Wow! What an experience of a lifetime. On 3rd November 2013, I completed my very first marathon. That is 42.2kms (or 26.2 miles). It was not just any marathon. It was the New York Marathon! Yes, New York, New York. The track for this run covers the five boroughs of New York. Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Manhattan. Unbelievable. What better way to see the real New York?
I’d decided in September 2011 that I wanted to run the NY Marathon. Why? Because I wanted to commit to running marathon and I figured that one would be a great one to do.
I questioned, Could a novice runner like me enter it? Could I train enough to get in? Could I train enough to finish? Did I have what it takes to run through the 42.2kms or 26.2 miles and still be standing at the other end? Did I even like running?
Actually I love running. What I love about running is that you get to think clearly after a hectic day at work, you get to innovate whilst you run, you get to creative, you get to see things, you get to test yourself, you get to relax and listen to music and you get to enjoy experiences that come purely with running like problem solving about hydration.
Could I enter the NY Marathon? I investigated and found a travel agency in Australia set up for running marathons across the world. They did everything for you. Travelling Fit is their name. I contacted them to enter the 2012 NY Marathon. But it wasn’t that easy. I had to go on a waiting list for a few months as all the allocated tickets to that agency had been taken. So I was on a waiting for people to change their mind. Who would do that? I did not make the list for 2012 and was put on a priority list for the 2013 group. But the 2012 NY Marathon ended up being cancelled due to Storm Sandy. So in a strange way it was a good thing I missed out on entering 2012.
In February 2013 I got a call inviting me to commit to a spot in the NY Marathon 2013. My spot! I had to decide was I in or not? Yes, yes I am in! And so the commitment to training began. What was I getting into? Did I even know? Maybe not, but I was very excited.
The plan was to commit to a 16 week program, but before that run regularly to maintain a base. Early on I decided to run with some football umpires sprint training on a Tuesday night. Feeling very fit and ready, I did this training and loved it. Only to pull up the next day and week unable to walk due to strained quadriceps tendons.. first lesson learnt. Go slow and listen to your body… this thing will take a while to build up to.
In June we moved about 15 kms out of Shepparton, Victoria and so where I trained, there was only 5 houses around, many trees, many cows, a few kangaroos jumping around in the afternoons, and some hares. The land is flat, there are bitumen and dirt roads and there are no hills. Very different to a big city that never sleeps. Although occasionally I’d go into town and run with a group of other really fit runners, either before or after work, mostly, my training was made up of me running to a training program for marathoners and fitting runs in around work and home duties. I was so happy to train for this thing and at times became overwhelmed with how lucky I was to be fit and healthy to train and also at how lucky I was to have my ticket to go. I just had to get the training right. At times it was tough, but I also knew that was part of the plan.
In my training I had done a maximum of 36kms in training, only once but I had built up to the that distance week by week. I had stuck to my training but I had started to get really sore and strained calf muscles and so the last four weeks of training were not ideal as I had dropped off. But I really did think I had done enough. The goal, to finish between 4-5 hours. A lot did depend on the feelings on the day.
Meeting those who were running in the race
About 50,000 people had entered to run the marathon. That is almost the population of Shepparton. The lead up to the marathon was amazing. I met many runners Australian, American and from all countries. All going to New York to experience the same thing. Many great stories, many sad stories and many stories of pure inspiration. One Australian lady I’d met at the airport was told by her doctor that if she ran she’d probably need a hip operation. So she decided not to run but came over to the USA with her husband and kids anyway to support the other runners and then extend their time for a holiday. There was a parade of nations the night before the marathon and it felt like the opening ceremony of the Olympics. They were even followed by a big fireworks display that only the Americans know how to do. The Travelling Fit guys walked us down and sat with us whilst we watched the whole thing.
After the Boston Marathon bombings earlier in the year, there was a resounding respect for all those in or from Boston but a defiant attitude to be victorious in freedom and being able to run a marathon. Many people running in New York wore blue ribbons to support those from Boston.
Speaking of Boston, the security in New York was high. The marathon expo and related activities all had a high level of security with guards and scanning equipment like at each airport.
After the 2012 NY marathon had been cancelled many runners had maintained their training across the year and had returned with the hope of completing their marathon for the past two years.
Many other runners were appearing for the first time like me. A few their very first marathon. A few their first New York Marathon. Others running their third, fourth or fifth New York marathon and so on. But for everyone this was a special day. The day we got to celebrate the freedom of running and the opportunity to test ourselves.
How wonderful that every day people like you and I run this race and we can share it with the elite runners.
The day of the race
The weather was cold that day. Approximately 1-9 degrees Celsius. We needed to get to the Staten Island first before the roads were closed off. The bus got us there. The Travelling Fit group had organised busses for the Aussies to get there. Wonderful, they left from my hotel lobby! So an early start, 5 am to be at the bus at 5.45 to get to Staten Island. The mood on the bus was quietly excited and smiles and sharing of stories for the 45 minute journey.
Upon arrival there were many buses and stream of people entering the running village. Essentially we had a 3-4 hour wait depending on the time of the wave you started in. Everyone excited and ready. A beautiful feeling of support and effort. Respect for everyone around you. We all knew what it took to just get there to the start line. A bonus on the morning was that we saw Robert De Castella and the Indigenous Runners Project group who were also running in the marathon. It was fantastic to be an Australian and see them.
There were four distinct starting groups on the day. Each had a start time based on the capability and expected time to finish. With the elite runners going first, of course. This was fantastic because the group moved about the same pace and so didn’t feel crowded when we ran.
The experience was amazing.
At the start line, people were smiling and ready. I hadn’t done a long run for a few weeks and honestly was looking forward to getting it out of my system. A nice thought to start the run.
And so, the gun went off, Miss America sang “God bless America”, and then a band sang “New York, New York” just as I set off over the start line… then over the first bridge overlooking the Hudson river with the New York city skyline just to the left and in the distance. What a beautiful city! How lucky was I?
The Race. What was it like?
What I thought it would be, it was. Long, gruelling, tough and testing my metal. It was a really cold day and very windy. The track – hilly. Having trained in kms I was going to be challenged by the mile markers, but found as the race went on, psychologically reaching something in the 20s was so much more doable that something in the 40s. How funny, it is exactly the same distance.
The streets were lined with 1.5-2 million people, cheering on the elite runners, and the not so elite like myself. Yes, really.
The celebration through every part of the run amazing. Bands and gospel choirs sang songs, people held up signs, one in particular saying “run like you’ve stolen something”, which was a bit dubious given I saw it in Brooklyn and in the Bronx. People offered food they’d made or fruit or drinks from the side lines, others offered smiles or claps, and others called out your name or your country based on what was written on your running top. It was like the whole of New York just gave us, the runners a hug.
During the run many people were struggling later in the race. This is when true spirit emerges. One guy fell over and had blood pouring from his face and hands. Another went straight to him and took him to the medical site, waited for him to be treated and then they ran over the finish line together. Many struggling not thinking they could make it, when a person in the crowd called out just the right thing to get them motivated and over the line. At the 25 mile mark when I was questioning why on earth I had signed up for this, a lady called out over the rope in Central Park “ you have got this! You are going great!” and smiled… an amazing smile. That is the smile that carried me over the line. I finished in 4 hours 27. I was happy to have finished the race.
More than 12,000 volunteers lending their time and hands just to support the runners. They too amazing people. Volunteering their time to give you a drink of water, a banana or Gatorade on the day and standing in the cold for many hours whilst the elite to the last runner crossed the line. In itself a huge effort and commitment.
There are so many people that supported my marathon journey before, during and after the event, to which I am grateful to them all both friends and strangers. Amazing in their own right. Thank you!
Winners and winners
So the elite winners for the men’s and women’s race finished in a time of 2 hrs 5 minutes and 6 secs (Geoffrey Mutai – Kenya) and 2 hours 23 minutes and 15 seconds (Firehiewot Dado – Ethiopia) respectively. But those who finished behind them did not lose. They finished. That is a win in itself. This distance is tough. The effort taken just to get to the start line is big. To get to the finish line unbelievable.
What I didn’t anticipate was everything that the race symbolised.
The marathon is about humanity. It is about extending yourself beyond what is possible. It is about extending yourself to the next person. It is about supporting the next guy when he thinks he cannot. Not only in running but in whatever he sets his mind to.
It is about the journey of life, the highs and the lows. It is about setting a goal and taking what comes on the journey and dealing with it. It is about enjoying the good parts and toughing out the rough parts when your legs feel like lead and you remind yourself that you actually do love the challenge. It is such a mental challenge.
It is about extending the human spirit and giving a little or a lot. A smile, a hand, a hug, a drink or wink. So thank you New York New York for embracing all the runners and giving me the experience of a life time. I wouldn’t change a thing.