Twelve months of training, literally learning how to run again, was about to be put to the test. Last year I couldn't run more than a few kilometers without being stopped by crippling knee pain. Throwing away the sneakers and learning to run barefoot was a breakthrough. Now it was crunch time — the 2013 New York Marathon, 42 kilometers, completely barefoot.
Team Amnesty Australia — 18 of us — arrived in dribs and drabs during the week before the race and settled into our hotel near the finish line, in the Upper West side of Manhattan. We formed small groups and explored the city coming together for the first time as a complete group in Amnesty’s New York office, just a few days before the starting cannon. Our fundraising efforts were duly validated by the intelligence and passion of the campaigners that we met. We learnt about past and present campaigns and had a great discussion about the ups and downs of human rights progress around the world. Amnesty was thankful for our efforts, and we were proud to be helping out by raising over $186,000. Now there was just a marathon to face.
Most of us were first time marathoners. Every one of us was nervous. Over the days preceding the race we shared strategies for eating, sleeping, final training runs, and, most crucially, how to get through ‘the wall’ — that dreadful point about three quarters in that many runners encounter as their bodies transition from burning glucose to burning fat and their legs feel they have been filled with lead quail shot, like the stomach of Mark Twain’s unfortunate jumping frog of Calaveras County. Some break through the wall, others can't and have to walk the final distance.
I was very worried about the wall until setting out on my last training run, three days before the marathon. The taper, easing off training in the last fortnight, had left my legs lighter and stronger than ever. Running along the Hudson I felt invincible. Now I could relax in the knowledge that even if I did hit the wall, I had the strength to push through it.
With my confidence up I relaxed and allowed myself to enjoy New York. It was Halloween, which really goes off down in The Village, and I found myself at an all-night party. Who said marathoning had to be boring? I filled the other two days with art galleries, jazz bars and carbo-loading. However, the Saturday before was very gentle: a light lunch in Brooklyn, a little sight seeing to keep the blood moving through the legs, a salt bath, a small protein shake for dinner (best not to have food in the bowel before a marathon) and an early night.
We were up at 5 am to catch our bus out to Staten Island. Some of the team were quite nervous and had slept poorly. I had slept like a log and was relaxed. Indulging in New York’s nightlife was the better strategy.
I huddled up with over 50,000 other runners and waited several hours for my wave to start (there were 4 starting waves, I was in the last). It was freezing in the old tracksuit and I kicked myself for not bringing warmer clothes or an old sleeping bag. Finally, it was time to start. I tossed my old tracksuit in a charity pile, slid off my huaraches and waited for the cannon.
It was quite a rush to hear the starting cannon. Everyone let out a massive cheer and we were off. The first stretch was across the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge. I put my headphones on and began a slow uphill jog. First song up was Golden Earring’s Radar Love: “The road’s got me hypnotised / And I'm speeding into a new sunrise”. Perfect!
The headphones came off entering Brooklyn. Hundreds of thousands of screaming people is far more motivating than any playlist. On almost every corner an amazing band was letting rip. It was a like running through a music festival — an awesome one! Thank you all you wonderful musicians!
The party didn't let up. For four and half hours I jogged through lines of screaming supporters, thousands of witty signs, and about a million hands stretched out for a slap. Whenever I started feeling tired I’d move over to the side of the road and slap a line of kid’s outstretched hands. Running barefoot generated loads of comments and calls from the crowd — “where are your shoes, dude?”, “barefoot, whoa man” … that type of thing. I also had a lot of people run up and ask me about running shoeless. My favourite reply was “I was born with these runners and have grown quite attached to them”. I did see one other barefooter, by the way.
Approaching The Bronx, a little over 30 km in, I felt the start of “the wall”. I ate a Chia seed bar, slurped a gel and took a couple of Ibuprofen to take the edge off my sore quads. I also employed some mental techniques to relax my body as much as possible. It worked. Running down Wills Avenue Bridge and into the Bronx, everything lightened up. The feet were in perfect nick as well. I only had about 10 more kilometres to go — just a medium training run — I knew I was going to make it. What a incredible feeling! Twelve months ago running just 7 km was near impossible. Now I had the New York Marathon in my sights, and nothing was going to stop me. I confess to shedding a little tear of elation.
The rest of the run was incredibly easy. I even had the energy to help a poor chap suffering severe shin splints up the final hill. As I was approaching him, it looked like he was about to collapse. I asked if he was alright and if he needed help. He just put his hand my shoulder and so I ran him to the top of the hill. We passed a lot of other people collapsed on the side of the road with leg injuries.
People told me that running and finishing this race is an awesome experience. They totally underrated it. The elation I felt was beyond any words.
I crossed the line, received my medal and poncho, walked back to my hotel and started planning the next one.