Just kidding. Let’s get it out of the way. I finished my first marathon in 4:57:07. That was good enough to be among the 35,399 under 5-hour finishers who got their names in the New York Times (out of about 47,000 starters), good enough to meet the realistic goal (under 5 hours) I set for myself in my final weeks of training when I took into account what I was and wasn’t doing in my long runs, and good enough to beat Katie Holmes (5:29:58, New York City, 2007) in her infamously sports-braless marathon debut. That time wasn’t good enough to meet the less-than-realistic goals I set for myself in the early, perfectly healthy, halcyon days of my training plan, it’s not fast enough to impress friends and acquaintances who have never attempted a marathon, nor is it fast enough to beat Oprah‘s marathon debut (4:29:15, Marine Corps in Washington, D.C., 1994—and knowing Oprah, an amazing sports bra was involved).
In the days leading up to the marathon, my older brother and guru on all things running-related (save for sports bras and breast chafing), whispered something sage about just enjoying the day and not being obsessed with numbers to the point of running a miserable race for the sake of shaving off a few minutes. Naturally, I heeded his advice by heading to the running store and buying a new Garmin so that I could obsessively monitor my instant pace at any moment — no mileage markers for me.
In case you hadn’t heard, the most obvious mistake a beginner (or in the case of Mary Keitany, a favorite to win) can make is starting out too fast in a marathon, especially one like New York with a hilly second half, and burning out early. Last Sunday, as I stood in my corral awaiting the start of the marathon, I think I had already admitted to myself that I would do just that. I couldn’t quite figure out how I had ended up in corral #32 – maybe it had been that uncharacteristically fast 8k I’d run in the spring or an overly ambitious estimate for my total marathon time. Whatever it was, a quick glance around revealed that I wasn’t really amongst my people — my people being somewhere between “I did three 20-mile training runs and haven’t had a beer for 2 months” and “just happy to finish,” and quite far from “willing to soil oneself for a faster time.” There was a group of boisterous young Spanish men in red and yellow, goofily wearing the free Dunkin Donuts hats (irony!) handed out while oozing testosterone. I helped a middle-aged woman get her iPod to work; she was bone-thin in the way that fast middle-aged women who have ran multiple marathons under four hours are. Others removed their pre-race sweatshirts and tossed them on the ground with a veteran’s ease.
The starting gun sounded, and minutes later it was at last our time to cross the starting mats, propelled by the momentum of months of training and finagling entry. Climbing the Verrazano-Narrows bridge, I felt good; great, really. Multiple chiropractic appointments and a yoga class had left my muscles loose, while tapering down my mileage in the last few weeks had left them fresh. Glancing down at my Garmin, I saw that I was running at just over a 9-minute mile pace. It was about a minute a mile faster I’d intended, but it felt so good, so easy. The 9-something changed to an 8-something at points. I slowed down slightly, imagining I was both eager horse and cautious rider, drawing the reins back, pulling at an imaginary smooth, shiny bit in my mouth to slow down. The pacer for a 4:00:00-finish-time was just off to my side. Like a doomed lover affair, I knew this pace, this feeling of ease wouldn’t last, but I couldn’t bring myself to walk away from the good sex and fun dinners out and slow down to a 10:00-plus/mile.
That’s how it went for the first 8 miles; it felt wonderful. I saw my first groups of friends standing along Fourth Avenue and waved enthusiastically at them, delighting in how (somewhat) fast I must have looked. I rounded the corner down Lafayette Avenue, and saw my parents, my dog, more friends, fluorescent posters, and, regrettably, a gradual, uphill ascent. I could feel my legs tiring — already. A mile later, I looked down at my Garmin, only to be horrified by the pace it was suddenly displaying.
My brother’s words about enjoying the race echoed in my head. I wasn’t enjoying this slow, arduous jog. Then a man, an angel really, reached out from the sidewalk on Bedford Avenue with a bowl of Swedish Fish. “Candy anyone,” he called out. I shoved my hand in as I went by and grabbed not a few but an entire handful of the candies like a greedy teenage trick-or-treater. Ahead of him, a hipster held not a sign but rather a carrot hanging from a fishing pull that he dangled in front of runners. I couldn’t help but be amused.
It quickly became apparent that these things, not obsessively glancing at my Garmin were how I would make it through this ordeal… and perhaps even enjoy it. I didn’t stop glancing at my pace, but I did my best to file away each bright moment amidst the seemingly endless miles. Every friend and family member I was actually able to spot on the sidelines. The guy dribbling a basketball that came up behind me on the Queensboro Bridge Bridge at mile 15. The other guy wearing a black tutu. The thrill of coming down off of the bridge and into Manhattan for the first time. The girl who called out my name as I did so, not from the sidewalk but somehow from above. The cool, damp green sponges handed out on the course a few miles later—one of the best surprises I’ve ever encountered. The tiny, naughty thrill of tossing the sponge (and countless water cups) on the road. The way First Avenue looked, and felt, littered with green sponges. The guy holding a sign proposing marriage to a pretty blonde runner on the sidelines. The friends who came all the way up to mile 19, only to have me shake off offers of fuel and water and merely raise my hand to my head and mime shooting myself as I ran by, a moment that was thankfully immortalized with the aid of an iPhone 4S. The traditional Japanese percussionists pounding huge drums in the Bronx at a point when many runners hit the wall. Not hitting the wall at that point but finding instead a tiny burst of speed and energy. The adorable little girls handing out water and cheering me on around mile 21.
At some point in all this, I looked down at my Garmin and realized finishing near 4:30:00 wasn’t a possibility – unless I was suddenly able to get back to my starting pace (highly unlikely!)— but coming in under 5 hours certainly was.
The last few miles wound in and out of the Central Park in a seemingly endless uphill battle. I had run the route many times before and often dismissed these hills as relatively short and gentle. They felt neither this time. I looked down at my Garmin. Less than two miles to go. I looked up at a mileage marker and saw that I still had more than two miles to go. I’d tacked on an extra quarter of a mile to the course by not running the most efficient vectors. Never before had such a short distance seemed so upsetting.
Finally, the finish line stretched before me. I wish I could say I felt a tremendous triumphant moment at that point, that I broke down crying, so powerful was that feeling of accomplishment. I didn’t though. In something of a daze, I joined the crowd, got my foil wrap, thirstily wondered where the final Poland Spring water station was as the sweaty traffic jammed around the photo station.
In the hours and days following that moment, I’ve felt a mixed sense of relief, pride, and, admittedly, post-partum blues. The marathon is over, and while I am immensely glad about that (no long run of any sort this weekend!), it feels strange after months of training and more months of gaining entry into it, for it to be finally over. The nagging “what now?” question looms.
A possible answer came, as it sometimes does, whether we like it or not, in the form of a cheesy, serendipitous advertising slogan. Just yesterday, I unwrapped my latest issue of Runner’s World. On the back, an ad for Asics, official marathon sponsor, read NEW YORK. 26.2 MILES IS JUST THE START.
And that was just it. Like many people, I suppose I first decided to run a marathon in order to cross “running a marathon” off of some clichéd “things to do before you die” list. But, when I crossed the finish line, I wasn’t thinking about that list. I was already thinking about running the marathon next year, what I would do differently, how I would understand why people bring their own toilet paper to the start village (the Porta Potties quickly run out and things get ugly), how I would carb load more efficiently, how I would bring cardboard to create some dry ground to stretch on around the start area, and yes, how I might pace more consistently. But, do I wish I had run at a more consistent pace for my first marathon? Not in the least. Those early, too fast miles were my favorite part of the race. I might have been bucking the standard advice to not start out too fast (first timers beware! Duh!), but I was following the other conventional wisdom to just enjoy the day, to savor my first marathon, to not worry about time, even if it meant burning out early on.
As I ran, too swiftly, over the first bridge, in the first mile, several men had stopped to pee off of it. They were delighting, as men do, in sending their urine stream off into space from an elevated platform over a body of water in public. It was a joy that I, with my lady parts, understand that I will never quite understand. I can imagine they felt carefree and careless on that perfectly sunny early-November Sunday, relishing in yellowing the non-existent snow of that innocent first mile. As I sped past them, I felt the same.