There is something about the marathon that differentiates it from other foot races, and I don’t mean just the obvious difference being its length.
It is a race that has a way of bringing people together that makes it so special. Perhaps it is shared misery or shared elation that make those two emotions all the more powerful, I’m really not sure. But one thing I know is that this race has a special hold on me that even though I uttered the famous quote heard thousands of times by the volunteers handing out the NYC Marathon 2011 Finisher’s Medals, “Never Again”.
I know for a fact there will be more marathons.
But its time to make sure we don’t get too far ahead of ourselves and start talking about the finish of the race because this was a day that I will remember for a long, long time.
Pre-Race Saturday Night:
To me that marathon doesn’t really “get serious” until I am sitting down at dinner on Saturday night. I don’t know if it is my Catholic upbringing that harkens back to thoughts of the “Last Supper”, but I can be calm, cool and collected all the way up until that plate of pasta is put in front of me, but as soon as I take the first bite, the jitters arrive.
This pre-race meal was different than any other of course, as it was Landry’s first time at the table with us the night before the marathon. I was joined by close friends Jolyn and Connie who made the trip in to watch the race with Dawn and Landry and two very special guests who made their way in from Long Island. My runner friend Bob and his daughter Hallie.
Bob and I met back in 2010 as I was making my way to the Boston and then Pittsburgh Marathons for Dom through Dailymile and have been “virtual” friends and training confidants for a couple of years now. Originally the plan was for Bob, myself and our friend Winston from Wichita to all run NYC together, but Bob has been struggling with injury for over a year now. He was unable to run with us, but he was there for me on Saturday night, which meant more to me than he will ever know.
We had a tremendous dinner at Tony Di Napoli’s on 43rd street in the city – and as always, Landry was the star attraction.
Don’t know where she gets this ability to ham it up in front of the camera from – but late on Sunday I think I got a new perspective on that.
After dinner we said our goodbyes and made it back to the Renaissance Hotel in Times Square for a fitful night of nervous sleep. Landry of course had a great time in the city – even meeting a celebrity while we were out heading to breakfast on Saturday. She had a lot of fun in the Big Apple.
I was careful to hydrate even more than usual as I was fighting a cold which I knew was going to have me dehydrated before we even started the race on Sunday if I wasn’t paying close attention, laid out all of my race gear for the morning and tried to get a little sack time. Daylight savings would add an hour to our evening which would normally be welcomed, but it actually made Sunday’s 9:40 a.m. start time even “later” for me – which I was not happy about being an early morning runner. I hoped that the lessons I learned about nutrition and hydration pre-race at Boston in 2010 would help me on Sunday.
Hell, I was hoping for a lot of things.
Travel to the Start:
I opted to take the Staten Island Ferry to the starting area instead of a city bus. It would add a trip on the subway to the Ferry to my morning, but I looked forward to being able to walk around the boat and use the bathroom if I needed to instead of being stuck on a bus in NY traffic.
I woke up at 4:45 a.m. – 5 full hours before the start of the race – took a shower to warm-up, dressed in my race gear, packed my breakfast in my small bag that I would check before heading to the starting line and said my goodbyes to Dawn and a sleeping Landry. I quietly left the hotel and walked one block North to 5oth street and one block left to Broadway to catch the number 1 train down to the Ferry.
A runner coming through the subway turnstile was having trouble with his metro card, so I reached back, handed him mine and paid for his train. I thought that I could use all the “good karma” I could find on Sunday. Best $1.50 I spent in New York.
I got to meet Michael from Washington State who was running his first New York Marathon, number 8 marathon overall. We talked about our families, previous races and our hopes for the day. Michael was hoping for a 3:30 and asked me what my plans were. I told him that I wanted to PR above all else (sub 3:15:01), but thought I had a great chance to run between 3:05 and 3:10 if I had a good day.
3 Hours was my pie in the sky goal, but that is something that you don’t really travel to a “Mega-Marathon” on a tough course to do. I would need a near miracle to pull that off, but I would run the first half just quick enough to give myself a shot at it, and hang on as long as I could. We made our way onto the Ferry and ended up having to split up to find seats.
I ended up next to a runner named Tracy from Atlanta. He was running out of the Green Start or the bottom of the Verrazzano Bridge just as I was, so Tracy and I rode the bus from the Ferry to the athletes village and talked about our families and goals for the day. Tracy who was relatively new to the sport as I am was hoping to run a Boston time, which for his age would mean something around 3:35 or so. Tracy was very interested to hear all about “Run for Dom”and then shared with me that he is a cancer survivor.
I shared one of my bagels with Tracy and a banana in the start area and as they started to call runners to the starting corrals we split up to go into our assigned areas. I wished him well and for the first time all morning I was alone. That is the thing about the marathon that never fails to get me. No matter how many people you are surrounded by, in this case 47,000 other runners, another 6,000 volunteers and 2 Million spectators cheering on the runners along the course – you find yourself all alone battling your own demons along the way.
You find out a lot about yourself during the course of a marathon, some good, some bad – but it is all honest. All 100% genuine.
I found myself a spot in the starting corral with about 45 minutes to go until the gun at 9:40 a.m. I was still in my throwaway wind pants and wind jacket and my Philadelphia Eagles knit winter hat to keep me warm. Underneath were my navy shorts, USA Track and Field Singlet, Arm Warmers and light Gloves.
I was fairly certain that my arm warmers and gloves wouldn’t make it out of Brooklyn, my hat probably not all the way over the Verrazzano Bridge, but the race weather was absolutely perfect. 44 degrees, very light winds and a sun-splashed sky with the sunrise off to the East and my right shoulder.
With 10 minutes to go the released us to the starting line and I jogged slowly and comfortably up to the start for about 600 meters to shake loose and get the stiffness out of my legs and glutes from sitting on the curb for so long. I felt strong. I felt rested. I felt 100% healthy from my training and even my cold wasn’t bothering me.
I was also scared and nervous. Anyone that tells you they don’t feel that way at the starting line of the marathon is either certifiable insane or a liar.
I’m neither. I was scared.
As requested I removed my hat for the Star Spangled Banner and eased out of my sweats. I tossed them to the side and realized that all of the runners around me were not from the United States. Chile, Canada, France, Japan, Switzerland – but in my immediate area I was the only runner from the States. I puffed out my chest a little more than normal and proudly showed off my USA singlet.
Let’s do this I thought.
The Start – Staten Island:
Right at 9:40 on my GPS watch you could hear the announcer from the top of the bridge declare over the loudspeaker – “Runners, the streets of New York are yours!” BOOM! and as the recoil from the cannon start faded Frank Sinatra’s voice came over the sound system:
“Start Spreading the News ….. I’m leaving today ….. I want to be a part of it …. New York, New York …”
I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stand on end as I made my way across the timing mat and took my first strides toward the finish line.
All of that nervous energy, fear, apprehension, doubt vanished immediately. The race starts and your body and mind take over.
My legs started to do what they do and I took stock of my systems about 2/10 of a mile into the climb up to the top of the Verrazzano bridge – my legs had indeed made the flight to New York. I felt perfect.
The incline over the first mile is pretty staggering. My watch was not able to detect satellite signal from the lower deck, so I had to run completely by feel. I could not track any speed or splits and there were people all around me. I decided to “run easy” and whatever my opening mile was would have to be good enough. With 25.2 miles to go it is basically impossible to run the first mile “too slow” – but you most definitely can run it “too fast”. I was going to be a smart, even paced marathoner and I was going to run my race on Sunday.
Just stay smooth, stay tall, stay even I told myself. Stay smooth, stay tall, stay even. Stay smooth, stay tall stay even.
We quickly came up on the 1 mile sign and my GPS watch had me at .58 miles. I knew my data was going to be useless, so I just ran at even effort to the top of the bridge. I had tucked my gels into my Spibelt, but they were bouncing around a little too much and irritating me. So I pulled the half-packs of 3 Clif Blok Shots I had cut in two smaller packages before the race out of my Spibelt and tucked them into the pockets on my arm sleeves.
I decided to carry the gels that I would need at mile 5 in my left hand to warm them up and make them softer and I pitched my Spibelt onto the side of the Verrazzano bridge, careful not to hit another runner.
The bridge covers the fist 2 miles of the race. The first mile climbs 150 feet to the top of the Verrazzano Bridge, the second mile the same 150 feet down the other side. Without being able to gauge my speed, it was going to be tough to really know how fast I was going. My pace felt comfortable and natural, not too quick, not too slow – just right.
Whatever that pace was, it was working for me. When we got to the 3-mile mark I knew we would hit the first water station and I could get my clock time from the course clock. We crossed the starting line only :10 seconds after the gun, so I would just pace off of that mark each mile. Not exactly as scientific as I am used to – but runners did that for years and years – I was sure that without technology my legs would still know what to do.
Brooklyn (Miles 2-13):
At the start of mile three we ran underneath an overpass and heard the first fans on the course welcoming the runners to Brooklyn.
It was tremendous to see all of the spectators on the course, I pitched my hat to the side of the road as I felt the first bead of sweat hit my left eyebrow. I was warmed up, feeling great and we were racing. Greatest feeling in the world.
We hit the 3 mile mark and my split was 21:25 (6:53 pace). I had a decision to make. 7:15 pace is a 3:10 marathon. 7:02 pace is a 3:04 marathon. something around 7:05-7:08 was what I had in the back of my mind for the opening half of the race. 6:52 pace is a 2:59:59. I was running free and easy, my pacing felt perfect and I was on pace for basically my pie-in-the sky “A” goal.
I took a few strides and processed everything, my watch was trying to recalibrate itself making up for the “lost distance” it couldn’t track me. But it was now triangulating me to a new point 3+ miles away from the point when I punched start. It was showing 4:45 pace – which I knew was wrong and in fact worthless.
I decided that I would just continue to run “identical”. No changes, nothing slower, nothing faster just stay exactly where you are and don’t change a thing. Let’s see just how far and how long we can hold this. Let the hills, bridges speed us up or slow us down, but run with the same exact effort. That is the most efficient way to run a marathon.
The reality of the situation was clear to me. You are 3 miles in to one of the greatest foot races on the planet. You have a great venue, great crowd support, perfect weather and you are on pace for a 3 hour marathon. How many times in your life are you ever going to hold this situation in your hands again? How many runners would give just about anything to change places with you at this exact moment.
Make the most of it. Don’t tell the story later about how you almost went for it that day. Tell your daughter about the time you decided to risk it all and go for it. That the results at the end of the day would not change or take away from my choice and the experience.
So I went for it.
At every mile to come with the exception of the two-mile stretch over the Queens borough Bridge (miles 14-16), the story repeated itself. There would be a Gatorade Station on the left and right of the course, then a sign letting the runners know when the cups would be filled with water instead of Gatorade, then 100 Meters later a timing mat that recorded your time for that mile and a race clock.
On a day where my trusty Garmin had let me down – I didn’t need it. I was running the New York City Marathon entirely by feel and I was locked in and killing it.
We sped through Brooklyn and mile markers never came to me quicker on a course. I do not know if it was a combination of the crowds encouraging the runners, the fact that I was running the NEW YORK FRICKIN’ Marathon …. or if because I wasn’t checking my watch every .50 miles, but the course was flying by.
My pace through Brooklyn was: (Through Mile 3 6:53), 6:52, 6:51, 6:50, 6:49, 6:50, 6:50, 6:49, 6:50, 6:51, 6:51.
We reached the Pulaski Bridge finally leaving the wonderful crowds in Brooklyn to head over to Queens and as we crested the first steep climb since the opening mile up and over the Bridge I hit the timing mat at the half-marathon point in 1:29:45 – 6:52 pace. I had run the opening half of the New York City marathon in a word …. perfect.
Queens (Miles 14-16):
As we made our way off of the bridge we were greeted with shouts of welcome to Queens! The crowd of runners was now thinning out and you could start to hear the occasional shouts for individuals. Just ahead of me was a runner named Steve who had his name printed boldly on his chest. Each stride a different spectator would yell out – “Go Steve”.
After this took place for the seventh or eight time a runner off to my left looked over at his friend who he was running alongside and said, “Man, I wish my name was Steve right about now ….”
That is one of the best parts of the marathon – that amid all of the struggling, there is still plenty of time for a few laughs.
Just then off to my left I heard for the first time of the day – “Go USA!” – I had been running down the center of the course through Brooklyn staying out of harms way and keeping the course as short as possible, giving up the chance to have encouragement shouted to me through the crush of runners on both sides of the road.
But now I was starting to get some attention as spectators had been cheering wildly for France, Chile, Spain, Italy …. now it was my turn and it was very welcomed. At each shout I would give a thumbs up or a quick wave – trying to make sure I didn’t burn too much energy – but it was getting harder and harder to do as the shouts of encouragement got longer and louder.
Miles 14 and 15 in Queens came and went quickly, my pace remained steady 6:52, 6:53.
As we made a turn to the left I could see the on ramp to the Queens borough Bridge. There would be no spectators for the next two miles only the bridge and the biggest hill I’ve ever seen in a marathon. I pulled my arm sleeves off and threw them to the side of the road to cool myself a bit. It was time to climb.
Manhattan (Miles 16-20):
I did what I do on any hill, stayed even and started to pick off runners in front of me. To be passing people on the bridge made the challenging climb feel just a little bit better. Not much, but a bit. I was able to stay strong to the top on a climb that seemed like it would never end. I dropped my gloves off as we crested the top and now was down to just my singlet, shorts and shoes. With about 1/4 mile to go before we would be coming off of the bridge I could see down the hill to First Avenue below.
The crowd was absolutely huge. 10-12 people deep lining the street. I glanced over my left shoulder toward lower Manhattan, saw the buildings shining with the sun hitting them from the East. What a day I thought. Enjoy this for a moment because in the next couple of miles, things are going to get difficult. It wasn’t a matter of if. Just a matter of when.
We came off of the bridge and I made my first mistake of the day – as the chants of U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A. greeted me I ran with my left arm up toward the crowd. I should have been using this next mile as a recovery mile, maybe ease off the gas a bit, but I couldn’t make myself do it. I knew better. I knew that this precious energy I was expending would be needed over the last 10 kilometers, but I ran on fearlessly anyway.
There would be a price to pay. I knew that much. I just didn’t know how badly it was going to hurt yet.
Up First Avenue we went, I zipped into water stations, took my third package of gels and was cruising along. As we reached mile 18 to my absolute shock a New Yorker walked right out onto the marathon course, had hopped a barricade to do so in order to cross 1st Avenue. My view of him was blocked by a runner just ahead and to the left of me and at the last moment he was directly in front of me walking slowly like he was out for a stroll.
I reached across my body with my right arm to my left side and grabbed his backpack to shove him as hard as I could out of my way.
My right foot scraped his right leg as I barely made it past him, throwing me off of my stride. I was pissed.
For 18 miles I had been locked in, smooth and steady and in an instant I was knocked off of my rhythm. I tried to block it out and forget about it, but it was hard to do. You are always amazed at the things you see in a marathon – but this one was something I wished I had missed.
Over miles 16-20 my overall pace started to slip: 6:54, 6:54, 6:55, 6:56, 6:57. We were about to climb again over the Willis Avenue Bridge. I was now :05 per mile total behind 6:52 pace. A sub 3 hour marathon was not going to happen. But my goal of coming in under 3:10 was a very real possibility. I knew that the mileage and the course were about to team up on me at this point only the way they know how to do after mile 20 in the marathon.
In many respects, this is truly the “half-way point” of the race. 13.1 is only the half-way point in the marathon mathematically speaking. Only the people who have been to this point can understand just what the final 10 kilometers is really like. Your heart, mind and spirit feel like they are working just as hard as they have been for well over 2 hours, but your body just won’t stay with the program.
Your legs feel heavy, aches start to accumulate and soreness develops seemingly in an instant.
Welcome to the marathon Joe. Your race just started.
The Bronx (Mils 20-22):
The Willis Avenue Bridge climbs about 50 feet in 1/4 of a mile. It felt like a mountain.
I made it to the top, crested the hill and headed down into the Bronx for a short stretch of 2 miles leading back to the 138th street bridge and back into Manhattan for the final time. The crowds in the Bronx were great, another round of shouts for the U.S. of A, but I could only manage a thumbs up at this point and a quick smile as they cheered for us.
As we made our way out of the Bronx our total pace for the race dropped yet again 6:59, 7:01.
Manhattan Part II (Miles 22-24):
Fifth Avenue, we finally reached it. now it was just a matter of running from 138th street down to Central Park and entering on the East Drive. There was the final major climb ahead of us 100 feet over miles 23-24 and then the rolling hills of Central Park itself. A stretch of New York I had run several times in the past - but never after a 22-mile warm-up.
The outside of my right knee began to tighten on me, my IT Band was rearing its head for the first time in close to four years. I was hurting and I glanced at my watch for the first time in about an hour and a half. My pace was clocking now around 7:35 min./mile As long as I kept it together and didn’t completely blow up I could break 3:10. It was going to be a war of attrition.
Finally the entrance to the park. Time to finish this thing.
Central Park (Miles 24-26):
I hit the Gatorade station at mile 24 and decided that would be my final nutrition stop for the day. I had managed my hydration plan perfectly, now it wasn’t worth disrupting my breathing or using the energy to slow, grab a cup, drink it, drop it and merge back around other slowing runners. Just two miles to go to the finish.
I thought about the 2.3 mile shake-out I had run Saturday morning that seemed like it was over in the blink of an eye. Why couldn’t these two miles be just like yesterday’s I tought in a moment of weakness. Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way for the marathoner.
At mile 23 my overall pace had slowed to 7:03, by mile 24 it was 7:06. As I reached the mile 25 marker and clock we were at 7:09.
C’mon Joe, hang in there, just 1.2 miles to go.
We exited the park onto Central Park South and the crowds were going crazy. I started to feel my legs turn a little faster, but I tried to keep steady. We had one more turn to make back into the park at Columbus Circle, a route I ran just a little over 24 hours earlier to feel the finish of the race. I knew that Dawn and Landry were going to be on the right side of the course in the East Grandstands at the finish line.
Don’t forget to run right I thought …. stay to the right.
As we made the last turn into the park I couldn’t control my excitement any longer. I raised my left arm and waved to the crowd on the West Side.
I ran a straight tangent off the turn to the right side of the road and I waved to the crowd all the way in. U.S.A., U.S.A. was being chanted and I was hoping that Dawn and Landry would see me.
Instead of dropping the hammer and sprinting the final 200 yards like I normally would – I just took it all in. Every bit of it. Dawn saw me approaching and took this photo of me as I had just 100 yards to go.
The course straightened out, I raised my left arm up and ran through to the finish line.
Final time of 3:08:09. 7:11 pace for 26.2 miles.
Our time was the 1,860th fastest of more than 46,500 finishers. The 1,730th fastest male competitor and 328 of the 5,858 Men in our 40-44 year old age group.
For me this race was perhaps the most memorable I have ever run. The city, the course, the event, the weather, my training and my effort all came together revealing the true meaning of when someone describes their race result as a “Personal Best”.
On Sunday I was the very best marathoner I have ever been.
I also got to spend it with the two ladies who mean the world to me. In their eyes I know that fast or slow it wouldn’t have made any bit of difference – all Landry and Dawn wanted was to see Daddy finish.