of escalation.  So with that in mind, I’m going to rest for a bit, cross train more, and then gradually build myself back up for the 2012 winter race season.  It’s back to the speedy half marathon distance with a few full marathons sprinkled in for good measure.  I’m aiming to be halfway done with this 50-state challenge before my wedding day on September 22, so we’ll see how that goes.  With any luck, I’ll be able to tackle the challenge on healthy legs.  Onwards!