The canon sounded twice. What was this? A false start, in the New York Marathon? The human tsunami of runners started on their way, heading over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. We, some 50,000 runners, racers, amateurs, began filtering down the course on a journey through the five boroughs of New York to Central Park, taking well over an hour for four waves for all the runners to be sent on their way. I felt like a drop in the ocean amongst these tens of thousands of other runners who had come from all over the world to take part in this race. Each one of us with our own reasons for not only why we run, but why we seek to compete and to race.
Running and marathons are contagious. The struggle, torment, fatigue, monotony, and all the other reasons to stop are strangely ineffective against the runner’s high. If you could just bottle it up to sell, or even just describe it adequately, then even more people around the world might try running. The freedom and journey that running allows is magical, allowing exploration from your front doorstep to anywhere your feet can go.
The journey of the New York marathon has been run by over a million people during the 35+ years of its history. The fabled course is a tour of the city, starting on Staten Island, winding down the expansive roads of Brooklyn, through a corner of Queens, crossing the Hudson river to the stadium like atmosphere of First Ave on Manhattan, briefly dipping into the Bronx before the final stretch back through Manhattan to the jewel in the New York crown, Central Park. The journey through the city’s streets is accompanied by ecstatic support from the crowds who line the streets.
Running a marathon is a universal and internationally recognised achievement: the distance of 42.195km is the defining characteristic. Your time to run a marathon is tangible. Whether you jog, run or race – and whether or not you care – your time is a measure of your achievement. As a runner I do care, and I race to see how I measure up. My yardstick is internal, hidden from view as a burning flame of desire, fueled by the oxygen of a personal achievement. The runner’s high is not only in the pleasure of running and of exertion, but also in the persistent chasing and realising of one’s goals.
The difficulty and frustration of running is not just in the exertion, but also in the chase for personal achievement. Sometimes you can almost touch it, and yet not. That’s why your personal bests stand out – the occasion you exceeded yourself, and then wanted more only to find that re-climbing that pinnacle is hard. It’s like chasing the sunset, especially as you get older.
My 46 year old legs often remind me that chasing new personal bests is escaping like the sunset, yet my mind says no, until I settle on the reality of the middle ground. Yet I read about the heroics of the elite. I see and witness the amazing accomplishments of friends and local rivals – people I can actually relate to – and in moments of day dreaming I see myself doing the same. It’s these things that drive me on, for better or worse.
My New York marathon: would this (finally) be the marathon where I achieve the time I dream about through every single step of training? The performance that justifies all those 4:30am alarms to run before the kids wake up? The race which would earn that respectful nod of acknowledgement from peers that we racers yearn for? If I had three wishes in life, this would be one of them.
The biggest hill in the NYC course is the one at the start, up and over the Verrazano Narrows bridge. Exposed to the elements, today they were kind with just a gentle breeze up and over, beneath 8-10 buzzing helicopters and a magnificent view of New York to our left. As with the latter bridges on the course, this one was bereft of spectators leaving just the rhythmical patter of footsteps from the masses as we passed the first couple of mile markers, each with a dedicated timing clock. My early pace was good.
During this brief trip to New York to run the marathon, time and desire to limit energy expenditure meant I didn’t leave Manhattan island, thus the route through Brooklyn was an eye opening one. Quite different to downtown NYC, the streetscape was generally wider and buildings less imposing. I also couldn’t help notice the poor condition of the bitumen – rough, uneven, holes – it required vigilence to tread a safe path. The race course here had few corners, a bit like a drag racing track, I thought, with runners stretched out in front and behind.
Through Brooklyn, the crowds and atmosphere was huge. There were the signs, ranging from “Run like you stole something” and “Naked cheerleaders next mile” to “Short cut here”, and “This is a lot of work for a free banana”. Runners were greeted with a huge range of ways of cheering. I had to consciously relax my race face and tell myself to enjoy it.
I ran through 5km in 18:05min, 10km in 36:32 (18:28) and 15km in 54:49 (18:17). My pace was consistent and I had good rhythm, and as is always the case in these early stages, wondered if it was sustainable. I had my doubts. It should have felt a little easier than it did, and I should have a bit more zip in my legs. Perhaps my goal was too ambitious. Should I take corrective action, or wait for auto-correction to happen anyway? It’s at these points when a marathon suddenly appears to be a very long way.
The crowds continued as we passed from Brooklyn into Queens, but were sparser as the course traversed what seemed like a more industrial section of the borough. Shortly after the halfway point, cruelly on an uphill incline (77:21min), came the infamous Queensborough Bridge taking us over to Manhattan. Again bereft of spectators, it is a tough hill, taking us past the 25km point as the wind whistled through the steelwork of the bridge, blowing onto our left cheek.
But what goes up comes down, onto the famous First Ave stretch of the course. It was a cauldron of spectators as we circled left and around off the bridge, with a stadium like sound of cheers. It was amazing. With five, six or more people deep, First Ave was rocking.
The fear of every runner in a marathon is hitting the wall. While mentioned figuratively, it literally does feel like running into a wall such is the impact on your once free-flowing stride. It is a dark chasm you descend into from where there is little escape – a one-way ticket to marathon doom. With a resigned sigh, I could sense that is where I was heading on this day.
Long distance races, of any kind, are also problem solving challenges – you encounter a problem and use your experience to work out a solution. First Ave was my problem solving road; I feared that the damage had been done by that stage, which limited the options I had to correct the situation, and a go-to drink in times like these – Coca-Cola – unfortunately wasn’t available. So I kept going and said a little prayer, passing 20km in 1:13:15hr (18:26min), 25km in 1:32:26hr (19:11min), and 30km in 1:51:22hr (18:56min). At face value, only a small slow down, but with the hardest kilometers yet to come.
First Ave eventually crosses a bridge from Manhattan into the Bronx, where the crowds were thinner, making this feel very much like the ‘far end’ of the course. We turned again, crossed another bridge and turned onto Fifth Ave, passing through Harlem on our way towards the Central Park finish. Like First Ave, Fifth Ave stretched out in a straight line into the distance, making it hard to pick out any distinctive landmarks. The trees along the roadside, shedding their autumn leaves, created a nice yellow canopy – albeit patchy – over the road. The crowds built as we got closer to Central Park as a taste of what was ahead.
My progress continued to slow, and I was really struggling. At aid stations I’d walk a few steps, in part to get a drink and in part for the relief. Fresher and faster runners were streaming past me, and yet I was engaged in a cat-and-mouse battle with another runner who was experiencing a similar meltdown as me. I passed 35km in 2:11:59 (20:37min), with my mental arithmetic calculating a degrading finish time with each mile marker. Midway along Central Park the course turns from Fifth Ave inside the park, just near the famous Guggenheim Museum. The park itself is spectacular. Beautiful design, trees, pathways, ponds, lakes, amphitheatres and more. As the setting for the final kilometers of a big city marathon it is magical.
East Drive was lined with crowd barriers, leaving the wide open road for the runners to stride our way among the scattering of leaves on our way through the park. The cheering, noise, whooping and hollering was reaching a peak, knowing that the finish was within reach…and yet with so much effort still needed. Each cheer provided a lift to the next cheer, and the next…like small injections of energy to spur us along. The atmosphere washed over me somewhat as my focus was much more on just moving forwards. 40km came in 2:34:06 (22:07min). Just 2.195km to go.
The gentle hills of Central Park loomed with increasing menace, rubbing a little salt into the wounds the race had inflicted to that point, but the majesty of the occasion was unbeatable. Here I was, fulfilling a dream, running the iconic New York marathon, through Central Park, lined with cheering crowds, literally on the home stretch. I was hurting. This is how it’s meant to be. This is what I trained for. It was perfect.
With a few more turns we finally passed Columbus Circle, through a gate and onto West Drive, the finishing straight and an uphill run to the line. Here is where the grandstands were, the finish announcer, the noise, the finish arch, the finale, the culmination of it all. I looked around to take it in, pumped my fists in the air, and crossed the line, 2:43:51hr after we started.
I promptly stopped and put my hands on my knees for a little rest. Standing up again I was met with the first of endless volunteers there to welcome and help almost 50,000 runners who were to travel the same course. I wanted to sit down, but was moved on through the crowds – this time crowds of volunteers, just so many of them, each with endless amounts of enthusiasm, warmth and gratitude. On mass, they were humbling.
As I slowly walked through the finish area I started choking up a little, shedding a little tear or two. The race was over and I felt very small, and so very far from home and my wife and two young kids – just when I needed a cuddle from them. I was proud of what I’d just done, but also a little disappointed. The occasion and experience was once-in-a-lifetime, and I knew it. But it had hurt – physically and emotionally.
I had a long walk to find my bag and then get back to the apartment. I had much time to think what took place that morning. It was great; amazing; incredible. I loved it. It frustrated me. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what the race was. For so many reasons, I wanted more. I wanted a better run and performance. My will-to-race was only stoked more by this race – a race that was both satisfying and frustrating. The dream and endless pursuit of a perfect race was still well and truly alive. And so, soon, I race again.
*Campbell Maffett runs the Love the Run running group.