The pack spreads out almost instantly as we climb the first mile up the Verezzano-Narrows Bridge and I settle back into a controlled pace. I had hoped the pack would start more conservatively like last year, (giving me at least a couple miles to feel the thrill of running with the leaders,) but they take off. According to my watch, my first two miles are 5:53 and 5:15. The goal was to average 5:45 for the two, but I’ve run too fast up one side of the bridge and too fast down the other side. Less than two minutes later on flat terrain, I get a stomach cramp. 24 miles to go. Sweet.
The third mile I run much much slower, belly breathing and massaging my stomach, remembering there is a long way to go. But the cramp gets worse. I debate stopping and rubbing it out. Instead I reach into my sports bra and unzip the old Picky Bar bag that is living its second life as an emergency liquid antacid stash and attempt to pour it in my mouth, but half of it catches the breeze and blows across my face. Hopefully its enough.
I hit the 5k mark, take my first water bottle, and the cramp disappears. Relief and optimism flood in with my electrolyte drink. American Molly Pritz pulls up by my side and we begin what would become the best 12 mile run of my life.
NY Marathon is famous for the energy of its crowds, but since the pro women start 30 minutes before the other 47,000 participants, everywhere we go there is a feeling that we are a bit early for the party, the hosts still mixing the guacamole and figuring out where the guests will put their coats. Nonetheless we run past grunge cover bands, curious families, church choirs, a community of Hasidic Jews, DJ’s. There are moments I notice the strangest details around me but there are far more miles that simply pass by in a blissful blur.
My legs are locked into a rhythm and my body flows freely. Molly and I chat a bit here and there and giggle appreciatively when fans scream our names. I pat myself on the back for how conservative we are running and start plotting the logistics of when I’ll make my big move…10k to go? Wait for a little final 5k smack-down?
The Beginning of the End
And then…THEN…the freaking Queensboro Bridge. This long, lonely, barren, dark, concrete covered, windy, solitary, stupid bridge. My heart-rate skyrockets as we head up the first minute of the bridge’s incline. Its clear I’m working much harder than Molly so I let her go and run within myself the rest of the way up the hill. After FINALLY cresting the top, I attempt to float down the other side but my feet seem to be smacking the pavement rather than springing back. This is the first sign of wear but the rest of me feels refreshed after the downhill as I work back into my groove up 1st Ave.
The road is incredibly wide and lined with screaming spectators and I can see at least four of my competitors spaced out in front of me over the course of the next mile. Despite having six road lanes to choose from, we all run in a single-file line in the footsteps of whoever came before us, preferring not to think for ourselves.
I see mile 19 and take note that I’m not thinking very clearly anymore. It’s a subtle change, but I’m thinking less and less about passing people and more about the basics of survival: water stops, fueling opportunities. I attempt to refocus by running through an inventory of my body: heart, lungs, core, legs…all still working pretty well. I’m no spring chicken by any means, but I’m still clipping along. I tell myself to forget everything that has come before this. Take the edge off. Don’t worry about time. Pretend you are just going out for a brisk 7 mile run back in Eugene, like you do almost every day. You’ve run tired many times before.
Its not like they say it is in books; at least it doesn’t feel that way to me. Somewhere around mile 21 it’s feeling very difficult to run but it’s not like I’ve smacked head first into a wall. It is more like someone has added a sandbag to my back every couple minutes while I was zoning out and suddenly I realize I’m running much slower. I try to pick up the pace but my body simply will not respond.
At mile 22 I’m having trouble doing the math of what’s left. I decide to ignore all the mile markers and screaming fans and focus exclusively on moving my legs; I completely remove myself mentally, refusing to let myself freak out about the loss of control over my body. I’m afraid that if I acknowledge the problem, it will get worse and my body will simply stop moving. Instead, in my mind I’m on Pre’s Trail in Eugene going for an easy four mile stroll like I’ve done a thousand times before. My hope is that if I tune out for long enough, I’ll reopen my eyes and find myself in view of the finish line in Central Park.
After what feels like forever, someone leans way over the railing and screams my name inches from my face, drawing me out of my trance. Her eyes are brown and she has the skinny arms of a distance runner. I must be near the finish…where is the mile marker? The sign ahead slowly comes into focus: 23 miles. Oh God. It’s only been one mile. How is that possible?
It’s Only a 5k
The state of my mind and body is so terrible that I can’t even imagine covering a distance that should be a reflex for me after 16 years. How the hell am I going to make it 5k in this state? I feel every meter of those last 5000. My tonail is hanging by a thread. My quads, hips and butt muscles are hardly even firing and I feel like a sloppy puppet on strings being dragged up and over the hills by a 3 year old child.
As soon as I think it, I throw the thought away and go right back to putting one foot in front of the other. I am flow. The marathon doesn’t even exist. The metal barricades lining this hilly course through Central Park don’t exist. The rows of people three-deep screaming at me don’t exist. I’m running with my eyes nearly closed, tiny slits allowing only a ray of light through my eyelashes. This gives me the impression that I’m in that white room in the Matrix, surrounded by nothing. It feels good to be surrounded by nothing.
Time passes. A girl is screaming at me. I open my eyes. She is wearing a Canyon High School Cross Country T-shirt just like one I have at home. She is running alongside me. She has hopped the barrier. She is cheering me on and smiling. She suddenly looks alarmed. Is she in trouble? No. She is alarmed because of how I look. She is concerned. I start to laugh.
You know what’s awesome? I say to myself. Never in my life will a 5k feel this hard again. There is something powerful and crazy and amazing about that realization. I notice the sign that says Mile 26. Road markers tick down the yards to the finish line that towers ahead of me. Its closer than I thought. Someone is waving me to the right side of the finish line. I cross under the banner and I stop. A medal is placed around my neck. My legs feel like they want to keep going, caught in perpetual motion like when you step off a treadmill. I suddenly wonder if I stopped too soon. Is the finish line further up there? No? My legs suddenly kill. I can hardly stand. My back muscles, hips and quads have been disengaged. Mary Wittenberg is holding me up. I thank her. Jesse takes me from her. I thank him. Why am I thanking people? My eyes are back to tiny slits. All I see is noise.
Jesse told me that it took 10 minutes for me to come back to Earth. All I remember is pain, being walked places, and a self-conscious feeling that I shouldn’t answer any questions or baby noises might come out of my mouth. After that I start talking to everyone and feel fine except that I’m hypothermic and freezing to the point of convulsing. Despite the alarm of people around me, I keep insisting that I’m totally fine. It takes 30 minutes in a tent, a Mylar blanket and two cups of scalding tea that burn my shaking arms before my body stops shivering. And as soon as it does, I’m whisked off to a press conference where I run into Queen Latifa (total coincidence), eat lots of amazing food and talk to reporters for a couple hours. I’m gleeful at my accomplishment but also exhausted. This makes doing interviews especially challenging.
As I walk back through the lobby of my hotel, I’m amazed to see at least 200 other runners milling about, wearing their medals. I limp through the crowd, past people hugging, chatting, limping in other directions. The wall of the elevator supports me on the ride up to the 40th floor. In my room, Jesse is fast asleep, experiencing the unique exhaustion of an invested partner of a marathoner. I watch him for a moment trying to figure out what to do with myself. There will be parties to attend, champions to crown, and people to celebrate with. I lift up the covers and crawl in behind him, asleep before the covers are again warm.
Interested in another side of the story? Read Jere Longman’s version of the weekend and see some pics in his piece from the New York Times. Here’s the link.
I’d love to read your comments about your marathon experiences. Do tell!