The Marathon

NYC Skyline
NYC Skyline

“It’s out there, lurking around mile 23 or 24,” is what the man I was sitting next to said.  We’d both caught the 5am bus to Staten Island and were trying to convince our bodies that it wasn’t raining or 38º in the pre-dawn light.  The race organizers had 43,000 people to cart to the starting line and so several 100 buses had begun taking people over the Verrazano Bridge long before the gun would sound.  I arrived in the drizzle about 5:30am for a race start of 10:20.  Fortunately the race sponsors had set up some open air tents prior to the rain so the ground I was sitting on was dry but the light breeze cut through my ultra light running clothes and left me shivering.  The guy I was sitting next to had brought a roll out matte and blanket and was obviously a returning contender as he was prepared.

“Yeah, I’ve heard that,” I said holding back a shiver.  A little more conversation and I came to learn that my new lawn buddy had flown in from the Philippines, was 62 and that the NY Marathon was going to be his 3rd in less than 8 weeks.  He’d run Chicago and Detroit earlier this fall.  I had to laugh thinking I’d be lucky to cross the finish line and here’s this guy, 15 years my senior, running his 3rd in less than two months.  As the sky lightened and the rain subsided the buses continued to arrive and our little corner of grass filled with more participants. It was then that my Filipino friend told me he’d run a total of 12 marathons.  He used to be a chain smoker and uses running to replace the smoking addiction.  I thought one marathon was a lot but 12?

Soon we were surrounded by an Italian family, mom, dad and daughter all from Palermo.  In very broken English we learned that mom and dad had done 7 marathons and run with an Italian team.  Their 19 year-old daughter was running her first.  She looked really cold and a team member from somewhere on the other side of the tent brought her a space blanket.

A woman from Minnesota sat down next to us.  She complained about the cold as her running partner joined. They run on a team out of Minneapolis.  Her partners wife also runs but had an injury so it was just the two of them this morning.  And so, there we were with about 90 minutes to kill in the cold.  I thought it was amazing and wonderful.  In no other place would we have all met.  We took turns going to the toilet watching our gear for one another.  At one point the Filipino and I went to get bagels and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee for the group.  He was amazing to watch in the crowd.  This little guy just made his way to the front of the line got the goods and slipped out.  No waiting in line!

As I stood there with my mouth agape he said, “The wall.”  “Huh?” I asked.  “The wall, its out there around mile 23, 24,” he said through a broad smile.  “Oh, oh yeah,” I said.  “Eat this bagel, you’ll need the energy later,” he said.  I didn’t want to talk about it because I’d read a lot about the last 6 miles of a marathon and by all accounts they are the longest of the race.  My friend knew it was my first attempt and he wanted to make sure I saved something for those miles.  We made it back to our group and shared coffee and bagels.  The Italians brought a few bananas and we all got a taste of those too.  We all laughed and waited patiently for our time to get ready.

When you sign up for the race they ask you for your estimated time of finishing.  These times help them put slower runners to the rear so the faster runners aren’t stumbling on people as they make their way to the finish line.  Back in March when I signed up for the race I estimated it’d take me 11 minutes per mile or around four hours forty minutes.  That put me in wave 3 of the orange section.  All of my new found friends were running in wave 2 of the green section so when it came time to go we had to part ways and go to our starting corrals.  It was kind of sad but we all wished one another well and said our goodbyes.  In hindsight I wish I’d gotten some contact info or at least their bib numbers so I could see how they did.  They were all experienced so I’m sure they all finished.

I walked in the direction of my corral and drank the Pinole and Heed energy concoction that had gotten me this far.  I also removed my sweat pants but kept my long sleeve top.  UPS had designed a drop system.  All participants had the opportunity to put their clothes in a bag with their bib number and drop it at their collection center for pickup after the race.  Pretty brilliant!  I’d heard that the race is lined with discarded clothing and that the race organizers collect it for the homeless shelters and other charities.  I needed my top for another 30 minutes to try to keep the chill out of my bones but knew I’d lose it once I’d broken a sweat.

I made my way to the corral and discovered way too late that I’d accidentally gotten into Wave 2.  Still don’t know what happened but as the wave was allowed to walk to the starting line I took the opportunity for one last pit stop.  When I emerged the gates to the starting line had closed but I found myself at the front of Wave 3.  It was perfect!!

Verrazano Bridge  courtesy of Brightroom Event Photography
Verrazano Bridge courtesy of Brightroom Event Photography

About 10 minutes more of waiting – I was really shivering now – and we walked to the bottom of the bridge.  A woman from the NY Fire Department sang God Bless America and someone fired a cannon and we were off!

The other side of the Verrazano is 2 miles away from the starting line and the only place along the route that does not host spectators.  Being at the front of the pack we all took off at a pretty good pace.  I kept saying to myself, keep it slow at the beginning so you have something left at the end but the excitement and the empty bridge in front of us called for a push.

The race sponsors put pace teams into the crowd to help people run at a certain speed.  So if you want to finish in three hours and thirty minutes you run with the person running at that pace.  They wear bibs on their backs proclaiming the pace they are setting.  One mile into the Marathon and I realized I was running at an 8:32 per mile pace and knew that was unsustainable for 25.2 more miles.  As I slowed a woman passed me who was wearing one of those pace bibs that read 4:00 hour pace.  I’d run the City to the Sea half marathon in 1:51 so figured 4 hours was something to try so I focused on her bib and began to follow it.

We reached the other side of the bridge still at an 8:35 pace (according to my Garmin watch) and I’d worked up a decent sweat.  As we entered Brooklyn I peeled off the long sleeve sweatshirt and tossed it to the side of the road.  It landed in a pile of other discarded clothing, “Hope someone finds a good use for it!” I thought.

Now it was down to running the race.  I’d found a pace team (well it was me and the 4 hour pace leader) had my drinks with me and felt as though I couldn’t have trained for another week.  We’d caught up to the back of Wave two so the field of runners became quite a bit bigger.  There was no longer an open road ahead.  We filled both sides of the four lane street and the legendary spectators formed a human barrier between us and the neighborhoods of Brooklyn.   Other runners passed us and we overtook quite a few more. I was running with a big smile on my face, really couldn’t believe I was actually doing this!  The crowds were filled with women, children and men from all walks of life.  Firemen sat on their trucks and cheered, school choirs sang, small bands played, kids passed out chocolate to any runner that wanted it and the water stations were packed with volunteers passing water and Gatorade.  The city really came out for this event!

Soon, another woman was running behind the 4 hour pace girl too.  I was on her left and she was on her right.  I’d run a few hundred miles in training for this race as a solo participant but my friend who’d run it a few years ago said it was one of the best days he’d had in New York because he’d met so many interesting people.  I had considered saying hello to my pace leader but was a little worried about this pace and didn’t want to mess her up if I fell out of the race toward the end.  The woman who’d joined our two person team introduced herself to the pace girl and as we crossed mile six and I decided to introduce myself to both of them.  Maybe their encouragement would get me over ‘the wall.’

From right: Me, Sandy (pink hat) and Angie (orange shorts) courtesy of Brightroom Event Photography
From right: Me, Sandy (pink hat) and Angie (orange shorts) courtesy of Brightroom Event Photography

The pace leader’s name was Angie and she’d never run as a pacer before.  The new member of our team was Sandy.  We all had iPod earphones in our heads and had to take one side out in order to hear one another.  I found it a comfort to be part of a team for the next 3+ hours.  I’d brought an audio book but decided to run with a mix from The Beatles.  As “Love Me Do” played in my ears we crossed the half marathon marker in 2 hours and 28 seconds.

Angie and Sandy both had watches but for some reason they looked to me for the pace.  As the miles ticked off I’d call out our times.  The crowds and gotten bigger toward the top of Brooklyn.  In some places they were 6 people deep on both sides of the road.  They were so loud at time they’d drown out John, Paul, George and Ringo.  Sandy would turn and yell, “Wow!” or Angie would say, “This is awesome.”

We were approaching the Pulaski Bridge taking us out of Brooklyn into Queens and our pace was about 9:30 – a little slow for 4 hours but we’d run many miles at a faster than 4 hour pace so we all figured we were okay.  I have a cinematographer friend who’d told me to look for him around this area and I’d begun to scan the crowd.  I discovered that it’s hard to pull out faces as you run past.  I thought there’s no way.  Then a loud voice yelled, “TOM!” and I turned to see a camera.  It was Walter and he snapped this shot.

Me at 13.5 miles.  Photo by Walter Rodriguez
Me at 13.5 miles. Photo by Walter Rodriguez

I would’ve stopped to say hello to Walter but I didn’t want to lose my pace team so that was about the extent of our passing.

As the Pulaski Bridge loomed ahead of us I got confused and thought it was the entrance to the Queensboro.  The bridge arches up over the causeway and its steep incline is a bit foreboding.  Sandy asked if it was the largest hill on the course and I said yes.  As we crossed to the other side I realized that it wasn’t our largest as we still had two miles to go before we reached the steepest hill at the Queensboro.  When I realized my mistake I let Sandy know and apologized as I know those little things can make a big difference. She shrugged it off and we kept going.

I was feeling pretty good just a little tightness in my hips.  Angie had started to follow us instead of the other way around.   Sandy would occasionally give her encouragement and she’d pull herself up to run next to us.  As we approached the Queensboro Bridge and said goodbye to Queens the crowd thinned.  We entered the bottom side of the double decker suspension which put us between the water below and the cement above.  I guess it was the steel girders and concrete but it was here that my Garmin lost its signal to the satellites and stopped.  The stop watch kept ticking but the pace and lap meters would now be off.  As we crossed over into Manhattan the watch caught the signal again but it now said we were running an 8:32 pace.  Angie said, “Those things aren’t always right.” I had to agree and told them the situation.  From here forward we’d have to rely on our watches.

Coming off the bridge was one moment in the race I’ll always remember.  There were people hanging off the girders and the crowd at the bottom was huge!  Like concert huge.  Fifteen to 20 deep and cheering.  It was amazing.  Our little three person team had the largest grins.  I stepped in a small pot hole and almost twisted an ankle and when I looked up there was one guy in the crowd pointing at me and saying something like, “Almost…”  We ran past into the streets of the greatest city.

I’d made a deal with my family to meet me at 68th street.  As we left the hoards at the bottom of the bridge we realized that the crowd extended into the city.  Again, I thought, there’s no way I’ll see them.  I scanned the crowd but didn’t see anyone I knew.  This is about mile 17 and my head was starting to get fuzzy so I thought maybe it was 86th not 68th.  My daughter had mentioned she wanted to see a gospel choir in Harlem so maybe that’s what we decided.  I couldn’t get my head around it and kept trying to play the conversation we had about meeting places the night before.  Later I’d learn that my pace out ran my fans.  They missed me by about 5 minutes on 68th.

As we approached the Willis Avenue Bridge (mile 20) Sandy asked how my legs were.  I had to admit they were feeling it.  She said hers were really paining her.  I’d lost Angie at this point.  She’d said something about needing to pee but then hung with us for the next few miles but looking over the crowd of runners I didn’t see her.  The route is short through the Bronx and soon we were running over the Madison Avenue Bridge back into Manhattan.  One fan held a sign on the other side that read, “Thanks for visiting, see you next year.”

Sandy asked if I had our time and I said 3:23.  She got really excited.  We had just over 4 miles to go and reaching the finish line in sub-4 hours was in reach.  My hips were really in pain by now.  The “wall” was looming.  As we approached  Mt. Morris Park there was a water station.  My body was pleading for water.  I’d drunk all of my energy drinks, eaten two gels and was out of pretzels.  I don’t like drinking from cups in races, you are forced to slow down to do so or the liquid ends up all over you.  I grabbed a water and slowed to a walk to suck the liquid down.  It was beautifully cool as it glided down my throat, but deadly.  My legs were so happy to stop running even for that brief moment that it took a lot to get them going again.  Sandy had pulled away and I pushed hard to catch up but the damage was done – another layer of bricks had been added to “the wall.”

I put a lot of effort into just keeping her in my sight but soon she was swallowed by the crowd pulling away.  As we rounded the corner for the last three miles the long and seemingly endless hill that rises up Central Park East looked like Mount Everest.  As in my training, I was alone – except this time I had a cheering crowd on the sidelines.  Music was annoying to me now.  I took my headphones off and tried to clip them to my shirt but they were soon dangling and I put them on my ears just so there was something to hang them on.  Push, push I kept saying to myself.

Me on Central Park East - climbing the wall  Courtesy of Brightroom Photography
Me on Central Park East - climbing the wall Courtesy of Brightroom Photography

There’s a great scene in the movie “Run, Fat Boy, Run” where Simon Peg is close to the end of the London Marathon and he is faced with the wall.  In front of him the filmmakers actually block the road with a brick barrier.   He fights his inner demons to keep going and eventually smashes through it.  As I crossed over the 40k barrier (mile 24) I was spent.  That short walk had cursed my legs.  It seemed the wall was laughing at me and I slowed to a walk.  I looked at my watch and said, okay, just 2 minutes.  I can walk that long.

The blood returned to my hips and the lactic acid set into the front of my thighs.  A trainer who’d given me advice back in February said there’d be people on the sidelines that I’d pass and say, “I’m so glad I’m not you.”  That was true.  There were a lot of people in much worse condition than I.  The road was littered with runners who’d completely stopped to stretch, get their breath or whatever.  This wall was real and brutal.

As I reached my two minute break I started to run again.  Really slowly.  I had no reserves.  Somewhere along the way in my training a runner called exhaustion a demon you have to invite along for the ride.  I said out loud, “Come on!”  I picked up the pace and was able to sustain it.  As I approached the last 1.2 miles my body was screaming to stop.  Everything in my legs, arms, lower back and brain was saying, “What the hell?” Rounding the corner to Central Park south my state of mind had me only yards from the finish line but looming ahead was still nearly a mile.  I hadn’t broken the wall I’d only skirted around it.  I had to stop again.

Me on Central Park South - photo by Caitlin Lowe
Me on Central Park South - photo by Caitlin Lowe

I’d lost the sub 4 hours and was now struggling to get in before 4:30.  As I plodded along a woman’s voice yelled, “Dad!” and there was my daughter.  She had a huge grin on her face and was taking pictures with her cell phone.

I was concentrating so hard to get across the finish line that I’d passed my family without hearing them.  I stopped long enough to give her a high-five and she said, “Way to go!”  Seeing her and knowing the rest of the gang had found me put a spring in my step and I decided that there was no more stopping!  I went back to running and rounded the corner at Columbus Circle past the grand stands.  I was determined to run across the finish line.

The road drops down into the park here and the banner reading Mile 26 sits about a tenth of a mile up on a hill.  I said to myself, I made it! But crossing over that barrier I realized it’s 26.2 miles.  That .2 was still ahead of me.  Signs read, ‘Only 400 yards to go.’  I thought, okay, that’s only four football fields.  One foot in front of the other.  ‘300 yards’  I have to stop!!  No, keep going.  Tell the ‘demon’ to shut up!  ‘200 yards.’  Jeez this is a long way to run.  The last 100 yards were a blur but I ran them all leaving the “the wall” in ruins behind me.

As I crossed the finish line I looked at my watch – 4:19.  Just under 10 minute miles.  The fast pace at the beginning paying off at the end.  Surprisingly, I found it hard to stop completely.  I wanted to keep walking but I did stop long enough for this shot.

A finisher!  courtesy of Brightroom Event Photography
A finisher! courtesy of Brightroom Event Photography

I’ve found Sandy’s finish time : 4:09.  If I hadn’t stopped for that water, maybe we’d crossed together.  That last 4 miles were a killer but I made it.  I can’t read Angie’s bib number in the photos but I’d be really surprised if she didn’t finish.

This whole experience, the training, pre-races and ultimately the Marathon has been an amazing journey.  I’ve learned a lot about myself and my fellow man.  I will keep running and have many fond memories of the 40th annual NYC Marathon.  There was an ad pamphlet sent out by Asics before the race with a route map and other marathon info.  In it there is a two line comment for each mile.  I’ll share mile 1, 25 and 26:

1 – Hello Starting Line.  Goodbye Doubt

25 – Hello Almost There.  Goodbye Disbelief

26 – Hello Finish Line.  Goodbye Old Me.

I guess in some ways that’s true.  Thanks to all of you who’ve been supporting my efforts!



tom lowe photo, llc

tacoma, wa 98406


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