On Sunday November 6, 2011, I ran the New York Marathon, finishing in a time of 4:17:57. That finish time is only a small piece of a long story that started about a year ago, so sit back and get a coffee- or jump ahead to the end if you are only interested in the race itself.
I grew up in northeastern U.S., close to Boston and about four hours from New York City. I have been to New York several times in my life, including a high school day trip, a few family trips, visits to friends, and lastly a weekend with my mom and sister for my mom's 65th birthday in 2007. When my mom found out I was going to be running the New York marathon, she didn't hesitate to book a hotel room so that she and my dad could come be there with me. Then in February of this year, our lives took an unexpected turn. My otherwise very healthy mom had a massive brain hemorrhage (ruptured aneurism) leading to a stroke. She was in the ICU for a month, much of that time in critical condition. Miraculously she came out of her semi-coma, was eventually able to go through rehabilitation therapy, and recovered to about 95% of where she was before. Between February and September I took many trips to help her and my family during her long recovery journey. Up until as little as a month before my race she still wanted to come to New York, but we all decided my sister would come instead. As much as I would love to have had my parents come, logistically it would have been difficult to have them there. My sister and I got to spend some great time together, and she completely immersed herself in the role of the marathon support person.
I arrived in New York late on Thursday night, a day before my sister. As I said this was not my first time in New York, but that did not take away from the excitement and wide-eyed wonderment. Our hotel was right in the middle of Times Square. Many of the international tour companies had blocks of rooms in this area, so I was always surrounded by groups of runners amidst the New York excitement. I could write another long report about my two days in New York before the race, but I will keep it to the brief highlights: a short run with Marg to Central Park on Friday morning, dinner at two great restaurants with my sister, a Saturday matinee of Mamma Mia, and several trips to the Times Square Starbucks. We were blessed with beautiful fall weather and I wish I could have spent more time there.
I had been warned about nightmarish pre-race logistics and long waiting times at the start area, but my experience was just the opposite. There were three start waves at 9:40, 10:10, and 10:40, and also three bib colours: blue, orange and green for the different start areas. Runners of each bib colour were mixed in each start wave time, and I was assigned green, wave 2 (10:10 start time). My ferry time was 7:30, and I went to the subway at about 6:45. I waited for about 10 minutes for the train, and I got to the ferry terminal at just before 7:20. There were so many keen people at the terminal with later ferry times that I did not get on the ferry until about 7:50. The ferry crossing was about a half-hour, and then another half-hour on the bus, plus there was a bit of walking and waiting in between. By the time I got to the green start village it was already about 9:15, and I had to check my bag by 9:30 for the wave 2 start. So much for waiting around with blankets and tarps.
After I checked my bag they were already announcing for wave 2 runners to enter the corrals. It was still a few minutes before the 9:40 wave 1 start, and the entrance to the corral was very cramped and crowded. Several of us were trying to get in, but the volunteers were about to shut us out saying there was no where to go. I was confused because I figured there must be a barricade somewhere inside to block the wave 2 people from crossing early- surely the corrals would open up more after the 9:40 start. I could not figure out why so many wave 2 people were already inside. I was not worried, though; I figured worst case scenario is they would have us wait until the 10:40 wave 3 start. But sure enough, after 9:40 space opened up and they let us in.
The green start area was on the lower deck of the bridge, and I was in the front group in wave 2. As we stood and waited in the corrals, we could see the masses of blue and orange runners on the upper deck going over the bridge. It was quite the sight and it was hard to believe that I was getting ready to run the same race; it all seemed to happen so quickly. There was lots of music and cheering in the corrals as we watched the clock tick forward toward the 30-minute mark when we would start.
The start was very crowded and I was happy enough to take it very easy to warm up into my pace. My Garmin could not hold a good signal on the lower deck of the bridge, so I ignored it and ran by feel, checking my pace at the mile markers. I ended up running most of the race this way; there were timing mats and and clocks at each mile after mile 3, at 5K intervals, and at the half-way point. At 5K I was right where I wanted to be at 27:38, holding about a 5:30/km pace. By this point I realized I was bit overdressed- the weather was absolutely gorgeous with sunny skies and no wind, and a starting temperature of about 12 degrees Celsius. It would reach about 15 by the time we were done.
This race is unique in that the three different bib colours have different routes for the first 5K. The blue and orange groups started on the upper deck but split off from each other for a bit after the bridge. Our green group on the lower deck followed a completely different route after the bridge. All three groups would reunite shortly after the 5K mark. There were actually some bottlenecks in some parts of the course after that, probably because I was running amidst a large group of people aiming for a time of around four hours.
The next 5K went pretty smoothly and I was holding what felt like a perfect pace. Not too easy, not too hard, right in the marathon effort zone. I hit 10K at just over 55 minutes, with a second 5K split almost identical to the first. I was in a happy place.
The next 5K felt a bit harder; there was some steady climbing and it was getting a bit warmer, but overall I still felt excellent. I took my second gel break at around the 8-mile mark (13K). I passed the 15K mark at 1:24:01 (5K split in 28:51), so I lost about a minute total to the gel break and climbing. I did not realize how much time I lost so it did not really faze me. My plan was to stop at 5 miles and then every 3 miles for a quick gel/water break.
Sometime before the half-way point I started to have some GI discomfort which I was mostly able to ignore. Overall I was enjoying the course, the crowd, the spectators, and was immersed in the race; it was not until close to 20K that I realized that I was slowing down a bit. It did not seem like much as the miles went by and I thought I was making up time on the downhills, but I guess I was not. For those of you following the numbers, I was at 20K at 1:52:59, 5K split in 29:02, 21.1K at 1:59:21. So I had slowed to a pace of about 5:45/km, and average pace was about 5:37/km. But I knew I was still in great shape for a sub-4-hour race, I felt strong, and kept pushing on. I felt like I still had a higher gear in reserve, and was not worried about the pace at all. However, from around 14-15 miles the GI distress was getting worse and becoming hard to ignore. I was having trouble relaxing into my stride, and by mile 16 I was starting to dread the rest of the race. This is NOT the first time this has happened to me, but the first time in a race. I skipped the 17-mile gel and I thought I should stop at a port-a-potty, but they were all locked. Oh, forget it, I thought, and kept going. Mistake! After 18 miles it was clear that a stop was going to be unavoidable. There were port-a-potties at every aid station near each mile marker, but I could not see any as I approached the water table. In a desperate tone I asked a volunteer, “Where are the port-a-potties??” He pointed just past the water tables on the sidewalk, and I ran over to find an empty one. I will spare the details, but it took me about 5 minutes to take care of business to the point where I would be comfortable again. I did not want to have to stop again. I sent a short text my sister to let her know I was behind, but I was OK (no details). I also texted Rob who I knew would inform the trackers on Runningmania. Leaving the aid-station area I ran a bit along the sidewalk and thought to myself, “OK, here we go. Time to finish this marathon,” and I re-entered the course. I felt so much better physically and mentally. I had no more GI distress for the rest of the race, and decided with my time goal totally out the window that I would just relax and enjoy the rest of the race as much as possible. I was at just over 2:50 on my watch when I stopped, about 2:55 when I got going again and I knew I would be out there for more than another hour with over 13K to go, even if I was able to recover to a perfect pace. And my legs were not even thinking about that option anyway.
I was euphoric as I passed the 30K mark, and the later the 35K and 40K marks. As we re-entered Manhattan around 34K, the crowds continued to urge us on. This was my favourite part of the course, through the upper east side down the residential part of Fifth Avenue and eventually through Central Park. My legs started feeling the full effects of the distance but I never had to stop to a walk. I kept a slow but steady pace to the end. I tried to find my sister at her designated spectator point near the south-east corner of the park on Fifth Ave; she did see me but I somehow missed her as I scanned the crowd.
The last turn at Columbus Circle and the corner of the park felt amazing, even though I was hurting all over. The best of the on-course bands was here playing "Born to Run". The final 800m stretch to the finish line seemed to go on forever and it was great to finally cross. The time was just over 4:18 on my watch (official time was 4:17:57). My second worst time (but my third best ), and a fantastic experience overall.
After the finish line we got "recovery bags" with food, Gatorade, and water, and there were photographers taking finish pictures which I skipped. Then there was what we were all calling a long “zombie march” to the area to get our bags. Afterwards I had a longer walk back to Times Square (I had waited for a bus, but walking was actually easier at this point). I met my sister, my cousin, and his wife at our hotel for beer and some food, and later went to dinner with Lesley, Jacqueline, Leo, Ed, and their group. Everyone was enjoying sharing their stories, and it seemed that most people had a rough race except for Lesley (you go girl!).
Shortly after the race I was having hugely mixed emotions. I was thrilled to have finished such a great race with all its excitement and lore, but could not hide the disappointment with my time. I told everyone I had no desire to do another marathon. But I have already changed my mind and will be doing the Vancouver Marathon in May. Marathons are tough and unpredictable, but that is part of their charm. After the personal challenges in my life in the winter and spring I still ended up having an great year of training with several PB's and a truly enjoyable marathon training cycle in the fall. I know I am in the best shape of my life and I love what the training does for me. I do not race a lot of marathons, so it is tough when it does not all come together on the big day. But there is so much more to racing marathons than the number on the finish clock.
And my mother? She was at home at her computer tracking me the whole time, making several phone calls to my sister. She found it so exciting to be able to do that, almost feeling like she was in New York with me. And, in spirit, she was.