Saturday, November 8, 2008

Rocking The Marathon, New York Style
Race Report from the 2008 New York City Marathon
Part II – The Start and The “Head” Miles

It’s been said that in order for the human mind to conceptualize a gargantuan task as long and arduous as running a marathon, it is best to psychologically deconstruct the task into a collection of smaller tasks that are individually less daunting. As I began the monumental feat of running 26.2 miles from the depths of Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island to Tavern on the Green in Central Park, I employed this tactic to divide my journey into three sections – the first ten miles, which I planned to run with my head, the next ten miles, which I planned to run with my legs, and the last 10K or 6.2 miles, which I planned to run with my heart. What follows is the story of the 2008 New York City Marathon as experienced by me, The Laminator.

(The quotes at the beginning of each mile/section are taken directly from Liz Robbin’s A Race Like No Other, the story of the 2007 New York City Marathon as told by the people who witnessed it first hand)


This is a day that ends with a celebration of individual achievement; the start recognizes those individuals with the courage to be here in the first place.

“What Does It Take?” My long sleeve technical shirt ponders as it stares back at me from within the confines of the clear marathon bag I had packed the night before. This was the official logo of the New York Marathon this year and all through the week I had been asking myself the same question each time I saw the marathon ad on the side of a city bus or on a public phone booth. I know what it takes to finish a marathon; I even know what it takes to B.Q. in one of these things, but to run it even faster, possibility sub-3:05, sub-3:03, or gasp, sub-3:00, with a body that’s less than 100% no less, I seriously haven’t got a clue. Still, as I grabbed my bag and headed over to the U.P.S. trucks that will deliver the shirt, my clothes and the rest of my things over to Central Park, I resigned myself to the fact that I’d done all I could in preparatory training for this marathon and will just run the race to the best of my ability or what my health will allow.

It was a cool and breezy 40 degrees when I arrived at my race corral in the Blue start of Wave 1. Because I had ridden a later ferry and had taken some time changing out of my fleece sweater and long johns at the baggage area, I had forgotten to take out the rest of my breakfast (a yogurt and orange) before I handed my bags to the U.P.S. man. What’s worse was that because I was hustling and bustling to make it into my starting corral before it closed, I underestimated how cold and breezy it was going to be standing around for the next 20 minutes or so, waiting for the race to start. Although the sun was bright and was ever so slowly starting to exert its radiance over the island, I was still subtly shivering, dressed in my thin throwaway cotton long sleeve over my sleeveless singlet and racing shorts. I look over the field of mostly foreign runners around me and couldn’t help but feel jealous of those that were better dressed for the weather than I was, at least for the beginning.

All of a sudden, I see the corral barriers get lifted and we’re running. No, it wasn’t the start of the race yet, mind you, but the obligatory jog to the starting line a few feet from the entrance to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. As I’m jogging, I overhear a conversation a fellow runner next to me was having with his friend. “Are you planning to run sub-3:00 today?” “That’s the plan.” “What is the plan?” “I’m going to run 6:45 miles for the first half and then see if I’ve got enough for 5th Avenue this time around. Last year I was on my way ‘til I bonked going through the Bronx.” “Well, if you want to follow me, I’m running 6:30 or 6:35s in Brooklyn and then maybe 6:45s going through the 59th Street Bridge…” “Maybe…” I didn’t catch the rest of that conversation because I was swept up by the crowd. Yet from what I did catch, I got a sense of the pace I’d have to set if I wanted to be close for sub-3:00.

From where I finally stood when the pack around me came to a rest, I was still able to make out the starting line in front of me, so I knew I wasn’t so far back. As I waited, shivered, and took the last of my Gatorade, I wondered where all my friends who traveled over to the start with me that day were situated right at that moment in time. I also wondered whether all those who were coming out to cheer me on were in position yet. As the Star Bangled Banner played in the background, I suddenly realized that because I was leading so many friends into their first or second marathon today, and waiting to meet and greet so many others who’d come out to spectate, this marathon really wasn’t about me at all. It was about running and inspiring all those who have taken or will take up the sport because of my participation in this race and who themselves in their own respective way will convince and motivate others to likewise do the same. In essence, this was my campaign to “Pay It Forward”, and no matter how it turns out today, I would have succeeded because I started.

After listening attentively for final race instructions and customary send-off from David Bloomberg and Mary Wittenberg, I took off my long-sleeve cotton tee, toss it over to the side of the road, and started my race.


Mile 1 (Mile Time – 7:30; Total Time – 7:30; Average Pace – 7:30)

“If you do one marathon on earth, you do this one,” Peggy Sailler, of Saint-Malo, France.

The first mile of the New York City Marathon is a spectacle onto itself. There is the grand specter of the Verrazano, the longest suspension bridge in the country, bouncing like bed springs underneath the weight of 37,000 runners, professionals and amateurs alike, as they begin their multi-hour city tour across the five boroughs. In the background, Frank Sinatra is playing his best rendition of “New York, New York” while in the harbor down below, fountains of water in shades of red, white, and blue are being sprayed into the air for the sheer enjoyment of the runners as they make across the expanse of the bridge.

It would all make for a picture perfect postcard tale if it weren’t for the fact that not long after crossing the start, maybe a quarter-mile in, you’d usually see more than a few runners…specifically men runners…scoot off to the side of the bridge and send their liquid excrements into the jet stream below. I, being the sophisticated local that I am, have always frowned upon such practices. “Why, oh, why, do you have to contaminate our waters with your filthy remains?” I ask myself every year as I traverse this bridge. “Is this really the best way for you to leave your mark upon this great city of mine?”

I began my ascension up the bridge with these similar thoughts. However this year, as soon as I started to watch the annual pilgrimage of runners toward the side of the bridge, I started to get a burning sensation in the bladder region. At first, this was interesting to me, as I had never learned the urinary urge to be a contagious phenomenon, in contrast to other body functions like the urge to yawn or to smile. But as I continued the long climb up to the bridge, the urge grew stronger and stronger. Given that I was on the first mile of a three hour journey, it became clear that I needed to make a quick decision or risk jeopardizing the rest of my race. I finally rescinded and cursed myself as I raced over the side of the bridge to do my business. Luckily, there was a small gutter running underneath where I was standing so I was spared the moral humiliation of having directly defiled the waters down below.

As soon as I was done, I scooted back into the middle of the pack. I tried hard to forget what had just happened and refocus myself back into the race. But as I slowly eased back into a running pace, my right foot, which had been achy and sore the last two weeks due to a flare-up of plantar fasciitis, became somewhat uncomfortable to run on. I wasn’t sure whether I was sore from the inflammation or whether there was discomfort because my insoles were positioned incorrectly. I didn’t want to incur any additional damage to my foot this early on in this race so I hopped onto the curbed and stopped for a few seconds to re-examine my shoes. After I’d sufficiently realigned the parts, repositioned the tongue and adjusted the laces, I was finally back on track. I quickened the pace just a tad to finishing my mile at the exact time I did last year, despite the detours.

Mile 2 (Mile Time – 6:22; Total Time – 13:52; Average Pace – 6:55)

"I am still afraid of the marathon,” South Africa’s Hendrick Ramaala admitted a few months before the race. “I think all the guys deep down, they know. They are scared of the marathon.”

Coming off the bridge, this mile is the biggest downhill portion of the race. As such it is also known for being a very fast mile. In both of my previous NYCMs, this stretch was by far and away the speediest for me. But hidden within the depths of this downturning straightaway is an eclectic message decipherable to only those who’ve frequented this road more than once before. The writing is clear: Do not lust after the velocity gained on this road that you expend valuable energy that will prove more useful later on in the course.

Today, I see many people ignoring this principle as I see streams and streams of people huffing and puffing their way past me as I glide effortlessly down the bridge. In the past, I might have been enticed to follow their pace, or as I’ve done in some recent races, purposefully slow down. Luckily for me though, I had just finished reading a Times article addressing this exact strategic question a few days ago. In it, Alberto Salazar, an elite marathoner in his own right and coach to one Kara Goucher, stated that the most energy-efficient way of traveling down hills is to allow gravity to do as much of the work as possible. By running faster or slower than the decline of the road is to utilize additional energy expenditure that may become critical at the later portions of the race.

I repeat his mantra several times and thank him under my breath as I make my way down the exit ramp and onto the streets of downtown Brooklyn.

Mile 3 (Mile Time – 6:38; Total Time – 20:30; Average Pace – 6:49)

God is everywhere on Fourth Avenue…Churches and synagogues, and mosques line both sides of the broad island-divide street, from Pentecostal storefronts to Roman Catholic towers, their names written in Spanish, English and Arabic. This four-mile stretch becomes a stirring advertisement for the unity of faith.

Once I reach Fourth Avenue, I’m aware that my race has officially begun. I slow down to scoop a cup of Gatorade from a smiling volunteer at the first water station and I’m well on my way. Although it is still quite early for a Sunday morning (Wave 1 started at 9:40AM this year…and it was the first day post clock switchback), large crowds were already starting to form on both sides of the street. Cowbells, cheers, and noisemakers filled the air as we make our way up through the ethnic neighborhood. I see house bands and choirs of different churches and denominations set up shop right next to each other and had to wonder if they’d each take turns or just drown out each other’s music.

Although the spectators were all bundled up, most of us runners were still in the thawing stages. Most of the foreigners were running in tech sweaters and tights and some even had on wool hats and mittens. I was running only in a sleeveless singlet and shorts, with only a bandana and cheap gloves to protect me against the elements. And even though I was running comfortably in my attire, I couldn’t agree more with the first funny sign I saw that morning held up by a small child and his dad that read “If you want your clothes back, hurry up and run!”

Mile 4 (Mile Time – 6:49; Total Time – 27:19; Average Pace – 6:49)

“The fans, they don’t just come out and cheer the leader, they just hang out. They’re there all day, cheering everybody,” (Lance) Armstrong says, shaking his head in amazement. “Somebody who’s not from here, you never know these boroughs, these neighborhoods exist.”

I settle in to my race pace and become completely comfortable in my surroundings. I was running well, running warm, and more importantly, running without pain. My right foot, which started to tingle and twitch over the bridge, has settled into a dull, numbing soreness that probably would not be perceptible if I wasn’t paying it so much attention. I focused my attention on guessing the names and countries of the runners around me in order to distract myself.

At about the half way point of this mile, I began searching the crowd for a familiar face. My friend who I had coached to run this race had his family stationed here so I was eager to see if I can spot the entourage out in full force. As I scanned for faces left and right along this block, I reflect a bit on my own family, wondering aloud how I’d react if I’d ever saw one of them cheering me on from the sidelines…

I never could find my friend’s entourage in this mile. What I did find was a few old workmates of mine who had come out to support the race. From the looks of surprise on their faces, I could tell they hadn’t been following any of my exploits of late.

Mile 5 (Mile Time – 6:49; Total Time – 34:08; Average Pace – 6:49)

As much as the New York City Marathon is about the physical experience, it also provides for many a spiritual component. Runners conduct private conversations during the race with themselves, their bodies and their God. In turn, the runners inspire the worshippers who spill onto the streets.

I am submerged further into the culture of Fourth Avenue. All around me, Hispanics and blacks, Asians and whites huddle closely together to support their runners. Off in the distance, I hear the energetic voices of a gospel choir singing a glorious song. Some people, children mostly, are watching and swaying rhythmically to the beat. Almost in sync with the music, my mind wanders to my mantra of the day—the famous quote from George Sheehan, which says “I have met my hero and he is me.” I start to the think about the ramifications of the statement and question myself as if I truly deserve to be my own hero. In what sense of the word am I a hero? I run marathons, and am an average runner at best. I try real hard to be good at what I do and try equally hard to inspire those around me to be good runners, but is that enough to be called a hero? I thought about Flyer BS and my patients who suffer from a myriad of cancers and other debilitating diseases, and yet despite all that, do all they can to be good people and live healthy lives. I think they are ten times the real-life heroes than I’ll ever be….

I force myself to stop the conversation in my head. I’m getting emotional and can feel my heart rate jump ever so slightly. “It’s too early…too soon.” I tell myself. I relax and find my good running pace all over again.

Mile 6 (Mile Time – 6:53; Total Time – 41:01; Average Pace – 6:50)

Said Haye (the pastor of music and arts at Emmanuel Baptist Church. “Life is a process, with ups and downs, trials and tribulations, and you cannot give up.”

I’m almost at the midpoint of Fourth Avenue now, as I can slowly make out the borders of the tall edifice more commonly known as the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower a few miles down the road. The sun is higher and it’s starting to get warmer. More hats and gloves are being left on street corners awaiting pickup by race volunteers. Although I had wanted to hold onto my gloves for as long as possible, I knew they’d find new owners by races’ end. After wiping the first beads of perspiration off my brow, I reliniquished my ownership of said gloves and tossed them over to the side.

Towards the end of this mile, I saw a sign that read “Of course your feet hurt when you’re kicking so much ass!” and started to laugh.

Mile 7 (Mile Time – 6:43; Total Time – 47:44; Average Pace – 6:49)

If you are ready, you have to grab that opportunity. Don’t wait. Because the next year may not be your time. When it’s the marathon, I have to try everything to be first. Because it might be my last. – Henrik Ramaala.

I was slightly annoyed that I lost concentration for a bit in the last mile and allowed my pace to creep up a bit pass the 6:50 mark. Since I was still feeling strong, and breathing as comfortably as I usually am on a long training run, I sped up a bit in order to regain the form and speed that I had lost in the preceding mile. As I did, I passed by Flyer J.D. who waved at me as I was foraging by. Honestly, I was somewhat surprised and perplexed to see him there. Here was someone who I’ve raced with on several occasions and each time would leave me breathing his dust by the end of the first mile. Suddenly, I’m leading him almost a third of the way into a marathon. What’s going on here? Am I running well, or just well enough to completely bonk in the end? I didn’t dare answer my own question as I used a slight downhill to speed up every so slightly even more.

As I did, I thought about some of my other Flyers friends who weren’t running this race for one reason or another. There was BH who is sitting this one out to rest his injuries; BS who is diligently running his miles and getting for Philly in a few weeks. Then they was SH who is recovering after B.Q.-ing at Berlin a month or so back and N.L. who will probably be running her first one next year. I’m so grateful for this running contingent who in a few short months have been the greatest running companions I’d ever known. I felt myself almost get emotional again, but choked back from tears just before it was able to escape through to the surface. “Be smart, L” I told myself. “Extra feelings means extra energy expenditure that we really can’t afford with so many miles still left to go. Besides, it’d be somewhat embarrassing if some other Flyer happens to sneak up on you and find you more than a little teary-eyed this early in the race. Better save your energy and run a little faster instead”

Mile 8 (Mile Time – 6:49; Total Time – 54:33; Average Pace – 6:49)

“The essence of real athletes is that you’re always competing against yourself,” (Mike) Richter said. “With running, it’s just a different arena. That feeling I had when playing hockey, it’s still there. You play with as much excellence as you can.”

I reached the end of Fourth Avenue and start making my way up Lafayette Street. I was glad for this change of venue as the journey up Fourth was getting to be a little monotonous. Even after making the turn, the crowd continued to be loud and boisterous during this section. On the side of the street, kids were serving up lemonade for spectators at a make shift stand while the adults continued to hoop and holler, dance and sway to the rhythms of a sassy saxophone band playing next to them.

I thought a bit about my brother during this mile. Before the race, I had promised I’d dedicate a mile to him during the course and for some reason, watching kids and their parents on windows and doorsteps clapping and cheering us on, made me especially think of him during this stretch. Although he’s thirteen years my younger and up to now has only mustered enough strength and stamina to last him for a 5K run, it hasn’t stopped me from imagining the possibility that one day he and I could be out there together, running these streets. I wonder if my knees will hold up ‘til that day.

Mile 9 (Mile Time – 6:52; Total Time – 1:01:25; Average Pace – 6:49)

The Marathon is my passion, my love and my excitement. - Victor Nazarro, (a retired firefighter who developed cancer as a result of working in ground zero for three straight months. He would pass away on December 30, 2007, at the age of 55)

I make the turn onto Bedford Avenue and in an instant feel as if I’ve been teleported somewhere else. The crowds are much thinner here and there is less support. I start to do some quick math and am startled by the revelations. My NYC marathon is almost a third over? Could it be? I was ecstatic that my foot hasn’t yet bothered me so far so that even as this was supposed to be an uphill mile, I really did not notice the topographic difference as I was running this mile.

More important than just the difference in distance per se, the fact that my marathon was almost one-third over signals a chance in racing philosophy as well. As per my pre-race strategy, after the next mile, my “head miles” will turn into the “leg miles”, which means that my legs will soon take over the pacing responsibilities for next ten miles of the race.

I, for one, couldn’t wait.

Mile 10 (Mile Time – 6:44; Total Time – 1:08:09; Average Pace – 6:48)

“To be happy,” Jelena (Prokopcuka) concludes with a knowing smile, “is when you have enough.”

After battling through the last uphill mile, most of this stretch was downhill. This allowed me the luxury of recapturing a speedy pace. But even though I ran this stretch as comfortably as I had without surging or slowing down, the arch of my left foot started to sting and burn at the completion of this section. This, to me, was odd since it was my right foot and not my left who had given me trouble in the recent past. I thought about my fellow injury pal, runner26, and wondered if she was having as much fun tempering the naughty pain signals as I am. I quickly decided not to think too specifically about the pain. Since there was nothing I could do about it anyways, I felt it was best to ignore the sensory signals for now and continue running as strong a pace as my body will allow.

I end my head miles feeling as strong as I did when I started this race. This in itself was no small feet. I turn over the monumental task of leading the next ten miles to my less-than-perfect legs as I reach and cross over the Mile 10 marker.


Andrew is getting fit said...

Oh boy, your race reports are always worth waiting for. It's like we're there experiencing it with you.

joyRuN said...

Wow. This is an incredible race report!

Absolutely can't wait to read the legs & heart miles :)

C said...

Can't wait to read the rest!

M*J*C said...

Such a good report!!! I'm so glad that it's broken down into's like an intermission!

Anonymous said...

Great start to the report. Like the others, I'm anxious to hear the rest.

One thing that's surprised me is hearing everyone talking about the peeing off of the bridge. I know at the start of all the NYRR races I've ever run, they say that failing to use the portable toilets will result in being banned from future races. Do they not have the same rules for the marathon?

Julianne said...

You are such a tease!! But, I do agree with the others, your race report was worth the wait. I totally feel like I was there with you. :-)

But it is easier to read when it's broken up in pieces... I'll just have to wait patiently for the rest!

Spartan7 said...

Your report is awesome. Keep up the good work, and I'll look forward to reading your next chapter.

ALam said...

dude, biggest tease ever. nice though, can't wait to read the rest. i didn't know ppl peed. that makes me sad =(. can't believe u joined them! haha. nice that your honest though.

and btw, you must update your "simply the best" section. ur PR for a marathon is not 3:08 anymore!

The Laminator said...

Thanks, everyone for your encouragement. Sorry it took a while to get this report out to you.

Andrew - Thanks...I try my best to situate everyone inside my head as I'm running.

Joyrun, Xenia - Legs and hearts are coming...

M*J*C - Yeah, I'm sure everyone can use a break after the first ten miles...

Cowboy Hazel - You're right. But anything goes in a marathon. No one really does much about public peeing there, unlike in a regular NYRR some circles, it's consider a right of passage to pee off the Verrazono Bridge.

Julianne - Thanks for being patient. The rest will be out soon.

Spartan 7 - Thanks. I plan to have the rest of the chapters out in the following days.

Alan - Thanks for the update. It's been changed.

Aron said...

ohhh i am loving this report :) on to the leg miles!

Meg said...

You're such a great writer. I loved the part about giving up to go to the bathroom!

Run For Life said...

Well done. I love the quotes along the way...I'll have to pick up that book and enter the lottery. I'm reading them all in one swoop...onto the head portion for moi!

Run For Life said...

legs, I mean. :P

sRod said...

I started reading this last weekend, but I wanted to read every word (this is your best report yet!).

Can I say that even though you stopped TWICE in your first mile you still ran a faster mile than I ever have in a race?!

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