It was a little disheartening that the taxi driver had no clue what was going on when I said “Staten Island Ferry, please!” I figured he’d just finished a shift of hauling around drunk adults in Halloween costumes, so I wasn’t very surprised. I WAS surprised when my $50 visa gift card got declined and I had a mini-panic while I tried to figure out how to get to an ATM. Luckily, I happened to be in New York City, where banks outnumber bathrooms, and paid the man with no real trouble. I should have just taken the train like I planned. I’d gotten to the station with plenty of time, but had suddenly freaked out: What if the train got stuck? What if what if what if??
It was 5:55am and I had 4 hours and 20 minutes until the start of the New York City Marathon. You may think I was silly to worry I’d be late, but I am not a lucky person. Especially when it comes to getting places on time. Or when it comes to things going smoothly.
I’m a New Yorker. This is my home turf, and I know things. I know I have to be half an hour early to everything to avoid a public transit disaster making me late. I see New York City Transit move 55,000 people every morning at rush hour, so I see what it takes on a normal day. Add the marathoners, most of them without cars, most of them not native to the City, many of them not English-speakers… It’s even tougher to move that many people.
I know the intense waiting experience that comes with moving so many people. This task was a catalyst for New York Road Runners’ transformation into a massive business organization that puts on a hundred races every year, most of them packed so full we can’t all fit into the corrals. So I was surprised when, at 5:55am, I hustled up the Escalator in Whitehall Terminal to find the platform completely un-crowded (that the early ferries were so loosely packed would prove disastrous for runners scheduled for later ferry transport, like Pimento and company). I flopped onto the floor in five layers of ill-fitting sweatpants and bulky sweaters, prepared to wait for my turn. I was surprised when, moments later, volunteers ushered me onto the 6:00 boat.
I have known the morning would be stressful since 2007, when I arrived in New York just after the marathon. I told a friend I wished I could run it one day, and he said he’d heard starting in Staten Island was hell. In 2009 when I began running half-marathons, a coworker did it. When I asked him about the experience he shrugged it off and said, “The start sucked. I felt like I waited around all day.” Later, other friends confirmed that. Last year when I found out I might finally have the chance, a friend at South Brooklyn Runners suggested I check out their NYC Marathon guide. Nothing prepared me better, other than gathering throw-away clothes and selecting an early option for transit to the starting line.
[pullquote]The biggest tip I have for the start? You can pee on the bus![/pullquote]
On the ferry I met two women who were visiting for the marathon: Tanya from Philadelphia and Lauren from Rochester (hey guys!). It was hard not to get swept up in their excitement, especially since this was Lauren’s first marathon! (I hope she had a great time!) We chatted nervously, oohed and ahhed as we passed the Statue of Liberty in the morning light and then we were off, hundreds of runners spilling out toward a fleet of chartered buses.
The bus shuttles you directly to the “Athletes’ Village,” which is where the planning capability of NYRR really shines, to me. Runners here are split into three groups by color: blue, orange, and green (we had to say goodbye to Tanya here, since she was orange). It’s like an airport terminal with concourses. There’s a big map in the middle, right where the busses drop you off, then you follow the colored flags to your corral. There are multilingual announcements over loudspeakers that notify runners when corrals are open and closed. And the best part: there is coffee!
I found Caper right away and was so glad to join her! Since we’re both New Yorkers we’ve been meaning to meet for a long time, and I was grateful to have her company since there were three more hours until my gun went off. We chatted, we nibbled on our snacks (I had a toasted english muffin with jelly and an apple), we went to the Dunkin’ Donuts truck to get coffee, talked about feminism, talked about her experience running NYC in 2014…It was great to have a friend there! Caper was in the first wave though, so it wasn’t long before she had to leave me – the first corral closes 50 minutes before the official start.
I confess that when she left me behind, I felt a little twinge of jealousy. I wanted that. I wanted to get to start with the big guns. I have come so far and pushed the threshold of what I ever thought I could do, but I wanted more. I contemplated this. I plopped down next to a fence and put my feet up. I sipped the last of my water, considering my training. I looked at the 3:50 on my Pace Band and wondered if I was there. I worried I would overdo it. I resolved to hold back, to be conservative, and remembered my A goal for this race: have fun.
I wandered over to Corral A and before I knew it, the gates opened and we flooded in. As I entered and looked toward the start gate, I began trembling as I realized: I’m at the front! HOLY SHIT, I’M AT THE FRONT! My heart leapt with joy and tears came to my eyes. I know it wasn’t the first start, but it was the front! I got to start at the front of Wave 2 at my first NYC Marathon! My home race! The race I’ve been waiting 8 years to run! The race that meant so much to me that I didn’t even want to try for a PR, for fear of ruining the experience if I didn’t get one! It was amazing.
Practically, though, I figured it wouldn’t do me any real good to be at the front of the front. I didn’t want to be trampled, or to hold back those who would come out of the gate faster than me. So I stayed back about 50 feet, ducked behind the bins set up to collect our throwaway clothes and did leg swings and a little lunge warmup while I listened to Wave 1 start below (the corrals are just holding pens until the runners from previous waves are cleared of the start field). The announcer read off the list of pro men and a huge roar came from the crowd when the announcer came to Meb, of course. Then came the National Anthem, sung by the most amazing opera singer… who was actually running the race! I contemplated my home turf, and all the difficulties that came before. The ones that lead me to this moment. I was so happy.
When the gates opened to send us to the starting line I fell in step with a New York Flyer named Deb and we started chatting. I didn’t want to seem crazy so I held back my joy a little; I just cheered for the camera crew (who ignored me), cheered for everything the announcer said, cheered just because. And then another runner stepped up to the microphone and sang “God Bless America,” and I lost it. I was not cool, I was a smiling, singing-along, laughing ridiculous mess of emotions. Deb hugged me and was so sweet! I was so glad she was there, and hope to meet her again someday! I fiddled with my watch, but it was too late. The cannon. We were so close to the line that there was no slow shuffle to the start. There was only a few seconds and then….
BOOM! I was off. My watch was not. I was a little freaked out, but didn’t worry too much. I had a stopwatch too (yes, I was one of those nerds with two watches, because I didn’t trust my Garmin) and started that, albeit about two minutes late, figuring I could start GPS tracking at mile 1. No big.
The Verrazano, the most beautiful bridge in New York, was incredible. It was still a little misty over the Harbor and the ocean beyond Sandy Hook was grey and vast. On the North side of the bridge, the Orange group was just as excited as we were. I kept checking for my watch to find the satellite, took in the beauty, focused on taking it slow and letting people pass me. Still, I came in too quick, at 9:10. My watch hadn’t found the satellite yet. Don’t worry. I took a breath and focused on going slow. The downhill carried me to mile 2 at 8:40, and I was finally able to start GPS tracking. Still a little too fast for my plan. And then it happened…
We turned the corner where the bridge met the street and suddenly there were screaming people everywhere! The sidewalks were packed with Bay Ridgers! I turned the corner onto 92nd Street, where I’d lived for eight months with my friend Kim while life was hard. The familiarity welled up in my heart and up ahead I saw her there outside her building and attacked her with a big hug and a kiss. I was all smiles and laughter, it was impossible not to be! I was running a marathon down a street I once called home and little kids were reaching out for high-fives and everyone was screaming and waving signs and every few minutes I’d tell someone how much I loved Bay Ridge and they’d scream! Mile 3 was gone, then mile 4 and 5 came and went and I was shouting “Te llamo, Sunset Park!” and I was hitting 8:25, 8:24, 8:26 and knew I had to slow down, but my heart was so full that every time I thought I was going slower I’d check my watch and see I’d just been fighting the urge to speed up.
The crowd was thicker now, shoulder to shoulder, and as I cruised through the next water stop I took some Gatorade. It wasn’t too hot, but after Wineglass I didn’t want to take chances. My plan called for taking water at every opportunity, and taking Gatorade every few miles. I realized it was time to eat and started shoving caffeine-laden Shot Blocks into my mouth, hoping it would slow me down. It worked! I held on to the slower pace but was still too fast, struggling to cruise at a steady 8:35 as I waved to my team captain Tim around Mile 7.
As I came up toward Atlantic Avenue the crowd was even crazier; two and three people deep, screaming their heads off, kids waving frantically, every few seconds someone would read my name off my shirt and scream for me. I was excited to see my friends Eric and Rachel and looked back to wave as I made the turn toward Lafayette Avenue. When I turned my head, I was facing a WALL OF BODIES.
Fort Greene was easily the best part of the race! The fans were eight-deep; little kids on shoulders, grown adults on each other’s shoulders, everyone IN THE STREET WITH YOU. Everyone shouting your name. Everyone reaching for you to high-five, or even just to touch you! It must have been how the Beatles felt in the 60’s! “You’re amazing!” people shouted. “You got this!” “You look great! Good job, Kyle!” Bands every 10 feet. A marching band. A jazz band. A dance team. A choir; where I was supposed to look for my family. A familiar voice shouted “Go Kyle!” and then I was hugging my Aunt Jude so tight and fighting hard not to cry from joy again! I bounded away to the water station where I’d volunteered before, on a street I’ve run a hundred times, and I couldn’t fight it anymore. It was all too beautiful. Somehow I managed to keep my breath steady as tears streamed down my face, which was stuck in a permanent smile, and realized I had already run 10 miles in what felt like only 10 minutes.
The crowd thinned through Bed Stuy and South Williamsburg, but even some Hasidim were out watching, and I slapped hands with a pair of little girls in long skirts and black tights while their mother smiled. I checked my pace band and grimaced, then put the brakes on until I found 8:45. I knew I would pay for those 10 miles at the end.
Williamsburg was back to a wall of people, with hipster bands, signs brandishing F-bombs, and then a lady holding out…ORANGE WEDGES. Magic! I dashed out of my way to grab a couple and thanked her as I shoved one in my mouth. Sweet, sweet magic orange wedges. When I was done with them I shoved a handful of Sport Jelly Bellies into my mouth and wished I had figured out how to bring more real food. Greenpoint was like heaven. Manhattan Avenue was packed and there was so much more music! I drank it up happily and got ready for my second bridge.
I was a little worried about the steep Pulaski Bridge, but it wasn’t so bad. The best part was crossing the halfway mark. It was great! But then we were in Queens, which was… not as fun as Brooklyn. There were people out, but it was much more sparse. I was disappointed, honestly, and wished for more fans, more bands, more excitement. I settled into an 8:50 pace, but was so far ahead that I just let it happen; I wanted to save myself for the Queensboro Bridge, the big mamma-jamma of a hill for this race. Everyone says it’s the toughest part.
Honestly though, once I made the turn and saw the great rise stretching out for a mile ahead of me… it didn’t look so bad. Others slowed drastically, some walked, a few were even stopped on the side of the bridge to stretch a calf. I passed them all at what felt like a steady clip and let the pleasant quiet wash over me. The Q train went by and I waved to some little boys, who waved back. It was so sweet! I thought of riding the Q across the Manhattan Bridge when I had just moved to New York, and thought how lovely it was to be on the outside this time. I passed the 15-mile mark and noted that I was going way too slow, 9:15! No bueno. I picked it up as we crested the bridge and let the downhill carry me to First Avenue, where Deena Kastor had promised me a crowd would be roaring with excitement.
There were more people, surely, and maybe it was only because I started to notice my feet throbbing through my three-year-old racing flats, but I wished it were more like Brooklyn; fans in the street with you. Soon enough, I thought. It was nonetheless impressive to see the throngs of people pressed up against the barricades; it looked like the Macy’s Parade was happening! Once again people shouted my name and soon I heard the familiar voice of my dear friend Julia. I waved to her and her friends, but wanted to make up for my slow ascent up the bridge so I hustled. I’d run this part of the course eight times over my training cycle, and I knew it was tough; a four-mile straight line of gradual up and down slopes that ended in another steep bridge. I cheered back to the fans when they cheered for me, ate more Jelly Bellies although they tasted horrible in my dry mouth, and thought about my friend Cyrus, who’d promised me oranges at Mile 21. I started dumping water over my head at the water stations. It was hot. I was dehydrating fast. As I passed Mile 19 I realized I was in the Dark Place. I was miserable but I still had a goofy smile plastered across my face. I couldn’t help it; every couple of minutes someone would scream, “Go Kyle, GO!”
The Willis Avenue Bridge was the hardest part of the race for me. Climbing that bridge… I don’t know how I did it. Entering the Bronx was a blur; I vaguely remember the brick project houses I’ve run by so many times, and families on the stoops of brownstones. I lost track of my splits there somehow. I was confused about which mile had just ticked by and focused on getting to the last bridge; I like that bridge. During training runs I always saw something weird there! Someone cheered my name and then there was an awesome blues band… Then a couple rappers laying down a sick beat…Things were getting better! I got to the bridge and a big group of teenagers screamed my name and reached their hands out… I dashed to the curb to high-five every hand and that was it. I was back! As I started climbing the Madison Avenue Bridge there was a man standing high up on the median in the center shouting, “YOU’RE LEAVING THE BRONX, BUT IT’LL NEVER LEAVE YOU!” Weird. I laughed and cheered for him.
As I dashed down toward Fifth Avenue there was a huge sign: “Welcome to Harlem!” “I’M HOME!” I shouted, and the crowd roared in response! There was a woman singing R&B, a Marching Band, and fans crowding the street again! Harlem was great! I picked up the pace and tried really hard to do the math to figure out where I was. As I threw another cup of water into my face I thought, “I think I’m way ahead!…I think…” But then a wave of dizzy washed over me a little and I knew I needed to eat something. I was so close… I scanned the crowd as I passed 129th… 128th…THERE! My friend Cyrus was shaking a big bag of oranges at me! I shouted a huge thank you to his wife Courtney as I grabbed four half-wedges and gratefully shoved two of them into my cheeks. It was so good it felt like I was cheating.
And then…then it was just easy!
At Marcus Garvey Park I passed Ethan Hawke while an MC interrupted his rap to comment on the actor running by. I took a look at him… and he wasn’t looking so great. I chuckled, thinking about how awesome it was that I was lapping him (he started in the first wave). I felt fast. I was my little niece pretending to be a cheetah. I was jaguar1. I was a bionic woman. I was a rocket. I was thirsty! After a little more math, I was 100% sure that beating my 3:53 PR was in the bag by about five minutes, so I walked through the next water stop and took a water for my face and a Gatorade to sip. Just a few more blocks until I saw my team. I hustled and ticked them away, hoping they would have water for me. 98th… 97th…96th…
Every year at Mile 23 of the NYC Marathon, the Hudson Dusters, a racing team affiliated with the NYC Hash House Harriers, dutifully offers beer for any and all marathoners. I have been participating in this ritual for several years and cannot tell you how thrilling it is when someone takes a beer. It feels like you’ve done a great service to humanity. You cheer, you sing, you leap for joy and you celebrate their “down downs” (a hasher term for chugging a beer) for days, nay, hours to come.
So of course when I got to my team I grabbed a beer, stopped and threw it back, much to their enjoyment. I mean hey, my PR was in the bag, right?
The truth is that I was just so thirsty that four ounces of beer sounded fantastic. Just after that, while I was leaping and waving happily to my mother, it felt like the carbs and the fizziness were helping my bonky-feelings a little bit. And, of course, my PR was in the bag. So I walked through the next water stop too. So thirsty. So hot. Then I was in the park and it was back to Rockstar-mode. The fans were wild, screaming my name, cheering so loud the cacophony almost sounded like one voice, and I started tearing up again, the joy washing over me. I’m so close, and I’m doing great! I thought.
You may be wondering why I keep saying my PR was in the bag. Well… that’s because there, in the park, at the last minute it could possibly make a difference, I rehashed my math and realized my PR was very close, but definitely not in the bag. I reached down inside of myself and thanked heaven for beer and oranges, because dammit, I was gonna try. I did what can only, at mile 24 of a marathon, be described as hauling ass.
Okay, this is going to sound weird, but weird things happen when you’re demanding half-marathon pace of your body at the end of a marathon, so bear with me.
I had no time to marvel at the crowds anymore; instead I turned inward and brought them with me. I had a strange visualization that I’ve never had before: I imagined my soul as a tornado-like shadow around me, its vortex sucking in energy from the roaring crowd and pulling their happiness and energy and love through my throat with every breath. I could feel all that power filling my lungs and my heart and my belly and through sheer force of will I pushed it into my legs. According to my stopwatch, mile 25 was 8:00 flat. I was crushing it. I watched 3:53 come and go, but I was not going to let my goal of 3:55 slip past me if I could help it. Beaming with joy I sucked in more power from the thundering sea of fans and pushed harder. Mile 26: sub 8, baby. Then that last quarter mile, feeling like the huge mob in the grandstand was screaming just for me. I crossed the line at 3:54.22.
I was proud, and I was happy—so happy—but I started hyperventilating and then, true to form, the crying began as a volunteer placed the medal around my neck. I asked if I could hug her and she laughed and held me tight while I cried a moment. I thanked her and staggered on, but the hyperventilating got worse and I felt like I was going to throw up. Another kind volunteer asked if I was okay and put his arm around me, wrapping me in a mylar blanket and walking with me for a while. I hugged him too and told him he was an angel. I must have sounded drunk! After I caught my breath, just before he let me go on by myself he asked if it was my first marathon. All the volunteers who subsequently stopped to ask if I was okay asked if it was my first marathon, and all looked surprised when I said no, sobbing and shivering, and wishing for the warm poncho I knew was up ahead. I kept wondering how much farther… it was so far. They kept asking if I wanted to go to the medical tent. I refused every time, but just when I could see the poncho station around the corner an ominous man with a badge that said “ATTENDING PHYSICIAN” caught me by both shoulders and said, “You are going in the tent,” very intently. “No…” I protested, craning my neck toward the ponchos and crying even harder, because I knew this would delay poncho happiness.
In the tent a kind medical student lowered me down onto a cot and then I thought I really would throw up, so she put a weird-looking paper bag on my chest and wiped my forehead with a warm cloth. Two other students said something to each other and started rubbing my calves. I hadn’t realized I couldn’t feel them until then; but now they felt like someone was carving into them with a dull serrated knife. I wanted to curl into a ball and just cry it out so I could get on with my day, but I couldn’t move my body the right way. I just lay there flat on the cot and sobbed and let it all wash over me: the satisfaction of doing so much better than I’d expected, the disappointment of miscalculating my time, the frustration of being so close to a PR and missing it when I walked through three water stations and stopped for a beer (idiot!), the intensity of the last two miles, the incredibly weird hallucination of my love-sucking-soul-vortex, the years of wishing this marathon would happen for me, the gratitude that my team gave me the opportunity, the anger at all the tough shit that led me to this moment in my life and the pride that I have come so far and refused to let anything beat me down, and THAT is why this race was so wonderful and joyful and happy. This is my city. My home. My life, the life I chose for myself. And all by myself, I have made a success of this life and carved a place for myself where I am safe and loved and whole; things I once did not know I could have. This life cannot quite be described with the word happiness… but it is most certainly joyful.
And there, lying on a cot and blubbering through my tears to a medical student named Hope who speaks Mandarin Chinese according to her name tag and trying not to vomit into a weird, round, blue paper bag and feeling like my legs were being repeatedly stabbed…
Oh my goodness. I felt so lucky.