New York City Marathon: Reflections

11/09/2011 11:28 pm ET | Updated Jan 09, 2012

Five days before the NYC Marathon, a new friend kindly asked who would be accompanying me to the big race, and I said with a bit of apprehension that I was going it alone. Admittedly, I was a bit intimidated to be taking on not only a race of 26.2 miles, but the logistics of flights, subways, ferries, hotels, food, medical, and all of the rest that comes with it. These are not small things in any race, but New York adds a fantastic but huge element, with 47,000 other runners in a city that, on a slow day, has millions of people going here and there.

Not surprisingly, I made lists. Lists of thing not to forget, lists of maps and schedules, and lists of phone numbers in case my lists failed me in some way. The day before the race, my wonderful husband Tom and kids Michael, Audrey and Sydney dropped me at the Minneapolis airport with waves and kisses, and I began taking all the steps I had planned so carefully to get to the starting line. On the plane, I went over my checklists to make sure I had, 3 choices of running gear for different temperatures, my straw for easy drinking while running the race, sunglasses, hair bangles, ankle brace, sunscreen, Glide stick, iPod with inspiring music, good luck cards from my kids, phone, computer, confirmation sheet with my runner number 13168, Band-Aids, first aid tape for my feet, and plenty of throw away clothes to take me from a cold ferry ride to a sunny run. I breathed deep. I had what I needed.

A shuttle ride, cab ride, subway ride and mile walk later, I had picked up my official runners 'bib' at the convention center, and was checked into my hotel. I laid out all my clothes, and wrote out a timeline for the following morning, including wake-up call, stretching, taping, dressing, and lastly, praying. Now I needed to carbo load for the big race. In a city like New York, finding food is not difficult. However, finding just plain noodles is. I went to a recommended restaurant, and they had ravioli, stuffed shells, and many yummy sounding dishes, but I really needed just plain pasta. A wonderful little shop provided the answer, and I bought plain fresh pasta to take back and eat in my room. That was a bit of a lonely moment, as I never eat alone. Some people swear by a newspaper and solo dining, but I have always found food to be the magnet to gather friends and family, so I was outside my comfort zone. My quiet evening ended with scheduling 2 wake up calls, and a back up on my iPhone.

I was awake before the call came at 5 a.m. Relieved it was finally race day, I rolled out of bed and could feel my heart was already pumping. Checklist by my side, I simply clicked through each step of the plan, from stretching to dressing, and especially praying. I try not to ask for too much, but I prayed for strength.

The ferry was run with assigned times for each runner. I boarded by 6:30 a.m., and sat amongst hundreds of other runners, each with their own story, each with their own hopes and fears going into the race. Next to me I met a lovely woman named Amy from New Mexico, who was at the race accompanied by her mom. Her family, husband, career and life story we strikingly similar to my own, and I took comfort in feeling normal. We stuck together as we bussed to the Runners Village, and wished each other luck as she headed to the green village, and I the orange. With 47,000 runners, they had broken us into 3 running 'waves' and 3 colors within each wave, each of whom would run a slightly different route until about mile 9 when the faster runners have naturally moved ahead, and the 3 colors merge for the rest of the race. I made the final call of how many layers to keep on as I turned in my runners' bag at the semi-truck labeled 13,000-13,999. Yes, there were 37 semi-trucks lined up just to carry each of our small bags of personal affects to the finish line.

We were loaded into corrals, to organize us before the race, again according to color and number. While I admire the system intellectually, I now appreciate how cattle must feel. Runners' code of conduct began to go into effect, and no one flinched to see men relieving themselves literally everywhere. It was best not to sit down, for fear of what you might sit in. We walked toward the starting line at Verrazano-Narrows Bridge where officials made some congratulatory remarks, and the elite men and women runners took off for their race. I watched from a long distance back, the elite runner ascending the bridge, and felt a flutter in my stomach, knowing that huge incline was about to be mine as well. The PA system switched to music, and my anxiety turned to excitement as 'New York, New York' played, and most of the runners smiled and sang. With that, my wave 1 was off, crossing the starting line at a shuffle pace, as a huge wave of runners before and after me all began to find their legs on the massive bridge that connects Staten Island to the mainland.

The view of New York from a top of a bridge cannot be matched. The city is huge, and yet you feel sort of powerful looking down upon it. It was inspiring, and I took the bridge with too much speed, but didn't care. Sometimes, you just have to let go.

Running through the boroughs of New York is a lot like taking a quick trip around the world. The cultural diversity is phenomenal. One thing that clearly unites us all, however, is music. As we ran through neighborhood after neighborhood, music was flowing like wine. From the high school marching band who had set up shop to play only the theme from Rocky for hours on end, to the Gospel Choir that belted out soul-saving hymns, to the boom boxes that rocked and rapped and roused, I realized that I did not actually need an iPod. I had the music of the world, brought to me by the fine folks of New York.

The bridges were a different story. The cheers, and waves, and music of each neighborhood were cruelly interrupted 4 times as we runners faced each city bridge. With no pedestrians allowed, we runners had to face a handful of miles by ourselves. This is when I noticed my breathing was elevated, and had to bear down and focus on getting in the zone. The zone for me is a place of sheer determination, almost to the point of losing some of my senses. When I am there, I am floating, relaxed, and almost sleepy. I have to concentrate on keeping my eyes open. And my legs just keep motoring beneath me as I crest each bridge, and begin to descend. And as I do, I begin to hear and feel again, and notice that the crowd ahead is cheering loudly, and I once again rejoin my body for the race.

My Orange Wave 1 got the bad draw of running on the far left of the street. That meant full sun, rather than the shade of the buildings to the right. I train in the shade of trees around Lake Calhoun, Lake Harriett, Cedar Lake, Lake of the Isles, Minnehaha parkway, and Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis. But there are no trees and no shade as I run through New York. I am used to going about 10 miles before I need water, but here on race day, I need water about every 2 miles. I have my straw stuck through my pony tail holder, and reach up to pull it down, draw deeply from the water cup the volunteer has put in my outreached hand, and replace the straw for the next water stop. By mile 15 I am feeling my energy starting to fade, and I instead turn to Gatorade for a little boost. Those first sips of Gatorade taste like heaven. My body instantly responds to the bit of calories I've given it, and I again feel rejuvenated, and ready to push forward. By mile 17, I see a station for Gels, and see they have about 10 flavors to choose from. I choose orange/tangerine, having heard another runner recommend it. I tear it open with my teeth, and take a little squeeze. It has the consistency of toothpaste, and doesn't really appeal, but I know a few calories will help so I take a bit more and toss the rest.

I am in the hardest mental miles, the high teens... not yet to 20, and no mental accomplishment for 16, 17, and 18. I decide to think about specific people in my life who have made a difference, choosing someone new about every ½ mile. I make some mental resolutions on spending more time with those I love, and less time on things that I won't remember in the long run. The encouragement of my friends, my family, and the crowd take me to a critical milestone, as I see a 20 sign ahead. I make sure to run carefully across the timing strip, knowing that each one I cross sends an electronic signal that those friends watching me online get to see. I feel good knowing they can be with me, and I say a prayer of thanks for their support.

I see the clock as I pass by, and for the first time do a mental calculation of my potential race time. I don't wear a running watch; I don't have a beeper that signals if I'm too fast or too slow. I only listen to my body, and so really have no way of knowing my pace. By my quick math, I see I am tracking well ahead of my 1st goal, which is to finish under 4 hours. And I think my math is right that I could also beat my Boston time, which was 3:51. I really want to hit 3:49, so I ask my body to keep to my pace, and not slow down.

Then I hit a hill. I've lost count of them by now, and don't have a good sense of whether this is one of a series of hills, or just a solo up and down. I realize I should have studied the course more. I feel myself getting a little panicky about how much I still have to run. I am having trouble breathing, and realize it's an asthma attack. For the first time in the run, I slow down. In my running shirt, I have stashed my inhaler... a last minute decision I made hours ago. Not thinking I'd need it, it was tempting not to carry it. But I am so glad now that I did bring it, and reach behind to pull it out. I take 2 long bursts, and try to breathe slowly. I must get back to calm.

I start back up, but my pace is quite slow, and runners are passing me by the dozen. I'm not used to being passed, and try to speed up, but can't. In my head I repeat over and over 'run your own race.'

Somehow that calms me, and I find a pace that I can sustain, at least until the next water stop. I'm at mile 23 which, technically, is almost done, but 3 miles doesn't just happen. You have to keep going. I'm a bit wobbly at the next water stop, but know it will probably be my last, so I take a long drink. I enter Central Park, and the beautiful green trees give me a sense of hope. I have run here before, and I know it's hilly, but I know I will make it. I feel the roar of the crowd, and think of everyone back home that is cheering for me. The course runs out of the park for 3 cruel blocks, then turns sharply back in, up one more hill. I spot the balloons, and the finish line ahead. I hear an announcer say 'and here comes our pacer for the 3hour 30 minute runners, right on time!' And I know that I've run my best race. I cross the finish line, and lean on a volunteer who helps me get my Finishers Medal. He says all the right things, and I smile. I am amongst a huge crowd of strangers, and yet feel so happy, so a part of something great. I feel anything but lonely. I've been supported and cheered by millions, encouraged by many wonderful friends, and now am chatting happily with all the other finishers.

I worried I was going it alone at the New York City Marathon. I was wrong. I had the help of more people than I can possibly thank. From the stranger who gave me pre-race Chapstick, to the volunteer who let me lean sweaty and unstable against him post-race, I was not alone. When I retrieved my phone after the race, I had wonderful messages from those I love the most, some sent during the race to encourage me, and some sent afterwards to congratulate me. Even today, my first day back to work, people are checking in to see how NY went. The pain has already faded, and I am left with a profound sense of thankfulness for all who were there with me... in person and in spirit. You all helped me win my personal NYC marathon.