Well, I did it. I finished the New York City Marathon in 3:58:50, well under my Boston qualifying time of 4:10:00.
I’m not sure which makes me happier this morning: the fact that I’ll be joining Kathrine Switzer and a whole bunch of my friends in Boston on April 17, 2017, or the fact that I don’t need to run another marathon for almost a year and a half.
I didn’t achieve my most ambitious time goal, which is OK. Nor did I achieve my goal of negative splits. If I wanted to be hard on myself, as I often do, I’d describe the execution of my race plan as “start slow and finish slower.” If I were to cut myself some slack, I’d point out that this was the most evenly-paced marathon I’ve ever run, and that five of my fastest miles came in the second half.
I must be getting soft in my old age, because I’m inclined to cut myself some slack.
Besides – given my adventures in the medical tent at the finish line, no one could accuse me of not giving this race everything I had.
Here, then, is my race report.
The atmosphere outside the JackRabbit store in Park Slope was festive – especially considering that it was 5:45 a.m. on a Sunday. As usual, the Prospect Park Track Club had chartered buses to take members (and nonmembers who asked nicely) to Staten Island for the marathon start. We hugged, we laughed, we wished one another luck, we compared our pre-race garb (fuzzy pajamas from DII – the greatest close-out store on earth – were popular). And then we got on board.
I took the last seat on the first bus (the one that didn’t get lost), so there was plenty of time to relax at the Start Village in Fort Wadsworth . . . “relax” here meaning sitting on goose shit-speckled grass in cool, breezy, slightly damp conditions while guzzling water and getting up every 20 minutes to pee. After hemming and hawing for several weeks, I stuck with my spot in the Local Competitive start. That meant that in addition to chatting with teammates (all much faster than me), I was scanning the corral for other age-groupers who might conceivably be running around my pace.
Shortly before volunteers walked us up to the front of the Green start on the bridge (it may have been while standing on that last, long port-a-john line), I connected with several women from a team called the North Jersey Masters. Some were New York City Marathon veterans, one was running her first New York, and one was running her first marathon, period. They were down-to-earth and nice, as runners tend to be, and several were also shooting for times in the 3:50-to-4:00 range. We didn’t make any formal plans to run together, but just knowing they were there calmed my pre-race jitters.
(If any North Jersey Masters are reading this – it was good to meet you, and congratulations on finishing at the top of the team competition for Women 50+!)
The cannon boomed, and we took off. I lost sight of the North Jersey Masters women almost immediately. Everyone was passing me, as I knew they would, and it was fine. I was running my own race. I glanced down at the Garmin on my right wrist – this was the first time I had worn it in a race, specifically as a pacing aid in the early miles. It showed that more than three minutes had elapsed, and that I gone less than a quarter of a mile, which was very strange. I was running easy, but not that easy. I glanced at the trusty, old-school running watch on my left wrist, and discovered that between the awkwardness of starting two watches and the clumsiness of my gloved fingers, I had not yet started it. I started it now.
(My Garmin eventually refound the satellite, but of course the distances were all off, and I ignored it for the rest of the race.)
Clock time at the first mile was 9:50-something, which I guessed made my net time 9:30-something. Right around where I wanted to be.
Mile 2, the downhill slope of the bridge, was too fast (“under no circumstances do I want to go faster than 8:45” before mile 16 – yeah, yeah) but, at 8:37, not fatally fast. The next 11 miles clicked by in the 8:49-9:04 range (“keep my pace between 8:50 and 9:00”) with just one minor slip-up (8:44) on a particularly exuberant stretch of 4th Avenue. I was following my plan and running the most controlled race of my life.
And it felt great. As always, I loved the Brooklyn section of the course: the familiar storefronts, the parents with their kids, neighborhood faces joined by visitors from all over the world, the signs (though “Free Beer 4 Quitters” before mile 5 seemed a little off), the cheers, the cowbells. I was moved to see the face of Jonás Trujillo González – one of the 43 Ayotzinapa students disappeared in Guerrero state, Mexico – held high on signs in Sunset Park, and tried to shout my support over the general din. I laughed at the Donald Trump punching bag on Lafayette, and even considered stopping to take a swing, but didn’t.
I loved the Brooklyn section of the course, and the Brooklyn section of the course loved me back. I’d gone full-tilt dork and spelled out my name on my singlet (pro-tip: duct tape works much better than kinesio tape), so there were plenty of “Go, Linda!” and “Go, PPTC!” cheers from strangers. And, of course, from people I actually knew – the big PPTC cheering squad at Union Street (you guys are awesome!); Eric, Susie, Phil and Philip a few blocks north at Douglass; more teammates on Lafayette and (totally unexpected and immensely welcome) an otherwise quiet stretch of Bedford.
I saw the first walker on Lafayette, somewhere before the 9 mile mark, and felt sorry for him. The carnage increased after the turn onto Bedford, where I began to pass people I remembered having passed me on 4th Avenue (a couple of FDNY buddies, a man and a woman wearing orange shirts from an unfamiliar charity, the Mexican guy with the feathered headdress). I was surprised and taken aback by how overdressed many runners were – it was overcast and cool but by no means cold, and definitely on the muggy side (the throwaway gloves I’d worn at the start were long gone).
I went through the half in 1:56:17 (average pace of 8:53), exactly what I’d planned (and posted publicly, so you can verify that I’m not bullshitting). I was a pacing genius!
Of course, the other part of my plan was to pick it up in the second half. That was daunting – not just maintain? actually pick up the pace? what on earth was I thinking? But I was feeling strong as we headed up the Pulaski bridge (I was passing runners in droves at this point), with none of the subtle deterioration in form (mainly, my foot scraping the pavement) that had signaled trouble ahead last year.
Long Island City was rocking. After the quiet of the bridge, the cheers from the crowd all along Vernon Boulevard presaged those waiting for us on First Avenue in Manhattan. Between the crowd and fumbling for a gel and taking water and the crowd again, I missed the 14 mile marker and don’t have a mile split, but I’m guessing it was in the high 8:40s (miles 14 and 15 combined were 17:42).
And then there we were, climbing the big, bad Queensboro bridge. But guess what? When you’ve run it three times in training, and you’re steadily passing runners on the way up, it’s not so bad (mile 16 was 9:06). On the downhill into Manhattan, I caught up with one of the North Jersey Masters I’d met at the start, the one who was running her first New York, and we exchanged pleasantries: how’s it going? oh, it’s great, so exciting.
And it was. In the past, I’ve found the crowds on First Avenue annoying. Their ruckus distracts me just when I need and want to turn inward, dig deep, focus, focus, focus. This year, probably because I was still feeling pretty darn good, I was able to draw on their energy. I didn’t waste time veering over to slap hands, the way I did (only a little) back in Brooklyn, but I saw the faces, heard the cheers (some of them for “Inda” now that the “L” had fallen off my singlet), marveled at all the national flags, and found myself agreeing with my North Jersey Master friend (whom I’d since lost sight of): yes, this was exciting.
I’d run the last ten miles of the marathon course with my Prospect Park Track Club teammates a week ago Saturday. I did the same thing last year (it’s a tradition), and to be honest, I didn’t find it very helpful during the windblown 2014 race (“I felt so good then, why do I feel so bad now? And where the hell are the port-a-johns?”). This year, though, it helped a lot. Visualizing what was to come, and remembering how short this segment was last weekend – and how much fun it was to run it with teammates – I was able to bring down my pace, just as I’d planned. Miles 17, 18, 19 (wave to Eric) and 20 flew by in 8:44, 8:37, 8:47 and 8:44.
I was running exactly the marathon I wanted to run. I felt tired, of course, but nothing hurt. Pace, on-target, nice and steady . Breathing, check. Arms, check. Legs, check. Posture, check.
Digestive system – uh oh.
My unreliable, untrainable gut was preparing to betray me again. Crossing the Willis Avenue bridge into the Bronx, I thought about trying to power through, but the rumblings were getting more serious and I really, really, really didn’t want to have to stop later in the race, out of fear I wouldn’t be able to start up again. There was a bank of port-a-johns shortly after we exited the bridge, before that odd loop around the Western Beef supermarket, so I reconciled myself to losing a couple of minutes because, well, it was better than the alternative.
Mile 21, with the bathroom stop, was 10:53. Mile 22, when I paused at a water station to make sure I thoroughly washed down my final gel, was 9:22. When I was actually running, though, I felt pretty strong – a good thing, since my teammate and coach was waiting in Marcus Garvey Park, and I didn’t want to let him down. (Thank you, Allan!)
On to the hardest part of the course: the long slog up Fifth Avenue, above and then alongside Central Park. I knew that Eric was waiting for me at 109th Street, and knowing he’d be there pulled me along. Mile 23 was 9:05 – slower than I would have liked, but not horrible, and my form was still decent (as the picture at the top of this post attests). Besides, it was the two miles after we entered the park that really mattered. That’s where I was going to make this a race.
All I wanted to do was to get to the park. The park, the park, the park. So focused was I on getting up the never-ending hill that is this stretch of Fifth Avenue, so deeply burrowed into myself, so obsessed with getting to the park, that I missed the mile 23 fluid station. I saw it too late, thought about swerving and doubling back, then thought again. Better to continue on toward the park.
When did it get so sunny? Why had I thrown away my sunglasses on First Avenue?
And where was the goddamn park?
Finally, we reached it. There was a fluid station shortly after we turned into the park, if my hazy memory serves, and when I stopped at it – stepping behind the table to stay out of the way while guzzling multiple cups of water – I caught a few concerned looks from the volunteers. “Are you OK?” one guy asked me.
I assured him I was. And then I took off, determined to race . . . and lo and behold, I did. Mile 24, which included the long uphill slog outside the park and the prolonged water stop inside it, was 9:43; mile 25, run inside the park over undulating hills and one gorgeous, long downhill stretch, was 8:47.
After that triumph – I was racing! inside the park! – I remember very little of the next 1.2 miles. I have a vague recollection of exiting the park onto 59th Street and scanning ahead for landmarks to gauge my progress. I knew my posture was terrible, all hunched over, and I tried to straighten myself, but found, to my horror, that I couldn’t. Periodically, it felt as though my body might lurch forward in a dive toward the pavement. Stay upright, I reminded myself. Keep running, stay upright.
I do remember, albeit unclearly, the turn back into the park at Columbus Circle. I remember nothing after that, aside from my struggle to stay upright and keep running. I missed the 26 mile mark. I was oblivious to the grandstands full of cheering spectators. I didn’t even see the finish.
The next thing I remember is someone asking me if I needed help, and me telling them that all I really needed was a bathroom because I was afraid I might soil myself. They offered me a wheelchair instead, which I gratefully accepted, and rolled me into the medical tent. As volunteers gently lifted me out of the wheelchair, and then supported me on my wobbly legs, I vomited three times. I believe they rolled me onto a stretcher at that point, and then onto a cot. I was asked my name and age (I aced both questions), and as they prepared to take my blood pressure and start an IV, I had the presence of mind to request they use my right arm. (“Mastectomy patient?” the attending doctor asked, getting it immediately. I was impressed.)
As volunteers put icepacks under my arms and beneath my neck, one of them noticed that I wasn’t wearing a finisher’s medal, which became a matter of great concern. “Oh my God, did you not get your medal? Don’t worry, we’ll make sure you get one.”
On the one hand, my medal was the least of my worries (I’m not that into medals, honestly, though the New York City Marathon medals are awfully nice). On the other hand, this question sparked a sudden, terrible realization: I wasn’t sure if I had actually finished the race. Had my initial interaction with the medical volunteer been before or after the timing mat? Even if I had finished, my watch was still running, and so I had no idea of my time. Just how slow was that last mile?
Then came the cramps. They began as ordinary post-marathon calf cramps, but they soon changed into something more. I will admit to whimpering at first, and then screaming: ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod. I wasn’t asked to rate my pain on a scale of 1-10, but if I had been, I would have put it at childbirth level. One sympathetic volunteer told me to squeeze her hand as hard as I needed (evoking still more memories of childbirth), while others massaged my calves.
The IV drip was excruciatingly slow, so I had plenty of time to observe the other patients around me. (I later learned that because of my initial vomiting, they’d put me in the “critical care” area.) It was sobering, to say the least, and made me wonder why I, or anyone, would think that running a marathon was a good idea. There was a man with chest pains and an abnormal heart rhythm who was shivering uncontrollably (he was transferred to a hospital). There was a limp, nonresponsive woman who was lowered – “Quick, before she seizes!” – into a tub of ice. Through it all, the medical volunteers were total rock stars.
Meanwhile, a salt packet, a bottle of Gatorade, and IV saline seemed to have cured me. I was lucid. My skin was no longer gray. My calves had stopped feeling as though they were laboring to give birth to baby calves, and merely felt as though they’d just finished a marathon – except I wasn’t sure if they had or not.
I was past ready to go, and the medics were past ready to let me go, but protocol demanded that I finish the IV; finally, one of the team looked at the fluid remaining in the bag and pronounced it as good as finished. Then I had to wait some more for Eric to arrive to escort me home. (He was already there, as it turned out, but wasn’t being allowed to enter the tent.)
At last, I was discharged (sporting the finisher’s medal the rock star medical volunteers had procured for me). On the long walk out of the park, I hesitantly asked Eric if I’d officially finished the race, and he told me I had.
– And do you remember my time?
– 3:58 something.
That was when I knew that I’d made my Boston qualifier. It was also when I formulated my first, and possibly only, goal for Boston 2017:
To remember the finish.
Wonderfully written as always, though I think anyone who puts herself through this kind of abuse has to be nuts (but in a nice way). It’s a little hard for me to relate since riding my bike around the block a few times is exercise enough for me. Regards
I am so honored to walk The Earth with you
Wow, that’s really something . . . seeing as how I’m honored to walk the earth with you! (What a great meeting last night, by the way. So much PPTC love in that room! And so much squeezable oatmeal!)
Wonderfully written Linda! So inspired by your determination, and proud to have you as a PPTC teammate.
“My calves had stopped feeling as though they were laboring to give birth to baby calves”: Even though I know what you mean, on first read this sounded like you were talking about your legs birthing baby cows, ha.
Congratulations again! Your hard work paid off, and way to still lock in a solid, seal-the-deal BQ even with that hazy last mile. Even though I still don’t know if I’ll run a marathon next fall, I’m already jealous that you’ll have no need for hot summer long runs.
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