Friday, 11 November 2005

Five bridges, five boroughs and a lake of fire

Good morning.

It's 10:05 am on 6 November, I'm standing on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge looking out at the river-mist over the shoulders of about 3,000 people standing in front of me, and humidity is 97%. Then the clouds more or less instantaneously pull back, the mist burns off, and it's suddenly 62%. Why am I doing this?, I think. Someone's singing 'Good Bless America', but a bunch of Mexicans or Colombians standing next to me are singing something else. The Austrians are picking their noses, and the patriots are getting really quite itchy about the disrespect. A cannon fires, and 3,000 people start running really very very slowly. i pass most of them over the next few miles, but it's a bloody irritating few miles. The V-N bridge is packed from side to side with overexerting Italians, who've forgotten about the next 25 miles, relieved only when the odd man darts over to the other side of the central barrier to pee (yes, it's still mile one). The only really fun moment is when the bridge starts violently swaying and a bunch of people start squealing in unnatural voices, fearing that the bridge is going to throw them off (they should be so lucky). By the top of the incline everyone is slowing down even further. They are funny shapes, with rear-ends like rhinos, running form like gorillas, the urgency of a spanish waiter, and all they've learned from watching Paula is that jerky head-movement she gets at 22 miles.

Flashback to Heathrow 3 days earlier: on the escalator out of the tube station I turned around to see three guys carrying a rhino costume, that looked like it weighed 500 lbs, with a frame that sits on their shoulders as they run. It might have been useful if the predicted thunderstorms had arrived. But they didn't: we're now halfway through brooklyn, and the temperature is in the mid-60s. And the rhino asses in front of me are all perfectly natural and will raise no money for charity.

It's impossible to get in a groove all of the way through Brooklyn, what with dodging all of the lollopping runners who pushed their way to the start. The high point is passing a bunch of athletic, aryan germans carrying a flag. It feels good to bring a bit of trans-European prejudice into the streets of Brooklyn. Brooklyn has the most bands, some of whom are quite good. After 4 miles the runners from the other two starts appear: the men merge, while the women run on the other side of the median. It looks nice over there: not too crowded. After 8 miles they swing round a block and we meet at a T-junction, which is a bit of a surprise, before heading over the Pulaski bridge. That's two down. Queens is entertaining, with the Hassidic jews taking photographs with their camera-phones, and their other-worldly daughters handing out boiled sweets. The groove happens about the time we hit the Queensborough bridge, by which point more or less everyone is dying. So this is why I do this, i think. Unfortunately it's a 7'20" groove, not the sweet 6'52" groove I'd been hoping for. In fact the Queensborough bridge is just fine for me, no doubt egged on by the pleasures of watching other people with severe cramp, some of them looking over the side of the bridge and contemplating ending it there. Though it's at that point that I begin to notice that the only people who are not suffering are the 5-foot 2-inch women, who keep pushing on with little apparent effort.

Round that horrible and pointless curve that takes you under the Q bridge, and we're soon enough on Manhattan's first avenue, which must be the most horrible street in New York. It's breathtakingly crowded, and the cheers are awe-inspiring. And at this point there aren't too many other people around to appreciate them. But it's really bloody long, and we're now in the low 70s. I think it's at this point that I begin to get sunburned. It's not meant to happen like this. The pain begins in the other extremity too, and a blister begins to appear on a toe. People say first avenue is mostly downhill and that the crowd pulls you through. For me it's the low point, especially as I'm still faintly conscious at this stage. I finish off my gels here I think: after all, there's less than ten miles to go. Maybe eight, I've lost count.

Entirely forgotten now is that tranquil passage from Battery Park to Staten Island on the ferry, with the Statue of Liberty saluting us through the mist. This is plain nasty. Maybe she was waving goodbye to the three-hour target. Me too now. Actually I waved goodbye to it at the 13.1 stage, which took 1:34:08. But I didn't know this was going to happen as we sailed by Liberty.

Eventually there's a bridge at the end of first avenue, a metal one with a grid surface that digs right into the feet as you run over it. Fortunately the race organisers have decorated it with a brightly orange rubber mat to cheer you up. There's a quick mile in the bronx with plenty of signs saying "welcome to the bronx". I don't know whether that's with more or less irony than the bastard who has a sign that says: "The first 20 miles are in the legs, the next six are all in the heart." I almost punched him.

Out of the bronx, over bridge number five and back into manhattan, and there's a little loop round Marcus Garvey park. And I'm feeling good at this point. Some wag has discovered a new running song for me: they're playing the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun" at great volume. I think I start singing along. That's funny, i think.

Then we're on fifth avenue, and guess what: it's uphill. It's uphill for what seems like forever. Now those 7'20" miles look speedy, and I hit the low point of a 7'45" pace. I'm briefly cheered by seeing Nicky (my sister-in-law) by the side of the road. That lasts about 0.05 seconds. Noah, in his pram, doesn't look impressed. He's probably crawled faster. Steve (my brother-in-law) suddenly appears and runs with me along fifth avenue. Did I mention that it was uphill? He keeps saying "You're doing great". I can't hear the punctuation at the end. I keep wondering why I can't run faster. I don't even feel like throwing up. It's just that my legs won't do much more. This is the point where Susan Chapkemei started throwing up (without slowing down). At least she was pushing herself as hard as she could. Maybe I need to work on this throwing up business.

Steve decides family life is more rewarding than trying to drag along stunned and overheating marathoners who are now in a fully post-human stage of consciousness. We turn right into the park and at last I pick up some speed. Here the twisted and fallen forms of marathoners are scattered like the damned on the lake of fire. The path gets more crowded because I'm passing the walking sinners. But the crowd are now amazing. It sounds like a football match. These people actually want you to finish. They call your name. They press in from the sides. They shout "looking good" and "looking strong" and "not far to go". You reckon? Now I finally remember how to race. I know how to do this, I think. We're in a park and I've about 2.5 miles to go, and I remember how I couldn't remember the last two miles in London, despite the crowds and Buckingham palace. That's not going to happen today. Then some Puerto Rican shows up at my shoulder and tries to pass me. maybe fifty or a hundred people have done it so far, but this one isn't. Never mind the fact that he looks about fifty and is a foot shorter, this is a race damnit. We hit the southern side of central park and head up to the fountains of Columbus circle. The two of us are jumping over bodies at this point. And I remember why I like doing this. I think he tripped over one of the bodies then, because I didn't see him again -- I wanted to thank him at the finish line. The New York Road Runners think it's a good idea to mark each of the last 400 metres. So after 25 miles, you get signs that read "I mile to go", "1/2 mile to go", "26 miles", "400 meters", "300 meters", "200 meters" and "100 meters". This is all quite confusing at this point. I'm not sure that they're not my heart rate.

And at this point the US TV camera catches me. I don't notice it now, but watch it on TV later. At first I'm in the margins of the frame, then it zooms in on me and holds me in close up. I'm hyperventilating and trying to remember how to count. and I'm immortalised doing so on national TV. I look a bit like George Bush in the kindergarten classroom on the morning of 9/11, holding that book upside down and trying to remember what the shapes are.

It may have been at this point that I saw a man on a stretcher, within sight of the finish line. Which was alarming. Especially as he seemed to be entirely covered. There are no medals for running 26.1 miles, however fast.

The last 100 metres is one of those great moments that you'll remember forever even if you can't remember exactly why. It's uphill, perversely, for most of the last 100 metres, but it doesn't seem to matter that much, perhaps on the "in for a penny ..." philosophy. And in that last 100m you're entirely carried away by the sight of that arch -- if a little dolorous about the clock -- and the deafening noise of the crowd, and the promise of imminent relief, even if your heart does feel like it's finally hit 204. At that point, everything -- the light and sound and the pain -- is absorbed through the skin and turns to adrenaline, and it feels like no one could ever pass you, not even Paul Tergat. It was a shame he'd been through an hour earlier.

I have my moment after the finish line, paying the price of that adrenaline. A medical assistant insists that I have it elsewhere. She's missing the point a little. It feels like it's 80 degrees, and I need to be in the shadow of that arch. Sean is waiting up ahead, having arrived 80 seconds earlier and had his moment. The medal is great (and there's a ribbon). And suddenly you're a prince for a day. The citizens of NYC all walk up to you and congratulate you. Even the following day they spot the T-shirt and call out "looking good for the next day". It's almost like the world is a nice place. It's like watching the West Wing.

We visit the finish line again the next day. Never has a wood-covered scaffold looked so much like a roman arch. But, yes, dolorous about the clock. So here are the stats:
3:11:12 (PB). That's an average pace of 7'17". I threw a good 6'30" in somewhere in Brooklyn, but a couple around 7:45 in Manhattan, and only one precisely on the 6'52" I was aiming for. I came in 1183rd, including the world's elite. That's good enough for the first page of the New York Times results. Which is, in itself, some consolation.

I'm not typing in my splits, but if you've nothing better to do, you can watch a charming simulation of the pace at the following site:
http://www.ingnycmarathon.org/training/simulation.php
type in the following runner numbers for the runners you wish to simulate:
15332 -- this is me
45725 -- this is Sean
and "Paul Tergat"
You'll see us as dots running around the course. Paul is pretty fast.

Ok I'm slower than I think I should be. But I have more moral fibre than last week, and a place in Boston finally awaits. Many thanks to Nicky and Steve and Noah for their hospitality on the upper west side.

Joad