New York City Marathon, Part I

Pre-Arrival, Three Days Before.

We are passing through; we are in rural Adams County in south central Pennsylvania on our way to New York City. We spend the night on a farm on the Eastern slope of South Mountain. We sleep in soft beds under thick quilts in a restored farmhouse built in the early 1800s; we lie undisturbed in the ancestral embrace of the only family who has ever lived in this house deep in the heart of orchard country. We are passing through. We are back.

We arrive after the harvest; thousands of bushels of apples have been picked, yet hundreds of apples are still on the ground, apples that fell before the pickers could get to the trees, rows and rows of red apples, carpet runners under the trees, strips of dark red apples crushing the high green grass. The blue rented minivan looks out of place next to the white farmhouse on the gravel lane alongside the organic red runners slicing through the trees.

We walk up a small hill early in the morning to the farm’s solitary vineyard, five acres of vines and aging yellow leaves, the grapes harvested and sold to a local winery. The leaves decaying, curling, hide the remaining clusters of the dark purple fruit; we pick a grape, and another, and the juice tastes sweet.

We view the surrounding mountainside: the amber and gold forests of the hilltops, the red and white barns, the black lanes and red brick farmhouses, and the dark brown trees: rows upon rows of trees lining the mountain slopes, spotlighted in the rising yellow sun.

We hear workers talking in Spanish trimming the trees. Most of the field hands have left the area following the harvest south; the apples picked off the trees now in cold storage or at the processing plant where, pressed into sauces or strained into juices, they will be canned and bottled and shipped to thousands of small grocers and large supermarkets, like the stores in the shopping centers where we live or in the neighborhoods where we will be this weekend.

We spot one of our friends leaving the farmhouse; she is carrying her camera and walks slowly along the lane away from us; I jog down the hillside to tell her not to go too far as we still have a long drive to the city. Returning to the hilltop out of breath is not a good sign, but I like the feeling I have here and I don’t want to leave. Not yet.

I study the blue sky above us: thin, white cirrus clouds slowly seeping in from the North. The forecast calls for rain tonight with temperatures dropping all weekend; rain to continue Saturday and end with cold and blustery conditions on Sunday; no rain, but a stiff head wind on Sunday. This morning on the hilltop, I see the wispy white fingers beckoning me.

I am at home in the orchards: the organic continuum of the countryside, the rural mosaic my wife and I escaped when we were so young, the destination and extended family to whom we always return; here now I could remain; the feeling is overwhelming…

I feel it pushing against me. A gusty breeze is kicking up this early Friday morning. A storm is brewing to the north.

I see so vividly the disaster about to unfold. Standing on land so gloriously cultivated by generations of family members and so solidly grounded in the shelter of South Mountain, is there any reason to leave?

Arrival, Two Days Before

We drive out of the Lincoln Tunnel and the city sparkles; it is exciting and exasperating all at once. We arrive early Friday night to rain and endless chaos in Manhattan; we are here for Sunday. Tonight, though, is Halloween: cold, wet, and bright. A crazy world of towering skyscrapers, shiny steel structures and gray stone buildings, endless windows, fanciful manikins and pictures of anorexic models on large billboards, traffic signals and bright, electric neon lights filling the night sky; vehicles rushing by, yellow taxis, black limousines, cars honking, whistles, arms waving, transit buses and the crush of noise against the rental van; pedestrians by the thousands: hurrying home, some dressed in costumes, everyone merging together, along with the homeless and the restless and the way-too-busy – indeed, it is Friday night and Halloween, and we are soon part of the decadence and madness of 42nd Street in Midtown Manhattan.

We have entered what seems like an international runners convention sponsored by the travel industry. In the Grand Hyatt, guests in wintery running attire have taken over the lobby; everywhere we see men and women in heavy jackets promoting Italian, Swiss, and other European running teams. It is a distortion, we know. Most of the city is not like this: the quiet neighborhoods, the distinct boroughs where residents live their lives, cities upon cities upon cities surrounding Manhattan. To me, the numbers are overwhelming: so many people live here, but, like us, more are arriving by the minute: Sunday will see thousands of runners in the city, runners from international locations as well as from the States and surrounding region – 55,000 in all and, adding friends and families, the number will bubble to more than a million; a bonanza for the hotels and restaurants throughout the city, the shops and department stores, the theaters and the tourist attractions. I feel the press of everywhere to go, everything to see, everyone around me all at once.

We say goodbye to our daughter after we settle in our small hotel room; she sets off to experience Halloween with her friends on the Upper West Side. Watching her leave so happy and excited to be in the city, I wish I was with her. Instead, we eat dinner in a nearby Italian restaurant; it offers a two-pasta dinner for marathoners. At the table I bask in the new persona, like wearing my own Halloween costume. I would get a stiff drink if I didn’t have my wife and friends watching. They want to believe, after all, after taking days off from work and spending so much time and money to be with me, that I am ready and Sunday will be a celebration. For their sake, I want to believe too.

I suffer from defeatism and deep down it is overwhelming. The clock is ticking like a heartbeat: less than 36 hours and dropping like the temperature. The thoughts reverberating, like breathing: cold and windy Sunday, cold and wintry Sunday, old and rickety Sunday. Now in my sixties, I am, indeed, too old for this and even if I am not, I have not trained at all for cold and windy conditions. Though I packed my winter running clothes: my leggings and tight-weave tee-shirt that I’ll wear under my long sleeve running shirt and windbreaker, though I packed a scarf, wool cap, and two pairs of gloves as well as extra socks, though I told my friends I would be ready for the conditions come what may, I am not into it at all and I have not run in this wearisome attire in months, in fact, not since the dead of last winter. Nor have I trained on hills; my effort toward the end ignored hills in favor of distance, and now I dread running across the expansive steel bridges on the course. I envision sixteen miles into the race, being brutally exposed to the punishing wind while crossing the Queensboro Bridge from Queens to Manhattan, being pushed like a crumpled newspaper against the cold metal railing and plummeting, plummeting over the side and dropping like a bright orange ball of flame between the frigid girders, snuffed in a plume of black smoke into the chop of the East River. I am not horrified by this thought.

Saturday, The Day Before

We go outside Saturday morning and it is colder, as forecasted. A rain is falling now with no let up in sight, at least not until later tonight, so we have been told on the TV in our room. The combination of the cold, rain, and wind when we go outside for breakfast is numbing. Not a great day to be in the city. My daughter joins us at the local breakfast diner, reporting on a night of parties and Halloween celebrations, and I so wish I had joined her. We get in line outside the hotel to take the official bus to the Jacob Javits Convention Center where I am to pick up my race packet, and together with my friends and family, we will enjoy all the sports booths at the exhibitors’ hall. It isn’t long before we are standing in the aisle on a bus and crossing the city.

We engage in loose conversations with others on the bus. A tall woman in her mid-sixties with a thin face and short, stringy hair and a toothy grin stands behind me. She says this is her second time running the New York City Marathon, but it has been ten years; not only has she completed the Big Six marathons, tackling Berlin, Tokyo, London, New York, Boston, and Chicago, but she also has completed a marathon in every state in the union. In fact, this is her hundred-and-first marathon and, she confides as the bus pulls into the Javits Center, this will be her last. As we move forward to get off the bus, she adds behind me, she is tired; she is tired of running marathons. Me too, I say. Me too, though I have barely started. I can feel her tiredness seeping into my pores and my morning enthusiasm drains out of me. Here is a runner who has accomplished so much more. She has been to the mountaintop, but has nothing to show for it but a bunch of old bones. At the Center we go our separate ways, and in telling her story to my wife and daughter, they think she is amazing. I think, rather, she is a witch sent to haunt me, or, if nothing else, a bad omen and I need to exorcise her from my memory. I swear, as she walked away, her head swiveled and she grit her teeth at me. I want to scream, but she has sucked all of my energy.

I separate from my group when I get my bib and race packet. The exhibition hall is packed with so many people, I realize I could walk past my family and our friends and never see them. This is not at all how I imagined enjoying ourselves visiting all the booths and sports exhibits, and when I finally find everyone through a series of text messages and cell phone calls, we decide to leave the crowds of the convention center and enjoy our day instead as tourists, guests of the city.

We walk the five blocks in the cold rain to the subway and slowly work our way to the 9-11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan. My umbrella has turned inside out against in the stiff wind, and I now feel the rain soaking through my jacket. I keep thinking this is not good, not good at all, as I walk the long blocks with my cluster of friends and family. I should be in a museum somewhere or at the theater, anywhere other than here, and I can feel my nose starting to run, my throat getting sore, and this is inevitable, I decide, as we study the rain pepper the pools of the 9-11 Memorial.

We meet a man at a deli near the memorial. We are seeking a respite from the rain and he approaches us with a big smile and limited English. He is in his late fifties and wears a Greek team running jacket. He is very gregarious, and soon is sitting with us at our table. My friends and family enjoy talking to him and we learn it is his first time running the New York City Marathon; he recommends we travel to Athens, where the conditions are much nicer; he tells us we need to pay homage to the Mother of all Marathons. We agree and my family says we will include Greece in our list of marathons that I will run, and he is very pleased. I am wondering who he is; really, is he for real or is he too an omen? Is he a god in disguise? Will he show up tomorrow?

I am lost in thought. Someone asks me what I am thinking.

I want to ignore the others and say, “If you are a god, I need help,” I want to say it directly to the Greek man with the comforting smile. I want to say, “Please, please help me,” but I lie, smile, and say nothing. When he leaves, he touches my shoulder and says he’ll see me when it’s over.

We tour the Empire State Building later that afternoon. Too much time spent standing out on the observation deck, and I am thoroughly chilled, tired, and dismayed by the wind and rain. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, where the race will begin on the tip of Staten Island, appears off in the misty distance, like a figment of my imagination; I feel like it’s the day before D-Day and I am staring at Omaha Beach from across the Atlantic Ocean. The bridge is miles away, miles and miles and miles away. I need to go back; I need to go to the hotel; I need to lie down in our room with the TV off and the curtains pulled across our windows overlooking the twenty-six miles across the city. I need to get psyched. I need time alone to commit suicide.

Sunday, The Day

[To be continued.]


Categories: History of Running

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