The 2014 NYC Marathon: wind and grief

4th avenue, South Slope

Fourth Ave, Brooklyn, between miles 6-7; the guy with the Puerto Rican flag was the crowd favorite. (Photo credit: Luke Redmond)

The wind was the headline story – sustained winds of 20 mph, gusting to almost twice that.  When I share stories with other runners, it’s the wind we’ll talk about. The way it pushed us sideways on the Verrazano bridge; the unnerving, rattling sound of our bibs straining against their safety pins; the hats, garbage bags and other debris whipping past us; the unexpected, energy-sapping blast when we turned west into the Bronx in mile 20.

When I think about the race in personal terms, though, it will always be “the race I ran while C was dying.” I wish I could say I thought of her with every step, but that wouldn’t be true. In the selfish way of the non-dying, I thought about a lot of things. I took in the spectators and my fellow runners, slapped a few hands, said a few words of encouragement. I looked for members of my running club. I blew a kiss to my husband. I debated when to toss my water bottle (around mile 5), my gloves (mile 12), my goofy hat (never).

Where my thoughts tended to settle on C was in the tough parts, when I used her name as a mantra to maintain my cadence (“C” – foot strike – “C” – foot strike).  And yes, I can’t write that without again confronting the fundamental selfishness of the non-dying and the non-immediately bereaved, and acknowledging the chasm it opens. We’re sad, but our lives go on – foot strike after foot strike, mile after mile, day after day, season after season. Theirs end, or have a hole ripped out of them. That selfishness may be necessary (how could we endure otherwise?), but it’s still enraging.

Here, then, is my race report.

Prelude: a long, cold wait

Gathering more than 50,000 people on Staten Island – so that they can turn around and run off it in waves that begin at 8:30 a.m. –  is a complicated business. The bus chartered by my running club left Park Slope around 6:00 a.m. and dropped us off at Fort Wadsworth around 6:30. Since none of us were wheelchair racers or elite women (who have the earliest starts), we faced, at a minimum, a three hour wait.

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Runner seeking shelter in a cardboard box. (Photo credit: Gosia Dekempe)

Those were some long, cold hours. The same wind that would make us so miserable had also forced the New York Road Runners to cut back on amenities at the start. There were, for example, no enclosed tents. While I understood the reasoning – enclosed tents could have blown down and crushed a few of us, seriously messing with someone’s race – there was a certain bitterness in the thought that the very conditions making shelter so important also made shelter so very scarce.

A few early arrivals – myself and my teammate Justin among them – used the lee side of one of the Fort’s brick buildings as a windbreak until National Guard troops came and evicted us.

We did eventually find the fenced-off Local Competitive section (signage had also been cut back because of the winds). I had vague memories from 2006 of a warm and spacious tent and a long row of port-a-johns just for us. The port-a-johns were still there, but the tent, of course, was not.  The small, open-sided tent that (barely) covered the breakfast buffet had already been commandeered by other runners. Some of the tinier women had even tucked themselves beneath the long folding tables that held our Gatorade, bagels, PowerBars and coffee. The rest of the area was an open field.

And so, dressed in our throwaway layers, Justin and I clutched our Mylar space blankets tight against the wind that was trying to strip them away, leaned back against the chain link fence, and shivered. “This is what the concentration camps will be like if the Republicans take over,” he joked. (Or maybe it wasn’t a joke. We shall see.)

I had gone back and forth about accepting a place in the Local Competitive corral, which puts the best area club runners at the very front of the first wave of the “Green” start.  (The three color-coded starts follow slightly different routes in the early miles.) On the one hand, it was an honor. On the other hand, having qualified as a 50+ female, I knew my goal time would be slower than pretty much everyone else’s, creating some real pacing challenges. But then there was that privileged starting position: front of the first corral = less time waiting around in the cold before the race. Not to mention the appeal of a warm place to wait in the Start Village, which I was almost positive I remembered from my last competitive start.

Vanity and those (possibly false) memories won out. So there I was.

I waited until we were lined up to be escorted to the start to begin shedding layers. Off came the jeans; I followed Justin’s lead and wrapped my space blanket around my waist like a shiny, crackling sarong. Off came Eric’s old dress shirt. We started the walk up to the bridge, at which point Katie’s “Super Sophomore” tee joined the berm of clothes rising by the side of the road. Clothes continued to fly overhead as we stood on the bridge. A group of Brazilian guys began to sing. (I recognized the tune, and didn’t need to understand the words to know it was a comeback to “Brasil, decime que se siente.” Were there any Argentines in the house? Was this about to get ugly?) More clothes flew. I looked at my watch, saw it was five minutes until the start, and handed my fleece and my Mylar sarong to someone who handed them to someone who tossed them to the side. I kept a long-sleeved jersey from an old relay team over my singlet, and of course, I had my DIY arm warmers.

Miles 1-3: oops

And we were off. The Brazilian guys stopped singing. There were a few whoops, and Frank Sinatra’s recorded voice belted out “New York, New York” over the loudspeakers (C, the child of Las Vegas show people, would love that, I thought). Mostly, though, it was the wind that provided the soundtrack. It roared. It grabbed discarded trash bags and hurled them at our legs. It tried to rip our race bibs off our chests and blow our feet out from under us.

I knew I would be passed by hundreds of people in the first few miles, and I was. I didn’t mind in the least. It was, in fact, a relief not to have to dodge and weave around all those slower runners who for some reason always line up ahead of you. Today, I could run purposefully, in a straight line (except when a gust of wind knocked me sideways), at my own pace, right from the start. Today, I was the One Who Must Be Dodged.

I glanced at my watch, which registered 6 minutes and change. Coming up on three-quarters of a mile, I figured. When we passed the one-mile mark, I’d see my pace and adjust it as appropriate. I had a series of ascending goals (starting with lead-pipe-cinch-that-I’ll-be-embarrassed-if-I-don’t-make, continuing to conservative-as-befits-someone-who-hasn’t-run-a-marathon-in-eight-years, and culminating in ambitious-but-not-unrealistic-given-my-training-and-race-times), all of which involved running absolutely no faster than 8:30 minute miles in the first half of the race.  This time, I was not going to make the rookie mistake of going out too fast.

The next time I looked at my watch, it showed 10 minutes. Either I had missed the one-mile mark, or there hadn’t been one.

There was no marker at the second mile, either. Mile signs on the Verrazano, it turned out, had been deemed too hazardous for the windy conditions. But my pace, whatever it was, felt totally comfortable, and so I stuck with it as we left the bridge and ran for a while on a freeway on-ramp. Finally, just as we headed into the residential streets of Bay Ridge, I saw a mile marker.

Three miles. 24:46 on the watch. 8:15 minutes per mile.

Consider my race plan blown.

Miles 4-14: isn’t this fun!

For runners in the Green start, the crowds of spectators begin in mile 4, as we zigzag down residential streets to join the Blue runners on the east side of 4th Avenue.  I celebrated by throwing my long-sleeved shirt to a family along Bay Ridge Parkway. “I love you, Bay Ridge!” I shouted inanely. (Here, take this old race shirt! It’s hardly sweaty at all, even though I’ve been running way faster than I should have!)

Phil waves to me as I blow kisses and the Puerto Rican flag flies proudly. (Photo credit: Eric Brooks)

Phil waves to me as I blow kisses and the Puerto Rican flag flies proudly. (Photo credit: Eric Brooks)

I really do love Bay Ridge. And Sunset Park, and Park Slope, and Fort Greene and Clinton Hill. The long 4th Avenue section of the course is mostly low-rise storefronts with signs that mix English with Arabic (Bay Ridge) and Spanish (Sunset Park), until you start hitting all the high-rise condos that have gone up in Park Slope over the last decade. For me, it’s homey and familiar. There’s the church where we volunteered after Hurricane Sandy; there’s my favorite grocery/taqueria; there’s the French restaurant we like; there’s my subway stop. Whoops – there’s Eric and Susie and Phil: better blow a kiss. Cross Atlantic Avenue, round the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and now you’re on Lafayette going through Fort Greene and Clinton Hill. Even though this part of the course isn’t as intimately familiar to me as 4th Avenue, it feels intimate, wherever you’re from. The road narrows, residential brownstones replace storefronts, the crowd deepens – and they’re all there to cheer just for you.

My Prospect Park Track Club singlet got me extra love (albeit not as much as the guy running with a Puerto Rican flag in his hand). I expected that in Park Slope, where so many team members live, and I knew to look for our official PPTC cheering station at 4th Avenue and Union Street. (And there they were, screaming and clanging those cowbells – fist pump, yeah!) But it was also true in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill and Bed-Stuy, and even in Williamsburg/Greenpoint (North Brooklyn Runners turf) and Queens. It was, in fact, true all over the city (and at the risk of getting ahead of the narrative, I am so, so grateful to my teammates who popped up in the Bronx and Harlem and other places where they were least expected and most needed – you rock, you guys).

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My awesome teammates. (Photo credit: Colleen Lynch)

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Attempting a double fist pump; I look as though I’m protecting myself from hurled objects. Perhaps I was afraid that family in Bay Ridge would track me down and throw my shirt back? (Photo credit: Colleen Lynch)

On we ran, down Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg, where I saw just one Hasidic man and a whole bunch of fashionable young people postponing brunch to cheer for us. (The cliché marathon photo used to be of Hasidim crossing the street while scantily-clad runners whizzed by. As Williamsburg gentrifies, the cliché photo bureau may need to rethink that.)  We approached McCarren Park, where a Brazilian band was playing (it reminded me of the rowdy Brazilian guys back at the start, and I wondered how their races were going). I did experience a small glitch here: from a distance, I mistook the Brazilian flags draped over the musicians’ shoulders for the green ponchos worn by fluid station volunteers, and downed my third energy gel (I’d taken one at the start and another back on 4th Avenue) a little prematurely, without water to wash it down. But no problem – we hit the next actual fluid station quickly enough.

Crossing the Pulaski Bridge into Queens, my thoughts drifted to C in California. The Pulaski is hardly a soaring structure – it’s very much a workaday bridge – but it does offer skyline views and by now, the sun was high and glass and steel sparkled. It was the kind of image I’d promised to capture and channel to her.

I had remembered the next mile, through Long Island City, as one of the race’s dead zones. That may have been the case in 2005 and 2006, but not any more. The LIC crowds were thick and raucous, a final boost before we began the climb up that big bridge looming just ahead of us.

Time for a quick status check: I felt great. I was right on pace, too, having clocked the last eleven miles squarely in the 8:30-8:40 range I’d targeted.  No mile was faster than 8:30, and the slowest (8:46) was explicable by the bottleneck where the course turns and narrows just as all three starts (Green, Orange and Blue) come together. At the halfway point, back on the Pulaski, my time was just under 1:52. I knew those too-fast miles at the start were going to mess with my goal of negative splits, but even so, a 3:50 finish seemed attainable. And that 4:00 Boston qualifying time? In the bag, baby.

There were, I admit, a few troubling signs.  Every so often, beginning around mile 10, my left foot would drag a little and scrape the pavement. Was my form deteriorating? I banished the thought. This was fun!

Miles 15-16: minority report

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The Queensboro/59th St/Feeling Groovy/Not-Ed-Koch bridge

Of this year’s 50,564 finishers, there must be a few others who actually liked the climb up the Queensboro (not Ed Koch) Bridge – I just haven’t met them. So this is very much a minority view, and I almost feel as though I should be whispering, or using very small print, but . . .

I liked it.

As much as I loved the crowds in Brooklyn and Queens, I appreciated the quiet on the bridge. It felt meditative, almost. I thought about C a lot in these two miles.

Plus, without all those cheering spectators to feed my denial, I was forced to recognize that my form was in fact deteriorating (the foot-scraping thing was becoming more frequent). I used the long, really-not-too-steep-it-just-feels-that-way uphill to focus on fixing things: straighten up; take quick, light strides; and for Pete’s sake, pick up your damn feet.

And then there’s ego. I’ve always been relatively strong on hills, and though mile 15 was my slowest yet (8:51), I’m pretty sure it was the only mile in the entire race where I passed more people than I was passed by.

I enjoyed the downhill somewhat less.  The 16 mile mark is at the bottom of the bridge, and as we approached it, I could hear an insanely loud, vaguely threatening rumble coming from First Avenue.

Miles 17-23: things fall apart

I’m probably also in the minority for disliking the crowds on First Avenue. They are very big, they are very loud, and many of them are very drunk (it’s Party Central).  The cheers there have always struck me as less personal than in Brooklyn, more of an undifferentiated roar. I’ve run that section of the course feeling pretty good, and found the ruckus annoying. Run it when you’re feeling bad (as in my 2009 DNF), and the cheers start to sound like taunts.

I was not feeling so good at this point. I wasn’t feeling bad, exactly, but I was definitely slowing (even with the downhill, mile 16 was 8:46), my legs were getting heavier, and despite all my efforts on the bridge to regroup and refocus, my left foot had reverted to scraping the pavement every so often.

My most immediate problem as we headed up First Avenue, though, was the need to find a bathroom: those gels were not sitting well. I missed one early opportunity because the port-a-johns were on the other side of the street, and I didn’t see them until it was too late. My need wasn’t dire enough to squander time and energy swerving and doubling back, so I kept on going.

I passed miles 17 and 18 (in 8:51 and 8:53 respectively) without seeing any more port-a-johns. Or, more accurately, without seeing any actual port-a-johns: in my mind I saw dozens, conjuring port-a-johns out of bus shelters, awnings, kiosks, dumpsters and anything else remotely boxy along the course. Unlike in other New York Road Runners races I’d run recently, there was no signage (another casualty of the winds, I suspect), and I didn’t know which side of the avenue to focus on. Finally, at a fluid station after mile 18, I gasped out “where are the port-a-johns” to the volunteers, and found one who knew. “Just up ahead, on the left.”

And there they were. I dreaded what I’d see and smell when I opened the door –  between the 10,000 or so runners ahead of me and the spectators who’d been hitting the bars hard for hours now, I expected there to be piss everywhere, shit smeared on the seat, vomit on the floor. I was so wrong. It was absolutely pristine – a beautiful, wind-free, dark environment in which to spend three or four minutes doubled over with intestinal cramps.  I did have some trouble unrolling the toilet paper (my fingers weren’t working very well), but I finally got hold of a thin strand that got thinner and thinner as I spun the roll. That would have to do.

Blinking in the sunlight, I carefully stepped back onto the course, made sure I was pointed in the right direction, and continued on my way. I don’t know what my actual running time was for mile 19 (I saw Eric at 110th street and he swears I was going fast, but he loves me and he’s not a runner); with the bathroom break, I clocked a 12:47. I do know I didn’t run a single sub-9:00 mile after that.

I’d been in no fit state to take a gel at mile 18, as planned, and now I was afraid to. I held one in my hand as I ran over the Willis Avenue bridge into the Bronx. It was still in my hand at mile 20 (9:31) as I scanned the scattered spectators for my friend Julie. I missed her, but the effort of looking was a welcome distraction from my growing urge to vomit.

I put the gel back in my shorts pocket.

In the Bronx, as we ran a loop around the Western Beef supermarket, my brain bargained with my legs, trying to strike some sort of deal. If we slowed things down to 9:45 pace going into Manhattan, took a little break, would you guys be willing to pick it up again when we hit Central Park? You know, finish strong? If you do that, we can still come in under 3:55, no doubt about it. (What’s that? You’re going to counter with 10:00? Well, OK, but then you’re going to have to pick it up a little more in the park, and it’s going to be tight.)

It worked, kind of. Miles 21 and 22 were slow but steady, 9:43 and 9:40. I started walking through fluid stations to get down as much as I could, and finally took my mile 18 gel at mile 22.

I’d been looking forward to reaching Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem because I knew my friend Jeanne would be sitting on a friend’s stoop on 120th Street.  The thought of passing, however briefly, another person who was also thinking of C that afternoon was supremely comforting. Maybe our thoughts would converge, and, oh, hell, I don’t know what exactly. I may not have been thinking very clearly, but those confused thoughts got me to mile 23 – along with some unexpected PPTC cheerleaders (who assure me I was looking strong and fast, which is very, very kind of them, seeing as how mile 23 was 10:07).

Miles 24-26.2: what the hell is going on?

If there is a bright side to fading as badly as I was, it’s that the long uphill on Fifth Avenue alongside Central Park is barely noticeable. It’s not as though I was trying to run fast – I was just trying to run, period.

I was also trying to find a toilet, because my intestines were rebelling again. Afraid I’d miss the next bank of port-a-johns, I stopped at a medical tent; you could sense the volunteers’ adrenaline kick in, and I think they were a little disappointed that all I wanted were bathroom directions, which they nonetheless provided. This port-a-john was also untouched, the toilet paper still in its wrapper. That created a problem: I simply could not coordinate my fingers to unwrap it. I was reduced to clawing at the roll like a desperate animal, sending shreds of wrapper flying, finally gouging off thick chunks from the roll. When I stepped out, I saw that a long piece of the wrapper was stuck to my shoe. When I tried to remove it, it stuck to my other shoe. I wanted to cry.

The spasms in my left calf began shortly after that. They weren’t cramps, exactly, but they threw me off my stride (such as it was) and made my foot drop or splay out weirdly. (That’s what it felt like, anyhow. I’m not sure what my foot was actually doing, only that it was untrustworthy.)  I ran slowly until my fear of tripping over my awkward, uncontrollable left foot became too great, and then I walked until I felt safe running again. I’d run for a while, the spasms would start back up, and the cycle would repeat.

Mile 24, with the bathroom stop, was 13:22.

Mile 25 is run in the park, where the rolling hills play to my strengths and where I had looked forward to picking up the pace. I did run most of it, but slowly, and every so often the calf spasms and foot drop would force me to stop and walk. I clocked a 10:52 mile. By the time we left the park and turned onto Central Park South, I was walking more than I was running. I did not think of C in these miles. I didn’t think of anything, really, except how awful I felt and what an idiot I was for doing this. I was the world’s worst and stupidest runner. The pit of my self-loathing was bottomless.

A race photographer captured the moment perfectly. In the picture, I am trudging down the street, my shoulders hunched, staring at my feet with a mixture of despair and bewilderment. I almost never buy race pictures, but I’m definitely going to get this one and hang it by my desk as a reminder of what happens when you go out too fast.

We reentered the park and crossed the 26 mile mark. The thought of walking past the grandstands to the finish was almost too shameful to bear, but the calf spasms were starting up again and I couldn’t trust my left foot, and what choice did I have, really? Just then, a guy in a North Brooklyn Runners shirt passed. He tapped me gently on the shoulder and said something encouraging – I can’t remember what, something like “Go get ’em, PPTC.”

And I ran. I ran all the way to the finish. I would not have believed this in the absence of photographic evidence, but my final race photos show me looking fast and strong with a big smile on my face, so there you go. I finished in 4:05:03, missing my Boston qualifying time by a little over five minutes. (In case you’re wondering, that was my “lead-pipe-cinch-that-I’ll-be-embarrassed-if-I-don’t-make” goal.)

After the finish, I tried to find that North Brooklyn Runners angel, but runners were coming in fast and furious around the 4 hour mark and race volunteers were determined to shoo us along, so I never did spot him. I know it’s a long shot, but if anyone reading this knows who from NBR finished at approximately 1:45 p.m. after encouraging a woman from PPTC who was really struggling – please tell him “thanks.”

Postscript: march of the blue tents

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Shuffling blue tents take Manhattan. (Photo credit: Gosia Dekempe)

Someone hung a medal around my neck. Someone else wrapped a Mylar heat sheet around me and secured it with tape. Yet another someone handed me a plastic bag that seemed to weigh 40 pounds

On I trudged. And trudged. And trudged some more. It is a long walk just to get out of the park.  I pulled an apple from the plastic bag and took a few bites before throwing it away. I raised my knee, thinking that might help, and yelped from the pain when a cramp grabbed hold of my calf and twisted it. I resumed my trudging, lifting my feet as little as possible.

We finally got out of the park, and what did we see? More barricades, forcing us to turn south on Central Park West. I wanted to protest, but I didn’t have the energy. More trudging. Our reward was just ahead: boxes and boxes of capacious fleece-lined ponchos in Smurf blue. Someone helped me put one on.

Free at last to join the other shuffling blue tents dispersing across Manhattan, I crossed Central Park West and doubled back uptown. The PPTC reunion area was at P.S. 87 on 77th Street between Columbus and Amsterdam, just a few short blocks and one and a half long ones away.

Short blocks? There was no such thing anymore, only more pain – both calves were cramping now. More indignity, too. I thought perhaps salt would help with the cramps, and so I groped around in the plastic NYRR bag for the pretzels I knew were there because they always are. I finally located them and fished them out, then discovered I couldn’t open the package.

“Excuse me,” I called out faintly to some passing civilians. “Excuse me!” They ignored me, or perhaps they didn’t hear. I finally got someone’s attention and begged him to tear open the pretzel bag, which he very kindly did.

I popped a pretzel into my mouth, chewed it, and found to my horror that I was unable to swallow. Nor was I able to spit it out – I had no saliva. What was I going to do with this mouthful of dry pretzel?  The crumbs made speech impossible, so I couldn’t even ask for help. I was stuck; I was screwed; I was lost. (Finishing a marathon leads to wildly heightened emotions)

I leaned against the side of a building to try to collect myself. Think, Linda, think! Problem-solve, goddammit! I extracted a water bottle from my bag, but it had a complicated plastic casing over the top that I was of course unable to open. The Gatorade bottle was slightly less complicated, and after a short struggle I managed to crack the seal and take a tentative swig.  I had triumphed. It was time to move on.

As soon as I entered the lunchroom-turned-reunion-area at P.S. 87, I was surrounded by familial warmth. There was applause. There was hot chocolate. There were other runners with whom to swap stories. There was a warm place to change. There was Eric.

There’s no doubt: PPTC is the best running club ever.

I admit to being disappointed with my finish time. It made that wonderful gathering at the school – and the equally wonderful club meeting the next night – bittersweet. But I know that the first Sunday in November will roll around again next year, and that I can reasonably expect to have other races (“why??” a few of you are no doubt asking, incredulous), stronger finishes, other opportunities to get to Boston. I am achingly aware that’s not the case for everyone.


It wasn’t until the next morning, shortly before I learned of her death, that I thought of the coincidence between the westerly wind and what turned out to be C’s last full day on this earth. The cheap and easy version would have a gentle breeze playing with my hair, always at my back, giving me an assist when I most needed it, pushing me toward a triumphant finish that would qualify me for Boston in the spring – a race I would of course dedicate to her memory.

This was none of that. This wind was full of rage; it didn’t give a damn about the runners and their goals.

And that, in retrospect, seems right to me. Not because C was an angry person – far from it; I can only aspire to her grace. But because a woman was dying too young while the rest of the world went on.

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8 thoughts on “The 2014 NYC Marathon: wind and grief

  1. I am also in tears, sitting here thinking of you thinking of our chemo sister as you willed your body to take one more step, make one more block, run one more mile. She would have been proud, as we are. Beautifully written!

    Like

  2. Pingback: Race report: Scotland Run 10K (April 4, 2015) | Not another Brooklyn blog

  3. Pingback: Chasing Boston (part 1: why) | Not another Brooklyn blog

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