THE FIRST TIME I EVER RAN
Back in August 2010 I could only will my body to run for fifteen minutes around a few blocks in my neighborhood. One day in August, before my young twins would start Kindergarten and my morning gym routine would be rocked upside down, I had asked my Dad, an avid runner and marathoner, if I could try running with him. We met on a Sunday and without any instruction we simply started to jog together. I had planned to run a half hour except I couldn’t make it and stopped halfway because I was convinced I would pass-out and my knees would be damaged forever.
Every time we met I added a few more minutes to my run. I didn’t know the distance or pace I was running. I didn’t know that my sneakers would have a huge impact on my legs. I didn’t think about nutrition or hydration. I didn’t think my clothes would impact my comfort level. My goal was to run for however long I felt I could manage. I would tell myself to just keep putting one foot in front of the other, a little bit more each time. It was hard and yet so much fun.
Fast forward three years later, I am running the first mile of the NYC Marathon across the Verrazano Bridge, and I remember how there was once a time when I couldn’t run more than fifteen minutes. The thought gave me a wonderful sense of internal calm and joy that cocooned me from the gusts of chilly winds.
THE NEW YORK CITY MARATHON EXPERIENCE
Running the NYC Marathon was much more than a race, it was an experience.
The experience began when I went to the expo at the Javitz Center to retrieve my bib. The moment I walked into the expo I felt a tremendous surge of emotions, my eyes welled up and suddenly I was crying. Last year I went to the expo with my sister, just after Hurricane Sandy and having travelled through the dark, powerless streets. While we were paying for some running clothes the official word came through from Mayor Bloomberg that the marathon would indeed be cancelled.
Here I was again. Two seasons of hard marathon training, now with two marathons on my legs (Philadelphia and Disney). I felt incredibly proud of myself. My mom was with me for support. She hugged me as we wiped away our tears of joy and I got my bib. When the volunteer handed over my bib it was as if I had just been handed a pass into heaven and an angel was telling me, ‘You did good, Tara. You made it. Go on through.’
There were giant maps of the course on display. Many were taking pictures while other’s were just staring at it in adoration and deep prayer. I did both.
On my drive home to Staten Island I crossed the Verrazano Bridge and said a little prayer for strength and safety for me, my husband, my Dad and my awesome running group friends who were all about to run the NYC Marathon. The next time I would cross the bridge would be on foot. Quite a mind-blowing thought when you really think about it!
I live just a 10 minute drive from my home on Staten Island to Fort Wadsworth. Preparing for the start of the marathon was the most relaxing and pleasant experience. Since the marathon also took place on Daylight Savings, I gained an extra hour of sleep too. I had concerns that starting late in the morning (10:30am) would throw me off since all my long runs are at 7am. Not the case. The later start time gave me the chance to properly eat, hydrate and warm-up before hitting the course.
Any aches and pains I had been dealing with throughout my training went completely out the window on marathon day. What plantar fasciatis? What ham-string issues? Calf pains? Not on me. My body was wiped clean from all the adrenaline pumping through me.
The week leading into the marathon I could not sleep. I would lay in bed and literally feel my muscles itching to run. The night before the marathon I had the best night sleep.
My husband and I leisurely enjoyed breakfast before getting dressed for the race. I ate 2 multi-grain waffles with some almond butter and a dash of maple syrup. Drank some orange juice and a big glass of water. And had my usual shots of espresso. All consuming was done about 3 hours before I would start running. We blasted on our stereo AC/DC “It’s A Long Way To The Top If You Wanna Rock And Roll” and woke-up our young daughters with fanfare.
One of my obsessions for the marathon revolved around fashion and weather. What do I wear? I know layers are the answer but what layers? The high would be 50 degress with 15mph winds. I reminded myself that I always get hot once I start running so I layered a long-sleeve dri-fit shirt with a light tank-top. I was prepared to toss the top if necessary. I wore hot pink sleeves that served me well once I eventually shed the long-sleeve shirt around mile 20. I also had gloves that could be tossed. Knowing there would be wind gusts I also wore my neck-scarf. It’s great for covering your face in winds, or pulling over your hat to keep from blowing away. For the wait in Fort Wadsworth I wore a sweatshirt that I tossed aside at the start.
We were allowed to take a clear plastic bag into the Fort. I packed a Gatorade (to take a few sips just before starting), some toilet paper, a small towel to sit on and a large garbage bag where I had already cut a hole for my head. In case it was very windy I would have put the bag over my body for insulation.
My husband’s start time was 10:00am, mine was 10:30am and my father 11:00am. I went to the Fort with my husband while my Dad arrived later. As a married couple with young children, training for a marathon added more challenges to our daily routine. For more than six months we had plotted our running schedules around each other and the activities of our children.
Here we were on the verge of achieving our ultimate goal and once again, we would be on different schedules. We strolled through the Fort hand-in-hand enjoying the sight of thousands of runners from all over the world mingling about before he went off to his corral.
I then caught up with my running partner Ken in our corral. We sat on a grassy knoll off to the side of the bridge, waiting for our turn. We heard the cannon blast for Wave 1 and looked up onto the ramp to the Verrazano Bridge to cheer on the runners. Such excitement to know that soon it would be our turn! We were in Wave 3 / Green and that put us on the lower level of the bridge. Of course I wished my start was across the upper level but there was nothing I could do about it so I accepted my course.
Everything was nicely organized and very accommodating for the runners. There were Poland Spring tents with free bottled water. A Dunkin Donuts table with free coffee. UPS trucks collecting bags if a runner wanted to reclaim a bag at the finish line. And most importantly, the Royal Flushes were in great abundance.
We made our way over to our corral and were shuffled to the lower-level entrance ramp just past the toll plaza. We were running on the left-side of the upper-level, closer to NYC. This is normally the lane for cars driving to Staten Island from Brooklyn. The speakers blasted Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” to which everyone sang along and waved hands. An announcement was made warning runners not to go to the bathroom on the bridge because it is dangerous and unpleasant…that gave us all a much-needed comic relief. I was extremely relaxed. Ken and I mapped out our plan – take it easy, it’s a nice long 20-mile run and then we race. I told Ken that although we will start the race together he should not feel obligated to wait for me or hold back if he starts to feel the need to push ahead. No matter what happens, we need to run our own best marathon.
The gun went off and we started jogging, I hit start on my watch and stayed relaxed. Not 100 feet onto the bridge we got hit with the first gust of wind. Oooo, it was strong! I hunkered my head down into my hat, tightened my form and nestled behind a pack of runners. I figured being on the lower level probably had an advantage in that it buffered some of the strong wind gusts.
We also didn’t have an incline like the upper level. I soaked up the views that I see every day going to and from work. It was awesome. I looked to my left in the direction of Manhattan and the upper-east side bridges and realized that in a few hours my little legs were going to bring me over there. It was such an overwhelming thought that I simply regarded it as no big deal. I knew I would do it.
As we started to descend the bridge I could feel the marathon was really about to begin as I started to hear cheers. I repeated my affirmation that I always say at the start of a race – I will finish this race. I will finish strong. I will run the entire race. By saying these words it’s like I’ve mentally locked in a promise between my brain and body to achieve my goal. It works every time.
My wave ran the first 3 miles on a slightly different course in Brooklyn before joining the other waves on 4th Avenue. We were never without cheers. As we approached 4th Avenue the crowds were loud and packed on both sides of the street. Runners were pouring onto the street like rainbow-colored sand in an hour-glass. As we merged into 4th Avenue I felt a wave of energy sweep me off my feet. I wasn’t running. I was gliding!
I had my name taped on my shirt and spectators were calling me. Go Tara! Tara! Tara! Strangers were cheering for me. It was an amazing feeling. I wasn’t paying attention to mileage. Suddenly we were almost 6 miles in. I kept an eye out for friends who were to be stationed along this marker. I saw my dear friend and screamed and jumped and hugged her tightly. I ran off and not 2 blocks later a runner taps my shoulder and says I dropped my phone with my friend.
I froze. Ken said not to worry, just go back. So I turned around and started trotting back, against the push from the runners, looking into the crowds that were packed 5 rows deep. I saw my friend, yelled out and she tossed the phone to me. This ordeal took no more than a minute. I figured it was meant to happen so I didn’t get upset. Maybe this little interruption helped recharge my muscles or saved me from a fall that would have otherwise happened? We made up the time lost because in a few miles we past the runner that had initially helped us.
At every fluid station we grabbed water and Gatorade and took a few sips. By mile 10 I took a few energy chomps just to be safe on my glycogen reserves. After mile 10 it felt like there were quite a lot of hills. We paced ourselves through each one, reserving energy so we would be strong for the finish.
When we got to the Pulaski Bridge between Mile 13-14 that was the first spot where I saw lots of runners falling apart. There were many off on the side stretching or walking and with faces of pain. It was a very steep, although short, incline over the bridge. I leaned a little bit forward, hiked my legs high and charged up and over. As we came down the hill I increased my speed and let gravity replenish my lungs and muscles. If there were strong winds, I didn’t notice. If there was a chill, I didn’t feel it.
The crowds were everywhere and they carried me through every borough. It was one big party on the streets of New York. Anyone that had hands out I smacked with a high-five. If there were little kids I made sure to give them a high-five too. The feeling of connecting with so many people was phenomenal. I remember how I felt as a young girl watching my Dad run NYC Marathons in the 80’s and 90’s. I would get dizzy watching the endless runners move past me as I stood crammed behind the police barricade.
As we made our way towards the Queensboro Bridge I felt its massive height looming above me from the roadway. I stared it down and thought, okay, I gotta run over that too. I’ll get there. I can do it. One step in front of the other. On the bridge more runners were crashing. We passed them though we weren’t running faster. We definitely slowed down but mentally we were feeling strong and in good spirits. There was a police helicopter hovering just off the side railing of the bridge. Runners were stopping to take photos. I soaked up the amazing views.
I am a New Yorker so while skyline is a view I know very well, it never ceases to take my breath away. I thought of the foreigners running around me and how the impact of all the tall, closely fitted buildings and bridges must captivate their attention. Does it make them feel intimated and insignificant? Does it overwhelm their inner-strength or motivate them harder?
The bridge was a steady incline and we all felt it. There was a silence and just the sound of sneakers hitting pavement. I didn’t put on my music. I enjoyed the sounds around me. Finally we peaked and started to feel the relief of running downhill. I knew we were about to hit onto the streets of Manhattan and that thought made me happy.
Ken and I braced each other. We know that at Mile 16, when you start to head up First Avenue, is where runners get into trouble because they feel the energy of the crowds and being in Manhattan and then make the mistake of going too fast and ultimately bonking out. We kept our pace steady. The crowds were back and a welcome sight. I’ve heard of the ‘wall of sound’ that runners feel as they come off the Queensboro Bridge. What stood out to me was seeing mobs of people crammed along the barricades, waving and cheering every single runner.
First Avenue is one long incline. At first I was looking at each street number but after a few blocks I stopped because it was making me feel the distance I still had to run. Instead I focused on the massive crowds that were cheering. By now my name tag had fallen off my shirt. I wished I had come up with a better plan for getting my name on my torso. It was the higher miles where I really needed to hear my name.
Ken and I were looking at the crowds seeking friends. Somehow we missed seeing everyone. Except at 86th Street where we spotted his family. There is simply nothing like seeing someone you know amid miles and miles of strangers. His wife gave us bananas that we ate as we ran off. That banana was a fantastic energy booster.
As we hit the Bronx the crowds thinned out but there was a lot of fun music blasting. I realized how depleted everyone’s energy levels were becoming because there were few runners waving hands or high-fiving spectators. We were all reserving as much as we could to keep our minds focused and legs moving. The party atmosphere we felt throughout Brooklyn and Queens took a very different tone in the Bronx and Harlem as the real race – the last 6 miles – was about to begin!
I saw the Willis Avenue Bridge and thought, “Holy cow! We are actually here now, already! It’s gonna be over very soon.” The Willis Avenue Bridge has always seemed extremely far away from my point of life on Staten Island.
My nutrition for this marathon has been a different approach from the past marathons. I limited my Gu and Gel intake to just 2 packets and only once I reached +18 miles. In the lower miles I took a few chomps. And I ate two bananas. One around mile 16 and another around mile 22. What I found I most needed was salt. I sweat a lot.
Ken had a few salt packets and gave me one at mile 18 as I started to feel my legs getting a bit stiff and my running posture trying to compensate. As if I was doing a tequila shot, I licked some salt, grabbed a shot of water and boom! I was back in action. I had to do it again around mile 22 and it made a world of difference. My legs were starting to get stiff again and I could feel that my calves might start to cramp. I didn’t chance it. Another salt packet and like magic my legs loosened up again.
Every new neighborhood we crossed into was amazing. At some point we were in a Mexican area and I found myself shouting ‘Viva Mexico!’ and then it was Indian where the DJ was blasting Bollywood music. As we came down from the Bronx into Harlem there was a Latin band playing salsa. I found the energy to give a little cha-cha-cha in my run.
Coming across Mile 23 I looked ahead and saw the infamous Fifth Avenue. It was yet another long steady incline. I was expecting this moment after months of training. I decided to ‘go fishing’ as I once read in a marathoner tip guide. I’d spot a runner, reel him in and move on. Runners were really hurting at this point. Many were walking. If I passed someone walking I’d pat them on the back and try to encourage them to keep on moving. My pace was pretty steady throughout the entire marathon but here is where I really felt I was gearing up for a big finale. I felt myself growing stronger. As we started to get close to where we would enter into Central Park, Ken and I both began to really pick-up the pace. The crowds were non-stop. Our coach had trained us to get comfortable (although it’s never really comfortable. You just get comfortable with the uncomfortable) with running faster the last few miles of our long Sunday runs. As we came to our final 5 miles our brains were doing just what it had trained to do.
I know the course in Central Park with my eyes closed. We started to run past the museum and then down Cat Hill (finally a down hill!) and I could feel the finish line coming closer! I was scanning the crowds for my family but never did see them. At this point Ken was also feeling juiced up from the crowds and surged ahead of me. I watched him run off with his hands waving to the crowds shouting “Make some noise, New York!” We were both feeling on fire. I was happy to see him charge off because since I had trained for many months with him step-in-step I knew it meant we both had the strength in us to push harder. He inspired me to push harder.
I was now zig-zagging past runners as I came along 59th Street and just a mile away from the finish line. Only when I got to Columbus Circle did I notice that daylight was starting to slip away. I kept picking up the pace and smiling at the crowds.
I don’t think I could have been living more in the now than during the 4 hours and 41 minutes it took me to run 26.2 miles. There was never a moment where I thought in the past, nor did I think in the future. I just kept focused on the present moment I was in with the bounce of each step. Right up until the finish line.
I was so happy to see the finish line but also felt very sad because I didn’t want the marathon to be over. I remember thinking the moment I saw the finish line that I could definitely run another 10 miles. I looked around and made sure no one was blocking my moment. I held my arms up with my hot pink arm-warmers, looked up to heaven, said thank you to God and my angels and smiled across the finish.
Ken finished a minute ahead of me and we both felt amazingly strong and pumped with energy. We were handed our medals, took pictures, grabbed a tart apple, got a goodie bag (Gatorade protein drink, pretzels, protein bar) and made our way out of the park where we were wrapped in the most amazing NYRR Poncho. These ponchos were only given to those that opted not to check baggage. I felt like a superhero being given her cape.
We met up with my husband (finish time 4:17) and compared stories. Before Ken went on to find his family we said we’d speak later in the week and figure out our running plans for the following weekend! Runners never stop.
My husband and I made our way back towards the finish line and waited for my 69-year-old Dad. By now it was getting dark outside. I spotted his stride and he was moving steady and strong. For the first time I wasn’t just a spectator for my Dad. I was a marathoner too. We screamed and hollered for him, gave him a huge hug and watched him finish like a champ his 9th marathon in 5:48!
Looking back on my marathon experience, do I have any regrets? Is there anything I would change or do differently? Regrets, absolutely not. Do differently? I would run a lot more hills in my training. And every time I would think I ran enough hills I would turn onto another hill just for good measure. The NYC Marathon course is packed with hills, a lot of sneaky incline hills like on First Ave and Fifth Ave and a handful of rolling steep hills especially crossing the bridges.
I would also reserve my energy during the first 14 miles. Brooklyn was such a rush and I loved high-fiving spectators and waving and smiling at everyone. That act used up a lot of energy and probably also slowed down my pace when you add it all up.
I hope that my journey to crossing the finish line, over all the months of training and while in the very moment of running the course, inspires even just one person to do something they never dreamed possible. When you make an authentic decision to do something, the universe conspires to make it come true. If you remain determined, committed and give it your best effort, you too can Smile Across The Finish!