The 2010 ING New York City Marathon – Part 2


“Anyone can run 20 miles.  It’s the next 6 that count.”  – Barry McGee, winner of the bronze medal in the 1960 Olympics

As my teammates and I crossed the halfway point of the marathon on the Pulaski Bridge (the bridge that takes us from out of Brooklyn and in to Queens), and I recorded a personal best time for the half marathon distance, The Tool decided that it was time to fire the first volley and throw his soldiers of self doubt into the fray.  I accepted the internal challenge and maintained my pace alongside my two TFK buddies.  But just the simple act of firing that first volley caught me by surprise.  His initial plan must have worked – I had forgotten that he even existed.  And then I realized: that was the key to running a great marathon – never letting your self-doubt catch you by surprise or gain control over any portion of your mind while you’re in motion.  The Tool had drawn up an effective battle plan.  He made himself known as a legitimate threat and I paid heed.

His initial volley scored a direct hit on my focus.  Instead of thinking about the crowds, my pace, or talking to my teammates, my attention turned to my foot.  It didn’t hurt yet – but I was already thinking about how I’d handle it if the pain began to show itself.  Worrying about an injury makes running a race like this more difficult than it needs to be.  This distraction knocked me for a mental loop, like being sucker punched by Lennox Lewis.  And then, as I waddled forward in the daze that immediately follows a shot to the mental jaw like this, something wonderfully unexpected happened.  It wasn’t in my race strategy.  The Tool never accounted for it.  And I was thankful for it: I got some help.  Perfect timing.

As we came off of the bridge and were about to be greeted by the Queens faithful, I looked ahead and saw a large video screen.  Surrounding the video screen was the Asics logo – now it made sense.  This year, Asics sponsored three large video screens that would post pictures and comments from anyone that wanted to support a marathoner on the course.  Friends and family could sign onto a website, enter the runner’s name, and then send them a picture and/or text message that would be flashed onto these large screens each time the corresponding marathoner passed over a covered marker on the racecourse.  There was no guarantee that any one person’s message would be selected for viewing – I’m sure there were tons of submissions to the site to begin with.  But as I passed over the covered marker, the screen changed and I received a message of encouragement that came as complete surprise.  To me, it was getting a shot of pure adrenaline.  To The Tool, it was like a smart bomb.  Suddenly, the fog lifted.

Technology is truly incredible.  In a race like this, the GPS watches a lot of us wear allows our progress to be tracked via a satellite, thereby providing accurate split times, distance covered, and overall race time.  The tabs that we wear on our shoes electronically track where we are on the course and how we are doing. The applications available on smart phones and through the internet allow family and friends to track their runners for the duration of the race from any computer or smart phone in the world.  And technology allowed me to receive a jolt of motivation just when I needed it the most.  At that moment I also realized that people are following me….friends and family that love me are checking on my progress.  So…….I better get moving.

Now it was The Tool’s turn to deal with the dull haze that comes with a harsh and surprising counter attack.  I felt like I dodged a bullet.  A big smile came across my face as I made the left hand turn and began listening to the Queens crowd.  The noise only lasted a few minutes – this part of the course was mostly made up of office / industrial space, so residents are sparse but enthusiastic.  As I ran through the quiet Queens streets on my way to the 59th Street Bridge, I took stock of how my body felt, staying with my race plan.  So I took a roll call:

Me: “Feet?”

Left Foot: “Not sure, chief.  I’ll get back to you.”

Right Foot: “Hey – I’m fine!”

Left Foot: “you are such a brown nose.”

Nose: “I heard that!!!  Take that back.”

Me: “Enough – I’m busy here.  Ankles?”

Ankles (in two part harmony): “We’re fine.”

Me: “Calves?”

Calves: “MOOOOO!!!!  ……just kidding.  We’re fine, chief.”

Me: “Well that was stupid.  Moving on – knees?”

Knees: “A-OK..”

Me: “Nice.  Hamstrings?”

Hamstrings: “We’re good to go, boss.”

Me: “Back?”

Back: “Yo Yo Yo!!! Baby got BACK!!!  …….sorry.  That got away from me for a moment. I’m fine.”

Me: “Everyone’s a comedian.  Abs?  Abs?”

Abs: “OK dude – we’ve been listening to the stomach whine and cry all morning.  Are you kidding???  A bacon & egg on a roll – and that’s it?”

Me: “I know, I know.  A mistake.  But let’s get through it.”

Abs: “Fine – but you owe us a week without any plank exercises.  Got it, bucko?”

Me: “Fine.  Deal.  Just shut up.  Arms?”

Arms: “All we can do is swing like this?  Can’t we do something more….fun?  We can wave our hands in the air…..We can do the YMCA without music….we can even flip off random spectators!!”

Hands: “YES!!! We LOVE THAT!!!  Please please please!!  Please let us give the finger to that dude eating the hero sandwich as we pass by!!”

Me: “Arms – keep swinging.  Hands – SHUT UP.  Thank God I don’t know sign language.”

So aside from my left foot, everything appeared to be going as planned.  But as is the case with most feature films nowadays….isn’t that when things begin to get FUBAR?  (for the uninitiated: if you don’t know what FUBAR is – google is your buddy).  Some twists and turns through Queens, and then my teammates and I began to close in on the 59th Street Bridge.  15 miles into the race.  I’ve averaged approximately a 10 minute per mile pace.  My progress was faster than I ever had expected from myself.  But The Tool was right. I went out too fast.  12 miles into the race, the 10 minute pace felt fantastic.  Three miles later…the pain began.

As I passed from mile 14 to mile 15, The Tool unleashed hell.  First, my left heel began to hurt.  The pain came suddenly, and it surprised me even though I had been worried about it for weeks.  Things were going so well – I just figured that I was going to get lucky and the injury would not show its face all day.  No one is that lucky.

And then – like a general sending his reserves into the field of battle for the purpose of making the enemy retreat, I come face to face with the 59th Street Bridge.  If you’ve read this blog to this point, you know that this bridge has been my nemesis for the past 6 years.  Each time I’ve arrived at the base of this transverse, I became intimidated and had to walk to Manhattan.  I vowed that this would be the year that I conquered this bridge.  I looked inside myself and I found the will to keep running – but the pain in my foot quickly escalated as I began the climb.  I told my team mates that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with them – that they should carry on and I’d try to catch up with them.

The Tool sensed victory.  He pressed the attack.  The pain was felt in my heel and my ankle.  How quickly it spread again caught me by surprise.

The incline was a steep.  And if I tried to run this hill, I’d have nothing left and there’s still 10 miles to go.  My pace got slower.  11 minutes….12 minutes per mile.  My feet were shuffling now, and every time I landed on my left foot, it hurt.

I was now alone.  I thought of using my Ipod for motivation – an obvious move of sheer desperation.  My team mates were no longer beside me – I felt no peer pressure to maintain the 10 minute per mile pace.

…13 minutes per mile pace now.  About halfway up the span of the bridge.  The wind off the water gave me goose bumps.  Around me, several runners began walking.  The foot hurt.  I was getting hungry.  I wish I didn’t forget those pop tarts.  And I was never able to maintain a 10 minute pace for 26 miles before – what made me think I could do it now?  Maybe if I just walked for a minute of two I could gather myself….

….The Tool claimed victory.  He was king of the moment.  He had a plan and he executed it to perfection.  My strategy for the course was left on the span of that bridge.  The next 10 miles would now be about simply finishing.  Any chance at finishing with a personal best time in a full marathon was set adrift on my ocean of daydreams.  I began to walk.  The Tool raised his boney arms over that bulbous head and exclaimed “Victory!”  As I began to walk the remainder of the incline and crossed the mile 16 marker, I looked out at the Manhattan skyline.  The United Nations.  The Empire State.  The Chrysler Building.  I drempt of hitting 60th street feeling fantastic.  I wanted to be able to high-five strangers as they leaned over the barricade.  I wanted to bask in the feeling of the sunlight on my face as I glided up first avenue.  With my foot in this condition, however, any dreams of that glorious gallop would have to wait until 2011.  Now, instead of entering the borough feeling like a champion, I felt like Leonidis and his 300 Spartans when confronted by a million Persians.  If I wanted victory, I would have to think of a quick response to dealing with the pain.  As I began the descent into Manhattan I realized…I better think quickly.

The grin on The Tool’s face was broad.  He felt that all he’d need to do was tighten the screws a bit, and I would fold.  I’ve felt horrible during marathons – I once ran 3 in a month (which qualified me to join the Marathon Maniacs), and in the middle of this 3-race ordeal was the 2009 Marine Corps. Marathon – which felt like an 8 mile run immediately followed by an 18 mile death march.  I was sick to my stomach that day, constantly having to throw up on the side of the road before continuing on.  The Tool knew I had a high threshold for pain – but this was different.  I was never truly injured before.  This was uncharted waters for me – and he was trying to steer me right into the rocks.

As I continued the descent toward the loving arms of the crazed fans in Manhattan, I had to quickly develop a plan to deal with what existing circumstances.  If I fight the pain, it will only get worse.  If I try to tell myself that the pain doesn’t exist, the rest of my body will openly rebel against me.  I have to contain the issue.  I have to accept it.  Then I remembered how U.S. Special Forces deal with moments of pain: they try to embrace it.  Feeling pain is better than dying.  Feeling pain motivates them to finish the task at hand.  Pain can keep a person aware and alert. Embrace the pain.  Easier said than done, because I am the very definition of a pansy.

I took a deep breath, muttered to myself “this is gonna hurt”, and then slowly began to jog off of the ramp of the bridge and onto 60th Street.  Half a block of screaming fans, four rows deep, yelling and screaming in the shade of the bridge.  Immediately you can hear people yelling “Joe!! Looking good!!  Keep going!!”, “Go Team for Kids!!”….that helped me.

I had taken The Tool’s first assault.  Some casualties were assumed.  But I kept moving.  It was a mental smack in the face to The Tool.  And that pissed him off.  Now the battle would only grow more intense.

As I slowly jogged down First Avenue, the only word that accurately describe the scene is…NOISE.  LOUD, LOUD NOISE.  As I passed under the bridge and into the sun, I was greeted with a corridor of noise.  The fans were at least 5 deep on both sides of the avenue, for three miles.  The buildings caused the yelling and screaming to hover in the air, which added to the moment.  As I made my way down the avenue on my way to the Willis Avenue Bridge and the brief dip into the Bronx, I originally thought I’d feel the strength to release my inner Kenyan and take off at a 9:30 per mile pace.  But the foot injury negated that possibility all together.  I mixed jogging and walking through miles 18 and 19.  They handed out sponges and a horrible-tasting gel to take in that give runners a quick energy burst.  (It’s not made by Godiva, so I politely decline).  At Mile 19, The Tool snapped out of his fog and began to execute the next wave of his onslaught.  All the way up First Avenue the only words I could mutter to myself over and over again was “pain is my friend”.  Yeah….what a buddy.  A real pal.

As I slowly worked my way through Spanish Harlem and onto the Willis Avenue Bridge, I remembered my game plan.  This was my chance to mentally prepare myself for the last 10 kilometers.  While the crowds are thin, I could concentrate on what I am doing without distraction and think about the task at hand.  The Wall was a minor concern at this point.  The pain, however…that was another issue altogether.  It was becoming unbearable.  I could hardly put weight on my left heel without yelping like a puppy that just caught his tail under a rocking chair.  The pain traveled to my ankle.  I also felt the back of my left knee tighten up, caused by overcompensating for my heel.  “Pain is my friend….pain is my friend”….

The Tool: “Joe – shut this down.  Quit.  Your leg is killing you.  Just stop.  All of my pieces are on the playing board.  I cannot turn up the pain dial any higher – it’s pegged at 10.  You have nothing left.  You are done.  Beaten.  Just shut it down.  Surrender.  Quit.  This isn’t that important.”

This was it.  The Wall.  The Tool waited until this moment to unleash every weapon in his arsenal.  As I wound my way past the Mile 20 marker and closed in on mile 21, my body had run out of fuel to burn to keep me going.  Marathoners call this feeling “The Wall”.  We all go through it.  We all deal with it.  I believe that breaking through The Wall is one of the reasons we actually enjoy running this distance, and why so many people come out and support the runners on Marathon Sunday.  If this were a 20 mile race, The Wall wouldn’t be an issue.  It’s the last 6.2 miles that make this race special.  It’s THE TEST.  Pass or fail – break through or quit.  This is the moment that every marathoner can look back at after the medal is placed around his/her neck and say “there was a point where I felt like I couldn’t go on – then I found something inside of me that made me keep going”.  The Wall allows the marathoner to find out what his/her limits are…and then redefine them.

My moment had come.  Time to make a decision.  Quit or finish the race.  My thought process began with one simple concept: well, it’s only another 10 kilometers.  Then out came my inner drill sergeant….You already banked 20 miles.  You’re going to let this little 4” prick make you quit after logging 20 damn miles?  Joe, you’ve gotten this far on the basis of your training, discipline and consistency.  To all of this, you must now have to add resolve.  There is no victory without sacrifice.  Now stop complaining.  Take whatever this little schmuck can throw at you, and then spit it right back in his face by NOT STOPPING.  All go – no quit.  Now move!  I promised my friends and family that I wouldn’t quit.  I promised myself I would finish.  This injury is nothing compared to what others deal with.

As this inner pep rally was going on, The Tool tried to distract me.  The heel.  The ankle.  Now the damn knee.  I was a little dizzy.  I started to develop a headache.  The Tool was making a last ditch push to claim victory.  He was so close he could taste it.

With The Tool yelling in one ear and my inner drill sergeant basically yelling in the other, my mind was in utter chaos.  But in that chaos, I found a moment of clear perspective.  I touched my left shoulder.  Then my right.  I remembered that I wasn’t alone in this.  Now let me clear this up: I am not a huge religious guy.  I’m not.  But I guess I really like the idea of my deceased family members that I knew and loved, if only for a small amount of time, sitting in box seats right outside the pearly gates while Saint Peter hands out popcorn and diet coke, cheering me on as I compete against my own limitations and inner demons.  Between my heavenly fan club (I sort of picture them as the angel-equivalents of bleacher creatures), and my friends and family rooting for me to succeed and following me electronically as well as on the course, I realized that I had the support I needed to withstand anything The Tool had left.

I slowly mixed jogging and walking until I hit the Madison Avenue Bridge, which spills the runners back into Manhattan, through Harlem.  It was on this bridge, in front of the Mile 21 marker, that I confronted The Tool for the last time during this race.

Me: “OK.  You tried.  You failed.  Whatever you do from this point on will not break me.”

The Tool: “Six more mil….”

Me: “Just shut up.  SHUT UP.  I am in control.  You said you were the game?  I played you.  I won.  You said you were the pain, and I couldn’t take you?  Well I have.  5 miles, you little prick.  5 miles.  You won’t break me.  I am unbreakable today.  You failed.  Now sit down, shut up, and let me deal with the mess you made.”

The Tool: “But you aren’t even close to….”

Me: “STAI ZITO.”  (again – for the uninitiated – google is your pal)

It was as if someone came along and unplugged the speakers at a heavy metal concert.  Silence…in my head.  Now all that remained was to focus and finish.

The last five miles passed by in a complete haze of pain and determination.  I mixed slow jogging and walking through Harlem.  A children’s gospel choir lifted my spirits.  I hit Mile 22…and there was the Asics sign again.  There was that message again.  That lit the fire inside of me.  Around Marcus Garvey Park I waddled.  Onto Fifth Avenue.  Up the steady incline.  23 miles logged.  I made it to Central Park.

The fans were loud.  Really loud.  Louder than I had remembered in my other races here.  I was now in my back yard.  Today – Central Park was Team for Kids’ home field.  The pain was miserable, but I was now close.  I took the rolling hills of the park between miles 23 and 25 easy.  Mixing a very slow jog and walking, I made it to Mile 25.  I was very happy to exclaim “God fuck the Queen!”

1.2 miles to go.  Out of the park I waddled, and onto Central Park South.  The noise was music to my ears.  Fans line the streets and really get enthusiastic, willing the runners forward for one final push to the tape.  I began to slowly jog…and not walk.  Leave it all on the street – that’s what I wanted to do.  That’s what I would do.

Half a mile to go.  The pain was there…but it took a back seat to the moment.  The turn at Columbus Circle.  Re-entering the park, only one word could describe the scene in front of me: Glorious.

As I passed under the mile 26 marker, I decided to look at my watch for the first time in 13 miles: 5 hours, 20 minutes!  My God.  I could do it – I could set a personal best time in a marathon for myself.  I went to my arms and began to sprint.  God it hurt – but the fans yelled and screamed as they saw me trying hard.  I crossed the finish line in 5 hours 22 minutes.

As they placed the medal around my neck and wrapped me in a heat sheet, the emotion of the moment overwhelmed me. I began to tear up a bit, I’ll admit it.  I’ve run this race 5 years in a row prior to this, and I’ve now run 11 marathons overall.  This is really the first race where the event got the better or me.  As I made my way to the Team for Kids area of the park to collect my bag and get some warm clothes, the one thought that kept repeating in my mind was “you never quit”.  I could barely put any weight on my left leg as I hobbled slowly home in the cold…but the feeling of accomplishment – that feeling that comes with being pitted against your own limitations and then claiming victory over them through hard work – that’s the feeling that I crave.  That keeps me coming back.  That…..and being a hero to my daughter.

…and as I waddled home to get something to eat, a small voice whispered in my ear… “well done.  You beat me – today.  Enjoy your victory, because in two months you have the Goofy’s Race & a Half in Walt Disney World.  And I promise you…..I….will…be….there.”

….eight weeks.  Eight weeks to heal myself and prep for a 39.3 mile weekend.  I’m running the Race & a Half to benefit the Make a Wish Foundation.  Then it’s on to Miami, where I’ll run to raise money for MS research.  Then Ft. Lauderdale a month later to run in the A1A Marathon (simply because I want an excuse to get some sun). Then it’s on to Napa and Los Angeles in March.

…eight weeks.  I better get to work.

__________________________________

“Get going.  Get up and walk if you have to, but finish the damned race.”  – Ron Hill to Jerome Drayton during the 1970 Boston Marathon

The 2010 ING New York City Marathon – PART 1


“To describe the agony of a marathon to someone who’s never run is like trying to explain color to someone who was born blind.”   – Jerome Drayton

I figured I’d begin this blog entry with that famous quote (well, famous at least in the marathoning community) by Jerome Drayton, because I felt the term “agony” would be quite appropriate for today.  Jerome is the Canadian record holder in the marathon (2:10 time set in 1975 – which, by the way, is hellishly fast – especially in cold of Canada, where the average temperature is -120 and penguins are in a constant search for parkas), and he obviously understood very well the ordeal that a marathoner goes through from the moment he toes the line to the moment he breaks the tape.  As my alarm began to blare at 4:15am (“The Game” by Motorhead), even the words of the song rang menacingly in my ears:

“It’s all about the game and how you play it.
All about control and if you can take it.
All about your debt and if you can pay it.
It’s all about pain and who’s gonna make it.”

Motorhead….those heavy metal dudes must have run a marathon.  Maybe that’s why they sound so darn angry all the time – they must write all their lyrics after hitting the wall at mile 20.  I listened to the words as my head remained on the pillow.  I knew how to play the game – this will by my sixth ING New York City Marathon.  I know the course.  I know what to expect.  I have a strategy.  The question that remains is whether I will be able to follow my strategy for the entire race.  My ability to take control of the situation today, regardless of how my foot held up was an open question as well.  I believe I paid my debts up to this point – I worked hard, lost weight, consistently went to practice and completed the necessary long runs each weekend.  It all comes down to the pain – how much could I take and whether my foot will hold up for the entire race.  The Game – what began simply as my alarm for marathon morning turned into my theme song for the day.

I slid my legs out from under the covers, and gently rested my feet on the floor.  The moment of truth – I stood up.  There was a slight ache – but nothing hobbling.  Just minor discomfort.  I quickly convinced myself that the lack of true pain at this point in the day was a sign of great things to come.  I walked to the bathroom without a hint of a limp, and took a long hot shower.  I then got dressed – which, for the New York City Marathon, is a procedure:

  • Generous portions of body glide to sensitive areas
  • My favorite pair of Team for Kids running socks
  • My most comfortable pair of spandex compression shorts
  • My Marathon Maniacs bright yellow team singlet (I wear this singlet under any shirt I choose to race in, because it reminds me of the other team I am associated with – a group of running lunatics that make my addiction to this sport look rather….well….tame.  My Maniac team mates are incredible – some run a marathon A WEEK.  Others run two IN A WEEKEND.  They are a group of people that have taken the term impossible and performed the Irish gig all over it.  Suddenly I appear….well…..subdued.  As I said to my buddy Al a long time ago: “Al, everything’s relative”.  On the left shoulder I wrote the word “Bobby”.  On the right: “Johnny”.  On the back near the neckline: the initials “RVE”.  Bobby and Johnny were my brothers – they never got a chance to run.  I run for them and they run with me.  Every mile.  My angels on my shoulders. RVE is my grandfather’s initials – I wear them on my back because he ALWAYS had my back, without fail.  I surrounded myself with angels; if you believe in that sort of stuff.  I had a feeling I might need them today.  There’s an old saying from World War II: there are no atheists in foxholes…..well I’ll be taking my share of enemy ordinance today.
  • My most comfortable pair of Nike running shorts
  • My Team for Kids lime green (radioactive green would be a better description) singlet
  • A pair of old black running pants that I didn’t really care too much about
  • My Saucony running shoes
  • An old long sleeve shirt that I would leave at the starting line
  • My horrendously ugly lime green running jacket from the 2008 NYC Marathon.

Layers are the key for dressing for this marathon.  The wind off of the water makes waiting three hours at the marathon village on Staten Island extremely rough.  Staying warm is incredibly important.

After I finished dressing, I grabbed my bottle of Gatorade and my Iphone (which is basically an additional appendage at this point), and headed out the door.  As I walked out into the cold, I realized two things: It was about 38 degrees outside…and I’m not near the water, and I forgot my pop tarts.  Now I know I ate a good dinner, but the rule is that runners should top off their energy tanks with approximately 800 calories of high-carbohydrate food in the morning.  And I LOOOOVE pop tarts.  I decided to not return to the apartment, and head to the starting line.

I made a stop at a local diner for my traditional bacon & egg on a roll – that helped me feel a bit better.  I continued to walk to our team buses on 7th Avenue in the 50’s in Manhattan.  I arrived cold and nervous at 5:55am…5 minutes before our scheduled departure.

As I sat in the bus, I realized that I was more prepared than ever to run 26.2 miles.  I never trained so hard for any one day in my life.  Football….rowing….ten other marathons and a decent number of half marathons…nothing came close.  I pushed myself this year.  I remained focused on the goal and stayed dedicated to practice.  There was nothing more I could do.  So as the bus rolled down Broadway on the way to the Battery Tunnel, I closed my eyes and made a promise to myself: that whatever happens, I would see this through to the finish.  Just surrender myself to the moment.  That I would not fail.  I would not quit.  After making that silent vow to myself, I opened my eyes, took a deep breath, and reached in my bag for……my Sony PSP.

That’s right, lab rats: I have a Sony PSP.  A great little gadget.  I watched the movie Hancock as we passed through Queens and Brooklyn.

As we closed in on the Verrazano Bridge, I turned off the movie and began keeping my eyes peeled for Team Achilles.  This is a team made up of runners with disabilities.  They get to start earlier than the rest of us, because their day will be longer than ours, in most cases.  Each Achilles athlete is paired with a guide that will help them through the course.  Each blind runner holds a small rope that connects them to his/her personal guide.  Athletes in old fashioned wheel chairs (like the ones that you get rolled around in whilst in a hospital) are escorted by a guide to help them with whatever they may need.  Athletes on crutches are assigned guides for assistance and safety.  They all wear their traditional team red t shirts – and I personally think that a big S should be attached to each of their chests, for they are superpeople, in my opinion.  To watch them begin their race while I am still in my warm bus fills me with a sense of pride to simply be in the same race as these heroic athletes.

There’s one Achilles athlete – an African American gentleman whose name I do not know because we haven’t formally introduced ourselves – that absolutely blows me away.  I see him every year at the marathon, as well as most every New York Road Runner’s Race I participate in.  In order to log his miles, he turns his wheelchair backwards and shuffles his feet the best he can, slowly propelling him around whatever course we are running.  He constantly has to look over his shoulders to see where he’s going, and he consistently talks to his guide for his/her thoughts and reassurance.  His pace is very slow – but he always finishes.  Every time I pass him, I yell “Go Achilles!!!”…and in return I get a thumb’s up.  The image of him pushing himself like this over bridges and through crowded streets is engrained in my brain – It’s one of those lasting memories that has attached itself to my mental recording of this incredible day.

The buses dropped my teammates and I off at the front of Fort Wadsworth at approximately 7:30am.  My wave was scheduled to start at 10:40am.  Three hours in the cold.  No big surprise.

I spent my time talking with my teammates.  Most were first timers.  I reassured them the best I could.  Tried to fire a few of them up.  Did my best to make them relax through laughter.  Before I knew it, it was time to stretch.  Then some final words from the coach.  Then….head to the corrals to start our wave of the race.

After a five minute walk to the corral, I waited alongside several hundred other runners to enter the starting area.  Runners are herded into large corrals just like cattle, left to wait for upwards of 45 minutes before the singing of the Starred Spangled Banner…and then the cannon.

Once the cannon’s blast echoes in the air, the mass of humanity inches its way forward through the front gates of Fort Wadsworth (lovingly referred to as “the World’s Largest Urinal”), I finally reach the starting line after almost ten minutes of this snail’s pace.  I cross the starting line, and I start my running watch.  The GPS in my Garmin running watch calculates pace per mile, total time elapsed, and approximate distance covered – it will be my lifeline for the next five hours.

Since I wore a green-numbered bib, I began the race on the lower deck of the bridge.  The lack of sunlight, the cold temperatures, and the strong winds off of the water made for a frigid first two miles.  I was lucky to run into a TFK teammate as I traversed the bridge, and our light banter took my mind off of the fact that I was freezing my dimpled Irish ass off.

As we passed the two mile mark, we left the bridge behind and entered Brooklyn.  Feeling the sun on my face and the softening of the wind as we made our way off of the highway and on to the streets of this amazing borough, I looked down at my watch: 20 minutes down.  10 minute per mile pace.  Perfect.

Onto the streets of Brooklyn we spilled.  Thousands of runners of all shapes and sizes, wearing every color of the rainbow.  As all of us shuffled through the side streets, the crowds along the sidewalks began to grow.  As a runner who’s experienced this marathon before, I knew what was coming: 4th Avenue.  These side streets in Bay Ridge was a first glimpse of what was in store for all of us.  Children handing out paper towels to wipe the sweat from our faces.  Families that set up makeshift water stations.  Grandparents banging pots and pans out second story windows.  And then…..the right turn is made, and onto 4th Avenue we go.  HELLO BROOKLYN.

To try to describe the ethnic diversity of miles 3 through 13 in this blog would do the experience a severe injustice.  From the moment the runners step foot into Brooklyn, the thick crowds of loud, adoring fans yell and scream their lungs out for complete strangers.  As I made my way through mile 3, I literally bumped into two other teammates that I consistently ran with for months during practice.  They were like oasis in a large desert – a most welcome sight.  They helped me maintain my pace as the miles ticked away.  4 miles – 40 minutes. 6 miles – one hour down.  10 miles in – one hour and forty minutes in the books.  We averaged a nice, easy 10 minute per mile pace, and I felt strong.  We high-fived kids as we jogged along.  We cheered for Team Achilles as we passed them by.  We cheered on our teammates whenever we saw another lime green jersey, regardless of whether we knew them.  The first two hours of this race was a constant block party.  To look at everyone lining the streets – every color and creed represented – all yelling as one to spur the runners on – it restores my faith and my love for this city on an annual basis.  As we hit the Pulaski bridge and left Brooklyn, I checked our time: 2 hours, 12 minutes. That was a personal best for me in the half marathon distance.  I’ve never covered 13.1 miles in less than 2 hours and 20 minutes before.  As I looked at my teammates, I mentioned: “2 hours 20 in, and we are halfway there.  We are cruising!”

…..and as the three of us yelled “HELLO QUEENS!!!”, a small, all-too familiar voice responded:

The Tool: “Hello Joe.  Remember me?”

Me: “Yup.  I figured you’d show that sour puss of your’s at some point.”

The Tool: “Know that, for what I am about to do, I am NOT sorry.”

Me: “Well whatever you have planned, know that I have a counter-attack prepared.”

The Tool: “You know….that was the fastest half marathon you’ve ever run.”

Me: “Yup. I’m cruising.”

The Tool: “Well I take great joy in telling you that you came out too fast.  And the damage is done.”

Me: “No it isn’t.  I can handle whatever you throw at me.”

The Tool: “I know you.  I AM YOU.  I AM YOUR SELF-DOUBT.  While you rested and watched episodes of House on TV, I built up my troops.  Every time you hobbled to the fridge for a diet coke…..every time you had to ice your foot….every time you felt that question in your head of ‘gee, I wonder if I’ll be OK on race day’…..every time you skipped a practice because you needed to give your heel time to mend…..THAT….WAS….ME.  You have no answer for me.  This asphalt you’re running on – that’s just the road.  I…..AM….THE…..GAME.  And Joe, you cannot play me.  I AM THE PAIN – AND YOU WILL NOT BE ABLE TO TAKE ME.”

Me: “You talk too much, you little 4 inch prick.  Now shut up and just bring it.”

……and with that, the battle was joined.

_________________________________

“Most people run a race to see who is fastest. I run a race to see who has the most guts.” – Steve Prefontaine

Marathon Week


October 15th – November 6thThe final three weeks leading up to Halloween were nerve-wracking for me.  The foot injury was healing, albeit VERY slowly, the amount of road work I was able to complete leading up to Marathon Week was minimal and other cardiovascular workouts needed to be supplemented.  As I worked on the rowing machine or pedaled the upright bike, I knew I was putting in the effort – the last time I felt this physically fit was 1991…my junior year in college rowing on the varsity crew team.  Yet with all the effort I exerted whilst attempting to permit my heel to heal, my self confidence began oozing out of me as if my heart were a sink and someone left the water slightly on….if you listened closely, you could hear the drip, drip, drip of my assuredness wash down the emotional drain. 

…and while that sound of consistent, relentless dripping is considered to be a form of pure torture to most people on this planet, it sounded like The Temptations to a certain 4” schmuck.  The sound that my self confidence made as it steadily circled the emotional drain was music to The Tool’s ears.  The grin only broadened on his miserable little face as Marathon Week drew closer.  While I prepared my body for my annual battle against the streets of New York City as well as my own inner demons, The Tool had been hard at work preparing his final siege.  He prepared his battle strategy with a growing sense of pending victory circling over his bulbous head.

The battle would be fought in several stages.  First, the final weekend team practice scheduled for Halloween morning which officially kicks off my Marathon Week.  An easy five mile run – a rather routine test of my physical well-being that would either prove to be a boost of confidence that I sorely needed (hopefully my heel would hold up and I would not feel any pain afterward – an indication that the rest I gave it paid off)…or an incredibly solid first attack executed by The Tool which would give him a tactical advantage for the rest of this campaign.  The second test would come on Wednesday evening, only three nights before Marathon Sunday – the final team workout in Central Park.  At this point in the week, the tactical advantage could either be strengthened by either side, or a stalemate could be claimed going into the Big Day.  The third skirmish between my soldiers of self confidence and these mighty minions of the Terrible Tool (this little 4” moron decided to alter his name, supposedly for marketing purposes.  Marketing research apparently concluded that this enhanced name would look better on advertisements brain-wide.  This schmuck was feeling like a rock star) would take place during the 48 hours leading up to Sunday morning.  With all the work completed, there was nothing more I could do to help me heal the injury.  There was nothing more I could do to strengthen my endurance.  All that remained was to eat and sleep properly.  The battle lines had been drawn.  All that remained was for the first shot to be fired and for the armies to be turned loose on one another.

Regardless of the outcome of these three stages, victory would only be claimed on Marathon Sunday.  But the strategic advantage going into the Big Day was now the prize being fought over within my mind and heart…and body.

Halloween morning, I slowly slid out of bed and placed my feet on the floor.  I took a deep breath, and stood up and felt…nothing.  A smile crossed my face.  The Tool scowled.  I walked to the bathroom, showered, changed and got ready to head over to Central Park…and the foot cooperated completely.  As I strolled to the team’s meeting location, the music blasting through my earphones sounded fantastic.  The Tool, in the manner of a cranky octogenarian, mentally yelled at me to “keep that damn racket down!!” ….and I ignored the little schmuck.  We stretched.  We loosened up.  And then with took off up the West Side Drive.  No pain thus far.  The group I was running with pushed a pace of 9:15 per mile through miles 2….3….4.  No pain.  My arms swung as I stayed with the group across the transverse and down the east side drive.  I looked at my watch four miles into the workout: a pace of 8:40 per mile.  Way too fast.  I backed off and let the group finish as I worked on finding my race pace for the Big Day.  There it was: victory in the first battle could be claimed by the soldiers of my self confidence.  A battle well fought.  As I slowed down and came to a halt in front of my team, who stood along the sidelines of the Poland Spring Marathon Kickoff 5 mile run cheering on the various runners that were finishing their workout, I must have been beaming.  I needed the burst of confidence…and I got it.  I walked home with a quiet swagger that I had lacked for basically this entire month.

To be on the safe side, I took Monday and Tuesday off from workouts.  No running – just some time in the gym lifting weights and working on core strength.  Nothing too demanding at all.  I knew that taking two days off from running after a very positive five miler was beneficial for my body.  The Tool used these 48 hours to his advantage, quietly redeploying his soldiers of self-doubt along strategic areas.  As I sat in my office that Tuesday afternoon, I felt my foot bother me just a bit.  For a moment.  Nothing horrible.  Just a tweak.  Right?  I loosened my shoe in the hope that this simple action would make that slight twinge go away….and it did.

As I walked around the city later that evening, there it was again.  That little tweak at the bottom of my foot.  Must have been due to the amount of walking I did in a pair of Kenneth Coles. Right?

As I went to bed Tuesday night, I kept moving my left foot around under the covers.  I could feel that slight – almost insignificant – pain near my ankle. But it wasn’t throbbing.  It wasn’t annoying.  But it was just enough to cost me a few hours of sleep…and allow The Tool to gain back the ground he had lost during the initial skirmish between the forces of cool (that would be me and my soldiers of self-confidence, for all those playing the home game) and uncool (namely the Tool and his moronic minions).  Wednesday, the battle would be joined once more.

The final team practice on Wednesday was a lighthearted affair.  Adorned with glow sticks (yes, I ran with an orange glow stick around my neck – not the first time I’ve been decorated in neon…but that’s another story for another blog…..OR NOT), the team ran 1-2 laps around the reservoir as a final tune up for the Big Day.  The pace started slowly…but the team appeared anxious and maintained pace times much quicker than anticipated.  What was supposed to be a slow, relaxed run felt like a pit crew at Daytona tuning up their engines and giving their vehicles a once-over before parking them in the garage to await the drop of the flag.  Fearing that going out too fast on my foot would result in the pain returning, I began slowly.  However, like a racehorse (oh come on – I’m the author here – I can stretch the boundaries of believability just a tad, so work with me) stuck in the middle of a large pack coming around to the turn, my instinct to stay with the pack silently turned up my pace and before I knew it I was clocking in with a 9:05 pace.  As I finished the first loop, there was one of the team’s coaches snapping pictures (as usual).  The following conversation took place.  It was brief.  It was funny.

Coach:  “ummm….Joe…where are you going?”

Me:  “I thought we were supposed to do 2 loops.”

Coach: “the head coach said that if you felt fantastic after one loop, shut it down, right?”

Me: “Yeah…but almost everyone is heading out for lap number 2….”

Coach:  “yup – but you aren’t.”

Me: “Oh come on….”

Coach: “Dude, on that foot?  No.  Head back to the gym.”

Me: “…but coach….”

Coach: “head back.  God, you whine like a tool.”

…and inside me a little voice chuckled.  Shit.  …..so I headed back.

As I gathered my belongings at a local school gym prior to heading to the team’s final social event of the training year, I felt that subtle twinge again.  It wasn’t uncomfortable.  It was not painful.  It was simply….there.  My heel was letting me know that the issue had not disappeared, and yet it appeared that I could run on it for shorter distances without any hindrance of performance.  Feelings of excitement (for the pace I had been able to maintain recently) were offset with nervousness (the distances were short – and the marathon is 26.2 miles….not 5).  The battle had been fought, and a stalemate had been reached.

Thursday was difficult at work – I found it very hard to focus on my tasks while this internal battle was being fought.  Fortunately, for the first time in my running history, I took the business day prior to Race Day off to enjoy the Expo.

The ING New York City Marathon Expo is a sight to behold.  Filled with runners from all over the globe speaking countless different languages, vendors selling their running-focused wares, motivational speakers to gear up those that might need that last minute pep talk, and eager volunteers basking in the joy that comes with the responsibility of handing each marathoner his/her bib number and race packet.  I watched as volunteers reached into cardboard boxes and extracted these small plastic packets, compared the name on the packet to the name on a valid form of personal identification, and then presented each marathoner with their bib number.  The huge smile that came across each runner’s face was reflected in the smiles of the volunteers.  As I meandered through the various exhibits within the conference center, I couldn’t help but begin to feel a sense of pride to be a part of such a global event.

I stopped by the Team for Kids booth, got myself squared away, and then participated in a thirty minute presentation at one of the larger marathon booths.  I was asked to discuss why I began running with the team, and also describe my strategy for the course.  Since this would be my sixth time running this race, I know where the rough patches are, and I did develop what I considered to be a real solid game plan for the upcoming marathon.  And….since I use 100 words when 10 will do….and I looooove the sound of my own voice…..I was more than happy to flap my gums in front of a microphone.  I left the Expo Friday afternoon filled with excitement.

I woke up early Saturday morning and was part of an interview on WFUV radio in my hometown of the Bronx, New York.  Again the questions were asked: why do you run?  How many marathons have you run?  How does New York compare to marathons in other cities?  What’s your favorite parts of the course?  What part of the course do you dislike – if any?  It was a great experience – I never was part of a radio show before.  Definitely something I want to do again!! 

After the radio show, I went to the team’s annual breakfast which was held near Times Square.  Sitting with my teammates and laughing over coffee and runny eggs was just the elixir I needed.  We listened to speeches by a handicapped triathlete, two youngsters that represented one of the programs that my team’s charity funds, several of our coaches, and Mary Wittenberg – President of the New York Road Runners.  By the time I left this wonderful event, I truly felt that tomorrow morning – Marathon Sunday – would be a day to remember.

While my soldiers of self confidence received motivation speeches that revved them up for the final conflict, The Tool was had at work, frantically preparing his final race strategy.  This little 4” sourpuss crossed his chubby, hairy-knuckled fingers and hoped for rain and freezing temperatures.  He planned to sabotage my heel and make it hurt.  He pounded my self confidence with fears of my foot giving out half way through the race.  He tried to keep me from sleeping.  His battle plan was clear.  The only question that remained: could he carry it out?

As I changed for bed Saturday night after carefully preparing my bag and clothing for the morning, I reviewed the map once more and went over my course strategy:

My New York City Marathon Course Strategy

Early Morning / Pre-Race

  • A long hot shower, first thing in the morning.
  • Grab a bacon & egg on a roll on the walk to the team buses.
  • Pass by Columbus Circle on the walk to the bus – keep the goal fresh in my head
  • Before the race, stay WARM.  Stay in the team’s tent. 
  • No caffeine.  It’s a diaretic, and there’s no way I’m winding up as one of those disgusting youtube videos.
  • Use the port-o-potty right before heading to the corrals.
  • Drink enough…but don’t get crazy and guzzle a gallon of Chatteau Bloomberg.
  • Stretch with the team
  • Nothing but positive thoughts
  • Remember my mantra for the day: I am unbreakable. 

 The Start

  • The first mile is uphill, over water.  Cold winds.  Start slow.  Don’t get caught up in passing people.
  • Watch my footing – people throw clothing on the floor.
  • Right from the start, focus on my breathing.  In the nose, out the mouth.  Keep my heart rate down.
  • Ignore the cold – think about getting off of the bridge and into Brooklyn.
  • I’m starting on the lower level, so stay away from the edge of the bridge.  Men piss over the side of the top level of the bridge, and between that…..and the wind….yuck.
  • Mile 2 is downhill.  Stay under control.  I’ll want to push things a bit here – but refrain.

 Brooklyn

  • Miles 3-13 are basically flat and fast.  The crowds will push me along.
  • STEADY PACE.  Run with even effort.
  • I know the pace that I am comfortable with – so run it.  Don’t get caught running someone else’s race.  Find a TFKer from the pack of runners I usually train with and coast along.
  • Average 10:30 – 10:50 a mile here.  That will give me enough gas in the tank for what’s ahead.
  • Hit the half way point in 2 hours 10 minutes – 2 hours 20 minutes and I am golden.
  • Drink water more than Gatorade.
  • Remember: these miles are FUN.  The hard work comes later.
  • ENJOY BROOKLYN.  HIGH FIVE some kids.  Get the crowd going.  Have FUN.

 Queens

  • At mile 14, begin to evaluate how things are going.  Go through the physical checklist:
    • Feet ok?
    • Legs ok?
    • Knees ok?
    • Hips ok?
    • Lower back ok?
    • Chest ok?
    • Arms ok?
    • Neck ok?
    • Breathing deep and slow?
  • Then recite the game plan to yourself for the second half of the race.
  • Slow and steady to the 59th Street Bridge….and then don’t let that bridge beat you.

 Manhattan

  • Take 1st Avenue easy.  Enjoy it.  Soak it in.  Store up the energy the crowd gives you.
  • Still average 10:35 – 10:50 pace. 
  • Eat at mile 17.5.  It’s pop-tart time.
  • Watch the footing at mile 18 – sponges + gu = a royal pain in the dimpled Irish arse.

 Bronx

  • Mile 20.  The Wall.  If I do this right, I’ll break it down.
  • Go through the physical checklist again.
  • The race begins here, and you know it.  Focus on getting around those apartment buildings and turning southbound.  THAT is your signal that you’re heading home.
  • DO NOT WALK here if you don’t have to.  Motion creates emotion.  You stop here and the body will not want to start back up.

 Manhattan

  • Laugh at the rappers coming off the Madison Ave. Bridge.
  • High five some kids – get the positive juices flowing
  • First water stop after the bridge: 2 gatorades, 1 water and the sports beans. 
  • Gospel Choir between miles 21 and 22 – take in their energy.
  • TFK at mile 22!!!!!!!!
  • Look for the coaches now – focus on getting from one coach to the next.
  • Around Marcus Garvey Park – take some deep breaths, because here comes 5th Avenue.
  • Right turn onto Fifth at around 122nd street: do NOT focus on the steady 1 ½ mile incline.  Instead, focus on the 10 feet in front of you.
  • Go to your mantra: I am unbreakable. 
  • You’ve felt this pain 5 times already – this is nothing new
  • Get to the Engineer’s Gate at 90th Street.  GET TO THE PARK.

 Central Park

  • This is your back yard.  Home field advantage.  This is Team for Kids’ house.
  • Rolling hills between miles 23 and 24 are to my advantage.  Use Cat Hill for momentum around 80th Street.  Allow the legs to stretch out and let the pace quicken
  • At Mile 25, yell “God F&^K the Queen!”
  • Make the right onto Central Park South and maintain the momentum.  Drop the split time from the 10:30 – 10:50 range to at least 10 minutes flat
  • Wait for the ½ Mile To Go marker, then drop the split to a 9:40 pace.
  • When you get to the turn at Columbus Circle….DROP THE HAMMER.  Go to your arms.  Drop the split down.  Shoot for sub 8:30 and HOLD IT through the finish.
  • The final mile will HURT – but you know that already.  The goal is to leave a piece of yourself on the road.  DO IT HERE.
  • DO NOT QUIT.  DO NOT SLOW DOWN.  DO NOT LET THE PAIN BREAK YOU.

 Before heading to bed, I read my favorite poem, which was written by Rudyard Kipling, entitled simply “If”:

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

 

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

 

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;

If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with triumph and disaster

And treat those two imposters just the same;

 

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;

 

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breath a word about your loss;

 

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;

 

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;

If all men count with you, but none too much;

 

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!

….I think Rudyard Kipling was a marathoner.  “…and so hold on when there is nothing in you except the will which says to them hold on” ….. “if you can fill the unforigiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run”  ……..oh yeah – my buddy Ruddy was a marathoner. Too bad he never got to gallop up the Varrazanno and take in the New York City skyline.  Or be embraced by the people of Brooklyn.  Or thank a child for a cup of water in Queens.  Or be hit with the wall of noise that is First Avenue.  Or come face to face with your own limitations in the Bronx, only to find out that who you are is much more than what you were.  Or be soothed by the sounds of a gospel choir in Harlem.  Or high-five the children supported by the charity you wear on your chest near Marcus Garvey Park.  Or be willed along by the crowds on Fifth Avenue as you struggle to find the strength to go on.  Or enter Central Park battered and bruised, yet tasting victory.  Or surrendering to the moment and expending every last ounce of yourself in a final sprint beginning on Central Park South.  Or watch as a fellow runner falls to a knee with 200 yards to go, his body forcing him to stop – yet watch him rise and will himself to the finish with sheer passion and an unbridled determination.  Or feel the self-evolution that occurs as you sprint across that finish line, forever altering your definition of the term “impossible”.  To me, THAT is the New York City Marathon.  I think Ruddy would have loved it. 

 I think about what this race means to me.  I think about how much I love my city.  I think about how proud I feel of my neighbors as I waddle along from Bay Ridge to the Upper West Side.  This race is more than just a bunch of people running from point A to point B.  This race is much, much more.  I welcome the pain – the pain is fare you pay to ride this train.    

 ….so with a thorough game plan in place and feeling incredibly motivated by my buddy Ruddy, I placed my head on the pillow to attempt a final night’s sleep before Race Day.  Once I closed my eyes, I sent one of my soldiers of self-confidence into enemy territory on a recon mission.  I wanted to know The Tool’s strategy.  The data came back almost immediately…and it was not nearly as detailed as my race course plan.  The Tool’s strategy looked like this:

  • Make sure the foot hurts early.
  • Let it get worse as soon as possible.
  • Make him doubt himself
  • Make him question his ability to take pain
  • BRING HIM HELL and MAKE HIM QUIT

 …short and ugly.

 As I drifted off to sleep, I felt like I was in a foxhole, about to take enemy fire.  Since there are no atheists in foxholes, I muttered a little prayer to myself.  Short and sweet:

 “Hey Big Guy.  I know, I know – we haven’t chatted in a bit.  Well listen – tomorrow’s pretty big for me.  My daughter will be watching.  I need to show her that she cannot quit when things get rough.  I’m not asking for help, because you’ve got bigger fish to fry.  Whatever happens tomorrow, just let me be courageous through it all.  Gotta go.  Great talking to you.  I promise I’ll pick up the phone more often.”  

My eyes closed.  Race Day comes with the morning light.

_______________________________________________ 

“Champions do not become champions when they win the event, but in the hours, weeks, months and years they spend preparing for it. The victorious performance itself is merely the demonstration of their championship character.” – T. Alan Armstrong