Part I & Part II
The voice over the PA on Staten Island spoke in French, Spanish, German and then finally in English. “Please be aware that urinating off the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is NOT allowed!” warned the faceless female voice to the more than 50,000 runners who milled about while awaiting the start of the 2013 IMG New York Marathon. I smiled knowing this warning would be ignored by many of the males walking around on this cold morning in short pants.
The guy standing next to you in the start corral might be a high-end Wall Street stock broker or a bank mogul in the Financial District in his other life. But he also isn’t too proud to hang his dingle out over the Hudson River in front of a few thousand runners while he relieves himself. This is also why being assigned to the upper portion of the famous bridge for the start of the race is valued over the lower section. Pee rain.
A year before, Greg Heilers and I sat in our shared $400/night Manhattan hotel room when the news hit that Mayor Bloomberg and the head of the New York Road Runners, Mary Wittenberg, had canceled the 2012 New York Marathon.
The deck of the Staten Island Ferry passed close enough to the Statue of Liberty that I was able to get a photo of the proud lady. Just beneath the ferry’s railing was a reminder of just how much liberty costs in America. A small Coast Guard boat mimicked the ferry’s pace as a uniformed sniper stood at the ready in the front section of the boat with both hands securely attached to a large-caliber machine gun. This ING New York Marathon would be much different than any of the 43 before it.
Security did not stop with our sniper chaperone. Our bags and bods were frisked entering White Hall Station in Battery Park. We were patted down and received the wand treatment from uniformed cops as we got off the busses in Staten Island. The police presence was everywhere we went and they were looking at each of us like we were the bad guys. It was comforting.
If any idiots had any ideas of causing harm or chaos at this race, he or she was going to have to get past thousands of New York City’s finest along with 1,500 surveillance cameras, scuba divers, harbor units and helicopters.
Heilers and I sat on the floor of the crowded ferry as it smoothly chugged the ten miles or so from Battery Park to the race’s start in Staten Island – one of the five NYC boroughs the marathon would meander through today.
The two of us had been together for last year’s NYC Marathon cancelation due to Hurricane Sandy. We were also together last April as we walked down Commonwealth Avenue after the Boston Marathon bombing. To say we were a bit anxious after spotting the Coast Guard sniper off our ship’s bow would be an understatement.
But this day would not be remembered for tragedy. It would be remembered for what is and will continue to be one of the world’s greatest sporting events.
Staten Island greeted the 50,000 runners on this crisp fall morning with 20,000 of them coming from foreign lands. New York itself is home to so many non-native inhabitants that it is just a far different place than anywhere here in the Midwest. The two gentlemen seated next to me the day before on the E Train speaking Russian were not the anomaly in New York. I was.
The subway is just a fascinating place for a kid who grew up in South Omaha and has lived in Kansas City for the past 25 years. On my ride into Manhattan from La Guardia Airport, I sat next to a young Indian mother nursing her newborn. Just across the aisle was an Asian woman who was carrying three huge plastic bags with three dozen colorful helium-filled party balloons.
After we departed Queens, four black “yutes” boarded our car and flipped on a boom box playing Jay Z’s new single, Bounce. The music rocked the train car but none of the commuter passengers seemed to mind. This was show time! The first performer slid onto his belly as the standing passengers moved to the side to create a makeshift stage. He leaped to his feet and attacked one of the poles like it was a jungle gym accessory – all the time keeping up with the music’s pounding rhythm.
The new Indian mom propped her baby on her lap and faced him forward toward the floorshow. I thought she might be upset with the loud music but her smile told me and the impromptu dance troupe that their talents were appreciated. There isn’t much room in New York for privacy or quiet time. You have to either accept this premise about the city or stay in Connecticut. This mom and her newborn reveled in the madness – as did most of the New Yorkers who were sharing my ride.
After hanging upside down and snaking his way through spaces and hand rails that looked to have no room for him to maneuver through, above and around — street dancer number one retired to the side where he was greeted with high fives from his cohorts.
The second dancer was in a word incredible. I mean this cat was David Letterman material. He wore a brand new stiff-brimmed navy-blue New York Yankees cap that was the focus of his performance. He moved his arms, head, neck and shoulders to the thump of the tunes but he also made his Yankees cap come to life. He sent his cap down one arm and then back up to the top of his head – all without laying a hand on it. For two minutes he never touched his cap but his cap never stopped moving. It went down his leg where he kicked it back atop his head. He sent it straight down his back and them brought it back into view through his knees, up his thigh and then popped it into the air and back to land a perfect 10 atop his head. And all the while he had every part of his body grooving to the boom box’s tunes.
My first hour in New York and I get a subway performance from four black kids from Queens. I may as well have been in a Spike Lee flick.
Mass transit is just how you move around between NYC’s five boroughs. Whether it’s the subway, a bus, the ferry – you’re sharing space at an extremely close proximity with others. And everyone appears to be very comfortable with that fact.
“My father always told me that the subway is the great equalizer,” explained a thirty-something native New Yorker who was seated next to me on one of my morning subway rides while in Manhattan. “Everyone rides the subway,” he continued. “Rich people, poor people, business men, laborers, politicians and the homeless. Everybody has to ride the subway. Even the mayor rides the subway.”
Mayor Bloomberg was the target of much local and global criticism a year ago when he and the NYRR attempted to go ahead with the marathon despite the many boroughs still suffering from Hurricane Sandy.
Last year was all about the devastation and horrors that Sandy brought to New York’s shores and how those of us there to run the marathon were impeding the recovery efforts by selfishly sucking up much-needed resources for those natives in need. The marathon runners were the convenient villains in 2012 and the New York media took advantage of how obviously out-of-place we were with our brightly-colored jogging togs and out-of-town grins.
But 2013 was testament that time heals all wounds. New York was ready to forgive, forget and party hard with the tens of thousands of runners who came to once more embrace one of NYC’s greatest and most improbable events.
“Youse running the marathon?” asked the guy behind the counter at Steve’s Pizza as he warmed up two slices of meat-lovers for me. “How far is dat?” he asked after I nodded. “Well, nothing like a slice of New York’s finest to get you over douse bridges,” he said as he handed me my warm slices of pie.
It seemed like everyone in the city was primed to welcome back the marathon and its madness. While last year you could feel the tension even at the runner’s expo, this year even the cops were in on the welcoming committee.
The cops who met us as they frisked us as we boarded the ferry and then again as we climbed off the busses on Staten Island were businesslike but kind. It reminded me of how the Boston police force reacted after the bombing at the Boston Marathon last April. They were tough and demanding but at the same time ever cognizant of how traumatized we all were (even those of us who didn’t realize it at the time).
The first thing I noticed as we walked toward the athletes’ village for the blue wave of the New York Marathon was that about half the people walking around were wearing pink and orange Dunkin’ Donuts stocking caps – the cool kind with squared corners and short playful tassels at the top.
“It looks like a page out of Where’s Waldo,” Heilers said as we passed a gaggle of like-capped runners who were sipping freshly brewed steaming cups of DD’s coffee.
As soon as I saw the free caps, I wanted one. Despite the fact I am not a stocking-cap wearing kind of guy, I covet anything that is free. I blame it on my upbringing. As the middle child in a family of 15 kids, we relished “free.” My mom and dad were phenomenal providers despite existing on a mailman’s salary. But we learned early how to augment our nourishment and life experiences at no charge.
One way was by hitting the sample tables at grocery stores. The Safeway store just two blocks down the hill from our home was a favorite target. When Nabisco introduced Chicken in a Biscuit crackers to the Omaha area, my brothers Tim, Mort and I would fill the pockets of our Levis with these salty bits of heaven. Little brother Mort would serve as the lookout as Tim and I did the deed in empting the box into our pockets. I still love those tasty crackers but I don’t get the same thrill from buying them that I did “sampling” them with my brothers.
There were two Dunkin’ Donuts guys handing out the caps just outside where all the food booths resided near the start corrals. I popped my cap on my recently almost-shaved head two hours before the start of the race and it immediately felt good against the morning’s 40-degree temps.
Runners are told to be inside your specified start corral 50 minutes prior to your wave’s start. This is not a suggestion but a hard-fast rule. “I saw a guy get turned away at his corral’s entrance once and he couldn’t have been more than a few seconds late,” Kansas City marathoner Mark Niblo told me as we waited in our corral. “They shut the corral gate right on time and told the guy and everybody behind him he had to wait for the next wave!”
I have been in start corrals in Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Duluth and other large marathons but I was not prepared for our “home” prior to the start of the New York Marathon. It was kind of well…quaint. Typically, your corral is in the street, a few blocks from the starting line. In New York, our Blue Wave Corral #8 was on grass/dirt and completely flanked on both sides shoulder-to-shoulder porta potties. Large trees exhibited their autumnal splendor as they offer us shade from above. Instead of being exposed to the sun, wind and openness on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge as I had imagined, we were tucked into these cozy plots of private ground with every runner’s favorite prerace sight – lots of available porta potties.
The start corral is where you meet friendly strangers who understand why you’re 1,500 miles from home to run 26.2 miles dressed in your underwear. A young guy from Hoboken was sitting on the dirt next to me. He was with his girlfriend and the two were jacked up about running New York. He caught my eye because his purple sweatshirt had the word’s “Kathy’s Sister” neatly machine embroidered on his chest.
“I gotta ask,” I said to Hoboken. “What’s the story behind your sweatshirt?”
Because of the heightened security surrounding the marathon, runners at New York were urged to not use the bag drop that has always been in place prior to the Boston bombings. Instead, we were asked to wear old clothes that we could discard just before the race’s start. The tossed items would then be collected by volunteers and distributed to the homeless and New York-area charity outlets. This made for some very interesting get ups as we boarded the ferry and people-watched throughout the athlete’s village on Staten Island.
“I got this sweatshirt from my mom,” he said with a big grin. “I was over her house looking through some of my old clothes to wear to the start and she kept begging me to take this sweatshirt out of the house.” Here’s hoping Kathy is not a regular reader of my OTC column and marathon stories – especially for Kathy’s sister’s sake.
As I found in Hopkinton when I went looking for shelter the night before Boston, the marathon gods smiled upon me here on Staten Island. My blue wave would be starting on the upper portion of the bridge. Or in other words, the dry part.
We slowly began walking forward as our corral was released and headed toward the bridge. I immediately lost contact with all my corral partners. Heilers was nowhere to be seen. Niblo was gone. Kathy’s Sister’s nephew and his bride had vanished into the massive crowd of runners. It was still 30 minutes or so from the start so I sat on the cold pavement and propped by back up against the fence and waited.
It was impossible to see what was going on up front at the start line or even how far away we were from the start. Lines of large tourist buses parked end to end were just across from where I sat. Hundreds of spectators sat atop these buses and waved, screamed and tried to stay warm as they peered down on the thousands of runners who were queued up for the marathon’s start. The scene was just spectacular, especially with the ominous gray overcast sky giving the event one of those memorable atmospheres you associate with the kickoff of a big late-season football game.
The atmosphere in the starting area minutes before the gun to any big marathon is wickedly exciting. On this day in Staten Island the runners all looked like they were players from my childhood electronic football game where you flipped on the switch and the entire field vibrated so violently that instead of the planned play developing, chaos ensued. This is what it looked like as our first wave of runners vibrated with anticipation.
The booming sound of the cannon echoed back to where I was now standing, having just chucked off my hoody and sweatpants. “Some homeless guy is really going to like that furry-lined hoody,” I thought to myself. Frank Sinatra’s unmistakable voice was now serenading us with the city’s theme song, New York, New York. I was trembling with emotion.
“Start spreading the news. I’m leaving today. I want to be a part of it – New York, New York.”
Did the cavemen have music? Oh how I feel sorry for them if they missed out on how a tune can move the human soul. I felt at that moment like I could have leapt atop one of those buses and then danced all the way to Central Park.
“These vagabound shooooooes. They are longing to straaaaay. Right through the very heart of it – New York, New York!”
The song, the screams, the waving crowds, the sight of the bridge ahead – all cascaded down on us and lifted us off on our journey through NYC’s five boroughs. It was enough to make a guy need to pee.
Running across the start line my first time at the Boston Marathon was the most emotional I have ever been at the start of a race. The sheer magnitude of Boston’s history is overwhelming to a first-timer. The backdrop in Hopkinton, Massachusetts is ordinary on any other day. It’s a quiet, quaint burg on the outskirts of Boston – exactly 26.2 miles on the outskirts to be exact.
Running on, driving across or just gawking at the majestic sight that is the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge on any day of the year is spectacular. Racing across it in the New York Marathon is something I will never forget.
Runners flood both sides of the upper portion of the bridge and also down below. The concrete towers that are in place to support the massive cables were so large I could not take my eyes off them as I approached. My neck bent back onto my shoulders as I ran beneath these manmade colossal structures, trying to take them all in until I was under and then past. “How is man able to do some of the incredible things we do?” I thought.
The first mile of the New York Marathon is uphill. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is breathtaking in both its magnificence and its grade. I struggled as I climbed the bridge, trying to stay calm as the wave of runners sped past me and my aging legs. I knew there were 25 miles more to go and I did not want to spend too much energy with Staten Island still in my rearview mirror.
The bridge empties into Brooklyn and we take a hard left turn onto 92nd Street. The change in terrain, atmosphere and the overall tone of the race changes dramatically from the monolithic bridge to the homey streets of Brooklyn. The course travels just a few blocks before our marathon parade turns right onto 4th Avenue.
The temps were still in the 40s but the work I exerted climbing that bridge had my radiator running hot. I looked for a place to drop my free Dunkin’ Donuts stocking cap to let the top of my head breathe. A cute 4-year-old Asian girl stood on the sidewalk and her smile drew me to her side of the street. I reached down to hand her my cap and she squealed as she took it from my hand – and then tucked it under her arm next to another pink and orange Dunkin’ Donut cap. It seems I was not the only runner looking to lose their lid after that bridge. I smiled as I formed a visual image of this small girl an hour into the race, covered from head to toe beneath a pile of colorful caps.
Brooklyn is a town I have heard about all of my life but spent almost no time in – just like all of New York’s boroughs outside of Manhattan. On foot, Brooklyn looked a lot like South Omaha to me. It had the same Catholic neighborhood feel that I remember as a kid. Sure, there was more of everything but the staples were similar. A church, a grocer, a diner, stop lights and lots of residences piled together so tightly you knew your neighbors whether you wanted to or not. It was also friendly.
We ran down 4th Avenue for almost seven miles before we reached Flatbush Avenue. I was now an honorary Lord of Flatbush – in my mind anyway. People were standing on both sides of 4th Ave. ten deep. Families perched in front of their second-floor apartment windows to watch the marathon stroll past. Brooklyn was happy to see us and we loved how they turned out for this party.
Fourth Ave. is separated by a large median island. All traffic was forbidden on race day so the runners could choose to run on either side of the median. Even with the multiple-wave start the NYC Marathon is a crowded field. I spent much of the race looking for daylight ahead of me.
Here in Brooklyn (and all throughout the course), police officers were everywhere you looked. The cops in New York look like they fell out of The Godfather movies. Their uniforms are made of heavy wool and all look to be two sizes too big. They wear those bulky jackets and old-fashioned caps that sport their metal precinct badges front and center. It was like running through a time warp.
One of Brooklyn’s finest caught my eye as I neared his post on the center island. He too was overdressed compared to my shorts and singlet. The officer smiled at me and plucked a cup of water from the nearby table. He reached out and handed it to be as I passed. Maybe it was because I looked older than most of the runners he had viewed that morning or maybe I just looked like I needed a drink. Whatever the reason it made me smile because cops along a marathon route rarely bother to hand out water.
At about the 10-mile mark the race travels for a short time through the Hasidic Jewish neighborhood of Brooklyn. There are no cheering crowds here, only darkly dressed men with long flowing beards and black hats that sat high atop their heads who walked hurriedly along the sidewalk. We passed through these streets without turning a head.
Rolling through Queens at about the 15-mile mark I felt a tap on my left shoulder. I ignored it since I had been fielding taps, elbows and nudges along the crowded race course ever since we left Staten Island. When I felt it a second time I turned to see Greg Heilers, my friend from Kansas City and Manhattan roommate, who I’d lost back before the start!
Heilers looked about as bad as I felt. He had not been getting in the training necessary to race 26.2 miles but he wasn’t going to let that stop him from running New York. Neither of us was in a mood to share recipes so we laughed at the surreal coincidence we would run into each other here after 15 miles in this madness and then we went back to the task at feet. I didn’t see Heilers again until we met back up at our SoHo hotel room.
The toughest portion of the NYC Marathon for me was the Queensboro Bridge. You are 16 miles into the race so you are not feeling great and then there is this Bridge of Death looming in your path. It spans the East River where so many movie corpses have been dumped. I now know why.
The crowds and their energy-inducing noise are gone on this two-tiered bridge. The dark steel structure embraces you with all the warmth of a Dakota winter. And it is uphill. Forever it seems to climb uphill. Maybe even longer than forever.
The courage-stealing sounds of shuffling sneakers and panting runners echo in the ancient steel jaws of the Queensboro Bridge. This is pure survival for those of us trying to get to Central Park. That mile up, up, up and eventually down the bridge leading from Queens into Manhattan was the longest mile I have ever raced. It seemed endless.
While the climb up the Queensboro Bridge appeared to take forever, the descent was all too quick. Two signs were fastened to the upper walls of the bridge as we turned to head down into Manhattan. “If the last ten miles of the marathon are the easiest…” the first sign read. “Well, welcome to the easiest 10 miles of the race!”
Two things struck me as I picked up my pace heading downhill now on the bridge. One was the hay bales that were stacked at the bottom of the ramp just as the road turned sharply to the left. They were there in case a wayward wheelchair racer got out of control and couldn’t manage the tight turn. The other was the noise. That glorious ear-pounding sound from the people of Manhattan cheering each and every runner as they exited the Bridge of Death onto 1st Avenue.
The coeds at Wellesley College in Boston make more noise than maybe any other section of a race I have run. But a welcoming cry came from the throats of these folks at the bottom of the Queensboro Bridge the likes of which I will never forget.
Put it this way. It took my nine minutes and fifteen seconds to run the 16th mile up that infernal bridge. After exiting the bridge and being greeted by the deafening roar from the citizens of Manhattan, I ran the 17th mile in 7:04. Adrenalin is a marvelous thing.
I think of this at some point during every marathon but I wanted to mention it here – the marathon is hard. No matter how much you train, how young or old you are, how fast or slow you run – the marathon is well named. It. Is. Hard. Although I do not have a 26.2 bumper sticker on my car, I do not begrudge or make fun of those runners who do. You run 26.2 miles, you go right ahead and be proud of it. The marathon is one tough grind.
Outside a school in Harlem an entire junior high band were positioned on the sidewalk playing the loudest rendition of The Eye of the Tiger I have ever heard. Music was everywhere along the course. There is something about the marathon that gets musicians out of bed early on the weekend to play for one of their most appreciative audiences.
Rodney Pixler, a running buddy of mine in Liberty, MO, warned me about the hills the last few miles inside Central Park. Rodney had run NYC years before and he cautioned me about going out too fast early with those scenic but rolling hills after mile 23.
As I was thinking about the upcoming hills, I hear my name screamed from across the street. Paul Everett, my buddy from MoMileSplit.com who lives on the upper west side of Manhattan, was waving at me from a Central Park sidewalk with his camera and telephoto lens in hand. I turned my aching body almost completely around to return his wave and smile. The exchange took maybe five seconds. Paul had fought NYC traffic, parked who knows where, and waited for who knows how long just to get a photo of me and yell my name as I passed the 23-mile mark.
I appreciated the hell out of Paul and his wife being there. Seeing a familiar face during the late stages of a marathon is like bathing a dying potted plant with cool spring-fed water. Hope is a wonderful gift to bestow on a marathon runner.
After seeing Paul, I didn’t find the hills all that daunting. The trees in Central Park were just incredible on this autumn weekend. It was impossible not to be swept up in their beauty and the colors and sounds of the swelling crowds.
The right turn at Columbus Circle leaves you about a half mile to the finish. There is not a better finish to any race anywhere. Last year when we were denied the opportunity to run New York, Heilers and I ran through and around Central Park just to absorb its aura. Wanting to run between those trees and across those stone bridges more than anything was the reason I had to return and run this race.
Volunteers draped huge bright Bronco orange ponchos over our shoulders as we exited the finish area. These were thick, lined ponchos with some weight to ward off the November cold. These construction cone-colored ponchos became the calling card of those who had completed the marathon.
As I stiffly made my way across 5th Avenue toward the subway with my poncho tightly wrapped about my torso, a professional looking 40-something woman honked at me from behind the wheel of her Lexus SUV. I raised my tired head to see her smile and give me a thumbs up.
The stairs leading down to the subway were torturous. Any stairs (or even a curb) can be as difficult to navigate as organic chemistry. Scratch that – nothing in my life has been as difficult as organic chemistry. I still shudder when those two words are paired together.
As difficult a time as I was having navigating the subway stairs, the seven or eight poncho-wearing runners behind, beside and in front of me looked to be in even worse pain. As we shuffled toward the turnstiles in what had to resemble a scene from The Walking Dead, a New York cop motioned for us to follow him. We adjusted our zombie shuffle to comply.
“You guys don’t pay today,” he smiled as he unlocked an adjacent gate and swung it open wide and led us all onto the platform.
“Welcome to New York,” he added. “You’re one of us now.”
and Twitter / @greghall24