Friday, December 2, 2011

Livin' the Dream at the NYC Marathon

As the sounds of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” blared from the loudspeakers I moved towards the start line. As if on cue, all of us in Wave 3 sang in unison “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere. It’s up to you, New York, New York!” I got chills. I was really running the New York City Marathon!

All the months of training had finally come down to this moment. It was like I was living a dream. Two days before I was at the expo, picking up my race bib, still not believing that they let a newbie runner like me into what most runners told me was the Greatest Marathon in the World. I was one of 47,438 participants. I couldn’t even wrap my head around that many runners. People kept asking me how many years it took me to get in through the lottery. I said on my first try. Just lucky, I guess. As I stood there clutching my bib I started to cry. “It’s just the expo, Lori,” I told myself. “Pull it together.”

I was up at 3:45 AM on race morning and then walked in the dark to the Izod Center in New Jersey to catch the shuttle bus. At Staten Island I walked to my assigned “village.” There were so many of us that they had us divided into villages. I was greeted by Dunkin’ Donuts (they were providing coffee) who gave us stocking caps. I eagerly pulled the cap over my head because it was still dark and in the 30’s. There were bagels, Power Bars, water, coffee and Gatorade at the village. My wave did not start for nearly five hours so I had a long wait. We were quite the sight—all these runners sitting on the ground, trying to stay warm and calm our nerves.

The scariest part of the race for me was the start, when I would have to cross the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the largest suspension bridge in the country. I have a major bridge phobia and the idea of running across a bridge (not to mention the five I had to cross in the race) was sending me into a panic. I stared at the bridge as the sun came up over the horizon. “Become one with the bridge,” I said. “The bridge is my friend.”

I tried to force myself to eat since my nutrition timing would be off with such a long wait. We were each given a clear UPS bag to store our belongings. I handed off my bag at the UPS truck and headed to my “corral.” We had corral numbers, which was the place where we would line up at the start, based on our estimated finishing time.

The first wave took off at 9:40. I could feel the excitement build as I watched thousands of runners pour over the two levels of the bridge. It was another 30-minute wait for Wave 2 and then finally my wave. They called us the rowdiest group, full of first-timers and charity runners who were just happy to be enjoying the experience that awaited us. A cannon signaled the start and we were off.

My plan was to run on the lower level of the bridge and in the middle so that maybe my brain would forget I was on a bridge. It seemed to work. I felt a tightness in my legs and then I remembered that one of the biggest hills of the race was on the first bridge. Suddenly a pace group went around me (it felt like they went through me). All of the runners were bunched together and they kept hitting the back of my heels. I didn’t go down, but it was a little scary. It would be the only time I felt crowded.

The first bridge is nearly two miles long but soon we were heading into Brooklyn. I got my first taste of the crowds. They were yelling support and holding homemade signs. Temps were in the 50’s—perfect running weather. All I could do was smile from joy. I was soaking it in and even though I knew I had hours of running ahead of me, there was no place I would rather be.

The first half of the race is through Brooklyn, first residential and then all these great neighborhoods—Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Jewish. There were people everywhere, plus 130 bands along the course to keep us motivated. A sign said “You’re in Brooklyn…run like you stole something.” About mile 7 I hit my stride. I was feeling really good. The miles were going by quickly. At mile 8 the straight road turned and so did the crowd. They were wild! I felt like I was part of a big party.

There were water stops at every mile and I was good about hydrating, but now I had to pee. I put it off as long as I could, finally stopping at mile 11. I had to wait in line for five minutes (yes, I kept nervously looking at my watch). I sprinted out of the porta-potty, passing everyone in sight. A voice in my head said “slow down, you can’t make up those five minutes, but you can ruin your whole race by going too fast, too early.” The marathon is a lot of strategy and knowing your pace is vital. I still had a lot of miles to run.

At mile 13 I hit the bridge into Queens. It was the first time I was feeling tired. The bridge was uphill and everyone was walking. “I can walk too” I theorized and then I remembered the many months of doing hill training with the CVRA. “You didn’t do all that hill training so you could walk up a hill!” I yelled at myself. Up the hill I went, crossing the halfway mark.

As I entered Queens I got the boost I needed! The crowds really carry you. Race organizers encourage you to wear a shirt that tells where you are from. I was wearing a Hawkeye tech shirt that said “Iowa” in big yellow letters. People kept yelling “Go Iowa!” Even though I was at the race alone, I had fans!

I was soon crossing the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan. There were no spectators on the bridge and there was an eerie silence. People had stopped talking and all you heard was the sound of pounding feet. As I approached mile 16 and the end of the bridge I could hear this growing roar. It was the Manhattan crowd! I was no longer in neighborhoods…I was running down First Avenue in Manhattan, surrounded by huge skyscrapers and crowds that made me feel like I was part of a parade. They continued to yell for “Iowa” and I waved and smiled. One guy even yelled “Hey Iowa! Remember me? It’s Cornhusker guy!” He had yelled to me earlier in the race. “Stop following me!” I laughed.

About mile 17 I felt the first hint of my quads tightening. At mile 18 the pain in my knee started. I had been battling an IT band injury since September. I had tried stretching and in desperation, I had received a cortisone shot from a doctor the week of the race. The doctor said it should help me finish, but apparently it wasn’t enough to hold off the pounding my body had endured. I felt a sense of dread, knowing I still had eight long miles and that the inflammation in my knee would get progressively worse.

At mile 20 I entered the Bronx. The sounds of gospel groups and raucous crowds made me feel happy. Almost there, I thought. I crossed the final bridge and I was now in Harlem. The pain was very intense and I was forced to take more walk breaks. At mile 21 it happened. I hit The Wall. I had heard about The Wall, but I don’t think I had really ever known what it’s like to have your body shut down, to feel physically and emotionally done, like a wall of bricks had fallen on your head. I was feeling sick to my stomach. I had eaten a peanut butter sandwich and numerous gels along the route and I knew I needed more nutrition, but I couldn’t do it.

Mile 22. Only a 5K left, I thought. No wait, it’s four miles. That extra mile seemed devastating to my mind. I could feel the tears forming in my eyes. The marathon had broken me. “There’s no crying in running!” I yelled at myself, paraphrasing from A League Of Their Own. Should I throw up? Stop at the medical tent? What? What do I do? “You run, Lori,” I said. “You reach inside of you and you fight. You are tougher than this. You can DO this!”

I don’t think there is any lonelier feeling than the final miles of a marathon. It’s all on you. I knew any time goals I had were out the window. At this point I was just trying to survive and finish. I was on mile 23 and still running uphill. Are you kidding me?! I guess it’s part of the reason I love the marathon…you have to earn every painful mile.

At mile 24 I entered Central Park. I had dreamed about this, running triumphantly through the park with a final sprint to the finish. There would be none of that. People continued to call to me, but I could barely respond. Walking was the only time I didn’t feel pain, but I didn’t come to New York to walk! I tried to just enjoy my final moments of the marathon, but I just wanted to finish.

The sun was setting. The final mile was lined with people behind a wall. I was doing a limping jog. The crowd knew I was struggling and they called out to me. “You’re almost there, Iowa! You can do it, Iowa!”

A lady ran up next to me, all excited. “The finish line is right there!” she said. “Let’s run it in!” “I can’t,” I said sadly, as my body was barely able to shuffle along. I really felt like throwing up at that moment. Now that would be embarrassing! I raised my arms as I crossed the finish line, more relieved than joyful.

I now had the long walk through the finish area. I walked to get my medal, walked some more to get my recovery bag. Someone wrapped a heat sheet around me as the zombie-like mass of runners headed to the UPS trucks. I retrieved my bag, changed into some warm clothes and began the long walk to the subway station and then the bus to head back to New Jersey. They had told us to get back to our hotels as soon as possible and take an ice bath. I was used to taking ice baths after long runs. I kept my clothes on in the bathtub to stay warm, still wearing my race bib and medal!

My cell phone was filled with text messages from friends who had been following my race all day. I couldn’t believe all the support! I ate the pretzels from my recovery bag but felt too sick to eat anything else.

The next morning I put on my race shirt, feeling a little bummed about how my race went. A funny thing happened, though…everywhere I went people were congratulating me. No one cared what my finishing time was!

At Marathon Monday (an excuse for them to sell you more stuff) I ran into a guy from the New York Road Runners, the group that puts on the marathon. He put it into perspective. “Hundreds of thousands of people apply to get into this race and you got to run it.” He was right; I just ran the New York City Marathon! I got to live a dream. Maybe I didn’t have the perfect race, but I was so lucky to have the opportunity. As one race sign said, “Only 1% of the population has done what you are doing right now.” Or my favorite sign, “Chuck Norris never ran a marathon…”