The first live marathon I ever saw was from the side of the road on the Sydney Harbour Bridge at the 2000 Olympics. Little did I dream that just over 11 years later I too would run an international marathon! Forgive me if my ramblings go on too long. I have to debrief somehow.
Marathon day for me began before dawn as I went down the stairs in my hotel to the lobby. I had to use the stairs because the lifts were packed with runners from higher levels. Once in the lobby it was a case of pick up the breakfast packs and get on the bus. The early start is necessary as the bus has to go across the Narrows Vacarez Bridge in order to get to the start. This mile long bridge is also the first mile of the marathon. (Hint #1: Bring plenty of alarm clocks from home so you do not sleep in).
The hour plus ride to the start was a quiet one as most of the passengers contemplated what lay ahead. There were gasps as we realised that the bus was going across part of the course in the form of the Queensboro Bridge. Once we arrived at Statten Island it was a case of follow the crowds, show the race bib to security and I was into the start area along with over 47,000 other runners. I wandered for a while trying to decide where to rest for the 3 or so hours before the start and found some Adelaide marathon maidens who wanted company. I sat with them in the hay thoughtfully provided by the organisers to provided insulation from the cold earth below. The cushion brought from Adelaide also provided some small level of comfort. Much to my surprise I did not get cold during this time, the three to four layers of clothing did the job of keeping me warm. (Hint #2: Prepare for the cold that awaits you during this wait, particularly if you are a late starter)
About an hour before my start I bid farewell and good luck and went to the green start village. A quick final trip to the loo (Hint #3: BYO loo paper), a trip to the luggage trucks (brilliantly organised) and I found myself alongside an huge pile of discarded clothing stripping off the layers that had done the job so well (Hint #4: Be prepared to donate generously to the homeless of NY). It was then a short walk to the start corrals and the nerves began to cut in. Talking with an English runner during this time was a great way for both of us to stay calm.
Another short walk and I could see the magic sign “Green Start”. The green start has a number of advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that Green runners use the bottom level of the bridge and therefore have a less severe incline at the start. There are also only 5,000 runners competing for road space as opposed to 10,000 on the top level. The disadvantage is that the results of loose bladders on the top level have to go somewhere (Hint #5: If using the lower level run in the centre of the bridge) and the view from the top of the bridge is spoiled by the support girders. God bless America has never sounded so good, the howitzer blast echoed around Statten Island and Frank Sinatra reminded us that we were about to enter a city that never sleeps and we were off. Thank you NYRR for treating the slow plodders like me in exactly the same way as you treat the elite marathon runners, I appreciate it.
I was able to get into my running rhythm very quickly, unlike some of the runners who had different coloured starts. (Hint #6: Do not panic if you have to walk for the first three minutes, it is not uncommon for this to occur particularly on the top level of the bridge) Approximately 11 minutes later the runners around me started to cheer and shout “25 to go” as we passed the 1 mile marker. I was already 1 minute ahead of schedule and feeling great and was concentrating on running not celebrating.
My plans for the day called for me to stay behind the 5 hour pacer in order to avoid going out too hard but despite giving this pacer a two to three minute start over the line I was level with him well before I finished the bridge crossing. I slowed to his pace but did not feel comfortable so I decided to devise plan B on the run and went past him. Maybe this was a mistake. (Hint #7: Have a plan for the race to help you through the first couple of miles)
After the bridge the race continued on freeways for a while. It was a quiet journey for the green group with the crowds gathered around the blue and orange runners on a different set of roads. Eventually to the shouts of “Welcome to Brooklyn” we left the freeway and began to run some back roads before joining the same route as the other runners. The first drink station in this section at the 3 mile mark was interesting and I wondered how I would cope with even more runners around me later.
Once all runners were on the same course I began to feel the magic of this race. As we joined the main route a recording of “Footloose” was hitting the eardrums with massive intensity. It was hard to stay calm and not run at the same tempo as the song. This was the start of many music styles for the next 23 miles, some of the music was definitely not to my liking but I did not mind. People were doing this to help the runners and I appreciated their efforts. (Hint #8: Throw the i-pod away and listen to the atmosphere around you) During this time the 11 minute miles were continuing and I was feeling very comfortable.
Each colour group runs their own course until mile 8. I therefore had decided that this was a landmark in my race to look forward to. What I did not realise was that my wife was in the crowd at mile 8 shouting out my name and urging me to keep going. Apparently I reacted as though I had heard the shouts but I cannot remember hearing them. The photos taken as I passed this point will be treasured. I was still running at a steady pace and felt as though my breathing would not blow out a candle. How different I can remember thinking to my early running days when I was constantly breathless.
The next land mark for me was the lunch stop from the marathon on a bus tour at about the 12 mile mark. In order to get there we had to pass though some undulations and for the first time the body began to react to the conditions. It was a sunny day and I was beginning to seek out as much shade as possible in order to help my energy levels later. This was remarkably easy to do. I was taking on water or Gatorade at every possible opportunity and was taking a gel once an hour as planned pre-race. (Hint #9: Bring your own gels from home, nothing wrong with the American ones but you know how your body will react to the familiar).
I was beginning to see signs telling me to “Own the bridge” so I knew that the moment of truth was arriving, the Queensboro Bridge. Many people rate this as the hardest part of the course as there is a relatively steep incline to get onto the bridge and with over half the race behind you the legs are beginning to feel the strain. I am proud to say that the bridge did not beat me, I ran the incline but decided to take a very brief walk mid bridge in order to help get my head in order for First Avenue. During this time I was passing other walkers some of whom were beginning to look very tired.
Eventually I had to get off the bridge and into Manhattan. Once again there were cheers for me from my cheer squad but once again I did not hear them or see the signs. I was too busy composing myself and telling myself not to get carried away with the fact that I was in Manhattan, there was still a long way to go. The crowds in this section of the course were massive. Some had been there since the race start, some had come out to specifically to cheer the slower runners because they realised that many see the pointy end of the field and then go home. During this section of the course it was not unusual to see runners darting to the side of the road to hug or talk with spectators. There was a moment of drama for me when one of the spectators, having jumped into the middle of the road to take a photo, did not look where he was going on the return journey and ran into me. I gather that my Aussie Rules hip and shoulder was deemed fair by the umpire and hopefully security had words to say to this idiot. I spent about a minute recomposing myself and I suspect that during this time I slowed considerably.
I had to walk part of the final 2 bridges as we reached the northern end of the course. The legs were beginning to tell a story and it was not totally pleasant. Part of the journey through the Bronx is cruel. As you approach one of the right hand bends you look up and see runners less than 100 metres away but to get to them you have to run around the block. Mentally this was not good but it provided another landmark to tick off when I reached the same point of the course.
Just after the final bridge I realised that the 5 hour pacer was on my shoulder and I increased the pace slightly to join the bus. A quick word of welcome from the pacer showed that he realised that I was going to attempt to keep on his pace to the end. However just after this he slowed to help shepherd the group through a drink stop and I lost touch for a while as I moved ahead of him. By the time that I realised that he had caught up and passed me I did not have the leg power necessary to catch up again.
By now we were in Harlem a section of the course that disappointed me. I was anticipating lots of gospel style music but there was very little. The crowds were still there but the enthusiasm encountered on First Avenue was not present. The legs were hurting and all I wanted was to be running in Central Park even though I realised that this meant more undulations. The good thing was that a check of my times against my 5:15 pace band showed that a PB (sub 5:17) was 100% certain. I was a long way in front of 5:15 pace.
Just before Central Park I spotted an anxious Graham Cornes (inaugural Adelaide Crows coach and former scholar of the school where I teach) on the side of the road looking out for his wife. She was about 5 minutes behind me at this point of time. At about this stage I ran past a point where part of my cheer squad was planning to see me again. They missed me this time, I was travelling quicker than they expected!
Central Park is tough. The crowds are great, the encouragement huge, the sense of anticipation of the finish all keep you going but the legs were shouting enough is enough. I slowed to a walk and lots of the crowd were shouting at me urging me to start running again but the brain finally won the battle on one of the last major inclines of the race. Once I reached the top of the rise I saw the buildings along 54th Street, the last road section of the course, and I started running again. The crowd applauded my determination.
The race continued on to 54th Street, past a squad of race photographers who will pass on their efforts to me later (at a cost but worth every cent), around Columbus Circle and back into Central Park. The legs suddenly forgot about being tired. You could feel the energy levels rise in both your own body and the bodies of the other runners. Under the 26 mile banner, up the final incline and the finish line was in front of me. A quick glance at the watch showed a time of 4:59 something so a final sprint was attempted to try to get under the 5 hour mark.
After the finish I delayed stopping the watch until I was certain that my photo had been taken. (Hint #10: Look up, it makes a better photo) Expletives were muttered as I saw a time of 5:00:09, so close to achieving all of my goals but so far. The volunteer handing out the medals sensed my disappointment and very enthusiastically congratulated me and raised my spirits. Onto the photography line and a broad grin decorated my face. Who cares about sore legs when you reach the finish? After the collection of the space blanket and recovery bag it was onto the queue to collect the left luggage. There was concern expressed by some of the runners around me when I lost balance due to some minor dizziness but I was as OK as you can be at moments like this. Eventually I pushed past the crowds and walked onto the streets of New York.
The walk back to the hotel was long and slow as I received the congratulations of New York. The finisher’s cape around my shoulders made a statement about my activity for the day. By now it was after dusk and it was beginning to get cold.
My walk continued into the hotel, up the lift, a knock on the door of my room and no answer. My cheer squad was still at the finish having arrived at this point on the course after I did. Eventually they gave up and returned and I saw the signs that had travelled around New York for the first time. A request from me for someone to check my time was granted and my wife, in her best keep the suspense up manner, said five ….. hours …… zero minutes …… and ……. one second. Everyone except me was elated.
My goals going into the race were simple.
One: Finish tick
Two: Do a PB tick
Three: Run faster than 8 km/hr average tick
Four: Run 5:10, the time given to Travelling Fit tick
Five: Run a sub 5 hour marathon cross
A couple of days after the event I have decided that 4 out of 5 ain’t bad but that last 2 seconds still hurts.