Monday, November 05, 2007

Run Mike Run: the marathon

Yesterday I ran the marathon. It happened, it was a success. I was pleased with my time (according to the New York Times, I came in 10,012th out of some 39,000). I got 3:55:01, just above the respectability line of 4:00:00; that breaks down to 8:58 per mile. I was thrilled to complete it and to come in at that time, as I realized midway through that there was no way I would make 3:40. I had heard that your first marathon is all about finishing it, rather than making a certain time. I hadn't believed this, but it turned out to be true. It was harder than I thought, and today I still feel stiff and sore and tired, but it was wonderful. Let me break down what happened.

The night before the race, I was extremely anxious, and only got three hours of sleep. At 4 am I woke up, pulled on my clothes and caught a cab to midtown, to catch the bus to Staten Island. There was no one waiting for the buses, I hopped on one immediately and reached Staten Island, in the pitch black darkness of night, at 5:20 am. Out of 39,000 runners, I am sure I was one of the first, say, 200 to reach Staten Island. So I spent four hours -- four hours -- sitting on a curb in the cold, thinking about things, eating a bagel listlessly, finding a new curb, peeing, sitting, thinking, not talking, sipping Gatorade, thinking, sitting, squatting, sipping, peeing, and walking up the same stretch of sidewalk. It made me think of how sometimes, in adulthood, you have to do unpleasant things, things that are unavoidable and require patience and fortitude, and there's no reason to complain because there's nothing to be done and you just have to endure. I first learned about this facet of maturity on bitter winter camping trips with the Boy Scouts; the same lessons applied as I waited for a November sunrise in Staten Island, in old sweatpants and an undershirt.

Cut to the race. Four hours later the cannon (or whatever) fired, and the race was on. Twenty-five minutes later, my lowly corral of people actually started running. The first couple miles over the Verrazano bridge felt great; a few people spread across the wide smooth asphalt, the city to our left, finally running and warming up the muscles. It was profoundly quiet, considering the unending scream that accompanied most of the rest of the course. I was feeling great, and darted quickly through the first section of Brooklyn, say the first ten miles. I really didn't feel a thing. As we began to see people along the sidewalks of Brooklyn, cheering and handing out paper towels, I couldn't help but grin as I ran. It felt amazing; the first ten miles or so were heavenly.

I knew my friend Sarah would be out on the course ("Incessant Anonymity," in the links) so I looked forward to seeing her early in the race, an occasion that gave me something to think about and focus on. The best part of knowing people would be on the course was both the thrill of seeing them, that lightning flash of energy and happiness it gave you, and the ability to break down the race in terms of friend-sightings, rather than mile-markers. Much easier to think, "four miles until I see the Core," rather than, "twenty-two miles until I get to sit down."

And so it went. L and the family had bought two blue "It's A Boy" balloons, so it was easy for me to spot them all as I chugged down the pike. It was great seeing them on a few different occasions, as they darted around the city to intercept me. I saw my friends, and friends of friends, and people from law school, and work folks. It was more than I could have asked for. I saw 12 people on that course cheering me on, and I found out later that there were others who had seen me and were cheering, even when I didn't see them.

The key to everything, honestly, was the shirt that said "Run Mike Run." From now on, I will be wearing that shirt to school, work, funerals, etc. It was the best feeling in the world, to be running along and hear some random voice yell, "RUN MIKE RUN"! These people didn't know me from Adam, but it always gave me a little boost. I always tried to smile or wave or pump a fist in acknowledgment. (And let me tell you, strictly in confidence, that it seemed to be a big hit with young women of a certain demographic -- I felt quite a bit of encouragement from the twentysomething crowd. Find me on Myspace, ladies!) Sometimes, though, I would sort of want to be left alone, so I would run in the middle of the pack, where no one could yell at me by name; other times I could hug the edges of the running pack, so people would clearly read it and call out. The other funny thing was at the water stops, when I would be walking and drinking Gatorade and somebody would yell it, and I'd think, all right, for God's sake, give me a minute. But it was all meant kindly, I guess, and sometimes I would reply with an exaggerated "Okay!" of faux annoyance as I set off again.

The crowds were massive throughout. Brooklyn was fun and multi-ethnic and optimistic, given the earliness in the course; I loved the gospel singers and steel-drum bands and garage bands rocking on the sidewalk. There were desolate stretches where the locals eyed us warily as many male runners ran off the road to pee against warehouse walls. In Manhattan there was a wall of people 5 or 10 deep in places, holding signs and offering candy (I ate a lone Sour Patch kid someone offered, unthinkingly, and regretted it shortly thereafter). In the Bronx people were yelling into microphones, "You're in the Bronx now baby! South Bronx welcomes you!" In Harlem I shamelessly pumped my fist to the rap music blasting from speakers. For the final couple miles in Central Park, I ignored the crowds and ran as hard as I could, with great result.

The 26th mile was a good thirty seconds faster than the 25th; I did finish strong, which I was really proud of. The race was slower going than I had planned. Maybe I started too strong in the initial euphoric miles, but the narrow roads and tight turns made navigating the crowd nearly impossible. Spectators would loom into the roadway, and due to the odd system of start times, corrals, and staggered starts, I always felt like I was in the middle of a much slower crowd that I should have been. I was constantly battling to move ahead, for the entire race; I spent a lot of time and energy moving laterally to dance around slower runners and find a clear break where I could move ahead. This was frustrating, and I think it definitely slowed me down overall.

On the other hand, the last eight or so miles were hell. My knee was hurting, my muscles were tired, and the novelty of the experience had nearly burned away in the hazy sunlight of midday (that's a really bad sentence, but forget it). I had only done one 18-mile run, and one 20-mile run, before this; it's not like miles 18 and 19 were a walk in the park, but I was aware of those last 6.2 as uncharted territory. But there was no question of stopping, and I was happy that I didn't take any walking breaks besides the water stations. And once we hit Central Park, I shoved the discomfort to the back of my mind and the event became something between me and the road and the Park where I had traced loop after loop after loop; I tried to make the crowd dissolve and finish strong, and somehow it worked. And here I am now, 26 hours later.

I am still wretchedly sore. Last night we went to bed at ten and I slept wondrously. As soon as I finished the marathon yesterday, I felt woozy and hot and cold and feverish and twitchy. Several people were vomiting along the fence as medics were dispatched in every direction. To be honest I was trying hard to not pass out and control my bodily functions during the twenty minutes it took to inch through the crowd, and collect my medal, tin foil blanket, and bag of food. Fortunately it worked. I could barely stretch, though, could barely touch my toes to relax my muscles. Right before I crossed the finish line, and in the moments after, I did find myself getting a bit emotional; for many reasons I guess -- pride, surprise at myself for accomplishing it, disappointment that it was over, and maybe the sheer overwhelming physicality of doing this without much sleep or food. It was a heady mix of stimuli, I'll tell you that.

It meant a lot to me to think about how much support I've been shown during this whole thing. Since this started in earnest in July, I've really appreciated people asking how training is going. There aren't even words to thank my family and friends who cheered me on and made signs and t-shirts. In training, during particularly rough moments, I used to encourage myself by fantasizing about seeing my friends and family on the marathon course; the reality was even better. Their presence, and support, and faith, is what gave me the strength to do it (as well as the tacit pressure they provided by spending their own time to be there). The night before the marathon I wrote about the people for whom I was doing this run -- and it was the truth, during the run I thought about all of them, or rather, all of you, at different points along the way and it pulled me through. It really pulled me through.

Anyways, as you can see by this absurdly long post, the marathon really meant a lot to me. It's one of the best New York things I've done, it's one of the biggest (ok, the biggest) athletic accomplishment of my life, and it gave me a lot of faith and pride in myself. I stick with what I said before: the marathon was the entire 18-week period, not just this last 26.2; but damn, this 26.2 was brutal, and difficult, and sublime. I'll be turning this experience over in my head for a while, I think.

To end on a lighter note: my two favorite signs of the entire race: "YOU SHOULD BE PROUD," and the classic three-word mantra: "U GO BITCH."

Dear reader, that was the marathon.


Kristen said...

Michael--congratulations! What an amazing accomplishment. It inspires me to get there in 2009 (after the baby is born of course).

Kim said...

Yay Mikey! I thought you were insane the first time you told me you were doing the marathon, and my opinion has not changed a bit as I've read about your training over the past few months.

Even though I think you are a total nutbar for wanting to put yourself through such a thing (I consider 4 consecutive flights of stairs to be a stunning athletic accomplishment), I am still super proud of you for doing it.

Wish I could have been there to cheer you on. I would have worn a "Run Mike Run" shirt with pride. =)