Having conquered the first ten miles with prime efficiency and dead-on consistency as orchestrated by the head ( Nice job Head! ), I turn the task of managing the next ten miles over to the legs. We are pushing onward on Bedford Ave which used to be notoriously known as the quietest mile in Brooklyn to all the runners who’s ever come through here. This is due to the fact that this road runs right through the heart of the Orthodox Jewish community where runners were once looked upon as objects of disdain rather than subjects of admiration. Back in the days of Fred Lebow, who organized the first five-borough version of this race, running was frowned upon in this sector of town and he really had to use his political and religious connections to negotiate and get special permission from all the rabbis of the synagogues just to run the marathon course through here. We were clearly not welcomed back then and it’s debatable whether this race, in the public spectacle it has become, is any more tolerable to the locals now. I couldn’t for the life of me understand how scary it must have been to be one of those first marathoners who raced through these streets. I probably would have picked up my pace significantly for these two miles fearing for my life! Luckily, nothing did happen to them and I can pass by these streets with nothing to worry about except for my pace, which has become slightly erratic since I released the mental reins early in the tenth mile.
At some point during the 11th mile, someone taps me on the shoulder. It’s J, the boyfriend of one of my good friends who I’d been coaching to run this race. He says hi. I say hi. He tells me he’s trying to break 3 and sprints ahead. I wish him good luck and slide back. I pondered for a second whether to use him as my rabbit but after a quick consultation with the Garmin decide that I’m doing quite all right running to the rhythm of my own two feet.
For most people, the sight of the Pulaski Bridge brings them joy because it means half the marathon is now over. (As an aside, I passed 13.1 in 1:28:41, which is exactly where I wanted to be. Success!) For me, this architectural benchmark has special significance because it signals a return home to Queens. Even before I moved here in early July, I have always identified myself as a native of this borough because this is where I spent nearly all of my childhood and teenage years. It is unfortunate that the marathon course winds through arguably the most deserted and unattractive parts of town because the rest of the borough is really ethnic, festive and scenic. Although an official marathon cheering zone and countless neighbors and spectators are out today doing the best they can to generate as much applause and cheers for us runners, I could never quite identify with the facetious sideline gestures running through these vacant alleyways and uninspiring streets. Instead, my mind was totally entrenched in a conversation my younger brother and I shared the night before. “ So you think you’re ready? You ready for sub-3?” “I don’t know. I thought I knew six months ago. I thought in Boston…” “ Forget Boston. This is New York. We don’t talk about Boston when we’re in New York. Just like Johnny Damon. “ (My brother is a big Yankee fan if you can’t tell…Yeah, major life FAIL on my part!) “JD?” “ Look, you’re gonna do your thing and the Yankees are going to do theirs. This is the year! ” “I hope so…” “ You’re ready Bro! You’re ready to be elite… ” I pondered what exactly he meant by elite as I ran through the final little stretch of Queens and prepared myself mentally for my grand entrance into the abyss.
On one level, the Queensboro Bridge can be merely thought of as the conduit by which the marathon course finds its way back to Manhattan after a scenic tour through the best parts of Brooklyn and the worse parts of Queens. But on a deeper and more personal level, running this bridge is a little like suffering through hell on earth and anticipating a figurative and spiritual redemption on the other side. During the long climb up, there are no smiles, there is no talk. Lights are turned dim. Breaths and footfalls, our only companion. This is the place where I usually say a quick eulogy to my pace as it slips effortlessly into the 7 minute range with no chance of recovery. But today I find my legs not following the script. I’m moving with the same consistent effort I was moving before but somehow I’m moving faster. I can tell this because I’m passing through the crowd in waves. First I pass by J who didn’t have the energy to reciprocate my friendly wave (He eventually finished in 3:14). Then I pass by Italian guy who almost ran me over to get his water at Mile 10.5. It was a bit exhilarating as I silently claimed victory over this bridge that had given me trouble for so many times years before. Pretty soon, almost as quickly as it had started, it was over, I was done. I had crested the bridge and was now on my way down. As I feel my legs increase their turnover and stride, my body is shaking and I am overcome by giddiness for the welcome that awaits me in Manhattan.
I reach a new state of running nirvana whenever I emerge through the shadows of the Queensboro bridge onto the east side of Manhattan in the New York City Marathon, and today is no exception. Thousands of friends and fans piled ten deep populate the slidelines and yell like hell upon my arrival. I pump my fist and wave to the crowd to show my appreciation. I don’t know if any of them was cheering specifically for me but I felt loved as a New Yorker anyway.
I make the turn onto First Avenue and focus my thoughts on who I was supposed to see. Although this particular race lacked the fanfare of yesteryear, I was excited to see my friend EW stationed at 68th St on the east side of First Avenue. Although he is not a marathoner himself (yet?), he has never failed to make an appearance to cheer me on at every single NYC marathon I’ve done. I point to him, give a big wave and thumbs up and he starts jumping up and down. What a swell guy! I only wish I will get to be there when he finally decides to run his first. I thank him profusely for coming (even though he’s post-call from an overnight hospital ER shift!) and continue on my way.
At Mile 18, I pass by the Powergel station manned by all the Flyers who weren’t running this race. This was without a doubt my favorite part of the course. I’d been waiting and anticipating this moment ever since crossing the bridge. I see runner26, nyflygirl, and jb24 and couldn’t help but give them all big hi-fives in rapid succession as I did a fly-by with my hand. I also waved, smiled and say hi to all those who recognized me (or my Flyers shirt). Although I didn’t take any Powergels from them (I was operating on my own GU schedule at miles 10,16 & 22), all the Flyers gave me such a psychological boost heading into the last 8 miles that I found myself questioning if I had inadvertently fueled myself. My quickened pace in Mile 18 is a reflection of how I felt during that mile.
After the exhilaration of the previous miles, reality sets in at Mile 19. You’re still in Manhattan; there’s still 2 more bridges and 1 more borough to go, but somehow your body knows that the fun is over. There is minimal to no crowds here, and cheering from the singular spectators is miniscule at best. Physically, you convince yourself that you still feel fine, but mentally, you brace yourself knowing that the last 10K is going to be a drag. The crampers and walkers (those damn walkers) make their first appearance here at this stretch and you do your best to ignore them, avoid them, pretend they don’t exist. You let your legs dictate the pace but they are growing wearier with each passing step. You get nervous but try hard to calm your nerves. All you can see, all you want to see, is the Willis Ave Bridge. Just make it there, make it over, and then you’re there. So you climb, with a deliberate pace you climb. You allow the pace to slip. It feels like it’s taking forever. Eventually though, you’re there. Where? In the Bronx. Da Bronx, like the sign says. Might as well say Welcome to Hell, you tell yourself.