Wednesday, November 6, 2013

New York City Marathon Recap

Dear Mom,

This one was for you.

The 2013 New York City Marathon was my 12th race of at least 26.2 miles and my first NYCM since I ran it in 2007-08. I was nowhere close to my PR of 5:13 set in '08, finishing this one in 5:47:55. But this race is not about time. It is about majesty, the spirit of America's largest city, and so many people running to make a difference, and this time it was about facing challenges with a positive outlook.

Back in my hometown of Evansville, Indiana, you are a shining example to me of positive attitude and being who you want to be. I knew that any challenges including nausea that I would face over these five boroughs would be put into perspective. Your recent lymphoma diagnosis posed a challenge and we decided to be bigger than it. You are unchanged in your upbeat demeanor, facing chemo strong and determined. So far so good, and I wanted this to be a way of saying that.

Mostly, you are focused on going about your usual life. You were Elvis Presley's No. 1 fan when he was around, and I once had an Elvis impersonator appear at your house for a birthday concert. Your whole basement is Elvis. There are some people who face cancer like a hounddog, cryin' all the time. You ain't a hounddog. You are just positive. There is no better way to face adversity. We got this. And when I told you I was going to run this NYC Marathon for you, it was just symbolic of an ultimate challenge that can be overcome.

I always do a marathon recap here, and basically anything I have that sounds like adversity really is not adversity at all in the big picture. It was a chilly headwind in my face all the way up Fourth Street in Brooklyn, up First Street in Manhattan, and somehow even up Fifth Avenue when the wind flipped around. And there was some nausea in miles 17 and up, but really, nausea during a marathon is not a big deal when you are facing that right after your chemo treatments. We got this together.

A woman held up a sign in Queens that read: "Shake what your momma gave ya!" There were so many creative signs in the marathon, like the one that read: "MAKING THIS SIGN WASN'T EASY EITHER." Or: "YOU LOOK F'IN AMAZING...THEN AGAIN I'M DRUNK." But for me, none matched that "Shake" sign. And then that same woman showed up in the 21st mile in the Bronx, and I stopped that time to take a picture of it to include right here. This is what I was doing. I was shaking what you gave me.


I got up at 4:45, drove down to the city and took the 3 train to the Staten Island Ferry. I boarded the 7 am boat with many others, and there was a massive show of security due to the Boston Marathon tragedy. I was mainly focused on dealing with the cold, and that security made it a little harder. I wanted to bring a blanket but couldn't fit it into the Start Village bag they provided, so I just bundled in disposable layers and tried to use a Snuggie for warmth while waiting 2 hours. It was just cold. The lucky ones were in tents, thanks to their charity fundraising. We all braced against the elements for a while.

The cannon sounded for our Orange Wave 4 group, part of a record field of more than 50,000 starters, and we headed up the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. It remains an unmatched thrill. You see the harbor and Lady Liberty to the left, and the ocean to the right, helicopters overhead, a ship spraying water, and so many runners. I focused on conserving energy those first 2 miles, the first mile up the bride and the second mile down it.


Here is the largest portion of the NYC Marathon. The first half-marathon lives within this borough. Mom, remember 2007, when I ran my first marathon, and called you collect from the pay phone I saw in Brooklyn? Six years later, there were no pay phones anywhere within site. But I did see the same enthusiastic congregation standing out front of a church just before St. James -- I wish I knew its name. I slowed to actually applaud them, each of them. They are so inspirational.

The bands and spectators are just overwhelming in giving you energy. At that point I was loosely following the 5:00 pace group and then the 5:15 group. I continued my tradition of spotting an English Bulldog and getting some puppy licks around Mile 7 or 8, after we had finally turned off the long straightaway that is Fourth Avenue and headed right on Lafayette.

The only real break in the large line of crowds comes on Bedford in Williamsburg, where the Hasidic Jews are very much a different culture, not having anything to do with us as we run past men with cell phones stuck to their ears. But then again, that is the beauty of the New York City Marathon. There are so many different neighborhoods and ethnicities, and there are not many better ways to see a lot of them then by running through them. The great Melting Pot is what makes us famous in NYC.


We crossed the Pulaski Bridge connecting Brooklyn to Queens, and then hit the 13.1 mark. The gorgeous skyline view is on your left, and many people stop to take photos. I tried to stay on track and keep my phone in my belt pack. Speaking of that, I was packing lots of salt packets, making sure I shoved plenty of it down to avoid cramping, plus my usual GUs. I carried a baggie filled with Vaseline just in case I had chafing problems. Fortunately, I would never have the slightest such problem on this day.

The crowds in Queens were far larger and more boisterous than I remembered in '07 and '08. There was even a woman with a megaphone sounding official in welcoming us to their borough. I was really impressed. Brooklyn had nothing on Queens as far as spectators -- and I'm a back-of-the-packer, meaning they were persistent in helping us get through. We then made the daunting climb up into the lower deck of the Queensboro Bridge, famous for its quiet mile or two. It was a steady ascent, so overall it posed a challenge to avoid walking for any length of time.


Most people call this their highlight of the NYC Marathon: The moment you descend off the bridge onto First Avenue at Mile 16 and are greeted by the roaring crowds. It really is uplifting. There is nothing in running like it, I imagine. I concentrated on getting through those next 20 street blocks, which equals a mile, because my wonderful wife Lisa and her mom Maureen were waiting for me at the Mile 17 sign.

Lisa gave me a few orange slices, which were huge then. Really what helps is just seeing a familiar face, something to snap you out of your slowly building despair at that point in a marathon. "Why aren't my quads working?" "Why is the wind in my face?" "How is my pace group out of sight?" "How long is First Avenue going to be uphill?" I was trying mantras, counting backward from 100, whatever I could do to deal with that steady climb with a headwind, and seeing family was the best thing for me.

I said bye to them and ordered my quads to resume lifting, which they did to an extent. Here's the problem I would face the rest of the marathon: My quads really didn't do a great job lifting. I had tried to mix in strength training in the gym, leg weights, but I could not really go at it because of time. And let's face it, running the NYC Marathon right after working a postseason and traveling at the World Series, is not all that easy. Still, I kept wishing I had done more for my legs. I was paying for it.


Crossing the Willis Avenue Bridge took me into the Bronx, and while Queens greatly increased its fan turnout in the last five years, this borough still didn't do much for me. There were not very many fans, at least not hanging around for my run-by. I saw a water table and realized it was a resident pouring water for other residents. I was really thirsty. It's one little turn after another, a lot of work to get through the Bronx without much support whatsoever. Seriously, let's get local leaders more involved in making it a big deal for runners to swing through this borough. Invite some Yankees or something. My wife works in this borough, and that was my feedback for her. Finally I saw a fluid station and some enthusiasm, a little, anyway. The goal became: Get through this borough fast, it's not doing anything for me and I'm hurting, bad.

Next stop Harlem. I crossed the Madison Ave. Bridge that took us to Fifth Avenue, and that would lead us all the way back down to Central Park. There is a little detour around Marcus Garvey Park, and all I know is that I was doing too much run-walk-run-walk. I knew to expect an almost imperceptible incline for a long way on Fifth, and indeed that was problematic, but I did my best to persevere. Again, persevering during a marathon is one thing, doing what you are doing is bigger.

The crowds again were remarkable. They keep you going, little by little. Mile 23 came and went, and shortly after that we turned into Central Park at the Runner's Gate entrance on 90th. That's the homestretch. I was so charged up by that. Lines of fans holding signs shouted encouragement, and best of all Cat Hill was downhill rather than uphill. This was a chance to pick up some time, to leave nothing on that hill. I went under the Mile 24 sign. It was a race for the south end of the park, and along the way I was overjoyed to spot some friends who helped take my mind off my disagreeable quads. First I saw my friends Ricardo and Gordon, from season 2 of the MLB Fan Cave, who spotted me and came out to greet me and even run with me a short ways. Then I saw my Facebook friend Mich from Canada, another endurance runner who is part of a great support network, great to meet in person.

I can't say enough how important it is to have family and friends at a marathon, if they're in the area. It truly helps you at what can be the hardest times. Mom, I wish you had been here. But in a way you were, because after going under the Mile 26 sign, I had a lot to think about in that final and famous two-tenths of a mile. In 2007, I cried that whole final .2 as I looked up at the sky at my Dad. This time, I cried as well, thinking of what we are going through together. But this time, they were tears of joy.

Here is how it felt at the finish:

This was nothing compared to what you are doing. But finishing this New York City Marathon strong was my way of saying I am following your lead, staying positive through any challenge. I smiled as they draped a medal around my head. I walked the long recovery walk to the new "Early Exit" area, received my awesome orange poncho (thanks, New York Road Runners!), and limped all the way to my car. I was in agony, but only in a relative sense. The marathon was over, and soon it will be Thanksgiving and we will be there in Indiana after a long drive to enjoy a great feast with you and family, and Lisa, Bingley and I cannot wait. If you are nauseous then, about 10 days after your next scheduled chemo, no worry, we will get through it together, and I'll have the medal with me as a reminder of staying positive forever.

Love, Mark