Sunday, November 9, 2008

Rocking The Marathon, New York Style
Race Report from the 2008 New York City Marathon
Part III – The “Leg” Miles


Mile 11 (Mile Time – 6:53; Total Time – 1:15:02; Average Pace – 6:49)

“Don’t bring the people to the races,” (Fred) Lebow said. “Bring the race to the people.”

I continue onward on Bedford Avenue and are getting closer to the first location where a friend of mine said she’d be coming out to spectate. The crowd was somewhat sporadic in this part of Brooklyn but since I didn’t know which side of the street she’d be on, I had to look in both directions and scan the crowds quickly as I was running. The marathon course traverses through a very orthodox Jewish community at this point, a community that views our travel through their neighborhood more as public nuisance than as a activity worthy of commendation. For the most part, all the local residents I saw tried as hard as they could to ignore the public spectacle happening just a few feet from where they were standing and walking. I even saw an older mother trying to cross over Bedford Avenue with her four small toddlers right in front of us! Thank goodness a cop was there to redirect her and save her young ones from being trampled by the onslaught of runners.

I finally saw R.H. at the end of this mile together with her roommate, screaming wildly and cheering like madwoman dressed in oversized plastic glasses and puffy feathery dresses. “This must have been their leftover costumes they didn’t wear to their Halloween party!” I thought to myself as I approached them. I chuckled, gave them a hearty big wave and cruised on by.

Mile 12 (Mile Time – 6:50; Total Time – 1:21:52; Average Pace – 6:49)

One day his sister asked him. “Why do you care so much about strangers?” Lebow responded…”There is no such thing as a stranger; every human being is special.”

Maybe it’s a defense mechanism. Or maybe it’s the delirium that accompanies running on for so many miles. I’m convinced though that there are stretches in the tough middle miles of a marathon where the mind will play tricks on you. It’d make you perceive things that are not really happening or go through emotions that would seem out of place and irrational otherwise. It wants to make you alter your plans or stop you dead in your tracks even when everything’s physically fine and you’re having the time of your life.

I should have been so happy at this point in the race. I had stuck with the game plan and had run quick even miles while expending very little energy. In fact I was running faster than I’ve ever had in a marathon and still felt I could have sped up a bit more if I had wanted. I just saw one of my spectating friends with promises of more to come once we hit Manhattan. The weather was getting warmer and milder with each successive mile, and I had no physical complaints whatsoever. I was running freer and speedier than I ever thought I would be at this point in a marathon.

But instead, I was downright miserable. Up ahead, an Italian guy was playing helicopter with the crowd, weaving in and out of the road to slap the hands of all the youngsters cheering from the sidelines. He looked so happy swerving left and right and entertaining the spectators with his antics. Another foreign runner was posing for pictures with a mob of his Brooklyn contingents on the opposite side of the road. Something about watching these foreign runners having the time of their lives with the locals in my town really bothered me. I thought about how despite my deepest desires, they’d be no posing for pictures, no playing with the crowd, not even a thank you to those who’d come out to cheer for me today. It was the realization of that harsh reality that made me sad. I wish there was some way to run for fun AND run for time both in the same race.

In order to stop the floodgates from opening up, I made a promise to myself that one day, after I’ve hit that running plateau that so many others have warned me about, I will run this marathon course slow, perhaps with a friend, just to dance to the music, play with the crowds, eat all their free giveaways and generally see all that I’ve missed out on in all the years I ran this marathon for a BQ or a time. Yeah, that’d be nice.

Mile 13 (Mile Time – 6:52; Total Time – 1:28:44; Average Pace – 6:49)

“The thing that sets New York apart from all the other marathons is that half of the runners are foreigners.” Obelkevich said. New York is a melting pot.” (Dave Obelkevich is one of only two runners who has run every consecutive New York City Marathon since its inception in 1976)

The crowds are more boisterous and loud in this part of Williamsburg, which is also the last section of Brooklyn we would visit that day. There is an obvious international theme here with spectators hoisting different colored flags and conversations being held in a myriad of languages. The conglomeration of different cultures and the circus-like atmosphere made it feel more like an international political rally in the U.N. than an organized marathon. As I made my way through the heavy crowd and foreign runners, I wondered what they’d say if I told them that although I’d never been to most of their countries of origin, I still have aspirations of running in their marathons one day.

One country that I did visit this year was New Zealand, where I met up with K.C. and went backpacking through the country. Although the trip was already some 9 months ago, I still remember the panoramic views over snow capped mountains as some of the most breathtaking sights I’d ever seen. In a way, it was not totally unlike what I was experiencing touring the streets of Brooklyn. The overwhelming power of both nature and civilized culture was awe-inspiring in both cases.

Once I was out of Brooklyn, running towards the end of this mile, I took my first G.U. and prepared myself mentally for what awaits me in the next borough.

Mile 14 (Mile Time – 6:57; Total Time – 1:35:41; Average Pace – 6:50)

A marathoner is obsessed with details. Miles, minutes, split times, weather, calories, aches, pains, blisters, black toenails, heart rate, lactate threshold, sleep hours, ice baths, training partners, races, courses, shoes, energy gel, Gatorade flavor, feelings—it is all log material. Past performance must instruct the future.

In many ways, running through the ethnic neighborhoods of Brooklyn felt more like an episode of the Amazing Race with 37,000 contestants than the first half of a marathon. Upon reaching the Pulaski Bridge however, I knew it was time to get serious. Half of the marathon was already complete, which meant that half of the work towards a spanking new PR was already done. I just had to make sure to keep the same effort and avoid major catastrophes in the second half.

Coming upon the 13.1 marker, I was almost giddy with anticipation to see what my time for the half would be. Before the race, I had made a nominal goal at the start to cross the halfway point under 1:30. This time would not only be the fastest half in a marathon for me, but also provide a good barometer to gauge the second half effort. With short strides and a relaxed posture, I crossed the timing mat at 1:29:30. I felt a slight exhilaration upon seeing the yellow digits flash up on the timing screen. Not only was this more than a minute faster than what I ran last year, I was actually on pace for a sub 3 hour marathon – if my body wanted it.

The significant of this moment was not lost on me. I remembered a time not so long ago when breaking the 1:30 benchmark for a half-marathon was both a physical and psychological barrier for me. Although I’d get close on multiple previous occasions, it took me more than 2 years, over 7 different tries for me to finally conquer that time. During those days when I would habitually break down in the final two or three miles and finish a minute or two over the 1:30 mark, I seriously thought that I’ve ever be taken seriously as a runner because I was neither fast enough or strong enough to make my time. And now that I’ve done it multiple times, and for the first time in the first half of a full marathon no less, I felt grateful for all those who’ve stuck with me and wouldn’t allow me to give up on myself.

As I crested and fell over the bridge and took my first steps into hometown Queens, I thought a bit about my friend M.A. Four years ago, he introduced me to this crazy sport and motivated me to run my first marathon when I had no business even filling out the entry form much less winning the lottery and earning an entry way back when. He was there through all the doubts, the insecurities, the injuries and the triumphs at a time when I really had no idea what I was doing. I’m totally indebted to him for guiding me toward this new running life of mine. Coincidentally, he is here, running in this same marathon with me, somewhere in the back. This was a momentous occasion for both of us because it was the first NYC Marathon we were participating in jointly. I’m not sure what times we’ll end up with today. Whatever it is, I’ll thank him afterwards for finally running this one with me. And although family and work obligations have taken a significant toll on his running and training, I’m hoping to encourage him to run in future marathons in the same manner he encouraged me (even though he couldn’t run) in that first one not so long ago.

Mile 15 (Mile Time – 7:00; Total Time – 1:42:41; Average Pace – 6:50)

“I don’t have a coach, I don’t have a manager, so I have these arguments with myself,” Ramaala said. “I tell myself when it’s time to go.”

Like a pack of migrating pigeons, we landed ourselves in my hometown of Queens. This borough is considered the most ethnically diverse in all of New York, although it’d be hard for the foreigners to tell from all the abandoned warehouses and desolate parks we were running next to. I’m somewhat disappointed that the marathon trail cuts through Long Island City, and makes no mention of all the delectable neighborhoods and scenic vistas lying just maybe a few miles away. The crowd is sparse, and in some stretches unenthusiastic, as they watch us runners negotiate the twists and turns of the meandering marathon course on our way through their narrow streets.

Given the lackluster scenery and uninspiring nature of the crowds, I for one have checked out of this place barely a mile into it. Mentally, I’m already preparing for the challenge of the Queensborough Bridge lying straight ahead and eagerly anticipating the thunderous reception I’d be receiving on the opposite side.

Mile 16 (Mile Time – 7:08; Total Time – 1:49:49; Average Pace – 6:51)

“It’s like coming home,” Radcliffe will explain (referring to the Queensborough Bridge). “It’s like when you’ve been away for a while and you come back to your favorite mug and your favorite chair.”

I reach the bridge and the first thing I notice is how quiet and dark it is here. There is no talk, there is no light. There’s not even a water stop or a poster ad to break up the monotony of this uphill mile. Other than the opening mile at the entrance to the Verrazano, this is the steepest incline on the entire marathon course. For me, this serves as the unofficial half-way point for the marathon. Although there is no banner or marker signifying it as such, I have come to realize that my efforts after this point will have as much to do if not more than anything I did up to this point in determining my final time. In essence, the key to the city serves as the key to my race.

I, like the rest of my fellow compatriots, are forced to focus on our thoughts as we migrate like nomads over this bridge. At the midpoint of this brutal climb, I start to feel some pain in my right knee. I have slowed down considerably since crossing the halfway point, but refuse to succumb to the temptation of slowing to a crawl. In my mind, I have confidence that the pain is only temporary and is accentuated only by his steep mountainous journey. Instead of fixating on the fatigue and pain, I chose instead to hold my form, stay relaxed and recollect and reflect on all my positive running accomplishments since I was last at this point one year ago.

Mile 17 (Mile Time – 6:51; Total Time – 1:56:40; Average Pace – 6:51)

“You really feel like everybody’s there cheering for you,” Harrie (Bakst) will say. “You’re running this race with 38,000 people, but it’s almost like the spotlight is on you.”

Having crested the bridge, I can hear the thunderous cheers of the Manhattan faithful reaching a new crescendo with each footfall. Posted on a banister along the exit ramp to the bridge is an ING sign that reads “If you made it here—you can make it anywhere.” Although I couldn’t disagree with the sentiment, I still would rather have seen last year’s sign here which said “If easier means 10 miles to go…welcome to easier!” In my mind, that’s what I was imagining I’d see, so I kept repeating “Get to easier, get to easier…” as I ran through the toughest portions of the bridge.

I was still recovering from the tortuous climb when I ran down the off-ramp and exited onto the streets of Manhattan. As such, I didn’t have time to adequately prepare myself for the onslaught of noise from the crowds numbering ten deep lining the side street off the bridge. For those who’ve never experienced it, the sensation is similar to the one you get after you’ve just gotten to the top of a roller-coaster and now just free-falling towards the earth. And even though this is already the third time I’ve gone through the experience, the sheer power of the decibel level and enormity of the situation never fails to overwhelm me with pure joy and passion.

I gathered myself quickly though after reaching First Avenue. My first designated cheering spot in the big city was coming up and I didn’t want to look worse the part. My friend M.T. was keeping an eye out for me on the east side of 1st and 63rd. As I ran past her and some friends standing outside her favorite tavern, I gave her a quick thumbs up and continued fervently on my way.

Mile 18 (Mile Time – 7:01; Total Time – 2:03:41; Average Pace – 6:52)

The New York City Marathon—Pam realizes—makes you feel like a superstar. (She is a recovering alcoholic and a mother of three from Virginia who ran the 2007 race)

I progress northward on First Avenue and find myself back on very familiar ground. If my little side journey into Queens this morning could be considered a short hometown visit, well then this foray into the Upper East Side should be my homecoming for it passes within steps of my current residence. Indeed, this little marathon mile was not only exciting but somewhat emotional for me this year. Within a radius of about ten city blocks, I’d not only pass by bars, neighbors, and shops I’d come to know like the back of my hand, but also an entourage of Flyer teammates, who will be handing out Powergels at the PowerStation, as well as my best friend EW, who will be stationed there with his parents cheering me on heartily while waiting for his sister and her husband who will arriving in the wave after me.

As I prepared to run pass each of these checkpoints, I told myself to avoid the temptation to linger but keep a good pace moving through. The object was to leave everyone with a good impression, even if internally, I was doubting my ability to maintain my focus and my pace. I was slowing down now with each successive mile, and even the promise of free beer on the house by my favorite bartender wasn’t able to motivate my legs to drop the pace again.

Given all that was going on, I’d say I completed my run through this emotional mile very admirably. I didn’t drop off the pace too much and found and greeted everyone I was supposed to at all the designated place. The only person I missed was my friend SS who brought a kickass sign for me that I somehow missed. She’d tell me afterwards that she spotted me flying by her looking faster than what she’d imagined at this late stage of the marathon. I’m hoping she’d bring her sign out next year so I can get to see it first hand in a race.

Mile 19 (Mile Time – 6:59; Total Time – 2:10:40; Average Pace – 6:52)

“His (Fred Lebow) whole thing was to make people happy,” Sarah added. “He got people volunteering for nothing, for maybe a T-shirt.”

I left the last of my designated cheering squad at the beginning of this mile and now am on my own for the rest of the journey, at least until Central Park. The rows of spectators piled three, four person deep in the previous mile have also quietly disappeared. Over on the other side, a few runners are pulled over to the metal barricades kicking their legs and stretching their calves, doing what they can to overcome the effects of the long distance. I take their cue and make a quick analysis of my own running condition.

Physically, I was a bit beat up now, but not suffering any excruciating pains in any one area. My legs were sore, as I would assume they would be at this point, while the pains in both my feet never crept up beyond a mild soreness and tingling. Pacing wise, I had settled into the 7:00 min/mile zone for the past three or four miles, which meant that sub-3:00 was now out of the question. Still, I was excited that my pace has remained only in the 7 minute range, which meant that my sub-3:05 as well as my sub-3:03 goals were still within reach.

I allowed my legs to carry the pace so my head can be focused for the challenge staring right at me…the Willis Avenue Bridge and the torture chamber otherwise known as the Bronx.

Mile 20 (Mile Time – 7:10; Total Time – 2:17:50; Average Pace – 6:53)

"I recall the Willis Avenue Bridge being a no-man’s-land,” said Duffy, 46, a runner himself. “Now, as runners go by, the reception you get is amazing. You see the pumping of the fists and a smile on their face, which is important especially at that place, which is The Wall.”

There are certain miles in a marathon where conquering the distance is more of a mental struggle than it is a physical one. Mile 20, for all intents and purposes, was that mile for me. It wasn’t so much that there was any tangible reason for this mile at this point to be so tough. It was more the vivid memories of past performances during this stretch that haunts my race today. It was here in my first marathon that I first physically broke down and had to walk and eventually crawl my way in to the finish. It was here in my second marathon that my pace completely dropped off and it took all of my energy and strength just to keep it together for the final 10K. Now, as I prepared for battle a third time around, I hoped that these past experience will prove more of an ally than an adversary.

I gulped down a GU and tossed the empty packet aside as I cautiously take my first steps across the Willis Avenue Bridge. My calves are throbbing in pain from the incline but unlike in years past, I chose to ignore the pain. I half-expected to see Flyer PD and his bagpipe out at his usual location on the bridge, but he must have been late this day because I couldn’t find him (unless I’d been looking at the wrong place) I crested the bridge at a gentle pace and descend gradually toward the other side.

I arrived in the Bronx with a different attitude today than I did in years past. This quick little detour—no longer than a mile—used to be just an unnecessary pitstop in a forgotten borough for me. Now, I’m seeing it as the closest I’ll get to visiting the workplace before I’d be turning back. For a little while, I scan the faces of the children and teens who came out to cheer today and can imagine some of my patients who are mostly drawn from this heterogeneous neighborhood. I send a small prayer out to my patients and their families hoping they’d be out here, being inspired by all the runners to make a healthy change in their own lives.


joyRuN said...

How on earth do you manage to remember all these details? Your description of every single mile is incredible :)

Mike said...

Your recount of the race is wonderful...I can't wait to read more! I had a great time at the race myself, though I hope to someday return and become a BQer like you. Way to go!!

The Laminator said...

Thanks, joyrun and mike.

Joyrun - I try to make it a point to remember one thing about every mile as I'm running the race. It helps not only with the race report but for distraction purposes as well.

Mike - I'm glad you had a great time at the race. I speak for the rest of New York when I say we hope you come back soon.

Brooke said...

Fabulous. I feel like I'm there! Maybe someday...I can't wait to hear about heart miles!

*aron* said...

such an amazing report lam... i can only imagine what the heart miles will be like. cant wait to read them!

bill carter said...


I am really enjoying the story so far and must tell you that I have felt so many of these same emotions. The marathon is truly a battle of attrition, not only for the body but also for the brain. You really do have to beat back those inevitable feelings of self doubt and just make yourself go on. I can't wait to hear about your last VICTORIOUS 10k.

Cowboy Hazel said...

I didn't think it was possible to want to run this race more than I did before, but after reading your reports, I do. Great work.

But, I must say, I'm a little disappointed that your Mile 19 was so uneventful. That's my neighborhood. I'm going to talk to everyone and make sure that we make a better effort cheering the runners on next year. :-)

The Laminator said...

Thanks for the rest of your comments...

Brooke and Aron - heart miles is here, heart miles is here...

Bill - I couldn't agree more. I felt like my whole race was more in my head than in my legs. Once I was able to imagine it and believed it could happen, it really did!

Cowboy Hazel - Sorry your neighbors didn't stand up for you. Can't wait for you to run it and see it for yourself.

Andrew is getting fit said...

I'm training up for my first marathon now and you are one of my inspirations. Bring on the heart miles!

Run For Life said...

Great job at showing Mile 20 it could not break you this time! The mental bargaining we do when running a marathon is always so interesting to me. I'm impressed your thoughts were pretty coherent (mine never are, lol.)

sRod said...

I'm loving this race report. I feel like I'm there with you mile by mile.

Completely agree that the marathon showcases the absolute worst part of Queens.

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