In high school, my family lived near a ski slope. Each winter, we had the opportunity to volunteer to guide blind skiers going down the mountain. Now, if you’ve ever tried this before, you know it’s not for those with a weak buttocks. You pizza wedge down an easy or medium slope side-by-side – guide, skier, guide – everyone holding on to a pole. If one goes down, the other two typically topple. Many of our skiers had never been skiing before. This was their first time, and one look at their faces, said it all – this experience was pure joy for them. I loved this day. If memory serves, I was only able to participate 2 winters, but those were amazing times! I played basketball and basketball players weren’t allowed to ski. It was serious, you see, the basketball playing. *wink*
Anyway, I decided to sign up to run the NYC Marathon with an Achilles International athlete this year. Maybe I was chasing old feelings or perhaps I was just looking for a new way to experience the NYC Marathon. Either way, I’m glad I took the plunge. I was placed on a team with 3 guides and 1 athlete, who has Type 1 Diabetes and Epilepsy. She’s also a lovely person. She even prepared a vegan team dinner for us a few weeks before the race. Two of four of us are vegan (veggies taking over the world… yeah!!). And she made us team bracelets. Love.
Here’s a bit about my experience:
There are a few ways to gain entry into the NYC marathon. If you’re super speedy (not me), you can qualify. There’s also a lottery, which gives you about a 10% chance of getting a bib. The way to guarantee entry, for locals, is to race 9 other NYRR sponsored races and volunteer once the year before you intend to race the marathon. 9+1. For my ‘+1’ this year, I volunteered at the marathon expo, giving out bibs to marathoners. It’s a great way to size up the competition. Kidding!! I love it because of the energy and excitement that you can feel. Here are the ‘types’ of runners I saw:
- Some racers are local – you can always spot them because they usually are short, to-the-point, and want to get in and get out. Plus, they’re often in their work attire. I can’t blame them. Expos are like casinos. No clocks. You can blink and 2 hours have passed.
- Others racers are foreign and they are often accompanied by their families or runner friends.
- Then, of course, there are the first timers, most of whom wear their nerves on their sleeves… meaning, you can pick them out of a crowd. For some families, it’s a really big deal that someone is running a marathon. These are the ones that arrive in packs, are wearing matching t-shirts, and take 15 photos of the runner getting his or her bib. It’s a big deal.
- Lastly, there are the old pros. One runner proudly told me this would be his 25th consecutive NYC marathon. Apparently, these people are called “streakers”, which incited the wrong mental image the first time I heard it. No need to worry, they run clothed.
The expo is a great place to spend a few hours. By the end, I was beginning to wish I was racing!
Sunday morning finally rolled around. Both Michael and I were running so we were up at 4:30 getting race-ready. My mom arrived at 5:15am to care for the kids – yes, she’s a saint. I left soon after to make my way to the bus in midtown. Achilles has special busses for athlete with disabilities and their guides. By 6am we were loaded up and ready to go. Finally, after lots of waiting on the bus, we began making our way to Staten Island. I wasn’t complaining, though, being on a warm bus definitely beat sitting outside in the cold for several hours, which is the usual NYC marathon ritual. Little did I know, Achilles would have a nice warm tent full of coffee, bagels, water, etc. for us use while we waited to be called into our corrals. I was starting to feel like a VIP. The best thing about being in the AWD area, by far, was seeing all of the athletes with a wide range of disabilities coming together to take on the NYC Marathon. I was overcome by my emotions a few times. Many of these people experienced some sever trauma that left them without legs or without feeling in their lower bodies. Rather than playing the victim, they were about to put their bodies to the test. As the Achilles athletes made their way to the start (they would leave directly following Wave 1), the athletes, who were already lined up in their corrals, went wild. What a moment!
There’s a lot of waiting before the NYC marathon. We were lucky that this year was pretty warm. I only had to shed one layer in the Goodwill pile, which I consider a big win since last year I tossed a brand new breast pump and a full sweat suit. After lots of waiting and a few speeches, they played Sinatra’s New York, NY and with a very loud bang, the elite runners were off. It would be a few minutes before we would arrive at the starting line to begin our race. Excitement was in the air. It was almost party time.
The NYC marathon is really one huge party. And as one of the 52,000 runners, you feel like the star of the show. The energy is palpable. I believe strongly that anyone who is considering running a marathon should apply to run NYC. There is nothing like it. The first hill takes you to the peak of the Verrazano bridge, where you can see the entire race course laid out in front of you. It’s like an aerial sneak peek of what’s to come. We cruised down from the bridge and after a few small hills, we were in flat, fast Brooklyn. As pacer, I was reminding the team not to start out too fast. Zoe’s blood sugar was a little low so she had a gel and a few skittles. We were rolling. Since we started at the end of Wave 1, more than 30 minutes before the next wave of runners, there were moments when we were nearly alone on the course. It was surreal and drastically different from my experience last year.
Brooklyn is lovely, full of music, energy, and love. You feel like you’re in a real neighborhood. Brooklyn always reminds me of Baltimore, where I spent my early 20s. It wasn’t long before the fastest runners in Wave 2 caught us. We had to resist the urge to pick up the pace as runners engulfed our little foursome. Mile 8 marked the next big hill. This street is narrow with beautiful row homes on either side. We walked up the hill, which was hard for Zoe because she was getting lots of love from spectators and other athletes. She wanted to run, but she also knew the importance of saving energy for later in the race. We made our way into a quieter part of the course on Bedford Avenue and then we entered Williamsburg, where the party picked up again. Another bridge separated Brooklyn from Queens. Again, we walked up it and then resumed our steady jog through Queens.
Before I knew it, we were approaching the Queensboro Bridge. It is one of the hardest parts of the course, in my opinion. The uphill is longer than you think it should be and there are no spectators. All you hear is footsteps, and the occasional, “does this hill ever end?” Zoe stopped to take a photo – such a ham! We stuck to our plan and walked up the bridge and ran back down, where we were spit out on First Avenue. Manhattan! For the first time, I noticed on my right the spectators outside of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, which is one of the premier cancer hospitals in the country. I saw children, bald and hooked to IV drips, along the course cheering for us. Adult cancer patients were out cheering, too – some old, some young. At that moment, I really wanted to stop and give them each a hug to show how inspired I was by their fight. Another powerful moment.
We progressed up First Avenue toward Harlem and finally crossed another bridge, which put us in the Bronx. It’s quieter there, desolate in pockets, but I didn’t mind. It is a nice break before the crowds of Manhattan surround you again. You have some space to focus. There are people in pockets, just not six people deep, and there’s music and drums. There were more people walking than before. Perhaps not everyone shares my affinity for the Bronx.
Finally, we were back on 5th Avenue and heading south towards 90th street, where we’d enter Central Park at Engineer’s Gate. There’s a gentle hill from 108 to 95th (mile 23). We ran most of it, a good sign we had paced ourselves well up to that point. Our miles were between 12 and 13 minutes now. Finally, a right hand turn into the park! We were almost home free. Central Park is a net downhill, but it does have a few inclines sprinkled in. The plus side about finishing here is that if you’ve trained in NYC, you know this part of the course like the back of your hand. Though it is dressed up a bit on race day, the familiarity is comforting. Soon we were dumped out onto Central Park South, a sign that we were closing in on the finish. The crowd was intense there. I saw an athlete on the ground surrounded by medics. I hoped he or she was ok. We kept plodding along until we made it to Columbus Circle, where we were greeted by an enthusiastic volunteer with a big sign that read, “This Way to the Finish”. Less than a half of a mile left. There’s a small hill before you reach the NYC marathon finish. Brutal.
Finally, the finish line was in our sights. The four of us held hands and raised our arms! We were brimming with pride for Zoe’s PR. As she tested her blood sugar once more, we made our way through the exit chute, grabbing medals, capes, food and beverage. Next stop, reuniting with family and friends and a good meal!
For me, the next stop was the subway and then a bus. I had to make my way cross-town, which is no easy feat on Marathon Day. An hour later I made it home (~2 miles from the finish). Michael was feeding the twins dinner when I walked in the door. Since he actually raced (and did quite well), I took over so he could rest and recover. After I put the kids to bed, we celebrated by eating chips & dip. Michael bought beer for us, but I feel asleep sometime between 9 and 10pm, before I could open mine. We lead wild lives.