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.