Through the 5 Boroughs

A marathon post about my marathon
Today, my body is tied in knots. Some ligament or tendon on the outside of my left knee is throbbing, and my legs are so sore and my hips so stiff that I have trouble walking up and down stairs. My back is stiffening, and I've been on Advil non-stop since yesterday morning. I went outside today to run errands, and I walked down the street like Kevin Spacey playing the part of Roger "Verbal" Kint in The Usual Suspects, my left leg dragging behind me like bag of dirty laundry. If I'm standing, it hurts to sit down. If I'm sitting, it hurts to stand up.
The way I feel this morning (physically), I can't help but try to understand why it is that I ran the NY Marathon yesterday. Human bodies, with the rare exception of some outliers on the edge of the bell curve, are not optimized to run that distance. But whereas most animals might be willing to push their bodies to the limits for survival (to find food, procreate, escape predators), only humans do so for recreation. Only a human could transform such a physically traumatic experience into something transcendent.
I wasn't thinking about that when I tried to fall sleep the night prior to the marathon. I'm normally a night owl, so even to lie down at 11 p.m. was an odd feeling. I didn't have high hopes of getting much sleep, but I didn't worry about it as much as I had in the past. I've never slept well before big endurance events like Seattle to Portland, RAMROD, or riding up Mont Ventoux, whether from jet lag or excitement or anxiety, or all of the aforementioned. For single day events, one night's sleep is not as important as all the nights leading up to the day. So I didn't stress about the thumping bass from my next door neighbor's Saturday night party (the funkiness concluded around 1 a.m.) or the blaring of horns from eternally impatient cab drivers on the street (their impatience never ends). I finally fell asleep sometime around 2:40 a.m., and just as I did, my phone rang.
Who could be calling at this hour? I looked at my phone. It was my phone alarm, and it was 5:00 a.m. already. I showered, dressed, skipped breakfast, and cabbed over to the NY Public Library to meet Jenny and Jason for the buses to Staten Island. Thousands of runners snaked along several blocks to load hundreds of buses. On the over hourlong bus ride, we all knew it would be a warm marathon day. The sun, not filtered by a single cloud in the sky, heated up our bus like a sun room and had us all stripping out of our outer layers.
Jenny was in the Orange start group, Jason and I in the Blue (all marathoners were split arbitrarily into three groups--Orange, Blue, Green--to split the traffic flow into three manageable streams during the first several miles of the race). Jason and I spent most of that time waiting in line for bathrooms, applying more sunscreen and BodyGlide, and snacking.
I felt calm, though anxious about one decision: should I wear the black, long-sleeved Under Armour shirt my sisters and brother-in-law had purchased for me as a gift, or should I wear one of my regular short-sleeve running shirts? My long-sleeve had "Go Eugene" ironed on the front, and to distort a Steve Martin line from The Jerk, "This is the kind of spontaneous publicity I need. My name in print. That really makes somebody. Things are going to start happening to me now." Namely, people would cheer for me by name. Never underestimate the power of personalized cheering. On the other hand, in that sunshine and heat, a black long-sleeve would probably be too warm. Temperatures would reach the mid-60's by mid-day. Jason suggested I pin my number to my shorts, allowing me to switch between the two jerseys. I took his advice and started out in the hometown black.
Jason started further up in the line, in the 8000's, while I was near the back with my 36137 race number. When the cannon fired, I stood among strangers alongside a fence, far from the start. As we walked towards the start, I saw, in the distance, the first throng of runners streaming across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge like an army charging towards its enemy. A steady drizzle of runners left line to run to the fence to relieve themselves, and I felt sympathy for the women, who had to have friends devise creative means to offer them some privacy. A veteran marathoner to my right asked me what my goal was. I really had no idea, but I wore a 4:30 NikeRunning pace bracelet that felt about right. Our line wound through an opening in a fence into a parking lot, and at the end of a row of buses, the line opened up and everyone began to run. Several minutes later, I crossed the official start line, about six minutes after the opening cannon.
The first mile to mile and a half was uphill, to the midway point of the longest suspension bridge in the world. Runners were full of energy, and runners stopped to climb onto the low wall separating the two halves of the bridge for photos. Runners whooped and hollered in French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Russian, Swedish, Japanese, Chinese, and some other tongues I didn't recognize. Helicopters circled us from above and both sides. If there's one thing that always adds excitement to any event, whether it's a sporting event or a police chase, it's helicopters. So much cooler than blimps. The frantic pulsing whooshes of the helicopter blades brought me back to race day on Alpe D'Huez,
I had no idea how fast I was running, but the second half of the bridge, I tried to run as fast as possible to pass as many runners as I could. Because everyone was running different paces, everyone was accelerating and decelerating, weaving back and forth, bumping into each other, apologizing, trying to shoot through temporary gaps. I wasn't sure how I'd feel during the run, but by now I knew. My heart rate was higher than normal, and I was more worked up than on my solo training runs through the darkness of Central Park at night. Not a huge surprise, but could I sustain this for the entire run?
The first crowds appeared at the end of the bridge, in Brooklyn, lining both sides of the street, cheering passionately. I moved to the right side of the road to soak in their energy, to see their faces. I felt the urge to accelerate and pass people much more than usual. I realized later, talking to Bill, that it was in part because with so many runners, you could always spot someone who you felt like you should pass. Someone overweight. Someone much older. A group wearing rhinoceros heads. Scooby Doo and Batman. A transsexual wearing a tutu. Superman, wearing an afro. It's only after you finish that you realize unless you're a 110 pound Kenyan, you're likely to be surrounded by such people the entire race.
So many runners were pressed so close to me that I couldn't even see the road. I kept my head high, soaking in all the sights. So I didn't see a pothole emerge under the runner ahead of me, and when my left foot reached out for that next meter of pavement, it caught just a millisecond of additional air, and my foot landed at an angle. I stumbled and felt that yet-to-be-named ligament or tendon on my left knee scream in pain, and I hobbled for a few steps as the runners behind me swerved to either side like a stream flanking a boulder. This same tendon had been bothering me during the final few weeks of my training, though never enough to put me out of commission.
I panicked. I immediately thought I was done, and the anxiety overwhelmed the rush I had been riding just moments ago. I rubbed the muscle and tried to walk a few steps. Lots of pain. I bent my leg at the knee several times, standing in place, and the joint felt stable. My watch ticked out hundredths of second with a furious speed. So many runners were passing me by, and without thinking, and only with the thought to chase, I began to run. The first few steps hurt, but I realized that the injury bothered me much more when walking or starting to accelerate than it did once I achieved my natural pace. I melded back into the pack, and my heart rate settled back down. I learned, eventually, to stay to the right side of the road, because a road that slanted down to the left bothered my knee.
The crowds in Brooklyn were fabulous. One high school band played the theme from Rocky, numerous people, young and old, of all races, held out their hands and high-fived me as I passed. When people cheered my name, I'd always turn around to take a mental snapshot, because I'd pass them before I could get a good look at their faces. At the first rest stop, just past mile 3, I hit the first Gatorade or water stop and spilled an entire cup over the front of my jersey trying to drink and drive. I recalled Bill's advice to me, to pinch the cup to form a narrow spout and drink through the side of my mouth. My second cup was more successful.
At mile 6 or 7, I had to stop and change out of my long-sleeve jersey. I was roasting in the heat. It didn't help that I am a profuse sweater. I pulled on my short-sleeve and tried to tie the long-sleeve so my name still showed, but after some thirty seconds of fumbling, I gave up and just jumped back in. I wasn't racing, so I don't know why I was so anxious to keep going. In the moment, I was being swept up up in the race against the clock even though the difference of just a minute here or there would mean little to someone like me over such a long distance. When I crossed the 10K sign, I thought about my race alert e-mail flying out to my friends and family around the country (more on that later).
Arya had said he'd watch out for me by some tower. I couldn't remember if it was a clocktower or some other type of tower, but I looked for him at every tower-like structure. At mile 8 or so, I spotted him on the right side of the road, talking on his cellphone. I high-fived him, and he held out his cellphone. "Say hi to Karen!" I shouted a hello and surged on, too scared to try the stop and start with my knee the way it was.
At mile thirteen or so, when the leading men and women were facing the finish line, I had to face my second crisis. I had to use a portable bathroom. You wonder why I, a guy, wouldn't just find a bush or tree, like all the other men. Here's where I say, why do you think? And then you nod, in recognition. I had been running with the 4:30 pace group, the leader a girl who held a bunch of blue and white balloons marked "4:30." Dancing in place in line for the bathroom, I saw them round a corner and disappear, and I wanted time to stop, but I had no choice. I tried to stay calm, and after what felt like an hour, I sprinted out of the portable bathroom in hot pursuit. I didn't hold out much hope of catching them, but what I didn't realize was that they had been ahead of pace, and the pace group leader was slowing them down.
I sprinted through Queens, passing people left and right, and when I turned onto the Queensboro Bridge, the sharp incline allowed me to see far up the line of runners ahead. I spotted the 4:30 pace group balloons, several hundred yards up. This gave me a huge boost of confidence, and I began a desperate attempt to chase them down. The tight passage on the bridge made it difficult to make up long stretches of ground at a time. The hill went on for a while, but I didn't feel it. I powered on. Up ahead, I heard the a group of people singing happy birthday. At the end of the bridge, during the 180 degree turn back towards First Ave., I caught them. And for another mile on First Ave., I stayed with them.
The protracted chase had sapped me, though, and at mile 18 or so, the 4:30 balloon began to drift away, meter by meter. This time, when I tried to call on an excess reserve of energy, to press the burst button on the video game controller, nothing happened. Those several miles up First Ave. were depressing. I could see way up ahead, and First Ave. seemed to run forever, off into Canada. We were also running the wrong direction, away from the finish line, so every stride I took was another one I'd have to duplicate on the return trip. The crowds lining First Ave. were amazing, but my pain and exhaustion were pressing in on my consciousness, and I started to lose touch with the my environment.
The Bronx and Harlem were quieter than Manhattan. Around mile 20, I ran under a giant orange Nike billboard on an overpass that said something like "Run through the Wall like it's a street, 6.2 miles long." An earlier Nike billboard, at mile 14 or so, had read "Run like all of Queens is behind you." I passed Batman, whose full-body dark outfit had left him well done. There's a reason Batman only works at night and why Robin's outfit got him killed all those times.
Somewhere in this stretch, I missed Scott at the Willis Bridge. I may have passed before he arrived. I'm not certain. Back on Manhattan, the crowds burgeoned. I didn't hit a wall so much as a gradually rising incline. At mile 21, I stopped to open a packet of PowerGel. When I tried to run again, my left knee wouldn't bend. I had to limp along, swinging my left leg out wide, because it was locked straight. For a few steps, I sloshed and hobbled through a lake of Gatorade and empty paper cups, and just like the right leg of "Verbal" Kint transforming into Keyser Soze, my left leg metamorphosed from a useless stump to a working leg. I decided at that point it was too risky to stop any more until the finish line.
When we reached the northeast corner of Central Park, the crowds were in a frenzy. The screaming of the crowds lining both sides of the avenue was hypnotic. The sounds, along with the visual cacaphony of boldly designed signs, vibrating noise sticks, and wildly waving arms, reminded me, for some ridiculous reason, of the concluding fight in Karate Kid II, when Mr. Miyagi and all the spectators are twirling those hand drums. "Daniel-San, this not tournament. This for real." It pulled me into a trance in which my awareness narrowed. A few times I closed my eyes, to avoid seeing how long and endless the street looked, and to simply feel myself running. I could distinguish the occasional individual face, maybe one of every twenty people.
When I turned to enter the park, I recognized the road. I had run it many times during my training. I locked back onto the energy and incredible enthusiasm of all the spectators and race volunteers, and it lifted me along. For them to spend hour after hour, cheering, for the most part, complete strangers, meant so much to the runners.
I put my long-sleeve shirt back on when we reached the southern end of the park and turned right towards Columbus Circle, both in the hopes of some last minute crowd support, and in case James and Angela were nearby. I looked down and realized that most of the ironed-on letters had fallen off. What remained was "G Eug." Very cryptic. Many spectators looked at my chest, ready to scream, only to scrunch their faces up in confusion. But one girl, just past Columbus Circle, used her Wheel of Fortune skills to see the hidden message and shouted, "Go Euge!" I could have kissed her, but I could only manage a backwards glance and a smile, a much-needed smile.
I tried to summon one last kick as I saw the finish line, but even with so magnetic an oasis before me, I had none. I raised my arms as I jogged under the finish clock. I could finally release my poor body from its task, and I slowed to a halt. Twenty seconds passed before I remembered to stop my watch. I looked at the time. 4:36 and change. A volunteer handed me a foil blanket which I wore like a cape. I kept walking, and another volunteer handed me my race medal, and another placed a bottle of water in my hand. I stopped for a race finish photo and then joined the throng of finishers in the long walk to pick up our start-line race bags from the UPS trucks parked along the road.
On both sides of me, runners were leaning against faces or hunched over on the curb, vomiting. Numerous runners lay on stretchers, medical personnel massaging their legs, asking them questions like what is your name? Do you know where you are? Yet others were embracing, and many were weeping from what I surmise was an overpowering cocktail of elation and pain. Those of us still standing staggered along like a procession of refugees from a war, wrapped in our foil blankets like so many ballpark hot dogs.
My UPS truck, number 72, turned out to be the last of all the trucks, and so I had to hobble along for what felt like another 26 miles until I retrieved my bag. I changed out of my running clothes and walked out of the park to the friends and family greeting areas. I didn't see anyone in my area which wasn't surprising because I hadn't told anyone which group I was in, so I headed on south towards subway stop under the Museum of Natural History. While walking, I turned on my cell phone. Ken had left me a message during the race, having followed my splits on the marathon website. I tried calling James and Angela to see where they were, but all cell circuits were busy.
Just before I walked into the station, James got through to me, and they met me at 81st and Central Park West. I had missed them at the turn near Columbus Circle, but I was really thankful I didn't miss them now. I could barely walk, my legs were so sore and stiff. We couldn't find any cabs near the Park, so we took the subway down to 14th. They escorted me home, holding me up as I struggled up and down subway stairways, and they took me all the way back to my apartment in a cab. As with cycling, once the race stops, all that race hydration becomes excess, and I had to go to the bathroom every five minutes for the next half hour. I was starved by now, and the banana and apple and granola bar they had given me at the finish just didn't appeal to me. Angela walked to a nearby deli and bought me a roast beef sandwich, and it was the best roast beef sandwich I've ever had.
I checked online and realized that none of my race alerts had reached my friends and family. The Google Group I had set up was private, and only members of the group could send messages to the group. Since the NY Marathon e-mail server wasn't a member of the group, its messages had all bounced.
I saw my race splits for the first time:
1:08:05 10K
2:19:49 Half marathon
3:32:05 20 mile
4:36:12 Net time*
4:41:51 Finish time
*Net time is adjusted for when my chip actually crossed the start line, while Finish time is not
Almost everyone who called to congratulate me asked if I would run another. I don't know yet. On the one hand, with enough time to complete a full training schedule, on a flatter course, on a cooler day, I'd love to see how much I could improve my time. When I had ran my 20 mile long run, several times around Central Park, on a cool night, I had run a 9:12 pace for every mile, and I felt strong the whole way. If I could peak like that on race day, maybe I could even approach a four hour finish time. And the experience of having millions of people cheering you over 26.2 miles and five boroughs is something you can only earn by being on the road, not the sidewalk.
On the other hand, I've never felt so beaten up after a sporting event. I'm worried about my left knee, my right knee, my ankles, my arches, and my hips. 26.2 miles of pounding them against the concrete was a cruel thing to subject them to. And the training, even though I only ran for two and a half months, seemed like an eternity, mostly because I did almost every run alone. So I'm uncertain whether I'll run another one, and for now, I'm in no hurry to decide.
Almost anyone can finish a marathon. That I'm convinced of after having seen all the different types of finishers, from octogenarians to the overweight to the physically disabled. I saw a man with one leg, and another on crutches, and one man with cerebral palsy pushed himself backwards in a wheelchair from 8 a.m. until 6:49 p.m. to finish in darkness. But is it worthwhile? Some say that running 26.2 miles changes you, extends your belief in what you can accomplish. Others argue that running such distances is unhealthy and needlessly so, especially in pursuit of feelings one can achieve in safer ways.
They're both right, perhaps. An event like a marathon is difficult enough that every person must answer that for themselves. Running 26.2 miles has become, in our culture, the world's pre-eminent incarnation of a trying physical and mental quest, a walkabout for the modern man. I don't love running, and I find long distance running boring and extremely painful, but the marathon put me back in touch with a mental toughness I wasn't sure I still possessed. There's strength in feeling like you can endure discomfort for longer than the next guy, and that translates into all aspects of life. I had never run more than four or five miles before I began training for the marathon, and in just eleven weeks, I worked up to 26.2 miles. Most everyone of reasonable health can do the same; the most significant barrier to doing so, for me, was mental.
Just past the finish line, I saw a middle-aged man, bald except for hair on the sides of his head. He wore a long beard, lined with grey, and he was lying on a stretcher on the sidewalk while medical personnel attended to other delirious runners nearby. The man's legs splayed out awkwardly, and his eyes were shut, but not enough that I couldn't see that his eyes had rolled back into his head as if he was unconscious. His breathing was shallow. His right arm lay to his side, hanging off the stretcher, limp. If he had been in a hospital, one might think he was near death.
His left hand, though, clutched the medal that hung from his neck. And his lips curled up ever so slightly at the edges, offering a hint of a smile like Mona Lisa's, as if he had just discovered an unexpected treasure locked away in the darkest corners of his heart.