Monday, November 3, 2008

New York: Marathon City, U.S.A.

The return overnight to standard time had bought my fellow runners and me an extra hour of sleep, but it still was dark at 5 a.m. when I and dozens of others shuffled from all directions to converge in Midtown Manhattan at Bryant Park and the New York Public Library, where a line of buses was waiting to take us to the starting line of the 2008 NYC Marathon in Staten Island.

We each carried our race-issued clear plastic bags, some (like mine) jammed full with everything we were traveling with, others with the bare essentials — Body Glide, Power Bar, toilet paper, Gatorade, Bandaids. Our numbers pinned to our chest. Our race chips secured to our running shoes.

I hadn't even felt this nervous on my wedding day. The excitement was comparable to that moment before the opening curtain in high school musicals years ago — almost showtime. I ate an apple and watched the darkened city pass by outside the bus windows, down Manhattan, through the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel, along the expressway. A Biblical passage on a billboard caught my eye: "Acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy path."

My journey to the greatest marathon in the world (and officially the biggest) began two years ago when I figured I'd give it a shot and signed up for a membership in the New York Road Runners club. To secure guaranteed entry, I ran nine city races in 2007, about evenly split between half marathons and shorter races in Central Park.

Then, this summer, the hard part began. The training. It would be embarrassing to reveal how poorly I trained, so I'll merely provide an excuse: I commute about two hours to work each day in Manhattan and another two hours back home to New Haven, Conn. Most weeks I live for the weekend.

This weekend, I got a cheap hotel room and stayed overnight Friday. My wife, Liz, met me in the city on Saturday. Before she arrived, I snuck in a final pre-race run — an easy three-miler down Broadway to Union Square and back up. I went back for seconds at the race-sponsored pasta dinner at the Tavern on the Green in Central Park, and we got to bed early so I could rest up.

By the time I made it to Staten Island, I was ready to race. Unfortuntely, the race wouldn't start for another four hours, and I spent most of those four hours struggling to stay warm. We were all in the same boat, shivering in chilly anticipation, split among three pre-race "villages" in the shadow of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

It could have been unbearable. Instead, it was exhilarating. I strolled the grounds, grabbed some coffee and a bagel, checked out the so-called competition. The stickers on their bags revealed a sort of United Nations of runners, from England and France and Brazil and New Zealand and Japan and on and on. All different types. All praying their legs would carry them 26.2 miles to the finish line in Central Park.

I wasn't sure what my legs would do when I finally made it to the starting line. But when the race got under way at 9:40 a.m. and the speakers on the bridge began blaring Sinatra's "New York, New York," I felt overwhelmed by the moment. It occurred to me that there are few things more glorious than reaching the top of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge on a cool November morning with the sun rising over Atlantic Ocean to the right and the skyline of Manhattan rising above New York Harbor to the left.

A much less glorious sight is the uninhibited male runners who hadn't adequately prepare their bladders for such an occasion and choose to solve their sudden problem by exposing themselves to the harbor and aiming over the edge of the bridge. Not cool.

The marathon hits all five boroughs, though most of the race takes place in Brooklyn and Manhattan. And much of the first eight miles is a straightaway along Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, where it's hard to feel discouraged with so many people cheering along the sidelines. Bands seem to be set up every quarter mile, from rock bands to gospel groups to string quartets, not to mention the bagpipers of Queens. There were fewer bands in Manhattan, but many more people. And the more people, the more the NYC Marathon feels like the world-class sporting event it is, but a sporting event in which anyone can participate, from the world's fastest men and women to the lowliest amateur.

And the luckiest of runners have familiar faces to encourage them forward. I'm greatful for my friend Sara, a resident of the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, who was out taking pictures around mile 11. The picture she snapped of me probably was the best I could hope for, because I became less and less photogenic as the race wore on.

Of course, the face that brought me the greatest boost was that of Liz, who I knew was waiting for me at 72nd Avenue in Manhattan, around mile 17. I swooped in and surprised her with a kiss before doing a spin maneuver to point me back on track.

Unfortunately, that was the last point in the race in which I felt any real confidence. By the time I crossed the bridge into Bronx and passed the 20-mile marker, muscle cramps had creeped into both legs above the knee in places I had never felt cramps before, and I ached over every inch of my body. Even so, I wasn't alone in my agony. Others were pausing along the route to catch their breath and stretch out, and I did the same.

In the final six miles of the race I stoped four times to stretch my legs and work the cramps out of my muscles. But by the time I had made it back into Manhattan, running down Fifth Avenue, circling Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem, I knew I was close enough that I'd make it to the finish, even if I had to walk the whole way. Somehow I powered up the hill to the entrance into Central Park at 90th Street with a guy dressed as Marilyn Monroe running at my back.

I saw Liz on the sidelines again, in the park, and reached out my hand this time. I cursed the parks' rolling hills and stopped one last time when the cramps returned about a mile and a half from the finish line. But in the end, the pain didn't matter. Everyone was feeling it at that point. We were all in it together, and we all got a boost from the enormous crowd cheering at the big right turn onto 59th street at the southeast corner of the park.

In spite of the pain, I couldn't help but grit my teeth and smile for that last mile. Other runners raised their arms to get the crowd to cheer. I gave a few pumps with my right fist — an almost involuntary gesture, intended both to rally the crowd and to say, yes, I did it, thank you.

I crossed the finish line, stopped running and began hobbling forward like my fellow marathonists. Each of us were given medals for completing the race. The sight of the medals was enough to make it sink in that I, somehow, had completed what I had set out to accomplish two years ago, and emotion overcame me again.

It takes 20 minutes or more for a marathon runner's blood circulation to return to normal after a race, which is why staying upright is essential. They corralled us up the pathway to our baggage, forcing us to keep moving. And after I got my bag, I had to double back along Central Park West to meet Liz at Columbus Circle.

As I got close, my eyes scanned the crowd, desperately searching for that familar face. And then, there she was, jogging toward me with an expression of joy on her face and tears in her eyes. People who have run marathons many times may not feel so overwhelmed at the sight of their husbands or wives after the race, but forgive me if my heart leapt at that moment.

We hugged, overjoyed. Liz snapped a picture of me wrapped in my space blanket. And I began recounting for her the story of my ordeal, as we ducked into the subway station on our way back to Connecticut.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Keepin' All 5 Boroughs in Stitches

Two years of my life culminated today in my completion of the NYC Marathon: from the day in December 2006 that I turned in my New York Road Runners application, through nine city races in 2007 to a roller coaster 2008 that made marathon training an uphill battle to this morning, when I and some 39,000 others crossed the glorious Verrazano-Narrows bridge on our 26.2 mile trek to the finish line in Central Park.

My optimistic goal had been 3 hours and 30 minutes, with 4 hours as my more realistic goal. I came in at 3 hours and 42 minutes, a time I could feel good about.

I'll write a more comlete summation tomorrow. For now, I'll just that it was at times euphoric, at other times brutal, and occasionally both euphoric and brutal. Very easily the most fun I've had while being in excruciating pain (more fun during the first half, and more excruciating during the final 10 miles).

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Here's to You, Fat Boy

This may not be a revelatory admission, but I'm not afraid to announce without reservation and without shame that I am a Simon Pegg fan.

"Shawn of the Dead" is a horror comedy classic, and "Hot Fuzz" is a heck of a lot of fun. I haven't yet sought out his latest, "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People," but considering that I'm mere days away from running my first marathon, it was about time I checked out "Run, Fat Boy, Run."

The movie itself is mediocre and Pegg is easily the best thing in it. But it also has enough running references to keep pavement pounders delighted — from the opening scene, with Pegg as a women's clothing store security guard chasing down a bra thief, to the climactic London Marathon, in which Pegg faces, quite literally, "the wall."

I've never seen Hank Azaria with his shirt off, and let me tell you, it was quite intimidating. Who knew Moe on "The Simpsons" was ripped?

So it's reassuring to see Pegg (the movie's title character) struggle with his crash training — only three weeks' worth!!! — and prance around awkwardly in tight shorts that seem more suited to a swimming meet.

While lamenting to a friend how Azaria has stolen his woman, Pegg adds, "And he runs marathons."

"Why?" the friend asks.


But somehow, he makes it to the starting line after learning a secret technique: "You put one leg in front of the other over and over again really fast."

Lots of good music in the movie, too, and my favorite scene was a montage synced to the tune of "Keep on Running" by the Spencer Davis Group, which has to be one of the coolest songs about running that's not really about running.

I won't give away the ending, other than to say that Pegg's marathon "PR" is terrible, yet somehow uplifting. At one point during the race, when he can barely go any further, he asks his friend how long until the finish. The response: "It's a little, tiny nine miles." Not encouraging.

That very likely will be me this Sunday at the NYC Marathon. I don't feel much more prepared than he does. But hopefully I won't have to bash through an imaginary brick wall.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Taperless Taper

Anyone who has run a marathon or fantasized about running a marathon or knows anything about running a marathon is aware of The Taper. It's that three-week period, give or take a week, after your longest training run. It's the period when you taper off the miles to let your body rest for the big race. This also leaves your body craving extra miles, and many people develop mysterious aches and pains that make them second-guess their fitness for the race.

That's all well and good, but I have no such problem because my training has been decidedly half-assed to begin with. So now that I've finally hit the taper stage, resting up for the NYC Marathon on Nov. 2, it seems like I should be running more, not less.

I mean, I never ran more than 30 miles in any week of my training. And I only ran 20 miles once, and that wasn't really a full run, since I kinda walked the last few miles. And I've been skipping too many mid-week tempo runs. So if I followed my initial, overly optimistic training program, for the final three weeks I'd actually increase my mileage.

Of course, that won't happen. I'll probably just run as much as I have been running, which has been embarrassingly little, though I'll start cutting my long runs shorter.

I figure I'm just about fit enough not to collapse at mile 13 as I cross the Pulaski Bridge from Brooklyn into Queens, and from there, I'll just have to summon up enough fortitude and power gels to keep moving forward into the Bronx and finally Manhattan.

Still, I got my final burst of panic this morning when I checked the race Web site and saw the countdown clock had dropped below 12 days. Yikes!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Marathon Mental Game

Let's say marathon running is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.

Add another 15 to 20 percent: the mental game.

It's hard enough training your body to withstand the ordeal of running 26.2 miles. It may very well be harder to train your mind to withstand three, four, five hours of upright movement. When I first starting distance running, this was my biggest hurdle. I couldn't figure how anyone could run even an hour and not get bored and give up. My longest runs wound up being little more than four or five miles.

But I found that steady practice allows a runner to push those boundaries, both mind and body. Five miles becomes eight miles, and suddenly eight miles seems normal. And then becomes 10 miles, then 12 miles. Soon four or five miles seems too short, not even worth lacing the shoes for. A runner gets used to the longer miles.

Somehow I'm now able to run 14 miles straight, and another few miles after that while hobbling along, and pausing for breath all too frequently. And an hour is a bare minimum. Lately I've been pushing two hours at a time, though still not confidently. It struck me last Sunday that my mental training hadn't even begun. How was I supposed to get through the NYC Marathon in three and a half hours (my overly optimistic goal) or four or five hours (my more realistic target, at this point) if I could barely stay focused for two hours?

On my Sunday run, I ignored my pace for the most part, other than to make sure I wasn't going too fast, and kept my mind focused on mental endurance. It helps to get the body into a zone, kick the legs and arms into autopilot, so that running becomes almost like a trance state. Hard to pull off, but it helped me shore up this other facet of my training.

In fact, after two and a half hours, I think my mind was still in shape to keep going a while longer. Unfortunately, my legs — in particular my ankle — wouldn't allow it. I pooped out at 16 miles, walking much of the last couple miles.

The mental game is on. Now back to getting the body in gear.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Legs Don't Fail Me Now

Only seven weeks left to the NYC Marathon, and I still feel a few steps behind in my training. But my mind is catching up, and the legs seem to be obeying.

My training schedule is practically out the window, or at least I've given up all hope of adhering to it strictly. Instead, I've taken heart in my mileage and consistency improvements. Three training runs last week, including a West Haven 14-miler, after the solid 14-miler in Salem, Mass.

This time, I packed a couple gels so that I didn't collapse halfway through. My schedule called for an 18-miler, which would have been unthinkable without some prepackaged energy boosts. I still finished four miles short of the goal but felt good in the 14, stopping only a couple times for water.

The West Haven route has become one of my favorites, even though the back seven never fails to stump me, whether because of heat, sun, wind, rain, hills or the stench coming from the water treatment facility around mile 11. Otherwise, it's a mostly flat route that reaches the beaches near the Milford town line around mile 7 and then follows the shore.

I plan to use this as the base route for my longer training runs, which are supposed to hit 20 miles in two weeks. My standard West Haven route is 14 miles, but I can tack on several more simply by taking a few extra turns on the tail end, in particular kicking out onto Long Wharf along the New Haven Harbor. And I've found a water fountain at 9.5 miles, which will come in handy.

Even so, 26.2 miles is a daunting thought. We'll see how I feel about it in two weeks.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Road Trip: Salem, Mass.

The Boston area is a little bit beyond this Northeast runner's typical training grounds, but on a mini vacation in Salem, Mass., I took advantage of the tranquil waterfront and mostly flat landscape to sneak in a 14-miler that looped through Peabody, Danvers and Beverly before ending back at the Clipper Ship Inn.

Salem's early claim to fame was as one of the principal ports of colonial days. Founded in 1626, the harbor was ideally protected by the peninsulas of Marblehead and Salem Neck, and the shipping business thrived, possibly making for America's first millionaire, a Salem tycoon named Derby. But as ships were built bigger and bigger, Salem's harbor became too shallow to handle the traffic, which shifted primarily to Boston in the early 1800s.

Salem also is known as the birthplace of Nathaniel Hawthorne's whose 1851 novel "The House of Seven Gables" was named after a residence in Salem, now a popular tourist site. But the city today is perhaps most famous for its infamous witch trials of 1692, which ended in the death of 20 innocent "witches," including one by pressing — a most unfortunate end, if ever there was one.

As for running routes, traffic is hardly a problem, and many pedestrian pathways along the waterfront make for pleasant runs. Shorter runs in the historic older part of Salem will take you back in time. Venture into the more residential and commercial neighborhoods to the west for a longer run, which easily could include multiple water crossings. And north of Salem is Beverly, which offers more hills and more hustle and bustle, but also some of the best views of the ocean in the area, along Lothrop Street.

Here's my route, starting at the Clipper Ship Inn and heading south for a clockwise loop around the area: