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Running the New York marathon

Now that I can walk normally again, I figured it would be worthwhile blogging in more detail about the experience of the New York Marathon.

I only decided to enter it in June, and it is fair to say that even a year ago the thought of running a marathon was ridiculous. I could run for a few hundred metres, maybe a km or two but not much more.

My goal last year was to be able to run the 7 km Wellington Round the Bays in February 2013. I used a running app to do treadmill runs to extend my capacity to run from two minutes to three minutes, to five minutes to 10 minutes and so on.

Over summer I was in Lake Brunner for a while, and managed to get some running in there. But was still sporadic – run for a bit, walk for a bit etc.

Come February was my first run since secondary school, and to my surprise I not only managed the 7 kms, but did it in under 40 minutes. I then set a goal of 10 kms and entered a race in June for that distance.

I then set a goal of doing a half-marathon in February 2014 – at the Round the Bays again. I got the 10 km to 21 km running app and started following that.

After I entered the Armstrong 10 km race for June, I got on their newsletter list and there was a mention of the New York marathon in 2014. At the back of my mind I had thought it would be incredible to be able to run a marathon one day (considering for 20 years I couldn’t run a few hundred metres) and New York was meant to be an incredible experience. The major problem was the date – November 2014. It is highly likely that is when the election will be, and my work responsibilities would make it near impossible to do. So the backup was to maybe look at doing it in November 2015, but I doubted one could keep up the motivation for almost three years.

So I inquired of the travel company about the 2014 marathon, and they said that actually they are not processing applications for that yet – but they did have a spot available for the 2013 marathon. That would solve the timing issues of 2014 and 2015, but could I go from 7 kms to 42 kms in five months?

I delayed the decision until after the 10 km race, but having managed it in around 52 minutes, I decided to give it a go and enrolled. In theory four and a bit months should be enough time. I was incredibly nervous about whether I could manage it. It didn’t help that I had previously planned a four week road trip through the US, which meant I didn’t get to run as much as I should.

Over the next four months I managed two half marathons but with a week to go had never run more than a half. And the two halfs I had done, had left me exhausted at the finish. The thought of doing effectively two half marathons in a row was daunting.

Headed to Wairarapa seven days before, and managed to do a 30 km run from Martinborough to Lake Ferry. That gave me a bit of a mental boost, that I managed three quarters. However again I was exhausted at the end of it. Also you’re meant to taper off the week before a marathon, not do your first greater than half marathon distance. So I was semi-confident I could complete 42 kms, but far from sure I could do it without walking some of it -which was my goal. Didn’t care about the time, just that I could actually run the whole thing.

On Wed 30th flew out to New York, via San Francisco. Landed around 11 pm and we got to our Times Square hotel just after midnight, where the good folk from Travel Managers met us. I checked into my room and then headed out around 1 am wanting to get some food. The only thing open was McDonalds so I had my fist quarter pounder in over a year, figuring I’d burn the calories off in a few days :-)

The next morning around 100 of us Kiwis gathered and marched down to the registration hall. A huge almost military like operation as you register and get your marathon bag. We heard stories of how people had registered last year and then had the marathon cancelled at the last moment due to Hurricane Sandy.

After registration is the expo, where you can buy every sort of running gear possible. I got a hat, top, jacket etc with the official race logos on them. However didn’t wear any of them on the day, as best to run with gear you are used to. Also got the all important anti-chafe gel!

Spent the rest of Thursday just hanging around Times Square, and visiting the huge Midtown Comics store in Times Square.

As I had little sleep the night before, I crashed early and woke up around midday Friday. Friday was my sort of freak out day as I started to panic that I didn’t have some old warm clothes to throw away at the start line. I also read every website there was on tips for the marathon, and drew up a checklist of what I needed to do before the race, and when I should take water and energy gels at which mile stops.  I got a great massage at a fairly cheap Chinese place near Times Square and just tried not to keep focusing on the fact I had no idea if I could actually manage 26 miles or not.

That night I didn’t sleep one second. A mixture of jet lag and anxiety meant I spent the night staring at the bedroom ceiling trying to will myself to sleep. I finally gave up at around 6 am. Not ideal preparation.

Saturday I headed uptown to meet an old university friend, Kirsty, and her family. Just what I needed to relax and unwind. Kirsty was one of less than five people who knew I was planning to do the marathon. I didn’t want any pressure of expectations, so had told almost no one in NZ I was planning to do it. My family didn’t even know I was overseas, nor did most of my friends. The few people who I had to tell I was in the US were given a cover story of visiting some political contacts in DC.

The only person who did find out in advance was, by pure coincidence, the Prime Minister. I ran into him at the Koru Club and he asked me where I was heading to. I considered telling my normal cover story, but figured it was a bad idea to lie to the Prime Minister (plus he could check with the GCSB!) to his face so confessed to him that I was hoping to run the NYC Marathon that weekend. I swore him to secrecy, but did get some nice encouraging texts from him. Part of me was regretting not having told anyone, as it was a bit lonely in NYC, but the last thing I wanted was more pressure.

Kirsty solved my last problem for me, of getting some cheap warm clothes I could throw away at the race start and gave me direction to Uniqlo. That was perfect and I got a cheap hat, gloves, top and track pants. After that headed to Central Park for the pre-race dinner where I loaded up with carbs and then back to the hotel for an early sleep.

Oh should also mention that I had got fanatical about not being dehydrated or too hydrated so I was going to the toilet every few hours to check the colour of mu urine and then drinking water until it was just the right shade between apple juice (dehydrated) and clear (too hydrated).

One benefit of no sleep the night before is I slept easily on the Saturday night and woke up just before my multiple alarms of iphone, alarm clock and hotel phone call at 4.45 am. I changed into my gear I’d laid out and we left the lobby at 5.30 am to catch the 6 am bus to Staten Island. The driver somehow managed to get lost driving there and circuled one block three times but eventually managed to get into the right lane for the tunnel. And around 6.45 am we made Staten Island.

Fort Wadsworth is divided up into three colour camps which match the route you take for the first few miles. I was orange, which was nice as we got to run on the top part of the bridge. Around 17,000 people in each camp mull about eating breakfast, queuing for portaloos and trying to stay warm. It was around six degrees so you needed those old clothes to stay warm. I had a book to read as I was in the final band to leave (based on my estimated time of 4 hours 45 mins) so had a wait of several hours there.

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Me before the race. It was cold! You can get your gear delivered to the finish line, but you have to give it to UPS at least an hour before the start, and you need to stay warm the last hour so what everyone does is dump their warm clothes a few minutes before the start. The result is it looks like a refugee camp with 40,000 hats, tops, pants etc scattered everywhere. It all goes to charity though which is good.

Finally time to go to your corral and then the start line. This is the first time I have run without headphones and am nervous about both having no music but also not having the running app tell me every half km my distance, time and pace. But headphones are discouraged in the longer races and people had said you want to soak up the atmosphere. But it’s like being without your normal security blanket.

Also slightly freaking out that I miscalculated how many energy chomps I would need (I prefer them to the gels) and had to make a last minute decision to take one every three miles only. Was hoping it would be enough.

Anyway finally the gun goes, and we’re off.

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You start with a two mile run over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The view to the left of Manhattan is spectacular. You are at maximum energy which is quite good as the bridge is the steepest vertical climb of the marathon. But all the training guides warn you not to run it too fast as you’ll tire yourself out. I do the first two miles in around 18 minutes and hit Brooklyn.

The Brooklyn crowd is great. They cheer and yell. They shout out support and your name or number. Hundreds of placards urging you on, and bands every quarter mile or so belting out songs. Best of all are the five year old kids holding out their hands for you to high five them as you go past. The energy you get from the crowd is contagious and you end up actually running too fast.

Brooklyn is pretty flat and straight for six miles or so, and then carries on near the East River until you hit the half way point just as you come to the Pulaksi Bridge that takes you into Queens. You run for two miles through Queens, and I adored the Queen sense of humour where they had signs such as “If a marathon was easy, it would be your mother”. Again the crowds are great.

The Queensboro Bridge from Queens into Manhattan is over a km long, and is a long gradual climb. I’m at my most tired at this point and a lot of people walk the bridge. But the thought of making Manhattan keeps me going and finally come off the bridge and turn the corner onto 1st Avenue. The crowds are massive here and several people deep.

Again you get a boost from them, plus from the bands.

However, 1st Avenue is arguably the hardest part of the race. Partly because it actually is a gradual uphill run (you would never realise this when cars are on the road, but do when you can see miles up the road) but the hardest part is you can’t see the end. It is dead straight from around 49th Street to 130th Street and seems never ending.

It is going up 1st Avenue that for the first time running my body really starts to ache. In the half marathons I had done, I was exhausted at the finish line, but my body was not too bad (probably because had not been running for long).

But at around the 17 mile mark my knees, hips, ankles are all starting to really ache. However, as my pace had slowed down, I wasn’t feeling exhausted. What this meant is that I didn’t really feel like stopping or walking. If you are exhausted and your heart rate is too high, then your body wants you to stop or walk. But if your legs are in pain, then the worst thing you can do is stop as that will just cause them to stiffen up and be worse.

So my pace was pretty slow by this point (my pace was around 28 minutes per 5 kms at first but at this stage was around 34 minutes per 5 kms. Then finally you hit bridge no 4, the Willis Avenue Bridge and go through the Bronx for around a mile and a half before crossing the final Madison Avenue Bridge back into Harlem and down 5th Avenue.

At this stage you’re at 21 miles and sort of think almost there, but then you realise five miles to go is still a long way and again it is the crowds and bands that keep you going. It's hard to undersell what a difference the crowds make. Also have started to form some bonds with a few other runners who seem to be much the same pace as me and we chat a bit.

At mile 24 you have just crossed into Central Park. This is familiar territory for me and I start to speed up a bit. At mile 25, I can see the office towers at the end of Central Park not too far away. You exit onto 50th Street and head towards Columbus Circle where you enter Central Park again. Finally you see Mile 26 but still not quite there. The signs now count down every 100 metres and that helps as you then see the finish line in sight. Far too sore to speed up at this stage, but manage to keep running and with a satisfied smile on my face I cross the finish line, having managed to run the entire thing.

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I get a fellow competitor to grab a photo of me (to avoid the outrageous charges for the official photos) and then limp off to get my bag. I estimate I made it in just under four and a half hours and sure enough got four hours 29 minutes and 54 seconds.  The average time was four hours 29 minutes so I’m pretty thrilled to have done that for my first ever marathon – especially as a year ago I couldn’t even run a km.

Unlike some races where you can collapse onto the grass afterwards and recover, here you have to keep walking. It is agony. You walk around a mile to pick up your bag and another mile out of Central Park and to the subway. Everyone is shuffling along slowly.  Probably took 45 minutes to cover two miles! On the subway scores of people are chatting to you about the race, and congratulating you. After a few minutes I get off at Times Square and slowly make the three blocks to the hotel. Then my God does that shower feel good, as does just lying on the bed.

Then it’s time to let the secret out, and I text and phone a few loved ones, before sharing on social media.  As almost no one even knew I wasn’t in New Zealand, quite a few surprised people.

I then hook up with a few other kiwis including David and Heather Carter and have a great night out celebrating. David was running to raise money for the Catwalk Spinal Cord Injury Trust. I still can hardly walk, and going up or down stairs is incredibly painful.

Around midnight I crash and the next day its the first of three fights back to Wellington.

Had a month off running after the race and I needed it. God knows how some people run a marathon every week. I'm not sure if I’ll ever do one again, but have enrolled for a couple of half marathons in February (Wellington) and March (Southern Lakes in Wanaka).

I like the half marathon distance – you can do one without really damaging your body.

But it was nice to be able to say I got to run the New York Marathon.

If you ever want to run a marathon just once, it is definitely the one to do. The crowds are fantastic, the organisation is first class, and the route has some stunning views.

Definitely some memories I’ll carry with me forever.

Political commentator David Farrar posts at Kiwiblog.

Comments and questions
4

FABULOUS !!! Congratulations David ..... you are an inspiration to me. How great that must have felt. Loved reading your blog article and all the steps you took to get to the starting point of the NYC marathon race day.

You have just inspired me to do the same next year. Has been on my bucket list for a few years, but never get the training underway ... and at the same time the chronological years and a few extra kilos have piled on .
I might get in touch with you once I start the real training, if that is OK.

Great practice run from Martinborough to Lake Ferry - will try to follow the same training regime ...

Wellington
Isadore Campbell

Great story, sounds like a terrific event. NY Marathon is definitely going on my to-do list!

Congratulations David. A brilliant achievement and a great account of the distance that you've traveled. Sounds like the marathon was good too!

Congratulations and the time achieved is very impressive