By Karen B. - Yes, it was different, very different than my other marathons. Nothing about the New York City Marathon was normal; everything was different. It was downright comical in many ways, and far grander than they claim it is in others. Background: I trained to walk the New York City Marathon as an Achilles Guide, expecting a 7-8 hour finish and knowing I'd take the early start along with Harriet Kang, her Hot Flashes, and the Hot Flashes Achilles Guides. My mission was to guide a woman named Shoshana who has arthritis, Raynaud's disease and severe hypoglycemia. I was to wear a backpack to carry the extra clothes for warmth and extra food for blood sugar stabilization that she might need.
I was nervous. I had pre-marathon jitters like I haven't had for years. I'd had no communication with Shoshana and met her for the first time on Thursday in the expo. There I learned that the Hot Flashes group would be walking the first 20 miles together, and that Shoshana would then switch to a 7 minute walk/3 minute run ratio for the last 6 miles. This was not welcome news, since I'd trained using 7/3 throughout my long walks. I was certain I would lock up if I didn't run at all until mile 20. My pace worries were assuaged somewhat by the fact that Shoshana clearly was tough, having been a century bicyclist until recently, and walked four other marathons.
My saving grace on marathon eve was the world's best pre-marathon roommies: Carlene Paquette and Kathryn Lye. Kathryn was a world-class assistant... mothering me and fetching all the things I didn't know I needed. Carlene applied her practical, analytical eye to all my preparations... nothing was left out, nothing forgotten, everything organized. Without them, I'd have been a basket case by marathon morning. (I'm now wondering how to finagle them to every marathon as crew.)
I was up at 5 a.m., out the door at 6. The first comic relief was my race garb: umpteen layers, starting with too many oversized cotton T-shirts (cotton!) – one for the Hot Flashes, two for Achilles. Then a lightweight running jacket, topped by a oversized hot pink fleece pullover courtesy of Salvation Army. I have seen photos already. Trust me, I looked like a garish Pillsbury doughboy!
The next big difference was the backpack, which weighed about 5 pounds with its assortment of gloves, gators, earmuffs, and food. The food was a hoot, nothing I'd dream of using to run a marathon: energy bars and a peanut butter sandwich, with GU for good measure (I never used it). On the bus to the start I tentatively ate the delicious cream cheese and lox sandwich Harriet offered, after she insisted that I'd have no stomach problems walking. (You continue to digest food while you walk, unlike with running.)
Though the early starters missed the bridge-shaking excitement and extravganza of the late-morning mass start, there were definite advantages. The Achilles people had their own buses. No standing in line for us. We were driven straight to the mouth of the Verrazano Bridge. We used the nice clean facilities on board the bus, stepped off, took a few memory photos, and 10 minutes later our race started! Forget hours of shivering in tents, sleeping on the ground, and peeing in troughs and behind barricades.
Our 8:50 a.m. start was quiet, unnoticed. No hoopla. Just a few hundred courageous men and women moving quietly and slowly by foot or in chairs over the Verrazano Bridge under a brilliant sky, with a more brilliant New York City skyline blazing in the morning sunlight on the far side of the Hudson.
With their first steps, the men and women around me were overcoming all the odds. On the Verrazano, I was passed by a man with two prosthetic legs. Another with one. As we came off the bridge onto the long straight thoroughfare through Brooklyn, we traded paces for a mile or two with Bill. Bill has severe cerebral palsy. He pushed his wheelchair, backwards with one foot, through the race. His Achilles guides surrounded him with shouted encouragements and tried to clear the way, but Bill didn't appear to need it. He was gregariously cheerful and alert, looking backwards over his shoulder and dodging manhole covers with alacrity. The cry I remember from the first miles of the marathon is "Make way for Bill!" as he careened by us down the hills. We had to jump out of the way of Bill and his chair. Such was our inspiration in the early miles.
Shoshana, my Achilles athlete, set a quick pace. She was covered from head to toe – the requirements of her Orthodox Jewish faith – wearing a long Coolmax skirt over sweatpants as well as many layers of top garments to prevent the problems associated with Raynaud's. She began the race wearing a plump down jacket (which she shed almost immediately and which Harriet and I carried until mile 8 when we handed it off to Sheldon and our Achilles support crew). Shoshana was prepared for the cold and lack of fuel that put her in the medical tent during last year's race. She was determined. She chatted endlessly, entertaining us with quirky stories of her faith, family life, and athletic endeavors which were not always considered acceptable in her community.
I realized quickly that it was quite possible Shoshana would be guiding me by the end of the race. She carried her own "feedbag" which contained seven hard boiled eggs, the food that best sustains her blood sugar level. She refused to let me carry anything other than her down coat and she wasn't happy at all about that. I used my backpack to stuff the excess jackets of the other Achilles Guides.
We rolled slowly down the thoroughfare in Brooklyn, eventually entering an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. This was the first place that we early starters encountered groups of spectators. It was an eery feeling as we sliced through the silence of the austere neighborhood, past the somber gazes of men, women, and children who eyed us from behind their dark garments. I wasn't sure, maybe I imagined the disapproval, but they appeared to be little pleased with our presence or Shoshana's appearance. She explained that they could surmise, from her matching and odd-looking garments, that she was unorthodox Orthodox.
My memories of the next miles are vague – over the Pulaski Bridge and through Queens which I recall as being largely industrial. I was absorbed in chatting with Shoshana, Harriet, and Jeanette Lampron who was also a guide, monitoring Shoshana's hard-boiled egg intake, stopping for photos, making and getting phone calls.
That was different, the phone calls. I made the first ones on the Verrazano Bridge to my parents and in-laws. I had to carry the phone for Achilles purposes, but early on I realized that since I was walking I could share this race with family and friends. I'm embarrassed to say that, even walking, I got marathon brain melt and can't remember who all called me. Kellee Mulloy did umpteen times, and Tom Lally, and Kathe Allison, and others. I know we saw Kathryn and Carlene, Myra and Warren, Joe, Milt, and, and...? Also I had classic brain melt; I can't remember who, where, or when... but it was wonderful to hear your voices and see your faces. Thank you all! This race already has a special aura in my mind's memory, as the one that I literally ran with friends who were not there.
Somehwere in Brooklyn, I stopped worrying about what I might feel like at mile 23 and whether I'd be able to guide at that point. I felt good now, time was flying by. I wasn't stiffening up in any noticeable way. It was alternately cold in the shade when the breeze hit us, and warm in the sunny spots. We marveled at the mildness of the day and basked in the warmth of the sunshine. I caught a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, and the New York City skyline was always catching us by surprise at odd spots on the course. Here I shed my jacket and did the rest of the race in long-sleeved Coolmax topped by two cut-off cotton T-shirts.
At some point during those lost miles, I remember the smile on my face beginning to grow. It was quite strange; I couldn't stop it. That was different, the smile. Every race has its moments of joy and exuberance. Every marathon I've run has been punctuated by patches of feeling marvelous and patches of feeling damned awful. This was different.
Around mile 16, in the middle of the Queensborough Bridge, I heard the dull roar that everyone had described, except that it was more than described. The smile deepened. It grew and grew and never went away. I could not help crying as we walked down 1st Ave into Manhattan. The next 10 miles were just full of that feeling, which is impossible, really, to describe.
At 20, we did begin our 7/3s and I was fine running, in fact I just kept feeling better. Shoshana never faltered. We went through the Bronx and Harlem, many lovely neighborhoods I thought, but she said not at night or alone. Whatever. I will never forget the crowds, especially the firefighters waving from atop their engines at every other intersection, the kids with water and oranges whose eyes begged you to take their gifts, the people calling my name, and the NYPD who were everywhere for us. I had to high-five people. Had to! Something I'd vowed since MCM 97 never to do again.
It was different. I smiled and smiled. It was out of my control.
We finished in the dark in Central Park, in 7:55.15. It was good, within Shoshana's goal time. She was unbelievably strong and I felt good to the end. Shortly after we got to the Achilles area, I lost Shoshana and Harriet, then found Ron Horton, then lost him; walked to the Subway; stopped at Starbuck's for a TomLatte, the best-tasting cup of my life.
It was different; there was much about the New York City Marathon that was different for me. But mostly, amazingly, that smile. It felt like it started in my soul, not on my face. I'm still not sure exactly what it was all about – challenges and tribulations and uncertainty and friends and support and pink hats and Penguins, for sure. The best part is that I have the certain feeling that that smile will continue to grow.
New York City Marathon... yes, it was – definitely, amazingly – different.