I'm probably not the luckiest man on the planet, but as the New York City Marathon lottery goes, I've got a pretty good batting average.
First year I applied, boom. In. Ran NYC 2009 as my first 26.2. Second year I applied, no dice. Was just trying to rack up the rejections, anyway, so I could do it again in 2013. But I applied again this past year, and -- boom -- my number came up again.
So I'm standing there Sunday on the base of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Staten Island side, surrounded by thousands of other runners from all over the world. There's an NYPD helicopter circling above, and a TV news chopper, and a couple of single-engine planes dragging banners, and another helicopter, and I get this lump in my throat and I think to myself: I can't believe I'm fortunate enough to be able to do this race. Again.
Then New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg addressed the masses over the P.A. system, a woman sang "The Star Spangled Banner," the cannons fired, and Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" rang out as we started heading up the two-mile-long bridge.
Going into the race, I wasn't completely sure what was realistic. In 2009, I ran Charlotte's Thunder Road Marathon just five weeks after NYC, and last year, I did Thunder Road six weeks after the Ridge to Bridge Marathon in western North Carolina. This time, though, I had booked a date with the Big Apple just 15 days after the 2011 Ridge to Bridge race, in which I ran as hard as I could and posted a 3:13.
I did tell many people that I was doing this one for "fun," that it wasn't a race but an experience to soak up. So I figured somewhere in the neighborhood of 3:30-3:40 was a nice, safe goal for the notoriously challenging course in New York. But as many of you competitive types probably know, the temptation to "go for it" can sometimes be overwhelming.
The week of the race, I had successfully convinced myself and my coach that my legs were feeling great, and we agreed that I could try to run 7:45s, which would get me in under 3:25 -- a great time for a runner like me on a course like this. The day before the race, though, as she and I were walking in midtown on the way to catch the shuttle to the expo, she suddenly said, "So I was thinking that maybe you should run 8s for the first half, and then if your legs feel good at that point, you can start to turn it up a little bit and see what happens." This sounded like a good idea ... until I got to the starting line, and greed started seeping into my psyche.
I ignored the cardinal rule of marathoning: You don't ever, ever, ever, ever, EVER take the distance for granted. Things can turn in an instant. One moment you feel like you're in complete control, the next moment your race is spinning out of it. (Just ask Mary Keitany.)
My fastest mile of the race was the second, a 7:38 coming down the mile-long, 225-foot plunge on the far side of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. My fastest mile of the second half was the 18th, a 7:52 along First Avenue in Manhattan, which typically draws the biggest and loudest crowds of the entire race -- at times 6 to 8 people deep for more than a mile on the west side of the street.
This is ironic because I had spent weeks, months even, warning friends of mine who also were running that those were the two spots where they most needed to keep themselves in check.
My race was by no means a disaster. My slowest mile was No. 24, a 9:01 coming up the long incline on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, alongside Central Park, where two-thirds of the runners around me seemed to also be running in slow motion. I soldiered through, without walking, on not-fully-recovered legs, on a course that does everything it can to chew you up and spit you out. (Those bridges were steeper and longer than I remember them, and the climb up Fifth Avenue is agonizing.)
After I ran New York two years ago, I wrote a recap that started slowly and was WAY too long -- but I also really feel it captured the experience of running the race about as well as I could have captured it.
That blog entry provided a lot of specifics about the unique qualities of the various areas that the course runs through. This time, I'll just make a blanket statement: To me, Marathon Day in New York is a day that's full of so much hope. Runners hope to get a PR. They hope to spot someone they know in the crowd. Friends and family members hope their runners see the sign they've made for them. Children hope they can get a runner to give them a high five.
Race officials estimate that 2 million spectators line the course every year. Maybe that's a wildly inaccurate guess. And, sure, tons the fans have a vested interest in the event (i.e. are out there to support someone running). But I think there are lots of people, especially in Brooklyn and Queens and the Bronx, who just come out because it's fun to cheer. It's fun to gawk. It's fun if you're, say, Italian, or Japanese, or Ethiopian, to go bananas when you see someone running past flying the country's colors on his or her clothing.
Seeing people who might not otherwise give a hoot about running take time out of their day to be a part of the event in some small way is so awesome, so inspiring, so awe-inspiring.
Purely from a numbers standpoint, I did OK on Sunday. I ran a 3:35:54 -- 1:44:07 for the first half, 1:51:47 for the second half. Not great, not a complete meltdown. These are numbers, though, and as much as I love numbers, this weekend was about the power and the pleasure of bonding experiences.
One of the many unique aspects of this event is that unless you have remarkably fast or charitable friends, you can't just say to your spouse or your brother or your neighbor or your college roommate, "Hey, let's go run the New York City Marathon." Your number comes up, you do the detective work to find out who else's number has come up, then social plans begin to formulate. After spending a night with a couple who lives in New York but wasn't running the race, I shared a room Saturday and Sunday with a guy I barely knew before the trip and now would consider a good friend. I had a great dinner with some Charlotte Running Club members on Friday night, a fun lunch with my coach and her sister on Saturday, and a delicious feast with friends from the University City Road Runners group I belong to on Saturday night. Each crew was a motley one, many of us thrown together by chance -- but I couldn't have asked for better companions.
Now, as fantastic as the entire experience was ... this time around, the inconveniences stood out a little bit more. New York is, of course, expensive; my hotel room was -- after taxes -- more than $900 for two nights. Manhattan is a city geared toward walking and standing around waiting in lines, and one of the worst things a marathoner can do the day before a marathon is a lot of walking and standing around waiting in lines.
Race morning is a long ordeal that involves walking, then a subway ride, more walking, then a ferry ride, more walking, then a bus ride, more walking, then a whole lot of standing around. You could get a ride from someone across the bridge, but the Staten Island Expressway must be cleared by 6:45 a.m., so if you go that route, you're in for three-plus hours of waiting around in the start village.
The course is very crowded. There were 42,000+ runners when I did it in 2009, and 47,000+ this past Sunday. They're sent off in three waves so it's really kind of like three races with 15,000-16,000 runners in each, but it's still a ginormous number of runners. Worse, occasionally fans, locals, or cops will try to cross the street.
After finishing, it's a long, cold march to the baggage trucks containing your warm clothes and your cellphone. It's a virtual certainty that you won't see a friend or loved one for at least 20 to 30 minutes after you cross the finish line, at a time when a hug would feel like the greatest thing in the world.
The whole thing sounds pretty awful, doesn't it? Well, go ahead and be scared. If you don't enter the lottery next year, the chances of my number coming up again only get better.