Off Track: Marathon Sunday or “How I Lazily Made My Way to the Finish Line”

Everyone has that one story they told once to a captive audience, the story where as you’re telling it you make a mental note: “This is my go-to story. This is how I will save parties when there’s a lull. I’ll be a savior. Everyone will love me and I’ll always be invited to everything because I’m the most popular person here. Look at all my fans, eating up my personal stories like they’re some kind of…good food. I’m gonna be famous!” This is not one of those stories. It does, however, start with the same anecdote I start it with every time I tell and retell it. I entered the lottery for the New York City Marathon in 2013 thinking I would never win because I never win anything. Of course, just my luck, the only contest I win is one where I’m charged $200+, have to physically train for months, and then run 26.2 miles in a day. That was the anecdote right there. It got a mild chuckle the first time I said it and now I’ve been chasing that chuckle ever since! Today being Marathon Sunday in all the boroughs of New York City, and a long stretch of the marathon running along the G line, I thought it would be a fun lil’ jaunt down memory lane to talk about the first, and very likely last, New York City Marathon I ever ran.

I’ve always had this weird desire burning in the deep far recesses of my brain to run a marathon. I was one of the worst runners on my high school cross-country and track teams, loved to watch TV and sit on the couch, recently battled cancer, ate like a 13-year-old boy whose parents were out of town for the weekend, and enjoyed a good alcoholic beverage or four. So you know, I was at peak physical fitness and totally thought entering my name in the lottery for the NYC marathon made a lot of sense. In my mind, I probably wouldn’t get in and if I did, well, I would cross that bridge when I’d get there. A few weeks after entering I received an email that said my name was selected and my debit card would be immediately charged a non-refundable entrance fee of over $200. So that bridge I would cross when I would get there – it was very quickly built, poorly I might add, over some white water rapids, and I would have to cross it or else it’s like, “Fuck, I just paid $200 for this dumbass bridge to cross this stupid ass marathon water, but I’m just gonna look at it and turn around and not even use the bridge. Shit.” I didn’t want that, so my fate was sealed. I began slowly crossing the bridge one very stubborn step at a time.

My first step was buying a training book meant for people who were couch potatoes trying to turn their lives around and not meld with their furniture. The obvious solution: running 26.2 miles. “Try to confuse us with an armchair as we run by you at mile 19!” was the tag line. It wasn’t, but that’s what I was thinking and what kept me going. While my training book offered tons of motivational words of wisdom from people who’ve done marathons before, trained using this method, or professional athletes, the only motivation I needed was from my friends, family, enemies, and strangers. I don’t meant that in a sappy way, I mean that in an antagonistic way, which was exactly what this Beyoncé loving, non-athlete needed, because “I twirl on my haters.” No one really took me seriously at first when I told them I was running a marathon. “You know that involves running, right?” “It’s not marathon viewings of Breaking Bad.” “How many times did you almost suffer from deep vein thrombosis last week from sitting in one place for too long staring into space?” The answer to that last question was always none because I love to give myself very amateur and painful massages. Really keeps the blood flowing. Once people started to believe me that I was really doing this, they started to actually believe in me. One friend admitted to me, “Yeah, you just…do things. If someone else said they were going to run a marathon, or quit their job, go on a cross country road trip, ‘figure it out,’ and then move to South Korea, I’d humor them, but wouldn’t believe them. But with you…you always seem to just do it.” And if you’re wondering, I did all those things (stories for another time). That’s the second time it clicked and became real to me. I was running a marathon. The first was when I checked my bank account and saw that yes, I am now officially broke, and the second was when my usually lovingly antagonistic support system became just plain old lovingly supportive. So now that people believed in me, I had to do it.

My training regimen told me to pick realistic goals that I could meet throughout the weeks leading up to the marathon. The first goal I set for myself was to run to my brothers apartment. It was six stops away from mine on the G at the time, so it felt far. The thing about living in the city and taking public transportation everywhere is your sense of how far away things truly are gets a little warped. I thought I wouldn’t be able to get there until week three of training if I was lucky. I got there on week one. It was like 2 miles away. Not that far in the marathon-sized scheme of things. I thought to myself, “Wow! I’m really meeting my #goals!” So I kept my goals low and continued to suck at training.

Because I kept my running #goals light and manageable, I decided to up the #goals ante in other departments. One goal: go ahead and order the chicken fingers and beer, but feel really guilty about it. Another goal: try to figure out by trial and error and many multiple purchases if your boobs were made to stuff into a sports bra. A third goal: determine that no, your boobs are pain and women are apparently not meant to do anything. Yet. Another. Goal: write an angry letter addressed simply to “the patriarchy.” Place it under your pillow and kiss it every night before bed. You can’t shake the feeling that this will feel important and timely at some future date, but your 2013 brain can’t understand why that is. Great marathon training #goal! More #goal: buy running shoes.

It finally got to the point where I had exhausted all possible “goals” that didn’t really have to do with running and had to focus on the running part of training. I was nearing 10 miles, the farthest I had ever run were I to achieve it. So I decided to make a new goal: try eating those weird goop-y pouches runners eat to give them energy. I tried. The chocolate flavor was gross and chalky and I almost threw up. I ran 10 miles. And not long after that I tripped while crossing the street in some platform sandals and injured the top of my foot.

It hurt to touch it, it hurt to bend it. With only a handful of weeks left, I saw my chances of completing my training and running the marathon slip away. I had been fundraising for Team in Training with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, if I didn’t run would all my backers think I was a bum, a zero, an F minus? I mean, sure, the money would still go to cancer research, but what about people paying attention to me while I ran? Why did I have to injure myself in the very unglamorous way of wearing impractical shoes because I thought they looked pretty? For fucks sake, on one of my training runs I ran a block and tripped over a cinder block and fell into the street and got all bloody and that only stopped me for the night because I had to go home and wash the cinder block out of my open wounds. What would become of the dreams I didn’t know I had? I decided to take a week to heal, look inward (sit and watch TV), and reflect (look at myself in the mirror and try out different hair-do’s).

After a week, and with only a few weeks left to train, I got back out there with several of my newfound goals (read: new purchases) in tow. I was now armed with a utility belt I could put disgusting goop into, along with pockets for water bottles. I had an arm band I could put my iPod into so I could listen to Beyoncé while I ran (yeah, I had an iPod. Let’s fight). Since it was now approaching November, I bought a headband to keep my ears warm while my hair was back. Look at me, ma, a well-outfitted runner. In the remaining weeks of my training I never ran more than 10 miles.

It was marathon week and the realization that I hadn’t even run the equivalent of a half marathon was sinking in. I got my registration packet with my number, some swag (yolo!), and a booklet with helpful marathon tips and info. I flipped to a random page, maybe 30 or so pages in, and read “some runners like to take baby aspirin to avoid sudden death.” I maintain to this day that if sudden death is a possibility while running the marathon and baby aspirin is the cure, that should’ve been in all caps, bold font on the cover of the information booklet. It also said to eat salt throughout the race and not switch up your routine from training. If you ate goop while training, eat goop during the race. So I heeded most of their advice. I bought some baby aspirin, I went to Pret a Manger and stole some salt packets, and marathon day I changed my routine completely.

The day of the race, I woke up early to catch a ferry to Staten Island where the marathon began. I had trained well…at setting realistic #goals, so I had set one for my marathon run: run hard enough to justify calling out sick from work the next day, but slow enough where I could still have the energy to celebrate with a beer or four at a bar afterward. That was what I was setting out to achieve, with my packets of salt and baby aspirin. At the base of the Verrazano Bridge, I remembered the tip “don’t switch up your routine.” Before running I had only ever had water and goop, but on marathon day they had set up stations with coffee and bagels and more swag. I also remembered one of those inspirational quotes in my training guide: “Listen to your body.” My body in that moment was saying, “You’re tired from getting up so early and bagels are delicious.” So I got a coffee and bagel. I was off to a great start. It was almost my scheduled start time, so I shed my top layer that I was leaving in a donation pile along with everyone else’s top layers they wouldn’t be running in. I had heard about writing your name on the shirt you were wearing during the marathon, which I had done the night before. Not really knowing what the purpose of it was, I wrote it on the back of my jersey, but as I approached the starting line, I noticed that everyone else’s names were written on their front. I quickly learned that it was so people along the marathon route could scream out your name as you ran towards them to keep you motivated and pumped. No one would be screaming out unless they knew me. A swing and a miss. I would have to dig down deep and hope people I knew would be along the route to cheer me on. I had told everyone to come, and the night before had a spaghetti party and people assured me they would be there, but what if they were distracted by a delicious looking brunch?

It was too late to dwell on it and looking up at the Verrazano it was the final time it really hit me: you’re fucking running the marathon. It was crowded and a slow start but it started. Running across the Verrazano, I put my headphones in, ready to listen to some music like I did while training. But before I could press play I heard someone scream my name behind me. “Oh, I guess people running the race will cheer me on,” I thought. Then someone ran right up next to me and someone I went to high school with was running alongside me, seeing my name on the back of my jersey. A swing and a…point. We started running together, I told him how my training had been going, our conversation took the logical turn of talking about Homeland, which at the time was still a relevant show (although going downhill quick) and pointing out that the terrorists all use Skype seemed like a fresh observation. I figured at some point he would take off in front of me, but we kept running together, catching up after years of not seeing each other. I told him to look out for my boyfriend who told me where he was going to be standing, holding a picture of our cat he hand printed from the computer. He was at the mile marker he said he would be at and every subsequent mile marker he said he would be at, winning MVP in the category of “cheer.” My newfound running mate and I compared notes about who would be there as support and where we expected to see them. At one point, we ran right by two of my friends from high school that were there to cheer me on, and my running friend said, “Wasn’t that [name redacted]?” I looked back, and there they were, scanning the crowd not realizing that I had just run by. I screamed their names and they waved, a little confused to see me running with someone they also knew but we hadn’t seen in years. All they could get out was: “You’re not supposed to be screaming our name, we’re supposed to be screaming yours!” Oops. Every few miles when I saw my boyfriend and the print out of our cat I would check in to see where other cheerleaders of mine were. My sister and brother and some friends and in-laws and strangers would be at this mile. This friend keeps missing me. So and so and such and such are by McCarren Park. Whenever I would get to them, just where my boyfriend said they would be, they would always be there screaming, singing, jumping, braying. Holding signs that ran the gamut from creative to…a print out of my cat. At one point I was looking at the spectators at the exact right moment and saw one of my friends running alongside me on the sidewalk. It was in Greenpoint and too packed to make it more than just a half of a block, but watching her frantically try to stay with me while timidly pushing people out of the way felt like a scene from a movie that doesn’t exist.

I passed Dough where I was hoping they would be handing out doughnut samples for the runners. I had been telling my high school running mate about the doughnut place for miles, I was really hoping they wouldn’t let me down. There weren’t free doughnut samples, which in hindsight was probably for the best. My new running companion cheered me up by remarking that there were so many people on the street handing out orange slices and gatorade and bananas it was like we were trick or treating, but for hours in the middle of the day in November. I really liked that idea and finally at mile 13.1, a half marathon distance, I turned to my new/old friend and told him he had to keep running ahead. This was the farthest I had ever run ever in my life. I hadn’t stopped once. I was mixing up my routine left right and center. I was latching onto this trick or treating theory like my life depended on it, I didn’t want to hold him back and the halfway point being a bridge I made the snap decision to walk all the bridges and run all the boroughs. He made sure I was okay and kept running. Then as soon as I set foot in Queens, I ran again.

Friends I had yet to see were right over the bridge in Queens. A co-worker who wasn’t even there for me spotted me, screamed in my face, took a video and sent it to everyone in our office. I drank a Gatorade, had some salt, kept trucking. None of this was normal. Crossing over into Manhattan, I had still yet to see my wife. Yeah, that’s right, I have a boyfriend and a wife. It’s 2017, get with the times. My boyfriend had met up with me soon after I crossed into Manhattan. “She’s at mile 19!” he screamed, already knowing what I was going to ask. I was nearing mile 19, my energy was fading a little, and suddenly I hear U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” and I saw my wife, flanked by two of our best friends who were actually married (my wife and I are not actually married. Again, it’s 2017. Keep up). I am so indifferent to U2 but something about having run 19 miles, finally seeing some of the best people in the world screaming my name and that power anthem guitar, I just started jumping up and down and ran so fast over to them and acted like a complete buffoon. It wasn’t smart, but it felt right in the moment.

After leaving them, I felt energized. A man in the marathon was eating a pizza while propelling himself forward with his feet while he sat in a wheelchair. None of this was normal. Some men were dressed like fire fighters. Writing my name on the back of my jersey, while at one point seemed like a rookie mistake, proved a stroke of unintended genius. Not only did I get to run with someone who essentially made it possible for me to break my own personal record by distracting me from my own limits, but other runners kept coming up to me during the race and asking if I knew the score. For awhile, I thought I was being pranked, akin with someone giving you too much tuna in a sandwich at a deli. What you might not know about me is that I also share a name with a city that apparently was playing some big sports match/game during the marathon. Thinking that I was showing pride in that city and cheering on “other sport,” I spent the second half of my race being asked every 15 minutes if I knew the score. I started just making it up. “4-72. Our boys or girls are really making a good show of it out there on that grass court. So many points in the goal hoop.”

I was closing in on Central Park, I saw my roommate who I didn’t think would be able to make it at mile 24. I heard my sister was running through the fields in Central Park trying to catch me after making bad public transportation choices (we all later joked that we no longer wanted to do the Amazing Race with her. But honestly, I’ll fucking do it with anyone). Everyone was convening near the finish line, my brother and sister in law being the closest to the actual finish as it was near impossible to get through for security reasons. I crossed the finish line, assessing my situation quickly. I decided that, yes, I can get beer, yes I am sore, I met my #goals. The sun set while I was trying to navigate my way through the exit from Central Park, what felt like an additional mile and a half. Because I had stopped moving and the sun was gone, my temperature dropped by leaps and bounds and I suddenly couldn’t feel my feet and hands. I knew my cheerleaders were somewhere close so I just started screaming names of people I had seen over the last 26.2 miles. I could hear people screaming my name in reply and eventually I just thought, fuck it, I just ran a marathon, and to quote Beyoncé, “I’m a grown woman, I can do whatever I want,” and cut through the roped off corralling area and found my friends. We were looking for a bar to celebrate, I couldn’t feel my extremities, I was convinced my toenails had fallen off. None of this was normal, My sister in law was concerned when I asked if my hand was making a fist or not inside my gloves because I couldn’t feel them, so after finding a bar she located a local seller of those foot and hand heating pouches. She bought so many that I still have some and they’re probably expired and not good to keep around. Somehow, the fates aligned and we found the one bar that was a block away from the marathon, was virtually empty, and was playing almost exclusively Beyoncé. I got the feeling in all of my parts back, I still had all my toenails, and because you don’t run on your shoulders, I was able to pop my shoulders to the beat of all of Beyoncé’s hits. When the adrenaline wore off several hours later, I hobbled into a cab. I truly did it. I really was too sore to go to work the next day.

I have not run a marathon since then, but I set a new #goal for myself. I made it while running the marathon and seeing everyone along the way cheering on people they knew or didn’t know or just screaming indiscriminately at the heavens. I want to be one of those people (preferably one of them sitting down with a beer at a outdoor bar). Today’s marathon was the closest I ever got to reaching my goal, but seeing everyone run by, I was so overcome with inexplicable emotions that I had to remove myself before people asked me if I was okay, or more realistically if I was physically unwell. In short, I learned a lot from the marathon, but apparently I didn’t learn enough, because I’m re-entering the lottery. Fingers crossed I don’t win.

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