Last year I went to the NYC marathon as a spectator. It was incredible. It was one of the most positive environments I had ever been a part of. There was no other team to root against, no one you wanted to do poorly. Every person there was cheering wildly for complete strangers. Many people brought rolls of paper towels, bananas or anything else they thought runners might need. The altruism and enthusiasm was infectious. I stayed late into the evening giving high fives and words of encouragement to the final few people still struggling up First Ave.
And I decided I wanted to experience the other side. I decided I would run in the NYC marathon. It’s worth noting that I had never run even a half mile in my life and the notion of running was generally unappealing to me. That was how infectious that crowd was.
Well, yesterday, I did it. I ran the NYC marathon.
My longest run in training was 18 miles, which at once gave me confidence of success and also scared me. Those 18 miles made me piss and shit blood for days and made it painful to bend my knee or use stairs for weeks. I barely finished those 18 and the thought of starting from that point and running 8 more was daunting. But such is the logic of running a marathon—objectively it makes little sense. Why would anyone put themselves through that?
With over 50,000 runners I expected there to be crowds and some wait on the way there. I gave myself 3 hours for what would have been a 40 minute commute any other day. I underestimated just how bad transportation would be. I stood for two hours at the Staten Island ferry terminal waiting for busses to take us to the start. That’s never fun, but what was worse was that my already injured knee started to complain—and I hadn’t even begun the race yet.
I rushed off the bus, dropped off my bag and was barely inside the corral when the cannon shot. Running over the Verrazano bridge, runners clogging all lanes, with a view of downtown Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty is supposed to be one of the aesthetic highlights. It wasn’t. Throughout the race there was a light drizzle and fog that prevented me from enjoying any of the views. My knee was also hurting, which worried me.
The bridge is a full two miles, so it’s not until mile three that you are back on land and in Brooklyn. This is where it started to get good. This is where I saw the first groups of people lining the streets to cheer us on. This is why I was running the marathon.
A line of Muslim girls, probably all less than eight years old, held out their hands shortly after we got onto 4th Ave. I high-fived all of them. As the neighborhood changed so did the people, we moved from Middle-Eastern to Latino to Jewish to Hipster. In each case thousands of people lined the streets on a wet November day to cheer on complete strangers. Lots of high fives, yelling and signs. One group of male teenagers yelled that I had great hair. I don’t think they cared about my hair but do think they were generally trying to compliment people as they passed—it was their own way of encouragement. I was feeling great. Whenever I needed an energy boast I just moved to side of the road and stuck out my hand and ran down a row of strangers who all gave me a high-five while saying things like ‘You got this!’ or ‘You’re doing great!’ just as I passed. I had a wide smile on my face throughout Brooklyn, which goes all the way to the halfway point at mile 13.
After a short time in Queens we ran across the Queensboro bridge. There are no spectators and besides the fog we were on the lower-level so there was not much to see or hear—just your own thoughts and the echoes of a thousand footsteps. Arriving in Manhattan was a shock after that solitude. The biggest crowds of the day lined 1st Ave.
The advice that everyone gives you before a marathon is pace yourself. It’s a long race and if you don’t conserve energy, you will be in for a world of pain later. It seemed good advice and I had taken it up this point, going a good bit slower than I could have. This was mile 15 now, more than halfway there. But, once I got to First Ave., I decided to disregard that advice and started running down the avenue giving high-fives to hundreds of strangers at a time. ‘This is what I came here for,’ I thought.
Around mile 18 I hit a wall. Everything changed very quickly. My body, quite strongly, said no. I tried to push through it. No! my body screamed at me. All my muscles began to ache and for the first time that day I realized I was cold and wet. I was walking now, and even then each step was a struggle. I had to think about every single step. Every single step sent a wave of pain through my now shivering body. The crowd had thinned too and there was hardly anyone cheering us on. I moved to the center of the street anyway, I wanted to be as far as I could from the cheering.
For the next three miles I kept trying to run but each time I couldn’t. I felt on the verge of tears. The pain overwhelmed me. I walked the entire route through the Bronx. In a way, though it was hard to see it at the time, this was also why I was running a marathon: to push through pain and discomfort to accomplish an end goal.
Back in Manhattan again, now heading down 5th Ave, we approached Marcus Garvey park. It was getting later in the day—the elite runners would have passed by that point many hours previous—and still raining. But there was a lively crowd around the park. Groups of men had covered drums in plastic bags and were beating a rhythm for us. Women were dancing. Children were all sticking their hands out for high-fives. And I started running again. The pain was still there but it was drowned out by the crowd, by my own emotion.
I kept running, and for the first time I thought to myself—I’m gonna do this. I’m gonna finish a marathon! I never cried, but it had felt like I could have from sheer pain and exhaustion just a mile before. Now I laughed manically, giddy at the realization that I would make it.
Those last miles were exhausting, running through Central Park as the sun set. I got another big boast when the race briefly left the park and another large crowd of people lined Central Park South. ‘You’re going to finish the NYC marathon!’ a complete stranger yelled at me as he gave me a high-five. Both of us smiling broadly.