I woke up just before the alarm went off. It was a restless night, but good. The kind of sleep where you wake up every hour and think, “Great, I still have x number of hours to sleep.” The phone buzzed on Mrs. Onthebusrunning’s side of the bed. “Hello?” she answered, doing her best impression to sound awake. “You’re here? Wow, Brad’s not even up yet.”
Except I was. And I had been.
Our friend Ebo had just pulled in to NYC after an all-night bus ride just to come and spectate with my wife and our friend Paul. The clock numbers burned 4:45. I pulled on my race outfit, lubed up the chafing zones, and took one last look at myself in the mirror.
Paul turned over in his sleeping bag as Ebo settled in on the couch for some much needed rest. I padded to the kitchen for a breakfast of brown rice, milk, a banana, and cinnamon all mashed together, a concoction I found thanks to a fantastic blog called Nutrition Success. I shoveled rice into my mouth and sat on the edge of my bed talking to my wife. For every two mouthfuls I had, she ate one. I was happy to share because the nerves had started to settle in. I checked in one last time on Facebook and was overwhelmed at the outpouring of support from friends and family. I read my own post one last time: “1,012.8 miles to prep for NYC. 26.2 to go!”
When the bowl was empty, I took a deep breath, shoved a powerbar and my race strategy in my pocket, a couple fist bumps, and I was outside walking to the subway.
A soft light began to break the darkness between the buildings. I strode confidently toward the subway when I saw the station manager at the top of the stairs. “You just missed it,” she said.
“What’s that?” I asked. “The train?”
“Yep, you gotta wait 18 minutes. What time you need to be there?”
“You’re not gonna make it,” she laughed, almost taking pleasure in my misfortune.
“I just need to be at Times Square by six, not Staten Island.”
“Oh, ok. Then you’ll be fine.”
Thanks for the heart attack, I thought.
I waited the interminable 18 minutes, and when the train pulled in, I realized that the New York subway is crowded at every hour. More runners began to gather shifting nervously from foot-to-foot. We exchanged knowing glances. I began collecting stories of the other 46,999 runners who would toe the line that morning. There’s something about hearing the “trials of miles” of fellow runners. Whether elites, weekend warriors, mid-packers, and the like, we all put in the work for different reasons to get from mile 0 to mile 26.2.
A man who was running his second NYC imparted his wisdom to me and a young woman originally from Italy who was also a marathon rookie and just wanted to prove she could do it. A woman running her first New York made it clear that she had been injured and was simply trying to finish (Been there, I thought, recalling Boston just seven months earlier).
Two stops into the ride, a larger gentlemen got on and we started talking running. He, a nine-time NYC vet who was guiding a woman with diabetes during the race. Me, a first NYC-er secretly looking for a PR and hoping to not only requalify for Boston but break three hours. He enjoyed giving me the history of the New York subway system, which I didn’t mind since it took my mind off the race. He pontificated on the merits of the ferry versus the bus, but said not to worry. I liked my new subway friend until my stop came up.
“This is you,” he said. And as I got ready to wish him luck, he cut me off and said, “You won’t run a Boston qualifier today, not on this course. But have fun.”
I’m not sure if the look on my face matched the one in my head, but it went something like, “Who the hell are you? You don't know what I did to prepare.”
I smirked and told him, “Good luck,” as the doors closed behind me.
I tucked in with the other runners taking the bus and followed them the two blocks to the New York Public Library where the buses waited. Another man with a hitch in his stride pulled alongside me. His black and gray mustache spread out wide under his nose. He was riding a 22 year NY Marathon streak. He refused to give me advice after I told him I’d run six marathons prior to this morning. “I’m not going to tell you anything useful,” he reasoned, then tottered off.
Coach buses waited around the corner rather than the school buses I expected that Boston uses. I settled into my seat, pulled my race strategy out and repeated it to myself a couple times before giving in to heavy eyelids.
When I woke again, we were just coming down the backside of the Verrazano Bridge. The decline stirred the butterflies in my stomach as I thought about having to turn around and run back up it. Slow down¸ I said to myself. You’ve run hills before.
I followed everyone off the bus and did a quick pat of my pockets to take inventory. My heart rate shot up again when I couldn’t find my powerbars. I hurried back on the bus, furiously looking between the seats while the first pangs of hunger began to seep in. I finally found them wedged between the seat and the side of the bus. Relief washed over me.
“Thanks,” I said to the driver, waving the bar at him. “I would have been very hungry.”
The runner’s village looked like what I’d imagine the staging area for the D-Day invasion to be. Packs of runners milled about nervously. Some lounged in the grass alone or slept in groups. Others chatted nervously about races past and what was to come. Everyone had someplace to go whether it was in the porta-potty line (where I was headed), seeking out water, or just trying to find an open place to sleep, read, or simply be.
I took the time to make one last evacuation before it was time to head over to my corral. Another runner and I hooked on to one another trying to find the wave one orange bib corrals. We traded brief war stories before breaking off to go our separate ways. Another story for the collection.I surveyed the scene while I unwrapped that sweet powerbar as though I were Charlie looking for the golden ticket. We were a pack of skinny dudes with five o’clock shadows bouncing around from too much anticipation and tapering energy.
With just over 30 minutes to go before the start, they led us up to the start line. I’d been warned that the NY Marathon isn’t a PR course because, in addition to the hills (you’ve run hills before!), you never could break away from the crowd. As we marched toward the start, not only could I see the start line, but I was five rows back, staring down the Verrazano Bridge.
I chatted up a couple more runners, hoping to glean some last minute knowledge. One guy from Massachusetts and I traded Boston stories and established that we had the same race strategy and “maybe” we’d run together if we saw one another out there.
The elite women took off ahead of us and we pondered Mary Wittenburg’s last minute stirring words that the “streets of New York were ours today.”
Finally, the introduction of the male elites came. The sun hung high overhead and though it was below 50 degrees, we felt warm in that pack. A shower of shirts and pants rained down as we discarded our over-garments. I turned over my shoulder to take in the mass of humanity that had lined up behind us. A couple last minute tugs on my ankles to stretch the IT band. A glance upward to my grandmother.
Exactly 52 weeks ago, I sat on my basement couch with a cup of coffee and the morning paper. I watched the same scene unfold over Universal Sports as the dam suddenly broke and the people rushed like water into the four remaining boroughs, knowing that in 365 days, I would be a part of it. New York.
The cannon boomed! We were loose….
Check out Part II to see about that strategy, a dark storm in my head, and the race against time.