“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.” – T.S. Eliot
Nearing the 26-mile marker of the New York City Marathon, my eyes scanned the spectators lined along West 59th Street for Jason, a college buddy who surprised me by flying to New York to cheer me during last Sunday’s race.
A familiar face, cheering me to the finish, never meant more than at that moment, nearly 3 1/2 hours into this journey.
After facing an unrelenting gale with gusts topping 40 mph, and the hills and bridges through the 5 burroughs, the marathon had come close to breaking me.
Before turning onto West 59, I had ditched the last of my three long-sleeved shirts, leaving me wearing my racing singlet emblazoned with “Fargo Running Co.” on the chest. Spectators encouraged me down the course, yelling the name of the city I called home for most of my adult life, as I had hoped. Even an announcer, as runners turned back into Central Park for the finish, caught eye of the shirt and cheered me.
Still, it was the face and voice of friend that meant the most and helped take my mind off the aching, cramping muscles that I was about to prompt for a final sprint to the finish.
This race was personal, and I knew family, friends and co-workers from home were following this journey. This race had to be worthy of the effort required to get to the starting line.
Monumental moments don’t come along all that often. It’s even less likely you’ll know one while you’re in it.
Traveling to the marathon start proved to be an endurance event, too.
Leaving my hotel at 4:50 a.m., I walked over to the New York City subway, which I would take to the terminal for the Staten Island Ferry. There, I chatted with Jeff, a runner from Nebraska, on the way to the Staten Island Ferry station, where the mood was quiet and subdued.A cup of coffee now in hand, it didn’t take extra encouragement from a race official to board an earlier ferry for the ride to Staten Island.
The ferry ride offered a terrific view of the Statue of Liberty.
The trip proved smooth and organized, and a bus ride to the start was simple enough. Before entering the starting village, police used wand detectors to ensure everyone was safe. Once inside the village, a quick glance around helped get my bearings, and come up with a plan to pass the next 3-plus hours, all of which would be spent outside in the elements.
Even then, a monumental moment in my life was playing out right there on Staten Island, and it would unfold over the next several hours. The trick would be keeping the adrenaline and emotions in check so I’d be able to do my best.
This trip to New York meant so much, and being there made the city so much more real.
To the sound of KISS music over the loud speakers, we started our journey across the Verrazano Bridge, with crosswinds whipping over the water and runners swerving as they made their way to Brooklyn. For a few miles, we were protected, and the warmth of spectators there lifted my spirits. In Brooklyn, wearing my Team Boutwell and 9/11 Memorial bracelets, I saw Jason for the first time, yelled his name and gave him a high five.
Soon, though, runners faced an unrelenting headwind, and my focus turned from soaking in the atmosphere of New York City’s boroughs to the task at hand. Anything less than my best would be a disappointed so my attention was channeled toward staying warm, keeping form and running fast, easy and smooth.
As the miles passed, my mind turned to what I had read about the different neighborhoods and adapting my strategy for the course ahead. And then we arrived at the Queensborough Bridge, a massive span over the East River. There are no spectators, just the patter of runners’ feet as we pushed up the long incline.
Veterans of the race, including a few friends who’ve run the race, warned of the danger of running too fast, as the roar of spectators buoyed runners’ spirits, coming off the bridge and heading up First Avenue. After 16 miles, the massive crowds – four and five rows deep on each side for miles – offered much needed encouragement.
It is here, though, that the weather began to take its toll. For many runners, the adrenaline of running this race began to be tempered by the distance and grueling conditions. It is here where runners must begin to dig deep for courage, motivation and determination – there is plenty of race left. For some, on this day, the marathon’s “wall” would come early.
Into the Bronx briefly, and then back to Manhattan, brought relief – the bridges that make the New York City Marathon a “hilly” course were all behind me. But the anticipated tailwind never showed up. Instead, the gusts swirled and pounded runners. The last 5 miles would require grit and focus; fatigue from a hard-fought battle with the marathon and weather gave way to the rolling hills of Central Park.
Leg muscles hinted at cramps. My focus shifted to positive thoughts, and I whispered to myself that I felt good. It was a lie. I was battered and hurting, but this tactic had worked before. Somewhere I had read that runners should override their muscles through reverse thinking. In that moment, I recalled it had worked a few times before. When muscles hurt, focus on the positive.
All I had to do was get to 59th Street, where I could scan the crowd, hearing them calling out my former hometown, and find a friend for the encouragement needed to make it to the finish.