The hard work paid off and yesterday I found myself on a 6am ferry to Staten Island on my way to the ING New York City Marathon! The morning was cold and there was frost on the ground in SI, but luckily I was dressed in layers, so I was nice and toasty. I munched on a bagel, downed some Gatorade and water, and ate bites of random "bar food" (those healthy protein energy bars) I had packed in my bag. I made sure my new Injinji socks were snug and my new Vibram Five Finger Bikila's were flexible and velcroed on tight (who needs laces when you have velcro?) I sat in a parking lot for about two hours with thousands of other runners in my time wave before they told us to get ready and start heading to our official corrals. I made use of the bathroom one last time (hey, you shouldn't run on a full stomach) and then headed to the race start.
There wasn't much room to stretch due to the overcrowding, but I found a small clearing and then began my pre-race dynamic stretches. We waited in the corral for about forty minutes for who-knows-what, so I passed the time chatting with a fellow runner who happened to be standing next to me. This was his first marathon, but he had done trail races further than 26.2 miles before. I told him he'd have no problem then with a measly 26.2 miles.
After the national anthem was sung and Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave us a short pep talk, the horn was sounded and we ran en-masse up the slow incline of the Verrazano Bridge out of Staten Island and into Brooklyn. I focused on my running form (Pose-->Fall-->Pull) and on pacing myself. One of the biggest problems first-time marathoners have is going out too fast, not leaving themselves anything for the second half of the race. I felt great as we ran over the bridge, and I kept thinking two things: 1) I'm actually running a marathon!!! and 2) Crap, I still have 25 more miles to go.
The second we exited the bridge and entered Brooklyn I saw thousands of fans clapping, cheering, singing, and urging us on. It put a HUGE smile on my face and gave me a burst of energy. There was so much positive energy and so many people happy to see us suckers running. Without the crowds the run would've been boring, but they made it a memorable experience.
I made sure to grab either Gatorade or water at every other drink station to stay hydrated and avoid getting a migraine later in the evening, which had been a giant problem after some of my long training runs. Unfortunately, I didn't drink enough, as you'll find out later...
So my goal for the race pre-ankle injury was to finish in 3:30:00, an 8-minute per mile pace, but since the injury I wanted to finish in 3:45:00, and 8:30 minute per mile pace. And honestly, as long as I finished under four hours I'd be happy. The first eight miles flew by, and I was in cruise control. A bit too much cruise control actually. My average pace to that point was 7:36 minute miles, which was way too fast and not sticking with the game plan on pacing myself. But I felt great, the crowd was there, the weather was beautiful, my breathing was slow and steady and my feet felt just peachy. Plus, I just sucked down a Gu Energy gel power pack at mile seven, so life was good.
The energy in Brooklyn stayed high the whole time, and there were small bands performing every quarter mile or so. That was really cool. We hit the bridge to head into Queens at the halfway point, and my time was still well under 8:00 miles (1:42:18), and actually just two and a half minutes slower than my half marathon PR (personal record) time of 1:39:55. I guess pacing myself isn't my strong suit. I sucked down another gel energy pack and then I was in another borough.
The Queens's crowd was a bit thinner than Brooklyn, but I was able to find my friend Wendy in the mix just before mile 15 which really boosted my morale. Getting a personal shoutout is the coolest! Thanks Wendage!
Before I knew it we were on the 59th St. Bridge, and this was the first time in the race I didn't feel 100% anymore. The only things that kept me going up the never-ending incline was knowing all of Manhattan would be on the other side of the bridge on First Avenue, cheering like mad.
My feet were starting to hurt a bit, and I was worried about getting blisters on the bottoms. I think I may have cursed out loud at the steep decline ramp exiting the bridge at mile 16. Good riddance stupid Bridge.
And then BAM! First Avenue. I felt like I was the star of some parade or something. Just people lined up 10 deep to see a bunch of sweaty people run. There were no words to describe it. I got that same sensation as when we first entered Brooklyn back at mile two and my mouth opened up into a gigantic smile. I held my arms out in the air and soaked up the moment. It was a truly indescribable feeling.
Reality hit soon after as I kept stepping in every crack and pothole First Ave had to offer. Don't they pave ever? My feet were hurting at this point pretty good, but without a specific blister spot, I thought I'd be ok. My feet just felt like they'd been tenderized. I bought a brand new pair of Vibram Five Finger Bikila's and Injinji socks a couple weeks before the race for the extra cushion in the ball of the foot area. While my feet were hurting, I couldn't imagine how they'd feel in my old, paper-thin pair. Yikes!
I kept my eyes peeled for friends along the way, but was disappointed I didn't see anyone I knew. My sister was waiting with a big old "Go Barefoot Benny" sign, but I passed her unnoticed since I didn't know where she'd be. Next I looked for my friends Josh and Rachael on 89th St, and then I saw them waving their arms and calling my name. AWESOME!!!
And then I peeked at my watch to make sure I wasn't early to see my wife and daughter up at 95th St. (mile 19). I told her to get there no later than 11:55am in case I was early, but that I'd probably be passing them around 12:15pm or later. The time was 12:05pm, just after noon, so I knew they'd be there. I stayed left and then I saw them! Fiona was asleep in her stroller and my mother in-law was at a store making me a big sign (thank you!) but my lovely wife was there waving and screaming for me. I ran over, pulled her close and gave her a sweaty kiss. Now THAT was a much needed morale boost! She's been so patient with my whole marathon training and pulling all the weight when it comes to taking care of our daughter while I'm out dancing on pavement.
Unfortunately, the adrenaline of First Avenue wore off soon after, and it was slow going up into the Boogie Down Bronx to mile 20. My longest training run and longest distance ever run was 18 miles, so this was unchartered territory for my legs. The Bronx had some crowds and some music and some spirit, but nothing like the First Ave crowd. Still, it was a huge help having them there. And then all of a sudden we were back in Manhattan on 5th Avenue after crossing the Madison Avenue Bridge.
Fifth Avenue. The home stretch. This was it. I was going to finish a marathon! By possibly crawling. Uh oh. At this point, around mile 22, I hit the wall. Lots of people say you hit the wall at mile 20, so I thought I was in the clear since I was past there already. My pace felt slow and I knew my form wasn't good, and my hips felt tight from 22 miles of repetitive motion. I wish I had stretched more. And paced myself a lot better. But I mentally girded myself by picture the fast four mile run I had done as my last training run earlier in the week, and how good I felt during it. And four miles was nothing compared to the longer runs I had done. But damn, where was Central Park already?!?!
Central Park was my training ground, and I knew every hill and twist intimately. I was finally home at mile 24. And then my left leg started to feel tight. And then CRAMP! My left hamstring seized up, and I had to force myself to keep it straight. The crowd in the Park was phenomenal, and some lady cheering said "You can do it, keep going". I felt like I could run the final two miles no problem, but without the ability to move my legs, I was stuck. She offered me some chocolate milk for some reason, but I said thanks but no thanks and limped to the fluid station luckily a hundred feet away. I chugged two Gatorades, bent my legs, and started to run again. If I had to walk the final two miles I'd come in right around the four hour mark, but I really wanted to get under 3:45. The goal of 3:30, which seemed so reachable only an hour ago, was now unattainable. It was crazy to see so many other runners walking or stopping abruptly due to cramping, and I felt lucky I could at least do a 9+ minute per mile pace.
And then just after mile 25, at one of the busiest places on the course, full of thousands of spectators, my right leg cramped up. I felt embarrassed and ashamed that I couldn't give the crowd a solid run, and I was pissed at myself for being gimpy. I walked it off yet again and kept running at a turtle's pace. The finish was just around the corner and up a slight hill, and there was no way I'd let myself walk across the finish line.
I started to feel the cramping again, but I said aloud to msyelf, "Not again. NO!" People thought I was probably crazy, but I wanted to finish the race already. I shortened my stride and finally, finally, finally crossed the finish line in 3:39:14! Yes!!!
I wish I could say it felt great, but man did it hurt! We had to walk and keep moving, because sitting allows the blood to pool in the legs, causing clots. Plus, thousands of people kept arriving every few minutes, so stopping after the finish would cause a traffic jam. The post-marathon walk was, in my opinion, harder than the actual marathon. All I wanted to do was sit and stretch and drink fluids, but no - all we could do was walk. Brutal, but necessary I guess.
The New York City Marathon is an amazing race, and it was an incredible experience made special by the millions of spectators, cheerers and musicians spread along the 26.2 mile course. And a big thank you to all those who donated to my fundraiser for the University of Massachusetts Hillel House! I'm still accepting donations to get to that $1,000 goal. I've gone to each of NYC's five boroughs in a single day during the Five Borough Bike Tour, but never have I imagined that I could run all five in one day. Just an amazing experience all around!