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It’s not about the clock: NYC marathon 2010

THE NEW YORK MARATHON is the largest in the world, with 45,000+ runners. So everything about it is complicated, commercial and highly organized, from the application process (a lottery that draws 124,000 applicants) to the marshalling of runners at the start line (into almost a dozen separate “waves” and “colours”). You have to go with the flow and trust that they know what they’re doing, because you’re a very small fish in a gigantic school.

Luckily, they have the race nailed after 34 years in their current, point-to-point format, starting on Staten Island in the south and finishing in Manhattan’s Central Park. There’s a volunteer for every detail (6,000 in total, with half a dozen of them sticking little pieces of tape on our finish line foil blankets, so we don’t have to hold them closed!). And there’s a commercial side that boggles the mind ($250 seats in the finish line bleachers, including complimentary canapés and champagne along with a jumbo screen monitor to watch the elite race). The guidebook that comes in our race kits says the marathon has 120 year-round employees. I do the math: 45,000 times a $200 entry, that’s $9 million! Is that enough to run the race and pay all these salaries, even allowing for another few million in sponsorship dollars? I don’t think so, but then I talk to a French runner who says his country’s 3,000 participants can only enter on tour packages, at €1,500 a pop. So, okay, NYC also seems to be the richest race in the world, which I suppose is not that surprising. (It also raises $26 million this year for its charity recipients.)

But that’s not why it’s popular. The main draw is an amazingly welcome city that worships its race and provides legions of street side fans (the guidebook says two million). Runners migrate from around the world to this marathon Mecca, anxious to experience the vibe and run the famous bridges that punctuate the route in five places. We are four from my family, and 11 from Guelph, including four runners. We swing this little coup by qualifying with fast-ish previous marathon or half-marathon times (faster than required for Boston, for which entry is solely by qualifier). This allows us all to race in the same year (the lottery would scatter us over several years). Besides the few score elite – professional males and females who lead the race – it seems the organizers also want a good-sized cadre of weekend warriors to fill the gap between the elites (sub 2­-1/2 hours) and the masses (average finishing time of 4–5 hours).

The four of us get seeded at the start line near the front of the race, albeit in different corrals. I rise at 4 am from my hotel just south of Central Park. My buddies and I grab a 5 am taxi to the Staten Island ferry terminal at the southern tip of Manhattan (a trip that would take an hour or more during the week races by in 7 minutes on a Sunday morning – the lights of Times Square still blazing, but the famous boulevards nearly empty). We’re at the island by 6, munching breakfast and gulping Ensure as we go, but it takes another 30 minutes to board city buses and drive to the foot of the Verrazano-Narrows bridge, just a mile or two away. We’re fairly early arrivals at 6:30 am, but the athlete’s village is already crowded, and runners will keep arriving for the next two hours in an endless, rag-tag procession. My “wave” of 15,000 runners doesn’t start for almost 3 hours! I knew this would be the case, but I still wonder what the heck I’m going to do, sitting outside in the cold. I thank the weather gods for our clear skies, because the only shelter (a large tent) is already stuffed full of nervous runners.

I grab a tiny piece of grass, lie down, and try to make myself comfortable, sans blanket or pillow (other, wiser people have both). The sun rises behind the huge suspension bridge (the guide says it’s the longest in the US – really? – longer than the Golden Gate?), but it’s about 5 degrees and I’m shivering. I decided to forgo the bag transport service, to avoid the long process of retrieving it at the finish, but it means I have only one extra layer of “throw-away” old clothes over my light running gear. It’s not enough. Luckily, Dunkin Donuts is giving away cheap fleece toques, in day-glow orange and pink. We pass the time listening to the same public address announcements over and over, in multiple languages, like something out of 1984. The Scot beside me quips that it feels like we’re in a refugee camp, albeit an affluent and temporary one.

By 8 am the wait is over. I’ve managed a few minutes of sleep, but my teeth are chattering and my legs are totally stiff. We’re called to begin lining up for the start and somehow the next 90 minutes fly by. I’m on my feet, talking to other runners (Italians, Germans, Norwegians), visiting the toilet and shuffling into corral #2 and then onto the eastern foot of the bridge within 20 metres of the line. Our first “wave” of 15,000 runners, including the elite men, will lead the main race, starting at 9:40 am (the elite women and wheelchair athletes took off in advance at 9:10). Two more waves of 15,000 runners each will start 30 and 60 minutes after us. To complicate matters even further, each wave is divided into three groups, identified by colours, and we take slightly divergent routes for the first third of the race, only merging at mile 8 – all in the service of easing congestion at the bottleneck start.

Get it? You’re forgiven if you don’t, because even in the middle of it, I feel dwarfed, confused, and not sure what to expect. I’m in a sea of guys. Although the race is 40 percent female, up here they’re a scarce commodity. Maybe that’s why some guys think nothing of squatting for a last minute pee, which is pretty disgusting, because we’re on a solid roadway and before long I notice rivulets of urine all around me. Yuck.

We’re “orange” and lined up on the left lane of the bridge, with the “blue” race on our right (separated by a concrete median) and 5,000 “green” runners beneath us on the lower level. Because the three routes diverge and differ in the opening miles, we actually start 200 metres ahead of the blue group, which is weird (they’re the race leaders after all) but very cool, because blue includes the elite males, the ones who’ve been in the newspaper all week. The star attraction is Haile Gebrselassie, a famed 37-year-old Ethiopian who holds the marathon world record (2:03:59) and is near the end of a storied career (gold medals in two Olympics for the 10K, dozens of world records at every distance beyond the mile, and with a movie about his life – he’s Ethiopia’s answer to David Beckham, even if he’s almost unknown in North America). Despite his legendary running pedigree, “Geb” isn’t the biggest celebrity in this year’s race – that would be Edison Peña, the Chilean miner, who will start in wave three and finish in about six hours with ice packs on his aching knees. But the prospect of seeing Geb run by us after the gun goes off is far more exciting to me.

Someone sings the US anthem, there’s a boom, and suddenly everyone is moving quickly. I cross the start line in seconds then dart over to the median, trying to dodge runners and watch behind for the guys on the “blue” route beside us. After the pace vehicles pass, the elite guys approach in a tight pack. Sure enough, Geb is right in the middle wearing a bright yellow singlet, looking veteran and regal. The other pros seem to worship him, giving him ample elbow room, letting him lead the charge. They’re not traveling very fast, which surprises me, but they catch up to us quickly enough and surge uphill towards the crest of the two-mile bridge. I put my little disposable camera away and marvel at the sound of all these runners, and the Manhattan skyline, which looks very, very far away. Within minutes we’re descending the roadway towards Brooklyn. I ditch my temporary pink hat. Time to run. I know how to do this. The New York marathon has really started! My finish is three hours away, give or take. I find my pace, and try to relax.

Although it is the largest “hill” on the entire route, Verrazano-Narrows feels very easy. Still, I have a couple of problems. An unnecessary track workout just two weeks before the race resulted in a sore hamstring, then sore calves, and the tightness has never abated, even though I’ve run only once in the previous 12 days. It’s a worry. Secondly, I followed the rules and didn’t pee on the bridge deck, so I’m bursting to go. The second problem is easily fixed (a port-o-potty break at 5K), but the first one never subsides, even as I warm up; my legs get increasingly tight through the whole race, gradually limiting my stride even though my energy never flags.

A marathon seems interminable when you’re doing it, and increasingly so as you approach the end. But now, in memory, it’s a blur, and I remember it in vivid snapshots. Here are my highlights:

Lafayette Avenue  We’re at mile 9. The crowds were great along 6 miles of Fourth Avenue in lower Brooklyn, but the street was wide, separating runners from spectators. Suddenly, we turn a corner and I’m on the much narrower Lafayette Avenue. Brownstones crowd the sidewalk behind tiny front gardens. All kinds of people are cheering us on, with loads of kids, signs, balloons and bands. (Favourite sign: “Run Bitch Run”. Now that’s New York, eh?) They’re offering us goodwill, all kinds of things to eat, and even paper towels to blow our noses or wipe our brows. I feel a wave of exuberance. Most runners are in the middle of the street, so I take the curbside route, pumping my arms and high-fiving the kids. The response is immediate and electric. The crowd loves our little “conversation” and so do I. Plus, I realize it’s a great distraction from my sore legs. My face is wide in smile the whole time. I’ll do this every few miles for the rest of the race.

Queensboro Bridge  We’re past the halfway point, and through the ugly, commercial part of Queens. My legs are really starting to stiffen. But this bridge comes with a great expectation: it transports us from Queens to Manhattan, and that’s where the race will finish, albeit after a 10-mile northern detour to the Bronx, over two more bridges and back. Queensboro isn’t that high, but it has a mile-long approach, an interminable uphill climb. I latch onto a steady guy in compression socks to get me over the hump, passing loads of runners on the climb. The corresponding downhill descent is steeper, but I can’t really take advantage because of my tightness. It’s here that Gebrselassie abruptly dropped out of the race about 30 minutes earlier, his right knee swollen and bothering him, then shockingly announced the end of his 20-year career. (My friend Sandy quips afterwards: “I ran my marathon personal worst, but still managed to beat Gebrselassie!”) Strangely, I enjoy the Queensboro bridge. It’s a mid-race pause, because we have no spectators, just the silent company of fellow runners. On the Manhattan side, we can hear the crowds as we approach, a stunning roar below the exit ramp that welcomes us to our final 10 miles of hard work.

Manhattan  My wife and her parents are waiting here I know. We’ve plotted our rendez-vous carefully. They’ll be on First Avenue around mile 16 as the race turns north. I’ll run on the right side, and see them at about 62nd Avenue. Should be easy. Then they’ll dash the four long avenues back to Central Park and catch me there at mile 25, about an hour later. Seeing them anywhere near the finish is out of the question: way too crowded. I run along First, but there’s an immediate problem: 62nd is actually a water station, out of bounds to spectators. The street is lined with steel barricades, and very few people are on the right, with the real crowds far away on my left. I glance across and suddenly hear Nichola’s distinctive call: “KILGOUR!” Sure enough, they’re over there, so I run perpendicular to the race, then stop curbside for a brief reunion, hugs and kisses. They look spectacularly happy, with an NYPD cop who is grinning from ear to ear. What a positive jolt, and I damn near missed them.

Bronx  We cross to the Bronx via a small bridge with a steep approach that slows many runners to a walk. Again, I’m high-fiving and loving the enthusiasm, even as I feel my pace slip gradually slower. I run the hill, but I have no power. Every step is an effort. There’s a tap on my shoulder, and suddenly I’m beside Warren, one of my close Guelph club buddies. We’ve raced a lot together, including three 24-hour relays, so I know him well and love his strong, erect stride. Our paces are nearly identical on the track, plus he and I have been chasing the same dream for years: a sub-3 hour marathon. I got that last spring, and Warren is close, with a 3:03 personal best. But he has stomach problems when he runs long, even causing him to drop out of a race with nausea a few years back. “How’s the tummy?” I ask as he pulls even. “Okay,” is the answer, “but my feet are really sore.” His feet? I assume that’s a given, and wonder what’s up.

We compare technical notes. As we pass 20 miles, the proverbial “wall”, he says we’re on track for sub-3, because he just passed the 3-hour pace guy. Although we both had good first halves (I was 1:27 and he was 1:28) I say, “Hate to break it to you Warren, but I think we’re behind – we needed 2:07 at 30K and I was 2:08.” The pace runner is not doing his job. “You’ll have to drag me in,” says Warren, but I know that’s not the case. I hang with him for half a kilometre, but then wish him well: “Go for it Warren – you’re looking great.” He slowly recedes into the wobbly throng of runners ahead of me.

Central Park  From the Bronx, we quickly get back to Manhattan by crossing bridge number five, and then start running south down Fifth Avenue through Harlem, starting at 138th Street. There’s a lively salsa band, but no one is dancing. It’s a long return south (the bottom of Central Park is 69th Street – I try to do the math, 138 minus 69, but my left brain has turned to mush). Maybe it’s wiser not to count the blocks. By 110th, we’re running beside the park, and I keep expecting to turn in, but the mile markers seem to be getting further apart. Finally we go right, at the Guggenheim Museum around 90th Street. I’m slow, but I know I can achieve my rock-bottom goal: to run strong and happy for the last mile, along the packed stretch of 69th Street, and then up to the finish line on the park’s west side. I see my gang easily at mile 25; they note later that I look grim compared to an hour earlier. I’m actually very happy. The end is near, and I relish this last mile.

Finish  I think I’m the only runner around me not locked in a grim internal battle. I’m swerving back and forth to the crowd, still high-fiving, gesturing, making eye contact and smiling my head off. I’m cold, and my calves are close to cramping, but I’m soaking it all in, instead of praying for the conclusion, like I usually do. I scoot the three long blocks of Central Park South, past Madonna’s swanky apartment building, go around Columbus Circle, then turn for the final 800 metres in the park. It all feels strangely easy. I ran this stretch in practice on Saturday in an empty park, and today it’s swelling with people, smells, colours, languages and joy. Running here is a privilege. The signs say “400 yards” then “300” and so on. The finish kick is actually uphill, but short. I pass the mayor’s viewing box, then cross the line. My finish time is 3:06, which suits me just fine. Warren doesn’t break 3 hours; he’s there in 3:02, a new PB, so he’s happy. Take away the bridges and he’ll easily go sub-3 some day. If we’d managed that today, we’d be in the top 1,000 runners, but a few hundred got there ahead of us. I search for a consolation. Age group? Naw, there are 3,400 in my category: I’m 59th. How about Canadians? Again, so many. Finally, age group Canadian? That’s a small enough niche – bingo: I’m first!

Denouement  I’m finished, and I’m only about eight blocks from our hotel, but it will take me over an hour to get there. We’re funnelled north through the park, towards the bag check. Even though I didn’t check my bag, the race volunteers won’t let me leave! I have to follow the crowd; resistance is futile. Every hundred yards or so they have a volunteer sitting on a stand, like a lifeguard. I ask what they do. “We’re spotters, looking for people in medical distress.” How do they identify distress? “Vomit. That’s the best sign.” Oh good. Limping or wobbling are not considered very grave – we all have that problem. I do get a bag of snacks, but I can’t stomach pretzels right now, nor gatorade. The best I can manage is an apple and some trail mix. I walk about a mile north (Warren quips, “they should have kept posting the mile markers!”), then exit at 72nd Street for the return southward on Central Park West. Back at Columbus Circle the crowds are crushing and the sidewalks barricaded, because the sea of racers is building. Then I learn we’re supposed to walk backwards another block north on Broadway. No way! But a cop appears, opens the barricade, and lets runners cross the huge roundabout. It’s a privileged shortcut – everyone else is forbidden. Sweet!

I waddle home through a sea of people, now shivering, climb the six flights of stairs to our room (the tiny four-person elevator is glacial) and flop onto the bed. Nic immediately scuttles out with my food order: large chocolate milk, large piece of pizza. A few hours later and we’re in a nearby diner, gobbling American-size portions of greasy food with our friends. Sandy, whose stomach was in revolt post-race, is downing grub at an astonishing rate, all washed down with a massive chocolate shake. Ahhhh.

* * * * *

The race is just one day of the five we spent in New York. We’re tourists, sight-seers … and spenders of alarming amounts of money in restaurants and cafés. We can’t do everything we planned, because moving around the city is so time-consuming, and I don’t want to spend every pre-race minute on my feet. But we get to MoMA, do a couple of bus tours, a boat ride, window-shopping on Fifth Avenue, walks in Greenwich and Soho (“Hey Nic, this is the street where Don Draper lives!”), and an evening at a swing dance club just off Times Square, including a lesson in the Lindy Hop. On my own, I ascend the Empire State building, ride a rental bike all the way around Central Park (it’s huge, taking me 45+ minutes to complete), and make constant runs for take-out cups of tea at “Le pain quotidien” down on the corner.

The day after the race, we spot runners everywhere as we explore the city, many of them with race medals around their necks. I don’t do medals, but don’t mind seeing them on other people. Nic engages every runner she encounters, in which ever language they speak. She doesn’t get the introverted runner’s code of false modesty, and opens every conversation with the bald query: “What was your finish time?” When a guy on the 42nd Street bus responds, “trois heures vingt-sept,” she thinks nothing of announcing loudly that her husband did it in “trois heures six.” I cringe at her gauche display, but I’m laughing too. I wink at my mother-in-law, who is equally appalled and enthralled by her extrovert daughter. Is this really news to her after all these years? Sadly, Nic locates a runner in his late 50s on the boat tour who ran sub-3. I feel a pang of regret, or maybe jealousy, and don’t want to look at him. I finally tell Nic, “Enough about finishing times – for once, this one wasn’t about the clock!”

Two things amaze me: the friendliness and openness of New Yorkers (notwithstanding the rudely dour reception staff at our bargain basement hotel), and the sheer complexity of the city’s infrastructure. Riding the subways and visiting the train station gives you a glimpse of the latter, but here’s the salient fact I learned on the bus tour: 1.5 million people live in Manhattan – but 2.5 million commute in and out every working day. Geez, no wonder all those folks were walking home after 9-11. And no wonder the marathon people had no trouble transporting 45,000 people to Staten Island for an early Sunday start ­– public transport does the same thing 55 times over every working day (actually, 110 times, because it’s a round trip).

From the top of the Empire State, it’s a surreal sight, an insanely dense cluster of buildings downtown, the towers and lights clustered around Times Square, and the expanse of Central Park stretching miles to the north – a huge sea of green in a jungle of brick, glass and concrete – all joined to the nearby islands and mainland with a dozen bridges, tunnels, numerous boats and even a sky tram. I want to return to explore this more, and hear the social history of how it was all built, a narrative we started on the bus tour, but which seemed wholly insufficient in only a couple of hours.

I read in “The World Without Us” (about what would become of the world’s infrastructure if humans just vanished) that Manhattan is spectacularly fragile. Without pumps to keep the Hudson out of its tunnels and substructure, the place would collapse in fairly short order. Without maintenance, even the bridges would fall, as their expansion joints seized up. It might look like a crowning accomplishment, but the structure of Manhattan is extremely vulnerable, even foolish. I leave the city’s strange beauty behind, and take the elevator back to earth, then the plane back home.

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