I am hit by the scene that waits for me as I turn the corner and make my way up the first part of the bridge slope. Manhattan appears in the distance against a mainly blue sky, beckoning us to reach it. The struts and cables of the bridge climb high above us as we start to dodge discarded jackets, gloves and hats from owners long gone. The uphill is nothing as we excitedly chat in our mini team of five.
I strip off to reveal my pink charity vest and shyly fall in behind the line of four blues, but immediately get noticed. That embarrassment out of the way, I stride on without a care. We say hello to Larry the Lighthouse as we overtake him, one of the few in fancy dress here. He’ll need all the luck he can get, I think.
The first of the real crowd appear, and we congratulate ourselves for keeping a great pace. Maybe four and a half hours is easily on. I run near the middle so don’t give people a chance to see my name on my shirt, written as it is within a Union Jack. No matter, I’ll need the support much further on. The Deloitte girls running with us beam their smiles and pick up a few shouts of “Mallory!” and “Go Amanda!”, much to their obvious delight. Three miles in and we reach our first drinks stop, not before time. I grab a Gatorade and wonder whether how much I should drink every mile. The sticky yellow liquid splashes all down my top and over my face as I attempt to keep running whilst drinking. If there is an art for this, I have not mastered it yet. As the four mile marker appears I comment on how that was the easiest four miles of our lives and everyone agrees. We’re going strong and looking (relatively, given my attire) good.
The pain starts
After all the concern over my knee and my ITB, it’s my calves that are starting to show the strain. The niggle in my left calf I feared might flare up is indeed proving problematic. Both legs are now tightening, and I just hope that they will either ease or not get much worse; there are many more miles to go.
We pass through eight miles and everyone is happy. I resist telling the other four how much pain I have, though, not wanting to put a dampener on it.
The girls shoot off to see something or someone, and soon it’s just me and Steve. Without the support and enthusiasm of the others, I wonder how we’ll fare.
“Bit of an uphill here,” I remark, looking forward then backwards. A pause as Steve contemplates this information.
“Oh cheers. I hadn’t noticed until you said that.”
He shoots me a stare and I learn my lesson.
I cheer at 10 miles, and prepare for the next ten. So far, not bad, and the pace is good. I don’t celebrate 13 miles, however – who wants to be reminded: “You know how bad you feel right now? Guess what? You have to DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN!”
The 15 mile marker provides a slight respite for my tired legs.
“That’s it,” I say, “This is now officially the furthest I’ve run in ten years!”
“You shouldn’t say that!” Steve replies, explaining that announcing taking yourself into new territory feeling this bad with so far to go wasn’t my best idea in the world. No matter, I thought. Any little victory was worth it.
We enter Queensboro Bridge, fully prepared for a tough test. We’d heard the stories, but were promised a cacophony of sound on our exit.
It wasn’t as dark as we’d been told, but soon the bridge swallowed us and took us into its stomach. I didn’t notice the uphill as much as the change in the environment. With no crowd, we were on our own. Silence surrounds us from all angles – were we in a vacuum? No-one talked, and it was only when I picked up the thud-thud of our trainers did I know I wasn’t deaf. I considered shouting something random, something encouraging or pro-England, but the bridge demons swept inside me and beat any positive thoughts back down.
We reach halfway on the bridge and start our descent. I decide that it would be a good time to capture some of this on video, having lugged my mobile phone all this way. I decide to be positive in it, a multimedia two-fingered salute to the bridge, at least. I activate the camera, shoot at Steve for a few words and then turn it on to myself for some interesting camera viewpoints. I keep it rolling for the reception we’re about to receive on our exit from the bridge; I can hear the noise as we approach and our legs gain a little more energy.
Was that it? We leave somewhat underwhelmed at the crowd’s reaction when we finally reached them. The bridge was pretty grim and I’d hope for a better wall of noise to move me than we got. Maybe they’d seen too many runners already. Maybe they were hungry. Maybe we expected too much. Still, a notorious hard part of the New York Marathon was over and we were back in the sun.
Insane positive thinking
“This is easy,” I say out loud to Steve as we run up a long hill. He doesn’t understand. “I love this hill! It’s a piece of cake!”
I don’t really love this hill, it’s a killer. My legs want to stop, my feet want to stop, my whole body knows this is so goddam pointless just going forward like this when I can just stop and take a rest. 99% of my brain agrees with it and is hovering over the stop button. But the 1% I have trained just for this very moment is in control – the part where it starts spewing out all the random positive message it knows cannot possibly be true. However, it seems to be working. The bands are playing, the crowd cheering and with a big chunk of the marathon already behind me I fool myself for a minute that things are good. I run up to a British woman and have a quick chat before she moves back towards her partner. Everyone seems focused now, the joy and newness of the run left far behind.
We reach another fluid station and I slow to a walk to grab a cup.
“Keep going Andy!” a helper says as she cheerfully hands me a cup of life. I am surprisingly moved to nearly tears by this unexpected boost, however small it was. I drink and lob the cup as far as I can to the side. A carpet of squashed, green cardboard containers roll beneath my feet, leaving the bottom of my trainers sticky for a few yards. My legs so enjoyed their walk that they decide to keep to that pace, but the override button gets pushed again. I have no option to get me going again other than to sprint off as a turbo boost for two seconds before slowing down to normal pace.
“Flipping ‘eck, son! Don’t shoot off like that!” Steve calls out behind me, mistaking my sprint as a new lease of life. He catches up and we continue.
I think about that burst of emotion earlier, and start to replay the daydreams of my finish I’ve had whilst training. I can see myself recalling the weeks of despair and pain, the times when I doubted myself and the emotion that engulfs me as I cross the line, proving to myself and everyone that I had indeed conquered it all. Here and now, just for a minute, tears start to form as this plays through my mind, emotional chemicals shooting round. In the bad shape that I’m in, it could engulf me, but I’m smart enough to know that this would waste energy so I quickly banish all thoughts from my mind. Don’t be a sissy. Just run.
We enter the Jewish part of Manhattan, and the crowd changes. There are few cheerers or noise, and people just go about their business silently. Conservatism is their way, I’m told, so I just respect that. Some stop with their kids and gawp at us running by, as if the freak show has come to town. As I run past in my pink vest, stumbling along more in survival than enjoyment, following hundreds of others, I wonder if they are right.
The hill that never ends
“I’ve hit the wall!” Danny Boy – a runner with Deloitte we thought long left behind – cheerfully announces, bounding up to us, slapping us on the shoulders.
“There is no wall, mate!” I say, hoping that it might offer something profound that would change his race. He didn’t need it though; we saw no wall damage as he ran off smiling. Steve and I looked at each other, perplexed. Different people, each in their own different race, I think to myself.
We cross one bridge to briefly enter The Bronx. Cool – The Bronx. The people are warm and energetic as the music pumps hard and propels us along.
Another bridge approaches, promising Manhattan again, our final NY Borough visit. This bridge is gruelling, though – a steepness that seems to always offer the peak a few steps further. Steve is loving the bridge for some reason, but for me it’s all pain. My calves are like rocks, weighing me down, and the mile markers get further apart. 35Km comes up and I swear as it come into view. I want the next mile – don’t tell me the kilometres! After what seems an age, Mile 22 appears. I stop and walk, take on some drink and pour a bit over my head. Four miles left – a walk in the park in normal circumstances, but right now it seemed like the distance to the moon.
We reach the side of Central Park and the crowd thickens. Steve’s family appears and even I jog over, desperate to see familiar faces. Steve pumps himself up (always put on a show, especially with wife and kid around!) whilst my head drops at the thought of continuing. Arms in the air defiantly, smiling, even running backwards, he gives a performance to be proud of.
We start what looks a gentle slope and I pray that the next marker is just up ahead, but it’s not. It just goes on. And on. And on. “What the…? Central Park is flat! It doesn’t have a hill!” I exclaim to anyone listening around me. We agree that the organisers must have shipped in extra material to make this hill especially for this race; it certainly has never been here in my previous visits.
I start to feel fuzzy, and for a second I wonder if I’ll be taken somewhere nice and peaceful, where pain is outlawed and only comfort exists. I snap out of it and decided to push my mantra button.
“Fulfil your dream.
Reach your goal.
You have the strength.
You have the strength.”
I mutter this over and over again, my legs keeping to its rhythm. I care not that I may look like a mumbling idiot as the fans go past in a blur, this is keeping me going. Messages of pain are briefly halted, repelled by the magic of the words. A few minutes later, I am back.
I look ahead at the top of the hill, and to my dismay it remains as elusive as it did five minutes ago. The pavement seems a treadmill, the effort almost pointless. My faces pulls a thousand expressions. I hate this hill more than any other in the world.
The time I became a hero but almost died
I have a secret: I’ve always wanted to be a hero but feel I’m built to be a flighter rather than a fighter. So, any chance I may get to be at least in some part a hero to someone I hoped I would take. After 25 miles, I saw my chance to help someone else and I took it.
I see him just ahead, struggling. He has GBR on his shirt and a look on his face that says enough is enough. He slows as I pass him, myself barely running now. He grimaces and caves, stopping in despair. A stranger he is, and I have my own problems but he’s not quitting. I won’t let him. I run back over to him, calling his name from his shirt. “C’mon mate! You ain’t quitting! Brits don’t quit!!” I scream at him with all my worth, “Move it!!” I whip up the local crowd around us into a frenzy and the words seem to magically energise him. He pumps his arms and jolts forward, propelling himself on again. He moves on ahead and pride sweeps me entirely. Sixty seconds later my world almost collapses.
Just a mile left, and still somehow running alongside Steve. Pace unknown and irrelevant – we just have to shut down and wait the twelve or so minutes left until we can stop. Suddenly, however, I can no longer suck in the air I need. Another breath – the same restricted action and I feel like I could be going down. It happens so fast I don’t have time to properly panic, but the 25 miles behind me are about to be wasted. I reach out and tap Steve on the shoulder and indicate I’m in trouble. A few more short breaths like this and it could be all over. The injuries, the sickness, the effort to get here could all be undone in the next few seconds. Moments later, it passed, but I was still in shock. I quickly realised the effort I put into rousing my compatriot had taken its toll and almost cost me my run. I continue, knowing that this old course still deserved respect, and it would take the lame any which way it could.
The crowd, our position, my entire existence is a blur. We grab a drink and promise this is the last we stop – any future drinks will have to be on the run. I reluctantly agree and apologise to my calves who have already disowned me
I don’t know how, but I keep running. Steve, seemingly in a similar way, suddenly becomes vocal.
“I’ve got cramp! Shit!”
It’s looking bad, almost like he’d been shot and was about to hit the deck. I knew I’d stay with him if he was in trouble, but this was the last thing we needed so close to the end. Moments later, it seemed to pass and we continued, just waiting for the next turn of events.
The “sprint” finish
With the 25 mile marker long behind us, my scare over, I began to visualise the finish.
“Let me know when you want to go for it.” I tell Steve.
“Go for what?”
“You know,” I said, reminding him of our pre-race competitive agreement, “when you want a 3-2-1-go for the sprint finish.”
Steve looked at me with a mixture of surprise, regret, and resignation. “It’s all yours. Go for it. If you want to push on now then go. Go get a better time.”
I glance over. Deep down, I badly wanted to beat him. Something inside told me that I needed to put one over him at least once. I wouldn’t let him down if he needed me, though, I honestly knew that. “You sure?”
He nodded. I thought about if for a few steps and then made my move.
“See you at the finish line” and I was off.
I don’t know where the energy came from, but I powered forward. Overtaking men and women, crowd in my ears as I headed for home. I was full of heart until I saw it: the half mile to go sign. Half mile??!!! But I thought I was almost there!! My muscles felt cheated. Had I really gone too soon? How much did I have left? I always remarked about Daley’s Decathlon and the energy bar that you had to get right. It was well into the red and the tarmac keeps coming.
A new pain in my right knee, but I knew what this was. It was my weak quad, having done so well to make it unscathed to this stage it suddenly dawned on me the awful truth: if this muscle goes, my leg goes with it. It would become a hang-er-on-er, just there for the ride, no longer functioning. Visions of me hopping over the finish line, right leg flailing comically for the photo. Nothing I can do but hope now.
I no longer have the energy to acknowledge them, but I hear all the shouts for my name. The crowd are fantastic. My mental crutches are in splinters; I would struggle to remember any friend or family name right now. All focus is on my body. The 26 mile sign comes up. Why the **** are you showing me the 26 mile sign now?!! All I care about is the finish!!! 26 miles is nothing!! I could collapse right now and achieve nothing. The extra .2 miles is a whole new race.
300 metres to go. Just show me the finish line. Will I make it? I’m still honestly not sure.
200 metres. Is it round the bend?
100 metres. JUST SHOW IT TO ME!
And then it’s there, in all its glory, just like the photos. ING New York Marathon in its orange banner. I smile. I can’t stop smiling. For the first time ever, I really know I’m going to complete it. I cruise home, arms wide, head back.
I’d done it.
It was over. It was over.
It was over.