The atmosphere at the start line was charged. I had watched many replays of earlier races on YouTube. The NYC Marathon is one of the few long-distances races having live TV coverage. The New York marathon is no ordinary race, though – it is the biggest marathon in the world. I had goose bumps, anxiety, excitement and many other emotions. Just getting to the start was a negotiation of physical, family and logistical practicalities. My arrival at the start line was years in the making.
From where I stood, I could see the professional runners. Many of the best in the world, were only a matters of meters from where I stood. While they had direct, VIP access to the start, my journey that morning began with a 5:30am bus ride from downtown New York, where a procession of buses picked up some of the 50,000 runners who were converging on the start. Other runners went via the Staten Island ferry service, and other transport means, over to said island to join the other waiting, anxious, marathoners in waiting.
We arrived on the Staten Island side of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge – the longest suspension bridge in USA – where the start line was. Runners had been assigned to one of three villages: blue, green and orange. These outdoor, open air areas were each to hold about 16,000+ runners while we waited for the 9:50am start time (wave 1), which for me was over 3:30hrs later, longer than it would take to actually run the marathon. The time was passed by sitting, talking, fueling, people-watching and engaging in small-talk. Fortunately, the weather was a mild 11-12 degrees celsius: a welcome change to the near freezing conditions that met the runners last year. We waited.
I’d been waiting for this time to come for many years. I wasn’t taking it for granted; as I was all too aware of my mortality as a runner after the many marathons, triathlons and Ironmans I’d done. Four years earlier, a year after running-career saving Achilles surgery, I entered the NY marathon to complete a bucket list event. I wanted to experience what a truly big race is like, and measure myself against all the many thousands who had been there before. But the ever present risk of injury was realised and thwarted my dream only two months pre-race – on the scale of marathon training this is an eye blink. This frustration came after twice entering the Berlin marathon, only for injury to derail those attempts, also. My attempts to get just to the start line had ended frustratingly. Not just unfinished business, but unstarted business.
I thought the arrival of kids in the ensuing years had put paid to any chance of international bucket list events for some time, and put the thought to the back of my consciousness. But then circumstances changed. At Love The Run, the running group I coach, some people started talking about the NY marathon in 2015. Soon there were four people with serious plans taking shape. It was actually at my wife’s urging that I should go too, and so I threw my hat into the ring. Being more than 12 months out, I felt there was every chance my quest would fail – again. But I started the process of training, preparation and working out the necessary logistics of getting there.
Soon enough it was time to begin assembling in our numbered corrals for the start. In contrast to the bubbling atmosphere in the village, entering the corral was eerily quiet with runners spread over the sparse ground space on offer. The porta loos were busy and I took a final opportunity for pre-race relief, pitying the runners in later waves (there were 4 different start waves, 25 min apart) who would be using these same porta loos. I found a spot beside the fence to sit and relax some more, finding a fellow Australian beside me and struck up a conversation about running, travelling, families and more. We’d each had a long journey to that point.
My year of running had been a mixed one. A great race in January, an average one in February, a good race in March and then injury in April that would stop me, then trouble me for many months – yet another injury in my running career. There were also the numerous children’s sickness and hospital visits for our two children, for diabetes, asthma and other viruses, culminating in their simultaneous overnight hospital stays in September. Suffice to say, my marathon preparations weren’t ideal. But as the race drew closer my fitness, form (and children’s health) was finally looking up and it seemed that I might, in fact, actually reach the start line. The dream to race in the NYC Marathon was almost within reach.
A little more nervous energy and our blue corral started making its way towards the start line, about 500m away, in a crush of bodies draped in a mix of clothing we’d discard prior to starting, destined for the NY homeless folks. We stopped 50m short of the start, where we could see the Verrazano Narrows bridge ahead of us. Overhead were eight to ten helicopters. All around us were NYPD (police) officers. To the side were buses forming a tunnel of sorts, and a small stage. And ahead was a clear view of the start.
There was a whole range of emotions on show as we waited before a hush came over the crowds as the US anthem was sung, with runners and spectators alike showing their patriotism. We edged further forwards, and through some careful footwork I managed to squeeze ahead within our wave of runners, just 5-10 meters from the professionals who were in pole position. Some short speeches by various dignitaries – race director, mayor of NY and the ‘grand marshal’ – and we were set to go.
We were here. The time was now. The course was ahead. This was it. With a canon boom the New York marathon was go, and my years of unstarted business were over. Now, it was time to race.
*I met Campbell Maffett in January 2013 when I trained with his running group two or three times. It was a hot January and it was the moment when I decided to take long-distance running relatively seriously. He asked a couple of questions about my running experience and I told him that I had run three half-marathons in more or less 1hour30 – not exceptional, but, not particularly quick either. Going to Campbell’s training sessions was my first foray into understanding the slowness, steadiness of training and improvement. He was patient and a good listener and no doubt, an astute observer of others’ running capabilities.
Campbell was friendly, approachable and clearly well-liked by those who attended the running group. I left before I could ‘belong’, but sought to remain in touch via his email-list, which he sends twice weekly; without interruption. During the sessions, Campbell didn’t run; maintaining his own separate schedule. I would later learn that he runs upwards of 100km per week – doing this as well as having a full-time job and two young children. While living in The Netherlands, I have always debriefed Campbell post-race or asked questions about various training methods. I asked him to contribute to Reading Sideways based on his considerable experience as an elite runner and coach of committed and competitive long-distance runners.