After weeks of preparation and months of anticipation, I am on the other side of the race of a lifetime with so much to say, and yet I don’t know where to begin. So I will start from the very beginning.
Getting to New York City
My trip to New York City started out early on Friday night. When I got home from work, I packed a few remaining essentials into my luggage and called lights out around 7:15PM. I had a train to catch from Union Station at 3:12AM. Yes, that early. My game plan was to get to New York, drop off my luggage at the hotel, and spend a few hours at the expo. After the expo, I would check-in early to my hotel and stay off my feet until a yummy pasta and carb-heavy dinner and an early bedtime.
Surprisingly, despite such an early Friday bedtime, I was able to get quite a few hours of quality sleep. My alarm went off around 1AM and, after a quick shower and breakfast, I grabbed an Uber to Union Station, arriving just before boarding time at 3AM. Once on the train, I focused on relaxing my mind. Sleep was not possible with the conductors announcing stops every 20-30 minutes, so I watched some Netflix and focused on keeping up my carb storage and hydration. The train arrived at New York’s Penn Station just before 7AM, right in time for a Manhattan sunrise. While this plan worked logistically, it is not for the faint of heart.
Race Day Eve Morning
Having arrived in New York so early and with two hours before the expo opened, I decided to find a diner and have pancakes for breakfast. I was staying in Midtown at 55th and 7th, near Carnegie Hall, which was also incredibly close to Central Park. Deciding I needed coffee and quick, I set off to find a Starbucks and was instantly very surprised to see a lot of runners going on shake-out runs. There were almost too many; I half-wondered if maybe race day was moved to Saturday instead of Sunday. Armed with a venti dark roast, with the sun now hovering above the horizon, I walked toward Central Park in search of a diner, but instead I realized that I was almost too close to the finish line to not wander over and check it out.
At just around 7:30AM, Central Park was brimming with runners on shake-out runs, normal weekend runs, or running groups. I wandered down a path, sipping my coffee and enjoying the amber sun glowing against the fall-colored leaves, and before I knew it, I was walking along mile 26 of the marathon route. It wasn’t hard to miss: the route was lined with flags from all over the world and mile markers notifying runners of how many meters were left in the race. People were stopping and taking photos and selfies, runners were casually running along the route. I was very glad I got to New York so early.
Seeing the finish line instantly made me very emotional. I stood back for a few moments and tried to soak it in: visualizing the grand-stands lined with spectators, hearing the announcer’s voice, imagining how I would feel when I crossed the line about 30 hours later. I realized, too, that this was already the most diverse marathon I would likely ever run. There were people from all over the world holding up their country flags for pictures, and so many languages spoken around me. I felt like I was in some sort of foreign country, or the Embassy of the Community of Running. It was heart-warming to know that so many people from all over the world had something in common, and that they traveled from so far away to run the streets of New York City.
After leaving Central Park, I found a diner near my hotel that served pancakes. I chatted with another runner who joined me at the counter and took my recommendation for strawberry pancakes. Later, while standing outside hailing a cab, I noted how cold it was that morning and was very grateful I had decided to bring so many layers. My cab driver, realizing that he was dropping me off at the marathon expo, asked if I was running the next day and sent me off with some words of encouragement. I hadn’t even set foot inside the Javitts Center and already I was more excited and proud to be running than I’d felt in the months of anticipation and preparation.
The Race Expo
For as many people as there are who run this race, getting my bib was a breeze. I didn’t have my race confirmation on hand (all races are different– you kind of forget protocol), but the volunteers didn’t rush me or get frustrated that I didn’t have it with me. It was nice to feel as though they could be patient given that, as one of the runners, I had enough on my mind. Getting my bib was an immensely proud moment. I tried to take a bib selfie, and a woman saw me and said, “I can take your picture for you!” Good– I may be a bit of a photo narcissist, but I do hate using my selfie stick.
Since I had already bought the official jacket weeks earlier, there wasn’t a whole lot of shopping that I wanted to do. However, once I stepped into the Asics merchandise area, I realized that most everything was marked down to 25%-50% off. I managed to snag a pair of arm warmers, a reversible hat, a pint glass, and an adorable teddy bear wearing a race poncho as well as a sticker that unfortunately (somehow) never made it into my bag. As you can imagine, the race expo was chock full of merchants offering almost anything you could possibly want to make your running experience just a little better. I personally needed a new SPI belt (I cannot find mine anywhere) and I wanted a Run NYC water bottle from Nuun. I was also curious to learn what kind of discounts that Garmin would be offering to runners on the rose gold and white band Fenix 3 sapphire watch. I had been saving up for that watch for a long time and, if the price was right, I was absolutely prepared to buy it.
One thing I will note, however, is that because a lot of merchants are visiting from all over the country, it might be good to notify your bank that they may see some purchases hit all at once and from around the country. When the rep from Garmin swiped my debit card, it was declined. Sure enough, when I checked my email, I had several fraud alerts from my credit union with purchases showing up in Seattle, Denver, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati. Not a single charge originated in New York City. I had to step out of line to call my bank and risk losing out on the watch and the deal that came with it because they sold out of it multiple times that weekend. Expos are crazy and busy with so many people in line that you don’t want the hassle of having to call your bank to clear up some misunderstandings on top of it all. The Garmin rep mentioned that several customers were having the same problems, so it wasn’t just my personal bank.
After picking up the items I needed, I wandered around until I found the Runner’s World booth. I had a special reason for wanting to stop there: Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky, the authors of the recently-released cookbook Run Fast, Eat Slow were on-hand to sign autographs. I got to meet them, and of course I was a total fan-girl nerd about it. I thanked them for writing this book (and if you haven’t gotten a copy yet, you need to!) because I am an idiot when it comes to eating the right foods and cooking them. It is already my 2017 New Year’s resolution to cook by this book. And to hopefully learn how to enjoy sweet potatoes and beets.
Once I got everything I needed and wanted from the expo, I called my hotel to make sure my room was ready for check-in. Unfortunately, it was not. My plan to get off my feet was thwarted. Crap. I ended up finding a spot on the floor to sit and hang out for awhile, so I spent an hour or so just watching people and snacking on Pop-Tarts. I’d already been on my feet too much that morning, so I stretched as best as I could with about three stuffed-to-the-brim shopping bags (note: bring a large tote bag to the expo with you, even if you don’t plan to do much shopping). While I was sitting there, I started small-talking with another runner. I told him about my goals and he said, “This isn’t a PR course. It’s impossible with 50,000 runners, so just enjoy it. You’ll be back.” Of all the reviewing and researching I had done to prepare for this race, that was the most candid advice I had gotten. I sat there contemplating it, and realized that perhaps there was something else I needed to prove to myself more than finishing a 26.2-mile run in a certain amount of time. Maybe the marathon is how I am supposed to learn something else more important.
Race Day Eve
After checking into my hotel later that afternoon, I took a hot shower to relax my muscles before stretching and throwing my legs up on the wall over my bed while watching TV. I was due to meet my friend Telisa, who has been my Disney running buddy and Hood to Coast teammate, for dinner at 5:30. Both of us had very early wake-up calls, since she was volunteering at an aid station, so I was back to my hotel about 2 hours later. Back in my room, I could hear a steady bass rhythm coming from just two floors above me. My heart sank when I realized I had unwittingly been assigned a room at a hotel that had a thriving rooftop nightlife scene, and I was just two floors below it. Given that my Friday night had a pretty disjointed sleep schedule, I knew it was imperative to get as best a night of sleep as I possibly could. And now a huge grenade had just been lodged into my plans.
I was in bed by 8PM, but I could not un-hear the bass thumping against the ceiling. I tried everything to muffle the sound– turning on the fan, keeping the TV on low, using a white noise sleep aid. Nothing worked. With nothing on hand to take to help me fall asleep, I had to get out of bed and run a final errand for sleep medication. Once I was back in bed, the frustration with my circumstances melted when I reminded myself that Daylight Savings ended at 2AM, so I would be getting one more hour of sleep that night and that I was actually going to bed at 7:30, not 8:30. I also told myself, “Don’t fight it,” when I started to feel the irritation rise up. Like I did when I was on the train that morning, I focused on relaxing my mind instead of falling asleep. I tried to feel my heartbeat and focused on slowing it down. I was so relieved to realize that my eyelids felt heavy and even that the bass was starting to sound oddly therapeutic. I ended up with almost 10 hours of sleep that night.
Race Day Morning Transportation
My transportation selection meant that I would have to be on the Staten Island Ferry at 5:30AM. I decided that I would take the subway to get to Staten Island, which is a risk because I always manage to screw up my subway routes. When I woke up, all I could hear was the wind blowing against the windows. Even though I am someone who follows rules, I decided not to rush to get to my start line transportation. The wind was blowing pretty strong outside, and all I could think of was that I had to wait in it.
I ended up leaving my hotel room around 6AM. I was shocked to step outside and feel that the cold wind I was hearing through my windows was not cold at all. It was actually incredibly warm and almost balmy. No way, I thought, this can’t be right. I pulled up my phone and checked the weather: the temperature was 57 degrees. Unbelievable.
I walked to the subway, processing just how incredibly fortunate we all were with this warm weather, when my subway map gave me something else to be shocked about: getting from 57th Street to the Staten Island Ferry by subway would take over an hour. And that was, of course, if I didn’t screw up the route like I normally do. I suddenly felt frantic. I looked up the street and saw runners getting onto a bus. I crossed the street, contemplating if I should board, too. I didn’t feel quite right about breaking two rules (even if it doesn’t matter in retrospect), so I hailed a cab. The entire way $22 ride there (and the driver took awhile, another shocker), I chided myself for not sticking to my original plan of getting there early. It would not be the last time I would say that to myself that morning.
I arrived at the Staten Island Ferry just after 6:30AM and, as expected, it was very crowded. I joined a mass of runners waiting for the next ferry to board, just about 10 minutes later. I had read previously that people were pushing and shoving to get onto the ferry, but that wasn’t the case. I don’t think people realize just how many people the ferry is equipped to carry, so there was some minor rushing to get on board, but it wasn’t the chaos I thought it would be. And there was, of course, more than enough seats for everyone. The sun was just high enough in the air as we set off to Staten Island, and the view was breathtaking. Everyone kept talking amongst themselves about the weather and how great it was. Seeing the sun glimmer and gleam off New York Harbor, I realized that it was the right choice to take the ferry for these amazing views.
Once we arrived on Staten Island, we joined a mass of additional runners to wait for a bus that would take us to Fort Wadsworth. I’d been told to prepare for a long wait and to be patient, so wait and stand I did. We moved slowly through the station and up the stairs to a bus bay where a long line of runners snaked into lines to board buses. I wasn’t keeping track of the time, but I did take note that it was already after 8AM by the time I boarded a bus. Over 2 hours after leaving my hotel room. Even though I was not feeling impatient or frustrated with the lines, I was annoyed with myself that I didn’t leave earlier because I would have rather been at the start village sipping hot coffee and stretching when I didn’t have to deal with so many crowds.
Frustration didn’t hit until I got on the bus.
It took over an hour to get from the ferry to Fort Wadsworth, which was in reality probably only about a 15 minute drive. For much of the bus ride there, we just sat in a long line of cars. We barely moved. I was sitting in front of a runner who had clearly run the race before, and I overheard her say it was unusual to be taking this long. Another runner was in a corral that was just behind the elite runners, and her corral was scheduled to begin around 9:30AM.
To be honest, I probably would have better handled the frustration of being stuck on a bus if I had not at that moment been in desperate need of a bathroom. I had not been able to use a restroom since leaving my hotel room over 2.5 hours earlier and, for a runner who was trying to hydrate before a marathon, this was a huge problem. Being stuck in traffic and not knowing how long it would take to get to your destination is one thing; what I had a serious problem on my hands.
En route to the start line, all of us were stunned to see that many runners– and not just a few, there were likely around 60 or more– had abandoned their buses and were walking to the start line. I never did find out why there was a delay on the buses. But it took me 3.5 hours to get from my hotel in Midtown Manhattan to the start line village when the race directors advised it would take 90 minutes. If you run this marathon in the future, no matter what the weather is and no matter what happens race day morning, plan as much time as you possibly can to get to the start line village. And maybe wait until you get there to start the heavy hydrating…
Start Line Village
I got to the start line village at 9:30AM. My corral was scheduled to open in just 30 short minutes, and I spent that time in a long, slow-moving line to use a restroom. Once I got out of the line, I walked toward the corrals but I didn’t know at the time that was where I was heading. There were so many people, it was hard to see where everyone was heading. I couldn’t see any signs point us in the right direction.
The start line village is chaos. On top of the anxiety of getting there on time, there were several helicopters hovering overhead near the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge just a short distance away. Incessant announcements over loud speakers about corral openings and wave starts in numerous languages. Photographers trying to snag pre-race photos for you. Thousands of runners. Volunteers shouting directions and runners stopping to try to hear what they had to say then asking each other what was said.
My head was full of priorities: I desperately needed coffee, otherwise I would be running with a massive headache. I couldn’t find the coffee. There would be no iconic Dunkin Donuts hat. Trying to figure out when to ditch my layers. Figuring out when to grab a final bite to eat on a stomach that was growling. Trying to fill the water bottle I was carrying. Looking for my wave and corral assignment and hoping I wouldn’t miss it. Trying to find a place to set myself up but being bombarded by wandering runners.
I cannot stress this enough, based on my experience. Get to the start line as soon as you can. Just get there. Figure everything else out later.
I found my corral just as my wave was about to open. I was able to get a small cup of coffee, enough to stave off a headache. Once my corral opened, calm finally set in. There were johns in the corral with no line. There was plenty of room to sit and stretch and get race ready. It was already well after 10AM and, even with the incessant helicopters and multilingual announcements, I was able to get some quiet time for the first time in over 4 hours. I sat and waited in the corral for about 30 minutes before it was finally time for our wave to start.
We walked slowly to the start line, pausing to hear “God Bless America,” starting our Garmins, saying thank you to volunteers wishing us good luck, stepping over piles of throw-away clothing. I didn’t actually see the bridge until literally right before I was running toward it turning on my Garmin. And before I knew it, the marathon had begun.
Miles 1-2: The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge
Starting the marathon was kind of unusual. There was not a lot of crowd support as in most races where everyone hangs out at the start line. Also, while I heard Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York playing while I was in my corral, it did not play while my wave crossed the start line. I have to admit that was pretty disappointing, but I immediately started my Garmin and took the first steps of my 26.2-mile journey.
The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is literally a straight incline immediately. There is no level running to gear up for an incline. I knew to hold back on pace at least in the first mile, so I took the opportunity to take photos. All around me, people were talking excitedly. For a little while, a group of German runners followed close behind me, laughing and chattering. A couple of women running together on my right side talked race strategy. Arms with hands holding smart phones popped up in front of me. One or two runners sprinted ahead, then stopped and turned, cameras ready. A lot of people passed me, but I let it happen. I knew better than to sprint hard so I held back and maintained a very easy pace to ease into it.
The skyline of New York City to my left was surreal. As the crowd surged forward, leaving me a little behind, all I could hear was the wind in my ears and feet on pavement. It felt like I was on an alien planet, running so high up in the sky, surrounded by blue water, staring at the world so far away from me.
Miles 3-15: Brooklyn
The New York City Marathon was the first time I have ever been to Brooklyn. A fellow runner in the start corral told me that Brooklyn was his favorite part of the marathon because of the crowds, and he was without a doubt correct. Immediately, crowds were lining the streets to support us and cheer us on. Right away, the “Alright Sara!” “Let’s go, Sara!” “You got this, Sara!” started and they never stopped. Someone at mile 3 yelled, “Pace yourself!” and I nodded in response and settled in for a 10:24 average pace over the next 12 miles.
Right away, I realized that my legs felt very very heavy. It was far too early to feel my quads as stiff as they were, but by mile 6, I was deeply concerned I would be struggling over the next 20 miles. I ignored it as best as I could, trying not to blame myself in the middle of the marathon for one more session of physical therapy just days earlier, for not being off my feet sooner yesterday, for not foam-rolling enough. There was nothing I could do now: these were the legs I would need to get through the marathon.
My shoelaces were also tied way too tight, and they were starting to cut into my feet to an excruciating degree. I wondered if perhaps the sharp pinching feeling was causing my legs to stiffen and the heaviness in my legs was my muscles tensing in reaction. I told myself to stop and loosen them, but I’ve run enough marathons to know that, once I start walking or stop, running again will feel much harder, so I pushed forward. Around mile 7, and I don’t know how it happened, but my right toe caught something and I tripped forward. I didn’t fall to the ground, fortunately, but somehow the stumble sort of let my legs shake out a little bit.
Mile 8 of Brooklyn was my favorite part of the entire marathon. The crowds were so thick it was hard to think, so I just ran and soaked it all in. One block we ran on, there were towering brick churches on both sides of the streets and church choirs were standing on the steps, robed and singing loudly over the roar of the cheering crowd with the sidewalks in front so packed that people spilled onto the streets. It was like a massive city-wide block party and there were so many people with signs, dressed in funny costumes, dancing and smiling and cheering. The emotions welled up at the thought of so many people out there to cheer us on. They were there for us. That was incredibly powerful.
I can’t stress enough how amazing the crowd support for the New York City Marathon is. You will not be able to comprehend it. I’m still amazed by it, that I ran almost an entire marathon without music because of the crowd support. So many bands playing for us, children cheering and high-fiving, perfect strangers calling my name and giving me true genuine smiles as I ran toward them. They wanted us all to succeed: there was no envy or hatred to be seen, no one standing there saying “you’re crazy!” and it was incredibly moving.
Mile 11-12 or so was probably the quietest part of Brooklyn, and I remembered from doing the research on the course that we were in one of the Hasidic Jewish neighborhoods where it was not a weekend but a normal day of work. I didn’t realize we were there until I saw a man dressed in traditional wear and we ran past a Hebrew school with children staring out the window. Feeling a little bit tired, I decided to put in some music to re-motivate myself. Coincidentally, the song “Empire State of Mind” with Alicia Keys and Jay-Z started playing. I couldn’t have planned that if I tried. I also decided to ditch my water bottle because the course was incredibly well-stocked and I decided I would rather spend $20 to replace it than pointlessly carry an empty bottle for the next 13 or so miles.
Brooklyn took forever to get through. I knew this going in, but I couldn’t believe we still had three more boroughs to go through and about 2 more bridges ahead of us. At mile 14, I realized that I couldn’t handle my tight shoelaces anymore. They were hurting too badly and my legs were stiffening from all the gradual rolls in Brooklyn. I decided I would rather risk the pain of trying to push a run out of a walk than the pain of my shoelaces. I lost about 30 seconds or so, but it was absolutely the right decision to stop. I wished I had stopped earlier, but it was a gamble.
Mile 15: The Queensboro Bridge
Going into this mile was actually quite a relief. It was so quiet and set apart. Finally, I could hear myself think again. Instead of turning on music, I spent that mile asking myself how I was feeling, telling myself I was doing great, setting myself up for what was ahead. I was feeling tired. The bridge was hard as hell. After 15 miles, a long grueling hill was painful. You have to back off your pace and maintain effort.
In the middle of the bridge, I realized that my Garmin had completely lost signal. Suddenly, instead of running a mid-10:00 pace, I was running somewhere in the 25-26:00 pace range. That’s basically a crawl. I thought certainly it would pick up once we got near the end of the bridge, but the signal never came back. I realized that, just as I was about to start thinking seriously about pace, I would likely be running by feel for the remaining 10 miles. I saw my 4:20 goal slip away. I had not practiced running by feel in training.
Of all the reviews I have read about this marathon, I never once saw this advice so I am going to put it here: If you run the New York City Marathon, have a reliable stopwatch on hand because you will very likely lose GPS signal on the bridge and it will not catch up. You will not be able to see what your split is. Even if you have a state-of-the-art GPS watch, have a back-up.
Mile 16-19: First Avenue
They say that, when you get to the Queensboro Bridge and are about to enter Mile 16 on First Avenue, to shut off your music and listen for what is the most amazing roar from the crowds cheering. They say the contrast of the quiet bridge and then turning a sharp corner off the bridge into Queens is like running into a wall of sound. This was the part I was most excited about, and knowing it was coming kept my head in the game along the grueling Queensboro.
When I turned off the bridge and onto First Avenue, there was no wall of sound.
There was a wall of people. But there was no sound. I turned the corner and saw stacks of people, a literal wall of faces watching the runners spill off the bridge, and they were all hushed and quiet as if they were waiting for the Messiah to make his grand and glorious entrance behind us.
But there was no sound.
I ran a few blocks, looking at the spectators’ faces, confused about what they were watching for. My face was begging them to start cheering for us. Make a noise, someone cheer, anyone! I wondered if there had been some sort of public safety announcement or if someone had fallen or gotten hurt. I couldn’t believe that so many people were there and not a single one of them was making noise. It was really jarring.
Eventually, getting deeper into Queens and along First Avenue, the cheering crowds picked up again and it was beyond deafening. Imagine running through Times Square on New Year’s Eve, and that’s what this felt like. It was constant. The crowds cheering were intense and almost over-stimulating if you let it be that way.
At this point, I remembered that my pacing plan allowed me to pick up some of the time I had reeled in during the previous 16 miles. I started to gun it, unsure of what my pace was. Eventually, when my Garmin hit mile 16 (around mile 17), I started to run by the pace it was reflecting for that mile. I pushed the pace up slightly, but spent a lot of time bobbing and weaving through crowds. First Avenue does have a slight hill at one point, and bobbing and weaving through crowds while going up a hill was starting to suck a lot of energy out of my tired legs.
People were also darting in and out of the runners when they saw their loved ones. If you’re not expecting to see anyone you know along that portion of the race, try to stay in the middle as best as you can or you might be knocked over. At one point, an over-excited male runner, after seeing his loved ones and re-joining the race, barreled into me and caused me to bump into someone else, which hurt my arm. He was just not paying attention to the hundreds of runners around him. He glared at me as if it were my fault that I hadn’t been watching for him.
At mile 18, where my friend Telisa was volunteering, my legs hurt so much I was in disbelief. I started to look for her and saw her right away behind the mile marker. I waved her down excitedly and ran up to give her a hug. I said breathlessly, “This is the hardest course I have ever run!” before taking off again. I never hit the wall physically, but I did mentally, and it was at mile 18. I’m so grateful I saw my friend just when I needed it most. I spent mile 19 yanking myself out of the drudgery that was starting to settle over me and reminding myself that the marathon was just about to begin at mile 20.
Mile 20-21: The Bronx
As soon as I passed the Mile 20 marker, it was like an electric charge hit my brain. Time for the marathon! I told myself, and I instantly started running at marathon pace. I told myself to pretend I was on a 6-mile run after work. It felt easy and energized and I knew, for once, I had executed the marathon exactly as planned. I had held back in the first 20 miles, I was patient and paced myself exactly the way I should have, and this was my pay-off. I felt like I was just about to really have the race of my life.
Just as I was pushing pace and had gotten into a good rhythm, a woman darted out of the corner of my eye and right in front of me. Or else she was already in front of me and slowed as I was trying to get by. Or we were both trying to get around the same runner, or I was trying to break through her and a line of runners and she stepped in my way. It happened so fast and I was not watching anywhere else except straight in front of me. But something happened, my foot caught a shoe, and down a woman went on the pavement. And I had no idea how it happened.
The first thing that went through my mind was a montage of scenes from the 2016 Rio Olympics when New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin helped USA’s Abbey D’Agostino finish her 5,000-meter race. When I saw that happen on TV, I was so moved that I prayed, if the opportunity to help someone in their time of need during a race came to me, I would be selfless enough to put aside my goals, stop, and help. I don’t know if I tripped that woman, and I don’t know if she fell because she was trying to get in front of me. I don’t know what happened, but I did stop. I admit that my first reaction was annoyance— I was literally just running, like everyone else, and she thwarted my perfect pace and was now making me feel guilty about being involved in the harm she was in.
Another runner also stopped and we both tried to get her up off the pavement, but it was really loud and I could barely hear her, but she would not get up. At that moment, I was really concerned that she was seriously injured and that I had somehow caused it. We tried once more to pick her up, but then I heard her say loud and clear, “My leg is cramping up!” I felt helpless. I looked around for a volunteer, to see if there was a medical tent nearby. I wondered if perhaps she fell because her leg cramped up and caused her to fall. I had no idea what to do. Here she was on the pavement, but I couldn’t fix her leg.
All of this happened within about 15-20 seconds, but it felt like 5 minutes. A spectator dressed in a bunny suit (awesome) ran up to us and said, “I’ve got her, you guys go on!” I fought it for a second and said, “No, it’s okay!” but I ended up continuing my run. I pondered that decision for about the next mile or so. I replayed the scene in my head over and over, I felt guilty about pushing pace and wondered if I was too ambitious and that my pride caused harm to someone else. I reminded myself that this is what you are supposed to do at Mile 20, and this was a crowded course where accidents like that can happen.
The entire incident made my Miles 20-21 awful. Not knowing how it happened, yet being involved made me feel incredibly guilty for just wanting to run the pace I had trained to run.
Miles 22-23: Harlem and Fifth Avenue
Once we got out of the Bronx, I felt like I could shake off the incident and refocus on my race. The streets seemed to narrow significantly, and the running pack thickened. People were stopping and walking right and left, and I was bobbing and weaving incessantly. I was no longer pushing my 10K pace and instead was running whatever pace I could get. I remembered what that runner had told me at the expo: that this is not a course to run for time because it’s impossible with 50,000 runners. I think he was right. I had to let it go and just get through as best as I could.
I also remembered that I had not taken Gu at Mile 20, and almost immediately, I could feel my energy plummet. If I didn’t eat something literally right that second, I would hit the wall and hit it hard. I reached around under my shirt in the belt I had around my waist for a Gu packet. It was hot and almost liquid from being so close to my core. I ripped open the packet and sucked it down like water. It was a chocolate peanut butter flavor, and it tasted like mud. But it was enough.
The spectating crowds, I had read, were thinner here, but that was not the case this year. The crowds were just as thick as they had been previously. By this time, when I was hurting the most, I felt like I had been in a washing machine on the spin cycle. The sound of cheering was overwhelming and I couldn’t think straight. I was struggling to negotiate 3-4 more miles out of my stiff legs and my inner introvert desperately needed a moment alone to find the right words to say to coach myself through the pain. I was still running with no intention to stop, but my legs felt like I was trudging through cement.
I realized that this was Mile 23, and that Mile 23 along Fifth Avenue is actually a hill, and a large gradual impossible hill. It didn’t hit me until somewhere in the middle that I had been pushing pace on a massive hill, and it was taking more than I could offer. It’s so subtle, you barely see it. And here I was, bobbing and weaving past walkers and runners, trying to go as fast as I could on a huge, huge hill.
Miles 24-25: Central Park
When I crested the hill, suddenly the heaviness was gone. At the edge of the crowds, I saw a sign that might as well have been the pearly gates: “New York Road Runners welcomes you to Central Park!” I have run Central Park’s hills twice before, in the New York City Half-Marathon. I could do it again.
Right after Mile 23 and into Mile 24 is a massive downhill. I surged at this point, felt my core activate to hold me up, and remembered how much work I had done in physical therapy to be here at all. I was famished, of course. But I had the benefit of what felt like veteran status, and the best was truly yet to come. I ran right along side the crowd, and a young man saw me approaching, looked me in the eye from just a few feet away, and said gleefully, “You guys are in the park! This is it!!” I nodded, fighting back tears, remembering in the 2014 Chicago Marathon when that older gentleman said, “You’re gonna make it!” and how that was exactly the words I needed to hear at that moment.
Central Park is quite literally a walk in the park. The euphoria of knowing you only have 2 miles left, that all you have to do is get to the other side of the park, washed over me. I realized it was late in the day– probably well after 3PM, which makes it the latest marathon I have ever run. The afternoon sun was dipping low in the sky and shining through a canopy of fall leaves. It was literally the most gorgeous scene I had ever run in, and it enlivened me. Don’t get me wrong– I was hurting, and hurting bad. My quads were already sore as hell, and every bone in my body hurt from smashing pavement for hours. I was starving, running on empty, tense. There is no way to describe the pain of running a marathon. But here I was with the privilege of running a marathon through Central Park. You ask yourself what gets you through those moments when the pain is unimaginable, but looking back, all I can remember is that it hurt. I don’t remember exactly how my muscles felt. And the leaves. I remember the leaves. That’s how you get through those moments again and again. You find the great things about that moment to take away and keep with you, and all I can see now is the amber sunlight through orange, yellow, and green leaves and a sea of humanity smiling broadly and cheering us to a euphoric finish. And I remember not wanting it to end.
When I saw the Mile 25 sign, I felt sad. I felt like I could keep running beyond 26 miles. I was in pain, I was tired, but I felt like I still had so much to give to that race. It didn’t feel like it was about to be over.
Mile 25.5-26.2: The Glorious Finish
I turned out of the park and onto 59th Street, which was packed to the brim with spectators. I started to feel emotion well up, and I let it out because now was the time to take it all in and be thrilled. As soon as I let that first emotional wave it me, I felt a stab in my right abdomen. A side stitch. Are you freaking kidding me?!?! I tried to get rid of it, I tried to breathe it away, but the panic made it worse. With about half a mile left, I realized I had no choice but to either stop and let it subside before going on or run through a pain that was slowly encroaching on my entire body. With all the crowds literally in your face cheering, there was no way I could stop. They would not let me stop. And I had already stopped more times than I wanted to in this race– I was done with that.
With every step, the stitch pinched even worse and I started to feel my back curl into it. I could barely breathe and my running started to slow down to a jog. I got so angry that something was physiologically taking away such an amazing moment, so I sped up in protest. I focused on the flags lining the course. The Mile 26 banner overhead. Trying not look like I was literally being stabbed as race photographers snapped photos. I listened to the announcer say, “You’re all New York City marathoners!” I pushed as hard as I could through the pinching, stabbing pain and then I was across the finish line and the side stitch was gone. I wanted that last half mile back.
Once across the finish line, I started sobbing. I lost it. All the emotion of the race that I had carried with me, every thing I felt with the crowds cheering me on, finishing a marathon I had busted my ass to get through that I almost did not train for. It was incredible. A volunteer walked up to me and asked if I was okay, just like when I crossed the finish line of my second marathon in January 2013. I sobbed, “Yeah, I’m okay. I just need a hug!” and she hugged me as I cried….probably a little too hard. This was absolutely the most emotional finish I have ever had. I think all of the joy and excitement and accomplishment of what I was doing, I didn’t let myself feel that for almost the entire race because I was focusing on pacing and executing race strategy. And it all came out at the finish line.
My finish time was 4:38:04. It’s just under 10 minutes shy of my personal record and 18:04 over my goal time of 4:20. It’s hard not to look back on the race and try to figure out where I could have bought those extra minutes. Did I conserve too much energy in Brooklyn? What if I didn’t tie my shoes so tight or I stopped and fixed them on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge where you’re supposed to take it very slow? What if that woman didn’t trip over my feet and I didn’t have to stop and help her up? What if my Garmin didn’t bonk out on the Queensboro Bridge, leaving me to run how I felt for 10 miles? Did I burn up too much energy guessing my pace?
The thing is, I can’t look at my race that way. I will never be able to find those minutes. The New York City Marathon is a very tough, very challenging course not only for its rolling hills but because there are so many runners in a tight space that it is logistically impossible to go fast. At least this is from where I was running. I’m a middle-of-the-pack runner. Perhaps it is clearer up front. And I don’t use it as an excuse for how I ran. It’s just the way it is.
For what I could have controlled about it, I am incredibly proud of my race. I ran as strong as I could and as well as I knew how. I did not once give up like I did in Baltimore in 2015. I was kind to myself, encouraging, and positive. My mind did exactly what it was supposed to do to get my body through 26.2 miles, and for that, I am so proud of my race. I needed to learn how to do that, and this was the marathon where I needed to learn that lesson. I needed to learn how to be positive and happy and strong for myself more than I needed to prove a time.
Also, even as I didn’t get to run my goal marathon pace for the last 10K, I knew it was in me. I knew I executed this race precisely the way I planned and exactly how a marathon should go. I was patient in the first 20 miles and I know I had my goal pace in me for the final 10K. I felt it was there. For once I did it exactly right.
This marathon was the hardest one I have ever run, but it wasn’t tough because I was under-prepared. I felt completely ready and capable of running each and every single hill of this race, and I felt myself running strong on all of them. It is so so so nice to have completed a marathon knowing that I was absolutely prepared for it. That feels incredible to have done it right.
Most people in my circle think I need a break from marathons. I need a rest from this race, but after the success I had in New York City, I feel like my best marathon days are ahead of me. I have seen what small efforts can do to lead to big results. I feel like my mind is finally in the right place that I need it to be in to start taking my running up a notch by eating better, continuing to practice being positive and encouraging to myself, learning how to condition appropriately so I am not beating myself up with so much running but instead adapting to the lifestyle of being an endurance athlete.
Running the New York City Marathon was the first time I felt ready to take on my greatest personal goals for the sport and it taught me to embrace it as not just something I do, but an incredibly enriching aspect of my life. I can’t wait to do more with what I have taken away from this marathon. It truly was the journey of a lifetime.
In closing my race recap, here are a few more recommendations of mine that somehow didn’t fit elsewhere.
- If you go to Marathon Monday in Central Park Pavilion to have your medal engraved, get there as early as you can. The line was really long by the time I got there at 11AM.
- Bring cash to buy a copy of the New York Times Marathon Edition. There are newspaper vendors on-hand, but they only accept cash. Most Duane Reeds within a few block radius of Central Park are sold out.
- Take advantage of the Hospital for Special Surgery Recovery Zone. There are specialists on-hand to help you stretch out and roll. And no $30 co-pay!
- I highly recommend getting the post-race poncho instead of checking a bag. While the weather felt great running, the breeze picked up at the end and the mylar blanket was not enough to keep us warm. The poncho is thick and fleece-lined, and it was completely effective in keeping warm on the walk back. And it was tremendously comforting.