The Second Time

My Finish Line

I was dropped off about fifty yards from the toll booths on the Staten Island side of the Verrazano Bridge. It was a little before 6:00 am so the sun was nowhere to be seen. My buddy had driven slightly passed the private buses that were dropping off crowds of people pouring on to the side of the road shrouded in layers of old faded clothes and blankets. The quiet and the darkness was slightly broken by the murmurs in different languages and the small glimpses of bright colors of running sneakers and the spots where the layers of warm clothes weren’t covering the neon shades of some of their running clothes. I got out of the car and I pulled up the hood of my jacket over my head and tucked my hands into the pockets and began following the runners walking towards the park that surrounds the Bridge.

That was the beginning of my second New York City Marathon. It was very similar, if not identical, to how my morning went the year before when I ran it for the first time. I had this relaxed excitement flowing through me, which was different from the nervous energy that I had from the year before. The difference was obvious, I was walking into that park with some experience under my belt, with the swagger of having run last year and running the Chicago Marathon three weeks before. I was able to walk in without the anxiety of not knowing what lay ahead of me so I could let it all sink in and appreciate the subtle things that surrounded me. Being a part of the spectacle like the New York City Marathon has a different feeling the second time when I am no longer questioning whether I can or can’t do it.

I started walking toward the entrance to the park that was nestled below the Verrazano Bridge. I nodded to the police officers at the security checkpoint and lifted my sweatshirt to show the bib that was already pinned to my singlet. I had come prepared this year with a bag filled with some small snacks, a couple of bottles of water, some extra layers of clothes, an aluminum wrap from another race and of course some toilet paper that would help me for the next three hours. I found my corral and set myself up on a slab of sidewalk in a small parking lot right against a lamp post and began waiting. I knew it would be another three hours before I was actually running the race. Straight in front of me was a battalion of port-a-potties and behind that was the series of fences that delineated where the orange corrals were. I sat directly in front of the entrance I would eventually go into. I had a perfect view of the Verrazano Bridge to my right. I slowly leaned my head up to the sky and close my eyes and smile knowing I was exactly where I wanted to be.

I have always loved comeback stories and tales of transformation. It is a tough pill to swallow when you turn thirty and realize you aren’t happy. I had a terrible habit of dealing with failure or disappointment by ignoring the inherent deficiencies that caused those failures and just blindly grasping at the next dream or fantasy. I was unhappy and I was ignoring everything that was causing that unhappiness. The cause was simple, it was me. Like most memories, especially the tough ones, the details are hard to remember but I can recall the feelings of when I realized that I needed to crawl into my own depths instead of just looking up at the sky waiting for someone to pull me out.

I was working long hours and hanging desperately onto to a fifteen year smoking habit from high school that I thought made me look cool. I was running my body into the ground. I was bloated and looked sickly from the lack of sun, bad food, drinking and smoking. The endless hours at the office seemed like I was in a Kafka novel and just experiencing the same waking nightmare every day. I can’t say I was clinically depressed because I never actually went to a doctor. But something was wrong. When I described it to people, I always described myself as “stale” but that was just another way of saying I was fighting to changing myself. I read somewhere that most people don’t like being introspective because it’s easier to look out versus diving into your own depths. Everyone wants to be an astronaut or pilot but you rarely hear about ditch diggers or deep sea divers. It is much easier to deal with the expansiveness of everything above us as opposed to the depths within and underneath us.

Now, most of my mornings start before the sun rises bouncing my way down an empty street towards the East River and Astoria Park. I am by myself, without any music and usually covered in sweat within the first mile or two. All I can hear is my breath, my footsteps and my thoughts. Ask any runner, it is hard to avoid yourself when you are out there like this. It is one of those subtle things you start to figure out during those marathon training runs. You can’t ignore the thoughts and feelings that are bothering you when it’s just you and the road. When I am out there, feeling everything, I can’t help but claw out all of those things that are bothering me. The good part is that most of the time the problems don’t seem as big as they were and nagging feelings aren’t pulling me down as much. All of if it seems to come untied and loosened with each step I take. I don’t When I look in the mirror now, I like the person is who is there but I a more excited about the person I am becoming.

Sitting in the cold in Staten Island seems like an odd place to find happiness or peace. I kept myself warm wrapped in layers of clothes that I had planned to throw away prior to starting the run. I closed my eyes and let the noise of the people nearby and the cool air just occupy my mind. I sporadically glanced at my watch to determine when was the best time to eat my various snacks and trying to time out my bathroom trips. The sun started to come out and the throngs of people kept flowing in. The empty parking lot quickly filled and eventually the entire area in front of me was covered by people in different poses, eagerly waiting for the corrals to open or the bathrooms. I sat there enjoying listening to the first timers discuss their strategy and loved watching the grizzled veterans keeping themselves loose by doing random stretches.

When the announcement finally came, I gathered myself and I entered the corral. The one side of the corral was lined with plastic clothing donation bins and the other side is another set of port-a-potties. The speakers that hovered over us were blaring out announcements in various languages, namely that we should use the bathroom here because peeing on the bridge may result in disqualification. I enjoyed the announcement in French, it was such an elegant way of discussing public urination. It was after 9:00 am so it was slightly warmer. I looked for the areas of the sidewalk that were covered in sunlight. It was still crisp outside but the body heat of everyone crowded around me was making me feel warmer. People were nervously jumping up and down to generate some warmth. Finally, after several announcements, the corrals started to collapse on themselves and we began the slow procession up to the bridge.

It was during this walk that most of us started to drop away all the layers of clothes. My experience from last November gave me the benefit of knowing when I should start peeling off the layers. I started the process by shedding my sweatpants. Before we made the turn onto the bridge, I saw this thin Asian guy with long hair in a matching blue seventies styled sweatsuit. I looked away and moments later when we started to walk I glanced back over and she shed that blue sweat suit. She strode proudly toward the bridge in her gold bikini bottoms, black stockings, a gold tank top and gold tinted fairy wings protruding out from her muscled back. She carefully adjusted her hair and flexed her shoulders back and up. She glanced around and sheepishly smiled. Her transformation was complete.

I guess when I started running I was using the distraction of rebuilding and healing my body from the damage that I had done for the first thirty years of my life. But the funny part was as quickly as the physical improvements began to manifest, the mental and emotional awakenings came that much quicker. On every one of those mornings, I became more aware of myself within this world. I was forced to deal with everything, like when to get angry, when to be thoughtful, when to forgive someone, I can’t hide or run away from myself. I am forced to deal with the awareness of screwing up, with the knowledge of making a mistake so large that there is no rewind or repair. That permanence of loss is something I used to run from but now dealing with it makes me better, wiser and stronger. Being alone with my thoughts has forced me to understand myself better, which principally meant I needed to appreciate the people and things around me.

I stopped distracting myself with the things I thought should matter and I just let what I wanted in without judgment or pretense. I realized that there is a need for beauty, for complexity, for the quiet moments that I didn’t need to explain or quantify. I could go for my long run, come home, shower, eat and spend an afternoon by myself walking through a museum or in a coffee shop slowly drinking a good cup of coffee, reading a book and listening to Coltrane. And that day was as satisfying as any day at work or a big night out with my friends. It all comes from having those moments to myself when I can be honest with what drives me, what makes me happy and what shouldn’t distract me.

I was standing on the base on the Verrazano between the busses and with the starting line in sight. I finished removing my sweat shirt and pulled my compression sleeves all the way up my narrow arms. I shook my arms loose. It looked like thousands of people pushed up against each other simultaneously imitating Superman, discarding articles of clothing and revealing what were typically brightly colored skin-tight shirts and “short shorts”. Each layer of clothing that came off also came with a momentary pulse of energy coursing through my chest into my stomach as I stared up into the distance. The twenty-five year old version of me would never have had the courage to stand on the Verrazano Bridge in five inch shorts and a tank top shoulder to shoulder with strangers of all ages doing the same thing. I stood there aching to start but smiling at everything around me because unlike last year the moment had slowed for me and I was really absorbing everything and everyone around me.

After a series of announcements from public officials that all seemed muffled as I glanced around at the arches framing the start line, the Bridge and the helicopters hovering nearby, there was a sudden announcement of “On your mark…”, a pause and then a loud boom of the cannons, followed by a roar of the crowd, mixed with giggles and applause. A couple of yards in front of the starting line I started a slow jog and just like every race my foot hit the plastic barrier on the ground and I pushed the butting to start my watch. I stayed towards the left side of the bridge staring up at the expansive arches with thousands of people in front of me and thousands more behind me. A smile broke across my face as I started to move to the open spaces. I was prepared for the congestion from the year before. I was just hoping to find an opening in order to speed up. The year before the wind was whipping so hard I really couldn’t take in everything around me. Now I took the time to glance around more carefully. I could see downtown Manhattan in the distance. I studied the facial expressions of the people around me. The stoic looks of those who were intensely competitive and frustrated by the slow starting pace. The nervousness of those overwhelmed by the joy and anxiety of starting the race. I heard the squeals of laughter and excitement in different languages. I wasn’t in Staten Island for very long but those moments on that bridge are worth every moment of waiting in that park in the dark and the cold.

At the end of the Bridge, I started making my way into Brooklyn. Brooklyn is often overlooked in the mainstream consciousness of the marathon narrative. The photographs are often of the finish line or of First Avenue. But Brooklyn is where a bulk of this race is run and the secret is Brooklyn is where you get the real part of New York or at least remnants of what was there when they fist started doing the Marathon in all five boroughs. The first part of Brooklyn was Bay Ridge, where people were lining the streets, crowding against the barriers to try and get a glimpse of someone they know. Maybe it was the three hours of sitting around or the congestion on the Verrazano, but those first strides in Bay Ridge were like a shot of adrenaline right to my legs. And despite all the warnings to myself during my training leading up to the race, I couldn’t help but feel that urge to accelerate. These nondescript faces of people anxiously awaiting for someone else but cheering for me none the less. Seeing it all for the second time didn’t change the magnitude of how it made me feel. The previous three hours were those intimate quiet moments shared with other runners. But those first steps in Brooklyn made me aware of the fact that I am sharing this with the biggest city in the world, my City.

The marathon has become this nostalgic reminder of the City I was born into but the place that I currently live in. There are constant reminders that I see every day that this isn’t the same place I grew up in. New York City was once defined by the center of culture, where the best music was made, new fashion trends emerged and people looked different but they had the same tough core. The images of my childhood were graffiti covered subway cars and a general grime that covered most parts of the City. I know the people who lived it don’t have the same fond memories. But I think part of my frustration is that I grew up in the shadow of Bob Dylan and Lou Reed’s New York and now I have Taylor Swift’s New York. The New York I loved wasn’t about the buildings and the stores, it was about the people that lived in them. Running through Brooklyn I saw these random liquor stores, bodegas and nondescript shops that have rusted or dirty signs but they are all brought to life by these people lined up in front. These people’s faces are flush and red from the slight chill in the air but they have these warm smiles and eager eyes.

In Williamsburg, I saw what looked like a father and daughter running together at a pretty good pace. They are wearing matching t-shirts announcing the father’s sixtieth birthday and they both had balloons attached to their respective hats. The daughter, a lean blond haired woman in what looked like her late twenties or early thirties had a beaming smile on her face as she heard the cheers that were being directed toward them. The father had an intense look on his face and sporadically peaked towards his daughter. I couldn’t tell if he was doing it to check if she was keeping up with him or if he was concerned that he was going to slow for her. They were sharing this journey in such a dramatically different way but running step for step together. I envied them for what they had and what they would share.

When I reached Cobble Hill and Greenpoint, the streets were narrower and the screams were louder. My legs felt like they could go all day long but I was becoming aware of how warm it was. All I could think about was shedding my arm sleeves. The subtle change of a couple of degrees made it feel like I was boiling. I felt as though I was submerged in a thin layer of water. All I could really feel were the muscles in my legs flaring, while listening to this buzz of people’s cheese and steady footsteps around me. I tried to do the math on my time but my brain was not capable of computing things at that point. I just decided to keep pushing at the same pace. My thoughts were bouncing around from the people to the neighborhoods, to the actual road in front of me. Most of the time my view was on the ground in front of me but I forced myself to glance up at the horizon, reminding myself that I needed to enjoy this.

It was at this point I wanted a break from the crowds and cheers. The adrenaline had me going faster than I had intended. The New York City Marathon is a lot like being with a beautiful woman for the first time (or a second time), you spend a lot of time preparing yourself to be cool and act normal but you aren’t human if you are trying to restrain yourself. I knew I had until after about mile 17 before I had to think about seeing anyone familiar. I thought to myself I need to slow down but I knew this was just lip service. During an internal debate while racing, my mind can win some battles but most of the time my legs will win out. I glanced around to find new distractions hoping to slow me down. There was a guy running in a pair of speedos with the British flag on them. On his bare back, he had scrawled out in black magic marker “God Save the Queen”. He made me laugh but he definitely didn’t slow me down.

I crossed over the Pulaski Bridge into Queens and I remembered that the route in Queens is too short. I knew the Queensborough Bridge wasn’t too far away. I get to run in Queens every day but I wish the race gave me a bigger piece of it. I saw the next water station in the distance and decided to stop for some water. That first drink of water in a marathon can be a revelation how the race is going and how your body is reacting. I grasped the cup and squeezed it to make a spout, something that took me two years to master and countless times of having water splash up my nose. I let the water pass through my lips into my mouth and in three sips the cup was empty. My lips were a little dry but I hadn’t realized it until the water hit them. I felt the water go down my throat and into my somewhat empty stomach, with the remaining water dribbling off my chin and down onto my chest. I had realized at that point how much I had expended through a little more than half the race. I was covered in sweat but still feeling fresh when we approached the turn to get onto the Queensborough Bridge.

Right before I got on the bridge I glanced over and in the crowd I heard my friend Dominic shouting at me in his Italian accent, begging for me to take a can of Red Bull. I acknowledged him with a nod, a smile and quick rejection of the Red Bull. He grimaced at me and then loudly cheered me on. I made my way up the lower level of the Queensborough Bridge and was shielded from the sun. All I could see was that beige steel facade with a little bit of sunlight poking through. The myth is that it quiets down on the bridge but it doesn’t. The sounds of the crowd dissipate but the runners’ footsteps, breathing and grunts seem to magnify during the period as we fight this incline and the drop in temperature in the darkness. I noticed that the quiet really started when I reached the midway point of the bridge. That is when the road plateaued momentarily right before the decline on the bridge began. I glanced out both sides to look at the view of the East River and the Manhattan skyline. I cross this bridge in one way or another every day but never from this vantage point. I have looked at that river and that skyline so many times, but just like last year, at that moment, New York City is mine.

I decided to push harder on the ramp heading down off the bridge towards the streets because I didn’t know how long I could sustain that pace. Last year I ran in the second wave of runners so I had encountered the infamous First Avenue more than a half an hour from when the first wave had passed. This time it was dramatically different. The quiet of the Bridge started to give way to this deep hum, like something guttural that doesn’t feel or sound like traditional cheers. I looked down the ramp and contemplated whether I should take the turn tight or flush out on to 59th street towards the crowd. At the end of the ramp was this dark cavernous area underneath the Bridge with hay bales blocking the path. To my left was the sunlight breaking through the steel of the bridge and that sound. The sound that I could feel pulsing through me. At that point, I made the mistake of thinking that this was going to crush the last ten miles. I blew out wide onto 59th Street towards the waiting crowds and was running out of my shoes as I turned onto First Avenue.

This was would serve as the second time that I had been fooled by the adrenaline of the race. I was burning down First Avenue and preparing myself to see my family. I was expecting to them at around 87th Street, in the same exact spot as last year, which was somewhere between the 17th and 18th mile. I had pulled off my arm sleeves preparing to give it to them because it was just too hot now. As the 70s quickly turned into the 80’s, I looked up searching for them in front of the bakery they were at last year and out in front of the barrier. I desperately scanned the sidewalks to make sure no one was blocking them, prepared to get angry at anyone who wasn’t letting them poke through. But they weren’t there. After a few more blocks I resigned myself to the fact that they hadn’t made it out and when I got past 94th street, it was as if my legs had felt that disappointment.

As I was approaching the Bronx my legs were reminding me that I did have limits. I had run the Chicago Marathon just three weeks before and a lot of people were skeptical whether I could do both in that span of time. The doubts started to creep in as I crossed yet another bridge into the Bronx. My thoughts were going through this internal struggle. I thought about the fact that no was really watching like last year so if I really needed to I could walk a couple of steps and I probably would still beat my time from last year. But on the other side of my jumbled mind were these ominous fear that walking was the one thing I couldn’t do. I had just read Haruki Murakami’s memoir about running a couple of weeks before and his words were ringing in my head. I could slow down but I would not walk. Walking would be equivalent to quitting for me.

That was the difference of a couple of thousand miles of running. It has educated me on the difference solitude and loneliness and the difference between being happy and being content. Facing my weakness head-on and not being frightened of failing. Those mornings alone with myself have made me aware of when I am bullshitting myself into an excuse. I used to find the easy path away from the hard one by convincing myself that the rewards of hard work aren’t worth the discomfort. Whether it was school, work or relationships, I had spent so much time running towards the path of least resistance instead of challenging myself to get the most of out of a moment. I may have not found the meaning of life but I found a big part of mine by running. I could have spent my whole life avoiding the hard stuff but I would have never understood all the things I was missing. I stopped just surviving life, now I am living it.

Coming back into Manhattan I felt a cramp in my side after I took a swig of water. The pain lingered and made it more difficult to breathe. I tried to figure out whether it was dehydration or was it just a matter of drinking the water too quickly. The walking debate started creeping into my thoughts again so I glanced around to look for distractions. I saw a pretty girl running in all black wearing Vibrams. She looked intense but so calm and collected. I decided I would try to stay with her as long as possible. My breathing started to come back to normal and the cramp on my side finally faded. Down Fifth Avenue, I felt a breeze hit me when Central Park reappeared on my right. The year before that same breeze was a gust of wind that almost knocked me down. This time it was cooling me down. My muscles felt like concrete, aching for a moment of rest. The only motivation at this point was the knowledge that the miles were now slipping away.

I turned at the engineer’s gate into Central Park. November in the City is distinct. Fifth Avenue is draped in trees and covered with some of the initial leaves that have fallen. The entrance is so perfect because the path opens up to those stairs that somehow hide this massive reservoir. As I entered the park I thought that perhaps I would see my cousin who lives on West Side cheering me on like last year so I felt like I needed to keep the brave face on despite my struggles. I drifted to the West Side of the park because I thought he would be on that side of the path. It was at that point I heard these faint screams of little girls saying my name from the other side of the path “Stevie!!! Stevie!!”. I glanced over and saw my parents, my sister, my two nieces and my nephew all huddled together on the opposite side of the path. My two nieces were prominently in front, jumping up and down, showing their toothless smiles. I looked over and a smile broke across my face. It was a smile that was involuntary and without any obligation. Not the kind of smile I would give at work each morning to a coworker. That smile was the best I could do to show them the gratitude for what they had just done for me. I waved to them and tried to move closer but my legs weren’t really cooperating at that point so slowing down or dramatic moves towards them weren’t going to happen. I felt this well of energy inside of me that washed away all the thoughts of walking or tiredness.

As much I rave and love that time to myself, alone on the streets with my thoughts. The other thing I have become aware of is the value of the people in my life. The realization that the memories I build with my friends and my family aren’t defined by the grand events. The real memories come in those subtle moments that make the mortar between the building blocks of my life. It may be my foundation and my world that I am building but I need them to complete it, to fortify it. Those somewhat innocuous moments, that I previously would have ignored, leave a deeper impact now. The warm embrace of my goddaughter when I arrive at my sister’s house. The grin that breaks across my mother’s face when someone comments on how smart her kids are. The laughs my brother and my sister share with me when we remember the things they did to me when I was growing up as their little brother. The strength they provided in the past with one look or one word because all those little moments that stand out but aren’t necessarily part of the highlights. At that moment in the Park, it was like all of those moments came rushing back to fuel my legs.

As I turned onto Central Park South out of the Park the stiffness and soreness in my legs seem to fade again. On one side I saw rows of people that blurred together in front of Park. I could see glimpses of the boulders, paths and trees. On the other was another crowd of spectators framing the bottom portion of all those buildings, starting with the Plaza Hotel. I felt this one last surge in me to push. That last desire to completely empty it out because it couldn’t be better than this. A warm fall day in New York City running through midtown with sympathetic eyes and the final cheers fueling me to the finish. I turned back into the Park on the West Side, I climbed up that last little hill and saw the stands and the finish line in the distance. A few steps from that final plastic barrier, I closed my eyes and let that grin break across my face one last time as I crossed the finish line. Three hours twenty minutes and thirty six seconds, two seconds faster than Chicago, and a new personal record.

The finish line for every marathon has been a slightly different experience. But there is one thing they all share in common and that is this feeling of calm that washes over me. Even on this second go around in New York, it was like a numbness to everything around me because everything inside of me was throbbing and relieved that the race was over. I felt drained but not in the sense of feeling empty. It was more of a feeling of being cleansed as if the dirt and gunk of life had been washed away. The first couple of moments walking away from that finish line were surreal in the sense that all the people, sounds and things were apparent to me but they are kind of blurry in comparison to how crisp my thoughts are about what I needed at that moment. Everything is so stripped down to the basics at that point. It is as simple as that next drink of water, a fresh set of clothes and a warm meal. It makes me feel euphoric because everything seems like it is within your grasp. It was one of the things that made me fall in love with running so much. Long distance runners and a lot of endurance athletes have a lot of different adjectives for the feelings and reactions you have after a long run or workout that drains you. For me its simplicity and being wrapped in a bubble of that simplicity.

After the finish line, the hours immediately before were mushed together as I was focusing on recovery. First I needed to get to the water that I would take mouthfuls of and slowly let it slide down my throat and eventually sooth my whole body. I took a bite of the apple they had given me and felt the juices run down the side of my mouth and this extraordinary sweetness mix with the water. Wrapped in the aluminum wrap and eventually the hooded cape provided to me, I walked slowly through Columbus Circle to the subway. On the subway after initially deciding to stand, sitting felt as though I hadn’t sat down in days. When I got home, I peeled off all of my clothes and delicately stepped into the hot shower. The water washed away the residue of sweat and salt that had now coated my skin. The water hitting me reminded me of the showers I would take when I was sixteen years old after spending the day pouring concrete with my father. After getting dressed, I walked barefoot to my fridge feeling the cold wood floors on my feet. I cracked open an ice cold bottle of beer. I had to force myself to savor the first couple of sips and resist the urge to gulp the whole thing down. The beer tasted like the ones I used to fish out of a cooler when I was hanging out with my buddies in college after a day at the beach. After some food and a couple more beers at a bar with my friends, I went home, stripped off my clothes and got under my covers. When my head hit the pillow, the sleep washed over me. It was that instantaneous kind of sleep that reminded me of the exhaustion I would feel as a kid after spending a long hot summer day running around the neighborhood with my elementary school friends.

It is that fresh start and cleansing after the finish line that makes me aware of something not so subtle or small. I thought I had lived a lifetime in my first thirty five years. But living isn’t about racing through life to one goal. I want everything and I want to understand and enjoy it all no matter what it takes because if it were simple, it wouldn’t be living, it would just be surviving, so that is why the second time can mean that much more.

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