Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Long-Awaited Marathon Memoir

Oh my, it's been just a wee bit too long, hasn't it? Didn't I promise more pictures and more marathon memories?

Well, before I forget everything due to encroaching senility...

"The Expo"

In order to get your race number and timing chip you have to go to the Marathon Expo, held at the Javitz Center, three days before the race. We had been warned by our coach, Jeff, not to bring any money to the Expo, and as soon as I hit the main floor I saw why. The place was a friggin' runners paradise. Marathon souvenirs, bags, shoes, sports drinks, clothes galore -- most with the Marathon logo ... oh man. For those of us first-timers, the temptation to buy everything with the logo on it was hard to resist. Kids in a candy shop. The difference being, this was very expensive candy!

There were, on the other hand, huge amounts of free samples, so I did wander around and get some fun stuff, if your idea of fun stuff is Tylenol (the official pain reliever of the ING NYC Marathon!) Gatorade Endurance (the official sports drink of the ING NYC Marathon!) or Poland Spring Water (the official water ... oh, you get the idea.) It was really cool to be in that giant space with lots of other runners all excited about running and the Marathon. I do try not to talk about running with non-runners, I know how boring how it can be. So to be surrounded by like-minded folks, it was nice to see how many other crazy people there were.

And while I confined myself to one official marathon t-shirt, I also picked up a new pair of running pants, a pair of paper warm-up pants, and some other non-official running gear. I needed it. Really.

"The Night Before"

I wanted the whole NYC Marathon experience so I went to the Barilla Pasta Party at Tavern on the Green (Barilla -- the official pasta...) Here's one of the cool things about being on Fred's Team, we all received special passes to the Pasta Party that allowed us to cut the line (that stretched almost half a mile down Central Park West) and eat in our own side room. Yeah!! The food itself, eh. Sorry, the bulk preparation process made for not the most delectable feast. Kind of disappointing, but I had been warned beforehand. It wasn't terrible, but it was certainly plentiful, and I certainly ate my fill. It was also nice being with the Team again, after a two-week layoff, the "tapering" period where we barely ran at all, saving it all up for the Big Day. We presented our coaches, Jeff and Annie, and our volunteer coordinator Erika, with thank-you gifts. After the dinner, we went out to Central Park and watched the fireworks display.

Here are a couple of photos from the dinner:

This is me and my friend Abby (aka Kaori)

Me again, with Coach Jeff

And a bunch of us at the fireworks

"The Pre-Show"

Arrived at Fred's Team HQ, the Marriot Marquis, at 5:30am. There was a huge breakfast buffet, and all the tables had markers and white-out for decorating our team shirts. I put a couple of pictures of the decorating party up on the blog already.

It was strange seeing all these people. There were only about 20 of us in the core group of Fred's Teamers who came to the evening training sessions, and even though we all knew that there were about 750 Fred's Team runners, we never saw them. You don't have to be a NYer to be in Fred's Team, but it helps if you want to be a part of the training sessions.

We have to start so early in the AM, because everyone needs to be at Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island by 8am, even though the bulk of the Marathon doesn't start until 10. The Verrazano Bridge is closed at 8am because that's when the Achilles runners -- the runners with disabilities -- begin. Let me take a second to say how amazing these runners are. I passed a lot of them on my run. If you think that what I did is amazing, think about the guy who propelled himself 26.2 miles by pushing himself backwards in his wheelchair. With one foot. Holy crap!

So we ate breakfast, wrote our names all over our shirts, and each other (lack of sleep will do that to you) took the Team photo out on the island outside of the Marquis, and at 7am we went for the buses.

During our training, the Discovery Channel did a piece on our Team because we have a number of cancer survivors on the Team, and with Lance Armstrong taking part in the Marathon (you might have heard about him!) they were doing a special on survivors. Their focus was a Team member named Lori, and we all showed up in Riverside Park at 7am the day after a grueling training long run to participate in a "training session" for them to film. Additionally, the local NBC station was following another Team member, Matt, who survived cancer.
Why am I telling you this? Because the core Team members were shuttled to the first bus in the queue, along with the camera crews and a still photographer, who boarded the bus with us to film our journey. Well, to film Lori and Matt, really, but we were there, too! And when you're on the first bus, you can see the POLICE ESCORT that accompanied us to Fort Wadsworth. POLICE ESCORTS!! We were rock stars!! It was so cool to pass all the stalled traffic, lights and sirens blaring. Of course, we also realized that all it would ultimately get us was having to stand outside at Fort Wadsworth that much longer. But who cares? It was SO COOL!

Fort Wadsworth was a huge, muddy mess. There were food and coffee trucks there, along with the UPS trucks that took our baggage back to Central Park (PS: Fred's Team gets a special UPS truck that takes our stuff directly to our Reunion Center. A nice bonus.) But I spent most of our time at the Fort waiting in line for the bathroom.

Bathroom usage so far: 5. Once at the hotel, twice on the bus, twice at the Fort.

Here's a picture of me before the race, taken by Brightroom (the official photographer...)

It looks like I'm wearing a skirt, those are the paper pants. They're perforated, so you rip them off and throw them away when you get warm. Everyone wears "disposable" clothing before the race to stay warm, then once the race starts people take them off, leave them at the side of the road, and they are picked up and donated to various charities. I wore a throwaway sweatshirt and hat, but I didn't have any disposable pants, so these were a cheap option.

Look how happy I am!

PS: I had been told to bring toilet paper. Good idea! Next time I will carry it with me during the race, too. Read on...

A few special groups start early, like the Achilles runners, and then the elite females at 9:15. We continue to stretch, pee, eat bananas, etc.

As it nears 10am, they start announcing the runners to start lining up. Everyone's divided into three colors, orange, green and blue. Each color has a different area to line up in (there's no reason for which color you are, it only makes for a slightly less congested starting line,) and within each group you can line up either by your number or by your pace group -- the approximate time you project you'll finish. There are people with signs saying 4:00 or 4:15, etc. etc. Those poor suckers have to carry those signs the entire marathon. I was expecting between 4:30 and 4:45 but I didn't sign up for a pace group (you didn't need to, alls it got you was another number you could pin to the back of your shirt, stating your goal time) and I wanted to run my own race, so I lined up by number, about 5 blocks from the Fort. Already on the blog is a picture of the starting line. I took off my disposable stuff and threw it to the curb along with everyone else.

10:00, the starting cannon and a flyby by the Air Force. It was WILD. Four seconds into the race and we were being dive-bombed! It was very loud and VERY exciting. The excitement quickly faded as we all realized we'd be walking for the next few minutes, because of the crush of people trying to get across the start line.

And then...ten minutes later, through the balloon arch, and -- I've officially started the NYC Marathon!!

"Memories of the Marathon"
I'll break it down into boroughs:

SI and Brooklyn:

Unsurprisingly, the second I crossed the start line, I had to go to the bathroom. What the...? I didn't drink THAT much, and I certainly went enough beforehand! This is where having toilet paper would have come in handy -- I had to wait over 5 minutes to use one of the porta-potties at mile 6 (when I finally decided that if I didn't go, I'd be spending the entire marathon worrying about using the bathroom instead of just enjoying the trip.) The route was lined with men who used every available wall, car tire, or park to relieve themselves. Apparently a number of women hide between cars for the same purpose. Next year...

More bathroom info for would-be marathoners: while crossing the Verrazano, if you are on the lower roadway, do not stray towards the edges of the bridge. Excitable runners on the upper roadway will pee over the bridge and you will get, um, wet.

Both the runners and the crowd are really excited during these first miles. After six months of training, you don't start hurting until after the halfway point, so the first ten miles are basically for fun. Especially on the Verrazano, runners were hopping up onto the median and taking pictures of each other, hugging and shrieking and all sorts of happiness.

Once you get off the Verrazano you hit your first crowds. It is true when they say that the crowds will carry you through the race. It was amazing. People would single me out, calling "Go Marci!" "Looking good, Marci!" "Way to go, Marci!" (hence why you write your name all over your shirt.) Little kids held out their hands for you to slap as you run past. It was fun to figure out how to use the crowd. When I needed support and encouragement, I moved to the sides so people could see my name. When I needed to be in my own head for a few minutes I moved to the center of the road. There were definitely moments during the race when I needed to be "by myself," as it were.

Brightroom is the photographer for all the NY Road Runner events, so everyone knows them. To take the official marathon photos, Brightroom sets up giant cranes over the roadway. They hang big signs on the cranes that say LOOK UP AND SMILE! BRIGHTROOM! Here's a Brightroom photo of me, taken somewhere towards the end of the Brooklyn leg:

Thumbs up!


Brooklyn is a huge chunk of the race, but at Mile 12 you hit Long Island City. My parents were waiting for me there, I was so happy to spot them. I gave them a big sweaty hug! My friend Sharon was also there, she ran a few blocks with me and gave me some water. There are water and Gatorade stations at every mile, by the way. You almost get squeezed single-file through the crush of volunteers standing there with cups of water and Gatorade. Our coaches told us that when we take water or Gatorade, we should walk as we drink and not try to gulp it as we run. This way we actually drink most of the fluid in the cup instead of splashing it all over ourselves. And because you get the fluid in you, you'll make up the few extra seconds you took to walk with the extra energy.

Here's another Brightroom photo from Queens. At this point we're all getting a little tired, a little grumpy, regretting wearing that long-sleeved shirt (I knew I should've worn the short-sleeve!) the aches and pains are starting to set in, but you see that SMILE! sign, and...

The Queens leg is known for the Queensborough Bridge (the halfway point is on the bridge.) There's a big incline to get onto the bridge itself, but it's mainly known for being the last quiet mile -- and then you hit the craziness of the 1st Avenue crowds in Manhattan.

Manhattan part one:

Yes, it's true, hitting the First Avenue crowds is the closest I will get to being a rock star. As you reach the last few hundred yards of the bridge you can hear the roar of the crowds, and as soon as you come down the ramp, you turn left and OH MY GOD, both sides of the roadway are absolutely CRUSHED with people, shrieking and cheering and cowbells and music...shouting my name and hailing me, the conquering hero, for making it this far!!

The marathon route takes you through Manhattan twice -- up First Avenue to the Willets Pt bridge, over the bridge and through the southern portion of the Bronx, then over the Manhattan Bridge and back into Manhattan for the final few miles.

This is historically the hardest part of the race, northern Manhattan into the Bronx, because that's where you hit mile 20 and THE WALL, the point where your mind stops telling your body, "You can do it" and starts saying, "You know, you've had enough." Now, your mind may have made that switch miles earlier, but at around mile 20 your body is so tired it starts listening.

I do not feel that I ever hit the wall per se, but there were definite points during this stretch of the race that were hard, hard, hard. My right foot felt like it was on fire (thanks to the bunion) and my hip and groin injuries were starting to reassert themselves.

Things that made it easier: Friend Jonathan waiting for me at mile 19, even ran with me a few blocks. Catching up to Abby and running through the Bronx with her. That was great. I got my second wind on the Manhattan Bridge and Abby said, "Run your own race." So we parted ways (she finished 5 minutes behind me.)

And most importantly, Mile 17 -- MEMORIAL SLOAN-KETTERING and FRED'S TEAM!! The building is decorated in purple and orange balloons (team colors) and the children who are well enough come outside and cheer us on. A few of our Team members work at MSKCC and used to be part of the support staff that helped the children get outside to cheer. They told us the kids talked about it for weeks afterwards. So we all knew that seeing the race was as important to them as the money we raised to help them. I was so excited to get there, I could barely contain myself. Hence the picture from the first blog post of me looking like my mother let me dress myself for the first time, that's me hitting MSKCC. One of the support staff said, "Go over and say hello!" I can? Cool! I ran over and slapped hands with everyone. THE ABSOLUTE HIGHLIGHT OF THE MARATHON, EVEN MORE SO THAN CROSSING THE FINISH LINE.

No, this isn't me, this is the Aubrey of the "Aubrey Fund for Pediatric Cancer Research." From a 12-year-old with leukemia to her 12th NYC Marathon. I thought you should meet her.

The day after the Marathon, some of the teammates are invited to MSKCC to meet the patients. I was not able to attend, but I heard that it was an incredible experience. Hopefully I'll be able to go next year.

Manhattan, part two:

The last five miles. Can I just say that thanks to my coach and all the training, I was able to run the entire 26.2 miles (except for the water stations.) Not very fast, but still. Anyway, even if I couldn't, I would've definitely run the last few miles. You're in Manhattan, you're almost there, the crowds are crazy...and yet, there were so many people walking the last few miles that I actually felt I could've gone faster, but I was being held back by the walkers. At around 100th Street, I heard a guy tell his companion, "If there's ever a point to start running again, this is it." Also, once hitting the Park the crowds press so far in that it actually became hard to run. Not that I expected to break any land-speed record, but I was so amazed that I still had some juice left in me that I wanted to use it all.

The other thing that was so amazing to see, but in a bad way, were people getting hurt during the last two miles of the race. Oh, man! To get that close and have to pack it in, that's terrible. We ran through the Park clockwise, so we went down Cat Hill (by the Boathouse, where we did some infamous hill repeats this summer) and there was someone being taken down Cat Hill on a stretcher. Mile 25. Also, a couple of people stretched out on the sidelines at Central Park South, literally yards from the finish line, holding their feet. I would've crawled, and I bet you some of them did.
I re-entered the Park, ran uphill a few dozen yards, turned the corner... and there it was.
I even called out, "OH MY GOD, THERE IT IS!"

When you hit the finish line, there's a bridge about 50 feet away where the photographers are. That's why you see people crossing the finish line with their heads down -- they're checking their watches. We were warned about that beforehand.

When I crossed the finish line I honestly didn't know what to expect. Would I cry? Cheer? Fall over? I was elated, but at the same time I was numb. It was like my whole body was speechless. Oh my God. I did it. I ran the NYC Marathon. I was awestruck.

If you look way up at the top of that photo you can see another orange shirt, that's another Team member, Abigail. I was about ten feet past the finish line when I felt someone grab me. It was Abigail, who collapsed into my arms, sobbing hysterically. The crowd pushed us along towards the medal receiving area and the photo area.

There it is! Abigail held it together long enough to get her picture taken, then she started weeping again, to the point where race volunteers kept pulling her over to find out if she was OK. She had gotten married two weeks beforehand, as if the excitement of the race weren't enough, so her emotional state was understandable.

Slowly (between the crowd and the muscle soreness that was already setting in) we got our foil blankets and made our way to the VIP receiving area, where Fred's Team members can meet their family, get some food and their bags.

That's a shot of the crowd making its way to the various meeting areas.
There's a lot more to tell, of course, of the aftermath, including the hardest part of the race, trying to get out of Central Park. We'll save that for another day.