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Carol's Fat Ass

New York Marathon

November 1, 2009 - First of the Three Marathons Fundraiser

Being a big fish is all about finding the right pond. One such pond for me is the Bubba Pre-Memorial Cross Country Series (as I'm already on a tangent, I won't bother explaining the name). It's not that St. Louis doesn't produce good cross country runners; it produces some of the best. Perhaps even the best as Craig Virgin is from just across the river in Illinois. But, for whatever reason, those kids go on to other things, leaving the 40+ field to folks like me. However, to maintain one's big fish status even in a tiny watering hole like this, one must head off to the deep dark ocean from time to time and return with tales of heroism and woe.

So, here I was talking to Andy Koziatek at Bubba #2, a week before running the New York Marathon. Andy would be a mid-sized fish even on the stage of New York; his times would put him in the "sub-elite" class. My 3:09 qualifier puts me in the minnow category, but still a notch above the great masses that get in via the lottery. I'd be labeled a "locally competitive" runner and given a better start position at the front of the "orange" start if I was local, but St. Louis is not exactly a suburb of NYC, so I'm in the big group on the "blue" line behind the elites. (More on New York's convoluted wave and start line procedures in a bit). Andy wishes me well, noting that my terrain running should have me ready for the hills, and then boosts my confidence by crushing me in the cross country race. But, he's still a young pup, so I'm still the big fish in the over-40 pond.

The trip to New York is happily uneventful; never a sure thing when driving a thousand miles with a 6-year-old in the car. We arrive in Norwalk CT at the home of my college roommate, Kevin Robertson. Kevin works at a midtown design agency and is the creator of the Carol's Team logo. He's also been getting into running the past few years and starting to talk seriously about running his first marathon. Talking about his progress is a nice diversion from thinking about my own prep.

On Saturday, Kevin, Yaya, and I take the train into the city to pick up my number (Kate would have come, too, but she's nursing a cold and decides to get some rest). Inside the Javitz center, we get our first look at the machine that is the New York City Marathon. It's the sort of efficiency that New York is famous for (the most time consuming part of the process is weaving through the equipment expo to exit), but it's also administered by some of the most genuinely friendly folks you'll ever meet.

Yaya was given the choice between the Statue of Liberty and the Museum of Natural History and chose the latter to see the dinosaur bones. We walk over to Penn Station and catch a subway uptown. Kate's sister Emily (who lives in Brooklyn) meets us for lunch and accompanies us to the museum. I haven't been to the museum in 30 years, but I spent enough time there as a kid to leave a lifelong impression. It's been updated in many positive ways but, thankfully, the bones are exactly as I remembered them. No animatronics, laser shows, or interactive media. Just bones assembled into some really menacing poses. If a 65-million-year-old skeleton that's bigger than a truck ain't good enough, well, that's your problem. It's certainly good enough for Yaya who sheiks with glee at seeing them.

My feet are starting to send signals that I'm doing way too much walking around for the day before a marathon. We grab a cab back to Grand Central (Yaya very much enjoys her first taxi ride) and head back home so Yaya can do some trick or treating and I can get some sleep. At 5:30 AM, I'm heading back in for the race.

I arrive at Grand Central at 6:45 and hunt around for a restroom. Most are still closed, but one of NY's Finest points me to one that's open. You'd think that there would be no wait at this time on a Sunday, but the odd confluence of runners taking care of pre-race business and Halloween revelers taking care of post-party business has the lone restroom rather full. It's an odd mixing of groups to say the least: one wants to run 26.2 miles, the other just wants their head to stop hurting.

I miss the 4 train downtown because they've got it diverted to the local track for service. ("Should we be getting on that one?" asks a woman from England. "No, we want the express," I say confidently, trying to affect my old NY accent which was never very strong and wore off years ago. "Oh wait. Crap. We wanted that."). We get the next one and arrive at the Battery just as the 7:30 ferry is backing out of the pier. Still 2 hours to the start, so I'm not too worried about it. The ferry terminal is pretty full, but another friendly New York Road Runners Club (NYRRC) volunteer tells me they are running the normal commuting schedule rather than the weekend schedule, so there will be no trouble getting everybody across the river. Sure enough, the 7:45 fills up before I get to the gate, but another one arrives just 5 minutes later and I get on that. During the ride, I somehow get tasked with taking pictures of a dozen international runners who want the Statue of Liberty in the background. I wish Kate was with me; she takes much better pictures than I.

Once on Staten Island, we're shuttled onto busses that take us to Fort Wadsworth for the start. There, we have to go through a security checkpoint, deposit our drop bag at the appropriate UPS truck (each truck has a sign indicating a range of 1000 bib numbers, so there are 67 such trucks), and find my way to the corral for Blue, Wave 1.

New York used to have one mass start with the elite men on one side of the bridge leading the pack of competitive runners and elite women on the other side leading the 3:30+ crowd. A few years back they went to a wave start with three waves and three start lines to try to cut back on congestion. Blue-1, has the elites, followed by the next fastest 5000 or so runners who didn't qualify for a preferred spot on the Orange or Green lines. I'm seeded about halfway deep in this group, which means I can expect to lose some time in the first few miles due to congestion.

All that suddenly changes when I hear an announcement over the PA saying that Wave 1 corrals are now closed. What?!? It's only 9:00 AM; the start isn't for another 40 minutes! I run over to the corrals hoping I can sweet talk my way in. That turns out to be unnecessary as a large group of runners has solved the problem in a manner more typical of New York: they've knocked down part of the fence and are streaming into the corrals. Well, when in Rome... I join the mob and work my way through the start grid until I find people with numbers in the same range as mine.

Then comes the big cattle drive onto the bridge as all the corrals are moved to the staring lines. It's a fair distance covered and there's plenty of jostling as several thousand runners are moving along a 30-foot wide roped corridor. I seem to do pretty well at holding my position and as we approach the line, I'm only about 1000 runners deep. There are double-decker busses lined up along the starting grid that serve both to keep us penned in and also provide VIP vantage points. While I may not be thrilled with my start position, it is fun to be on the line where the elites are introduced. It's a Who's Who of marathoning, made all the more exciting by the fact that there are some Americans in the field with a legitimate shot at winning the race. I've had no warmup at all, so I try to jog in place to get some blood flowing during the intros. The national anthem is sung, Mayor Bloomberg gives a wonderfully concise sendoff and then the howitzer fires, sending a shock wave through my chest and the first wave of 20,000 runners into motion.

Blue-1 Start
It's a tight squeeze through the start line which I hit about 40 seconds after the gun, but the chip timing will adjust for that. After that, the Blue wave gets all three eastbound lane, so there's adequate room to run. It appears my grid position was appropriate. A few people pass me and I pass a few, but most of us settle into the opening grunt up the bridge at about the same speed. We climb steadily to the first mile marker which passes 7:47 after crossing the start line. I expected to lose time in the first couple miles, so I'm fine with that split. The next mile (which is now running down the other side) is 6:31, so I've cleared the first big hurdle, have reasonably open running, and am less than a minute off pace. My pulse has settled in at 156 with no spikes, so it's as good a start as I could have hoped for.

Off the bridge, we now meet the spectators. Two million is one of those numbers that you think you understand, but can never really get your arms around. That is, until you run past that many people in a three-hour period. The side of the road is jammed with people and the noise is something I've only experienced at the finish of a race. And here we are barely 1/10 of the way in. As we turn onto Brooklyn's Fourth Avenue and merge with the Green and Orange starts, I get another sight I'm not used to: the backs of nearly 3,000 runners filling the road for over a mile in front of me. This is clearly not the Bubba Cross Country series.

Fourth Avenue stays pretty close to the river, so the hills are small and gentle. I settle into my 6:50 pace, figuring that if I'm going to break three hours, it will more likely happen with a strong second half than by trying to get the first-mile losses back here. It's pretty much ideal running weather: 50 degrees, overcast, and very light wind. My legs feel fine and the effort feels right. There's just one problem. I have no food.

I haven't brought any food because I just assumed they'd have some at the aid stations. While they do have both Gatorade and water, there's nothing solid being offered. That's a problem. I had a decent breakfast at 5AM, but haven't had a chance to eat anything since. I take Gatorade at each station (they are more or less at each mile), but I was counting on putting down around 600 calories during the race and I don't think the little 4-ounce sips I'm getting are going to add up to that. Further, because it's so nice and cool, I'm not losing much fluid so it won't get absorbed as quickly. One thing you definitely don't want in a marathon is a lot of salt water making it to your large intestines.

The middle of the field in Brooklyn. This is why you don't want to be in wave 2.
At 8 miles we turn away from the river and get into some larger hills. I manage to keep my pace close without spiking my heart rate. All the cadence training I've been doing the last few months is paying off. The shorter stride definitely works better on the hills. Runners who have taken it out too fast are already starting to falter and I'm passing several dozen people on each incline. Of course that still leaves several thousand up the road.

Heading into Greenpoint at mile 12, I try to pick out Emily among the thousands along the road. I don't see her, but I do spot a spectator offering bananas to the runners. It's not my normal marathon fuel, but I've eaten them in long races before, so I grab one. It's a little green, but seems OK. By mile 13, the bomb has gone off. The banana shot right through my empty stomach and now I gut is ready to explode. I back the pace off, running mile 13 in 7:03 despite it being slightly downhill. It doesn't help. As I start up the Pulaski Bridge into Queens, it's clear I'm not going to be able to finish unless I take care of this.

My problems are far from unusual and the NYRRC has prepared for such things by positioning hundreds of porta-potties along the route. Being relatively close to the front of the field, they are all still clean and stocked with paper; I shudder to think what shape they will be in when the 6-hour crowd is coming through. It's only a 90-second stop and I'm back on my way feeling much better. Still, the damage is done. I'm now nearly three minutes off pace. Running the tough second half in 87 minutes is simply not plausible. Today will not be a sub-3. So, it's decision time: hammer on and try to get the best possible seed time for Boston (probably around 3:04 the way things are going), or back off and enjoy being part of the greatest spectacle in running. I choose the latter.

Still, it is a race, and I don't want to completely give up at this point. I run mile 15 in 7:28 to let my insides fully settle and then get back on the gas. We pass an aid station where a guy is on the horn telling us all that this is the last water before "The Bridge". I look up, way up, to see "The Bridge" ahead of us. The Queensboro Bridge is the steepest, nastiest climb on the course. There are no spectators allowed on the bridge and for the first time in over an hour, I hear running sounds, breathing, footsteps, spitting, coughing, rather than the constant cheering. While some might feel abandoned in their time of need, I rather like it. There's a seriousness to the silence that makes the hill easier to deal with. Running back down the other side is so steep that it requires substantial effort just to keep from pitching forward. The 16-mile marker is just before exiting the bridge and I'm rather surprised to see that, even with the hill, I've run the mile in 7:16. Holding that pace the rest of the way will have me comfortably under 3:10.

Up until this point I've been marveling at the spectator support. Despite being several miles behind the leaders, the fans have been abundant and enthusiastic. But nothing so far has prepared me for the entrance to New York Island. The base of the Queensboro Bridge is a prime viewing area for a number of reasons. It's far enough in that you see the runners starting to wrestle with the effort. The 180-degree turn at the base of the hill has even slower runners leaning in which makes for good photos. You can walk just four blocks to watch the runners again at mile 25. But, most of all, it's the first step taken in New York County, and if you're from these parts and you say "New York", you mean the Borough of Manhattan. The sound is deafening, especially in contrast to the silence that preceded.

The roar continues the entire length of First Avenue, which is a straight drag of over three miles. There are slight changes in grade, but nothing constituting a hill. At mile 18 I get to an aid station and have to chuckle a bit at the fact that they are handing out PowerGel. Anybody who waits until mile 18 to eat in a marathon is toast. It's the only piece of logistics that the NYRRC got wrong. That doesn't stop me from grabbing a few packets. Even at this speed, I'm going to be pretty low on fuel by the finish.

One of the design constraints of the course was that it should hit all five boroughs. Obviously, Staten Island gets short changed as we're on the bridge leaving that one at the start. Nearly half the race is in Brooklyn, which makes sense as that's where most of the people live. It simply has to finish in Central Park for both aesthetic reasons and others that will become obvious later. Queens gets a few miles, but the one that I'm sure they'd delete if they could would be the Bronx. There's only enough length in the course to get a mile over there and it's necessarily at the very southern end which, frankly, is not the most flattering part of the city. In fact, when I was a kid, my dad brought me here and told me that I'm no better than any of these folks and if I didn't want to live like this getting some decent grades might be a really good idea. It worked.

Anyway, the Bronx it is. There aren't very many fans here (even if you're not afraid of the hood, why would you watch here when you can join the biggest rap party on the planet a mile away in Harlem?) Stranger still, they're blasting the Rocky theme at the aid station. Aren't the Bronx Bombers currently trying to defeat the Phillies in the World Series? Maybe it's been long enough that folks here don't even remember where that movie was set. I guarantee you they do in Philadelphia. Anyway, I'm happy to be through it and as we cross the Madison Avenue Bridge, we are greeted by the aforementioned largest rap party in the world. This isn't amateur hour, either. Some of these guys are really good.

At mile 22, we turn onto Fifth Avenue and the silhouette of the Empire State Building, five miles away, is planted firmly in our sites. Perhaps it's because it wasn't finished until I was 10, but the World Trade Center never really interested me. It was just tall. The ESB, on the other hand, symbolizes everything I love about the city. Seeing it in this context literally sends shivers down my spine. I spend the next 2 miles staring at it.

At mile 24, we turn into Central Park and are reminded that Manhattan is Dutch for "Island of Hills". It's a brutal ending. None of the hills are long, but there is simply no flat ground to be had. Aside from the opening climb and disaster miles of 14 and 15, 24 and 25 are my slowest miles of the race, but it's not for lack of effort. Exiting the park onto Central Park South puts the hills behind us and the cheers are as loud here as they have been anywhere on the course. The distance markers are now counting down, rather than up: 1 mile to go, 800m to go, we turn back into the park, 400m to go, 200m to go, and there's the finish banner.

Of course he's not tired. He only ran for two hours.
And it's done. 3:08:40. While I might have wished for better, it is second only to my 3:00:16 at Pensacola (a much faster course), so it can hardly be called a bad personal performance. I'm not quite sure where it will land me on the starting grid at Boston, but my guess is that it won't be too much different from what I had to deal with here. Boston usually gets around 4000 runners with qualifying times under 3:10. On patriotic note, Meb Keflezighi brought home the win for the US - first time that's happened in quite a while. (And, yes, he is American. Born in Africa, but he's lived here since childhood and is a product of the US running program).

The marathon is over, but I'm not done. I'm now alone in the middle of New York with nothing to my name but a singlet, shorts, racing flats, watch, and two packs of PowerGel. The NYRRC quickly augments that by giving me a finisher medal, space blanket and a food bag. As a devout Libertarian, I can't knock 'em for charging what the market will bear, but it does seem that a $160 entry fee should get you a little more than an apple, a bagel, and some almonds at the finish. Oh, well, there are plenty of street vendors willing to pick up the slack, but first I have to find my drop bag.

Something else you get for your money: a commemorative finish time magnet.

Remember those 67 UPS trucks? Well, they park 'em in reverse order. That's probably wise as the back of the field isn't going to want to walk a mile to get their stuff. But, it does mean that I have to walk a mile to get mine. This is why the Central Park finish is really a necessity. There simply isn't any other spot in Manhattan big enough to handle processing 43,475 finishers (not to mention the those that dropped out, but still have to get their stuff). I had planned on walking for the better part of an hour, so this isn't really a big deal. After arriving at my truck, I get my bag. Knowing that runners will think nothing of changing in public, NYRRC has set up some tents to provide some modesty for the benefit of the less seasoned runners. I change into my warm-ups and head out to Central Park West at 82nd (right in front of the Museum of Natural History).

In another one of those things that you just never think about when running smaller races, the entire length of Central Park West is closed so the runners can meet their families, friends, etc. Every 50 feet or so is a sign indicating a range of 1000 numbers. Runners walk down the side of the street closest to the park, while those who are meeting them stand by the signs in the middle of the road. Having nobody to meet, I wander all the way down to 70th street before my feet start sending very clear signals that they are done for the day.

I descend to the subways, and get on the C train, which is jammed with runners who didn't think walking an extra mile was such a great idea and boarded at 82nd. I get off at 42nd to take the 7 train over to Grand Central. The 7 isn't very full; there's actually an open seat. I debate whether sitting down is a good idea (it might be hard to get back up), but decide I can probably sit for 10 minutes without stiffening up. What I can't do is stay awake. Almost as soon as I sit down, I pass out and don't wake up until I'm in Queens. I get back on the train heading the other way. It's an interesting change. Up until now, all the transportation (even the 5:30 from Norwalk) has been filled with runners. Now, it's the "usual" Sunday crowd from Queens which is anything but usual. At Grand Central, I have just enough time to buy some food and a beer for the train back to Norwalk.

Between the fans and the stellar race staff you could come away from this race thinking New York is the friendliest town in the world. You'd be wrong about that, but the impression is genuine. Many had told me that I should just run this one for the experience and save the performance goals for another day. I'm glad I ran it hard, but I'm also glad I stepped back just a bit to take it all in. There will be other marathons, but this really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And, we did raise a couple grand for ALS, so that's a good thing.

And, the running gods seemed to agree. Safely back in my little pond, Andy has decided to skip Bubba #4. With only six days rest in the legs, it's a bit too early to be going hard, but one does what one must and I manage to eek out an overall win. It's an improvement of 1673 places over the week before. It's all about finding the right pond.

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