Running on Tilt

Introduction: From NYC to Big Sur

Lessons learned from 2002, 2006 NYC Marathons

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Those preparing to run the New York City Marathon for the first time are likely in one form or another to get the following advice: 1) if your starting corral is on the lower level of the bridge, watch out for runners peeing over the side of the upper level; 2) don’t get carried away by the roar of the crowd when entering Manhattan; otherwise 3) you will hit the wall at mile 20 in the Bronx. These warnings do not suffice.

The 2002 race, my first marathon, was a chilly day. Temperatures barely climbed above 40, and as I stripped off my sweatshirt and sweatpants from the bridge’s lower level, I indeed noticed a yellow-edged trickle on the road making its way toward my feet. It was no bother, though. The sights and smells in the Porta Potty half an hour before had been much worse. Runners come to expect these things. Like being in a hospital, bodily inhibitions at the starting line take leave for a greater cause.

The second warning, about the roar of the crowd, is only half accurate. The sirens do call, but not from Manhattan – from Brooklyn. Spectators line several deep along Fourth Avenue, kids offering high fives and total strangers yelling in support, as if the runners are Olympians competing for a long lost motherland. For a first-time marathoner, being cheered like this causes a premature release of adrenaline. Deadlier still is Bedford Ave. as it narrows through Williamsburg toward the halfway mark of the race. After a silent passing through the Hasidic neighborhood, Hipsterland is raucous. This is the last time during the race when most runners feel really good.

Upon reaching Manhattan from the Queensboro Bridge, the short-lived turbo charge that may harm a runner from the crowd’s support is trumped by fatigue. The Manhattan masses are no louder than those in Brooklyn, and their cheering becomes secondary to the increasingly desperate situation at hand. What does help, psychologically at least, are the cues for the finish line: first, when the Empire State Building becomes visible; then, entering Central Park, finally, racing along Central Park South and making the turn at Columbus Circle toward the final straightaway. The real misery of mile 20, the reason it is a wall for so many, is that at that point of the race you are still running away from the finish line. Turning around and heading south is the saving grace.

Not surprisingly, my race as I learned these lessons in 2002 was an uneven one: I ran about an hour thirty for the first half, an hour forty-two for the second half. For the entire race, my gun time was 3:12:27, my chip time 3:11:58. Still, the late-race suffering made the finish even sweeter. Crossing the line, I let out a lion’s roar. Whatever it is that makes a lion roar, at that instant, I felt it. My high from that race lasted a week. It was a remarkable week—nothing at all bothered me. I harbored not a single negative thought.

My second and only other marathon to date was the 2006 New York City Marathon. Motivated by the possibility of beating Lance Armstrong, I trained harder than in 2002. I also worked hard selling candy in the office to cover the price of admission. Since I didn’t win a spot in the lottery, the ticket was $2,500, courtesy of “Team for Kids.” “Team for Kids” is a charitable organization devoted to combating childhood obesity through the establishment of youth running programs. The irony of my selling chocolate bars, Red Bull, and assorted other goods from K-Mart and Costco to adults in order to prevent childhood obesity was not lost on one office-mate, who asked whether perhaps a more direct cure wouldn’t be to have the fat kids run the marathon rather than the skinny adults like me.

For my second go in 2006, because I had run the race before, the crowd was less a factor. This time I was sucked out too fast not by the crowd but by the desire to catch Lance and his motorcade. And catch him I did, at about the four mile mark.

In the weeks preceding the race I had trained on the actual route of the course, imagining feeling strong through Williamsburg as I had in my first race. But during the race, when I hit Bedford Avenue about nine miles in, I was short of breath and did not feel good at all. Panic struck. Soon enough the roar of the crowd grew louder, and I heard a beeping behind me. Lance and his motorcade passed me back between miles 11 and 12, in front of my apartment no less, where my family and friends were cheering.

At that point I did not plot a countermove—instead I took solace that many cyclists over the years had also no doubt resolved to beat Lance, had taken the lead against him, and had then been dusted. My hubris was comparable to theirs.

My splits in 2006 were uglier still than they had been in 2002: I again took it out in about 1:30, but I was a dismal 21 minutes slower over the second half of the race, for a total time of 3:21:30. There was no lion’s roar at the end this time, no week-long bubble of positivity. I recovered in the medical tent, where volunteers rubbed my arms and legs with towels to warm me up. I was told that a Brazilian had won the men’s race and that Lance had finished in just under three hours.

This time I’ll try Big Sur. It’s a good contrast to New York. There’s no Lance to beat, apparently there are few spectators, and I’ve never run the course. It starts at a higher elevation than where it finishes, and since I’m a better downhill than uphill runner, this could bode well. On the flip side, the hills apparently are never-ending, and there’s a monster climb halfway through. In JackRabbit Sports today, as I tried on a pair of racing shoes, a saleswoman told me that Big Sur is a marathon that you do once and, because of the hills, you never want to do again.

The biggest change in my approach for this race is that I am running with the Central Park Track Club. I have spent Thursday nights over the past few months chasing faster runners through Arctic conditions in the park. In 2002 I trained for 12 weeks, in 2006 for 16 weeks. This time my buildup is six months. My loose goal is to run faster over that distance than I have before. Qualifying for Boston would be nice, as would breaking three hours. The marathon, though, will bring what it will—all I can do is prepare.

This week has been a light training week, at about forty miles. For the first time yesterday I ran to work from my house, which was far more difficult than running home from work, for obvious reasons. I’ve pulled back on the mileage this week because tomorrow morning I’ll be competing in the Bronx Half-Marathon, one of a handful of races I’ll run before Big-Sur. Aside from the early wake-up and the long commute on the L and 4 trains, I’m looking forward to it.