It is 9:45 am. I am waiting, with the rest of wave one, at the foot of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge on Staten Island. Mother nature blessed us with partly cloudy skies, low winds, and temps in the mid-40s for the start. The positive energy is electric, like a current connecting me to the 10,000 plus other runners awaiting the cannon.
I usually watch this race on a screen from home. This morning, as they announce the elite male athletes, I am living it. I hear their names and feel the cheers of the crowd. My emotions rise as I soak in every bit of this fantastic space. It’s that moment just before the start when anything is possible, and nothing is predictable. At 9:50 am, the cannon booms while the tune of Frank Sinatra’sSinatra’s New York, New York, is ringing through the air. Thousands around me are singing along, providing a most memorable soundtrack to what’s sure to become a cherished memory.
I take up a light jog to reach the timing pads, where this race officially begins. Upon arrival, I lock in my focus and prepare to tackle the next 26.2 miles with a plan.
Whoa now! The plan is immediately thrown off with a jammed start. My first 2 miles are on the upper deck of the Verrazzano Bridge. Naivety had me worried that I might come out of the gate too fast for the first mile, which is all uphill. However, I quickly realize the impossibility of running my marathon pace due to the sheer number of people at this junction. I am surprised by how slowly people are running in the first wave. Many are stopping to take pictures; others are walking. It is difficult to find a rhythm. All I can do is stay in control and maneuver around people without wasting too much energy.
At the peak of the bridge, I force myself to break focus and take a few seconds to soak in my surroundings. Across the water is a breathtaking view of the Manhattan skyline, where my finish line awaits.
What goes up must come down. Despite the downhill, it remains challenging to hit my pace due to the crowded course. A quick aside to address race folklore: I did not see ANYONE peeing off of the side of the bridge. I have heard rumors about runners on the under deck getting a little “wet” from folks on top using this place as a “potty” break. No such thing was happening in the first wave. However, I did see quite a few men using the first available shrubbery at the bottom of the bridge. As I exit the bridge, I get my first taste of some spectators cheering us off of the island and into Brooklyn.
At mile three, I expect the crowd to start breaking up a bit: no such luck. Instead, congestion grows as the blue, green, and orange courses converge right around this point. My pace is not smooth. Again, I try to stay in control and avoid wasting energy, both mentally and physically. One mile at a time, I focus on the task at hand. The task at mile three: Sip some Gatorade at the water stop.
Ugh, the water stop! It is exceedingly well-staffed, yet still a nightmare to navigate without a full pause. I am a little concerned about how this will play out along the course since I am only sipping every third mile, and this congestion will reappear at EVERY MILE regardless of whether I plan to stop.
By mile 4, I realize the astounding energy of the spectators. These people are incredible. Wearing my name on my shirt, as I had been advised, is proving to be an excellent choice. The cheers, personalized to make me feel like a rock star, are motivating. It is early into the marathon with no sign of physical fatigue. Mentally, I feel like I am playing a game of Frogger: Find the path of least resistance. I scan for openings that will minimize zig zag. Every so often, I look for the blue line on the pavement. Where lie those tangents? It is so cramped that the blue line isn’t helpful. At a certain point, I pull up alongside the tape at the left edge of the course and use it as a passing lane. I stay in that lane and cruise for as long as possible. My splits are ok, and I am still hopeful that this race course will open up in the near miles.
My jobs are to focus on my fuel plan, and 5 mile splits. My fueling is going perfectly. At mile 10, I realize that I have to continue to take this one mile, maybe even one minute, at a time. Bands are playing, drummers drumming, and parties raging all along these streets. Still, I need to stay completely in tune with what is immediately in front of me, cognizant of pace, and find my way through the masses without running extra distance. 13.1: Strength abounds, I have never raced so entirely in the moment as today.
The NYC Marathon course is known for its rolling hills. This includes five bridges. The Queensboro Bridge is right around mile 15-16. I know my wife is waiting for me at the bottom. As I enter, I feel an oncoming side stitch. It is my first sense of discomfort in the marathon. It also brings my first taste of absolute silence. There are no spectators allowed on the Queensboro Bridge. It is the one place on this course where there are only runners. No one is talking. All I hear is breathing, footfalls, and the rambling soundtrack in my mind: “Stay focused. You are still passing people even on this bridge. This cramp will disappear by the time you exit. The epic cheers of spectators will bring renewed energy on the other side. Seeing Maggie is your reward for reaching mile 16. Stay strong. Even at this pace, you are passing people! Keep going. Cheers and positivity line the streets from mile 16 to 26.2!”
It is a sharp left turn off of the bottom. I know to look for Maggie on the right, as she had texted her location before the start. There she is, hanging over the metal barricade and screaming. Of course, I can barely hear her over the roar of the crowd, but it fills me with joy to see her face. The cramp is gone. Another turn is just ahead. Like thick yarn through a needle, the road chokes with runners — time to refocus.
Find the window. I run close to the edge on the left side of the road. It is easier to maintain a pace and pass from this position. It also allows me to soak in some needed energy from the spectators. They never fail me. Every mile is just as electrifying as the last. People make eye contact and scream my name as if they know me. Their cheers fill me with energy. The support magically diminishes the pain.
I am back on pace. There is music blaring and a woman with a microphone. She projects through the speakers, “Dawn, you are killing it! You look amazing!” I believe her.
Mile 20: Wait, this is mile 20? I feel so good. Now I know something special is happening.
Mile 22: I am still passing people in droves, my pace, steady. Next, I am in Central Park. Where is the wall? Where is the killer fatigue? I have never felt so strong in a marathon. Checking my watch, I find my brain is too tired to compute the possibility of my finish time. I want 3:20 or better. I know I am damn close. Questions swirl: How much time did I lose in that first mile? How much time did I lose on the Queensborough Bridge? How much time had this crowded racecourse cost me? Refocus on the now; I can only control the present.
Mile 25: There’s Maggie, with an outpouring of cheers and love. I receive it and pass with a full heart. She is standing with some folks waving the Human Rights Campaign swag. It brings added pride to be running this marathon as a member of the mighty Athletes for Equality Team and on behalf of HRC.
I look at my watch. Thanks to oxygen debt and fatigue, my brain is not in shape to do calculations, but I think I am on target to reach my goal. Feeling strong and knowing that the finish line is close now, I push the pace. Surprisingly, even though I have run 25 miles, I find another gear. There is the sign: Mile 26. I have less than a quarter-mile until I cross the finish. The math is clear. I am going to be UNDER 3:20! The last .2 are a complete joy. Celebratory fireworks go off in my head as I push to those timing mats and under the finishing arch. I press stop on my watch. It reads 3:18 and change. My official time – 3:18:15.
Just like that, it is behind me. Overcome with happiness, pride, and satisfaction as it sets in: I nailed it. Better yet, I felt good while I did it. The countless miles and hours of training had proved me right. The tears, the aches, and the sacrifices for this goal were all worth it. My focus and fueling were fine-tuned and on point. My body and my mind worked together in positive harmony.
A kind volunteer wraps me in a foil heat sheet and tapes it shut. I pull out my phone to connect with Maggie, who is waiting outside of the gated marathon zone. My eyes fill with tears as I see all of the congratulatory texts from people who were tracking me during the race. Once more, I am wrapped in love and support from my team, both near and far. This happy ending is nothing short of perfect. And before I have exited the park, I already see another the NYC Marathon in my future.
This is not goodbye; it is: see you later.
P.S. Thanks to my NYC qualifying time, I WILL SEE YOU IN NOV 2019!