Half the fun of New York Road Runners races is getting there, so it’s only right that this (tardy) report should begin with an early-morning train story.
Weekend construction-related service changes are the bane of racers, but for once, they broke in my favor. Not only did an F train come right away – it was skipping 14th and 23rd streets, turning its usual pokey course through Manhattan into something approaching express service.
I settled into a mostly-empty car and closed my eyes. At Jay Street, a mother, father and adult daughter, all laden with suitcases, boarded. They headed toward the empty bench I was on, then stopped.
“Don’t sit there,” the mother said. “It’s dirty.”
Puzzled (and wondering if I should be offended), I roused myself enough to take a closer look at my seat. The entire length of the bench was spattered with a clear brownish liquid – coffee? Coke? something else? As casually and unobtrusively as possible, I checked out the specific spot on which I had plopped myself down. It was clean. Momentary relief was quickly followed by the realization that my shorts (not to mention my exposed thighs) would have long since mopped up whatever-the-hell-it-was.
2016 swag update
Since last year’s report on this race focused on my quest for a Scotland Run hat (I finally got one, thanks to a teammate’s kindness), I’m starting this year’s report with a swag update. I wasn’t expecting a hat this year, and so I wasn’t disappointed. Scotland Run hats have become things of the distant, mythic past, like William Wallace and kelpies. I wasn’t expecting much in the way of a shirt, either. If I was disappointed at all in that regard, it was that this year’s shirt didn’t come close to the standard of ugliness set last year. It was ugly, mind you (and non-technical to boot), but just ordinarily ugly. Not stop-dead-in-your-tracks-to-wonder-what-they-were-thinking ugly; this was the kind of shirt you politely decline, not one you take home because you find its very ugliness weirdly fascinating, and besides, you’re too stunned to know what to say.
I didn’t mind not receiving a bottle of Authentic Scottish Highlands water, as racers did last year, because, really, imported water? And even I – one of the world’s most credulous people – knew to discount the rumor that all runners would be gifted with a wee bottle of Lagavulin. I was, however, disappointed not to get a wee packet of shortbread when I picked up my bib. Perhaps there would be some at the finish, instead of the usual NYRR bagels, apples and pretzels?*
It was cool, muggy and still dark when I got off the train at 57th street. I’ve lived in New York for more than three years now, and the beauty of Central Park in every season still leaves me defenseless. What a perfect morning to jog the park’s winding paths, listening to birdsongs (I quickly ticked off white-throated sparrow, cardinal and blue jay – making mental lists of birds seen and heard is not something I can turn off easily these days) and wondering if rusty blackbirds had shown up yet and is there time to go to the Ramble and oh, shit, do I really have to do this race?
But my duty as a team captain called. I’d volunteered to take the lead on this race, which meant recruiting participants, arranging a group warm-up and planning a post-race meeting spot – and, of course, running it. There was no time to lollygag about (or look at birds) before tackling the serious business of bag check and pit stops. Or, maybe, there was; bag check was seamless and port-a-johns plentiful, making NYRR two for two in the races I’ve participated in this year. (Having witnessed chaos and carnage at some past NYRR races, including this one last year, I’m not sure what magic formula their race management folks have discovered – but I applaud them for it.)
I ran into a teammate, Justin, and as we waited for others to join us for our group warm-up, we chatted a bit about 10Ks. It’s a treacherous distance, we agreed, one that calls for caution-to-the-winds speed but is also long enough to get you into real trouble if you’re too reckless. I shared the story of my Oak-Apple collapse, back in my 2006 running prime (a full decade ago? how did that happen?), and how because of that race my 10K PR will remain my softest forever.
I may be ten years older, but I’m evidently not ten years wiser.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting slower (indubitably true) or because I’m getting nicer (aspirationally true) or because the NYRR corral system is getting better organized and enforced, but the congested first mile of NYRR races doesn’t drive me crazy the way it used to. I trotted along contentedly, at a pace that was faster than usual but not painful, and was gratified to see that my first mile split was 7:54.
“Under eight is great”: my new racing motto.
I got into a nice groove in the rolling second mile, which runs up the West Park Drive from roughly 81st to 100th, clocking 7:37. I knew from past races that the third mile, up and around the top of the park, is tricky. The park drive curves quite a bit at this point, so you can’t see that far ahead, which on the one hand is merciful, but on the other hand, when you come around the bend and see that you have still farther to climb, it’s disheartening as fuck. But once you finally crest the hill, you’re rewarded with the perfect downhill. It’s steep enough that it seems to run itself, but not so steep that it pounds your legs or tempts you to brake yourself, and it’s long enough that you can relax into it and just enjoy the sensation of effortless speed. That mile was 7:32.
The fourth mile was every bit as brutal as I remembered from every other clockwise race in the park. The whole goddamn thing is uphill. (The elevation map shows a few small dips, but believe me: they still feel uphill.) I knew at the 5K mark that there’d be no negative split for me today. All I could hope to do was hang on. And judging by my breathing – fast, desperate gulps of air accompanied by a high-pitched, whistling rattle – I was hanging on by my fingernails. It’s OK to slow down, I told myself. Really. It’s OK. Slow down.
Mile 4 was 7:58.
Mile 5 is a gift if you’re strong and have paced yourself well – it’s gently rolling, except for the section (“Cat Hill”) between the Metropolitan Museum and 72nd street, which you get to run down – but I was not feeling strong and I had not paced myself well.
That mile was 7:45.
1.2 missing miles (and a couple of good samaritans)
I remember passing the boathouse, and then hitting my watch at the 5 mile mark while thinking what a long goddamn way it was from 72nd street to the bottom of the park and then around the bottom and back up the west side, past the starting line (is this some kind of cruel joke?) to the finish by Tavern on the Green.
I remember reminding myself that it was OK to slow down. I remember reminding myself that it’s more efficient to run forward, and not weave from side to side. I remember reminding myself that I should try to keep my body upright.
Other than that, the next thing I remember with any clarity is being in the medical tent.
In an effort to recreate what happened, I would spend the afternoon obsessively hitting the “photo” button next to my race results (49:55, so at least I broke 50:00). I knew that the finish line photos are generally sorted and tagged and posted pretty quickly, and I wanted to see just how bad I looked at the end. (And then I wanted to delete those photos as quickly as possible.)
I expected to see myself looking pale and out-of-it and messed-up. What I didn’t expect to see – but what I saw, once the photos were finally posted – was me being supported by two other runners. A man about my age was on my right, holding my arm. A younger woman was on my left. Both wore racing singlets identifying them as members of Front Runners New York (the local LGBT running club).
Looking at those pictures, I became weepy. I felt a mixture of fear (what the hell had happened?), humiliation (how did I let it happen?) and – mainly – stunned gratitude. At what point in that last mile did these runners abandon their own races to help me? And would I have done the same?
I am honestly not sure of the answer to that last question, but I do know what I would do now.
My next reaction was desperate urgency to find and thank these two people. Had I thanked them at the time? Perhaps I’d cursed them and tried to fight them off (I hoped not, and I have to say that I looked goofily mellow in the pictures). But whether I’d thanked them graciously or shouted and flailed or just stared vacantly, I clearly had some unfinished business to take care of.
Fortunately, runners are ridiculously easy to stalk. It wasn’t hard to attach names to the bib numbers in the photos, and then to discover – via the long arm of Facebook – that the three of us shared at least one friend. She made the connection, and I was able to thank them directly (as well as via the FRNY page).
It still doesn’t feel as though I’ve thanked them quite enough, though – so thank you again, Mike and Ashley.
In the medical tent, and afterwards
I aced all of the questions the medical volunteers asked me (name, where are you, what year is it) – or so they told me. I don’t remember being asked any questions. I do remember having enough presence of mind to specify that the IV go in my right arm (“breast cancer survivor,” I explained, “left side, they took most of my lymph nodes”) and object when they proceeded to slap a blood pressure cuff on the left.
“Why not?” one guy asked, puzzled.
“Breast cancer patient,” the person who seemed to be the lead volunteer repeated. That led to some complicated juggling of the IV and the blood pressure cuff, but it all worked out. My left arm remained intact and unsqueezed.
[If I launch into a rant here, it’s not to slight the medical volunteers in any way – they were quick and skillful and kind, just as they were after the marathon last November – but seeing as how I conscientiously write my medical information in the space provided on the back of my bib in every single fucking race I enter (“No IV/BP/needles left arm” – I generally circle the word “left” for emphasis – “lymphedema risk”), it would be nice if someone actually checked it. And you know what would be even nicer? If just a teensy bit of the misty vagueness of breast cancer “awareness” would solidify around the fact that many breast cancer patients have lymphedema and many more are at risk of developing it, even long after their diagnosis and surgery (ah, cancer, the gift that keeps on giving).
And as long as I’m at it – early detection is neither prevention nor a cure. And there’s no cure for metastatic breast cancer.
End of rant.]
Having regained my wits, protected my left arm, rehydrated (intravenously and then, cautiously after vomiting up some premature sips of Gatorade, by mouth), kicked off the blankets they’d piled on me and begged for ice instead (“wow, you’re steaming,” one of the volunteers observed, and it was quite literally true), I moved on to the worrying stage. In the team captains’ division of labor, this was “my” race. I’d told everyone who could make it, and was so inclined, that we’d be meeting up afterwards for coffee and treats and congratulations. I had to be there! Or at least get word to somebody! Anybody! How long had I been in the medical tent, anyway? What time was it?
“I know this isn’t really your job,” I said, hesitantly, to one of the volunteers. “But I really need to let my teammates know where I am. Do you think someone could find a PPTC member and let them know? Or have them come in here, if that’s allowed?
To which her reaction was: “PPT-what?”
My club, I explained, realizing as I did just how bizarrely large a role the Prospect Park Track Club plays in my life. These are the people I wanted most to notify (sorry, Eric, but I was fine by then, and you weren’t expecting me until later anyhow), the ones I most wanted, and needed, to be with. “Just look for anybody wearing a red and white shirt like mine,” I continued – blithely assuming that I would know whatever random person it turned out to be, out of almost a hundred PPTC runners out there that day, and that said random person wouldn’t mind being pulled into the medical tent.
Which turned out to be a safe assumption. It took all of three minutes to find a runner in PPTC gear, who turned out to be my sister breast cancer survivor, Fran. She sat with me a while, then walked with me to pick up my stuff and stayed close while I changed, and then went with me to our meet-up spot (even though she wasn’t planning to go). Why? Because she is awesome and so is our club.
I got to the meet-up late, of course, and so I’m not in the group photo – but I still got to see everyone (and eat kugelhopf, which is not something you can get just anywhere). The kugelhopf was useful as well as delicious. When people asked me about my race, I’d shrug, say it wasn’t my best, and change the subject to Alsatian baked goods.
Pondering my racing future
So, what went wrong? I’ve had ten days to ponder that question, and I still don’t have a good answer.
It was my first really hard effort in a long time, and I haven’t been training seriously. It was a distance that has always given me problems, as evidenced by my pre-race conversation with Justin. It was humid as hell, which I know from experience puts me in my personal danger zone even when the temperatures are mild. I got dehydrated and overheated and my engine seized.
One thing I know for sure: I do not want to end up in the medical tent again. Ever. I’ve been easing back on my absolute racing goals for some time now (“under eight is great!”), but still striving to maintain (or even improve) my relative, age-graded performance. After last year’s marathon, and now this, I may need to rethink that. I’m not saying I will for sure, mind you. I’m still pondering.
I can be infuriatingly obtuse, but I’m not completely unteachable . . . and a couple of things I learned at this year’s Scotland Run are making my pondering a little easier.
One is that developing a team is more important than being a star (especially if we’re talking about a very minor star, like a red dwarf in an obscure galaxy, which is all I can aspire to). One of the reasons I pushed myself so hard is that we had some great PPTC 50-and-over women running. I assumed I’d be our third scorer, and if I could just perform decently and not drag us down too much, we had a good shot at placing up there in the Old Lady division. And we did – but not because of me. The women I was sure would be first and second were second and third, and my time was irrelevant. Our top scorer was a 50-year-old who’s just getting back to racing after a hiatus. And I am totally thrilled about that.
The other (and most important) thing I learned, thanks to Mike and Ashley and Fran?
It’s that kindness will always trump everything else.
*There was shortbread at the finish, as it turns out. Not instead of bagels/apples/pretzels, but in addition to the regular post-race fare, farther down the line. Needless to say, I missed it.