Running the New York Marathon: By Jen Oliak

New York Marathon race day.  New York City, November 2, 2014. Getting to the start line was crazy.

Trains, Ferries and Automobiles

We left our Upper West side hotel for Staten Island at 7am. We were to take the subway to the ferry station, the ferry to the island, and then a bus to the Start Village.  My friend Iliana and I had a race start time of 10:30. My friend Derk had a 10:55 start. We were excited.

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Hotel room – just before heading out for race.

We hopped on the West 79th St subway and were grateful that the train was empty, offering us choice seats.  At each stop the train picked up more and more runners.  By the last stop to the ferry we were trapped in like sardines.

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Subway was packed

When we arrived at the ferry station we all needed to use the bathroom but the lines looked at least an hour wait.  We decided to hold it and board the ferry.

The boat was filled with excited and happy runners. People from all over the world, their face expressions filled with anticipation. Drinking and eating their long training run breakfasts they had practiced for this day.

Iliana and Derk got a kick out of how I was dressed like a hobo. I had on layers of throwaway coats, pants, shirts, mittens, hats, gloves and scarves – all of which looked mismatched and worn.

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I wore layers of old clothes to keep warm before the race start

The race was predicted to have 20-30/mph winds with starting temperatures at 34 degrees. I did not want to be cold while waiting for the race to start!  I also carried around my plastic bench to sit on so I wouldn’t risk getting my clothes wet. I guess I did look homeless! We would later learn this race was the slowest New York Marathon since 1984 due to the bad weather.

Getting to the Start Line

Once we arrived in Staten Island and looked around, what I saw looked like an organized mob scene. I thought about how I read that if the NYC Marathon weren’t already in existence, it would not be possible to create today.  It is the ultimate logistical feat.

The race travels through the middle of five boroughs, including the center of Manhattan.  It seems to have the same number of volunteers as runners. This year, there would be 50,564 who would finish this race.  And over a million people who would come to watch.

We all slowly moved with the crowd and made our way out of the ferry station to get in line for the buses which would take us 3 miles to the Start Village.  The buses were moving quickly, but the line still took 30 minutes.  The streets were closed off just for the buses, but the ride still took 45.

Once we arrived we went through security, which took an additional 15 minutes.  There were police everywhere.  We were late, but we definitely felt safe.  As our commute played out, we slowly realized that no matter how efficient the workers and volunteers were, getting this mass of people to the same place at about the same time is virtually impossible!

We finally arrived at the Village at 10:00am.

If it wasn’t for the teams of volunteers, police and the voice on the intercom instructing us about corrals and waves, the Start Village could have been mistaken for a refugee camp.  It seemed everyone looked homeless, covered in blankets and throw away clothes.  There were piles of discarded clothes 3 feet tall from the racers who started in the earlier waves.  Empty cups, banana peels, sport gels, bottles and food wrappers covered the ground.

We ran to our assigned orange corral, and Derk planned to try and sneak in with us so we could all start together at 10:30.  But by the time we arrived the loudspeaker announced our wave had closed.  We then ran to Derk’s blue corral at the other side of the Village, fearful we would miss that cut off too.  We got there.

We took a breath and looked at each other with anxiety from the stress of getting to the start line before the race even began. It had been almost four hours since we left our hotel.

Since Iliana and I were part of the earlier wave, we were able to get to the front of the line and the volunteers let me in to use the race start corral porta potties.  I was so relieved to walk into a barely used porta potty with a full roll of toilet paper! Things are turning around! Afterwards, we shed a few layers of clothes and started to get ready.

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Just before the start of race we took a quick selfie.

Before we knew it, we were all led into the corral and given permission to walk toward the start line.  I looked around and saw the runners around me with the same expressions of excitement and anticipation on their faces.

A quick selfie of the three of us, hugs wishing each other good luck and then we were ready.  I was so grateful that they were next to me.  Grateful that Iliana got herself to the start with me, despite her serious knee injury.  Grateful that Derk (my long run training buddy) and I would be able to pace each other so we wouldn’t start out too fast.

Marathon Begins

The Cannon fired and then I heard, “Start spreading the news… I’m leaving today… I want to be a part of it….,” Frank Sinatra!  It was blaring as we crossed the start and everyone started singing as we entered our journey on this larger than life marathon. I was elated!

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Aeriel shot of Verrazano bridge. Source: New York Marathon

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Mile 1 – Verrazano Bridge. Source – New York Marathon

Our first mile was over the Verrazano Bridge which would later be reported as having wind gusts of 50 mph.  I heard loud pops and smacks and looked around to realize they were runners’ jackets and clothing being flapped by the wind.  Hats were blowing away.

I later read an article in the NY Times where the writer/runner described it best:  we were like moths in front of a fan, swaying back and forth.  My running coach’s voice echoed in my head – find large people to draft behind to block the wind.  Large people, large people, large person ok, yay! Uh oh, I lost him.  Find another large person, ok there’s one … I felt like I was in a live video game obstacle course in the middle of a huge windstorm!

In a blink we were off the bridge and running through Brooklyn on a quaint street.  I was so distracted by the wind I didn’t even feel the huge hill on the Verrazano!  I started seeing and hearing people cheering.  There was music.  It was all going by so fast.  I was trying to process everything.

A moment later, we came upon mile 4. This was the point where all the runners from the different corrals (Orange, Blue and Green) from the top and bottom of the Verrazano bridge start line merged onto the same road.  In that moment I realized this race was going to be even more special than I anticipated. I heard even louder music, louder cheering, and drumming.

It felt like we were all in step in a marching band and running to the same beat. When I looked ahead, I saw a sea of runners – flashes of bright colors gliding forward in unison.  It was magical! I will be able to visualize that sight for the rest of my life.

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Coming off the Verrazano Bridge into Brooklyn Source: New York Marathon

There were so many thoughts going through my mind. It seemed like I was in a reverse parade where we were the ones moving but before our eyes, there was show after show of entertainment. I had the best seat in the house!

The band would change from rock, to pop, to hip hop, to people dancing and singing, to high school orchestras, to rap, to cheer groups, and so much more. There were so many cultures represented in the entertainment, the crowd and the runners. It felt like a “world” race.  Sometimes I couldn’t tell if the music was a stereo or live, but all of it pumped me up and made me feel alive.

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By mile 7, I shed the rest of my layers and winter hat. Is it time to take my GU? How many ounces of water did I swallow at that last water station? Should I alternate Gatorade and water? How does my stomach feel?

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There were almost as many volunteers as there were runners Source: New York Marathon

How do those volunteers continually hold their arms extended out like that with the cups? They must get so tired and have to alternate arms.  And how do they always have a full cup when there is a constant stream of runners for 8 hours?  Oh! I forgot to take my electrolyte tab at mile 6! Wait. Am I even running?  It felt like I was floating.  My legs were moving but I didn’t feel them. Could it be from the ibuprofen I took this morning to manage my earlier in the week foot injury (which really threw me for a loop)?  No.  It was the adrenaline from the crowd.

Around mile 8, I saw my husband Dave, close friend Pauline, and her husband Derk’s family.  I threw my arms in the air and screamed and laughed as I passed them.  They found us! And I was so grateful I had run alongside Iliana and Derk for most of the first 9 miles.

Shortly thereafter I lost Iliana, and then Derk.  Later, Derk popped back up next to me by coincidence a few times, which was a trip!  We would laugh when we would find each other again. We would later find out that we finished within 5 seconds of each other and were separated only 4 of the 26.2 miles throughout different points in the course.

There were runners almost shoulder to shoulder with me for pretty much the whole race. On one hand it was frustrating because not only was it dangerous, but the weaving through people was nearly impossible.

The chances were slim that I would meet my time.   On the other hand, maybe if they weren’t so close, I wouldn’t have noticed the writing on their shirts.  Like the little old man with “50th marathon!” proudly labeled.  And I wouldn’t have reached my arm out to gently pat his back as I ran by.  I wouldn’t have heard the soft voiced girl that said, “Yaaay, Manhattan Beach”- from behind me.

The Queensboro Bridge was coming up at mile 15 and I was scared.  I had read that this steep bridge is where people start to hit the wall. Derk was next to me for the Queensboro.  We paced each other and said, “Nice and easy,” as we tried to maintain the same effort but not speed, going up the bridge.

When we reached the top, I screamed to him, “All those PV hill runs worked!”  We were relieved.

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Mile 15 Queensboro Bridge Source: New York Marathon

As we started down the bridge into Manhattan, we saw and heard the cheers.  People were 15 deep, screaming as we entered the Upper East Side.  This was going to be a great next few miles.

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Entering Manhattan off Queensboro Bridge, going up 2nd avenue

During the beginning miles of the race, when I heard screams of my name, I thought, “Is that me they are cheering to?” Dave had sweetly ironed on a very large “Jen” on my shirt. “Yes, it IS me they are cheering for!” I started feeling more and more confident and found myself evolving, trying to spot the ones who cheered. I would make eye contact and scream back, “Thank you!”  I was smiling. I started to feel like they were all my friends and the looks on their faces as they rooted for me with complete sincerity was so moving – at times it took my breath away.

At one point on the Upper East Side (one of my old neighborhoods when I lived in NYC), there was a string of young men who looked to be in their 20s chanting, “Go Jen, Go Jen, Gooo Jen!!” They did look like they had a few drinks, but I didn’t care.  It made me laugh out loud, and for a moment I was in my 20s as a resident of that old neighborhood.  I lifted my arms, “Yeah! Whoo hoo! That’s me! Thank you, thank you!” thinking, I am on top of the world!! I felt famous.

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Mile 17.5 when I spotted Dave and Pauline

At mile 17.5, I was so excited to see Dave and the group again.  I still had a lot of energy. But then mile 19-22 through Harlem and the Bronx became a blur.

The people and bands were sparse there, but just as enthusiastic.  I recall a lone woman on the windy and final bridge, screaming at each of us to keep going. I wondered how cold she must be in that crazy wind and was she waiting for someone to pass or was she just out there to support us strangers? I vowed to be a better person after this race.

Around mile 23, when I felt so tired and in the middle of the last really challenging mile long hill on 5th Avenue heading toward Central Park, I saw Dave waving his arms up ahead to get my attention. When I saw his face, the exhaustion of the day came to the surface and my body went limp. For a second, I became a child who held it together until I saw my dad. Tears welled up in my eyes and I wanted to hit pause on the race clock and take a rest with him.

Crying and running at the same time is hard to do. I gained my composure and tried to smile for the camera as he clicked away using the action shot setting.

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Mile 23 feeling exhausted

Pauline jumped out and ran with me a few steps to cheer me on and to report that Iliana’s knee forced her to leave the race at mile 17. I knew how hard it must have been for her to make that decision. I hoped she was ok.

Pauline’s son Lars ran next to me for a few further steps while smiling at me and screaming, “Go, Ms Jen!” If my kids had been there, they would have been next to him. This gave me the lift I needed.

Finish Line

Then, I hit mile 24.  No wall? Am I ok? I am NOT going to hit the wall? Should I push harder now until the end? I thought of those people on the videos who literally fall over because their muscles give out at the finish line. I decided I wouldn’t collapse, even if I push hard for these last few miles. So I sped up.  I started passing people, one by one. I was ecstatic.

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Mile 26. Source: New York Marathon

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Mile 26.1 I ran up to the camera 

At 26.1 miles I spotted a marathon camera and was surprised at myself for having the energy to run up to it and pose/scream into the lens.  During my last and only other marathon in San Diego, I cramped up starting at mile 8 and hit a HUGE wall at mile 22. I realized how nervous I had been about hitting that wall again. What a relief! My last mile ended up being my fastest mile of the whole 26.2, at a 9 minute pace.   4:33:15.

Headphones were in my ears but music was never turned on, and I only looked at my watch twice throughout – very uncharacteristic of me. I had been truly present and was able to experience a stream of lifetime moments throughout those four and a half hours.

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Crossing the finish line!

Lesson Learned

I decided to run this race on Jan 1, 2014. It had been at the forefront of my thoughts all year. I read hundreds of articles. I spent hours reading blogs and Facebook race pages to figure out how to run this race. I subscribed to Runner’s World.

I did speed work with my neighbor Marty, who had completed almost 20 marathons and consistently places first in his age group in races, even today. He was kind enough to coach/time me as I went (in what probably looked like slow motion to him) around and around the track.

I bought a NY Marathon excel program that tracked each hill and what pace I should be at that elevation to meet my goal. I studied the course. I wore the pace band.

There were times I wondered if I was focusing too much on it – I mean come on, it’s just one day!  And I’m just an average runner, so why am I so obsessed with this? What am I looking for? I had really high expectations for New York. But the city exceeded all of them.

I found what I had been searching for and it didn’t have much to do with time.

We all want to feel purpose in what we do. We want to set goals, feel the gratification of achieving them, and become stronger with each one we meet. We start with hope, but also feel trepidation and fear of failure. But we will ourselves to do the best we can.

Can I do this? Should I do this? Why am I doing this? We can’t always see the path in front of us and we wonder what’s around the corner. We plan and try to control as many variables as we can, knowing there are many more we can’t. And we sometimes feel obstacles that get in our way.

There may be strong winds that try to knock us down. But we try and push through. We lean on others. We have more strength than we think we do, even at our lowest points when we feel exhausted and want to quit. We feed off the energy from the support around us, so we won’t. We want to inspire and BE inspired. We yearn to feel the joy, the excitement, the sense of community, the emotions of LOVE. We want to feel ALIVE!

This is my experience in completing the New York City Marathon. It is truly a showcase on the story of LIFE.

After reading it so many times during my research, thinking it seemed a bit dramatic, I now understand and wholeheartedly agree with the phrase, “If you ever lose faith in humanity, go run, volunteer or watch the New York Marathon.”  Thanks, New York!  I had the time of my life.

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Picture taken by volunteer after finish line and receiving my NY Marathon poncho

Flavor Your Life with an Ounce of Salt. A lifestyle blog by Jen Oliak.