Tuesday, 7 November 2006

New York 5 November 2006

Last Sunday the New York Marathon was run by a record number of 38,368 runners, of whom I was one. It was a perfect day, crisp and autumnal, bright at times, cool and clear. The elite men wore arm warmers, but they must have problems with body fat.

John Beech, a expatriate Brit in NYC, and I have no such problems. At 8:30 we were lying on a blanket at Ford Wadsworth, on Staten Island, resting legs and looking at the sky, wondering if it was going to warm up. Helicopters circled overhead. Around us thousands of men and women stretched their calves, ate pretzels, smeared themselves with vaseline. We'd followed the now time-honoured tradition of going to the start via the Staten Island Ferry. There's something calming about water before a big run; and the Statue of Liberty presages what you're up against over the next 26 miles; and the ferry has toilets, unlike the buses. Everyone sits on benches fiddling with their runners' numbers, and it's quiet and peaceful, like the night before Christmas.

We check that everything's ready. Why isn't my watch working? I try turning it on again. It's dead. I have no watch. How am I going to know ... I was planning on using it to pace myself (it's a GPS watch). It's really dead. I don't have a way of seeing what time it is, let alone how fast I'm going. I'm a runner without a watch. It's just as well that I have a nike wristband with my target splits.

What's my target? Well, on the plane the Scottish guy next to me asked me this, so I told him it was under three hours, "about 2:58". I don't know why I said that. I pictured his rotund wife in the stands at the finish line tutting me as I drooled past in 3:11. But then it happened again. I was at the expo looking at the Nike people doing something with a computer and some yellow stretchy fabric. They asked if I wanted a pace band, and, when I sceptically asked if they did sub-3:00 hours they invited me to name my time. So I could hardly say 2:59.59 at that point, so I said 2:58. There was a faint rationale there: I wanted to run the middle miles at about 6'46", which would leave me on target to go under three hours with a couple of minutes in the bank at miles 22. Nonetheless, it wasn't true and this parapraxis was beginning to trouble me. So in the frenzy of Fort Wadsworth I have a very fashionable wristband with target splits and no watch.

The start on the Verrazano Narrows bridge is a pragmatic requirement: you have to place your foot on Staten Island in order to run in all five boroughs, but that foot is firmly directed towards leaving it as quickly as possible over a vast double-decker bridge. 38000 runners cause that bridge to sway in the wind, and it's a traffic jam from start to finish. We lie as thick on the bridge as the autumn leaves at Vallombrosa, blown here from the four corners of the earth. But if you turn your head to the left ... you see over the ships in the upper bay to the Manhattan skyline, and it's hard to reconcile that elegant verticality with the horizontal crush of heavy-breathing Italians who span the bridge from side to side moving painfully slowly. But as soon as you're over the bridge you hit the first bank of spectators, all riled up from having seen Tergat and Ramaala and Brazilians and rabbits fly past five minutes earlier.

This is a great race. New Yorkers want you to have a good time. They want you to leave saying it's a great city. They're out there cheering for Frank and Xavier, but, more than in any other race I've done including London, they're out there cheering for you. They want you to run faster. They want you to have a good time. They're not just onlookers, but participants in a spectacle. In Brooklyn that means laying on bands, and orthodox Jewish girls handing out sweets and giggling in anticipation of Lance; on first avenue ... we'll come to first avenue later.

Lance I see at 4.5 miles. Or, rather, I have to dodge a truck with a camera and an outrider on a motorbike who's himself dodging runners. As soon as I pass it things clear up a bit. I check out the guys who are in front of the camera and there's a little guy in a green shirt and a bunch of other guys wearing yellow. The crowd are all bananas and cheers. Lance is behind me, even after his doubtless pole position on the bridge. Shortly after I see my friend John B, who's had the distinction of a local elite start. I pass him after we exchange a few words: he has a different race plan, which involves running slowly for the first half and then legging it for the last ten miles. It's a very silly plan. And he's not running slowly in any case ... so now he's trying to slow down ... It's good to see him though, among the crowd.

The first five k are slowish because of the bridge and the crush of the crowd, but the next five k more than make up for that ... I've run 10k races slower. And half marathons. Of course I scarcely know what all this means, as not only do I lack a watch, but I'm completely unable to read the nike wristband, which is printed in 6 point type. It's just a blur, even when I place my finger on it and try to point to the numbers like a mouthing 4-year old. But I know that 1:28 something was the prudent half-marathon time for a 2:58 marathon in NYC (because the second half is more difficult than the first), and so I know that something is up when the clock at the half marathon point seems to say 1:26 something. And I'm not feeling half bad.

The miles in Queens (13.5-15.5) involve looping around warehouses. It's the only remotely desolate stretch, and oddly dull. You keep on seeing the Queensborough bridge and failing to reach it. Then there's the bridge itself, a notorious trial at 15-16 miles when you quads are beginning to tighten. I slow right down there, and try to pick it up again on the descent. It's eerie: for a hundred metres or so there are no lights ... it's actually dark, so dark you can't see the ground. You hope there are no bodies underfoot. Out there to the left is the manhattan skyline, and you're alone (the pack has truly thinned at this point), and it's perfectly still and quiet. Until you hit the bottom, and you're flattened by a wall of noise. It's deafening. It's actually frightening. Goosebumps and all you turn a corner into first avenue and the crowd are screaming for you to go on. If they see your name on your shirt they will call it. There are millions of them. New York has a reputation for being a hard course, but that doesn't account for the crowd factor: obviously the elite get it wherever they are, but for us mid-packers the exceptional support support can lift or drag you along.

Still, there's something desolate about that long stretch up first avenue (16-nearly 20). This wasn't to be my problem today, however. Somewhere around mile 18 I feel a discomfort in my bowels. The discomfort grows. I slow. I drink some more, but it's still there. I realise that I'm facing a Grete Waitz moment. My friend Dean Johnson warned me about this. He's been very concerned about sphincter control during long runs since -- he tells me -- Grete Waitz lost control in the early stages of the New York marathon. Thereafter the camera only showed her about the waist. A friend of his who lived in Brooklyn observed the grim reality. She didn't stop and went on to win. I faced a dilemma ... except I wasn't going to win, and I was slowing badly anyway. If it had been the last mile my decision might have been quite different: I dived for a toilet. Surprisingly I wasn't the first person who'd used it. These things are never palatial. What's worse is that I couldn't get my shorts off. The power gels in the back make them bounce, so I'd tied the waist tightly at the start, and now they won't come down and I can't untie them. Eventually I wiggle them off ... oddly I've never read anything about this in any of the training manuals. Then I wiggle them on again.

So a minute or so later I'm back on first avenue, and trying to pick up the speed again in the face of the horrible reality of seeing the backs of people I'd passed miles earlier. I pass them and pass them, but the task seems endless. What's worse is that the noise behind me seems momentarily to have picked up. I shake it off and keep accelerating. But someone seems to have caught up with me. We head into the Bronx. There locals shout "Welcome to the Bronx" over and over. About a mile later we're back in the right borough, and heading around Marcus Garvey park -- and now I know Lance is back there. His motorcycle keeps on dodging behind and in front of me. I can't figure out if he's trying to shove me out of the way. I figure out that if they want to go faster then they can go around me: I'm sticking to the dotted blue line. I push harder but the bike won't go away. Mile 23 comes up and I see that have to keep going at about 7 minute mile pace and I'll break three hours. But I can't tell how fast I'm going. And anyway, my ability to perform simple mental arithmetic deserted me even before the Pulaski bridge into Queens. Right at the spot where last year I heard the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun" a man with a mike welcomes my shadow like a compeer ("and now someone you'll recognise, seven times ...") He's on my heel like a blister. And I can't go any faster. This wastes a lot of adrenalin. As we leave Harlem (c. 22.5) and turn into fifth avenue he passes me, entourage, LanceCam and all -- it's like a royal progress -- and moves slowly into the distance, up the torturous ascent of fifth avenue.

Steve and Nicky and Noah are on the left on fifth avenue. I'm not so cheerful at this point. I wave limply at Noah. Steve runs with me for ten or so blocks, which makes me feel much better and keeps up my pace. I hand him my now sweat-drenched luminous gloves, which is a little unkind. But it means that I look a little less like Korky the Clown. I just have to get to the top of this hill, I say to him, which was probably exactly what I said last year during the same routine. He leaves me when it gets a bit tight, and shortly after the road turns right into central park. And I realise that Lance has stopped gaining on me. He's about 150 metres ahead. We hit 24 miles and at that point I count my numberless blessings one by one: 1. There are only 2.2 miles left. 1. some of them are downhill. 1. I've done this before. 1. Lance is only 150 metres ahead. Whatever crystalline structures have formed in my muscles begin to melt, and new movement is released. Half a mile later Lance is way behind me and I won't see him again. However he's redefined a good time for this marathon at least: usually the target for reasonably fast runners is to beat 3 hours: today it's to beat Lance, which shaves 24 seconds off the 3 hour mark.

The last mile and a half, along Central Park South, around Columbus Circle and up the park drive is pure pleasure. Even when my right calf seizes up and I can no longer place my heel on the floor: for a couple of hundred metres I have to bounce on my toes on that foot, which probably looks quite strange to anyone not feeling what I'm feeling, and risks falling flat on my face. I pass dozens of people on this stretch, which is always a great motivator. The finish at New York is preceded by plenty of signs indicating that you have half a mile, 800 years, four hundred, three hundred to go. But it's all feeling pretty good, and I'm running, and that's something I know I can do. There's nothing like those last few hundred steps when you're flying and can feel no pain. The most famous finish line in the world looks great, and sounds overwhelming too.

I see the clock: it's not yet reached 2:59. The finish has three arches: the stewards are steering most runners into the right hand side, but for some reason one guides me into the central bay. I pass the line at about 2:59:10 (knowing I have a few seconds in hand, as it took me a while to cross the start line). Then I crash into the bank of photographers. I bounce back off them and stare at them. They won't let me through into the finish area. And they're looking annoyed. If it wasn't feeling so damn cheerful I would have cursed them. So I stare at them and one of them tells me to get out of the way ... I'm blocking their Lance-shot. Are they expecting me to turn around and walk back over the finish line? Then someone takes my arm and leads me through them. They're still looking pissy.

It's great what Lance is doing, but there's more than one person running this race. (And I realise afterwards, watching the TV coverage of Lance finishing 50 seconds behind me, that i) the camera missed me by a couple of seconds, and ii) only two people were in that finish area to guide me through, and they were Mary Wittenberg and Michael Bloomberg. I'm sorry I didn't pay more attention to that hand.)

Medal and so on follow ... and swapping stories. You're in the finish area, overwhelmed and on the verge of tears, so you have to swap stories. A Japanese guy bounces past me "personal best, personal best, under three hours, and in new york". He says the same to half a dozen other people, looking faintly delirious. I speak with a guy with one arm whom I passed right at Columbus circle. He's happy having run under three hours. Apparently he did an Ironman triathlon two weeks earlier. You learn some perspective on these occasions, and some awe and humility. Another guy who's 54 has run 24 marathons all under three hours. This one he took easy and ran with Lance: "Some marathons you remember because you got a PB or had a great race, others because you ran them with Lance Armstrong and Alberto Salazar."

Running on the same course with Paul Tergat and Jelena Prokopchuka and Catherine Ndereba is dizzying -- road racing is the only sport in which you get directly to compete against the greatest in the world -- but being able to run alongside and pass Salazar, Joan Benoit Samuelson and Hicham el-Guerrouj (who joined Lance at 20 miles) seeds your blood.

I meet John Beech at the end ... he's run just over 2:56 ... he must have passed me during my ignominious toilet break. We had both been looking for each other. My clock time turns out to be 2:58.46, a pace of 6'49". I came 795th overall, 752nd among men. I walked around the streets, bought some flowers, smiled a great deal, went back to Nicky and Steve's and had a cold bath. We ate Mexican and I drank two margaritas. These things are important.

They say New York is a tough course, and the pros come in 4-5 mins slower than their best. And presumably it's twice as hard when you have sphincter-control issues. But you run the race you run, on the tarmac, not on your watch, and (despite the absurd positive split, i.e. the second half being ridiculously slower than the first) that was a good race. The crowd make up for the eerie silence and pain of the bridges. The autumn leaves -- still richly painting the skies in this mild autumn -- and the wonders of NYC architecture compensate for the gradients. You're not in Peterborough. And it's not so slow when you run a good race. And the secret? Run without a watch. I've never taken so much pleasure in a race before (and this regardless of the result), and I enjoyed it all the more for watching the streets rather than my splits, listening to my pulse tick rather than the seconds, feeling the crowd rather than my target pace.

I hope I don't sound too much like Gwynneth Paltrow. Photos at the link below:
I hope to see more of you next year.


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