Sunday 3rd November 2019 will go down in my life as an incredibly momentous occasion. It was the day I became a marathoner! It is said that less than 1% of the population of the UK will run a marathon in their lifetimes, and I think I can only now truly understand why. So hereafter follows the story of the final week, and the ultimate accolade of the medal to prove it all wasn’t a dream…
After 15 weeks of training, I’m not sure either of us could believe that the day had finally arrived. It was certainly a week of countdowns! The trip to New York was on the Thursday, allowing two days for post-flight acclimatisation and hopefully not catching sniffles or worse along the way! I’d done my Tuesday and Wednesday runs of 4 miles and 3 miles respectively, and they were fine, if a bit unlike how I’d expected. I thought perhaps that at this point in tapering I’d feel ready to fly, but almost the reverse was true. My Tuesday run felt a bit like I was running for the first time!
Flying and travelling all day on Thursday (a total trip door to door of around 15 hours from Cambridge to our hotel in Manhattan, The Warwick) meant I skipped my scheduled Thursday run, but of course by then it didn’t really matter. It was by then all about just being rested and ready for the big day on the Sunday. Melanie chose to not run all week in fact, deciding that she needed the rest a lot more than what any training plan said, and also she went very much non-caffeine (inducing some initial headaches for her, unfortunately), non-alcohol, and carb loading to the tune of eat-pasta-for-every-meal. Good discipline!
I wasn’t quite so rigorous it has to be said, and just restricted myself to one glass of wine a day throughout (aren’t I good!), and I did eat a lot of pasta as well. A good thing too, as I love it, and we found a great restaurant in Manhattan called Pazza Note, which is highly recommended if you’re ever out that way (it’s on 6th and between 55th/56th for reference).
On the Friday we hit the expo at the Javits Center, a 3/4 million square foot convention centre in the Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan. All of the runners are required to go there to collect their bib/timing chip etc. We went early in the day to try to beat the crowds, but it was an absolute zoo! All together it took about 30 minutes of queuing (never my favourite pastime!) just to get into the doors of the event, and then it was like being in a rugby scrum to get close to any of the merchandise on display.
The crowds were a real shame as we’d looked forward to the expo with some excitement (and some impatience for me, I can’t help myself!!), but it was just too busy to really stop and take a meaningful look at anything. I still managed to spend $300 on ‘stuff’ though, some of I will wear, and also a mock cowbell (which can only be described as tat at best) which will only gather dust on a shelf somewhere, so they saw me (and many others like me, the queues at the tills were extreme too) coming!
There was one highlight at the expo however, and that was bumping into Paula Ratcliffe (as you do!) whom we both got a photo with. She was there to promote something or other, and seemed very obliging with the selfies for anyone who asked. Oh and I meant to say we also met David Weir, the multiple Paralympic champion, on the flight over, so it was a week of celebrities for us! Melanie also got his autograph in our New York Marathon book (he came third too in New York), so that’s a nice keepsake.
On the Saturday morning, before a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon sat relaxing watching the stage show of The Jersey Boys on Broadway ( a ‘must do’ in my book if you are ever in those parts!) we went for a little jog around Central Park to have a look at the last two miles or so of the course. We were both surprised just how undulating (I hesitate to use the word hilly, which it isn’t, but it certainly isn’t flat by a long stretch) it was, and made a mental note to be fearful of that factor when arriving at mile 26. The actual finish is uphill too – oh no! Being at the finish line though was great, with the rows of photos of past winners, and the finish line gantry and grandstands certainly all served to build up the excitement and magnitude of just how big this event is, the biggest marathon in the world. All of a sudden this thing seemed very real indeed!
After what can only be described as a fitful night’s sleep (in fact I was awake at 2am and never got back to sleep) it was time for the final leg of the journey to begin, and a pretty convoluted one it is too! The start of the marathon is on Staten Island, some 15 miles or so from Manhattan, and also reachable only by ferry for all 55,000 or so runners.
To do this involved a minibus ride to the ferry terminal, then the 30 minute ferry crossing, and then another coach on the Staten Island side to reach Fort Wadsworth, and the start of the enormous (two mile long) Verrazano-Narrows Bridge which forms the very first two miles of the course. The ferry ride was really cold, caused entirely by the fact that we chose to spend it on the open upper deck of the ferry to take in all of the sights of Manhattan and the Statue Of Liberty. Well you have to make the most of these things don’t you?
The journey to the start took probably two hours altogether, and then we waited until our ‘corral’ opened. In New York they start you in 4 Waves over a period of about two hours. I’d been put in Wave 2 and Melanie Wave 3, so I waited and went into Wave 3 as anyone can move back but not forwards as is often the way with these things. The whole area of the ‘start village’ looked like a scene from a refugee camp, as we were bedecked in charity shop clothing and multiple bin bags, all ready to throw away. We had hand warmers and gloves too, and needed them – it was bitingly cold in the wind, although it was to warm up to around 8 or 9 degrees C by the time we set out to actually run.
By the time the starting gun (actually a massive cannon) went off, there was almost a surreal hiatus when it didn’t even seem real at all. I’m sure tiredness and some not inconsiderable trepidation sunk in on my part, as I was about to after all step out into very much unchartered territory for me. No such first night nerves for Melanie of course as she’d been in this very position four times before.
But then, all of a sudden, the dulcet tones of Frank Sinatra singing New York New York came over the PA system, and it is definitely real now! We were shuffling (for not too long) to the start of a solid one mile long uphill on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, and this thing is happening! It really is time to focus as there is no going back now in every sense!!
Without describing every detail of the route of the marathon, which I could, as I literally feel like I can recount every turn, the whole thing was sensational. Amongst the standout features are not just the crowds (estimated at over 1 million people lining the route alone), but the diversity of the crowds. Passing through 5 boroughs, you see so much, and that’s even when like me you are trying desperately to only look in front of you and concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other.
After Staten Island, there was then Brooklyn with its now hipster communities (but loud!!) and also the gospel churches spilling out onto the roadside, all happy clappy and emotional. Into Williamsburg with its Hasidic Jewish community and a much more reverential feel. Then into once very gritty Queens, now ‘the new Brooklyn’, and affording probably the best views of all of Manhattan over the East River. Into Manhattan itself for a few miles over the fabled (and pretty tough) Queensboro Bridge on 59th Street, about which Simon & Garfunkel’s song (‘Feeling Groovy”) is named.
As I came down off the Queensboro Bridge I was fortunate enough to see my son Dan, who was standing with Sadi in a position they’d let me know about beforehand. I was so happy and emotional to see them, and they managed to capture the moment above. I had to regain my composure afterwards as I got such an incredible headrush from it, and had to remind myself that I had still 10 miles to run. This was such a fabulous moment though and was the highlight of the run :).
Then up First Avenue in Manhattan proper with a wall of tourists, before you get to The Bronx over another bridge, and you realise that you aren’t in Kansas anymore. The Bronx is nothing but full on, and gritty, and I consciously quickened my pace as I didn’t want to stop there for any reason whatsoever! Then the steel bands and music really started crossing from The Bronx into East Harlem, which was almost downright scary even if everyone was having a ball! There was also on one corner the biggest stage band you’ve ever seen, also playing New York New York, which made me very emotional indeed. Concentrate now, you’ve only got 5 miles to go! Then back over what is called ‘The last damn bridge’ after which followed a long long drag up a steady incline at the top of Fifth Avenue before heading into Central Park, and an absolute wall of people lining (a bit too close at times) the whole (damn!) park.
Central Park houses the last three miles of the run, and by now I was pretty sure I’d make it to the end at least! I definitely owed a lot of that to my shiny pink Vaporfly Next% shoes, which I have to say were an absolute revelation. They are so cushioned and gave my legs the ability to still have some gumption in them at the end. When the last mile came I was lucky enough to be able to just go for it, and ran my fastest mile of the whole day. When the finish line came I was totally exhilarated and emotional. It had been a long day, and long journey, and a bloody amazing four or five months of such intense effort all building up to it.
After the run the time it takes to get your medal and goody bag and post-race poncho (lovely and warm by the way, even if it never sees light of day again!) are seemingly interminable, and getting back into uptown Manhattan to meet Dan and Sadi took forever too. The beer afterwards was so enjoyable though!
I could go on forever about highlights and memories of the day, but one thing matters more than anything else, and that is that we did it! Being a marathoner is something that no-one can ever take away from me, and Melanie has now become a five time marathoner, and that is nothing short of incredible!
I owe everything about this run and this whole wonderful experience to Melanie, and it is completely dedicated to her. I would not have been there in the first place without her, and the inspiration (and a heck of a lot of perspiration!) along the way is all down to her too. We have run collectively around 1,200 miles over the last four months, put a huge amount of effort in, and had most importantly some amazing adventures and fun along the way. Marathons take dedication, willpower, sacrifices, and a huge amount of physical and mental fortitude in equal measure. Oh yes, and pasta, and digestive issues, and money, and lots of pairs of trainers, and vaseline!!
It’s now as I write this 10 days post-race, and the question I think I’ve been asked most following the marathon (other than “how was New York” and “did you enjoy it?”) is “have you signed up for the next one yet?”. Well Melanie reminded me just yesterday that in the immediate aftermath of the run (when she asked me the same question) I apparently said “never again” or words to that effect. I’ll say now though that I have the right to change my mind…..:)
I’ve loved doing my blog again during this adventure, and it’s been now nearly 10 years since I started it. There are lots more adventures to come, they are what life is about and what makes me me. The subtitle of my blog is “to travel, to experience and learn – that is to live”, the mantra of Sherpa Tenzing following his becoming the first human to stand on the summit of Mount Everest in 1953. Well I, and we, have lots more travel and experiences and learning to do. Watch this space…..