Thursday, November 17, 2016
We begin our trek through the five boroughs of New York City by climbing the first significant hill to mile one partway across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The pack of runners is tight and I find it difficult to secure any kind of running room, let alone elbow room. It lightens up only slightly as we approach the first mile marker and although I’m not displeased with my first mile split of 9:13, it is still always hard for me to swallow a mile split that slow this early in a race. I remind myself that the traffic and the incline of the bridge are factors and that inevitably going that slow will help me down the road so I quickly put it out of my mind.
That which goes up must come down! The second mile crosses the second half of the bridge and takes the exit ramp into Brooklyn. That and the fact that the field thins out significantly puts me back into familiar ground with a 7:20 split and the race is on. I am very impressed with the crowd support through Brooklyn. It is dense, it is loud, and it provides me with energy and excitement. I revel in my good feeling and take the opportunity to high five the kids who are bright-eyed and appear amazed to see this spectacle unfolding in front of them. With each hand I slap I know that perhaps I’ve brightened some kids day, and it gives me goosebumps knowing what I’m a part of in this moment.
Miles 3 through almost mile 8 are all along 4th Avenue in Brooklyn. What I didn’t realize just before mile 8 is that we pass by the Barclay’s Center. I was so caught up in the crowds and what I was doing that I never saw it off to the right just before mile 8 where we turned left and then a quick right onto Lafayette Street. My splits remain strong at 8:11, 8:09, 8:17, 8:05, 8:00 and 8:16. My 10k time of 50:42 is solid given the difficulty of my training and I know that puts me on roughly a 3:35 pace, which would be a fantastic day for me. Yet, I realize that I am only a little over 1/3 of the way through and simply settle into my pace.
As I settle in and continue to clip off miles I anticipate the halfway mark but I notice that there are some very tricky little rolling hills along the way. Nothing major mind you, but definitely not the flat lands that I am used to training on along the Eastern Shore of Maryland. There was a time that I thrived on the hills, but being out of Western Pennsylvania has cost me dearly in the area of hill training. My splits for miles 9-12 remain somewhat consistent, but I notice they are slipping just a little bit (8:28, 8:12, 8:19, 8:38, and 8:20). As we make a left turn onto McGuiness Boulevard I can see the mile 13 and halfway markers ahead and note that it is a significant incline. That part of the race approaches the second of five bridges. This one is a short crossing, but it is also a very steep incline that will take us over Newtown Creek and onto Long Island. The 8:46 split at mile 13 doesn’t surprise me and as I hit the halfway point my total time sits at 1:48:52. I know that I’m on track for a 3:40, but halfway through I begin to feel a bit of fatigue. My plan is to make sure I hit mile 21 at 3:00 hours even if I can and that would leave me an hour to run the final 5.2 miles. Quick math tells me I’m right on track for that, but I do not know what lies ahead. The race has not even really begun yet.
Miles 14 and 15 will take us to the Queensborough Bridge and the most significant of climbs since the Verrazano. I complete mile 14 in 8:48 due mostly to the climb at the halfway mark. Mile 15 is actually on the up slope of the bridge and my 9:23 is not very surprising. It is here, at this spot, that the 2016 TCS New York Marathon will forever be the defining moment of this race for me. The bridge has the longest climb but it is also the spot where there is no crowd support. Zero! Foot traffic is not allowed on the bridge and although there is a screaming throng awaiting us at mile 16 when we decline off of the bridge, it is eerily quiet. The only sounds I hear are my footfalls and those of the other runners. Along with the sound of feet hitting the ground I hear the breathing of others and my own as we climb this excruciating stretch of roadway. I see many people walking and suffering due to the intense climb and I personally feel deflated. As I peer over the side of the bridge I see the East River. Below us, the river is split by a land mass that forms a bit of a median. My memory of this point in the race is that I see us crossing water, but then we are once again over land and I see another water crossing ahead. Even though I handle this part of the race quite well, it feel as though it takes forever and the climb and crossing will never end.
Mile 16 is just beyond the bridge and we turn onto 1st Avenue where the wall of sound awaits us. The crowd once again is as dense and as loud as I’ve heard it since Brooklyn. My split comes in at 8:46 but I feel a little more fatigue creeping into my legs and dealing a blow to my psyche. The climb took a lot out of me. I try to remove the negative thoughts but my body is telling me otherwise. The next three miles will take us along 1st Avenue before crossing our 4th bridge to mile 20 in Harlem. I’m slowing, but I’m still hanging in there (9:26, 9:46, 9:57). The Willis Avenue Bridge is a shorter, less steep bridge, but as I approach the 20th mile my race begins to take on a different feel. My 12:22 split is due largely to the short walk break I took crossing the bridge, which felt much steeper than it was. It was also at that moment I realize that the incremental damage that has been waged upon my body is taking its toll. I also begin to feel a cramp over the front part of my left ankle. I wonder if it’s due to overcompensating on that leg because of my hamstring and I even wonder if I did something when I kicked that damn piece of metal a few hours earlier in the staring village. Either way I reluctantly enter survival mode. I’ve got a 10k remaining (6.2 miles), but mentally it feels like it might as well be an entire marathon to go. The old saying creeps into my mind that the marathon is two halves; the first 20 miles and the last 10k. Nothing could be further from the truth at this moment.
Over the final 10k I struggled to keep myself moving consistently. I am fighting with an ankle cramp, I’m fighting the mental and physical fatigue that only a marathon can produce, and I’m calculating with each passing mile what it will take for me to break 4 hours. Mile 21 comes in at 14:21 with mile 22 at 11:54. In between I cross the 35k mark. A marathon is slightly more than 42 kilometers and with a split of 3:21:02 I frantically calculate that I have 39 minutes to traverse 7 kilometers, or just under 4 miles. I keep telling myself I can do that easily, but I’m waging mental warfare with my body. I’m tired, feeling defeated, and cannot summon the energy for long periods of time. A 14:44 mile at 23 is followed up by a 12:04 at mile 24. The final two miles are a blur and include periods of walking and what I can best describe as painful jogging.
As I look back now at the splits and see that I was able to put together miles of 12:10 and 12:18 it proves to me that although my race was over, I found a way to persevere. The reality is that it would have been easy for me to quit with mile splits of more than 14 minutes at miles 21 and again at 23. But I came back. I ran faster. Sure, I didn’t run my usual pace, but I didn’t allow myself to continue slipping or stay down. As hard as it is for me to accept the times I put together over that final 10k and the fact that I didn’t come in under 4 hours, I look back wiser. I realize that I battled through some difficult circumstances. I still finished with a time that over half the field couldn’t. I didn’t meet my expectations, but I found a way to get it done and for that I should feel a sense of pride. I finished my 11th marathon. I ran in the largest marathon in the world with runners from 131 different countries. With over 51,000 finishers I came across the finish line in the top half (21,088th). I learned once again that no matter how fast or slow I do these races there is something to be learned from each of them. There is a point in every race where it’s me against me. There are two choices. Stop or continue pushing forward. It’s the ultimate reflection of life in general. Don’t we all come to a point where we want to throw up our hands and give up? But somehow, someway, we find a way to push on. I read a great quote recently from Albert Einstein. He said, “Once you stop learning, you start dying.” I use these events to learn about myself and what I’m made of. It’s not book learning, but I think his quote is appropriate to all kinds of learning. He may have even been referring to the type of self-reflective learning that I experience as part of the marathon. I’ve found that it is one of the best ways to learn about yourself. It’s probably why I keep doing them.
Despite my comment to Becky moments after finishing, when I told her I was probably done doing these for a while, it was only a few days later that I felt the urge to one day return to New York City and conquer the demons I left behind just beyond the Queensborough Bridge. Next time I’ll be better prepared. Next time I’ll get my 4 hours. Next time I’ll know exactly what to expect. After all, I’m not ready to start dying. There is more to learn. The future is calling.