I’ve never really loved New York.
My older sister went to NYU back in the ’90s, and I visited once in awhile since we grew up just a couple hours away in Connecticut. I also spent almost four years living in North Jersey earlier this decade, and every few months, I’d make a trip into the city only to be reminded of why I disliked it: The noise. The filth. The crowds. The construction. The degenerates, the mean natives, reckless cabbies, the impatient clerks, the hotels and restaurants that – if you stay long enough or eat and drink a lot – require you to take out a second mortgage.
Last weekend, I returned to NYC for the first time in a few years. Forty-eight hours of the trip were par for the course: stressful, annoying and expensive. In the other 229 minutes and 55 seconds, though, I saw a New York that I did not recognize at all. A New York that I’ll never forget. A New York that I absolutely, positively loved.
Here’s the story of my experience at the 2009 New York City Marathon:
I can dispense with the race expo and the pre-race pasta dinner quickly. The race expo was crowded and expensive and – since I didn’t get there until Saturday afternoon – somewhat picked over, although I did manage to get an $8 pair of Asics arm warmers and a nice white and blue race-branded Asics singlet. (I wore both items during the race and – spoiler alert – neither chafed.) The pasta dinner I took my family to was very crowded and very expensive, the pasta was unfortunately pretty mediocre (my second helping was almost inedible), and the music was deafening; I swear a drop of blood trickled out of my ear when Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” came on with the sound system cranked up to 11. But I went to the meal because I’d heard 15,000 others would be at Tavern on the Green’s setup in Central Park, which I figured would put all of our digestive systems on a somewhat level playing field going into the morning.
After dinner, we dipped into Central Park, where a hundred or more people walked and a smattering of runners jogged up the last 300 meters to the finish line as a light rain started falling. It was dark – a little before 7:30 p.m. Saturday – but that part of the course was all lit up with floodlights, bordered by blue and orange and white sideline barriers from title sponsor ING, race-ready. As the rain picked up, I walked with my wife and daughter to the top of the little riser right at the end (which I’d read about and which would serve as one final challenge 18 hours later), and spent a minute or two just staring at the finish line. The area was completely roped off and patrolled by heavy security. I was probably 25 feet away from it; I think my heart may have skipped a beat when it hit me that in the morning, I’d need to run 26.2 miles in order to see it again. At 7:30 sharp, a fireworks display started, sparks cascading along with the rain down over the park. I couldn’t help thinking it was a little early to start celebrating.
We got back to our hotel near Times Square a little after 8, and it was lights out for me less than an hour later. Though I dozed off within five minutes, five minutes later, I was awake again. It took a long time to get back to sleep, and after about 45 minutes I think I may have briefly considered punching myself in the face, but thought that might raise too many questions the next day. Eventually I drifted off – and though I woke up every hour or so and had several dreams that were frustrating but not running-related – I got up around 4 a.m. (15 minutes before my two alarms were set to go off) with about six or seven hours in the bank. This was six or seven more hours than I’d expected to get.
Got dressed in the new singlet, my race shorts, an old pair of socks and shoes; then I took a magic marker and wrote “T.” over one kneecap and “J.” over the other, in a shameless attempt to elicit personalized cheers along the route. I looked at my phone and saw it was in the 50s, so I skipped the old gloves and hat and just put on my other two pieces of throwaway clothing: an old pair of sweatpants with no elastic in the waistband (so I had to tuck them into my shorts), and a pullover windbreaker I got for free from Carowinds that was about half a size too small for me. I grabbed my carefully pre-packed baggage and was out the door at 5 to catch a subway ride to a ferry ride to a bus ride.
Not surprisingly, I immediately saw runners as soon as I exited the hotel. I also saw Halloween revelers heading home after a night of hard partying. In the subway station, I chatted up a runner from Minnesota who was on Marathon No. 6, and we gabbed to pass the time on the ride down to Whitehall Station, where mobs of runners were catching the ferry to Staten Island. After boarding the ferry, I hit the bathroom for the first time, then zoned out alone until the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge – which represented the first two miles of the race – came into sight off to the left. At that point, the bridge was still open, and though it was two miles away, you could see tiny buses forming a line that was crawling toward the Staten Island side. Just before deboarding, I hit the bathroom again.
As I got off the ferry, I knew it was going to be a nearly perfect day for running. It was cold, but not too cold, overcast, but not raining, and no humidity. I noticed the wind, but didn’t notice that it was mainly blowing from the north – and north is the direction we’d be heading for more than 20 miles. Boarded the bus, chatted up another runner from Minnesota who was on Marathon No. 14, and we gabbed to pass the time on the ride down to Fort Washington, where mobs of runners with a capital M were gathering to form a tiny temporary city of 42,000 people near the foot of the bridge.
We got there at about 7:45 a.m. My new friend Gary (the second Minnesotan) hung with me for the next hour, chatting over a free bagel and marveling at the massiveness of the whole thing. He asked me if I wanted to jog at all; I laughed and said, “I doon’t thiink so.” I thought I might be able to do 26.2 that day, but wasn’t so sure about 27.2. A little before 9, we wished each other good luck – I was in the 9:40 wave start and he was in the 10 o’clock group, which met in another part of the runners’ village. I strapped on my RoadID and my Garmin; set up my watch to try to get me through 26.2 at a 3:45 pace; chose the 3:40 pace band over the 3:30 and the 3:50; put Band-Aids over my nipples and arm warmers over my arms; then changed into my $30 blister-free socks and my actual in-service running shoes. After I loaded my SpiBelt with my iPhone, two gels, and five Advil, I ditched my throwaway clothes and checked my baggage at the UPS trucks. At about 9:10, I decided to hit the PortaJohn one last time. Lines were about a dozen people deep, but I figured I’d be through in time. At 9:14, though, came the first “oh-crap” moment of the day.
Over the P.A.: “Corrals for Wave Start 1 are now closed. If you are not in the corrals for the first wave, you will have to line up in the second wa--” … but before the pre-recorded female voice was finished talking, I was sprinting. So much for passing on the warm-up. When my corral came into view, it was packed. There were also plenty of PortaJohns inside the corral. I was thrilled a few weeks ago, when I learned I’d be in the first wave, with the “faster” runners. I knew it meant there’d be more people my speed, meaning less frustration and less energy wasted sidestepping slower folks. I also knew my family was counting on me hitting certain mile markers at times based on me starting at 9:40. So for those 90 seconds, in that mad dash to get to my corral, I thought there was a good chance the whole experience was going to be turned upside down. But then I got to the three women manning the entrance … and one just looked at my bib and said, “You’re good.” “No, you’re good,” I said.
I waited about five or six minutes in line to empty my bladder one more time, then came out, applied some Body Glide, ate a granola bar, and clutched two Powerbar gels in each hand as everyone started filing toward the bridge. As we marched, a row of guys was peeing through a fence and against the backsides of PortaJohns lined up outside of the corral area.
We queued up at the foot of the bridge, and I realized half the people around me were speaking another language. Some 20,000 participants in the New York City Marathon Sunday were from foreign countries, and the dark and drab throwaway clothes gave way to bright, bold colors representing all manner of nations, from France and Italy to China and Japan to Kenya (it’s true – not all Kenyans are elites, it turns out). After the singing of the National Anthem, sweatshirts and track pants sailed through the air as runners tried to get them up onto or over the empty buses lining the right side of the road. Most didn’t make it, instead winding up on top of other runners’ heads. Mayor Bloomberg gave a quick welcome, and a couple minutes later, at 9:44 a.m., the cannon was fired and Frank Sinatra’s booming voice started spreading the news.
Ninety-nine seconds later, amid what can only be described (and has been before) as a sea of humanity, I clicked the start button on my Garmin as I stepped across the timing pad.
There are three wave starts for the race, and each of those waves is broken down into three color-coded starts – orange, blue and green. All of this is done to alleviate congestion. On the bridge, orange and blue run across the upper deck, green take the lower level. Orange and blue briefly split at the other side of the bridge, before turning onto Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn; green stays straight on a completely different path along Fort Hamilton Parkway, then all three colors link up for the duration on Fourth Avenue a little more than 5 kilometers in. Being in the green start, I was disappointed to get funneled onto the lower level of the bridge, which provides less-majestic views, certainly is a bit darker and drearier, and where legend has it you run the risk of being splashed in the face with urine (from male runners up top who are making unplanned pit stops). Fortunately, it didn’t appear as though anyone was getting “rained on.”
Runners cross five bridges and see all five boroughs of New York during the city’s marathon. The boroughs are filled with fans, the bridges are devoid of them. Staten Island is the borough you run in the least – all you do is leave it – and the Verrazano-Narrows is the bridge you’re on for the longest. It’s two miles from end to end; logically, the first mile of the race is all uphill, the second mile all downhill. For one mile, the bridge seems to be urging/forcing you not to go out too fast, and after you crest, it practically dares you not to pick up speed.
For months, I’d listened to seasoned runners warn me over and over and over and over and over again: Don’t go out too fast. And for the first mile, at least, it was easy advice to follow. The combination of the hill and the densely packed field of runners made the climb feel endless; everybody just seemed to be trying unsuccessfully to find a rhythm, and the result was a pace that felt painfully slow. I kept looking down at the “current pace” field on my Garmin: 11:43 … 10:59 … 14:04 … once I was horrified to see that it’d taken seven minutes to go 0.52 miles. Only when I clicked off Mile 1 at 9:04 did I realize I'd simply misread the darn thing.
At this point, we were nearing the descent, the throngs were thinning ever so slightly, and runners began settling into a groove. A faster groove. I swear I was throttling back and letting lots of people pass me. I felt completely controlled, like I was putting out almost no effort. I remember thinking, “Run on ahead, guys. I’ll see you all again in 22 miles.” So when I hit Mile 2 just after coming off the bridge at 7:51, I thought, I know that was too fast, I will slow down ... but wow, that felt so easy. This would wind up being my fastest mile of the day – and though I eased off the gas immediately, a dangerous thing was happening: I was gaining confidence.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s the running gods’ idea of a cruel joke: a rite of passage every newbie must go through to earn his or her stripes, so to speak, sort of like a fraternity or sorority ritual that initially seems harmless but ends with you blowing chunks and realizing you’ve been hazed. Or maybe it’s just Darwinism – a lesson, like the one learned by the kid who’s warned not to screw with the cat, does it anyway, and gets gouged by claws. At any rate, that’s how it starts, I now know. Your heart rate barely seems elevated. You feel like you’re putting out almost no effort. You feel in complete control.
Anyway, as thousands of us spill off the bridge into Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, dozens of men were peeling off to urinate while shielded by lightpoles, shielded by bushes, shielded – in some cases – by nothing. Within a matter of a minute or two, we saw the first smatterings of spectators. Those of us in the green wave didn’t immediately turn into the neighborhoods with the neat row houses, so our first fan sightings were a few stray kids hanging out of apartment windows above the parkway and half a dozen immigrant families standing on overpasses every 200 meters or so, lightly clapping. But then we made a left turn and could see – three blocks away – the orange and blue waves charging up Fourth Avenue; next thing you know, we’re doing the same thing.
I’d been quick to strike up conversations with people earlier in the morning, but it became clear as soon as we got onto Fourth Avenue that there would be no more casual conversations. There was just too much to look at and take in. I felt like to engage another runner would be to risk missing … something – a child handing out orange slices, or a creative sign, or a cool band. I would be on Fourth Avenue for almost five miles, and over the course of those 40 minutes, the spectacle became increasingly absorbing. The reminders that this was an international race were everywhere: pockets of smiling, middle-class Irish, Italians, Arabs, Chinese, Greeks and others lined the streets in the early sections, greeting fellow countrymen with shouts of “Italia!”; water stations were controlled chaos – Gatorade to the front, water to the back, smashed cups everywhere, leaving a block-long puddle.
Though I was starting to feel like I needed to pee, the sights and sounds were a good distraction. Every time I saw a bank of PortaJohns, I briefly considered a pitstop. But since there didn’t seem to be any lines at any of them, I decided I could hold out until it was an emergency. Otherwise, I was feeling great. Crowds were thickening, my pace continued to feel effortless, and I recklessly tossed my H1N1 fears out the window by sporadically slapping hands with a few smiling kids. An NBC crew, escorted by a motorcycle cop, pulled up alongside my group, and we all started doing goofy things for the camera. After a minute or so of allowing us to ham it up, the vehicle stopped, a blonde reporter hopped off, broke immediately into a smooth eight-and-a-half-minute-per-mile pace, and started interviewing a woman behind me. As we prepared to cross the 10K timing pad, all of us pumped our fists in the air triumphantly for the photographers perched 12 feet above the action.
Meanwhile, I zeroed in on a fueling strategy: alternate water and Gatorade every mile, slowing for three quick walking steps to take just a couple or three swallows, and moving on. I planned to take a gel every five miles, and I hit my first mark perfectly. At that point, I was on the extreme left side of Fourth Avenue, where I was expecting my family to be, somewhere between Miles 6 and 7.
A few days before the race, my friend Shawn told me that seeing his wife during the Marine Corps Marathon provided a bigger boost than any gel ever could. About two-thirds of the way through Mile 6, I spotted the two “GO TJ” signs on the left and saw my mom and dad and my 8-year-old daughter and my wife wildly waving their arms. I veered to the side, touched my parents on the arms and said, “Love you guys!,” gave my daughter a squeeze, kissed my wife, smiled, waved, and was off again. I could still hear them cheering as I thought to myself, Shawn, when you’re right, you’re right.
I’d been holding steady at about an 8:15 pace for more than an hour when the route turned onto Lafayette and headed through the musical corridor, where yet more speakers blared music produced by live bands here, by DJs with turntables there; we also passed bagpipers and choirs, and I could swear at one point I heard a full orchestra. Lafayette being so narrow compared with the expansive Fourth Avenue, and crowds being so much thicker (as this is a good area for friends and family to try to catch sight of their runners before racing up to Queens or Manhattan to try again), these were the first moments in which I felt overwhelmed – in a good way. The whooping and the cowbells and the music were all right on top of us. It was deafening, and it was hard not to get a little bit choked up. It also helped take my mind off the steep half-mile ascent to the top of Lafayette, before we dropped back down the other side, turned left onto Bedford Avenue, and headed into Bed-Stuy.
Fueled by the crowds and the downhill section of Lafayette and Bedford, Mile 10 went by for me in 8:05. I took another gel and prepared to lock in. But just as I started to get used to the hooting and hollering, it faded. Bedford Ave. leads through Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, which is home to the ultra-Orthodox Satmar sect of Hasidic Jews, many of whom do not approve of the race (particularly because of the way female runners dress) and all of whom work or go to school on Sundays. While there were pockets of polite (non-Jewish) fans here, there were also plenty of men wearing black hats and long beards who were simply going about their days, in some cases dodging runners to cross the street. It was gloomy and fascinating all at once. Yet one of the bigger surprises of the day came around Mile 11, as we were almost out of that stretch: I noticed a tall, heavyset Hasidic Jew with hanging sidelocks, alone on a corner, who wore a faint but apparent grin and was lightly bopping to hip-hop music that played nearby…
I also noticed that I no longer felt pressure on my bladder. What I didn’t notice was my pace starting to slow slightly, to about 8:20, as we passed through the modern section of Williamsburg with its gentrified neighborhoods and then up onto Manhattan Avenue with all its Polish pride. In fact, it was on a bridge named after a Polish military commander when I felt the first signs of fatigue, when the freshness built up during the taper weeks started evaporating. I hit the halfway point of the New York City Marathon on the Pulaski Bridge in 1:48:56 (8:18.88 pace); I’d later learn that Mile 13 was my slowest – 8:25 – since Mile 1.
Queens went by quickly. With nine turns – one a near-hairpin – over just 2.25 miles, it was a complicated stretch requiring more focus. Frankly, I don’t remember much about Queens other than I was trying to a) hit the tangents, b) get another gel down, and c) mentally prepare for the second-biggest climb on the course and the legendary welcome I knew awaited our first entry into Manhattan.
The 125-foot ascent up the Queensboro Bridge is a test. This time, everyone’s on the lower level. It’s dank. It’s dark. The only sounds were the din of the city, and the labored breathing and the pounding of feet echoing off of the girders. After charging through throngs of revelers and well-wishers in Brooklyn and Queens, the relative silence was almost ominous – and now, of course, with a big hill in my face and no interesting distractions around, running was nowhere near effortless anymore. But like I said, it’s a test, and passing the test – even at a painful 8:56 pace – yields the most exhilarating reward any runner could ever imagine.
Provided you have the means, you can run in beautiful locales anytime you want. Through the Irish countryside, along the Mediterranean coast, over magnificent trails in Colorado or Oregon. But the positively electric “wall of sound” waiting for runners as they come off the 59th Street ramp into Manhattan only exists for a few hours a year, and there simply is no way to describe it properly. All I can say is that I will never come closer to feeling like a rock star. It’s a scene of absolute, unbridled jubilation, four people deep. If you run this race and don’t get a lump in your throat on the way into Manhattan, your pulse needs to be checked – or maybe the New York Road Runners should just ban you from ever doing the race again. And this party doesn’t end here. For 3½ miles on the Upper East Side’s First Avenue, it’s nothing but the sound of thunder. It’s a six-lane straightaway, a vast thoroughfare, and the amount of people lining the streets with signs and flags and treats for runners made my head spin. More experienced marathoners probably can keep themselves from getting caught up in the delirium, but of course, I had no experience – so there I am cranking it up to the point where I covered Mile 18 at 8:00 flat, my fastest mile since Mile 2, and that revelation intensified my fatigue. The search in this stretch for my family came up empty, which also deflated me slightly. I’d now been running for 2½ hours.
I ran Mile 19 in 8:35. At the top of First Avenue, we crossed over the Willis Avenue Bridge into the fifth and final borough – the Bronx – hitting Mile 20 just a few blocks in. After covering Mile 20 in 8:59, I took another gel. This, for me, is where the focus started to shift from enjoying the crowds to simply tolerating them. The live bands and the pre-recorded hip-hop were becoming a less-welcome distraction. Approaching the turn off of 135th Street onto Alexander Avenue, there was an enormous Jumbotron showing runners making the right. People were pumping their fists, but with far less enthusiasm than they had a couple hours earlier. We crossed the Madison Avenue Bridge back into Manhattan, and on the far side, Mile 21 clicked off at 8:55.
I hadn’t quite hit the wall yet, but I could sense it coming. I started second-guessing or criticizing the race I’d run thus far. My too-fast start. My fueling strategy (should I have taken more gels? Why do I feel so thirsty all of a sudden?). My surge on First Avenue. My decision to do this at all.
What was I trying to prove? I spent 35 years of my life never once dreaming of running a race this long. A year ago, I could barely run four miles without needing a sandwich, a beer, and a nap. Even after I caught the running bug, the concept of a marathon was something my brain couldn’t process. You’ve heard your friends say it: “You’re going to run 26.2 miles? I don’t even like to drive that far!” But if a runner falls into the right (wrong?) crowd – for me, a local running group – it becomes an organic part of his or her evolution. You go out for a run with the group, and the natural conversation starter is, “So, are you training for anything?” And you talk about your 5K or your 10K, and you talk about how you got into running, and you talk about your job and your family and this trip you’re planning and that new restaurant over on such-and-such street and … hey, did we just run 10 miles? Your new friend says yes, and would you like to do it again next week? And you say sure, and next week it’s his turn – and he’s talking his job and his family and how he got into running and how he got roped into his first marathon and how he’s doing his eighth marathon next fall and in the back of your mind you’re thinking this guy is 10 years older and 20 pounds heavier and if he can do it maybe I can do it and … hey, did we just run 11 miles? Your new friend says, Why yes, we did. And the weeks go on and the miles pile up and the next thing you know you are signing up for 26.2.
Which is how I found myself slamming into the wall at Mile 22 of the New York City Marathon.
It’s a demoralizing series of moments for someone who had hoped to get through the race without any true walk breaks or pitstops. My legs didn’t cease to work; they just didn’t want to run anymore. At the water station at Mile 22, I couldn’t get started back up. The feet were full of lead, I was getting thirstier, and although I wasn’t necessarily hungry, most of the energy had been sapped from my body. I walked for what seemed to be an eternity but was probably more like about 45 seconds, then literally willed my legs to go, figuring that even at a plodding pace I could do a mile in less than 10 minutes. If I walked, it could take twice as long to cover the same distance. Of course, what I’d forgotten over the previous three hours is that New York has a mean streak.
The 100-foot ascent heading south alongside the eastern edge of Central Park comes at a terrible time for runners. In their weakest, darkest hour, the rise up Fifth Avenue begins two-thirds of the way between Mile 22 and 23, and peaks at about 23.5. The crowds here, again, were thick with families and friends trying to coax their runners through one of the toughest parts of the course; I got a boost when I caught a brief glimpse of my dad as he shouted my name around 100th Street. But about halfway up the hill, my hamstrings started revolting – those little tug-like cramps with each leg lift. I walked again briefly somewhere on Fifth Avenue, but mustered up the strength to make the turn into Central Park at a “run.” Mile 24, at a 10:25 pace, registered as the slowest mile of the day.
Still, I was almost home. The roar of the crowd was intensifying. But again, New York tries one last time to wear you down: The final two miles of the course get downright nasty, with risers that make the hammies weep and dips that make the quads scream for mercy. For most of the race, I’d been trying to take everything in: the sights, the sounds, the smells, the atmosphere. But in those last 20 minutes, I found myself trying to shut everything out. They say running is just putting one foot in front of the other, and that’s all I was trying to do. I was focusing on the six feet on the ground ahead of me. I’d completely stopped looking at my watch. As most marathoners know, at the end, there’s nothing to do, really, except try to hang on.
At the bottom of the park, we cut right and headed west on Central Park South. The cacophony of cheers continued to get louder; I continued to turn even more inward. Then, a serendipitous moment of clarity: As we made the final turn back into Central Park, I looked up, and – I’m not making this up – for the first time all day a shaft of sunlight peeked out of the midday sky. Amid the screaming of the fans in the bleachers right on the corner there by Columbus Circle, I welled up just a bit and thought to myself, I’m going to make it, and I’m going to remember this forever. It was perhaps my clearest thought of the entire race.
The last .2 miles included that final little riser I’d regarded warily 18 hours earlier, and it was right at the base of it – with the finish just out of sight – that I was struck with my first and only hunger pang. I’d forgotten to take a gel at Mile 25, but at this point, it didn’t matter. I crossed the line in 3:49:55.
The rest, as they say, is history. The highs – the sea of humanity on the Verrazano, the wall of sound at 59th Street, the feeling of finishing – are burned into my mind’s eye; the lows – going out too fast, the walk breaks, that deflated feeling – provide motivation to try to get it right the next time. The finisher’s medal proves I did it; the residual pain and soreness prove I’m alive.
Is it the best marathon on the planet? Well, I haven’t run any others, so I have nothing to compare it to. But I know that the race took me to parts of the city that I’d never seen, and that the experience took me mentally to places I’ve never been to. I know that 2009’s 42,000 participants made it the world’s biggest marathon, and that more than 2 million spectators – including people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and creeds – helped get us through it with smiles on their faces and with joy in their hearts.
And I know that while New York still isn’t easy to love, on the first Sunday of each November, it’s a pretty impossible place to hate.