A soft humming fills my ears.
Is there a chopper hovering nearby? I turn my head to the left, gazing south along East River and trying to establish exactly how far I have run since Staten Island. The view from Queensboro Bridge is one that brings classic movies to life. Everyone has a relationship with the New York skyline, regardless if they’ve been here or not and I can easily make out the Empire State Building in Midtown from here. I have only just left New York’s third borough Queens (as in the Queen’s Athletic Club) and am already passing above Roosevelt Island whose shiny read cable car I can see when I turn my head the other way, north and to the right.
The humming slowly grows stronger.
What is that sound? A swarm of mosquitoes? My head swivels forward again, just in time to catch the orange-colored 16-mile marker. 16 miles. Almost 26 k. How are the feet? Not too bad, really. My bluegreen Asics DS Racers have obviously been a solid choice for this race. I’ve never run this far on asphalt in shoes as light as this (224 g). I check my watch. 2 hours 17 minutes. Good. Very good. The bridge finally finishes its upward bend and starts arcing downward toward Manhattan and 1st Avenue. My mind wanders off to this morning.
Race morning breakfast. No, really.
Wake up call at 04.45. Due to the change to winter-time during the night we had been awarded an extra hour of nervous sleep and thanks to our slight jetlag we were more than rested when we woke up. Dad and I donned our carefully prepared race gear, had a yoghurt and a chocolate for breakfast and headed down into the lobby where we met up with Per at 05.30. Together, we crossed Broadway and walked a block down to the Beacon where we boarded the buses that were bound for Staten Island and Fort Wadsworth. I love travelling through cities that aren’t fully awake yet. It makes you think that you have something really to do. And also, you can often relax all on your own. Passing through Manhattan we spotted several buses laden with eager runners heading for the marathon start and after emerging from the Holland tunnel we drove south through dark and sleeping neighbourhoods. Staten Island is New York’s least populous borough and has been the starting point of the NYCM since 1976 when it was suggested that the race run through all of New York’s five boroughs instead of running several loops around Central Park as it had done before. Stepping out of the bus, we were herded along to the gated marathon village by hundreds of uniformed police officers and volunteers. Never before have I seen men and women armed with fire weapons at the start of a marathon. But we live in dangerous times as the tragedy at this year’s Boston Marathon so tragically proved. And so all of us willingly gave up our plastic bags to be searched for weapons and explosives. After all, they were ultimately doing it for our safety. Runners this year were divided into three starting villages based on the number of their bibs. We headed for the green village that we’d been assigned. Since there were more than 50 000 starters this year, not only were we divided up in three differently coloured villages but also in different waves that would start at different intervals. The elite women were supposed to start at 09.20 leaving the elite men and the first and fastest wave of runners (with a projected time of less than 3:45) to start at 09.40. I would start in wave 1 whereas dad had been assigned to wave 2 starting 10.05 while poor Per would have to wait until 10.55 for the start of wave 4. Since we had been dropped off at the start just before 07.00, we had a fair amount of waiting ahead of us. Luckily, bagels, tea and coffee were generously distributed to all of us. Unfortunately though, I’m a freezer. Unless I’m running I’m always cold and especially when standing still at dawn in the freezing wind. This morning I thanked my lucky stars that I had stopped at Conway to buy big sweatpants and a thick, brown hoodie to keep me warm. Any items of clothing left at the start would be donated to the homeless by a charitable organisation. Conversation and toiletbreaks shortened our waiting time and suddenly a voice came on over the PA-system announcing that first wave-runners should start walking to the starting line. I hugged dad and Per, wished them luck and joined a swarm of people heading for the corrals. Not only were we divided up into three different colours and four different waves, but we were also further separated up into around 20 corrals per wave. A bit confusing at first, but easily managed by all the friendly volunteers at the start. Squeezing in a final pit stop at one of the 1 700 (!) toilets located at the start, I elbowed my way in among those that were to be my fellow runners for the next four hours. Everybody looked awfully fit and intimidating, sporting all manner of jerseys and tops with names of different runs and charities which made me feel a little out of place in my black shorts and black Icebreaker top to ward off the chill. In a moment of hubris – right now greatly regretted – I had written my final projected time at 3:30, which was almost half an hour faster than my current PB at 3:56. I was thinking that I’d rather be last in a long line of fast runners pulling me along than first in a long line being trampled down by eager marathoners trying to pass me. People started throwing their warm clothes by the side of the small curb where we were standing and with 20 minutes to go I pulled off my warm sweatpants in order not to waste time when the gun went off. I regretted it an instant later when an arctic gust of wind made goose bumps erupt all over my legs. People were fidgeting and shoving and moving their feet closer to the starting line in an attempt to get closer and not having to shove their way in front. A voice boomed over the crowd announcing mayor Bloomberg who wished us a good race, a children’s choir who sang the national anthem, several commercial announcements and finally: five minutes to go. Four. Three. Two. One. Go!
Is that an Alesia Trail-buff? Yeah!
Shuffling slowly forward it took almost a full two minutes before my corral crossed the starting line at the very western end of the Verrazano-Narrows bridge. I unzipped my hoodie, threw it alongside the pavement and started to run. Accompanying the thud from thousands of feet on the black tarmac of the bridge was the cheer from a few volunteers and spectators on the upper level. I was a bit bummed that the green wave would be running on the lower storey of the bridge while the blue and orange waves would be sharing the view from the upper storey. I glanced to the left where I could make out the outline of the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island. I set my sights on a blond girl with a Swedish blue-and-yellow jersey who looked as though she’d picked a good pace and simply tagged along around fifteen metres behind her. We passed one mile in a suprisingly short period of time and thundering down the end of the bridge we entered Brooklyn; New York’s second borough where we were to run almost half the race. After almost freezing my fingers off in the howling wind on the bridge it was a blessing to feel the sun warm my back as we turned north, twisting left and right before turning onto the small streets of Brooklyn. We hit 4th Avenue after about 5,5 km and ran absolutely straight for 7,3 km before making a sharp right turn and continuing almost due east along Lafayette Avenue and then Bedford Avenue, Greenpoint Avenue and McGuinness Boulevard. When we crossed Pulaski Bridge into Queens, borough number three, we had run 21,5 km. Now, let me illustrate something for you. For almost the ENTIRE stretch of asphalt criss-crossing through Brooklyn there were people cheering us along, in a lot of places there were crowds five or six people deep lining the fences. Along some stretches, they were only one deep, but there was barely a spot by the fences and plastic banners that was unoccupied. I have never seen anything like this in any race I have ever run. I had never seen so many happy people cheering me on. The sun was shining, the temperature was between five and ten degrees – perfect for a long distance race – and the atmosphere was absolutely phenomenal. There were street bands at regular intervals, playing everything from rock n’ roll to pop and we were waved at by kids in strollers, old gentleman with walking aids, soccer moms and business men in suits, police officers and fire fighters. Side note: if you want a good view of NYCM, befriend a fire fighter. They had the best view of all, standing on the fire truck ladders extended perilously over the streets. Even the hasidic Jews in Williamsburg seemed interested. Mind you, they didn’t cheer or applause – well, their kids did – but the adults looked on with a morbid sort of fascination. We could tell that there was something special in the air. Maybe even more New Yorkers had shown up than usual, supporting us all the more for the fact that hurricane Sandy had cancelled last year’s race.
The Swedish ponytail disappeared behind me after around 12-13 km and I latched on to another runner. And another. And another. And I felt really, really strong. My marathon dream time has always been 3.30 and I felt I had to rein myself in not to speed up even further. I passed 15 km in 1:13:40 meaning the pacing woman with the 3:30-sign was trailing me by 80 seconds. I forced myself to slow down a bit. This was going too fast. Turning north onto Bedford Avenue I waved at a group of Hasidic children sitting on the stone steps of a porch under the watchful eye of a stern lady. Just after the 13-mile marker (just ahead of the 21.1 km-sign, signifying the half marathon distance) I ducked into one of the liberally assigned port-a-loos and was out and running within 60 seconds. Very fast for me, but then again, I had a time to catch.
A camera man? Smile!
Crossing Pulaski bridge into borough number three, Queens, I had my first unobstructed view of the skyscrapers of Manhattan. Unfortunately we spent only about three km in Queens, turning up on 59th Street Bridge, also known as Queensboro Bridge, before I’d had a proper chance to look around. Pity, but then again I had run around here with Jakob around five months ago and felt I recognized the streets passing by in a blur. Now here I had definitely been before. This was the moment I had been waiting for for so long. The bright red Roosevelt Island Tramway – looking suspiciously like the Aiguille du Midi cable car in Chamonix in the French alps – was slowly detaching itself from the station building on the island and looked as if it wanted to join us on our run crossing East River.
OK, he wasn’t able to run this year, but he HAS been to Queensboro Bridge.
The humming slowly grows stronger.
What is that sound? A swarm of mosquitoes? My head swivels forward again, just in time to catch the orange-colored 16-mile marker near the end of the bridge. 16 miles. Almost 26 km. How are the feet? Not too bad, really. And then we turn left down a loop that will bring us under the bridge and north onto 1st Avenue on Manhattan. The humming slowly grows into a babbling brook. The babbling brook slowly grows into a loud river. The loud river slowly grows into a roaring waterfall. And then we turn down from the loop. And the roaring waterfall suddenly erupts into a thundering, deafening explosion of sound. In front of me stands the entire population of Sweden. And Norway. And Denmark. And all the countries of the world. They say that approximately two million new yorkers – TWO MILLION – crowd the streets on Marathon Sunday to cheer the runners on. The adrenaline rush I felt racing down my spine was something I have never experienced in a race before and probably never will again. The feeling was otherwordly. A huge grin cleaved my face in two and I heard myself laughing almost hysterically. At this point, do you think I slowed down and paced my sore and tired muscles for the 16 km to go, waving to the adulating crowds, drinking in their love and support? Well, I certainly did the latter. Regarding the first strategy, it was as far from my mind as… as… well, as slowing down! I accelerated past a grey-haired couple and I promise, my feet floated off the asphalt. I was flying. And I didn’t want to land. Ever.
There was a time when I couldn’t run without a 180 bpm soundtrack keeping my pace in a couple of headphones, and I used to bully my brother into mixing me music lists of his favourite house music in order to shut out the sound of my own ragged breathing. Anything to keep my mind off the actual pain of running. My first triathlon, on Tjörn, put a solid end to that audially challenged era when I, a mere three days before the race, chanced upon a remark in the official rules of the race that off-handedly forbade the use of headphones for reasons of security. There were a couple of paragraphs about road safety and other such nonsense and I seriously considered to withdraw from the competition, judging it barbaric. People who know me well know that I have a serious problem with authority. No race officials would tell ME that I wasn’t allowed to listen to my iPod! But of course, seeing reason after a few hours of eloquent cursing, I knew I had to stop my running music cold turkey. And I did. And what a different world I came to discover. I haven’t missed my head phones since and only use them at the gym to distract me from tedium during my long runs.
See? I’m FLYING!!!
I saw a few poor souls running with their ears plugged with white iPod phones during this heavenly stretch of road. And I pitied them. The ENTIRE length of 1st Avenue – almost 5,5 km – was completely packed with crowds. Sure, there were a few small gaps where people were only one line deep, but for 95% of that stretch the hordes were five people deep. I lifted off from the asphalt under Queensboro bridge and I didn’t land again until my shoes hit Willis Avenue Bridge taking us for a short mile into the last borough of New York – the Bronx – before turning 180° bringing us due south onto 5th Avenue. I payed the price for my lunatic pace, though. Just before the Bronx, I passed 30 km in 02:30:24, but the clock had ticked to 2:57:21 before I crossed the 35 km-line by Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem. I had lost almost two and a half minutes on my dream time and I was fighting not to slip down the ranks any further. But what did it matter? This was turning out to be the best marathon I had ever run! A few hundred metres into the Bronx, an older black woman -standing by the curb with a huge shopping bag in one hand and a chubby five-year-old hanging tightly to the other – let out a howl of encouragement and happily declared in a hoarse voice that would have made Barry White proud: “WELCOME TO THE BRONX, Y’ALL!!!” I couldn’t help smiling again, as evidenced by all the official marathon photos.
Starting new runner’s fashion: warm sweater around your hips. For 42,2 km.
The 23-mile marker just after the start of Central Park gave me new energy. Only around 5 km left. I could do this. From having stopped at every other or third water station, I had to take a quick break at every single mile for a sip of water or energy drink. Passing the Guggenheim to our left we turned into the beautiful park proper and I knew that I would make it. I willed my hurting feet to run faster and they responded. Kind of. Central Park is hillier than you might think and I almost expired permanently when I ran down the hill behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And this was where the crowds really came into their own. “Come ON!”, “You can do it!!”, “You are AWESOME!!!” And my personal favourite, shouted by an old grandmother by the road: “If it were EASY, I would do it!!!” We passed the pond to our right and exited the park, turning west on Central Park south, passing all the extravagant hotels facing the south end of the park where I always promise myself I will stay during my next visit before reality checking with my financial advisor (the missus). Waving to Columbus at the top of his perch at the Circle bearing his name I turned into the park again. And there it was. The home stretch. Lined with all the flags of the participating nations. And there was Slovakia. And Norway. And SWEDEN!!! The last 200 metres of the race are – I am not making this up – uphill. Cruel. So very, very cruel. And I almost felt sorry for the group of runners I passed during my jerky sprint to the finish line. They probably didn’t expect a black-clad maniac going bananas during the last stretch, bowling them over in an attempt at shaving a few precious seconds off his new Personal Best.
New P.B. with 20 minutes. Even smashing Jakob’s old record with 13 minutes. Try beating that. Hehe. Dad crossed the finish line in 5:14:12, creating his own P.B. He’s now an impressive veteran of TWO marathons: Athens and New York. A splendid achievement! And my father-in-law Per finished his first ever marathon in his running career in 5:49:43. Hands up for both of them! Incredible! In conclusion: if you have trouble motivating yourself to run in New York, I have only seven little words for you.
Most. Awesome. Marathon. In. The. World. Period.
Dad finishing his 60-year birthday present.
Proud marathoners with our coach (far left) post-race.
Celebratory dinner at Red Rooster. Lovely.
Yes. That is, in fact, a Marathon des Sables-buff.