She looked at me, I looked at her and we hugged.
26.2 miles, and if it wasn’t for her, I am not sure I would have made the last 10-miles. We didn’t speak to each other or even look at each other. There was just a feeling, a presence, an understanding…
…that we were going to get each other to the finish.
“Don’t get left behind, just keep the pace strong”.
The park is on your left as you run up 5th avenue.
“If I could just turn into the park now”.
No such luck, it’s up and into the Bronx first…
“Just keep even with her, stride for stride, control your breathing”
And keep lying to yourself, “It’s just this next bit and I am almost done”. Constant lies to yourself.
I have learned you have to be really good at that if you are to do well in endurance events: you have to lie to yourself and believe that it’s just a few more minutes or a “little” bit longer. “Just get over the bridge and we are done”.
You aren’t done after that bridge. Not even close.
“If I can stick with her into the park, then we are done”.
26.2 miles in one of the greatest and most recognisable cities on earth…
3 days earlier…
The Build Up
The 2008 ING NYC Marathon.
The expo hall is amazing. The place where you register yourself for the race and get your race numbers and pins. The place is huge, I mean, it’s New York, so everything is huge, but this is a massive airport hanger of a space dedicated entirely to running.
This is where I got excited, none of the pain of the run here just the excitement, inspiration, and feeling like you’re involved in something huge. Nike quotes and adverts everywhere. Anything running related that you could ever want to buy in one huge space. Probably better to leave your wallet at the hotel before coming here. But I, errr… needed it for my ID at registration.
Pictured Above: My best excited & overwhelmed face
What I clearly remember about the registration expo was the huge map on the wall detailing the route through all 5 boroughs of New York for 26.2 miles.
Starting in Staten Island on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge overlooking the harbour, straight into Brooklyn, up into Queens.
Left, over the Queensborough Bridge into Manhattan, North past the park to the Bronx, and back down into Manhattan to finish in Central Park.
What I couldn’t see or possibly know was all the detail and highlights of each point on the map.
The views at the start, the crowds and the cacophony on 2nd & 5th Avenue contrasted with the silence of the Queensborough Bridge.
Pictured Above: The 2008 ING NYC Marathon Route
In the build-up to the race you try not to walk everywhere. But this is New York and there is plenty of opportunity for walking mile after mile. Obviously not a fantastic idea when you’re going to run through all 5 boroughs on Sunday! I managed to contain my excitement (well most of it) and not walk laps of Manhattan in the build up.
We would do a couple of runs in Central Park before the race on Sunday. I know this may seem excessive to some, but doing too little and stiffening up is just as bad as overdoing it. So off we would go for a light jog and 6x 90 second efforts at race pace around the iconic reservoir in Central Park. “Just keep the legs moving and stay light on your feet”.
You get taken over to the start in buses, EARLY!
Driven from the expo hall over to Staten Island early on Sunday morning. I can’t remember what time we got to the start or even what time my wave was due to start.
I remember that you want to dress WARM. The New York winter wind is harsh. The Pogues song had it right in Fairytale of New York ” the wind cuts right through you”.
That line always goes through my head when I feel the New York winter wind. I remember waiting longer than I wanted to in that biting wind to get started. It was cold and exposed in a holding area that resembled a refugee camp.
The wind was coming in off the water and it was early November. You are wearing clothes over the top of your running gear that you have long since realised you will never be seeing again, as you are not taking a wander back to Staten Island after the race. So nothing matches or looks good, and no one cares. The feeling of nerves and tension is palpable.
I remember very little else about the start, save that it is easy to set off at a fast pace. A little too fast because you are excited for one, and second because the bridge descends down into Queens encouraging a faster gait than normal.
This is a recipe for disaster if you don’t get this under control quickly. “Even your pace, nice and easy, get in control”.
The goal here was to get a sub 3 hour Marathon.
I remember checking my Garmin and seeing a 6:20/ mile pace in the first few miles! That was too fast. I needed a 6:50/mile average to get the Marathon in under 3 hours. I had to slow that down now if I wanted to survive the second half of the run.
The start was the usual jockeying for place, adjusting your shorts, hat, sunglasses and whatever else in a bid to get as comfortably uncomfortable as you can get in a 26.2 mile run around New York City.
The job in these first few miles is to set an even pace and not get carried away.
Brooklyn & Queens
The folk of Brooklyn and Queens do not make it easy to not get carried away!
Cheering, live music on every corner, dancing, partying, festival and party atmosphere mile after mile. Just relentless! The route is not complicated. Pretty much a straight line right up through the 2 boroughs until you hit the Queensborough Bridge across into Manhattan.
This is the fun bit, the party! You are full of energy and entertained at every street corner.
In the excitement, you remember to take on fluid and a banana or gel at the feeding/water stations. Otherwise, that will come back to haunt (or more precisely hurt) you later on, on the way up to the Bronx. “Don’t forget to eat & drink”.
The party continues all along this part of the route, people high fiving you, dancing in the street and having a great time. Their enthusiasm and cheer push you along.
The bridge is actually a pretty uncomfortable hill. The rest of the Marathon is fairly flat, forgetting the start on the Verrazzano- Narrows bridge, which is forgettable in its incline only because it is lost in the excitement of the start.
You start to climb, leaving behind the busy Brooklyn streets, with their festival and party atmosphere. As the music behind you begins to fade it gets a lot quieter.
The bridge is long, and it gives you time to think.
So many more miles to go, and the feelings of fatigue and tiredness are starting to seep in, the excitement of the start is long gone, and now in the quiet, the reality is so much more present.
It is closer to you. You can hear your own breathing and the breathing of those around you, laboured, heavy and irregular.
You can hear the rhythmical stomping of feet and the coughs of the competitors as they fight for their breathe against the stinging incline.
Here you are quite alone, and in your solitude, you search for rhythm and reason. You search for rhythm in the breathing. Slow it, steady it.
You check your heart rate on your watch, smooth your stride and slow everything down to prepare yourself for the rest of the race. Perhaps you remind yourself of the reason you started this race in the first place.
The Bridge is a pause, without actually pausing. It’s a mental check-in, “How do I feel? How is my pace? How are my legs? How long is this damn bridge? (or words to that effect, perhaps it was a little stronger than that).
You start to notice things, that in the noise of Queens and Brooklyn, weren’t there. Or at least they were hidden by the party and the people. Here, on your own, on the bridge, the party is on hold.
Someone has pushed the pause button on the whole thing, but you are still running.
It’s at this time that you need something, not something physical, but something psychological. Something to inspire you, something to drive you on and give you a push.
Then, thankfully, the bridge begins to yield, it flattens and starts to descend. “Oh sweet, sweet descent”. Your legs open up and you start to drift down the gradient.
At the end of this bridge you are into Borough 3 of 5. Brookly and Queens done, the bridge leads over into Manhattan. As you descend it remains fairly quiet, the bridge starts to turn around the off-ramp onto one of Manhattans vast Avenues.
And then it hits you.
As you turn the corner and run down onto the Avenue, thousands of people line the streets, the noise is deafening and, in an instant, all the silence of the bridge is gone. The party is back on, and the noise and energy of thousands of New Yorkers hit you in the back, pushing you all the way up 2nd Avenue to the Bronx.
The buildings rise high on either side of the avenue magnifying the wall of sound, almost as if you are indoors.
It’s worth the entire race for that moment alone. Coming down off the bridge into Manhattan to streets lined with people and you running through the middle of them.
Running down into Manhattan, the spirit soars and you are back to running as though the race just started.
At least for a while…
This is where it gets hard. You have to maintain the 6:50 pace that you started at. The legs are tiring, strength is starting to fade. It’s in these moments that energy starts to drain and pace starts to slow.
It’s here that I needed some help…
I can’t remember when she arrived. I just remember becoming aware that I had someone running next to me stride for stride, and I wasn’t sure how long she had been there.
It must have been as the energy reserves faded down into Manhattan that I noticed her. The long drag up to the Bronx was starting to take its toll and the pace was becoming hard in the second half of the race. As the fun and excitement start to fade, in the second half, you need something to pull you through.
It turns out she showed up half way along 2nd Avenue.
You don’t want to slow down when you are running stride for stride with someone. Partly because you don’t want to be beaten. But after a short time, I realised we weren’t running against each other we were running with each other, maybe even a little bit for each other.
On my own, I know I would have dropped the pace: she would have done the same. But running next to each other like that, just a little bit faster than either of you want to because you are harnessing some of each others energy.
A will to not give up and not slow down.
Not to beat the other person, but because now not only are you relying on yourself not to slow down, but they are relying on you too. There was tremendous power in that. A power that enabled me to run at a pace that would have been impossible on my own at that moment.
So we ran together.
We ran together, not even turning to each other to acknowledge each other or what we were doing but at that moment we had decided we were going to get ourselves and each other through the last 10 miles and into central park, shoulder to shoulder.
The Bronx, 5th Avenue, & The Park
This is the real bit. Without my new friend next to me here I wouldn’t make this bit, not at this pace.
You are essentially running North past the finish into the Bronx before turning around to come back down Fifth Avenue into the park. My brain knows this, it wants the discomfort to stop. “Just turn into the Park and you are done”.
So close and yet so far.
Subconsciously here, the brain starts to slow you down, your chimp pulling at you heavily to slow down and make life easier. But not if you want that sub 3 hour time.
Just having her there, going through the same thing stride for stride made it bearable, it made the discomfort that little bit more tolerable.
All the miles seem longer, you count the minutes, seconds and miles in your head. By this time it is constant maths (in my case likely inaccurate and highly questionable maths). “If I am at 7:10 pace now…..but have done the last few miles at 6:55 and there are 5 miles left….no, 5.2 miles left. Am I on pace?
“Just keep strong. Hold at this pace, control your breathing. Strong strides. Rhythm.”
As you turn back down towards Manhattan and skyscrapers can be seen in the distance you are filled with hope. “We are on the way back over into Manhattan” You can see the Empire State and Chrysler Building Ahead of you. “Once we get onto 5th Avenue, we are done. Straight down the Avenue, into the Park, round the loop and….”
You see those trees above, in the picture on the right? That’s it! Get into Central Park and you are home. You turn right in under the canopy of trees and follow the park around the road to the south and it leads you around to the finish.
Anything I had left in my legs gets put in here. I push down 5th Avenue and turn right into the park my partner in crime still next to me.
Everything becomes a blur around the park, you know you are there!
Before you know it you are over the line in the park, I look around and I have lost her in the bodies…
Then I spot her and she greets me with a huge smile.
We hug, thank each other and let each other know that we wouldn’t have been able to do that without each other. Then we go our separate ways.
I am not even sure we asked each other’s names. I don’t think either of us cared, and perhaps at this point, after running 26.2 miles, we couldn’t actually recall our own names.
We did what everyone else does at that point. Performed a wobbly walk to have a medal placed around your neck, water bottle paced in your hand and be ushered out of the finishing chute and up out of the park.
I didn’t get the sub 3 hours, and I didn’t care. I knew I had given the run everything, nothing held back.
12 Months later I would run the Chicago Marathon in 02:57:10 starting at 6:20-minute miles and hanging on by the end at 8:20-minute miles, ……just…but that is another story…
For now, I was aimlessly stumbling around the busy streets around Central Park. Thousands of bodies and marathon finishers wrapped up like baked potatoes as far as the eye can see.
“Right, where am I, and where the bloody hell is the hotel from here?”
Pictured Above: The fun at the finish
As a footnote, do not attempt to take a 20-minute ice bath in the open-air swimming pool on the roof of your hotel in New York, in November. There is a considerable risk of mild hypothermia.
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