It starts here...
Easy, it ain’t. But then we never thought it would be. In the back of our transport going East over the Queensborough Bridge from Manhattan, it’s 5.35 am, dark, and wet outside. As we go south through Brooklyn we notice police in several places towing parked cars off the street – this is the race route on race day and nothing is allowed to get in the way. Traffic begins to build up as we get close to the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, which will close to traffic at 7am. It’s still raining, and still dark as we reach the other side. There is already a massive line of coaches on our right, pulling in to allow the runners onboard to disembark into the start villages at Fort Wadsworth, a former military base just off the bridge on Staten Island. We are relieved to see a car drop-off point signposted, and so suddenly we are out into the damp early morning air. Don, who has travelled with us from Manhattan, disappears into the crowd. I don’t know much about him, except he’s from Miami, has run several half-marathons before, but is a first-time NYC marathoner, like Julia, John & me. Karen, our other fellow traveller, has been here before, around 5 years ago. Then, she started with the elite women, as befits her ability. This time, the pressure is off to some extent, since she runs with the masses. We hang around for a while – it’s only 6am – hoping to find Kevin, who is coming by coach. Only after waiting around a while do we realise that his coach will take him to the Staten Island Ferry, and ferry –transported runners come in on the other side of the village. So, in the style of people looking for a tiny bearded needle in a massive haystack, we move out into the village proper. The start villages are split into three colours - blue, green & orange. 7am arrives and as it’s breakfast time, the porridge in a flask routine begins. As the spoon I had selected from the apartment does not fit into the flask, I use the handle to lever the porridge-flavoured plasticine out, with help from John. Yes, breakfast out here is a two-man job. Before long we are waving our goodbyes to John – he’s on the green start whereas the rest of us have blue numbers.
Some came prepared for a long wait
Grey daylight spreads quietly as we wander around, and it’s still raining. We look for somewhere to sit/stand while we quietly fret about what’s to come. But there are people sitting, lying in sleeping bags, zipped into one-man tents, huddled under blankets and duvets, or just standing around in small groups. Julia says it’s like Sangatte. I’ve never been there so can’t disagree, but there is a quiet purpose to the whole gathering. Karen & Julia have both run marathons more regularly & recently than I have. We have all trained as well as we could, only Julia is saying she could have perhaps completed a few more long training runs. In my own mind, I wonder whether I should have tried at least one 20+ miler at closer to race pace. But I’ve been wondering that for weeks. Karen knows far better than I do, and I’ve been happy to follow her & John’s advice these recent weeks. Too late for any change now of course. Bagels, coffee, tea & hot water on demand, the scale of this place is something else. We’re sure there must be a portaloo for each runner. I then remember reading somewhere that there are more than 1500 on site. I don’t think the UK has that many altogether. Where do they all get used before & afterwards? Eventually, close to 8.15 am and after several hot drinks, we decide it’s time to find the baggage trucks. We put our extra clothing & belongings into our special bags and load them onto the numbered UPS trucks. Each one is staffed by two smiling volunteers. Every helper so far has been unremittingly cheerful. I should have counted how many trucks. There must be nearly 50 of them. So, stripped down to our race gear with added ‘throwaway’ clothes to keep us warm until the race is almost due to start, we wander off for a further, final portaloo visit
Next time, I'm bringing a chair...
As Karen goes off into her corral, we wish her good luck and stand for a moment gazing North up to the bridge where the race starts. The huge suspension structure dominates the horizon in that direction. I discover later on that it has two decks – John’s green start actually ran across on the lower deck. Julia is starting in the next wave, so it’s me who leaves next. I wish her good luck and so now we’re all on our own and left to our own devices. I step into corral B where we are held until we can move forward to the start proper. Even here, there is still plenty of room to move around, and even more portaloos, with no queues at all. Moving forward I eventually find the front of the pen, and move back a few paces. I don’t want to appear too keen. Looking around, there are very few female athletes here, and nearly everyone in here is younger than me. Again I begin to worry that I’m not in the right place – some Mexican boys next to me are talking about 2:40 or 2:45 and making bets with each other, laughing. A Swedish bloke asks me what the time is by pointing at his wrist. I note that he has a watch on, but tell him anyway. 9.10 I tell him. He gives me the international thumbs up sign. Almost imperceptibly, runners are gathering and standing facing the direction of travel. Suddenly we can walk forward and are taken out of the pen and between lines of buses and out onto yer actual tarmac. I had thrown away my ancient adidas tracksuit bottoms earlier, quite an emotional wrench as I think I’d had them since about 1995. Still, not as bad as the bloke who threw his tracksuit away only to remember that his car keys were still in the pocket. Luckily for him they were easily retrieved from the roof of the portaloos. Better to remember now.....
Somehow, Frank always makes it to the start line
I have tied my shoelaces a million times. We are treated to a live rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. I have pulled my socks up and folded the tops just so. The elite men are introduced to the crowd. The biggest cheer is reserved for Ryan Hall, the ‘Great White Hope’ of USA marathon running. I have set and re-set my watch and gps many times. The Mayor of NYC gives a short but sincere welcome speech. I have readjusted the pins on my number. The Race Director, Mary Wittenberg, says a few words, and before I can think about it there is a massive cannon blast, followed immediately by Frank Sinatra at 400 decibels, and this massive sea of energy in human form begins to surge forward.
I think there was a bit of stuttering on tiptoes until the fast lads got clear, then we were away – I took around 40secs to reach the start gantry, then we were off. The carriageway to the right suddenly became available and so I veered to the far right of the course, where there was plenty of space to run. I found myself running on the narrow pavement next to Highway 278, where the metal bridge railing swept past at waist height. All I was aware of was a huge view to my right, South-East to Coney Island and out into the Atlantic beyond. Someone had waited late to discard clothing and a long-sleeved top flew off in slow motion into the Hudson. Others had left it late to take fluid onboard and were now having to stop next to the bridge parapet for a natural break. None of them were women, I hasten to add. So with half an eye on the hazards on the pavement and the other one and a half on the view, off we went. The first mile took us halfway over the bridge, 225 feet above the river. I was trying just to run carefully, but when the adrenaline kicks in, it’s hard to rein back. Mile two was mostly downhill and we veered slightly left as we came down off the bridge on the Brooklyn side. The first photographers and then the first crowds appeared immediately, and we were into Bay Ridge, Brooklyn – 1.8 miles gone in a flash.
The spectators are already dictating my race. This sounds stupidly corny, but I feel like I’m running this for them. Of course I don’t know who any of these people are. But still, they all seem to want to be part of it. So why not? I will spend most of the next 14 or 15 miles high-fiving people. It’s just.....well it’s just great.
Mile 3 includes a sharp left then a sharp right onto 4th Avenue, whereafter we run in a virtual straight line for two miles until we bridge-cross another road and veer slightly right, still on 4th Avenue. I think in total we ran about 5.5miles on 4th Ave. It’s wide, with an island up the middle for at least some of the way, and there is music everywhere. Every mile on both sides of the road there is Gatorade being given out by dozens and dozens and dozens of people. At each station, the Gatorade gives way to water – Poland Spring – and there are signposted first aid and toilets at every mile. I try to take note of the street numbers as we cross each one. It’s all a blur. Everyone wants a high five – people of all shapes, sizes and nationalities. People I’ll never know or even see again, are spurring me on and I keep telling myself to slow down. I knew I needed to, but I was enjoying myself too much. There seem to be places of worship all along the road here. The miles seem to whizz past, until almost at the Mile 8 mark we turn left at last at the end of 4th Avenue onto Flatbush Avenue. Somewhere here I recall seeing the Brooklyn Academy of Music. How appropriate. Then it’s a sharp right onto Lafayette Avenue. All the way along, I am telling myself to remember this, that, this, that, another this....it’s impossible. Minnie Mouse overtakes on my left. I get slightly annoyed because there are people in the crowd shouting for Mickey. But that’s definitely Minnie. There is a gospel choir singing on the church steps on the left. It’s just magic. There are dozens of people ringing cowbells at particular places – I think these are at ING-sponsored ‘cheering zones’ - which sounds naff but ....to me, nothing about this day is naff. It just fits this day in this place.
This is where I find myself running beside Steve. Steve is a Brit – or at least he has the Union Flag on the back of his vest, just like me. I know nothing else about Steve – and I hope he enjoyed his day – but he sticks in my mind because, with STEVE emblazoned front and back, he got an incredible amount of namechecks from the crowd which must have given him a boost, especially in those final miles around Central Park. Note to self for next time – name on vest.
The Williamsburg Bridge passes over the race route just before the Mile 11 marker is reached and I’m still travelling too fast. I tell myself that this is time in the bank but I’m also fairly sure that you can’t, actually, put time in the bank. The first of three energy gels is taken between 11-12 miles. On the long reaches of Bedford Avenue, we have gradually swung round from NW to NE as we head through Williamsburg, formerly mostly German, towards the Polish Quarter from Nassau Avenue to Manhattan Avenue (I have wondered since – what was it like here in the late 1930s when Hitler annexed Poland??) and out of Brooklyn towards Queens, over the Pulaski Bridge.
The Pulaski Bridge – that’s halfway right? We’re out of Brooklyn, into Queens. Now I have to be alert. My support crew are probably somewhere in the borough, although nearer the 14 mile mark, as that’s where the race route passes near to our hotel. Still the race whizzes past – I use every single water station at every single mile. So, halfway in 1:28. Truthfully, if I’d run this as a half marathon I’d be pleased with that. My head is swimming with little details. Splits, pace, street names, when will it start to really hurt? Are Karen &/or John ahead of me? Where will the family be? Why didn’t we say a particular spot, even agree which side of the road for goodness’ sake?
Karen, flying in mile 14...
Somewhere here I see the huge steel girdered structure of the Queensboro Bridge high on the skyline. We have to go over it, and it is a long way up in the air. Momentarily deflated, I succeed in forgetting about it almost instantly. I concentrate on my breathing, and on trying to work out where the family will be standing. Before I know it we are going sharp left and out over the bridge. They are not here. In fact there are no crowds here at all. Later, I am told that I ran within 10m of the family as they screamed and shouted at me. I was oblivious. How could I not have seen them? So looking rather too desperately for the mile 15 marker, I plough on up the incline on the lower deck of the bridge. No crowds, only the odd photographer. No drinks station, only discarded drink bottles thrown away by the elite runners. I look at each one, hoping to see some name I recognise or maybe a little flag affixed. If I see one with Paula on it, I’m carrying it home. But I don’t. This silly preoccupation (and aren’t there lots of those when we run?) gets me over the top of the climb and now we fall down the exit ramp towards Manhattan.
That would be Queensborough Bridge then
As we near the bottom there are two walls. One is made of straw bales, built on the outside of the left-hand hairpin. This made me laugh, then I thought it was probably more for the wheelchairs careering down the slope. The second was more impressive – a huge wall of noise made by the crowds stood several-deep. On both sides. A massive lift after the isolation on the bridge. Another 90deg lefthander takes us back under the bridge as we head up 1st Avenue, now well into Mile 17.
John in celebratory mood - and he's only just passed halfway
First Avenue is six lanes wide. I am now running in the middle of the right-hand side of the road. The noise here is literally breathtaking. We are in Manhattan, there are massive skyscrapers either side of us, and the cheering is mixed with whistles, cowbells, airhorns, music. I am still well under 3-hour pace but I strongly suspect I will not hold it. Now the crowd are telling me that I’m incredible, and in my slightly deranged state I wonder - why now? Then on my left, Mr Incredible eases alongside then glides away, waving to his fans as he goes. Feeling slightly miffed that I’m not as highly-regarded as I stupidly thought, I try to concentrate again on just running. Grete Waitz’s mantra – just keep going. Obvious, but simple and meaningful. We must have run 3 and a half miles on First Avenue.
Under a double road bridge and into Spanish Harlem, nearly at Mile 20, we get closer to the Willis Avenue Bridge that carries us from Manhattan and into The Bronx. For the first time, I start to feel weary. The bridge road surface seems to be constructed of steel lattice-work with no tarmac. Good for drainage, maybe, but not good on the feet. For today, there is an orange sort of foam carpet that leads over the river. And it feels like a climb. Running off the bridge, a bloke from Brizzle, England runs past me offering words of encouragement. I can’t remember what my reply was. It was probably fairly civil, but just as probably it was unintelligible.
Need wins. On we go. I would like to say that the last 3 miles were a dance through Central Park among the leaves of a calm & mild autumn afternoon. But I can’t. It was a battle with myself. I kept expecting Karen to fly past me – that’s when I wasn’t thinking she had already finished. I have very little recollection actually. A few overtook me – including a bloke from Hull (I think) – and I overtook a few too, although not too many. Never have three little miles seemed so long.
Mile 25 and we’re off 5th Ave at last and onto East Drive in Central Park, a gradual right-hander takes us round the edge of the Jackie Onassis Reservoir and then on down Cat Hill into mile 26. I had read about this earlier – there is a bronze panther entitled ‘Still Hunt’ perched on a rock somewhere here – but it failed to register with me today. There is so much noise.
Finished. Stopped both watches. I am walking, very slowly. Lots of smiling people are telling me I did a great job. That I am amazing. I am awarded with my finishers medal, and hugged like a returning explorer. I have my photo taken by a smiling lady who also gives me a hug. I keep walking. I find myself in tears, then laughing to myself. Drinks. A red Gatorade. A blue one too. This ‘keep walking’ strategy is a good one, although tortuous for those actually doing the walking. Stop, and a small team of official race support crew appear at your elbow and (in some cases) lift you to your feet and get you on your way. Again. For some, this is just too much. You’ve been up since stupid o’clock, on your feet for over three hours and run 26.2miles and, well, you’d just like little sit down. No chance. Walk.
There is a re-union zone off to the left somewhere, but I haven’t reached my own UPS truck with my baggage on it yet. The trucks are parked in a huge line in descending running number order. Eventually I get there. More hugs from the two people I had left my bag with on Staten Island several hours ago. Did they recognise me? Of course not, they’re just doing their job. And they’re really good at it. They are there to smile, congratulate and sympathise, and they seem to do it with pride. I remember the moment. Take pride in doing whatever it is you’re there to do. Let it show. It affects people, in a good way. Ok. Let’s move.
...and it ends here
It is over. I wish it wasn’t. It was that good.