My alarm was set for 5:00am. My eyes snapped open at 4:57. Race Day.
I went through my marathon-morning routine... I shaved off my two-day stubble... I took a hot shower to help me wake up and relax... and I had a big bowl of Lucky Charms and a glass of milk.
I took my time getting ready and double-and-triple-checked my gear to make sure I wasn't forgetting anything. I tried to run through the morning in my head to think of everything I would need.
I was dressed for the race and wore cheap sweatpants and a jacket that I planned to ditch at the starting line. My bib number was pinned on my shirt and my name was written in electrical tape. I was wearing my Garmin GPS watch, my RoadID, sunglasses, and my water bottle filled with orange flavored G1 Prime. I had chapstick, a piece of gum, and a bottle of water for later. I had my gear-check bag with a spare shirt and a sweatshirt for after the race. I wasn't sure how cold it was so I brought a hat and gloves along too.
Liz wished me luck and I left the condo right around 6:00 and walked down to the Hilton. Yesterday, I was told to board the VIP bus by 6:30 for the ride to the starting line. When I got to the Hilton this morning, there were about 20 buses parked around the hotel. I spent 15 minutes jogging around and running in and out of the hotel trying to find someone that could point out the VIP bus. No one knew what I was talking about. Finally, I was told I should probably get on one of the ING Group buses so I randomly climbed aboard an ING bus about 5 minutes before we left. Luckily, I was in the right place.
The bus ride to Staten Island took a while even though we had a police escort and were allowed to run red lights. The slowest part of the trip was when we got to the island and ran into other race traffic. I passed the time chatting with the lady sitting next to me. She has lived in New York for the past 11 years and showed me some points of interest as we drove through the city.
(ING VIP Bus.)
(On the bus ride to the starting line.)
A lady at the front of the bus explained that she would be leading us to the ING tent once we parked so we should just follow her when we got to the starting area. When the bus stopped, she got off and just started walking, not waiting for everyone else on the bus. Luckily, I was sitting near the front of the bus and I'm tall enough to see over the crowd so I was able to catch up to her but I think most of the passengers were left to find their own way.
The starting area was bigger and more confusing than I expected so I was glad I had someone to follow. Even our guide needed a little help finding her way, but after about a half-mile walk we were finally at the ING tent.
The tent was tucked away by itself and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge that we would be running across was hovering nearby.
(The ING VIP tent.)
There was a line to get into the tent that seemed to be moving really slowly. I did another mental check of my pre-race plan while I waited in line. I turned on my GPS watch to check the time and it said it was 7:20. I figured I had plenty of time to wait in line to get into the heated tent and snag some food, check my gear bag, and go to the bathroom. It was warmer than I thought it would be so I didn't need my hat or gloves. In fact, when I was in the sun, I was a little warm in my sweats and jacket but it was still chilly enough in the shade that I didn't want to shed any layers yet.
(The line to get into the VIP tent.)
I was almost into the tent when I overheard someone else talking about the time. I forgot that my watch was still set to Central Time and was an hour behind. It was actually 8:30, not 7:30. I had just over an hour until my wave started and I wasn't even in the tent yet. That was also when I was told the line we were in was for the food. We could go into the tent anytime we wanted as long as we didn't want any of the snacks that were provided.
(I was almost in the tent when I realized I was short on time.)
I decided I should skip the food line and make sure I took care of all of my other business while I still had time. I walked through to the back of the tent so I could check my gear bag. The tent was packed with people, it was really warm, and there was a DJ playing music. There were some small tables for people to stand around but the tent seemed especially crowded because most people were sitting on the ground so they could rest their legs.
(Inside the VIP tent.)
At the back of the tent, there was a UPS truck parked for us to put our gear bags in. All race participants could check a gear bag that UPS would take to the finish line. That way, after the race, runners could put on dry, warm clothes.
The VIP tent had it's own special UPS truck with flames painted on the sides. We were told it would be the first truck in line at the finish line and the flames would make it easy to spot. The idea was that we would be able to get our gear faster without waiting in a long line.
I dropped off my gear bag and went back into the tent to wait for my wave to be called to the starting corral. When I went back in, there was still a line for the food but everyone was stopping at the first couple of tables where there were more significant snacks. No one was near the later tables with the lighter snacks so I was a jerk and just walked up and took a banana and a plain bagel. Then I took a seat on the ground and nibbled on my bagel.
I literally sat down... unzipped my jacket... took two bites of my bagel... and then the DJ announced it was time for runners in wave 1 to start walking over to the corrals. I zipped my jacket back up, gathered my things, made a quick stop at the porta-potties (no lines!), and then walked to the starting village to find my corral.
Did I mention the starting area was a little confusing? There were signs and maps everywhere pointing runners in every direction based on the color of your bib (blue, orange, or green). While I was navigating the starting area, they announced over the loudspeakers that the Wave 1 corrals were now open and would close at 8:50am. I had to find the blue corrals in a hurry.
I got to the blue corrals with 5 minutes to spare but even the blue corrals were divided by bib number. It was crowded around the corrals and I was at the far end from where I needed to be. I jogged through the crowd and made it into my corral just a couple of minutes before it was closed. Then I walked to the front of the corral (where we were separated from the next corral by a rope hanging across the road) and found a place to stretch and have a seat. It was 8:50 and the race didn't start until 9:40.
I finished my bagel and sipped some water while I waited and contemplated taking a quick nap sitting in the road while everyone in the starting corral waited nervously. I had just rested my head on my knees when there was a commotion and I looked up to see that we were all moving out of the corral (just like cattle) and over to the actual starting area.
We walked in a mob for about a quarter-mile to the toll booth area of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. Now I was standing in the middle of a huge crowd of runners and we were back in the sun so I was getting warm. I went ahead and ditched my sweatpants but kept my jacket on a little longer. I ate my banana and felt confident that I was properly fueled for the race. Then it was more waiting. I listened to people around me talking about competing in Ironman triathlons, about sneaking into Wave 1 even though this was their first marathon and they planned to run much slower than the Wave 1 pace, and about how nervous everyone was. The best was when the lady next to me decided she had to pee and had her friend 'shield' her from view while she squatted and peed in the parking lot. I also felt like I might need to pee but convinced myself it was just a case of the 'nervous pees' and I didn't really have to go.
(Waiting by the toll booths to walk over to the starting line.)
Finally, the mass of people started walking forward and we turned a corner toward the starting line. There were tour buses lined up along side us with people on top cheering as we walked by. The runners started tossing their extra clothes off to the side and everyone on the buses started waving for the clothes like they wanted beads on Mardi Gras. I was warm and we were close enough to the start of the race so I took off my jacket and tossed it to one of the buses.
We were finally lined up at the starting line and ready for the race. I had been awake for 4 1/2 hours and I felt like I hadn't really stopped moving all morning. Now I had to shift my focus to spending the next 3+ hours on a single task. I could feel the excitement building in the crowd of runners around me and I was trying my best to stay calm.
(At the starting line.)
(Waiting with only minutes to go before the start.)
There were some short speeches from the race coordinator and the mayor and then we were ready to begin. I gave myself a final pre-race speech: I wanted to go out slow and relaxed but keep close to a 7 minute pace. The first mile on the bridge is all uphill so I didn't want to kill myself working too hard that early. I even had a strange conversation with my internal clock. I decided if that little timer in my head could wake me up exactly 3 minutes before my alarm, it could work it's magic on my pace during the marathon. I told my internal clock, "Do whatever you need to do to get me to that finish line on time. If you have to keep me slow and steady early, great. If you need to drop my pace to 6:40 and then let me fade at the end, fine. But get me there on time." I said a quick prayer that everyone would have a safe race and have fun and then focused on controlling the inevitable adrenaline rush that comes when the race starts.
There was a countdown to the start and then they fired a cannon to start the race and we were off! Gary Russo (the 2nd Avenue Sinatra) sang New York, New York to see us off. I had that familiar welling-up of tears in my eyes and a strange flood of emotion. I don't know what it is about the start and finish of a marathon but I often get an urge to laugh and cry at the same time. Maybe it's the months of training culminating in this one event, but it comes out of nowhere and can be a little overwhelming.
Even though I was about as close to the front as you can get, we all had to walk for about a quarter-mile before we could break into a jog. Then we got further onto the bridge and the course doubled in width and we were free to run.
(Starting up the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.)
Running across the bridge was awesome. It was probably my favorite part of the entire race. The view was incredible. The city was stretched out ahead of us and the sun was shining on the water. Just like running through the streets, there was more room on the sides of the bridge so I ran along the railing for most of the two-mile span. At one point, I looked to my right and a Coast Guard helicopter was hovering right beside me. It was awesome!
Occasionally, I had to weave in and out of the crowd and dodge runners that were stopping to pee on the bridge. I remembered people telling me about the runners on the lower level of the bridge sometimes feeling a "wet breeze" because runners on the upper level stopped to pee. Gross. I also had to be careful not to trip on the clothes people were shedding on the bridge. It took a lot of focus not to run into someone or fall.
Mile 1 - Elapsed Time: 0:08:12
My GPS watch was already inaccurate. I knew it probably wasn't going to be a reliable source of distance and pacing information because skyscrapers tend to interfere with the satellite signal. I didn't think about it having trouble on the bridge. It might have something to do with figuring out if I was on the bridge or at water level. Either way, my watch was just a fancy stopwatch for the rest of the race.
When I reached the 1 Mile marker on the bridge, I was 8 minutes and 12 seconds into the race. Walking at the beginning, relaxing on the uphill, and weaving in and out of the crowd meant running my first mile much slower than I would like. I was reaching the peak of the bridge and I had to control the urge to make up all of the lost time on the downhill side. I didn't want the first mile to ruin my average time but I also didn't want to run the second mile so fast that I was wasted later in the race. I also made a mental note that my personal time was about a minute-and-a-half off from the race clock. That way, I could track my time by the race clock too.
I started down the hill and decided to go with whatever pace felt relaxed. In my experience, a pace that feels relaxed this early in the race is actually a little too fast because of the adrenaline, but I let myself go with it on this steep downhill. I could slow back down at the bottom.
I'm not sure, but I think I approached a 6 minute pace at times on the way down the bridge and I slowed myself down a little bit once or twice. I didn't catch my time at Mile 2 so I'm not sure how much time I made up. My plan was to just "count 7's" to track my pace. Doing the math to figure out my pace each mile is not only draining, but it's almost impossible when my brain isn't working as well at the end of the race. So I wanted to keep it simple and multiply the mileage by 7. I hoped to reach Mile 3 and see how close I was to 21 minutes. That would give me an idea of how far off I was from a 7 minute pace.
I was now off of the bridge and into Brooklyn. Over the course of the marathon, I would run over 5 bridges and through 5 boroughs. I was across one bridge and into my second borough.
The runners with orange and green bibs hadn't combined with us yet so the streets still weren't horribly crowded and I was able to setttle into a comfortable pace. The crowd support was great and the streets were lined with people cheering and holding signs for the runners. It's a common thing for kids to want the runners to give them a high-five during marathons. But in New York, it seemed like everyone was begging for you to just stick your hand out and give them five as you ran by. Tons of people cheered for me by name because of my shirt and I had to keep myself in check so I didn't get carried away with the crowd.
Mile 3 - Elapsed Time: 0:21:10. Overall Average: 7:04 per mile.
When I got to Mile 3, I had mixed feelings. I was happy to see I was right on track for where I wanted to be this early in the race. But I was also a little worried about how fast that meant my last two miles must have been. If my first mile was in 8:12 and my average was now 7:04 per mile, I must have averaged around 6:30 per mile for Miles 2 and 3. I hoped I wouldn't pay for that later.
I grabbed some water at the Mile 3 water station and drank a mouthfull. There would be water and gatorade every mile for the rest of the race and my plan was to have a small drink every three miles. I also wanted to drink some of my G1 from my water bottle every 6 miles. In fact, the drink from my water bottle would become a mental reward later in the race.
It was near-perfect weather for the marathon. It was sunny with temperatures in the 40's. I was wearing a long-sleeve tech shirt under my t-shirt and wondered if I would need to shed the long-sleeve shirt later in the race. But for now, I was okay in the sun and glad to have the extra layer when we hit the shade and wind.
Runners with green bibs merged with us blue-bibs around 3 1/2 miles into the race. By then, we had spread out enough that the merge happened pretty smoothly and I didn't have to slow down at all.
The next several miles were a blur of cheering crowds and city streets. We basically ran a straight shot north for the next 5 miles. Except for the bridges, there weren't really any steep hills on the course but the hills that were there seemed to go on forever. The hills were gradual inclines but lasted anywhere from a half-mile to a mile at a time.
Mile 6 - Elapsed Time: 0:41:07. Overall Average: 6:52 per mile.
Since I was counting 7's, I wanted to be at Mile 6 at around 42 minutes. When I checked my watch at the mile marker, I was about a minute ahead of my goal time. That let me know that I had been running well under 7 minutes per mile but I didn't feel like I was going too fast, so I decided to go with it. I took a few gulps of my G1 and gave myself a little mental pat on the back: "6 Miles down... that's basically 1/4 of the way to the finish. You just have to do that three more times." I also reminded myself that I would see Liz, Mom, and Rick in just a couple of miles.
Mile 8 - Elapsed Time: 0:54:26. Overall Average: 6:49 per mile.
Liz, Mom, and Rick took the subway to Mile 8 and found a spot along the right side of the course to wait for me to run by. Liz had our trusty 'Road Runner Crossing' sign so I could spot her from a distance.
(Camping out near Mile 8.)
One of the more significant non-bridge hills started about a quarter-mile before Mile 8 so the thought of seeing my family was a great distraction from the extra effort. I was still running at a good clip and didn't feel like I was having to work too hard yet. I could see our trusty yellow sign from over a block away and it always makes me smile. I also got to remind myself that I was now 8 miles in so I was basically 1/3 of the way finished.
At a lot of marathons, Liz is kind enough to hold gatorade or a snack bar for me so I can pick it up when I see her. Because I wasn't going to see her after Mile 8, I made myself completely self-sufficient for this race so I was able to just wave as I ran by and I didn't have to worry about stopping. I was considering taking off my long-sleeve shirt to leave with her at Mile 8 but it was still chilly in the wind and shade so I left it on.
(Running up to Liz, Mom, and Rick at Mile 8.)
(My awesome support crew!)
It was a quick sighting, but it helped a lot to see them on the course. After that, I reminded myself that they would get an update when I crossed the timing mats at every mile marker.
The uphill that started a little before Mile 8 peaked about halfway to Mile 9 and then I got to run a very gradual downhill for the next mile-and-a-half. The course took a few turns during the next few miles which helped break up the monotony. I had a little Gatorade from the water station at Mile 9 and a few gulps from my G1 water bottle at Mile 12. I was sticking to the program and so far, so good.
13.1 Miles - Elapsed Time: 1:29:13. Overall Average: 6:49 per mile.
The halfway point was right around the Pulaski Bridge. It was a much shorter bridge and didn't pose much of a problem. Reaching the halfway point involved several mental boosts. From now on, the distance I had left would be shorter than the distance I had already run. I also crossed my second bridge into my third borough. I was now running in Queens and I still felt really good.
I was in Queens for about two miles and it passed in a blur. The course changed directions four or five times so my time in Queens seemed to fly by.
Then I hit the Queensboro Bridge.
The Queensboro Bridge was about a mile long but it seemed to go on forever. The runners had really spread out by now and there's obviously no crowd on the bridge so even though we were basically running on a stretch of the bridge about two lanes wide, it felt really lonely. We were on a lower level of the bridge so I could see the water off to my left but there was an endless concrete hill in front of me, several lanes of concrete to my right, and a concrete ceiling over my head. It was a lot of gray and the uphill on the Queensboro Bridge was the first time I started to struggle in this marathon.
I felt like I was doing a decent job of keeping my pace up but the long uphill was definitely taking its toll on my legs. I was excited when I reached the peak and was able to coast down the other side.
Mile 16 - Elapsed Time: 1:49:44. Overall Average: 6:52 per mile.
When I ran off of the Queensboro Bridge, I was right at the 16 Mile mark. I had heard all weekend about the "wall of sound" that runners hit when they turn onto 1st Avenue coming off of the bridge. People kept telling me that after running a mile with nothing but the sound of runners breathing heavy and feet slapping pavement, the large crowd gathered at Mile 16 seems extra loud. I don't know if they built it up too much and my expectations were too high, or if there weren't as many people as in past years, but I didn't feel like the crowd at Mile 16 was much different from the crowd along the rest of the course. I guess in my head, I was picturing the kind of massive crowds that I've seen in the Chicago Marathon and this crowd didn't live up to the hype. Of course, the street could have been completely empty and I would still be happy just to be off of the bridge.
I got to play a lot of mental tricks at Mile 16. I had finished another 8-mile chunk... practically 2/3 finished. I had run over 3 of the 5 bridges and through 3 of the 5 boroughs. And, most importantly, I had 10 miles to go.
The idea of having 10 miles to go is bittersweet. On the positive side, I get to count down from 10 to the finish so my remaining miles were entering the single digits. On the negative side, I had already run 16 miles and I still had 10 miles to go... if I let myself think about how far 10 miles is, it got discouraging.
When I run laps around Route 66 State Park at home, I not only run them because they're a convenient place to run long distances in 2-mile chunks... I also like to be able to use them in my mental tricks during long races. Instead of thinking that I still had 10 miles to go, I told myself I only had to run 5 laps around the park.
From Mile 16 to just past Mile 19 was basically a straight, level run north through Manhattan. I tried to settle back into a comfortable pace after the Queensboro Bridge but that feeling of effortless movement was gone. The last 10 miles were going to be harder.
Mile 18 - Elapsed Time: 2:03:51. Overall Average: 6:53 per mile.
Up to this point, I was able to keep a pretty steady pace overall. At Mile 18, I knew I was in trouble. I could feel the wheels wanting to come off and I was starting to get that head-to-toe drained feeling. I wasn't hurting yet, but I could tell that my legs just didn't want to move as fast. I had to put a lot more effort into keeping my pace up.
Mile 18 meant another few gulps from my G1 and I tried to gain some momentum from knowing I got a drink and I was only two miles from the oh-so-significant 20 Mile mark. I really pushed myself not to let the pace slip too much for the next 2 miles.
About halfway between Miles 19 and 20 was the Willis Avenue Bridge into the Bronx. The Willis Avenue Bridge was so short, I almost missed it. It was more like an on-ramp than a bridge. But it still meant I only had one bridge left. The course is only in the Bronx for a little over a mile, but that's where we hit Mile 20.
Mile 20 - Elapsed Time: 2:18:26. Overall Average: 6:56 per mile.
Mile 20... when things get serious. I could feel my pace slipping but I knew that if I had been averaging 7 minute miles, I should reach Mile 20 at 2 hours and 20 minutes. I still had a cushion of about a minute-and-a-half with 6 miles to go. Unfortunately, history has taught me that cushions disappear quickly in the last 6 miles and goals are lost in the blink of an eye.
Reaching Mile 20 is huge. By then, I've run a significant chunk of the marathon and 6 seems like a small number compared to 20. But then I start thinking about how far 6 miles really is. It means I still have almost 1/4 of the marathon left... It means that even at 7 minutes per mile, I would still have over 42 minutes of running left... It means that the easy miles are behind me and the hard, painful miles are ahead of me.
My legs were starting to tighten up (especially my calves) and my back was starting to feel a little stiff. The Madison Avenue Bridge was also mercifully short and brought me back into Manhattan for the last leg of the race. I had run all 5 bridges and all 5 boroughs and I just had to run the last 5 miles to the finish. Mile 21 was on the far side of the bridge and I was due for a drink so I let myself walk through the water station and stopped for a quick stretch of my calves and back. Then I got running again but I knew my pace wouldn't be the same for the rest of the race.
Mile 22 - Elapsed Time: 2:34:55. Overall Average: 7:03 per mile.
After Mile 21, I started making deals with myself (and then breaking those deals). "Just keep your legs moving for one more mile and I'll let you take a break at Mile 22... Sucker!
I got to Mile 22 and just kept going. Four miles to go. Two laps around the park. I was slowing down and I knew if I wanted to run a sub-3:05 marathon, I would have to run 4 more 7 minute miles. That wasn't going to happen. I started to wonder if I was even going to make my goal of 3:10.
Just before Mile 23, the course entered Central Park. It also started up the worst hill of the marathon besides the Queensboro Bridge. I was looking forward to running through Central Park but now that I was actually there, my head was foggy and I was staring at the pavement while I ran up a 3/4 mile-long hill. I don't remember seeing much of the park. I know it was greener around me but it's a hazy blur of hills and pain.
My legs were really starting to hurt and I realized I was also a little warm by now. The temperature hadn't bothered me most of the day, but I would have been happy to ditch a shirt at this point. I just didn't have the time or energy to mess with it. I took another 30-second break to stretch somewhere around Mile 24 and drank the rest of the G1 from my water bottle. I decided I wasn't going to stop again. For the last 2.2 miles, I would keep running... no matter how slowly.
Mile 25 - Elapsed Time: 3:00:05. Overall Average: 7:13.
I knew I was still heading south along the east side of Central Park and I knew where the finish line was because of the Opening Ceremonies and Liz's 5K. I still had to turn west along the south end of the park and then turn back north toward the finish line.
I had less than 10 minutes to run 1.2 miles. That seemed like it should be easy but I knew the final miles of my past marathons easily took 10-12 minutes when I was hurting. I just kept putting one leg in front of the other and hoped the clock would stop ticking so fast.
I got a little boost out of the turn to the west because I was familiar with this road by now. I was running near the condo and it helped to know I was close to the finish.
When I turned back to the north, I could hear the crowd at the finish line and I could see the banner at Mile 26.
Mile 26 - Elapsed Time: 3:08:17. Overall Average: 7:15 per mile.
When I reached Mile 26, I knew I had just under a quarter-mile to go and just under 2 minutes left to beat my goal of 3:10. I knew that was possible but didn't bother with any math. I just tried to move my legs faster.
From Mile 26 to the finish line is all uphill. There were signs counting down the distance to go. 400 meters to the finish... 300 meters to go... 200 meters... 100 meters... it was going to be close.
The grandstands were full of cheering spectators and I saw Liz, Mom, and Rick in the stands to my left. I gave a wave and then checked my watch.... I had to hurry. I leaned forward and tried to open my stride up for the last few meters.
When I crossed the finish line, I stopped my watch, took a few steps, bent over to rest my hands on my knees and checked my time.
I beat my goal of 3:10 by 11 seconds! How's that for cutting it close?
(Crossing the finish line...
I didn't even notice the guy next to me struggling.)
(My finisher's medal.)