Sunday, November 2… Race day.
It’s just about a quarter of 11 in the morning, the sky is a pale blue and dense with puffy, white clouds. I’ve been sitting in a heated tent for three hours, waiting for my wave to start and now out of it, I’m cold. I’m bundled in mismatched pieces of clothing that have been picked from the Goodwill bag under my bed and I look a bit like a ragamuffin. But I’ll be tearing this extra layer off soon anyway, so it really doesn’t matter. This is assuming I make it to the starting line.
I’m sprinting through a field in the start village at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, in a state of panic that after five months of training and three thousand dollars of fundraising, I may have messed this up. “I need to find orange,” I say to three volunteers standing in a huddle, shivering, but still smiling. “I’m supposed to be with orange and I’ve been waiting in green.” I think they must be wondering how it is that I’ve been standing in line for ten minutes with the wrong color group. On marathon day, this is no small detail. “That way,” one points. “You’re fine,” another one says, as if she can hear my heart beating out of my chest. In another minute I’m in a mass of runners on the left side of the upper deck of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, waiting for the cannon.
I take a relieved breath and laugh to myself that it’s a small wonder I’ve made it here. Aside from the color mishap, what was to have been a restful pre-marathon week was hardly that. With my childhood best friend Diana, in town from LA, family flying in from Florida, race day logistics to map out with them and whatever friends would be coming to cheer, miscellaneous details I’d had worked out but were somehow still hanging over me, and worst of all, the sore calf that had me worried I might not be able to even make it through half the race, I was running on far less sleep than I should have been. But not enough sleep is a norm for me, so yes, of course I’ve made it. I have just enough time to ask a woman to get a pre-race shot of me, and then I hear the announcer over the loud speaker. “Runners are you ready?” I am ready for sure. A moment later, we hear the cannon. And we’re off.
My only memories of ever being on this bridge are from childhood, when we would go to visit family on Staten Island, and of course, they are from within a car. To be underneath this great piece of architecture, on foot, so small, is surreal. And as I settle into these first few minutes, in silence, wide-open sky surrounding me, I say to myself, “This is it. You’re running the New York City marathon.” And I can’t help but smile. And considering what it is that I am doing, and the nerves that had rattled me only days before, I’m completely calm. I’m here and I know what I need to do.
We reach the downhill of the bridge and people are passing me on both sides. Swarms of them. I want to race ahead, but I can hear my coaches’ advice and remember that this early in, I still have hours to pass them, and I will. I’m feeling warm and think it’s a good time to strip my extra hoodie, and as I do, I notice my ponytail is loose, and that my hair is slipping. I try looping the rubber band around again to no avail, and realize the one I happened to grab while getting ready, is overstretched and pretty much useless. Having no spare, and knowing I cannot make it the rest of the race with my hair falling from the bundle atop my head, I start weighing my options, and before long, I begin to notice, amidst the light scattering of litter along the road, every few minutes, there is a hair tie. I’m hardly thrilled at the idea of stopping to pick one up, but after passing half a dozen of them, I think this might just be the answer to my conundrum. Just before mile six, I do so; problem solved.
I’m now running behind a guy who is wearing a shirt with a dedication on the back that says: In Memory of Baby Daniel. I get choked up, thinking of this little one; and of how lucky I am to be here, healthy and strong. But with this swell of emotions, my breathing becomes labored. So I veer away from him and turn my focus to the street numbers, knowing that I will see my first cheerleaders very soon.
I spot the C-Town grocery store up ahead on the left. My family is to be two blocks up from it, and I’ve been told, I will probably see them before they see me. When I notice that, on our pre-determined corner, there’s a water station (as we had discussed there might be) I know instead, they will be waiting two more blocks beyond that, as per our [very detailed] plan. When I see them—my mother, my sisters Gabriela and Kristina, my Aunt Dorothy and my cousin Katherine—it is exactly how I dreamed it would be, and I bolt to them with open arms, to hug and kiss each of them. And as I run off, they cheer for Tough Cookie which I’ve emblazoned on the back of my race singlet as a thanks to my mother who taught me to be one. On this day, I hope I am making her proud.
As I continue up through Brooklyn, along 4th Avenue, I stop three more times to meet people there to cheer me on; first my friend Emily from work whose head happens to be down just as I am passing, as she is about to sip her coffee. I surprise her. Then it’s Allie and Jamie and their new little bundle Sam who looks like a sleeping cherub, who I blow a kiss to, this the first I’m seeing him since his birth. And then it’s Lisa with Christina and Leroy. With these three, I jump around in a group hug, screaming and cheering. As I continue on, I see a woman with a sign on her back that says this is her 20th marathon. I think wow, and congratulate her as I run by. Then it’s a woman with a prosthetic blade from one knee down. Talk about believing in yourself! I speed up to meet her and I tell her she is awesome. And then I find my place on the left again where hands are out for high fives and people can see my name and shout for me. Their energy is the fuel that keeps me going.
Soon after entering Williamsburg, I spot a sign with big bold letters that reads GO DRE, and I think it must be for me, this my neighborhood. Sure enough, it’s another pair of friends, Aoife and Jeremy. They ask how I am, and I reply that my legs are a bit tired but that I’m having fun. To think I was feeling tired at mile 11. Ha! If only I’d known what was to come. I continue on, along this stretch that’s been a practice route throughout my training. I’ve just made my way through Greenpoint and here it is, the halfway mark.
I’ve been waiting to get here, to take from my shoelaces the twisted piece of plastic in which I’ve stashed two Tylenol. The pain in my calf has worsened, and my ankles are aching to the point that yes, physically, it would feel better to quit. But of course, I will not. I keep telling myself that I will rest when this is done, but that for now, I’ve still got some work to do. There’s a string of people waiting at the Port-o-Let but I need to pee, so I hop off the course and get into line. And once out of the stall, I grab a cup of water, swig the capsules back and return on my way. This pause, even the short three minutes that it was, is beyond painful to recover from, and I tell myself that from here on, I cannot stop again, except to slow for water, or of course, to say hello, should I see any more friends along the route.
The Pulaski Bridge is just ahead. And though I typically run on the pedestrian sidewalk rather than across its six traffic lanes, I know it well. It’s quick and easy, and will bring us from Brooklyn into Queens. As I round the bend onto 47th Road, my friend Greg is there and again, I stop for a hug. Every time I see a face I know, I’m uplifted. The reminder that so many people are behind me in this goal, is overwhelming. So on this momentary high, I trot along through Long Island City, and next thing I know, I see that we’re approaching the 59th Street (Queensboro) Bridge.
On the advice of a coach, I did a practice run over the bridge a month before. And, in all honesty, I really enjoyed it. The incline here is long but subtle, and the view of downtown Manhattan is stunning. So I wasn’t the least bit worried about running it on race day… Until earlier that morning, when I realized that it isn’t the bridge itself which people find so challenging, but that it comes at 15 miles into the race at which point many runners have been pounding the pavement for two hours already. I wonder for a minute how I’ll fare, then shrug off my worry, sure I’ll be ok. I’ve maintained an easy pace since the start and the Tylenol from a couple miles before has begun to kick in.
Looking back, the 59th Street Bridge was one of my favorites parts of the race. There is no doubt that for a runner on marathon Sunday, the crowds are invaluable. They are there, along the lonely stretches, in between our family and friends, propelling us to go on. But for a mile, as we traverse the East River from Queens to Manhattan by way of this grand structure, they are absent, and the only sounds are those of our breath and our footsteps, and the footsteps of those around us. And it is peace, and a time to reflect on this goal, which we are about to accomplish.
But, such calm can only be for a short time, of course. Once off the bridge, we’re on First Avenue, and on marathon day, First Avenue is where the wild things are—people spilling out from the bars with pints in hand, cheering, hooting, howling. All along the route, strangers are calling my name, “Come on Dre,” “Keep it up Doctor Dre,” holding their hands out for more high fives. At 111th Street, I find another threesome of familiar faces cheering for me—Rachel and Craig, and Kim who’s crafted a sign that in our group hysteria I don’t even get to read. (Thanks anyway girl.) This time was the seventh that I’d stopped to meet friends, and still I’m not tired of it.
As I run off, waving goodbye to them, I realize that I’m now at a stretch where I might not see anyone else until the end of the race when I reach the bleachers where my family now waits. And this unfortunately, is probably where I need people the most. First Avenue is coming to an end and just ahead, there’s a small bridge that will bring us into the Bronx. It’s the Willis Avenue Bridge, and even though I’d known it was coming, I was not happy finally seeing it. It’s a fraction of the Queensboro, but the incline is immediate, and sharp, and my legs are screaming. But then out from the sidelines, just before I reach the start of it, one of my coaches catches a glimpse of my neon yellow singlet and runs up to me. “Hey sister,” he says, placing an arm around me. “You know where we are?” I nod my head. “Almost done?” He’s running with me and tells me, “After this bridge you’re at mile 20.” Ah yes, I think. Mile 20, where people ‘hit the wall.’ I have told myself that I will not, but of course, no one’s mind ever wants to quit, but sometimes, the body just can’t continue. With his arm still around me, he says to me: “This is what I want you to do. You’ve got six miles to go. For each one, I want you to think of someone and dedicate that mile to them.” I said ok, and that’s what I did.
The bridge was as awful as I imagined it would be upon seeing it; but when at the end, I heard a voice calling my name and saw another friend Laura waving from 138th Street, whatever pain I’d been feeling had—at least for a few moments—vanished. But soon enough I’m onto Fifth Avenue battling another long, slow uphill. At about mile 23, from the crowd along the sidelines, another coach spots me. “Go Team For Kids,” she yells. And then she runs up to me, and jogging at my side, she says, “I want you to Keep that pace!; Keep that pace!” And as I continue, I know if I am going to finish strong, I need to do just that. So as I move on to my next dedication, I say to myself, “Keep that pace. Keep that pace.” It’s mile 24 now. I think as far as I’ve come, what’s two more miles? So I’m racing along, and again from the sidelines, I hear my name. Surely, out of 50,000 I’m not the only Andrea… Probably not even the only [On-DRAY-uh], but somehow—maybe because I wanted it to be—I knew the call was for me. And there amongst the crowd, is Diana in town from LA with her sister, who by some crazy stroke of luck, just so happens to be passing though New York this weekend. I stop, this time for a hug and a picture, and then I continue on my way.
We’ve cut into the park from Fifth Avenue, and I can see Central Park South up ahead, and I know that just beyond, I’ll be approaching the finish. But I’m feeling weak, in need of one last push. Knowing that for sure, no one else I know will be waiting along the route, I move to the left and put my hand out. It’s high fives the whole way. I need them. “Go Dre,” one girl says. “You’re kicking this race’s ass!” …As if we’d been friends for years. Finally, I am rounding the corner, back into Central Park, and I remember that it is now time to go fishing. ‘Go fishing’ as my coach says—pick out a runner that’s fifty feet ahead and catch them. I’d spotted her minutes before— jet-black bob, hot-pink tank top. My eyes are on her but she won’t let up. On top of this, I’ve got nothing left. I’m well into the bleachers now, and having not seen my family, I’m assuming I’ve missed them. Then I hear my name, and when I turn, I see my sister in a ruby red pea coat, the rest of them jumping around her. I flash a smile and raise my arms out to wave. Well, I guess that was the boost that I needed, because when I turn my head back to the finish line, I’m passing the woman with the jet-black bob in hot pink. And then there I am, my arms raised high above my head, and I am crossing the finish.
Again, it felt like a dream. Except, that now, after 26.2 miles, from my hips to my feet, it feels as if my body is broken, and I am reminded that it’s real—that I have done it. I shuffle along with the rest of the crowd, more uncomfortable walking than I had been running. A few times I think I might keel over. “Move along,” they tell us, as runners behind us continued to pour across the finish. A volunteer drapes a medal around my neck, its weight pleasantly substantial. I stop for a few photos and continue on to where another volunteer wraps me in a HeatSheet. A few steps beyond her, another tapes this metallic cape that is supposed to keep me warm shut. I can exit the park here and find my family, but I want to visit my charity tent, even though it’s tucked a little further into the park and will take a bit of extra walking to get there. How I wish, at this moment, that I could fly.
I’m hobbling, (no joke, pulling one leg up by my pant), and a text rolls in from my cousin. 4:22:58. Awesome! Yes awesome, but I am puzzled, recalling that I had seen 4:46 on the clock. So, 4:46 was a minute past my goal time, but hey, I was still standing. I’d take it. But 4:22:58… I’ll really take that… if I can!
Finally arriving at the tent, bundled now in a heavyweight cape and warm, I get to catch up with a couple of friends from my team. They explain to me how there were four clocks; one for each of the four waves. (Duh!) I was likely looking at the wrong one. So it was 4:23, which means I finished seven minutes earlier than I’d hoped, even with nine stops for hugs. I feel a current of pride run through me.
We sit together for a while, basking in the splendor of our collective achievement, recounting the highs and lows—the camaraderie on the course, the fans’ support, the aches, the pains, the wind! Then one of them asks: “So will you do it again? Without a minute’s pause I look up from my swollen feet and tell her no. “It was really hard,” I reply. “I did it. I can cross it off my list. And I’m so happy. But I think once is enough.” And she looks at me with a knowing grin and says, “Wait until tomorrow.”
Sure enough, when ‘tomorrow’ came, I knew immediately I wanted to do it again. I told my sister I imagine (having never been through it myself) that it’s like giving birth—utterly painful, but so worth it.
I went in to the race knowing that people have said running the New York City marathon was the best day of their life. Naturally, I wondered if I would think the same. It’s a big statement to say that a day—one particular day—is the best of your life. I think I was almost afraid to give this designation away. But for now, I think I have to agree. It was a day filled with so much joy; one that I look back on with such a happy heart. I am so thankful for every part of it—for my body that carried me, my mind that wouldn’t let me quit, for my family, and my friends, that came to be there with me, and for those that couldn’t be there, but still supported me; for my teammates and coaches that ran beside me; for this great city that was the greatest host, and for our beautiful earth, its blue sky and sun, and even for the wind.