Sunday: The Race.
I read somewhere that sometimes they shut down the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge due to the force of the wind. Running the two-mile suspension bridge that crosses between Staten Island and Brooklyn and with the open bay and Atlantic Ocean on my right, I am not surprised. To my left, off on the horizon is the skyline of Lower Manhattan; the distant skyscrapers clustered so tightly together seem to be anchored down, tied to the surrounding buildings. On the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge we too should be tied to keep from skittering across the asphalt and blown over the railing, plummeting like lemmings into the white-crested waves far below us.
I struggle with the wind violently flapping the bib attached to my chest, one arm holding it tight against me, the other swinging forward to help run the length of the bridge. I am wearing my leggings and shorts, my short-sleeve, tight-weave t-shirt and a loose, long-sleeve running-shirt under my old windbreaker; I have on two pairs of gloves, a scarf covering my face, and two hats. I could be mistaken for a homeless man if I wasn’t with thousands of other similarly dressed runners working their way across the bridge. Still, piles of clothes line the railings as runners everywhere cast off their outer garments. Orange Dunkin’ Donuts’ hats dot the continuous mass of clothes like construction blinkers.
I am being pulled apart by the wind. I can’t believe it is happening, but I see myself torn into two: it starts with my legs and suddenly another set shake free of my torso and start running beside me. I stare down in amazement: I barely can run against this wind with two legs, how can I possibly manage four? What is going on? I decide to tuck my outside legs into my waistband, but then I shudder; to my horror, my chest expands and pulls apart to join my new set of legs.
I look like a strange aberration of Siamese Twins or rather two crazy creatures conjoined at the neck. How can two bodies share one head and run a marathon? What will the race officials say? But then I feel a flash of pain, a splitting headache, and, with a loud pop, just like that, we are separated. Next to me is another runner who looks like me. This now, I realize, is the other me, the me who signed up for this event and the crazy person who likes the idea of running the six major marathons of the world. Wearing only my running shorts and a sleeveless t-shirt, this me shakes all over – not from the punishing wind and numbing cold, but with the joy of freedom.
“Hey,” this new me yells over through the wind. “Great day for a run.”
“I don’t think I can do this,” I hiss through clenched teeth as I work my way past the first set of girders holding the great expanse of thick cables suspending the bridge. I know he hears me and he might as well know.
We are approaching the first mile of the marathon. “You’re kidding,” he yells, “you can’t give up now.” He is disgusted with me, “– you haven’t even gotten to Brooklyn!”
I am too hot, too old, too out-of-shape, and too under-prepared for what I am doing. Why would anyone come thousands of miles just for the opportunity to be whiplashed on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge? “What have you gotten me into?” I ask. “No. Wait,” he says. “You wanted this. “ He is angry. “Straighten up! You’re running like an old man.”
I am hunched over from the wind in one of the greatest races in the world; I am falling apart after working so hard to get here, even recovering from a torn hamstring in the spring – exercising in a gym pool with hundreds of octogenarians all summer, and later, in the fall, building up endurance on a leg I didn’t trust – but I have no remedy to replenish the resolve that has been slipping away, no will power to stiffen my back, lift my head, and open my lungs. How can one run while crumbling into a fetal position?
“I am not ready,” I hiss. “It is too hard. I can’t.”
I want to be far from this race, far from this crazy person, this torture I am going through; I want to be at the farm, hidden in the green grass under a trimmed tree, staring up into the web of branches holding thousands of red apples blotting out the sun, the clouds, even time itself. I want to hear my old black labrador retriever in the tall grass searching for field mice but staying nearby. He would be barking and happy to be off the leash and alone with me in the orchard. I would be content to listen to his bark with my head resting in the palms of my hands, staring into the constellation of red planets and green stars.
I have to admit it, looking over at the runner beside me. My image of me is so wrong: he looks great, but I feel horrible.
“I think you are a mess,” he says to me. “You are stronger than this. You always do this to yourself, you always give up so easily.”
We pass the second set of girders and start down the bridge to Brooklyn. “Why don’t you run on ahead,” I say, “and let everyone know I’m coming.” I am tired of being next to him; I need to focus on where I am landing my feet. “Go on.” I say. “It may not be pretty,” I add, “but I’ll get there, one way or the other.”
I can see the freedom I have given him glitter in his eyes, like my lab excited to explore wherever he likes, the next farm if he so chooses. “Well, you’re not much fun,” he says, “and I can check things out.” He trots off, running ahead so easily, so nonchalantly, but turns back to me one last time: “See you later?” he asks. I make a thumbs-up gesture, but in truth, I don’t know if he will.
I am alone coming off the bridge. It’s just bare bones me.
I struggle through the ten miles of Brooklyn; reminding myself that I have run such distances a million times. This should be the easy part of the marathon: the course is relatively flat and the conditions are not nearly as windy as on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. This is where I should be recovering from the strenuous test of crossing the bay. I work my way in amongst thousands of runners and crowds of people lining both sides of the route, but I am not recovering. The crowds have been with us since I stepped off the bridge and they are heavily bundled. I can’t believe the dichotomy, but I am hot, too hot: my body has warmed, and the temperature is not as cold as what I prepared getting ready for the race.
I am wearing too many layers of clothes. I throw off my orange Dunkin’ Donuts’ hat and my first pair of ratty gloves. I want to take off my jacket and toss it too, but my bib is attached to it. Fuck! I remove the scarf around my neck and put it into a coat pocket. Next comes the wool hat and my other set of gloves. Both the hat and the gloves go into my pockets. Still the damage is done. At the aid stations I encounter along the route, I drink Gatorade and water, but it isn’t working. What I need to take off is the tight-weave t-shirt I have under all my clothes. This shirt is meant for conditions below freezing, and now, with the temperatures in the low-forties, it is too much. I run through Brooklyn thinking of how can I get it off; I hate this shirt. I realize I have always hated this shirt. Why did I bring it? I rack my brain as I run, struggling to think my way through this mess.
I pass a group of runners in shorts and sweat pants wearing police sweatshirts; the shirts have been pinned with signs in magic marker that say they run for “Lucy.” Who is Lucy? I run by two of the officers and say, “Lucy must be pretty special.” They say, “She is and she deserves everyone’s support.” “Oh, well she has mine,” I mumble as I run past them, wondering if I can afford to support anyone.
I try to get my mind off of my problems and force myself to recognize that this isn’t so bad. Hundreds of musical groups perform along the route. Every half-mile or so we encounter musicians playing rock and roll, or country, or soul, or blue grass. The bands are wonderful and in the cold morning air, the performers are putting their heart and soul into their music. I want to thank them for their effort, their willingness to keep going when no one would mind or be none-the-wiser if they stopped, if they paused, if they gave up.
I am shocked when I reach the Pulasky Bridge crossing a river between Brooklyn and Queens. In reviewing the route a week or so earlier, I didn’t expect another bridge until I reached the Queensboro Bridge. I should have realized all along that this was a ‘real’ bridge. As I begin the climb up the half-mile drawbridge, I recognize the person sitting on the cement wall waiting for me. He grins, jumps down, and runs over to me. I think at first, it is the other me who had run ahead, but realize, it is instead my Uncle David. Over the years my mother’s brother always has had a crappy comment for me.
“I was wondering how long it would take you to get here,” he says. “I thought you would be walking by now.” My Uncle David is a compact little man with no fat anywhere on his body. He is in his mid-eighties, a runner in college, a mountain-biker, and river-rafter most of his life. He is an athlete and has no tolerance for those who are not.
“Oh, Uncle David, not you.” Thirteen miles into the marathon, I have no energy to deal with him, and the wind has picked up on the bridge. Rather, I must focus on climbing a large cement structure I never expected, a bridge that appeared out of no-where. I breathe in through my nostrils, breathe out through my mouth.
I hear him laughing at me as he runs beside me. “Even now I could beat you.”
I ignore him and push through the wind. He says, “You shouldn’t be here. Where’s your brother?” He is enjoying himself. “Remember my name for you? “ he asks. “‘Big John.’” he says. “To me you’ve always been ‘Big John.’ So, ‘Big John,’ now you think you can run the New York City Marathon.”
I can’t believe this and hate him for taunting me. I concentrate on the asphalt on the bridge and apples in the orchard; hundreds of apples bobbing in the breeze, my dog running wild and free.
We reach the other side of the bridge and Uncle David is gone.
I am in Queens. Another three miles and I’ll be at the Queensboro Bridge. What is happening to me? Why am I thinking of my uncle? He has been nice to me these last few years, especially after I dropped my weight by seventy pounds. He even advised me on my running when I last saw him. Am I a charlatan? Just because I gained back twenty pounds, why do I doubt myself?
I am so hot. I will never make it over the Queensboro Bridge if I don’t take off one of my shirts. I zip open my windbreaker behind my race bib and maneuver my arm out of the sleeve. I pull my arm out of my red, long-sleeve running shirt and put back on the jacket. I do the same thing with my other arm and, finally, lift the shirt over my head. It is not my tight-weave, short-sleeve, dead-of-winter shirt I gladly would have tossed, but I am free of another layer of clothing. Still, the red shirt is new and I don’t want to throw it away. I bunch it up and run with it like a red clutch, shifting it back and forth between my hands as my arms tire.
I am at the Queensboro Bridge. It is a significant structure that crosses from Queens into Manhattan. I am fifteen miles into the race and the next mile will consist of crossing over the East River and Roosevelt Island. We are on the lower level of the bridge and for a moment, the wind is not fighting me. Some runners are walking on the side and I slowly push by them, shirt in hand, hunched over, counting hundreds of steel girders bracing the upper roadway. Being in the dusk of the bridge is nice even though the climb never seems to end. I am glad to be heading to Manhattan.
I hear my name. “Jon.” Someone calling me. I look around, but I don’t see anyone. “Jonathan, wait up.” Someone is behind me. I recognize that voice: my other me is catching up after leaving me behind fourteen miles ago. Where has he been? No. No. That can’t be. I have to focus, run across the bridge; it is too hard, too long a climb after fifteen miles. I feel a body next to me, a hand touches my arm. I look over. Oh my god, it is not the other me, but my father. At least, I think it’s my father. He has been dead for forty-five years. His hair is in tatters and his skin rotting.
I moan, “Daddy, what are you doing here?”
I can see he is struggling to stay with me. “Jon-Jon, this is it. You can stop, like the others. Come to the railing. Look at the East River. It’s not so bad.”
We are together, and he is pushing me to the side. “No, Daddy, no. My family is on the other side. They are waiting for me in Manhattan.”
I have got to get away from him, away from the swirling East River. I can see figures staring up at me from the old insane asylum on Roosevelt Island. My leg hurts, but I thrust myself forward and push away from his grasp. “Oh Daddy,” I say, “I’ve got to go on. It’s too late. I don’t need you now.“
I hear him falling behind. “Stay,” he says, like wind rushing through the girders.
I am at the top of the bridge and running hard. My leg is definitely hurting. The tear in my hamstring is not so healed that I can keep up this pace without re-injuring myself. Manhattan is in the distance and people are cheering the runners as they come off the bridge. I’ve got to get to people. I reach the end of the bridge and slow down to make the turns onto First Avenue. I am in the embrace of the living, yet their cheers are echoes, hollow and distant. My family and friends are somewhere in the crowd lining both sides of the street, but I don’t see them. I don’t see anyone.
I have got to get through the last ten miles.
I am cold and the wind is challenging. It is just as my Swedish buddy said when we were in the pre-race area back on Staten Island. The furies of First Avenue are upon me. First Avenue, with its wide-open expanse between the sidewalks, faces directly north and has become a wind tunnel for the full force of the wind channeling down the avenue past the tightly aligned buildings. I zip up my coat and consider putting on my red shirt, or at least the wool hat and gloves I tucked into my coat pockets earlier. At the same time, when the wind isn’t blowing, I am hot in the mid-day November sun and worry that it will be too much. For the moment, I regulate my temperature by zipping and unzipping my windbreaker as I work my way up the avenue.
I told my family and friends, when it comes to fighting the wind and cold, my idea was to employ an ‘Emperor Penguin Plan.’ If they see the Italians or the Swiss or the Peruvians running together in mass, look for me: I’ll be shuffling along right in the middle of them. As I run the four miles up First Avenue, I don’t see the Italians, the Swiss, or any other group. They have broken apart or left me behind; now it is just a endless blend of marathoners. In fact, I realize, I am on the edge of the runners. I am not in the flow at all, but over on the side; like an injured calf in a great buffalo herd.
I force myself to rejoin the other runners. I need to stay in amongst the many, to be part of the moving mass and not allow myself to drift to the edge where wolves and wild dogs can attack me. People run past on either side of me, and slowly I drift to the side, once again, to get out of their way. It is a mistake, I know, but I can’t do anything about it.
We are approaching the Willis Bridge, twenty miles into the race. I see it in front of me. The Willis Bridge crosses the Harlem River and separates Manhattan from the Bronx. I gasp in dismay: it is a larger bridge than I ever imagined; though only a half-mile in length, it is much more formidable than what I remember in reviewing the route. What the fuck is it with these fucking bridges?
I start up the cement expanse, pushing my legs forward to climb the structure. Suddenly, I feel a sharp pain in the hamstring of my injured left leg. Immediately I stop. Oh my god, what was that? I slowly start running again, but feel both of my legs cramping. I am now in horrible pain. Cramps are attacking my legs in places I didn’t even know existed, let alone ever imagined I had muscles. I pull up a second time and try to stretch my legs. I have never felt this before.
I am in shock. Runners are running past me; even the few who are walking along the side pass me. No one comments; this is my problem, and with more than six miles to go in the race, this is not good, not good at all. “Jon,” I hear someone say. “Hey, Jon!” Not again! I turn to scream at the next demon stopping by to haunt me, but realize, just as quickly, it is my older brother calling to me from the cement barrier separating pedestrians from the roadway. Charley is three years older and has always been the sibling acknowledged as the athlete. He finds a break in the barrier and joins me.
I look at him and am about to cry. “Oh, Charley,” I say. I need him to understand. “I hurt my leg and now they both are cramping.”
We walk together. Charley is wearing his golf clothes and has left his golf clubs behind at the barrier, but he doesn’t seem to mind. The spikes on the bottom of his golf shoes click on the cement. “Can you get to the next aid station?” he asks.
“I think I can,” I respond, working my way through the cramps as I climb the bridge, “but I don’t think I can finish. Charley, I hurt my leg.”
I see Charley shrug at that. “When you get to the aid station,” he says, “drink a ton of Gatorade and water. You are at the ‘Wall’ of the marathon and with the wind and all, you have allowed yourself to get dehydrated. Just get to the aid station.”
I listen to Charley. I have always listened to Charley. Back in high school, after our father died, with the things that mattered, I guess, he was the closest thing to a father – my no nonsense older brother. He watches from the bridge, as I run slowly to the aid station. Thankfully, it isn’t far in the Bronx; the volunteers are ready for me along with the thousands of other runners reaching the twenty-mile mark.
I stand at the station and drink several cups of Gatorade and water. It is nice to rest and let my legs recover. Slowly I begin again, running the last stretch through the Bronx and across the Madison Avenue Bridge back into Manhattan. I see Charley has made it over to this bridge as well and he yells to me. “Get to Central Park, Jon! Get to the Park.”
I slowly run the hills on Fifth Avenue, the final stretch of the route before we enter into Central Park and the last three miles of the race. People are cheering endlessly, but it is all muffled. A girl runs by me and says, “You are my inspiration.” I stutter, “what?” but she has run on and is lost in the runners. Who was that? Was that another demon making fun of me? Why would she say that? Does she know the struggle I have gone through, the demons I’ve faced? How could I be anyone’s inspiration?
I am fading now in Central Park and realize I cannot complete the race. Only two miles to go and with a sharp hill in front of me, I simply can’t do it. I want to limp away with my torn hamstring and find my family. As I come to a stop, I am punched from behind. What the hell? I turn and realize it is the other me, the one who’s better than me. The believer. After all these miles, he is back with me and still angry. “What the hell are you doing?” he screams at me.
“I have to stop,” I say. “I hurt too much!” He is not buying it. “Hell no,” he says, “Not now, not with a mile or so to go.” He punches my shoulder even harder, jerking me forward. I almost stumble to the ground. “What the fuck!” I say. “Quit it! Let me be. You don’t know. You’re living a dream!”
We are at the key moment in our lives: he and me. “Finish the race,” he shouts at me. “Everyone is living a dream: Charley, your Uncle David, all your buddies on Staten Island, the Greek man at the deli, the woman who has run in hundreds of marathons, all your friends, your family, even you. It’s everyone’s dream.”
I suddenly am aware of the thick crowds on both sides of the roadway. People I have never seen before screaming at me to keep going, to finish the race, friends and family members of all the runners cheering insanely; I realize I am in the grandiose moment of the New York City Marathon. No one should be walking; no one should be quitting, not here, not now. “Fuck!” I slowly run up the last hill.
I work my way to the end of East Drive in Central Park and come out on 59th Street. I run past the Plaza and the Park Lane hotels on my way to Columbus Circle. With the beautiful structures on the left, the wooded park on the right, the thick crowds lining both sides of the route, the sense of the impending completion is wonderful. This has to be the end, and, sure enough, as I swing around the Circle and head back into Central Park, I realize I am close, amazingly close: the grand stands full of people, the music loud, the energy incredible. A runner is weaving in front of me, like he is dead drunk on his feet. I swing around him and see volunteers and medical personnel rush to him just as I cross the finish line. I am done. I am in a shoot of runners finishing. My other me, though, I see is in front; he turns back, smiles, gives me a thumbs up, and fades into the crowd of runners. I want to fall in the grass, lie under the great oak trees, and let myself go.
I receive a pendant for finishing and a thick blue wrap to cover against the cold and continuing gusts of wind. I walk out of Central Park and find my family and friends. I am eleven minutes past my goal of running the race in four hours. After all that I have been through, the demons I have faced, only eleven minutes: insanity. My friends have a bottle of champagne, but when I sit down on the curb to share it with them, the cramps in my legs return; they all watch in amazement as my leg muscles clench and unclench violently. I have to stand, and it is sometime before I can walk, before I can go with them, opening the champagne long forgotten.
We leave New York City the next morning. The storm has passed and it is a beautiful day. We drive back to the farm before heading to North Carolina. We climb the hillside in amongst the thousands of apple trees and enjoy the beauty of the land one last time; a dog is barking in the distance; deer scatter into the trees.
Categories: History of Running