New York Marathon 2015

I ran my first marathon in New York this past Sunday, 1st November 2015.

On 31st December 2014 I declared I would focus on running in 2015 as a means to improve focus in other areas of my life and a friend challenged me to complete a marathon. It was already March when I realised that I should do something about it and checked the New York Marathon website for its date (my home race London had almost passed) to find it was only 12 hours until the ballot would close. I hesitated at the $300 entry fee if I were to be successful, but “fuck it”, I thought, “no one gets in on a ballot place and if I do, well I might only do this once so let’s make it memorable”.

When the acceptance email came I thought “shit… ok… let’s do this”.

The training began. In April I walked to the end of my road to see the London runners go by and promptly burst into tears: the emotion of their training past and mine ahead of me got the better of me. It felt so far away and unachievable.

Buying new trainers at the London Marathon store, the assistant — possibly the most positively buoyant salesperson I have ever encountered — was the first person to get really excited on my behalf. “New York! Your first!”. It was bewildering: I could not understood why she would be so excited for me. I took her trainers and her advice to join a running group*.

Six months later I left the apartment we rented in Chinatown at 6.15am armed with two boiled eggs and a very large homemade super-shake of oats, bananas and peanut butter. The handful of humans in the Canal St subway station were heading home from last night’s epic NYC Halloween street party. About three minutes before the R train pulled in, a runner-apocalypse took over the station. Numbers, tracksuits, bananas, compression socks, tape, nerves, clear plastic bags full of race supplies, pyjamas for warmth: the subway station was full of it. The Staten Island Ferry Station was worse, it was crammed. Runners waited patiently and then pushed in slow motion to make it onto the next boat.

Gliding past the Statue of Liberty with Manhattan in the distance, everything became real. This was happening, I was travelling to the most southerly borough to the start of the New York Marathon. I was prepared and excited.

Oh great, I just got my period unexpectedly.

The start was surreal. I fought back tears whilst others let them flow. Everyone has a reason for running and most are far more worthy than my own. I was aware of not spending too much emotional energy when I would need it later. Star Spangled Banner was played through the tannoy.

The Verrazano Bridge is a wondrous pattern of steel, a haven for girder-lovers. The cannon fired and we were off over it to the soundtrack of Frank Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York’. I tried to take in the view across the water to Manhattan, aware of the weather: not much wind and not too cold, a good day for running. “Oh we’re slow!” I thought, but it’s really quite a steep hill, “I’ll make it up on the down but must be careful not to rush into Brooklyn at too fast a pace”. Long game, long game.

As we ran down into Brooklyn you could hear the crowds, small at first but mighty in their encouragement. Writing my name on my vest was about the best advice I could have taken. Another runner wrote that when everyone shouts your name you feel like a rockstar, well this happened to me for much of the course. A band of steel drums. ‘Born to Run’, ha. WOW.

The miles flashed by with another band, a soundsystem, a gospel choir, another soundsystem — this truly was a block party. I high-fived as many kids on the roadside as I could. Laughed and shouted back at the pithy banners. My first supporters were at mile eight— I had been running for an hour or more but it felt like barely 10 minutes. I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face. I reminded myself over that I mustn’t get too excited, but resolved to hold my smile as far as I could. An angel was holding a bowl of orange segments, so refreshing after the taste of synthetic gels and Gatorade. At the halfway mark I was serenaded with “Zena, you’re lookin’ great!” as other runners fell off around me.

Just before 16 miles a soundsystem blasted Alicia Keys version of ‘Empire State of Mind’ and caring not about cliché I put my hands in the air and partied hard for a few seconds with the people of Long Island City. Then we hit the Queensboro Bridge.

Much has been said of crossing the Queensboro Bridge in the New York Marathon. I had read of its eeriness as 16 miles of block party, cheers and elation are decimated by only the sound of pounding runners’ feet and creaking of the steel structure. However anticipation could not prepare me for the power of the silence. All of a sudden we were alone again, just the runners and their reasons for running. This was the first time I felt the need for effort and focus and still my mile pace dropped by a minute, even though we climbed only 10 or so feet.

And then, out of nowhere, the sound of cheering again. We were at the end of the bridge and into Manhattan. The collective relief was palpable.

The Queensboro bridge marked the start of a new, harder race. My GPS watch had got confused on the descent and told me I was running 14 minute miles when it felt like eight. The crowds were great, but nothing like those in Brooklyn. “I’m slowing down, is this a hill?” I thought.

First Avenue was long. At 17.5 an unfamiliar pain appeared in my right hip. It felt early for pain but at least I wasn’t tired. At 18 I was expecting to see my family but they hadn’t made it to the spot. “It’s OK, I am fine. The Bronx, the Bronx, get to the Bronx” I thought, and then at 20 I saw my sister, all flustered, before she saw me. I threw my arms in the air and shouted “OVER HERE”! I had energy and felt strong, but the pain in my hip had moved into a cramp in my leg. Six point two miles to go: that was the 20 mile warm up done and here is where the real race began.

No sooner had we hit the Bronx than we were through it. A micro-party by comparison to Brooklyn but the cheers and change of scenery after such a long First Avenue were needed and I sped up to my nine minute mile pace. At 22, in Harlem, it was hard and I slowed down again reminding myself to focus. “Enjoy it” I told myself but it was getting harder to smile. The supporters were still shouting my name and “Brooklyn in the house!” in reference to the snap back cap I was wearing that I had picked up in Chinatown the day before.

I had reviewed the course elevation map so many times in the run up to the race. I knew what was coming: a long slow 100ft climb between miles 23 and 24. Dig deep. I slowed down even more and thought “who cares about four hours, just don’t walk”. My forced smile was now non-existent. The cheers from the pavement recognised my pain. The hill felt as if it would never end.

It did, I was into the park and “wow!” heading downhill. I could pick up the pace again, the pain subsided. Four hours became the mission again. “Can I do it? I think I’m close but my maths is bad and I’m not sure my watch is right”. I glided round a bend to hear my brother shouting “GO ZENA! YEAHHHH!” and saw his baby had almost jumped out of his arms in fright! I laughed and it spurred me on. Around the next corner my friends appeared screaming my name and punching the air. I punched it too. Yes, yes come on, nearly there.

Another corner and ouch, another hill. Small but tough. Dig in. “Where are we? How far to go? Oh, 25, 1.2 miles to go, it feels so far...” As we turned the corner on Central Park South it fell apart again. I lost the pace I’d made up and my focus. “Just finish, just finish” became my mantra”. My New Yorker colleague had been sending me snaps of the finish line and the bleachers going up in the days before the race. I was longing to see them in real life, it felt as if they would never come. As we turned the corner back into the park and I saw them I knew this was my last chance. I had passed the four hour mark for sure but set myself a new goal of 4:05.

When I hit the 800m sign I thought “two laps of the track, let’s go”. A Final burst of focus and pace and I crossed the finish line at 4:04:06 as the lady on the mic shouted “ZENA!”.

I stopped and saw stars. I felt separate from my body. It was so confused and angry with me. It couldn’t decide whether it wanted to consume anything I could find or expel everything left inside me. No bathrooms. No water. Keep walking. Have a medal. Have your picture taken. No bathrooms. Dizzy. Keep walking. A space blanket. A recovery bag, it’s heavy. Drink the water. Tape the blanket so you don’t have to hold it. Which way is the exit? Keep walking. Stop, stretch. “Do you need medical attention?”. No I’m fine, but I don’t think I need to do that ever again. Keep walking.

I met my friends and my family. I stretched. I showered. I drank wine and ate pizza. I had done it. It felt amazing.

The training wasn’t as hard as I had thought. It’s a marathon not a sprint. It helped me to focus in almost all other areas of my life and it taught me a lot about the long game, about goal-setting, preparation and achievement. It was truly one of the most amazing experiences of my entire life. The second half of the race was especially hard, but so worth it. My legs hurt for two days afterwards and then I was completely fine. I might be persuaded to do another one.

*A huge shout out to Advent Runners/AR_Collective whose track sessions, experience and support helped me immensely on my way. They are based in East London, but their encouragement knows no boundaries and I would recommend runners of all abilities from all over the world join the online community via Facebook and Strava.

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