It started as idle conversation on a regular run with a friend, Kevin Krause from Buckley, Michigan, after work sometime in May of this year. Discussing various marathons around the country that would be fun to do, we reached the topic of the largest of them all, the New York City Marathon. In a few hundred yards, we agreed that both of us would enter the lottery for a spot in the field of 37,000 plus runners.
July came and I received notice that I had received a spot. After a quick call to Kevin, I had a dilemma, as he had not been as lucky. After considerable internal debate, I decided this was one of the “live in the moment” times that had to be taken. We all know how short life can be and there are too many unknown variables that can alter our lives when we move something from the “now” list to the “someday” list. The whim had evolved into something real and suddenly a bit daunting.
I had completed my maiden marathon in 2003 less than 20 miles from home along the shores of Lake Michigan at Traverse City, Michigan. In 2004, I finished my second shortly after running through Lambeau Field, the home of my favorite NFL team, in Green Bay, Wisconsin. So, the 26.2 miles was certainly doable. The butterflies in the stomach were caused by the fact that it was 1,000 plus miles from home in the largest city I had ever been in. The NYC marathon would also keep the annual streak alive for another year and add to the goal of completing a half or full marathon in all 50 states sometime before my running days end.
So, I conjured up a training schedule from a running magazine that would last about 13 weeks and involve some biking and swimming. The variety of physical activity keeps my motivation higher and reduces the stress on the legs that 5 day-a-week running can cause to a 40 plus year old body.
As fate would have it, the schedule would start where I did, in Timber Lake, South Dakota as we were vacationing at my 25-year class reunion. A bike ride from the Glad Valley corner through Isabel and on to Timber Lake was a wonderful reintroduction to the wide open spaces of South Dakota that are such a stark contrast to the congestion I would find in NYC. I also smiled at the thought of standing under a tent at the Days of 1910, decidedly the best small town celebration I know and a few months later running into Central Park in the largest American event available to people from across the country as well as the world.
Once back home in Michigan, training continued with the neighborhood group that consists of four guys in our forties and a couple runs with a 50 plus year old marathon veteran to give us “kids” some encouragement. Of the 380 miles ran before New York, I ran 290 with at least one of these friends. Weekend long runs around the countryside of our rural Michigan homes were a group effort where workday stresses became erased by the physical effort and talk of family, sports, past races and future possibilities. Having trained for the two previous marathons alone, the journey to NYC was certainly much easier with the help of this group willing to run rain or shine with no other reason than getting one of us to the finish line standing up.
Logistics were worked out in September. My niece and fellow TLHS graduate, Becky Crance, an attorney in Syracuse, NY would put us up on the way out and back. After the 600-mile drive to her house, we would drive to Poughkeepsie, NY and take the train to Grand Central Station in New York City completing the 1,000-mile journey. After a few quick bids on priceline.com, a hotel was secured a short distance from Times Square and the Central Park finish line. Addresses were entered into mapquest.com and step-by-step directions were in hand. Nothing left but actually pulling it all off and finding the right time to tell Mary how much a hotel room in New York is on marathon weekend!
Friday, November 4th arrived and the journey began. My son, Zach, good friend, Kevin, and I took off just before dawn. East across Michigan to the Canadian border, we all grabbed our identification only to be waved through into another country with just a few questions and no inspection. So much for worrying about security delays! This was my first introduction to driving on a throughway (basically just a toll interstate with limited on and off traffic) not to mention the Canadian monetary exchange rate. Being properly hydrated, frequent “rest” stop inspections were a big part of the trip. Ten hours and almost as many stops later, we arrived at Becky’s in Syracuse shortly after dark. Because we had arrived before Becky got home, we stretched our legs with a walk in her yard only to step in a “gift” left that morning by one of her dogs. The remainder of our wait was spent doing the Syracuse “dog crap removal shuffle” in the leaves, road and grass!
After another pre-dawn wake up, off we went accompanied by our legal department and NY state guide, Becky. As we traveled the NY throughway, I was amazed at how rural the majority of the state was as the 3-hour drive to Poughkeepsie covered 200+ miles of rural countryside in various stages of fall color. You could feel the history in the old depot as we waited for the 11 o’clock train and watched the comings and goings of people who made this their every day life. We settled into our seats, quickly blending in to the crowd as the train ambled along the Hudson River through Harlem and into Grand Central Station at the heart of NYC.
After checking into the hotel, Kevin and I headed to the largest running expo in the world to get my race number while Zach and Becky headed to Times Square for some sightseeing. We began to see the scope and professionalism of this event as we entered the expo. I had been concerned about endless waiting in line as 37,000 runners received their race numbers, bag of freebies, commemorative t-shirt and electronic timing chips to strap to their shoelaces. I was pleased to find the wait much less than many of the smaller races I have participated in. We had plenty of time to check out the vendor area for high tech gear to cut through the wind, socks that virtually dry themselves, liquids to add spring to your step and power bars to get you through the marathon wall each runner would face the next day. Conservative that I am, I saved my money and settled for the free SpongeBob running hat in my goodie bag.
Back at the hotel, we hooked up with Zach and Becky. Kevin joined them on the town and I remained at the hotel to rest my legs for the next day. My pre-marathon evening consisted of watching the news, ordering room service pasta and going over my plans and gear for the next day. I also shaved with the lighthearted hope that the lack of hair would improve my wind resistance and allow for “high efficiency” running the next day. Think about it, all the really fast guys are clean-shaven!
Still properly hydrated, I could not get back to sleep after the third bathroom break around 4 am. I got up and out of the hotel at 5 am into the dark streets of the city. There was not much competition for a cab ride from my position on 28th street over to the NY public library on 42nd street. Runners from all over the city were stepping out of the darkness at the library to board the buses that would take us all to the starting camp at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island.
Runners are divided into three camps on Staten Island, green, blue and orange. Each camp had a Best Buy music stage, open areas, tents, food, water and porta potties like you wouldn’t believe. Arriving at the green camp before 6 am, I got a tinfoil blanket from a previous event out of my gear bag and proceeded to curl up for a nap under a tent, as were many of the early arriving runners. Sleep was a bit fitful as the loudspeaker kept blaring announcements in several different languages. I spent the rest of the 4-hour wait moving around and people watching. There were the Swiss setting up a group camp, an Asian man using cardboard to lie on, soldiers working on security, boys from a group home tossing challenges back and forth, two French men chatting excitedly and the late morning transport busses backed up on the bridge.
During this long wait, there were two main needs, food and a bathroom. My early camp was near a row of porta-potties that were mostly open until after 8 am. So, I ate my fruit, bagels and peanut butter and continued the hydration plan. Wandering around, I came across the holy grail that only someone who has stood cross-legged prior to a running event before a portable throne could appreciate, if they were male that is. There under a row of trees spanning maybe a hundred yards down a slight hill was the longest outdoor pee trough ever! Needless to say, I set up my final camp within 50 yards and didn’t wait in line the rest of the day!
After putting my baggage with a warm shirt to wear at the finish on a UPS truck, I followed the crowd toward the start at around 9:30 am. Slowly, the masses came together at the bottom of the Verrazono-Narrows bridge. One of the traditions of the run is for participants to wear extra clothing for the cool morning hours that is left behind for the volunteers to collect and donate to goodwill. Soon, the fence we were standing next to was literally covered with shirts, sweaters, gloves, caps and pants of all colors leaving everyone ready to run.
At 10:05 am, it was 70 degrees and sunny with about 80% humidity. The crowd quieted for perhaps one of the best national anthems I have ever heard. At 10:10 am, a cannon sounded and the race was finally underway. It took about 5 minutes to get to the starting line and begin the early run/shuffle. Imagine an elevator full of people wedged together and told to run without tripping and falling and you will get a feel for what the first two miles were like. I did manage to snap a picture of a fireboat shooting a water salute on the bay. The excitement in the air was contagious as was common courtesy. As tight as we were, I didn’t see anyone shove, cuss or fall. We were moving and life was good. The first two miles took 18 minutes 22 second.
Miles 2 through 8 traversed through Brooklyn over a series of mostly flat stretches with just a sea of runners ahead and behind. The green and blue camps merge at mile 4 while the orange camp enters at mile 8. The final merge created a traffic jam that left me almost at a standstill as I rounded a corner. This starting and stopping left my pace ranging from 8:31 to 9:03 per mile which was within my goal but I could feel the strain of starting and stopping begin to creep in. While I didn’t see Zach at mile 8, I would find out later that he was being interviewed by a local TV station as I ran by. The Brooklyn crowds were great and played some of the best music on the route. In one three block series, I heard “Eye of the Tiger”, “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and a very loud and appropriate “Who Let the Dogs Out”.
As the crowds continued and the tour of what I consider to be some of the most classic big city neighborhoods wore on, I arrived at the Pulaski Bridge into Queens, the half way point of the race. My watch showed just over 2 hours. I was now behind my goal of 3 hours 59 minutes but just barely. Two miles later, a steep climb lead up the Queensboro bridge with a steep winding decent into Manhattan at the 16 mile mark. My goal continued to slip away as the sun and humidity were sucking out what I thought was “the” hydration plan for me (massive amounts of Gatorade). Each mile was over 9 minutes but less than 10, I still had a shot at a personal best marathon of less than 4 hours and 9 minutes.
Manhattan had the largest and loudest crowds on the course. There were many ups and downs on 1st avenue ranging from 2 blocks to 1 mile long. As I passed 125th street, there was a half-mile climb to the top of the Willis avenue bridge. The 20-mile mark is at the end of this bridge as the race entered the Bronx. The 20th mile was my first over the 10 minute mark and I could feel my second goal begin to slip away. Another uphill and over the Madison avenue bridge took me to the 21st mile and out of the Bronx back into Manhattan.
With 5.2 miles to go, I was greeted by the “wall” so many runners must face at some point in every marathon. This is where all the reasons I wanted to do this are greeted by the “what in the hell are you doing” part of the brain and the competition rages between the two as my body tries to move forward. I say, “Crap”, toss out the goals, wants and wishes, and decide it is time to gut it out and just finish. I try to focus on the next block, another 3 minutes on the clock and then simply the another step for the next three miles. Time no longer matters, I just want the day to end.
Finally, Central Park becomes my lifesaver using its tall trees and cool shade to keep my now cramping body shuffling along. Up and down over the small hills of the park seemed like scaling the Rockies at that point in my run. The downhills hurt the quads almost as much as the hills have the calves screaming for mercy. Doing the pitiful runners shuffle that my gait had deteriorated to, more and more participants began to stream by and luckily one of them gave me a pat on the back for encouragement. That brief slap on the back plus the fact that another man was screaming in pain as he clutched a hamstring and went down as I went by got me to the finish line. Nothing like using someone else’s pain for motivation but at that point, you do whatever works. The last 400 yards are marked off in 100-yard increments so I focused on them one at a time to the end, crossing the line in 4 hours and 29 minutes. Certainly not what I planned but I had completed 26.2 miles and was still on my feet, shaky and lightheaded, but standing.
The end became a slow zombie like march as more than 350 runners per minute began to enter the finish area. The first order of business is to wrap yourself into the tinfoil blanket provided to conserve heat and begin the recovery process. As I had one eye on the medical tent, a bottle of water magically appeared from a volunteer in the crowd. I grabbed it and almost instantly began to feel it take effect. I am still amazed at how timely that one bottle of water was as my hands were numb and head reeling from the day’s effort.
While the next two tasks were quite simple, they required some effort. First, a massive row of photographers were taking finish line photos. I had to summon enough strength to stand upright and “try” to force a smile. The next stop involved lifting your foot up about 8 inches so a volunteer could cut the timing chip off your shoe. No small task when you want to do nothing but sit down for two days. No leaning on the stand or stopping for too long, the sea of finishers keeps pushing you on.
The final task is a half-mile plus walk to the baggage claim area that is a row of at least a hundred UPS trucks. Runners were collecting dry clothes, cell phones, fruit and other necessities that they had checked in at the start. Runners with less modesty than I have were simply slipping in between the trucks and changing clothes. I wanted dry underwear as much as the next man but no way in heck was I wearing my birthday suit in broad daylight AND in NYC no less. I settled for my marathon long sleeve t-shirt. Being warm plus the ache in my legs made me forget the discomfort hours of sweating can cause in those all important private areas.
The family reunion area is in alphabetical order at the end of UPS row. This was another good break for me, as I stepped under the “A” sign and started yelling before I even began to scan the crowd. Rocky yelling for Adrienne had nothing on my cry for Becky and Zach! Luckily, they were close at hand and after reaching Kevin who was watching on the other side of the street, the “entourage” was complete once again.
We corralled a cop to get directions to the nearest subway and the next part of the journey was underway. Going down stairs after a marathon is no easy task and must be fun to watch but nevertheless it was the only way to get back to the hotel to get our bags. We needed to get to Poughkeepsie as quick as possible as the Packers/Steelers game was about to start! This would be the first time in some 10 years that I would miss the opening kickoff of a Packer game, not an insignificant sacrifice in my household.
We reached the hotel, grabbed a cab and arrived at Grand Central Station with 15 minutes to spare for the next train. No time for supper however. The train was filling with end of the day commuters heading back North but we managed to find seats together. It was sure good to sit down and know you didn’t have to move for a while. Again, it was interesting to view the people getting on and off. A husband and wife were happily discussing a day in the city. West Point Cadets were returning to the barracks after a brief furlough. A simple nod was exchanged with another marathon participant because words were not necessary, a short connection borne through a common achievement.
About 90 minutes later and we were at the car and off to Syracuse. Kevin took the wheel while Becky navigated the route back to the throughway. After a stop for some hot food, we drove through a lightning storm and some rain. Excited from the day, the conversation ranged from Terrell Owens, Carolina Panther Cheerleaders, the escape of a death row convict in Houston and Middle East politics. I just sat back in amazement as Becky and Zach discussed the Middle East. Having known both since they were borne, I felt proud, old and sentimental all at the same time remembering when all they watched on TV were cartoons (Smurfs in particular!). For me life has always been the little things and I think the car rides to and from Syracuse were well worth the whole trip. Well, other than the hot shower some 8 hours after the marathon that is!
To the tune of Becky’s dogs running down the steps, we were awakened on Monday morning shortly after 5 am. The return trip was a driving and sleeping rotation between Zach, Kevin and I. While we did have to show our identification at the border, security was still unimpressive. As quick as it had begun, we were home once again.
Checking the website, I find that I finished 16,789th out of 37,516. It was the largest marathon of all time. What does that mean? It is pretty insignificant in the big picture of the world but in my small life it was a great event. To go from the eastern shore of our country and run through the crowds of our greatest city so full of history made me feel more like an American than anything I have ever done. Crossing the first bridge and viewing the skyline long since vacated by the twin towers made one appreciate being alive. I felt pride in running past New York firemen and their trucks along various spots in the route.
The New York City Marathon is simply called “the marathon” when you are in the city that weekend. Thousands of volunteers and even more thousands of spectators make every participant feel welcome and appreciated. It is hard to believe that a city like New York can create the small town feeling I so enjoy at Timber Lake in July but I know that it happened because I was there at what I will always consider the greatest American event.