And it rained. And it rained. And it rained.
My best memories of running the New York City marathon, the race I’d wanted to run more than any other for the last 15 years including Boston, are in the rain. Sopping, drenching, thunder-clapping, sky-falling-in, monsooning, nasty rain. Getting my race number at the Coliseum Expo, it rained. Catching a cab, it rained. Walking down Broadway, it rained. Going out for bite to eat, it rained.
Running the race, it rained. Buckets.
And I loved it. Nothing like a foul, nasty ol’ rain run….
I head off in the rain to get my all-important race number. It’s at the Coliseum, at the west end of south Central Park, near the race finish. What a five-block walk that is.
Bathing on Broadway.
Everywhere you look, ripped and inverted umbrellas blow down Broadway like so many urban tumbleweeds. I don’t have one, but what does it matter. The rain seems to be coming from the ground up, down and sideways. Raining in my jeans. Of course, that could be over-hydration too. I’m drinking like a madman now. My whole existence is about water. Drinking it, peeing it….walking in it. Did I mention the ear infection? I’m putting drops in my ear, so the world echos like I’m 10 feet under water. Drowning is a theme.
The night before.
Feel like shit. Feverish, fatigued, woozy. I take my temperature, nothing. Maybe it’s all the pasta all week, sprinkled with anxiety. Maybe I need more therapy. Lorraine has her opinion. But real or imagine, I am plainly miserable.
This happens every night before a marathon. Making things worse, the Gators are being humiliated by Georgia on TV. I can’t watch. Take an hour to decide which shirt to pin my number to. Weighing all the possibilities of what to wear – in the event of changing cold or hot temps, sun or rain.
I lay out my gear on a chair. Shoes at the foot of the chair – ready to run off. A bunch of other stuff gets packed in a little red UPS bag; UPS trucks will haul the extra things, like dry sweats, from the start to the finish.
I obsess over all this for hours. Then Lorraine and I have one last pasta dinner, in the Hilton. Later, I fall off to sleep during a rented Julia Roberts video for 7 good hours – which is the one big plus of being a head-case the night before marathons. You sleep like a baby.
The Big Day arrives.
At 5:30 in the morning, I am walking down the Avenues of Americas, through shadows and street lights – carrying my little red UPS bag. The air is 50s fresh, cool, dry. The feverish feeling is gone, as is always the case the morning of.
From 53rd Street, I make my way toward the New York City Library on 42nd Street, where busses await to transport the troops to Staten Island. I venture down some side streets, and find a little café for breakfast. Buy a Sunday Times. Over eggs and potatoes, I watch little red UPS bags streaming by. Like a bunch of pod people in baggy sweats making their way to the Mother Ship.
6:15 bus ride: Seeing runners faces now, it’s more like kids on their way to summer camp – lots of anticipation but not knowing what to expect.
The Athletes Village.
Arriving at Staten Island: a tent city, runners gathering in fog and cool dampness, wearing anything from new sweats to garbage bags. More often, garbage bags – as jackets, as shoe protection against mud. These are the ones with experience, who know better, who did it last year or at some other muddy mega-marathon.
No modesty in this group, either, as some unabashedly apply Vaseline to nether parts and stick Band-Aids over nipples. Being too proud or shy is not the order of the day. The cost of not taking these precautions too high.
Pee lines are a United Nations, a horizontal tower of Babel, members of all the nations of the world waiting for port-o-potties.
A crazy thing happens
on the way to The Start
The Verrazano Bridge: Once the longest (2 miles) suspension bridges in the world, it connects New York City to Staten Island. The start of the Marathon. About 40 minutes before the gun, I’m staring up at the bottom of the Bridge, from the south side, where runners are now forming a massive crush. I don’t like this. Not only claustrophobic, I’m in the "Green" staging area. But I have a "Blue" number, which means I’m suppose to be in the "Blue" staging area. Which is way, way over there. Way, way.
What to do? I move to the edge of the crowd for air, where I find a barricade to begin stretching on.
Then this crazy thing happens: Some runners JUMP the barricade. Trotting off underneath the bridge and disappearing on the other side. Others follow. Now a stream of runners are making this move. Should I? Probably not, but I do. I jump the barricade, walk under the bridge, and within five minutes, I've not only moved in front of the 32,000-runner pack, I've hooked up with the elites and the NYPD and firemen, who lead the marathon at the start.
4 minutes to go, the announcer says….
I chit-chat with the firemen….stretch…..helicopters whirl overhead….the place is buzzing….the energy compressed in the assemblage of carbo-loaded and hydrated bodies…..ready to explode…God, would Roy love this, I’m thinking….The New York City Marathon start…..running capital of the universe for a day…..a 15-year-old dream run about to lift off…..
And look here……I’m standing in the fourth row!!!!!!
Charging up the Verrazano Bridge with a bunch of Firemen and Cops, I’m floating up and up….running freely…..up into the damp morning mists….the pack at my heels, and I’m thinking…..how cool is this?
Running the Bridge
The bridge scene turns wild: Gaining altitude, winds whipping up to 30 or 40 mph; hats flying everywhere; I clutch mine and hold my number against my chest, the wind is tearing it off the pins.
More threatening were the Pissers. Guys hanging it off the bridge, relieving themselves – into the wind. C’mon, guys! It’s a basic rule of life, Don’t pee into the wind. It’s spraying back at the rest of us!!!
First mile, up the Bridge: 10 minute pace. Second mile, down the Bridge: 8 minute pace.
To a lesser degree, the whole race was like the Verrazano Bridge: one uphill linked to a downhill…ultimately, linked to another uphill. Flat sections seem few and far between. That makes it difficult to settle into a rhythm, to run efficienctly. You’re always adjusting pace and effort, which is exhausting over 26.2 miles. Best plan – don’t think about it. Find some level of comfort and do the best you can.
Brooklyn and Queens
Coming off the Bridge, the first crowds: All-leather rock ‘n roll warehouse bands provide the soundtrack for the early Brooklyn stretch. Older Italian and Irish neighborhoods, Latin and Chinese. Somewhat depressed and broken. But the people are pumped, excited, raucous. The little ones looking at you with big bulbous eyes, wanting to touch your hand.
By the 6 mile mark, I settled into a 9-minute pace (averaging the hills). But by 8 miles, my right knee is getting sore. Probably from running on the side-slope of the road, rather than the flatter crest. A stupid mental mistake. But the move to center is too late. I fear the ligament outside my knee, the IT-band, may be sore for the duration.
Run through the edges of Bushwick, Toni’s and Skip’s old neighborhood. More African-American faces in the crowds. More autumn trees. More steep hills. It blurs. I recall a stretch with clusters of Hassidic Jews; many fresh scrubbed faces -- I kept expecting age and saw youth.
"Why do I run?"
People always want to know this. So does Nike. So we run under a huge black & white billboard, by Nike, posing the question -- "Why do I run?" -- next to a woman’s stoney face. The answer: "So I can join a 32,000-member team."
The road is laughing all around me. It may be a stretch, but there’s a team connection between the runners: the effort to get here is individual, but the sacrifices are shared.
Or maybe Nike is just referring to the all-Nike Apparel Team…..ah, yes.
Queens: Here comes the rain
At the half-way point, I’ve fallen behind pace at 2:01. I’d hoped to be 5 minutes faster. To break 4 hours, my time-goal, I have to run a reverse split – meaning a faster second half than the first half. Could be tough: my sore knee is wobbling funny, causing a sloppy gait and stiffness in my right calf and hip. It's spreading...
Something else too: The winds pick up, dark clouds move in, and a sprinkle turns into a deluge in the space of 100 feet. The race changes: everything is chilled and soaked, shoes included.
The 59th Street Bridge
This is the bridge between Queens and Manhattan.
The symbol to a better world for the John Travolta character in Saturday Night Fever. The Simon & Garfunkle song. A bridge of dreams. The point of transition.
This is Mile 15.
Everyone here is pushing uphill, grinding it out, working hard, reaching down, being a runner…. moving through the massive complex of steel girders and cathedral-like spires, through strength and beauty, arching across the East River, one gliding step at a time, toward a fog-shrouded Manhattan skyline.
Moving toward some promise you’d made to yourself in the long hours of running to get here.
The beginning is ending. Now the idea of finishing begins.
Suspended here between worlds, everything is strangely serene and quiet. No cheering crowds. No music. No distractions. Nothing but yourself and soft foot patter, the harmony of a thousand runners, moving together.
In a flash of a flash, all that internal musing stuff is gone….as you lose yourself in sudden mayhem. Thunderous, wild crowds are waiting for you, as you come off that 59th Street Bridge, they form a tight gauntlet for you to pass through before spilling out on First Avenue and you run under a giant arch of red, white and blue balloons.
As far as you can see: cheering New Yorkers, under a sea of umbrellas, throngs of them, 10 deep on each side, frenzied mania….
As the rain’s coming….harder now….
Flashes of lightning and thunder rolling in….
And the crazy New Yorkers thundering back….
Drink it in, I’m thinking…..just drink it in.
Meeting Lorraine. Part I.
The plan: Meet on First Avenue between 83st and 84nd Streets, about five blocks directly east the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Central Park, where Lorraine wanted to spend the morning. It seemed perfect.
My right leg is a mess now. Nothing serious long-term, but short-term it’s cramping and sore and tightening up. Some sciatica from my hip too. It’s all forcing me to stop every mile or two and stretch out the hamstrings, calves, hip and knee – giving away a couple minutes each time. The stretching is keeping me going, though. So I’m resigned to the stopping/starting, and a slow finish.
I’m dragging my leg up to 83rd Street, saving a nice deep stretch for the moment I see Lorraine. We found each other in Boston. Took pictures. I could use that extra shot of adrenalin seeing her now.
I’m looking….looking….looking….through dozens of faces.
Where is she? Where is she? Maybe she didn’t make it because of the rain. Where are you Lorraine? Could I have missed her?
Finding inspiration in the Bronx.
Around Mile 20, my energy is flat. Knowing I won’t break 4 hours, the bum leg, not seeing Lorraine – I have to make these mental adjustments before the final push, or pay a price. I try everything. Extra energy GU. Piece of candy. Gatorade. Anything to get my sugar up. Then there’s the Wall: It’s lurking around here. All the pain, the mental games, the legs turning to stone – up ahead, soon. I keep it out of my mind, try to stay positive….
I fall in behind a guy with a strange, chaotic gait. His right leg is circling forward, rather than stepping directly forward. I look closely. The leg….it’s not…..his. But a prosthesis, from the knee down. And he’s run 20 miles, circling it like that. God, that must REALLY hurt…..
In that moment, all my petty problems vanish. I find fresh, live, bouncing energy in this man’s courage.
Another Nike billboard. Mile 21. Why do I run? "Because I can run forever. But I know there’s a rest stop 5.2 miles ahead."
Is this Harlem?
I had to stop, ask a black women: "Is this Harlem?" And she smiled back, rain streaking down her face, "Yes, honey, THIS is Harlem." Maybe what I expected was a broken, graffiti-scrawled ghetto. But what I found on Mile 21 was alive and rich and beautiful. The Harlem of elegant old brownstones. Sprawling open parks. Funky stone churches. And the glowing, welcoming faces of hundreds of African-Americans, some with umbrellas, most without, standing out in the hardest rain yet. Torrents of rain. Flashes of rain. A cold rain. And with every sudden downpour, harder than the last, their cheers only grew louder and louder. And, during the worst of it, when the streets splashed at your ankles and the rain pelted your skin, there they were…..a Harlem Baptist church choir in electric blue-and-yellow robes, singing and swaying under an elevated church portico, like some kind of Rain Angels, who knew all about rising up in a hard rain, who sang it big and sang it loud, who filled the streets with their soaring soulful gospel rhythms, who lifted everyone passing by to some other heavenly place beyond the pain and rain, uplifting to a free space, above it all….just for a moment.
Thank you, Rain Angels, thank you….over 26.2 miles, including the finish, and perhaps including all five other marathons I’ve run, nothing has touched me quite like the beauty and grace and joy in your chorus of voices, warmly embracing us all as we ran by.
Among Algonquin Indians, Manhattan means "island of the hills." The killer hills are in Central Park, where the last three miles are run. Now add rainwater rolling off the rocks and into the streets, and you’re running in a stream. Upstream. Like suicidal salmon. Add a wobbly leg, depleted energy resources, losing body heat – and hey, this is why you run. To see what you got.
There’s no other way to explain the end of these things. Why are people doing this? Why go through the agony? Why am I?
Don’t think. Think later. You’re within reach. Push on….
Everything here is basic. Nothing cerebral. Mainly, you’re confronting all physical and mental limitations….and trying to push them further out. Rain or snow or sleet or cold or heat or humidity, forget it. Mere distractions. It’s much more primal now; existence stripped to one elementary thing: your Will.
How much are you willing to take. You can walk if you want. Nobody cares. People walk. So what. Nobody gives a damn….in fact, nobody here sees beyond themselves and their own struggle. The last miles of a marathon is total self-absorption. A tunnel of Self. So whether you stop or walk or pick up the pace, it’s personal. And frankly, it’s the thing you’re here to find out about your-Self.
When every fiber, every impulse is screaming Stop, You Idiot!……what will you do?
Meeting Lorraine. Part II.
The back-up plan is to meet Lorraine at Mile 24, behind the Met Museum, on the right side of the road. She’s wearing a 100-watt orange poncho – can’t miss her.
So as I approach Mile 24, I am thinking.…seeing Lorraine will be a perfect excuse to stop this insane madness. A lot hurts: IT-Band stabbing, sciatica shivering down my butt, calves tightening like snare drums.
I’m thinking…..you know, to hell with all this bullshit about persevering during the Big Struggle, about proving something, about the steeliness of my own Willpower and the triumph of Self, about toughing out these stupid marathons, all that garbage.
Damnit, I wanna stop….. So where is she? Where the hell is Lorraine???
I almost grab a Chinese girl in jeans and a 100-watt orange poncho. Along the roadside of a marathon, we’re all searching for something, someone.
The Big Finish.
Rounding the last bend, going uphill (of course), I spot banner Mile 26, at last YEAH!, so I juice the gas pedal one more time…..and now, the most amazing thing of all happens. Breaking through the rain and clouds, a blue hole opens in the sky. A soft Monet blue.
Two-tenths of a mile to go, I run in sunshine.
Crossing the finish line is The Photo Op. Make sure nobody’s blocking your number or next to you. It’s Over. Got a medal and a rose for Lorraine. As the long silver snake of tin-foil blankets wends another three-quarters of a mile north through Central Park, no one talks. Just 32,000 painfully quiet celebrations, amid the sounds of vomiting.
My time: Four hours twenty-seven minutes four seconds. I can’t think about it. Very disappointing for someone looking to break 4 hours. On the other hand, it was an extraordinary day: I was about the 16,000th finisher. With 32,000 in the race, I’m a true middle-of-the-packer. Same thing in Boston. Dead middle in mid-life.
And, because I started in the fourth row, it’s true 16,000 passed me -- but hey, I held off another 16,000.
Extra mustard, please.
Lorraine and I find each other, finally, under the giant "V" (first letter, last name) sign in the Great Lawn of Central Park, where families meet the runners. Turns out, heavy rains turned her back from our rendezvous at First Avenue. And, at Mile 24, she was standing in the rain – but on the left side of the street. (I was looking on the right side.) She was very worried too; watching thousands go by long after my anticipated arrival. She thought the worst.
"I’m out there for two hours in the rain," she says to me. "What’d you think I ducked into a café or something. I thought about it, but I took a bath in Central Park instead, and worried to death about you. How could you miss me….I mean, I’m ORANGE as orange gets!!! I said the left side of the street, not the right, how could I be on the right side, the museum’s on the left….boy….I’m glad that’s over."
So together, we lock hands and begin a nearly 3-mile walk back to the Hilton. But before leaving Central Park, we sit down on a park bench, the sun dropping on what has become a clear, crisp autumn afternoon in Manhattan. I have my little finisher’s medal around my neck. I have my wife. And, from a street vendor, we have a couple steaming New York hot dogs ladled with sauerkraut and mustard. The best I’d ever eaten. The best.
Why do I run? Well, now you know…..the hot dogs taste better.