10 down, 40 to go!
What an unforgettable experience this was! I finished the New York City marathon on Sunday, for my 10th marathon, and 10th state completed, and it was remarkable for all kinds of reasons. Records were broken all over the place, with the top three finishers all coming in under course-record time, and total number of runners (almost 48,000) and spectators both shattering records. I also broke a personal record, but not the way I wanted to.
Although I didn’t have a time goal, I really didn’t expect this to be my slowest marathon finish ever…especially at nearly 90-minutes slower than my PR! But, with a fractured thumb that was more of a bother than I expected, and training that wasn’t my best, I ended up making the most of the 26.2-mile party in the big apple. Since I knew I’d get the same medal as the fourth place finisher, why not make it last as long as possible, right? Sure, I got beat by notable celebs such as Mario Lopez, Apolo Ohno, Christie Turlington, and Mark Messier, but I got to meet some inspiring people in the back of the pack.
One of those was Melissa, an Iraq war veteran, with her left leg amputated at the hip. She was running on a prosthetic running leg, and finished in 6:36!
Another was a guy wearing a sign proclaiming “15 NYC finishes and going strong!” He told me it was his 78th birthday, and he ran his first NYC (and first marathon) at age 63. He beat me too.
There was also a constant flow of mobility challenged athletes with guides, including the marathon world-record holder for mobility-challenged athletes.
It became increasingly difficult to complain or feel any self-pity about my painful thumb.
So, I shuffled across the finish in 5:54 (unofficially), for a painfully slow 13:22 average pace. The race itself was intense, challenging, inspiring, and overwhelming in many ways. Never before have I experienced the support of what seemed like the entire host city. Almost the entire course was lined with cheering fans packed 25-deep or more, on both sides of the course. The parts that didn’t have fans were the bridges, where instead of fans on the sidewalks, there were helicopters hovering next to us and above us.
The fans were in a frenzy, and almost painfully loud in many areas. It was almost too much stimulation, and I found myself wanting to tune it out sometimes. But, maybe that’s because I was in so much pain, and so frustrated at the kind of run I was having. My fractured thumb seemed to be absorbing the impact of every step. It was really painful, and I could often feel the sensation of my bones moving against each other in my thumb. I’m sure I adjusted my running posture and stride, because I experienced all kinds of pain and discomfort that I’ve never experienced in my previous marathons. My feet were killing me at mile 8…yes, eight! My shoulder and neck were screaming by mile ten (I must have been holding my arm differently because of my thumb). The crowd of runners was so thick, for most of the race, that I struggled to find any kind of rhythm or comfortable stride, and was soon paying for it with blisters forming on both feet (forefoot)…another new experience for me. I must have been adapting my stride to the crowd, and landing very differently than I usually do. I’m sure it didn’t help that my shoes were near the end of their mileage life.
The high points were many too, however. There were bands, gospel choirs on the steps of many churches, neighborhood cheering squads, taiko drummers, dancers, creative and funny signs (my favorite was one held by two little kids that said, “This parade sucks!”), and always lots and lots of cheering and high-fives from kids (which eventually forced me to run the middle or left side of the street, to avoid giving a high-fives with my broken thumb). When there weren’t bands, there was always someone in an apartment up high with their stereo speakers blaring out their windows, often so loud it was distorted, and usually it was a song from Rocky, or a 70s disco tune.
The bridges were brutal, and eerily quiet compared to the rest of the course. It was a strange sensation to hear the roar of the crowd ahead getting louder and louder as we reached the bottom of the bridges. Sometimes, it picked me up and carried me on that energy. Other times, I shut down entirely, almost feeling overwhelmed with anxiety and claustrophobia, especially in the narrow sections of the course.
Aside from the bridges, there were plenty of other hills too, long gradual ones, and short steep ones. All of them seemed to catch me off-guard, even though I had studied the course and knew they were coming. I just couldn’t ever gain a sense of running the course…it was running me instead…and running me into the ground at that.
The start and the finish were two pretty emotional moments though. After a frustrating 2-hour wait in the runner’s village before being allowed into the starting corral, hearing a New York firefighter sing “America the Beautiful” at the start was downright awe inspiring, standing at the bottom of the longest suspension bridge in the world, with the iconic skyline in the distance. And the approach to the finish gives me chills even now, just thinking about it. It was like I somehow blocked everything out while simultaneously giving in to all of it. After almost 6 hours on the course, it was almost a tear-jerking moment to reach the finish line amongst the roar of fans, hoopla of announcers, TV cameras, and photographers all over the place.
The post race experience, however, was when the real nightmare began. After getting a nice-looking finisher’s medal, and a race-blanket draped over me, I was instructed to keep walking. We were handed finisher’s bags, and still we kept walking. Almost 50,000 runners were funneled into a cattle chute about 20-feet wide, for about a mile beyond the finish line. Just walking. Only, not even walking, because it was so crowded all we could do was shuffle-stop-stand-shuffle in a repeating kind of human traffic jam.
Every 50-yards or so, there was a race staffer on an elevated stand with a megaphone shouting out encouragement like, “Looking good! Almost there! Keep up the good work!”. Funny, but wasn’t that what everyone was yelling BEFORE we got to the finish?!? Why should I be hearing that for 2 MORE HOURS beyond the finish line, in a shoulder-to-shoulder human cattle chute, bordered by 12-foot high fences draped with signage and tarps so we couldn’t even see out? Anyone who was truly claustrophobic was living a real life nightmare. I was having trouble managing my anger and anxiety at what seemed like a grossly irresponsible way to manage a marathon finish area.
While there is clearly a physical benefit to SOME walking after the finish, this much of it, in these conditions, was absurd. By the time I reached the first spot to exit Central Park, I was already shivering from the dropping temperature (it had actually started to get dark before we were even out), and hadn’t had anything to eat yet. The medical staff also had been making frequent forays into the sea of race-blanketed zombies to rescue fainters and pukers and those who were having anxiety attacks.
At this point, we finally reached the row of UPS trucks with our bags that we dropped off at the start. Here, we could recover the warm clothing we discarded in our specially labeled bags before the start of the race. It was yet another crowded shuffle, down a row of about 100 UPS trucks, numbered in descending order. Of course, my truck was near the farthest end. It meant that I didn’t exit Central Park until at least a mile-and-a-half past the finish line, and in the opposite direction from my apartment. So, I still had to walk back that same distance, plus another 10 blocks beyond the finish, before I reached the apartment…and FOOD, finally, at 8pm…even though I finished around 1:30pm. The little baggie of pretzels in my finisher bag just didn’t cut it.
So, race organizers, if you’re listening, this part of the experience needs to be fixed. Badly. It was a disappointing ending to a truly epic day. It seemed unsafe, uncaring, and irresponsible. It’s sad that the post-finish experience is casting such a shadow on how incredible the actual race experience was, despite my personal challenges on the course. As a finisher of 10 marathons now, I expected more from what is billed as the greatest marathon in the world. Your city delivered. Your race organizers did not.
I’m glad I ran it, I feel lucky to have gotten in, but I feel absolutely no desire at all to run NYC again. And that’s just sad…but I refuse to let it ruin a very memorable 10th marathon experience, overall. Thanks NYC!