(Check in on Part I)
If it’s meant to be, it will be, I said to myself during that awkward run, jog, stop, walk, jog, run period before officially crossing the start line. The bridge seemed to float in the endless blue sky that bent in front of the crowd. I passed under the starting arch, clicked my watch, and thought, This is actually happening.
Based on feedback from Runner’s World Loopsters, I keyed in on three areas of the course: the Verrazano Bridge, the Queensborough Bridge, and the 5th Avenue Hill between miles 22.5 and 23.5.
On the back of the elevation map where I’d scrawled my strategy, I wrote the following for the Verrazano Bridge: Keep it easy. Long way to go. You've run hills before.
I began the steady climb and let the pace come naturally rather than forcing it as I had for all my speed workouts. There was an ease to my stride and a lightness in my arms that I rarely feel except on magical days. I pushed those kinds of thoughts away quickly, knowing that one quarter mile does not a marathon make. My breathing labored a bit but the turnover was there. I looked up and out over the bridge to take in the view of the New York Skyline, knowing somewhere that the finish line and my wife and friends were out there.
A quick glance at my watch and I was running an easy 7:43 pace. I’d gone over this with my Uncle numerous times. If I drop two 7:30s on the first two miles, it’s ok. On my last 20-miler I did the same and ended up averaging in the 6:40s when all was said and done.
The bridge was a strange contrast. The start had been loud and boisterous with all the nervous energy pulsing through the runners and the volunteers. But as we climbed, a silence settled over us as we left the music and the cheering behind. A slight breeze hummed in my ears and mixed with the sound of the soft footfalls from my compatriots. The mood was light and the conversation among some, like the pace, came easy.
The 1 mile marker rose and with it, I could see runners beginning to hit the apex and disappear down the backside of the bridge. My watch calculates the average pace over each mile, not the actual current pace, so when I looked down and saw 7:07, I knew I’d started running in the sixes. The official beep came and I waited the 10 seconds for it to reset: 6:05. Whoa! Everybody relax! I screamed in my head, desperately applying the breaks, which is not easy on the backside of a bridge.
I rounded the bend into Brooklyn and crossed off my first mental checkpoint. The cheers from the crowd washed over me and did little to help me control the pace. I came through mile 2 in 6:17 and pleaded with myself to slow down the pace. Mile 3 came and went in 6:21. Better, but far from ideal. My plan for miles 2-13.1 was to cruise on the relatively flatter parts of the course in Brooklyn and not bank time, but set myself up for a negative split.
Finally, I settled into 6:30 pace, chucked the race plan I’d repeated for weeks leading up to this and decided my body was telling me 6:30 was the slowest it was willing to run right now. I gave in to the rhythm and just enjoyed the ride on my legs through the second borough.
While I didn’t find Brooklyn particularly hilly, it did have some rises and falls that the elevation map didn't quite capture. What I enjoyed most about this course, though, was that whatever it took away in an incline, it gave immediately back with a downhill. Mentally, that meant I could say, You're tired because you're climbing. Get to the top and the recovery will follow.
I flowed through Brooklyn and made minor adjustments to my placement on the street since I always seemed to end up running in the path of the sewer grates. The support was electric.
At mile 9, I spotted my friend Kelly who had come out to spectate. As I flashed by, she started jumping up and down, yelling, “Brad! Brad! Brad!” It dropped a tingly shot of adrenaline in and propelled me up the tree-lined streets. Here, the crowds began pressing in on the course, people stacked two and three deep. It was a nice mental break to cruise and take in the cheering.
I reached the half in 1:26:01 chugging up the Pulaski Bridge into Queens. It was a minute faster than where I wanted to be but that training plan was gone and I was riding. Of bigger note at this point was that I got my first glimpse of the Queensborough Bridge. It. Is. A. Monster. It's one of those landmarks that you seem to be able to spot from anywhere, and yet, it never gets closer.
I likened this part of the course to hitting the Newton Hills in Boston. It completely changes the complexion of the course. I’d been warned that the bridge is eerily silent. That it’s a killer hill on any day but in particular after you’ve already put 15 miles on your legs. Some enjoyed the solitude, others yearned for 1st Avenue just beyond.
On my race plan for the Queensborough Bridge, I wrote: Reset here. Enjoy the solitude. Maintain the effort level. Keep your form neat. You've run hills before! 1st Avenue - run within yourself.
I turned onto the bridge, the last shouts of encouragement falling away. Cars thundered by overhead and echoed across the steel beams. The ease with which I climbed the Verrazano Bridge had disappeared. I wasn’t hurting, but I was definitely working. I kept glancing at my watch and saw the average pace falling. When it read 7:03, I didn’t panic. In fact, I didn’t panic when it said 7:15 either. But when it hit 9:38, I knew something was wrong. Sure enough, I’d lost the GPS reception. I kept the panic in check and ran by feel, closed my eyes for a few seconds at a time and took a couple reset breaths. I'd get there when I got there.
Then, I saw that sweet sight of runners pitching downward. We’d hit the declivity. The turnover started to come back and the noise began to build. At first it was a few shouts, but with about 200 meters to go, it was a full on roar. 1st Avenue was jam-packed and the wall of noise hit me all at once. The screams raised goosebumps on my arms as I thundered through. I held back on the throttle and tried to control the pace.
But then a funny thing happened. Rather than speeding up, I started to worry about holding on. For the first 15 miles, my head was as clear and blue as the sky we ran under. But coming off the bridge, the thunderclouds began to bloom and by 16.5, I felt like a hurricane was churning inside my head.
I tried to use the energy from the crowd to push through it but to no avail. I shut down everything around me and retreated inside my head to work this out. I started taking both Gatorade and water at each station and found that it only made me feel full and sent my heart rate sky rocketing. My watch was still of no use as it tried to correct itself after the bridge.
At 17, the negotiation began. I could walk. No. I could walk through the next water station. No. If I walk, if I stop, if I lose the rhythm, it’s all over. Just a quick walk to get our head right. If you walk, it’s over.
I started thinking about a conversation I had with my friend Paul the day before. Paul is a vet of many many marathons. "It's always bad at some point," he said. "It's seeing yourself through it. Can you ride it out until that second wind?" Shalane Flanagan called it getting to the pain. I called it getting uncomfortable. When I trained this time around, I incorporated this thought process to be mentally ready: It's going to get uncomfortable in the race so you need to get used to being uncomfortable now. Dammit, I was as uncomfortable as I'd ever been.
When I hit 17, I popped another powerbar gel hoping that would clear the raging storm. I hate this. I’m never running a marathon again. I’m not built to run marathons. I will just run halfs from here on out….NO! I finally yelled. Enough! I recalled conversations I’d had with runDanrun. “When it gets tough,” he said, “Go to the rolodex.” So I did: The early runs. The 12 milers at 5:00 a.m. The sweaty summer miles. The other storms I’d weathered on long runs. The 58:45 at the Army Ten Miler. The jerk on the subway who said I wouldn’t get back to Boston. I thought about my grandmother, about our trips together when I was little and how excited I used to get to see her. How I was doing this for her but how I needed her help now. I thought about all of you who take time out your days to read my blog and how I didn’t want to disappoint anyone.
After this reckoning, an entire mile had gone by. I was at 19.5. A quick systems scan: legs are good; lungs are good; head is…clear! The storm clouds had burned off.
I went through mile 20 in 2:13:06. Ok, you need a 47 minute 10K.
We turned on to 5th Avenue and my stride quickened. The traveling pain (the one that starts in your hips, moves to your calves, to your quads to your hamstrings) that afflicted me in marathons past was nowhere in sight.
Trees lined 5th Avenue and Central Park was off to the right. I drifted to the left side of the course to run completely unencumbered and have the water stations all to myself.
7:30s. I thought. Then I came through 22 in another 6:41. I kept chopping time off. I can run 8:00s. 8:30s.
On the gradual climb from 22.5-23.5, I wrote: Keep it neat. Earn this. Strong to the finish. Instead of maintaining, I surged and made the right turn into the park with confidence. Yes, there were more hills, but what the course took away, it gave back. The road bent to the right and I saw my wife and friends leaping up and down, screaming for me just as I went by 24, wondering where the hell they got that "Looking Strong" sign. I had 19 minutes to run 2.2 miles.
Runners fell around me going down with cramping hamstrings. Don’t look! Don’t look!
After 26, the crowd was thick. The noise deafening. Sunlight filtered down between the autumn-colored trees. It finally sunk in. This was going to happen. I remembered the video of Meb coming through here alone in 2009 and it all looked familiar. 400m to go, I picked up the pace. 300m to go, I pictured the track back home and just how far that was. 200m to go, I allowed myself the smile I’d been holding down. 100m to go, I could see the finish line. I let my arms fall out to the side, tilted my head back, and wailed as I came across the line.
The pain came to my legs all at once. Walking at 18 would have been a bad choice. I have seen this moment in my head after each run for 14 weeks and every time I put Empire State of Mind on my iPod after a tough workout. I looked up to the sky at my grandmother before checking my watch. We did it, I mouthed to her. Then caught the 2:55:58 on my watch. I pulled my sunglasses back down and let the tears come freely now.
I hobbled through the rest of Central Park until finally being turned loose onto the streets. I thought about those 1,029 miles to get to this moment, a nearly 13 minute PR, and first time under three hours. I thought how different it was than at Boston this year. I thought about calling my parents and my uncle and giving my wife a big salty kiss. I thought about all of you for coming along for this journey, for spending a few moments with me during a workday or evening and offering your comments. I continue to be overwhelmed by the support of my wife, my family, my friends, and those on the Runner's World Loop. It makes celebrating accomplishments like these all the sweeter and even possible in the first place during the times when the sun disappears and the storms rage inside of us.