Tuesday, November 6, 2007

New York City Marathon

My First Marathon

"A triumph of the will over all limits." That is what it says on the back of my New York City Marathon medal, a quote from the great Alberto Salazar. That is the story of my first 26.2 mile run, and here is a final wrapup for all my friends and family who were so kind to support me during this quest. See the fifth paragraph of this race recap and you know my mission.

Marathon Eve

On Saturday, Nov. 3, I went to our Team for Kids party at the legendary China Club in the heart of Times Square. It was wonderful. We all talked about the work we had done to raise money for a fabulous cause -- fighting childhood obesity and creating running programs for children -- and it was so cool to meet others in that shared experience. Thanks to the support of so many wonderful family and friends, we raised $2764 from 60 donations, contributing to a total of $3.5 million raised by us 1,000 runners. That evening, I watched the on-demand movie "Invincible" starring Mark Wahlberg -- for inspiration. The Barilla Marathon Eve dinner was at Tavern on the Green, which is one of the most beautiful settings for a dinner you can ever imagine. The pasta itself was decidedly horrible, and I have decided that next year I will enjoy a pre-race Italian dinner at Carmine's. But it was nice to be around other runners.

After eating, it was nice to walk out to the Finish line area, which is adjacent to Tavern on the Green. I started walking backwards on the race route. Suddenly I came to the Mile 26 sign. A man there asked to have his picture taken, saying, "Just in case I don't make it here tomorrow." I put a hand on his shoulder and said, "Sir, both of us will be here tomorrow. We will never forget this spot and this moment." Then we both laughed. And we would get back here, but I will not be prepared for how I will feel at that point toward the bottom of this blog post.

This photo below was important to me for another reason. The night before was a beautiful pink sunset over Central Park, but what I remember was these gorgeous London Planes and other trees that are among 26,000 trees in the park. By finishing the New York City Marathon, I knew that I would have a new beginning and a new ending for my currently 210-page book manuscript "Trees and Numbers." This was the quintessential part of my book. The trees. The numbers. It is running. It is baseball. It is digital. It is life. Everything in life begins with Trees and Numbers, the original street naming grid in my hometown of Evansville, Indiana.

I put a sign on my back for the ING New York City Marathon 2007, dedicating the race to my father and my sons. I lost my Dad last year and dedicated the race to him. I cried for him when I went under the Mile 26 sign. I also dedicated it to my beautiful and bright sons Matthew, Benjamin and Joshua. It was our race together. I was so happy to know that my boys would be tracking me on Sunday.

I pledged to everyone that I would dance across the finish line. There is a 1981 Solid Gold video on youtube by Peaches & Herb, "Shake Your Groove Thing." Herb wore lime in that video just like I was going to wear. As you can see above, I did.

Race Morning

I woke up at 3:26 a.m. ET on Sunday, November 4. It was more time than I needed, but I wasn't going to take any chances whatsoever. I had a banana and toast. Then it was time to place two temporary tattoos on my face. One was the University of Kentucky Wildcat logo. One was the UK letter logo. They are on behalf of my Dad, who was a diehard UK football and basketball season-ticket holder, whose ashes were spread in 2006 on the UK football field 50-yard line. This was my tribute to my Dad.

At 5:20 a.m., I arrived by taxi at 51st Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues. That's where all the Team for Kids charter buses were waiting for us. It is one of the unquestioned benefits of being part of TFK, of all those months of trying my best to raise funds for a wonderful cause. They are such a wonderful organization and this is where you really get some payback! We had a police escort all the way to Staten Island, we had instant seating (I was the third person on the bus), and it was VIP all the way, baby!!!!!

I looked out the window above and, voila, there was Cafe Duke! I walked off the bus, went over and got a croissant and a green tea. Croissant would become my ritual before each marathon.

When each of us boarded the buses, we were handed an envelope. Inside was a card signed by a different child who benefited from Team for Kids. If you are reading this, then watch closely because you are opening this card with me. Thank you on their behalf.

Look at the shadow that the Verrazano Narrows Bridge made on Staten Island and Fort Wadsworth at sunrise! You can see the mighty bridge's posts.

Tens of thousands of runners camped out in the Fort Wadsworth village, braced against a breezy chill in the hours before the race. It was very cushy inside the Team for Kids tent! Another benefit of raising a whole lot of money during the summer. I staked out my little patch of grass on a towel and snoozed for a half-hour. It was fun to mingle with other TFK runners who had all gone through the same experience.

This is me with Lydia, who is the head of operations for Team for Kids. Lyd bravely fought AND BEAT breast cancer two years ago and she is a triumphant soul who inspires you and who encouraged us for months. It was SO cool to finally meet her on this weekend.


THE START: Runners were divided into Blue, Green and Orange corrals. I was assigned to Blue. I made a friend there named Sean, a guy who works for race sponsor ING based in Atlanta. Something happened here that I will never forget. It will be possibly the very beginning of my book as I start writing this month. We were herded forward amongst one oak tree after another, all passing signs that read 3000-3500, 3600-4000, etc, marking bib numbers. Trees and Numbers are all that you could possibly experience visually in those moments. It is the purest essence of my book. We finally moved up toward the V-N Bridge, and it was quite a scene to hurdle over sweatshirts and sweatpants and jackets and other gear that runners left behind for a charity that will need our clothing. We were off and running: My first marathon ever.

MILE 1: I remember being in the middle of the V-N Bridge, and there was a guy standing on the edge, peeing into the Atlantic Ocean. It was like he was communicating with the ship that was spraying streams of water to celebrate the start of the race.

MILE 3: Someone clipped my foot from behind. I wiped out on the pavement. Fortunately, I called upon my taekwondo instincts, and I did a tumble roll on the street, bouncing right back up, dusting off my hands, and thinking: "OK, who saw that?" hahahaha I just kept running. Welcome to your first New York City Marathon, Mark!!!! Just then a guy held a sign that read: "FINISHING IS THE ONLY F**KING OPTION!" Lots of roars for that one.

MILE 4: I will be estimating mileage at this point. There were 120 bands. The one I remember most was a beautiful Baptist Church to our left, and lining the sidewalk out front was their gospel choir, all singing for us. It is so humbling. You just raise your fist into the air, hoping they will see you, that you are thanking them for entering your consciousness for a minute as you fly by.

I knew Fourth Avenue would last forever. You really can't know it until you experience it, though. It was like Forrest Gump running across the country. I gave a thousand high-fives to people, especially very small children. I loved the changing cultures. Every community was different, in race and face and music and architecture. Fluid stations featured Gatorade in front, and if you wanted water, you ran toward the end of the stations.

A little after this photo was taken, I guess, the pain started. I felt my first twinge of plantar fasciitis in my right foot.

Mile 7: I just remember a guy in front of me saying to someone: "See that big building up ahead? That's Mile 8." Indeed. It was the building I had stared at over and over and over in visualizing the course in the week before, with my youtube video and at the ING area at the Expo.

Amazingly, I found myself later in this picture. Hard to miss the TFK guy!

Mile 10-12: I love you, Williamsburg. It was such a cool part of Brooklyn. I cannot say adequately enough how much those people helped me. They came out in shocking force. The screamed my name constantly. At Mile 11, my right foot was officially my enemy for the rest of the day. It was aching just as it had in Long Training Run No. 2, when I had to limp back home. This time, it would not matter. I would run through whatever pain my body offered. It hurt like hell. I was looking around for my colleague Gur while running; you have no chance of spotting someone (vice-versa) in this crowd unless you specify the street corner precisely.

Half-Marathon: My time was 2:48. I was very happy with that. My TFK coaches had told me to think "10-10-10". 10 miles, 10 miles and a 10K, running the second 10 faster than the first, and the 10K faster than all three. Save up, save up, save up in the first 10 miles. I tried to pace myself during that time. I was on track, I felt. At that point, I saw a pay phone booth on the sidewalk. I jumped over the barricade and placed a collect call to my Mom. "Hi, Mom, I'm halfway done, about to leave Brooklyn for Queens." It was so funny. I felt so glad to talk to my Mom. She isn't wired on a computer. My boys were charting my progress back in St. Louis online, so was my brother Tim in Colorado Springs, so were others all over thanks to technology. I went back onto the street to run, and at the end of the block I stopped again.

It was an English Bulldog. Right in the middle of the intersection. You guys know me. I spent 5 minutes hugging and petting that English Bulldog. Maybe 8 minutes. Maybe my six hour time was because of that. "You ready to run?" I asked him, knowing that the bully I had could not run 26.2 inches. Every time I run Central Park, I see a bully and have to pet it.

QUEENS: It was hard to run uphill over the Queensboro Bridge. For one thing, there was a gorgeous panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline, and I stopped to admire it. Things were starting to hit me. My foot was breaking off. After getting over the bridge, something happened. Four Team for Kids teammates, including Alicia (pictured above, the limb-marker), came up from behind and she said, "C'mon, do this for your boys!" (It was on that sign on my back.) I said, "My foot is killing me!" Alicia said, "I know! So is my hip! Let's go!" I ran with them. For a mile. Then I lost them. It would be a bad mistake, but my body gave me no choice. I listened to my iPod. We can now put any "controvery" to bed over marathons and iPods. Katie Holmes' picture wearing hers is all over the world. I listened to mine when I want. If you are a race director and you do not permit iPods, then congratulations, you are a loser and you sound kind of like a book-burner. It's 2007 and Apple is responsible for part of this new runner boom.

BRIDGE TO MANHATTAN, MILE 16: Queens didn't last long, fortunately. But what did last long was the longest bridge in the history of human civilization. Or so it seemed. It was dark and tunnelly, trying to get across the East River, running, walking, running, walking, dying. Massive pain. I knew that heaven lie on the other side -- those legendary crowds along First Avenue, just waiting for you. In the middle of the bridge, there was a series of signs. They said: "If Easy Means Having Only 10 Miles Left"..."Then Welcome To Easy"..."Welcome To Manhattan." The moment finally came, after Mile 16. And the crowds were glorious.

MANHATTAN/FIRST AVENUE: I did my best. Every time the crowds screamed: "Let's Go Mark! You Can Do It!!!!" I made myself run. But at Mile 18, my quads bonked. I could no longer lift my legs up to run. It was the ONLY thing other than my right foot that went on the fritz today. There were always med tents (they are great) and I stopped in the next one. "What is wrong?," the Latin woman asked me. "My quads bonked," I said. Funny, she knew exactly what I meant. She put me on a stretcher, and proceeded to give me a painfully exuberant and effective deep muscle leg rub, and then put icepacks on both thighs. She gave me two Tylenol. Then she threw me out onto the street like dirty water. "What do I do now?" I said. "Stretch. Walk," she said. I did. Then I ran. Somehow. Then there was a fluid station with lots of cold green sponges, and also PowerBar gels. A little girl gave me pretzels. "Do you know why we like pretzels?" I said to her, down on my knees. She was maybe 5. "No, why Mister?" she said. I said, "Because the salt makes us run faster. It is like magic to me right now. Thank you." She smiled at me and I smiled back, then I ran. A woman held a sign that read: "I WANT TO DATE A MARATHON MAN!" I ran along her side of the fence.

MILE 20/THE BRONX: First Avenue was like the Equator. It just kept going forever. And it was completely uphill, gradually, painfully, unmercifully. I ran. I walked. I ran. I walked. Then I got to The Bronx and I saw the Mile 20 sign, and THAT IS WHEN IT HIT ME: You are going to finish a Marathon. I made myself run. I have to say a quick word here, first:


There. I have been wanting to say that. I think that the constantly referred-to term of "The Wall" is complete and utter bullshit. I think it is in the mind. It is one thing to have your quads just stop on you. But I don't buy into The Wall. That is a mindset. If your mind is strong, there is no such thing. You will never convince me otherwise. I am glad I learned that for myself.

MILES 21-22/HARLEM: We left The Bronx by crossing over the Madison Avenue Bridge. At the bottom of the hill was a rhythm-and-blues band playing, and I veered to my right while the other runners banked left, and right then and there I DANCED with the band. They all got into it. They had a runner dancing with them. I forgot all about my foot, all about my quads, all about my time. I danced, Lee Ann Womack. Yes, I definitely danced in Harlem.

MILE 23: It hit me at Fifth Avenue and 130th Street that I know exactly where I am. I could measure my distance in MY MILEAGE. I knew that 20 blocks equal one mile. So to get from 130th to 59, or the bottom of Central Park, I had to shave off 70 blocks, or 3 1/2 miles. Just chunk it, Mark. It seemed too big at that moment. I ran. I walked. I ran. I walked. I was giving in again. Then I would tell myself: NO!!!! THIS IS YOUR MARATHON!!! DO NOT GIVE IN!!! I would stop and drag my right foot at a 90-degree angle, trying to relieve the pain, squishing my foot against an edge of the sole. Then I would run again. I was doing what my TFK coach Courtney had told me at Mile 11. I was landing on the outer edge, then the inner edge, then on my toes, then on my heel, then the middle. I did that constantly, trying to "distribute the pounding." It might have been only psychological, but it was all I could do. You know what was funny? In the 20's, there were times when I forgot about the pain, because the pain was so constant; it's like my body was trying to make the pain go away. For a while it would. Then I saw it: 110th Street. I had reached Central Park. My turf.

MILE 24: It took a long time to get to the 90th Street entrance of Central Park, where the course veers to the right. It was uphill getting there, and I lost a lot of time in those 20 blocks. Then I was running clockwise on my familiar regular course, toward Cat Hill. That's when I saw the first people on the course I knew. "NEWMAN!!!!" came the shout on the right. It was Gregg, the guy who sits next to me at work, and his wife. He came out and gave me a hug, and I thanked them for coming out. He saw that I was crying. I was way past worrying about that. "Kind of emotional right now," I said, wiping my face with my wristbands. I had just crossed under the MILE 24 sign. It had made me think of my Dad...that I was almost there.

MILE 25: We went past the Boathouse, and I crossed my chest and said a prayer for Ryan Shay, who had collapsed and died right there a day earlier in the U.S. Olympic Men's Marathon Trial. I kept running, which was actually symbolic, as that is what happened in the bigger picture, after that Saturday tragedy. Humanity moved on, in spite of a fallen comrade. Everyone had his or her own story. Mine continued as I reached the turnoff out of the park and onto 59th Street. Then it was a sharp right turn, and there were the crowds again. I was so proud to be a New Yorker. They shouted at me so loud. My legs buckled, and I dragged my right foot sideways again, once again as if it were a broken appendage. I could barely feel it. It had hurt since Mile 4. Why was I still running? How was I still running? "JUST KEEP MOVING, MARK! YOU'RE DOING THE RIGHT THING! JUST KEEP MOVING!" I will never forget that woman's voice. I looked up into the sky as I ran. I closed my eyes. I gritted my teeth. My strides continued. I made it over to the other side of the park, and at Columbus Circle we turned back in for the home stretch.

MILE 26: And that is where I saw the MILE 26 sign that my new friend and I had talked about the night before (see above). I remembered that moment. But mostly, I thought of my Dad. I broke down right there. I cried like a fire hydrant opened up full. I didn't care who saw me cry. That was my Dad. I looked up at the sky at him. I said, "Dad, take me home." The sign said 600 yards to go. THREE FOOTBALL FIELDS. That seemed forever. I thought of running football fields in high school. It was too big a thought. Just put one foot in front of the other, Mark. "Dad, take me home." I looked up at the sky again. I prayed. I talked to my Dad. The finish line was up ahead. It was bright blue, big and beautiful, like reaching the ocean.

THE FINISH: I raised both arms as high as I could, to touch the sky and hug my Dad. I smiled. I went under the finish line. As I did, I danced again, just like I had in Harlem. I did a Nelly to the left, a Nelly to the right, and a Nelly to the left. The crowd laughed -- I don't think many other runners danced across the finish line. Then they put a medal around my neck. They took my picture. They put one of those HeatSheets around me. I limped horribly back to Cherry Hill on 72nd Street, to the TFK tent where our checked bags were waiting. I ate a sandwich, an apple, drank more. I ripped the BreatheRight strip off my nose, where it had been stuck since 3:30 a.m., so that I could get maximum oxygen intake through my nose during the race. I went home and took an ice bath, screaming the whole time and lasting exactly one minute. I took a hot bath with epsom salts. I had a piece of buttercream cake from Alice's Teacup next door. I had several Coors Lights to go with a delivery order of babyback ribs and a baked potato from Dallas BBQ. I took Motrin. I was a marathoner.

MY TIME: 6:08. It gives me something to SHATTER in my next marathon. I am a little bummed out that I was so slow that I did not make it into the New York Times, and my fellow runners who I talk to all the time know how frustrated I was by that number. But it's something I can deal with. The best email I got was from Bob, head of the Big Cats runner club of which I am a part nationally, and he said, "Congrats on a huge accomplishment!! Times will drop - they always do! The first race is just your first PR!" That meant a lot. I know the reason for it personally, and that only matters in terms of MY OWN EXPECTATIONS.

The Day After

On Monday, November 5, I limped back to Tavern on the Green, where they had the Marathon Monday store. I got my medal engraved with my name and time on the back. I got a Finisher cap. I again read the words on the back of my medal, and they are perfect, considering what I had just gone through: "A triumph of the will over all the limits." I got back to my apartment after painstakingly climbing up a few flights (good to keep moving), and I looked at the silver keyfob on my keychain. It said "ING New York City Marathon." My boss Geoff had given me that last winter, the first time I realized that I wasn't the only one who thought I could perhaps do this. I just nodded my head, and then unlocked my door, and started my new life as a marathoner. I haven't decided my next move. I just want to be a good Dad, I want to be better than ever at what I do every day, I want to finish a book manuscript now that I've finished a marathon, I want to let my right foot heal, and then I want to go 26.2 again.

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