It's been five days since I ran the 2011 ING New York City Marathon.
My legs finally feel back to normal (no more walking backwards down the stairs). I'm lacing up my sneakers for my first post-marathon run as I write. And I'm signing up for the Rock 'n' Roll USA Half Marathon in Washington, D.C. later today. Oh, and I think I am finally ready to talk about what happened on Sunday as I ran through the streets of New York City to complete my first (but certainly not last) marathon.
After a busy week, filled with lots of preparations, up and down nerves and excitement, and one small mental breakdown, the day finally arrived -- right at 3:45 am when my alarm clock jolted me from my bed. Thank goodness for that "extra" hour from Daylight Saving Time.
The day started like many days in the life of Emily Meghan Faherty start -- with a glitch. I knew I needed to catch a 5:03 am PATH train into Manhattan, and since I live a good 25-minute walk away, figured I would just ride my bike there in the wee hours of the morning. I laid everything out the night before like an invisible man on the ground, had my breakfast(s) packed, and was out the door right on schedule.
Until my stupid bike lock would not unlock after several tries. I cursed it, figured this was a sign from the universe that I was probably going to get hit by a car on the ride there, and started walking. As I looked at my watch, I realized my odds of making it on time were not good. So, of course, I started running. A few blocks later, I spotted a cab, flagged it down like a madwoman, and banged on the glass window (even though it was filled with people) to beg them to let me climb in.
"I'm running a marathon today," I pleaded the cab driver.
The glazed-over eyes of the drunk passengers inside, just ending their night, widened with amazement. "Get innn!" they slurred, the smell of alcohol on their breath giving me a whole other kind of wake-up call. "We have to get this girl to her raceee!"
And so with their help, I made it to the train on time and to the Team In Training bus that would take me the rest of the way to Staten Island. Leg one of the journey down, and I hadn't even gotten to the starting line yet.
The hours spent in Fort Wadsworth were a cold, tired, nervous, excited blur, filled with strategically eating and drinking, waiting in line for the port-a-potties, and Sharpie-ing the name of everyone who donated to my fundraising efforts for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society onto my arm (as promised).
When it was finally time to ditch our layers of clothes (that made us look more like Occupy Wall Streeters than marathoners) for our 10:40 am start time, I told the butterflies in my stomach to take it easy. I was ready to run this race.
The start was everything like I imagined and nothing like I imagined all at the same time, if that makes any sense. With the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in sight and Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" blaring through the speakers, I took a deep breath (okay, maybe teared up a little, too) and took in all of the energy of my fellow runners from all over the world, the good luck wishes from the race organizers, and the feeling of confidence pumping up inside of me.
With that, we were off and had officially taken our first step over the starting line of the New York City Marathon.
"So this is happening," said my running buddy Caitlin DiLena as we climbed the initial hill of the first mile. "We're running a marathon." The two of us, and another AOLer, Clare Baker from Patch, formed a strong unit early on, staying on the left side (strong side) as we marveled at the sight of the Manhattan skyline to our left, wondering just how many more hours it would be until we set foot there.
As we learned from these race day tips, we knew it was so important to start out slow -- a hard task considering Brooklyn fans showed up ready to party on Sunday morning. Honestly, that crowd support made the first ten miles just fly by. I held myself back from high-fiving every single little kid on the street (a few little cuties got some love), made sure to stay hydrated, and just kept focused on a nice and steady pace. Every time I crossed a timing strip in the road, I thought of my family and friends who I knew were tracking me and who were probably just making their way into the city on their way to meet me at mile 18 in Manhattan.
Caitlin was a rockstar runner in those Brooklyn miles. They say that if you're hurting in a race, you should find someone in front of you and pretend like you are tethered to them to keep you going. I was definitely tied to her. She already had her headphones in and I know it was that Hanson coming through her earbuds that was giving her the extra pep in her step.
By the time we passed Williamsburg, things got, well, quiet. The crowds were thinner and I, too, decided to turn to my iPod for the first time for some support -- in the form of some Bruce Springsteen and Beyoncé, obviously. Caitlin and I continued to have our unspoken bond, using head nods and thumbs up to communicate.
It was amazing to take in all of the other runners, my people, all here to do the same thing -- a very enthusiastic group from Sweden that we seemed to run with forever, folks in elaborate costumes, a runner whose shirt revealed it was her 40th birthday (I raced ahead to wish her a happy one and a great race), an amputee veteran, and an older woman wearing a shirt that said she had run a marathon in all 50 states. I think I want to wear that shirt someday.
It was time to "get the hell out of Brooklyn" (according to one spectator sign) as we climbed the Pulaski Bridge into Queens. Caitlin and I let out a cheer at the 13.1-mile mark, but we reminded ourselves that they say 20 miles actually marks the halfway point of a marathon. Still, two boroughs down, three to go, we thought.
No offense to Queens, but I was bored. And I was ready to get into Manhattan already, knowing that I had a big group of family and friends scattered up First Avenue waiting for me. I was still feeling strong with no major aches and no hip pain and made sure I was eating and drinking as needed. So far, so good.
"Wait," I said to Caitlin, finally realizing we were in familiar territory. "Is this the Queensboro Bridge?" Duh, of course it was. I had run it a few times in training runs, but I couldn't believe we were almost at the 25K mark. It's a tough hill, that bridge, but this Florence + the Machine jam and I made it to the top pretty easy. At that point, Caitlin and I both heard a new noise -- the cheers and cowbells of the crowds lining First Avenue.
"Yep, that's them," said another TNT runner, an honored teammate and cancer survivor in fact, who was running alongside of us at the time. We both turned off our music as we prepared to enter Manhattan. "You girls soak it up and take it all in," she said. As we rounded the corner at mile 16, the sight took my breath away. Especially once when I spotted my best friends at 79th Street, cheering like crazy, as my pal Sam captured this photo:
Still beaming from seeing my buddies, my spirits stayed up until I found my absolutely awesome family (all in matching, homemade, lime green T-shirts) at 86th Street, even my two-year-old nephew Brendan, who told my oldest sister Sarah that morning, "I so excited see Emmy run!" Again, there was no time to stop for sweaty hugs -- that's what the after-party was for.
Feeling high, Caitlin and I were refueled from more than just the Shot Bloks, GU Energy Gels and Gatorade we'd been eating all day. That was, until I hit it. The Wall. Well, I didn't totally crash into it, but there was definitely a bump and I didn't see it coming. It was a little after mile 19, before heading into the Bronx, and I just felt done. I literally felt like my tank was empty, I felt like my legs were a million tons, I felt like my stride was only moving centimeters at a time, and I felt like I wanted a freakin' sandwich. I knew this was where the marathon can make or break someone, but luckily, I still had my head -- so I knew I needed positive thoughts up in there. I turned to Caitlin, who I could tell was feeling it too.
"Cait," I said, "You look awesome."
"No, Em," she laughed. "You look awesome." I don't really care to know what we actually looked like, but I imagine it wasn't pretty.
This went on for a little while as we made our way onto the Willis Avenue Bridge into the Bronx (Fourth borough! Woo!). The shoulders of the bridge were littered with runners cramping up, so I felt lucky in that moment that all I really wanted was a sandwich. So I Shot Bloked some more, got my Gatorade on, and grabbed a banana before we made the final turn onto the Madison Avenue Bridge. It was around this point, at mile 21, that Caitlin and I got separated. We had agreed before the race that we wanted to stay together for as long as we could, but knew this probably wasn't going to be the type of thing where we'd be holding hands as we crossed the finish line. The support we have given each other over the past few months is indescribable, but at the same time, running a marathon is a pretty personal thing too.
So, on my own, I turned onto Fifth Avenue in Harlem and felt awesome. Seriously, with like five miles left to go, I knew in my heart that I could do this. And my body was responding the way I wanted it to. But was it too early to pick up the pace? Would I tire out once I hit the park? Just as these thoughts were racing through my head, I heard a shout from the sidelines -- "Em!"
I wasn't expecting to see anyone I knew again until I reached the park, so I was happy to see that the shout was coming from TNT Coach Christine Luff. She started running with me. I told her how mile 19 was a total killer, but that now I was feeling great.
"Use it," she said. "If you're feeling good, use it. Just focus on getting to mile 23. At that point, the crowd is going to carry you the rest of the way."
Sounded like a game plan to me and she wished me luck for the rest of the race. Mile 23. Mile 23. Mile 23. And before I knew it, my little legs got me there. It was right around Mount Sinai Hospital and I got emotional. I remembered the older man I chatted with in the park during the summer, who had told me to remember how lucky we are, to be "out here and not in there." The same guy who told me to "just keep running... because you can."
I started to think about all the reasons why I was doing this race. Not only to raise money for cancer research, but to truly challenge myself -- to take myself out of my comfortable, 9-5, party-on-the-weekends-lifestyle and prove to myself that I was capable of more, and that I could accomplish my goals. I thought about all of the people who have supported me over the past four months, and when I thought about them, there was no way in this world I was going to stop running. Besides, at that point, I had about a 5K left -- and I eat 5Ks for breakfast.
That's when my heart took over. My body was on auto-pilot and my head was long-gone at this point. (I had already started singing out loud a few miles back.) I entered Central Park -- my home turf -- and was ready to own the last two miles. My family said I came out of nowhere when they spotted me for the second time. I saw my dad smiling so big, my brother-in-law James standing high on top of the wooden barricades with his arms to the heavens. (I heard he was the MVP of my cheering section that day.) And I reached for my mom's hand and squeezed it as hard as I could to let her know that I was okay -- even if the look of exhaustion and the tears filling my eyes probably said otherwise.
I am running a marathon. How many times did I have to repeat this to myself during the race for it to finally sink in? I am running a marathon... and I'm almost done. The familiar hill around 72nd Street felt like Everest, but I just kept booking it before swinging down the final lower loop and out onto Central Park South. I felt fast and a quick glance at my watch told me that I might actually make it close to my goal time -- four hours and 30 minutes.
I'm not sure how accurate this is since everything about that last mile or so is hazy, but I felt like I was passing everyone. Get out of my way, was all I could think as I snuck up the side and headed back into the park one more time at Columbus Circle. The cheers were insane and it was all for me, as far as I was concerned. So I took it in, I soaked it up, I ran that last hill like it was nothing, I smiled so big, and I reached up with my arms victorious as my foot crossed that final finish line in 4:29:55. Nothing like the last possible second, Em.
Once that medal was placed around my neck, that heat sheet was wrapped around my tired, tired, tired body (which I thought really made it official), I knew it was all over. The months of running in all kinds of weather, the early wake-up calls, the happy hours sacrificed, the doubt, the hardest hills, and the longest runs -- it was all over.
Or was it? Since becoming a "real runner" in the past few months, I've admittedly had a lot of nutty thoughts. But the craziest one came just as I was being herded out of the park with my fellow marathoners, moving from side to side to keep warm and to keep from cramping up: I want to do this again. Especially since I didn't beat Oprah and her famous marathon time of 4:29:05. I absolutely demand a rematch. So while I know there's nothing like your first time, I'm already ready for more.
Looking back at my first blog from July, I said that running this marathon might just be life-changing. And boy, was I right. The experience taught me so much about myself and it gave me a reason to truly feel proud of who I am and what I can accomplish. What could be better than that? So to anyone out there, trying to decide if you are capable of running -- whether it's a mile or a marathon -- I assure you, you are, and it will make you a stronger person.
* * *
My time here at the AOL Huffington Post Media Group is done, as is this "Countdown to the New York City Marathon" blog series. I thank you all for letting me share this journey with you, and for offering me amazing support to keep writing and keep running along the way. I'm going to do just that as the newest staff writer at Greatist.com, where I'll be sharing news, tips, and inspiration on fitness, health, and happiness topics.
Click here to read all of the "Countdown to the New York City Marathon" blogs
Follow Emily Faherty on Twitter: www.twitter.com/emfaherty