Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Disaster Déjà Vu: 2011 NYC Marathon Race Report

Sunrise on Staten Island, Nov 6, 2011
It's been 14 years since I ran my first New York City Marathon. The title sponsor has changed. The location of the expo has changed. The size of the race has changed (drastically). And sadly, the skyline of my beloved New York City has changed. But, as they say (and to quote a tired cliché): "the more things change... the more they stay the same."

First, a run-down of time spent in New York.

After a 6.5-hour drive from Cleveland, we arrived at our hotel in the wee hours of Saturday, November 5. Our hotel was in Secaucus, New Jersey - better (or more widely) known as the place you stay when going to the Meadowlands Sports Complex - which is not better (and less widely) known as the Izod Center. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a marathon runner who was apparently looking for someone not only to tell his life story to (which included being a 2:30-something marathoner to getting leukemia to separating his achilles tendon which would probably cost him a finish on Sunday - it was actually quite poignant but it was 1:00 am for crying out loud and some of us cared about getting sleep before the marathon), but to also complain that he had no idea how he was going to get to the starting line because he missed the online Meadowlands bus sign-up. Thank heavens we could assuage his fears about the latter. In the gobs of pre-race information, it was mentioned that bus signups could be taken care of at the expo Saturday.

Thus, it was 2:30 am before I was in bed and asleep on Saturday morning.

The alarm clock went off at 9 am. Why so early you ask? Because there was NO WAY I would miss spending time in New York City by convincing myself extra sleep would help me run faster in a marathon that I was wholly untrained for. When one day in New York City awaited, 6.5 hours was all I was willing to spare.

First up - breakfast. Then a quick jog to shake off the day-before's drive. Jim was skeptical that I would find a place to run from our hotel along the New Jersey Turnpike, but he severely under-estimated the area. This was, after all, "the Meadowlands,"and as luck would have it, about a half-mile from our hotel, there was an awesome trail through the restored wetlands of Mill Creek Marsh.

NYC Skyline from the bus showing both the
Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building
With my run out of the way, we set our sites on the quickest way to Manhattan - which happened to be the New Jersey Transit bus. Parking in NY would be one less thing to worry about. The bus took us directly to the Port Authority terminal - within walking distance of the marathon check-in and expo at the Jacob Javits Convention Center on 11th and 35th. The expo and packet pick-up ran like clockwork as long as you did the prep work (i.e., printed out your marathon entry card and pulled out your id). In a matter of minutes, I was checked-in and had my t-shirt and goodie bag. We only had to stop and ask questions about transport to the start - I had originally chosen the Staten Island ferry because we were expecting to stay in Manhattan, not New Jersey. The line for bus sign-up was akin to something you'd wait in to get on a ride at Disney World. Luckily there was a volunteer with answers: the line was for tour groups only. I asked her how to change buses and she just took my number and gave me a new bus sticker. Wait, what? Really? It was painless.

The last thing I had to do (to Jim's dismay) was browse the expo. Fortunately, there were no great deals, and the only thing I stopped for was to try on a new pair of running shoes at the New Balance booth. The NB 890s turned out to be a must-have, but the deal-breaker was that they only brought them in light purple. Really? Despite having worn some of the ugliest running shoes ever made (cases in point: original quilted Adidas Ozweegos, Saucony Azuras), apparently even I have standards, and there was NO WAY I was running in (light) purple shoes unless they were the last pair of 890s on Earth. (Note: the only purple shoes I will wear are my purple Doc Martens boots.) Sorry New Balance. I postponed the purchase because they also come in black and blue.

Early Sunday Morning, Edward Hopper
- arguably one of the Whitney's most
iconic pieces.
We high-tailed it out of there to do what you are supposed to do in NYC - get some culture! First stop: the Whitney Museum of American Art. We made one race-related stop on the way to the Whitney - we explored the post-marathon bag pickup area to choose a location to meet after the race - on 78th Street. THEN we headed to the Whitney. There were two exhibits that I wanted to see: Real/Surreal and David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy. Neither were a disappointment, although Jim would disagree - his exact words in the David Smith exhibit were: "I'm just not feeling it." At least he liked seeing the Hoppers. Besides, my new job at The Cleveland Museum of Art was good for a complimentary entry.

Rudy's Music (a.k.a. window
shopping for Jim)
We didn't spend a huge amount of time looking at art because we wanted to make a quick trip to Times Square then get down to Greenwich Village for dinner. While we were passing through Times Square, Jim was able to check out guitar shops in the famous 48th street "Music Row"- specifically Rudy's Music. I like it when Jim has a hidden agenda - i.e., we always just "wander across" these music shops.

Murray's Cheese Shop
Then we took the subway down to the Village to browse shops (specifically Murray's Cheese) and have pizza. Instead of our normal slice at Joe's on Carmine Street, we went for an excellent sit-down at John's of Bleecker Street. It was a great way to end a whirlwind day in NYC and get my carbs for the marathon. On the way back we stopped at other favorites Bleecker Street Records and Rocco's Pastry Shop for dessert.

Can you tell how much
Jim likes the subway?
We caught the subway and then the bus back to the hotel, and I packed up my stuff for marathon morning. I was exhausted from being on my feet all day but was very happy to remember the clocks went back that night and we would get an extra hour of sleep. I still had to be up at 4 am to catch the bus at 5 to Staten Island for the marathon start.

I slept like a log and in a few hours, it was Marathon Morning.

The NYC Marathon has a late start - the first wave was scheduled to go at 9:40 am. What this really means: you must rethink your race-at-7-am morning rituals. For me, this meant all I had to do was take a shower and grab my breakfast for the road. I knew the following facts (important when amidst 50,000 runners):
  • I was wearing an orange number (there were three colors: orange, blue, green).
  • I was in Wave 1.
  • My bus left between 5 and 6 am at the Meadowlands Sports Complex... ahem, I mean, the Izod Center.
  • It was cold (about 37 degrees F).
  • Breakfast, water, Gatorade and Dunkin' Donuts coffee would be available at the start.
Early Sunday (Marathon) Morning. By Yours Truly
- arguably one NYC's most iconic views.
I mostly kept to myself from the moment Jim dropped me off at the bus. However, it was weirdly coincidental that I sat next to a guy from Columbus, Ohio, on the bus. He would be doing his first Ironman triathlon in 2012. We swapped a few war stories and I learned he was a Canadian national team swimmer. I have to say that I struggled with my reaction when he went off on how amazing and wonderful Chris McCormack is.... um.... no comment... I considered telling him how I felt about Craig Alexander but kept it to myself. As much as I like these happy coincidences that spark conversation, I really wanted to get off the bus and go back into my shell and contemplate being alone amidst 50,000 people. It was just one of those days. 

The orange area was called Grete Waitz
village - in memory of the woman who
inspired most my generation's women to run
Once off the bus, we made our way to the start areas which were grouped by color. The directional signage was wrong and many people ended up in the wrong areas - not a good way to start off the morning. It's a good thing we had more than three hours to figure it out. The volunteers straightened things out and directed people to the correct areas. When I got to the orange staging area, the first thing I saw was the Verazzano Narrows bridge rising majestically above us. In the early morning light, it was one of the most spectacular views I've ever experienced before a marathon - or anytime for that matter. I was thankful I brought my old iPhone (re-purposed as an iPod Touch) so I could take photos before the start (and listen to music).

I wandered around, listened to music, sat down, drank some awesome coffee and ate my breakfast. Being the pre-race minimalist, I was blown away by the amount of stuff people brought with them: blankets, sleeping bags, wardrobe changes, TENTS! And to think I was so easily satisfied to receive a free Dunkin' Donuts fleece beanie to keep me warm. Who knew we could bring a personal shelter to the start? I actually found myself spending more time than necessary warming up inside the portajohns (hey, you do what you can in these times of need - especially when you forgot your tent).

Dunkin' Donuts starting line freebie
The "way" to the start was less confusing than the first time I ran the race. Despite this, I almost missed the start just like I did 14 years ago. That year, I was late to the start because of the massive jam of people all trying to get to get to the bag drop through a tiny opening in a fence. This year, there was no mass pileup and no fence - we were directed to drop our bags at the UPS trucks (for finish line delivery) not less than 45 minutes before our start wave. I was 10 minutes early, and yet, as I was making my way to the start (via one last bathroom break), I heard something terrifying come over the PA: "Wave 1 start corrals are NOW CLOSED!"


I panicked. I was IN Wave 1. Every ounce of my mental organization evaporated in that instant as I made a mad dash for who-knows-where-but-where-ever-the-other-mad-dashing-people-were-going. I asked anyone who looked like they had a clue: "which way to the start corrals??" only to be met with "you've got an orange bib, you're not in Wave 1" - WAIT! WHAT? I could have sworn I was in Wave 1! Um... quick! check my bib! yep, it said "Wave 1." I kept running towards that distant who-knows-where following orange arrows and hoping they were pointing the way.

When I arrived at the start corrals, slackers like me were being hurriedly herded in so the gates could be closed. My corral (numbers in the 5000s) was the furthest away so I was directed to jump in with the 13,000s because there was "no way I would make it in time" to the 5000s before they closed. It was almost identical situation as in 1997 when I had to crawl my way up the bridge to my start corral and rely on the generosity of people in the crowd to let me through because I was wearing a seeded number. On Sunday I remembered this and made my way through the crowd, touting my number as the reason I could move up. No one complained. I finally saw bib numbers in the 5000s and I rejoiced because I had finally made it to "my people." Almost immediately, we were herded to the starting line on the bridge to await the start. It was just after 9 am.

Unlike the last two times I ran NYC, this year, the start was at the bottom instead of partly up the incline of the bridge. Right after the elite women's race started, we all moved up and I was surprised to actually see the "Start" sign only about 20 feet in front of me. There was a speech from Mayor Bloomberg and the playing of the National Anthem. In the final ten minutes, another coincidence happened in finding out the runner next to me was from Toledo, Ohio. Then the horn went off and we were on our way.

Running over a suspension bridge is one of the great pleasures I've experienced as a runner. Running over the Verazzano-Narrows bridge - the seventh-longest suspension bridge in the world - is a revelation. Mile 1 occurs very close to the apex of the bridge and makes you realize exactly how much road is suspended across the water by cables hanging between the pylons (almost a mile). The Verazzano-Narrows bridge is an incredible feat of engineering and held the record for longest suspension bridge in the world for 33 years (the previous record was held by the Golden Gate Bridge - another bridge I hope to someday run across).

Moving from bridge history back to the NYC Marathon...

After the bridge, the next twelve miles of the NYC Marathon runs through huge crowds in the diverse neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens. There was music everywhere, mostly in the form of bands playing right on the sidewalks. At one point, I found myself cringing from a really discordant note that one of the bands hit at the end of their song. I laughed and turned to the runner next to me and said: "I think they need more practice." His response was totally unexpected: "give me a break, it's only my THIRD marathon!"

Wait, what? Did he think I said "YOU need more practice"? Yikes - I cleared up the misunderstanding. But after that, all I could think of was: does this guy actually think I just run along and insult other people? How completely bizarre. I didn't talk to anyone else on the course after that.

During the first half, the great spectator support made it all too easy for me to be lulled into a false sense of speed and stop focusing on my race (I use the term "race" loosely). I kept an eye on my Timex GPS (first time I've worn it in a race) but I was paying more attention to the mile clocks (and the fact that there was a clock at EVERY mile, every 5K AND the half). Even though I tried to keep a lid on it, I was shocked to find my mile pace near seven minutes at the half. Yes, this was a mistake. And I made the mistake by going to "what if" land. What if I can hold this pace? What if I don't really need to train to run fast? What if my post-Ironman fitness can carry me through this?

What if I am a complete idiot?

The truth of the matter is that the NYC Marathon is an extremely deceptive course. Long gradual inclines masquerade as flatness. The damage was done by mile 15 when I was climbing the "hill" of the 59th Street/Queensboro bridge. I knew Manhattan (and Jim) would be waiting for me on the other side of the bridge. In face, I always tell NYC Marathon virgins that coming off the bridge is the most exciting moment of the entire race. On Sunday, I would need all the support I could get by then - because on that uphill, my left hip finally had enough and began screaming in agony.

Entry into Manhattan via 59th Street
When I came off the bridge, I heard Jim yell my name and I was so happy to see him - I wanted to stop and hug him and yell about the pain. But I didn't want him to worry, so I just smiled and waved. I really wanted to finish and enjoy this marathon, but the next ten miles would be an exercise in survival and avoiding injury. I eased back on my pace to reduce the pain and avoid major damage to my hip (remembering I had promised Jim I would not do anything stupid). My goal became "to not walk unless I was limping" (the red flag of impending injury). I had the same problem in the 2008 Philadelphia Marathon and managed to get through it without further decay, so I knew it was possible.

Almost finished
Despite the pain and my major slow down, the miles ticked away in Manhattan's Upper East Side with crowd support even more dense than Brooklyn. And the usual dead zone - the short jaunt into the Bronx - was hopping this year with music and big crowd. From there, we ran back into Manhattan through Harlem, then along the east edge and into Central Park near mile 24 - this where the race gets really hard with rolling hills and turns. Those last three miles are when the crowd is at its very best, and although I was struggling with my hip and starting to feel some nausea, I was carried along almost in a trance from the screaming spectators. The hardest thing was having to ease back in the last half-mile because of stomach issues - but I still managed to get across the finish line (barely) under 3:15 with a smile. The weather had been dry and sunny and damn near perfect in the mid-50s.

Crossing the finish line was the beginning of a death march because of my hip pain. My walking stride became a slow painful dragging of my left leg and my body was cooling off in a hurry. Volunteers wrapped us in mylar blankets and gave us food, but all I really wanted was to get into my warm clothes and find Jim. I should have expected some kind of disaster any minute.

I slowly inched along through the park and continued on the long block of W 77th Street from 8th to Columbus Ave, past the UPS trucks with our bags. As I imagined getting my bag and getting warm, I started having flashbacks of the finish line in 1997 when my dry clothes bag was "lost." That year, it was 45 degrees and raining and I stood around shivering for over an hour, finally breaking down in tears because I was so cold and no one would help me (they just gave up looking). One of the UPS guys took pity on me and gave me his jacket, helped me calm down and somehow found my bag after about a 30 minute search.

This year... I was sure that couldn't possibly happen again. Right? Walking by the trucks, I saw runners' bags laid out on the road in organized, numbered rows. The truck with my bag (numbers in the 5000s) was at the very end of the block. As I approached it, I noticed a huge crowd surrounding it (the only truck like this). Runners were standing around frustrated because of total disorganization. In the chaos, several runners just gave up and walked away, while others begged to help. After close to an hour of standing and getting crushed by the angry mass, shivering, and finally losing the feeling in my fingers and toes, my bag was finally in my hands. But my fingers were so numb I couldn't even open it. I could barely move my left leg, I was going hypothermic, and I desperately wanted to get into the sun and find Jim. With the crowd and the cold and the pain, moving one short block from that truck to Jim was a bigger ordeal than the marathon I had just run. Crossing the street, I was almost run over by one of those bicycle-rickshaw things trying to get to him. Jim was able to get my bag open and help me get my sweats on before we started the long walk to the car - parked on 49th street.

I didn't mind the final walk because it was in the sun and the feeling in my fingers came back. I was als able to get some nourishment in the form of hot chocolate, water, and a Powerbar. We also grabbed a final slice of pizza. I don't even remember the name of the place. (Can you get a bad slice in NYC?) It was a great way to head out of the City for the long drive home to Cleveland.

No comments:

Post a Comment