During mile 23 of the New York City Marathon, my vision blurred.
Two years ago, in this same stretch, I found myself cursing under my breath.
This time, the grueling toll of gradual inclines and bridges had withered away at the exuberance of the previous 22 miles.
Throughout the race, I glanced at my mile splits, but only twice looked at my overall time — noting it at the 10K and half marathon splits.
But as I pulled up on the 23-mile marker, the reading on the race clock surprised me. From that point, there would be no more looking at the watch.
Perhaps no less than 75 times during the race, I found myself answering the same question. “How do you feel and what do you want to do about it?”
A one-word answer always followed: “Push.”
On the uphills, I repeated three words: “Easy. Light. Smooth.” The sage advice were offered by Micah True in “Born to Run,” a New York Times bestseller that helped spark the barefoot and minimalist movement among runners.
The 2016 New York City marathon nearly didn’t happen for me. The weekend before, after months of injury and reduced mileage and an exhausting move, I scoured the internet, all in an attempt to weigh my options for cancelling. I didn’t want to show up and go through the motions.
Still, I boarded the plane, trusting I would find some motivation and some measure of success.
About 36 hours prior to the race, I found my motivation when I came across a video interview on Facebook with professional runner Sara Hall, who shared advice from Deena Kastor: after the Queensborough Bridge, just before the 16-mile mark, runners must have a reason to accept the pain of the inclines and push over them. Losing focus at this stage of the race would surely cost time and energy.
In distance running, the mental aspect can’t be overlooked. It plays a tremendous role in success and reaching goals.
Coming into the race, I understood each runner must identify the reason to embrace pain — if he or she wanted to overcome the voice that calls for surrender. In the days before the marathon, I still was searching for my reasons.
By the time I reached the runner’s village on race morning, in the shadows of the start on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, my reason became crystal clear.
Backtrack to last December, when I determined to make 2016 an epic year. By mid-February, on the eve of heading to the Los Angeles Marathon, I learned that my entry into the New York City Marathon was accepted. I started the year determined to make it memorable, and the only way to do that would be to finish it on my terms — with an all-out performance and knowledge that I’d finished on my terms.
As the minutes wound down to Sunday’s start, I recalled that promise to myself. When I finished, I didn’t want to question whether I had pushed hard enough or conceded time on the course. The time to perform would be now, and I didn’t want to keep telling myself there would be another race. After all, this was the New York City Marathon, the world’s largest and certainly one of the toughest courses to run well.
Spectators — often lined up 3, 4 or 5 deep — pinched the course during the race. At times, I weaved around runners and wiggled through the congestion to find the open running lanes — cruising along within arms reach of the raucous crowds. Their energy gave me a lift, and I wondered if I would have enough left for the final push.
Finally, by the time I reached mile 23, the clock reading prompted me to check my own watch and figure out my chip time. Maybe, just maybe, there was a chance to dip below 3 hours, 25 minutes — the mark I needed to qualify for the 2018 Boston Marathon.
For most of the race, I had run by “feel,” determined to deal with the pain in the aftermath.
But there was still Central Park and it’s rolling hills to contend with. It was there, in 2014, where cramps knotted my calves as the fear of not finishing flashed through my mind.
This year, though, Central Park gave me a chance. It buoyed my confidence as several long declines allowed my stride to lengthen. I surged, passing runners with every step.
In the late stages of a marathon, the perception of effort is distorted. After more than 3 hours of pounding the pavement, the feeling of fast takes on a different meaning.
At the markers for miles 24 and 25, I refused to look at my watch. Only at the 26-mile marker would I look to see where I stood for time. This finish would be all heart.
The final right turn, into Central Park, greets runners with the 26-mile marker. The deafening noise makes all those lonely, grueling training miles worth it as tens of thousands of spectators cheer — and some cheer for you. Wearing a Fargo Running Co. singlet, I heard them cheering for me: “Go Fargo.”
As I peeked at my watch, I pushed my pace one final time. I had less than 2 minutes to finish the final 385 yards. If I could do that, I would attain a goal set 8 years ago after finishing my first marathon.
As I approached the finish line, I did something uncharacteristic — I raised my hands above my head. At long last, I had qualified for the 2018 Boston Marathon.
It took me 22 marathons to finally achieve that distinction. And it has been worth every step.