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Maybe you are never alone in New York City, not even at 5:05 a.m. on an early November Sunday morning. I walked south on Madison Avenue from 60th toward the library at 42nd and 5th. A man in filthy clothes sorted through a trash bin near a lamppost. I gave him just a little bit of extra room as I passed. No one else was in sight.

Stores lining Madison offered displays featuring pictures of beautiful women and handsome men dressed impeccably, sparklingly jeweled. I wore running shoes, shorts, and a hooded poncho that I had saved from the 2018 Boston Marathon. Underneath the poncho, I wore a billed running hat, sunglasses and a trash bag with a hole cut in the top for my head. It was 42 degrees – chilly – and I was glad that I had sent Margy back to our friend Ruth’s apartment rather than to walk me to the New York Public Library where buses would take runners to the Staten Island side of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge for the start of the New York City Marathon.

The dark street felt peaceful, intimate – and a little creepy. There were just two of us sharing Madison Avenue in Midtown: the man digging through the trash barrel and me. I didn’t feel like I belonged but if I did, was I part of the glamor gang featured in the windows or kin of the guy sifting through the trash barrel? I decided to stop thinking about it because any reasonable person looking at me in my poncho, trash bag, running hat, sunglasses and shorts would have pointed me in the direction of “my friend” digging in the trash.

At about 53rd, I began to see a few people who wore old sweatshirts and cheap rain suits that most intended to throw away at the runners’ village in Fort Wadsworth before we started the race. By the time I reached 42nd, the trickle of people just a few blocks north had become a deluge. Long lines of runners – thousands and thousands of runners – quietly snaked through paths formed behind barricades on the north and west sides of the library. Buses on the east side of the library stretched a full block to the south and three or four blocks to the north, forming two solid rows. Before boarding the buses, cops picked through runners’ bags using their flashlights. Volunteers asked us to show our race numbers. Once runners cleared security, other volunteers waved us onto buses. Once loaded, buses left the library almost simultaneously, forming a stream of aluminum hulks lumbering down the bumpy street. Meanwhile, buses behind us filled in the formation to bring yet more thousands of runners to the start.

We drove by warehouses and workshops lining New York Harbor as the sun rose orange in a clear blue sky. I chatted with a woman from Houston, a guy from Indianapolis and another guy from Houston. From Midtown Manhattan, it took almost exactly an hour to reach the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. From the start of the bridge, it took almost exactly an hour to reach the other end. It felt good to sit in a padded seat on a heated bus instead of damp ground, waiting outside on a chilly morning.

The sun continued into the sky as our bus inched across the bridge to the unloading point. We exited the buses and went through another security scan. Runners outnumbered police officers, but not by much. NYPD boats patrolled the harbor. NYPD helicopters circled overhead. A small plane pulled a Geico Insurance banner, something that I thought probably did not amuse the police.

In the runners’ village inside Fort Wadsworth, I suffered the usual long lines awaiting the privilege of peeing in a porta potty before the volunteers rounded us up and pointed us toward the starting line. We walked across sparse grass covered with straw to keep protect the ground from turning too sloppy and muddy.

The New York City Marathon started in four waves and I was in the first, that wave taking off at 9:50 a.m., nearly five hours after I had begun my walk to the bus. Each wave featured three groups: green, orange and blue. Our orange group ran on the south lanes of the Verrazano Bridge’s upper deck. My portion of the orange group lined up near the back of the first wave. The road to the bridge curved left from where I stood so I couldn’t see the starting line, nor could I see any of the thousands of runners assembled to run on the north lanes of the upper deck or those gathered to run on the lower deck.

I usually don’t pay close attention to the National Anthem but this time, I did. The woman sang the song without flourish but with power and purity that cut through the crisp morning air. The breeze from New York Harbor made the flags – not just the US flag, but many flags – flutter and buzz horizontally off their masts. Just as I replaced my hat, three NYPD helicopters flew in tight formation only a couple of hundred feet over more than 12,000 runners in Wave 1. A total of 40,000 more would start in the subsequent three waves. We were about to run 26.2 miles in one of the world’s greatest cities. At 60 years old, I was about to run a marathon with the help of 12,000 volunteers under the watchful eye of thousands of police (NYPD did not specify the exact size of the force assigned to this year’s marathon) and with the encouragement of 2.5 million spectators. Tears welled up in my eyes. Running a marathon is physical, partly, but it is also emotional and this setting moved me – the anthem, the sunshine, the runners packed around me, New York City, the fly over. I thought, “What makes me so lucky to be standing here, right here?”

A cannon – a very big cannon – fired. It startled and scared me. I felt the concussion in my chest. The runners cheered. Then, all around me, nothing happened. Nothing. For at least 30 seconds, we stood still. Then we began to walk, albeit very slowly.

“Pace seems tolerable to me,” I said to a guy walking beside me.

He didn’t laugh – or even smile. I decided that he might not speak English, though he could have been from Minnesota and just not found me the least bit funny. My family could empathize. Runners wore “Pura Vida” visors (Costa Rica), green tee shirts with the Brazilian flag, and many of the French had painted red, white and blue flags on their faces. The guy standing next to me when the cannon fired came from Amsterdam. Our ribbon of humanity, a United Nations in running shoes, began to jog, then to run as we crossed the starting line.

Scaling the approach to the bridge, then getting to the top of the bridge, constituted a very big hill, one a whole lot less noticeable in a car. I huffed and puffed and felt very much my age as younger runners jumped on top of a median wall separating the lanes. They snapped pictures with their cell phones, then scampered ahead of me. It felt like I was among the few runners who had left my cell phone behind for the race.

Near the top of the bridge, I looked out onto Manhattan, the skyline pasted into a robin’s egg blue sky, wind pushing waves into undulating patterns traced on the harbor’s ocean surface.

From that point, my impressions became scattered, fractal. In Brooklyn on Fourth Avenue, loud bands dotted the sidewalk in front of convenience stores and churches. A woman who had recently run the Western States 100 and I tried to figure out mile splits she needed to run a 3:25:00. A horn band playing at a sharp corner entering Greenpoint almost made me want to stop to listen.

On Lafayette, the street narrowed as we climbed the hill. The crowd got louder and closer. I saw Margy and Ruth. I thought that everyone who has run the NYC Marathon and come up Lafayette just has to love New York. Has to.

We passed through a quiet Jewish neighborhood in Williamsburg where the men wore broad-brimmed black hats, long beards and sideburns. Women wore conservative black dresses. I noticed how quiet the street felt and recalled that the NYC Marathon purposely omitted bands or aid stations in the neighborhood. Just not their thing. I felt really bad about the recent shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg but I hadn’t really known what to do about that before the race and didn’t know what to do at that moment, either. I just put one foot in front of the other and, metaphorically, thought that might make sense.

I saw Margy and Ruth again after the 14 mile marker.

Running up the Queensboro Bridge nearing the 15 mile mark felt really hard. Running down the bridge felt harder. My thighs had become stiff and with each step on the downhill, my thighs hurt a whole lot. Despite how much I hurt, I felt happy to be there. Gone were the days when I fretted about my pace, though I had done a bit of math on the bridge and knew that I was running well, at least for a guy in his seventh decade. Unlike years and marathons gone by, I didn’t worry about anyone who passed me. I didn’t worry if it was a guy in my age group or whether he looked like a good runner or a slug. If a woman passed me – and many did – I found myself thinking, “Good for her!” I wanted to be where I was, doing what I was doing. I didn’t want to be done. I wanted to be present with the struggle. How many more NYC Marathons would I run? Enjoy this one, every mile, every step.

Not many spectators came out in the Bronx. It was pretty quiet. We passed warehouses, gas stations and a few liquor stores. It felt a little perfunctory, like we were just there to check off a box noting that we had run in that borough.

In Harlem, I ran next to a local runner. A friend of his – clearly not himself a runner – ran out onto the course and screamed encouragement, gasping for air, running at full speed, weaving in and out of the other racers.

Fifth Avenue heading to Central Park traced a long – seemingly endless – uphill. I have ridden in a cab up that street, though, and it didn’t seem so bad from inside a car as it did on foot. While I stayed present with the struggle, I admit to being OK with getting this thing over with.

23, 24…finally 25. I had made it to the south end of the park but the run up the shallow slope of Central Park South let me know that Father Time had not given me a day pass to run the race. I chugged up the street with people cheering loudly, a band playing in the distance. The course would turn into Central Park at the stoplight, I thought. Once I got to the stoplight, I could see that I was only halfway up the hill.

I had wanted to re-qualify to run the NYC Marathon in 2019 but I had not wanted to put pressure on myself so I didn’t know the time standard. I knew that I was close to making it – and close to missing the cut off – but how close, I couldn’t say. I ran hard but hardly fast. Columbus Circle, band playing, tricky curb to step over getting into the park. The course bent left. Where was the finish? I couldn’t even hear it. I had passed the “800 meters to finish” mark what seemed like 1,500 meters back.

The finish line came into view. A seemingly endless stream of humanity poured across the line with me. I wobbled a little bit and walked about 100 meters to get a “heat sheet,” a mylar sheet used to keep us warm. The sun penetrated the tree canopy here and there. I felt warm at first under the heat sheet but soon cooled down. I walked another few hundred meters to get a “recovery bag,” a drawstring backpack made of mesh and clear plastic holding Gatorade, an apple, a recovery drink, a bottle of water and pretzels. A few hundred more yards and giddy volunteers handed us medals. Finishers packed the shady street like sardines. Without much remaining ability to move quickly, whether left or right, forward or back, we all bumped into one another staggering around like some sort of 16mm film we would have watched in junior high science class to illustrate Brownian motion. We kept walking. Runners getting post-race ponchos went left. A volunteer wrapped me in a blue poncho. The fleece inside felt good, though I needed help securing the velcro closures in front to keep the breeze from blowing in.

Suddenly, I found myself out on Central Park West. Barricades closed the street to both vehicles and spectators. No bands played, only a few volunteers offered congratulations to finishers moving unsteadily in their post-race waddle. I could see down the street all the way to Columbus Circle, nearly 30 blocks away. The sun shone brightly but it felt almost as peaceful and quiet as it had felt at 5:05 that morning. The runners all looked tired and only a few spoke, some on their cell phones, presumably trying to find their way to family and friends.

Back in 1988, I ran a marathon 53 minutes faster than I did in 2018. As a 29-year-old, I thought that I would run even faster in the future. I never did. During most of the intervening marathons, I regretted every minute added to my finish time, every runner who passed me. Once I started a race, I couldn’t wait to finish – and to finish fast. In 2018, I no longer really wanted to finish races but rather feared being finished. What would I do, who would I be, if I’m not running a marathon or an Ironman or up early in the morning to train?

It used to be that when a marathon didn’t go quite as I had hoped, I scolded myself. I’ve stopped that. I have chosen – rightfully, I believe – to emphasize the good fortune in being able to wake up in the morning, run a marathon (or an Ironman) and eat pizza afterward.

Looking back on the 2018 season, it ended well but offered its share of close calls and dark moments. I have wondered what would have happened to me if the downpour that doused Katie and me in front of Boston College during the Boston Marathon had lasted just a little longer or if the temperature had been just a few degrees cooler. I felt so cold that I don’t know that I could have finished – or even staggered to an aid station. I still don’t like to think about Katie’s collapse at a marathon near Portland on July 4th, though I am happy with her complete recovery. I think about making it to sea level in the Natural Energy Lab during the Ironman World Championship as the sun sank into the Pacific, dusk enclosed the sky, heat swallowed me whole, made me feel very alone and made me wonder whether running, walking or stopping made any difference. All three options seemed pretty much the same but I chose to keep running into the dark. So the New York City Marathon was a nice way to end the season – not too hot, not too cold, and no doubt that I would make it to the finish line just one more time.

New York showed me contrasts and contradictions. I felt very alone on an extremely prosperous street in an enormous city. I felt connected – even without my cell phone – comfortable and grateful among 52,000 runners, 12,000 volunteers, 2.5 million spectators and countless cops. I briefly made friends with a guy from Amsterdam and a woman from Long Beach, each of us ultimately finding our own way to Central Park. I learned more about struggling without regret, recognizing that there is only “this,” the moment in which I found myself. If I didn’t struggle, if I don’t struggle, would I prefer the alternative? I think not.

Just as I promised myself, I put one foot in front of the other to close out my sixth decade and enter my seventh. I made it to the end of one more season and to a New York Islanders hockey game the day after the race. I bought a piece of Junior’s cheesecake between the second and third periods. For the record, I didn’t feel like quitting before I finished this piece of cheesecake, not once – and it wasn’t even a struggle.

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Special thanks to Ruth Levin for hosting our NYC visit, Laurie Eustis for actually reading my blog despite knowing a lot of better stuff out there to read, and, of course, to Margy, who makes all of this possible. To Katie, for lending me a shoulder to lean on when getting back to the hotel in Boston after the 2018 marathon and for getting up once she fell down near Portland. Falling down is not so important. Getting up, is.

 

 

 

3 Comments

  1. Always love your blog. Congrats on another finish!! What number was that? Read it while waiting in the eppley airport. A lot of memories here including a phone call from you on a white courtesy phone when I landed here post backpacking!!

    Two training trips then thanksgiving. Looking forward to seeing everyone again.

    Love you,

    Lynn

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. Rosser, thank you for sharing your blog as always I love reading them and am moved.

    How was the game

    Vicki Leddy | Accounting Manager | Sightpath Medical
    5775 W. Old Shakopee Rd, Suite 90
    Bloomington, MN 55437
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  3. Scott,
    You’re writing is as great as you’re running! Thanks so much for sharing this piece. It’s always so insightful and thoughtful as well as entertaining to read about your experiences. Turning 60 (as I have done as well) does make you think a bit. Keep running and sharing. It’s done you well, and we all enjoy coming along for the ride. Best to Margy and your family.


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