My day started earlier than planned – one hour earlier — at 4 am, instead of 5 because I forgot to set my alarm clock for Daylight Savings Time before I went to sleep. Doh! Looking back know I it was foreshadowed a day full of goof and blunders.
Chilling on the couch for an half hour, I watched the morning news before starting my pre-race stretching. Having run the New York City Marathon before I planned to approach it like another long race — of course none of my previous races had 50,000 runners and two million spectators along the course.
Although I seemed calm as I stretched, I wasn’t. April’s Boston Marathon bombing in made race security a concern — but an injured toe hurt exactly a week ago worried me more than the security checkpoints. Although my foot was feeling better, I wasn’t sure it could handle my 26.2 romp through the five boroughs.
I trained harder and logged more miles for this marathon than for any of my previous nine. Esther and I joined the Quicksilver Striders, a local running team, at the beginning of the year. We thrived in our new team environment, evidenced by our improved race times.
Coach Maria Romano introduced me new training techniques (at least they were new to me.) In addition to my regular training runs, I logged lots of miles doing speed work and tempo runs on Queens College’s track. I ran the trails in Forest Park and Hempstead Lake Park, and seemingly endless hill repeats on a three-block long hill specifically picked to simulate the 59th Street (sorry I don’t call it the Queensboro or Ed Koch) Bridge. Despite the training regimen, I had a nagging feeling that something was missing.
Getting to the Start
Esther drove her cousin Gabby, a Wave One runner from Puerto Rico, and me to downtown Manhattan to catch the ferry. The ferry terminal was packed with thousands of runners as it usually is but the bomb-sniffing dogs were new.
On the ferry Gabby and I talked race strategy as he calmly put on calf sleeves and pinned his bib to his singlet. Unlike me, his calf sleeves for not for compression — but for warmth — the 40 degree temperature and 17 mile per hour headwinds were more than he was used to in Puerto Rico.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a small Coast Guard boat heading right for us before turning to escort us to Staten Island. Although I’ve seen Coast Guard ships before this was the first time I saw one with a manned machine gun in the bow. I thought to myself, “Wow they are taking security serious this year!”
From the ferry terminal Gabby and I got on a bus headed for Fort Wadsworth — on the same streets where I ran last month’s Staten Island Half. Every runner passed through a security check, which included having a security guard pass a wand over them. It went smoothly considering over 50,000 individuals were wanded.
Upon entering the fort Gabby and I rushed to check his bag at the UPS truck, and then to his corral where he barely made it before they closed it.
With Gabby successfully delivered, I had an hour to kill. The New York City Marathon’s pre-race village is the runner’s equivalent to a Grateful Dead concert — a huge outdoor carnival with live music and masses of people everywhere. Some sprawled on the grass huddled together for warm others were under tents. There were more than a few foul-smelling bodies — it’s all part of the charm.
Upon hearing the announcement to head to the Wave 3 corral, I shed my extra layers so I could adjust to the brisk conditions. Waiting in line to enter the corral I went over my race strategy.
My goal was to run a 4:15 marathon, nine minutes faster than my p.r. To do this I split the race into three parts. I wanted to run 1:58 for the first half, meaning I had to run nine-minute miles. I wanted to get to 20 miles in 3:07 or run ten-minute splits for the next seven miles, which included the Pulaski and the 59th Street Bridges, which many feel is the toughest part of the race. If I reached 20 miles in 3:07, I had to average 10:58 per mile over the last 10K to get my 4:15.
After making a last-minute pit stop, I noticed the other runner’s bib numbers were much higher than mine. I made my second goof of the day missing my wave completely. I was going out in Wave 4.
Walking through the maze of fences and busses as I headed to the start, I kept saying to myself, “focus Frank, you have a race to run.” Looking up at the Verrazano Bridge in front of us with Frank Sinatra’s New York New York blaring over the loud speakers, many of us sang along. “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere. It’s up to you New York New York.”
BOOM! We were off with the canon shot and onto to the bridge. Starting the race frustrated and upset. I zig-zagged around slower runners, walkers and running tourists posing for pictures on the bridge. Am I the only one trying to run a race here? A 9:33 split for the first mile did little to ease my frustration.
“Easy Frank”, I said aloud, “you have 25 miles to run — you could make up 33 seconds.” Zig- zagging less and riding the downhill, I ran the second mile in 8:40. I started to relax as I headed towards Bay Ridge.
Brooklyn is one of the course’s highlights. With spectators lining both sides of the street, cheering, holding signs, and high-fiving runners, you could run block after block high-fiving one person after the next. Sticking to my plan, I stayed in the middle of street, forcing myself to run slower and conserving energy for later in the race.
At four miles my Garmin said 36 minutes flat, I caught up to my nine-minute pace. Cruising through the next three miles on auto pilot I kept an eye out for a familiar face. At the water station after mile seven I was greeted by Esther’s smiling face.
A quick hug and a kiss and we both headed to Queens. I ran towards the Pulaski Bridge and my next challenge, Esther jumped into her car rushing to Long Island City to pace a teammate running her first marathon.
The Pulaski Bridge was the day’s first challenge. With scenic views of the Manhattan skyline, the Pulaski Bridge is a highlight for tourist marathoners. Looking to my left a group of French runners posed for a group picture as I pumped my arms and climbed the bridge. Checking my Garmin at the halfway point it said 1:57:46, one half, two bridges and two boroughs down, three bridges and boroughs to go.
Crossing the Pulaski into my home borough I smiled and headed towards Crescent Street, where my Quicksilver Striders Teammates waited. A week before the race, Coach Maria and a group of us picked a spot across from the Citicorp Building to be our team cheering section. It was where we picked up our pacers.
Thirteen of us were running the marathon — ten of us chose to run with a pacer. I was thrilled when I found out Rukiya was pacing me. Rukiya is a 5K specialist, who has adapted nicely to longer distances. She gave me a solid beatdown in last month’s Staten Island Half beating my by five minutes. Running on fresh legs I was confident she could carry me the last 11 miles as long as I could keep my side of the deal.
Turning onto Crescent Street seemed surreal. I saw Reggie, Rohan and Nina but their shouts were inaudible and in slow motion. I couldn’t make out a word of it. Was it because I was in the zone or because Florence and the Machine cranked loudly from my iPod.
Rukiya was jumping up and down, as if on a spring. I’m not sure if she was keeping warm or trying to get my attention. I still don’t know — I still haven’t asked her. I looked at her and said, let’s go and off we went to the 59thStreet Bridge.
Twice before I ran this race and the 59th Street Bridge broke me both times, forcing me to a walk. Not this year. Gritting my teeth and pumping my arms this time I ran every step. Those hill repeats paid off.
My 59th Street Bridge struggles were quickly forgotten once I hit Manhattan’s streets. Running this race three times and pacing Esther twice I’m still amazed at how the crowd noise builds from near silence to a loud rumble. It’s like turning an amplifier from zero to eleven.
Once off the bridge and after making a hairpin turn followed by another sharp left onto First Avenue you are greeted by runners lining both sides of the street, some holding beer pitchers from local bars. Turning to Rukiya I said, “It looks like we are missing a good party.” With ten miles left to run, the party would have to wait.
Running up the newly repaved First Avenue I focused on the 18-mile marker, in past marathons if I reached 18 miles in less than three hours, I was having a pretty good day if I didn’t it meant I was struggling. Although I wanted to pass in much less than three hours, it was still a focal point.
Checking my watch to see WHAT!!! Something’s wrong, my watch stopped. Ahh! I realized I pressed the stop button instead of the lap button at the last mile. Yet another goof in a day full of them.
How long have I been flying blind? Five minutes? Call it five minutes. “Don’t’ panic Frank,” I kept telling myself. Call it five and keep moving.
I started cramping at about 19 miles. It started with a small cramp in my calves but it soon moved up to my quads, forcing me to walk. There are still seven miles, this was not good.
Many hit the wall in the Bronx — for me it was where the wheels started coming off. Walking up the Willis Avenue Bridge I tried shaking of the cramps so I could ride the downhill. And I did, and about 200 meters later I stared cramping again.
The Bronx is usually a lot of fun with DJs, live music, and a huge video screen where many try spotting themselves as they run past it.
I was miserable this year alternating between walking, running and cramping. Adding insult to injury I almost wiped out on banana peel doing a slide on shaky legs that would have made James Brown proud. Battling crosswinds and cramping I headed for the Madison Avenue Bridge, the last bridge of the day and Manhattan. Five miles to go.
Back in Manhattan I headed down Fifth Avenue towards Marcus Garvey Park, a highlight of the later part of the race, and the 22 mile marker. Brownstones, cranking music and an eclectic mix of spectators — some wearing their Sunday best give a festive vibe to this part of the course.
Cramping and fading, more from frustration than fatigue, Rukiya tossed me a bag of GU Chomps hoping the sugar rush would jump start me. Ripping open the bag I looked up admiring the Empire State Building bathed in golden sunlight.
Despite Rukiya’s efforts, the chomps did not have the desired effect. 23 miles in and cramping my 4:15 marathon was fading fast, my Garmin said 3:26 plus about five minutes for flying blind time. Hopefully I ld still p.r. Keep moving Frank.
The last three miles were a blur of run, walk, cramp, run, walk, cramp. The golden sunlight and fall foliage in
Central Park did little to improve my mood.
Running so many races in Central Park over the past five year I knew where the hills were — and I rode every one of them. Shuffling down Cat Hill I headed towards the Plaza Hotel trying to keep the walk breaks to a minimum.
Passing the Plaza Hotel on Central Park South I told Rukiya that the volunteers may not let her back into the park at Columbus Circle. I shouldn’t have bothered because we were swept into the park in the wave of runners headed towards Tavern on the Green (I’m still calling it Tavern on the Green).
With the finish in site, I shuffled along, picking up the pace fighting cramps and frustration finishing as strong as I could. As the volunteer placed the medal around my neck, I checked my Garmin which read 4:21:15. But what was my actual time?
Doing mental math I reached into my pack for my phone wondering did I run a 4:26? Pulling up the marathon app on my phone and…my battery died. Argh! Seeing my frustration Rukiya pulled out her phone and told me, “I can find your time. You ran a 4:21:16.”
“Wow, a p.r.! I ran a p.r.!” Although I was happy with my time, it was bittersweet. I trained hard and although I ran my fastest marathon, I was disappointed because I could have done better. I left at least three or four minutes on the course. That’s another issue for another day.
Picking up my poncho outside the park with a several hundred other finishers, looking like orange-clad zombies we hobbled along Central Park West. A few teammates and I headed to Pizzeria Uno’s, our designated meeting spot. My disappointment could wait — it was time to swap war stories my teammates about today’s trek through the five boroughs.