The first few miles flew by quickly. I tried to master passing other runners without expending too much energy. As I zigged around people, hopped over sweaters and plowed over water cups, I suddenly felt like my trail running would serve as an advantage. Only in a swarm of 45,000 runners does road running become so technical.
Unfortunately, by mile 5, I knew that all my trail time might become a curse. My feet started to hurt. So did my ankles. But with the force of runners pushing me from behind and the line of spectators becoming thinker along the sidelines, there was only energy to move forward. I ate my first energy gel and took a deep breath.
Around the same time I noticed the twinges in my feet and ankles, Mother Nature payed me a surprise visit. Yup, marvelous timing. While I came prepared, finding a place to take care of business in the middle of the largest running races in the world, with port-o-potties only every few miles, became quite the task. So while I no longer thought about my feet, I did think about how I could only last for so long in my free and flimsy running shorts. Without a bathroom in sight, I made a dash down the ramp of an apartment building and hoped nobody would come out of the front door.
Back on the road, I found my rhythm again. I ended up using a few different people and groups to help me keep my pace. I picked out two tall men wearing bright orange shirts as my first targets. They ran with a steady gait, so I decided to keep them in sight. As they paced ahead of me a few yards, another man kept popping up at my side. He also looked strong, so I should have been happy that I kept running into him, except that he was wearing this beeping machine to keep him on pace.
BEEP beep beep. BEEP beep beep. BEEP beep beep.
And I couldn't lose him. Just when I thought I might pull my hair out from all the beeping, we hit another hill. We were just about at the halfway marker and I lost it. All at once, everything hurt. My feet, ankles, quads. They were shot. I started to shuffle and got dropped by the beeping man. I was glad that the hill wasn't long, but got really nervous when I reached the crest and descended the other side and things didn't get easier. That's when I ran into the worse spectator sign of the day. A man stood on the corner, with a sign over five feet tall. In bold letters it read,
GO RUNNERS. YOU'RE HALFWAY THERE!
Halfway there? My body just fell apart and I'm only halfway there?
The only thing I could do was to keep running. I started focusing all my energy on my stride. Just keep turning it over AC. Don't worry about the finish, take care of this mile. Each water station became a mental checkpoint. Alright, you did it. Now turn it over until the next station.
That's how it went until I hit the bridge leaving Queens. The bridge was long and steep. With spectators prohibited on the bridges, the cheering and music faded into footsteps and breathing. I was truly shuffling and hurting. A man ran up behind me, moving way too fast for how badly I felt. He read the back of my shirt that said, "Run like and animal," and shouted at me,
"Run like an animal!"
I tried my best to smile, through I was dumbfounded by his energy.
"Come on," he continued. "What kind of animal are you?"
A dying one, was all that came to mind, but I only managed another smile.
"You're a cheetah. Common. Run like a cheetah."
And with that, he was gone and I was left to shuffle. As we hit the highest point on the climb and the bridge began to even out, I could hear the crowd in the distance. A huge line of spectators waited at the end of the bridge, cheering with more energy than a double shot espresso. From a distance, it sounded like I put my ear to a seashell, the whoosh of noise like the sea, becoming more pronounced with each step.
After an eternity, I rounded the corner off the bridge and the cheering erupted all around. I hugged the inside of the road in order to take fewer steps around the corner and to stay away from the spectators. I was in no mood to be cheered.
And that's when I was reminded of a couple things. First, when I'm really not feeling well, I don't like being cheered up. "You're looking good!" Well no, actually, I'm not. I just wanted to suffer alone, not with a crowd yelling at me, which brings me to my second reminder. I'm really sensitive to loud noise. So much so that before I bought a new vacuum, I had to wear earplugs to clean the floors because the roar of the old machine made me shudder. Suddenly, the famous NYC Marathon spectators were really bothering me. I felt a bit guilty, a bit Grinch-like. But really, are air horns necessary?
When I came to the 18 mile marker, I was being dropped right and left by other runners. My stomach turned over and I worried that I'd soon have nausea added to my bag of ick. I took deep breaths to settle my insides. Around mile 19, I heard the best shout-out from the sidelines.
"Yay Fatties! Go Fatties!"
I was wearing a shirt with the Team Fatty logo, the team I was running with to raise money for LIVESTRONG. For those unfamiliar with Fatty's story, his blog started as cycling posts and weight loss stories, woven with Fatty-style humor. After his late wife's breast cancer returned, he continued to blog about cycling but also also shared his wife and family's struggle as they waded through Susan's diagnosis and then her passing in 2009.
A result of Fatty's vulnerability is a readership who equally hates cancer, loves bicycles (with the occasional runner mixed in) and is ready to jump at the opportunity to support any of it's members. I got to experience that support at mile 19.
I looked over my shoulder to see a lineup of Fat Cyclist sweatshirts, with flailing arms in them, cheering for me. I didn't know any of their names, but it was like seeing a mob of friends. I suddenly felt special. Maybe I was doing well. Maybe I was looking strong. I stood a little taller, threw my arms in the air, and for the first time in miles, had a smile involuntarily take over my face. I was recharged. At least for a few yards.
I was quickly knocked out of my happy place when I rounded a corner to three young kids, maybe nine years old. They all stood with their hands extended, offering high fives. I edged their way, my arm extended, when one of them yelled, "Only seven more miles to go!" With each step making a statement on my body, nothing sounded further away than seven miles.
For the first time in the race, I ran into another Fatty member. She asked me how I was doing.
"Terrible!" I replied (though it was really more like, "Teeeeerible!!!")
"What hurts?" she hollered.
I started relying on my arms to propel me forward, swinging them hard to compensate for my dud legs. When I finally lifted my head enough to see the cheering crowd, I spotted the perfect pick-me-up sign:
CHAFE NOW. BRAG FOREVER
That one was followed by:
DON'T WORRY, BEER MISSES YOU TOO
And my favorite one of all:
YOU STILL HAVE A REALLY LONG WAY TO GO!
Now that's more like it. The cheerleading wasn't helping much, but my sense of humor was still intact--a good sign.
The mile markers seemed further and further apart but I finally made it into the last turn of Central Park. I could see the mile 26 sign. I pulled all my strength into my legs and cursed whoever thought is was a good idea to have a marathon finish on an uphill. 300 yards, 200 yards, 100 yards. I threw my hands in the air. I made it.
I never felt so happy about being able to walk. I made my way to the medal area where I picked out a volunteer who wasn't just handing out medals, but placing them around finisher's necks. I took a medal from her because that seemed fitting. As I passed more medal volunteers, one woman grabbed my forearm with both hands, looked me in the eye and said, "congratulations." I never felt so grateful for the recognition of a stranger.
Filing out of Central Park took over an hour. By the time I picked up my extra clothes, fatigue swamped my body. I pulled off to the side with other runners to put on my warms layers. I held my bag in my hands and surveyed the floor, wondering if I would be able to bend over to open my bag if I put it on the ground. A German man standing next to me seemed to read by bewilderment. He grabbed my bag out of my hands and held it open for me as I pulled out my pants and jacket.
On the way to the subway, three different people stopped me to congratulate me. I felt the satisfaction of complete fatigue; body, mind and emotion; setting into me. After what felt like an eternity and a half, I made it to the subway.
As I stepped off the train at 42nd, the buzz of Manhattan swirled around. Coats and scarves flew by toward evening destinations. Walking in the opposite direction, I spotted a man wrapped in the silver space blanket they gave us at the finish line. He appeared to be from Europe, perhaps where subways are places to move and greeting reserved for friends. We caught each other's eyes through the buzz of commuters and travelers. He lifted his head and flashed a small smile. His clenched hand moved from under his blanket, and he gave a fist pump in the air. I pulled my hand from under my silver blanket and threw my fist in the air--our gesture of solidarity.