“Running your first marathon is like the first time you have sex,” Katherine Switzer told me and six other Women’s Sports Foundation marathoners, just weeks before we would toe the line on Staten Island for the 2017 TCS New York City Marathon. “You never forget the first time.” She didn’t say it, but I would expect many marathon runners to extend that metaphor to include deep emotional feelings, points of discomfort, extreme bliss, and, perhaps, a few moments we wish we could forget.
You may recall that I never actually wanted to run a marathon. “Good for them, not for me” was my motto on that front. I could wrap my head around why someone would want to run a marathon, I just knew that it wasn’t going to be my gig. To be honest, over the course of my 26.2, I proved myself right in many ways.
But, in a few beautiful, distinct ways, I also proved myself wrong.
First, there was the weeping.
It was the good kind, the I-can’t-believe-that-there-is-this-much-good-in-humanity weeping that only happens when you experience massive, organic forms of kindness. The first time I cried during the marathon was a few miles in. We were coming off of the Staten Island Bridge, where three different lanes of thousands of people come together to enter Brooklyn. At first, I felt irked by the traffic. With only about 13 inches of space in front or behind me, and no inches to my sides, I felt claustrophobic and upset that I couldn’t run as fast as I wanted.
Then I realized that I was in a sea of tens of thousands of people, of all different shapes, sizes, backgrounds, and athletic abilities. Together. Running a marathon. It felt so impactful, so important to be running with these strangers that I burst into tears. I really wanted to tell my grandmother about it. That made me cry more.
A while later, we ran through Queens. Church choirs spilled onto the streets and I high-fived dozens of hands. Hypochondria aside, it was then that I realized that I would probably never go another day where I touched hundreds of human hands. Where I would ever want to touch so many strangers, have them reach out to me as a sign of support and solidarity. Enter tears, phase two.
Next came the Queensboro Bridge. Separating the 15th and 16th mile, the bridge is notorious for its ability to cause pain and squash dreams. Uphill most of the way (ok, only halfway, because it’s bridge, but it sure felt like most of the way!), Queensboro also has zero spectators. After 25K of running a course lined with tens of thousands of spectators, it’s the first and only time where you’re alone with your thoughts. Things can get dark.
But then, as you begin descending towards 1st Avenue, you pick up on a dull roar. Approaching the end of the bridge, that dull roar morphs into a wall of sound. In my case, it was upon bursting through that wall that I learned that Shalane Flanagan had won the race, becoming the first American woman to do so in 40 years. People waved American flags, there was high-fiving, and cheering, (and, in my case, speeding up). There were also more tears, but I wasn’t the only one.
After the weeping, there was the cheering.
Admittedly, I was a little too nonchalant about my first marathon. I figured that because millions of people run marathons each year, it wasn’t really a big deal. After my run, I now understand that because millions of people run marathons–take time, commit to training, push themselves to accomplish an athletic goal–they are a really big deal.
And in running the New York City marathon, I feel I made millions of new friends.
First, it was the outpour of advice from every corner of my family, friends, and internet. “Run most of your distance runs on pavement,” said a friend, who I ignored. “The course is a lot hillier than you think it will be,” said this guy, who turned out to know what he was talking about. “You’re still probably fit from cross country skiing, you won’t have to train that much,” offered a complete stranger. (Yeah, that guy I listened to.)
And, on course, whether I felt like a rockstar or could barely keep running, I had the support of 2.5 million spectators and 10,000 volunteers to keep me going. In some ways, I’ve never felt so recognized. I had never felt so proud to be racing for the sake of racing. I was shocked and humbled to feel that way. Turns out, this was a big deal.
I learned as much double-fold when I experienced the great humbling.
When I started the race, I knew that I was underprepared. I had never run longer than 20 or so miles, and definitely had never done so on pavement. When we started going, I felt amazing. How could I not? I was running in one of the biggest races on the planet, for a cause I believed in, surrounded by 2 million or so of my closest friends.
Around 25K (yeah, sorry, we’re using the metric system here), the wheels started to fall off. True, 1st Ave brought me an athletic renaissance, where I saw friends and danced and had snacks. That part was good, albeit brief. After that, there were no wheels but rather those big, creaking, uneven, stone circles that preceded the invention of the wheel. Everything began to hurt from the inside out and back in again. I didn’t know if I had to go to the bathroom, sit down, eat, drink, or run faster. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced, and I had experienced some serious athletic pain. And, I was only at 35K (just over 21 miles).
Thus began an internal dialogue that managed to silence the roaring crowds. “Don’t walk,” I told myself. “Don’t walk.” “Don’t walk.” I managed not to walk, and only stopped to hug a friend (definitely worth it) before continuing to wiggle-jog my way up 5th Avenue. (Weeks before, when I ran 5th Ave for the first time, I didn’t really think it was uphill. Turns out, after 20 miles, that thing is a death climb). I feigned a smile for the folks in Central Park, and coaxed myself up inclines and around corners until I could hear the announcer at the finish line.
And that’s when I nearly stopped. Because when I heard the announcer, I was about 400 meters from the finish. When I heard the announcer, I was just passing the 26-mile mark, the point for which I had been yearning for the past hour. I nearly stopped because I had little energy left in me, and I thought I would be done.
That is my best piece of advice for anyone who wants to run a marathon: do not forget the .2!
Despite my internal drama, I made it to that finish line. I collected my medal, ate some snacks, threw them back up, and waddled through the finish area. In the three weeks since, I’ve reflected on so many different parts of that race, none of which can be summed up in any length blog.
Whether or not I choose do another marathon (right now we’re thinking not), I’m sure glad I did this one. Although it was completely different from what I’d ever done, it brought back a familiar feeling of being part of something bigger than myself, on a massive scale. In the form of a marathon or otherwise, I think it’s in my best interest to seek that feeling more often.
Besides, it sure was a great way to see the city.