The NYC Marathon was like a massive dose of exposure therapy for me. Some of you with anxiety may read this and think, “Why would you do this to yourself?” Some of you without anxiety may read this and think, “What the heck are you so worried about?” Either way, believe me when I tell you that LOGISTICS is where the race was the most intimidating. It wasn’t the targeted pace, nor the distance of 26.2. It wasn’t the hills or the dread of bonking. It was everything else but the race.
Nothing piques my anxiety more than feeling out of control. In any scenario where I am on the verge of a panic attack, it boils down to a lack of control. I had trained for my race. I was ready for the cannon to blow at the start line. When I visualized running, I felt in control. However, before I could run, I had to get to the start line. This meant packing and preparing for multiple scenarios. This meant traveling, eating, and sleeping away from the comforts of home. This required navigating NYC in the pre-dawn hours along with 50,000+ other runners to get to the start villages. And this required waiting outside in weather unknown until it was time for me to take off with my wave. None of this sat well with my anxiety, but I kept repeating and reassuring myself with one of my favorite mantras: “YOU WANT THIS MORE THAN YOU ARE AFRAID OF IT.” That was the truth that got me there.
We booked our hotel in March based upon the location from the finish line and without knowing very much about the city. My thoughts were to get a room fairly close to the finish so we could walk, should we not be able to get a cab in the jammed-up streets after the race. Our hotel was less than 2 miles from where I would exit Central Park. AND NO, I did NOT want to walk back to my hotel after the race but planned this as a last resort. Our travel itinerary in short: Friday in Stamford, CT (at a friend’s house), Saturday and Sunday in our NYC hotel, Monday head home.
To feel any possible element of control, I read voraciously about the course itself and some of the choices I had to make regarding race day logistics. When the time came to pick transportation to Staten Island, I chose to travel by bus. I tended to get seasick and did not like the idea of tempting fate with a ferry ride. I also chose the poncho option versus the backpack option. That meant that, at the end of the race, I would take a shorter route to exit the park and receive a warm poncho. It also meant that I would NOT be able to have a bag transported to the finish, so everything I brought to the start had to fit in the single allocated clear plastic bag or be worn in layers on my body to be discarded or donated. I wasn’t concerned about that, as I had planned to have Maggie carrying a bag at the finish line for me.
Every time I started to think about packing, I could feel the anxiety rise. So, I decided not to think about it until two weeks out. At this point, it was time to get serious, so I created my list. Here I played out and prepared for every scenario. This included preparations for not trusting the weather forecast: multiple layers of clothing to be worn and peeled off just before the start on race morning, body, hand, and feet warmers, and an additional pair of socks and sneakers in case my feet got wet for some crazy reason!
One week out, I began the actual packing process. It was both exciting and nerve-wracking. For someone with anxiety, it can be exhausting to do the little things that seem benign to others. I set up shop in the spare bedroom where I worked in brief periods, as energy allowed, to build the piles and check off the list. I stopped myself whenever I felt the anxiety rise, as I was trying to preserve my energy for the actual race that was just days away. No good comes from walking around in a state of tension (mental or physical) when it comes to the marathon countdown.
Friday, November 2, 2018:
Maggie worked a half-day, which allowed me to get a few more hours of last minute checks and rechecks of my lists, essentials, and the forecast. It was a cool and damp fall day. The forecast was still calling for a beautiful day in NYC on Sunday (temps ranging from the 40s to low 50s from start to finish and minimal winds). The date bookended by a windy Saturday (20+mph) and a rainy and cool Monday. It seemed too good to be true, but I was excited.
After work, we packed the car and left for CT around 1:30 pm. As I shut the door behind me, I felt a surge of emotion in realizing that this was one of the moments I had anticipated and imagined since last March.
Looking back, I am so thankful to have spent Friday night at our friend’s home instead of a hotel. She was a truly thoughtful host, as always. Better yet, she is a genuinely interesting and funny person. Conversation flowed easily, and it was a welcome distraction from my typical perseverative nature.
Saturday, November 3, 2018:
Unfortunately, I spent a few hours awake overnight due to some cramps that lasted for quite a while. Saturday morning, I felt ok. Maggie headed out with me for a three-mile shakeout and some strides before breakfast. It was a little breezy and the terrain was quite hilly, but my strides felt good. I did my best to stay positive. After breakfast, we headed to the Stamford train station, where we left the car and boarded a train for Grand Central Station.
I tried to soak it in as the train rolled into the city. The butterflies were on and off, and Maggie did her best to keep me level headed. We arrived at Grand Central in under an hour and quickly jumped into a cab. NYC was ready for the marathoners with banners posted and barriers stacked. The TV in the cabs had a constant loop with coverage and advertisements for the race. My head was swirling.
We arrived at around 11:30 am and checked our bags with the front desk, since our room wasn’t yet ready. I had to assume that the bags would be safe with the hotel staff, which also added to my nerves. Next, we were off to the expo for bib pick up.
Maggie was like my agent. What could be better than having an agent that knows you almost as well as you know yourself? She was invested in my success and took charge of our itinerary immediately. She had everything mapped out so that I wouldn’t have to walk too much or get distracted and forget to eat. The expo was overwhelming, but I wanted to spend a little time taking it in. There was no line to get my bib, which left us time to browse. We walked for a bit, hit up some fun photo ops, and got me a winter “NYC Finisher” hat.
We didn’t stay too long and headed out for our next stop: lunch. We took a fun, but very windy, bike cab (This guy earned his money for pulling us into that wind.) for a few blocks to arrive at a local grocer/café. I had a kept it simple and bland with a grilled chicken and avocado wrap. I had to force myself to eat it; the nerves were doing a number on my appetite. After lunch, it was time to head back and check into our room.
Our hotel was ok. That is being generous. In reality, it was a warm space (albeit dim and dingy) that housed our belongings and offered a place to rest our heads and take a shower (while wearing flip flops). The smell of smoke permeated the hallways as we came and went, but I was thankful that our room didn’t wreak.
Despite the lack luster accommodations, our room brought me a little peace. It was surprisingly quiet and allowed me to disconnect from the nervous energy evoked by the hectic NYC streets.
I purchased a snack at the lunch spot and we brought all we needed to keep me well hydrated. Now to try and relax for a bit. I laid out my preparations for the morning and attempted to watch some TV. Dinnertime came early, as I wanted to shut the lights by 8pm. We decided to cab it to a local Whole Foods and get some prepared items to go. My dinner was very bland and sad by standards of any normal night: chicken breast, sushi roll with white rice, cucumber and avocado, and an orange. I was afraid to eat anything and had no appetite to stimulate. Still, it was needed nutrition and I just forced it down.
Sleep eventually found me, and I was able to get some restful hours. The eve of the marathon also falls on the Saturday-Sunday when, in daylight savings land, the clocks “fall back”. Therefore, I gained an hour of “sleep” or at least an hour of my body in a horizontal restful position.
Sunday, November 4, 2018:
Maggie awoke me with a startle, as she had forgotten that daylight savings fact. I jumped out of bed thinking it was later than it was, but within moments I realized her error and slowed myself right down. Thanks to that jolt, I was ready to go by 5am (earlier than planned) and my bus to Staten Island was scheduled for 6:30am.
Maggie planned to accompany me for as long as possible that morning. In our novice minds, we thought that meant that we would be together until I stepped foot on my bus. The streets near our hotel were surprisingly quiet and we had no trouble catching a cab in the pre-dawn hours of marathon day. My stomach was doing flips as we got closer to the moment when I would have to leave her side and brave the journey on my own.
As we arrived near the NYC Public Library, I was amazed to see the buses lining the streets. Even though I knew the magnitude of this event, there was nothing that could have prepared me for seeing it come together in person. As the cab dropped us, I noticed the barriers and the line. People were waiting in a queue that was several blocks deep. I felt a surge of panic and thought that I would never make it to my bus on time. Maggie reassured me as we walked to find the line’s end. She said, “All of these people are going to the same place. You will get there on time.” Just as we rounded the last barrier to enter the queue, we were stopped by a volunteer who explained that only athletes with bibs were allowed past this point. It meant a sudden separation from the one person who was acting as my security blanket.
With a quick kiss and a hug, I kept moving forward while she watched me go. And now, the person who had been helping me to keep it all at bay, was no longer holding my hand or even within my sight. The stopper had been removed and the feelings came rushing and gushing. I was scared of the enormity. I was trapped in a sea of people. I was headed to an unfamiliar place where I would have to navigate on my own while managing my race day jitters. And then it happened.
I was moving within the masses, with blocks to go before I would board my bus and my monster began to win. I felt the tears quietly leave my eyes and wet my cheeks. And in this moment, I had to take back control. I forced myself to be here. I wanted to be here. I told myself to look around and listen to the conversations around me. These people were all excited for what’s to come.
Dawn: This is what you have worked for. It is here and you are healthy and well trained. The weather is ideal. Get ready because this is yours for the taking. Repeat the mantra and your truth: “YOU WANT THIS MORE THAN YOU ARE AFRAID OF IT.” I took a few sips of water and several deep breaths to stop the tears.
As I boarded the bus I was on high alert. Unfortunately, my anxiety is heightened even more these days by the unstable nature of the world, and I am a hyper vigilant spectator as I travel. I chose my seat and hoped that whomever sat next to me would be friendly. My phone buzzed and it was a heartfelt text from a friend which made my eyes well up just as my seat partner arrived. It was perfectly timed to shock me out of another teary moment.
Indeed, she was friendly and the conversation flowed. This was her second NYC marathon experience, so it was helpful to learn a bit about what she had experienced before. Then, came some confusing and nerve-wracking moments.
Our bus began to turn off of the highway and stopped in middle of the off ramp. YES. We full on STOPPED. The bus driver proceeded to get on and off of the bus several times as we sat in this precarious position for what felt like an eternity. We were not hearing anything about what happened or why we were here. The traffic was backing up for quite a way behind us. Meanwhile, I can see other buses continuing on the highway, without us, in the caravan.
The police arrived and the driver seemingly attempted to back the bus up, but did not succeed. Still, no word from the driver as to what is going on. Eventually, we started driving down the ramp and headed through some very quiet streets that were seemingly deserted. That is when my seat partner told me that we were driving backwards on the marathon route.
Of course, my monster was writing all kinds of scripts in my head as to why this was happening. I called Maggie to explain and tried to stay calm. After a quick call, I felt a little better. Although, I didn’t truly feel better until we rejoined the caravan on the highway a while later.
One hour and forty-five minutes later we arrived at Staten Island. I said goodbye and best wishes to my seat partner and headed to another massive line to enter the athletes’ village. I had to pee, and it was a long, uncomfortable wait to get through security. Once inside, I headed straight for the Blue Village and the porta-potties. My immediate goals: bathroom, eat my pre-race oatmeal, find the entrance for my start corral, and set up shop close to that area.
Watching the clock, I had to eat while I walked to keep the timing as practiced. Of course, the nerves were hindering my appetite, but I got it down as planned. Eventually, I found my spot and sat for a moment to center myself and absorb the atmosphere. It was a gorgeous morning, and I had my layers to protect me from the fall chill in the air. The well-organized Villages helped to calm me as I waited. Next, I pulled Maggie’s letter from my bag. I was not allowed to open it until this moment. It was perfect, touchingly worded from the woman who invested her time, energy, and utmost belief in me and this goal. I felt emotional, but I didn’t cry this time. I was ready. It was time. The only thing that stood between me and my success and celebration was 26.2 miles of focus. This day was going to be amazing. And it was to be: FINAL CHAPTER – RACE READY and PROVING IT on the streets of NYC.