This race recap took me longer to write than any other I’ve done. It was a really hard training cycle and I even put off writing about training because I guess I don’t love writing about things that are bad? I should probably not be like that and also talk to my therapist and also get a therapist.
Anyway, I’m doing it now.
My recaps tend to be long and detailed. I’ll do my best to summarize the pre-race stuff, but I always think it’s worth mentioning. I’ve never been someone to write a race recap two or three paragraphs long. I don’t understand those people (but I am jealous of them).
The 2019 TCS NYC Marathon was my third 26.2 mile race. My first was 2018 NYC, my second last April’s NJ Marathon. I ran NJ with the goal of qualifying for the 2020 Boston Marathon, which required shaving at least ten minutes off my time from NYC (4:00:07, a hilarious time for someone who only wanted to break 4). I worked like hell last winter and accomplished my goal, finishing NJ in 3:48:05 – qualifying for Boston and ultimately gaining entry by 16 seconds (their cutoff this year was 1:39). I felt great about the NJ Marathon and would love to do it again someday. Thank you, New Jersey. *chef’s kiss*
I was looking to shave off another ten minutes in the 2019 NYC Marathon – ambitious but not impossible, I thought. Why ten minutes? If I, a woman between 45 and 49, ran a 3:38 (or faster) marathon, I’d qualify for NYC, putting me in the local competitive start and eliminating the need for me to do the 9+1 program to guarantee entry. Also, it would be cool to shave off another ten minutes. Why not go for it?
That was the plan. My beautiful, perfect plan.
Last year, I got into the 2018 NYC Marathon by raising money for Fred’s Team in honor of my mom, who died from cancer in November 2017. At first I thought about doing the same this year but couldn’t bear the thought of asking friends and family for money again. I’m not that bold. It felt like something I could do only once, not every year.
But I’d completed 9+1 in 2018 so I was guaranteed entry to the 2019 race that way. If you’re interested in 9+1 or any of the other ways to guarantee entry to the NYC Marathon, check out this page. Otherwise, entering through the drawing only gives you a small chance. I believe it was 11% last year.
Marathon training began in July and went well at first. I used my running club’s training plan – the New York Harriers had also trained me for NJ, so I trusted it completely. You can read about each week of training in my blog posts. Otherwise, here’s the short version: it went well at first and then in September I got plantar fasciitis and then it did not go so well.
Even before the plantar fasciitis, running this past summer was rough. I struggled in the humidity. I had a mysterious, recurring issue of my right arm becoming massively heavy when I got excessively tired, which happened often in the heat. This unexplained malady, which caused my right elbow to straighten and my arm to hang at my side, first occurred toward the end of last May’s brutal Brooklyn Half and never fully went away. I still have no idea what caused it. I usually just assume it means I’m dying.
My last six weeks of training were a struggle. I missed a lot of runs, watched a ton of plantar fasciitis videos on YouTube (all offering varying and even conflicting advice), and spent a ridiculous amount of money on physical therapy, acupuncture, and drug store treatments. I tried making up for lost runs with AlterG and deep water running. It wasn’t enough. I knew I wasn’t as strong as I should be to run 26.2 miles well. I was determined to try anyway. I started a prescription anti-inflammatory the Wednesday before the race, got the blessing of an orthopedist, and hoped for the best.
Like last year, I went to the marathon expo on its second day right after it opened. After waiting on line inside for about 20 minutes (they let people in in waves), I entered the Jacob Javits Center along with a few thousand others. I made it to the bib pick-up line in no time. No line for my bib, no line for my shirt. Wonderful.
I had about an hour to kill which I used to take pics and buy some heavily discounted Gu. I waited on line to have my picture taken in front of a big 26.2 display. I met a guy in line who was also there by himself (the marathon was to be his first ever road race!) and we took each other’s photos. He did a great job. Thanks, guy whose name I can’t remember! I hope your first ever road race went well.
Typically, the night before a race I like to have mostly carbs but not overdo it. I baked a whole acorn squash and filled it with quinoa and I think carrots and green beans. I learned my lesson from last year and did not have any bread or cookies or anything the day before the race that would clog up my digestive system, which seems to become easily disrupted with even the slightest whiff of flour.
I packed my start village bag, foam rolled, set my alarm for 4am, and went to bed at 10.
I walked my dog in the dark. I had a fried egg on steel cut oats and some Nuun water. I’d get coffee at the start. The Harriers had scheduled vans to the start – just one of the many perks of being on the team. I wouldn’t have to worry about crowded bus lines at the library or on Staten Island. The van would take us directly there.
The most stressful part of my morning happened inside the cab heading down to meet the van: the cab’s credit card machine didn’t work. I saw the van waiting for me across Broadway. And I was late. I kept swiping my card and it wouldn’t work, and I had no cash, and finally I said “I HAVE TO GO!” and the increasingly agitated guy yelled “JUST GET OUT!” which was a very tense moment but hey, free ride. I sprinted across Broadway, got in the Harriers van, and spent the next hour and a half rubbing my bare feet, hoping they’d be able to bring me back home.
THE START VILLAGE
The weather was like last year: around 50 and sunny. Maybe a few degrees cooler this year. Our van arrived at the start village a little after 8. Plenty of time to get ready before my 10:10 start.
Unlike last year, I didn’t spend my time at the start village alone. I hung out with Sunny, a fellow Harrier running her first marathon. We also met up with Harrier president Margaret. We were all starting in Wave 2, all of us projected to finish in around 4 hours. Margaret had run the Chicago Marathon three weeks earlier because she’s a badass, so she wasn’t going for any kind of PR. Sunny was hoping to break 4. I just wanted to finish the dang thing.
We got bananas, hot chocolate (only half a packet so as not to sugar overload), and Honey Stinger waffles. It had been a few hours since my breakfast so I welcomed the extra calories. And I am physically incapable of passing up free food.
Sunny captured me in my throwaway clothes, purchased for cheap from St. Francis Thrift Store on West 96th Street. Like last year’s start village sweatshirt, this one seemed to be from a teenage girl’s party. My seat cushion was a dog jacket someone in my building had discarded.
And lo! I was successful in my porta-potty visits. Hallelujah. One less thing to have to worry about. Thanks, poop gods!
I did some warm-ups, slathered on some sunscreen, and discarded what I didn’t need. I peeled off my sweats and put them in a donation bin, one of many that lined the village. Sunny, Margaret, and I gathered in Corral D of Wave 2 a little before 10am and made our way to the foot of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. For the record, I think this is the prettiest bridge in NYC. Take that, Brooklyn Bridge.
I felt ready. I was excited. On the other hand, there was a part of me that wondered if this was a very stupid thing I was about to do.
My plan at the start was to stick with Sunny for as long as I could. Maybe I couldn’t break 4 today, but perhaps somewhere around 4:30 was possible. I thought. In truth, I was clueless. I just don’t have enough marathons under my belt. I didn’t realize it then, but my heels would not be my biggest problem.
Going over the prettiest bridge in NYC for the first two miles of the race, I felt okay. The uphill mile 1 was a relaxing 9:26 and the downhill mile 2 was a way too fast 8:15. Oops. I was either beside Sunny or on her heels. Margaret must have been right behind us. By the end of the bridge, I’d lost Sunny. Just as well. I didn’t want to stress out trying to keep up only to have a too-fast pace bite me in the ass later on. So I let her go, silently wishing her well, as I entered the first borough with spectators. They were, as usual, out in full force.
At this point I’ll mention my strategies for getting through this marathon for which I did not feel fully prepared.
- Drugs. This is the only reason I ever made it to the start line: a prescription anti-inflammatory called Meloxicam that I’d started four days earlier. It comes in different strengths; I had the 15MG version. Online reviews made me nervous because some people experienced bad side effects (everything from nausea to hives) but fortunately I experienced none. My heel pain disappeared the morning after I started taking it.
- 175 BPM songs. Since I was trying to run with a faster cadence without shocking my body with too big a change, I mixed some songs at 175 beats per minute into my regular race playlist. (I know 180 is the ideal but that was still too big a leap for me.) Last year I ran the NYC Marathon without music. This year I felt I needed it to help quicken my steps, thereby avoiding too much heel-striking.
- Distraction. I didn’t use the crowds to my advantage much last year. I was very much in my own head. This year, I wanted to interact with them more: make eye contact, give high-fives, take candy. Whatever I could do to keep my brain occupied and away from how my feet felt.
- Focusing on the finish. Obviously, I had the option of dropping out – and was half expecting that to happen – but I kept envisioning how great I would feel (mentally) if I could cross the finish line. Even if it hurt (physically).
The NYC Marathon brings together runners from all walks of life; every part of the political spectrum; all religions, races, and generations. But if there is one thing we can all agree on, it’s that the crowds that line our course are some of the best in the world. There seems to be no other marathon that gets the rave reviews for support like this one does. So it was exciting to enter Brooklyn where the crowds gave us total support from the first block.
Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue runs from about the 2.5 mile mark to the 8 mile mark. It’s long and straight and flat. This meant I didn’t have to think too much about the road, just my running. The crowds were screaming. There were quite a few “Punch Trump” signs or inflatable Trump dolls for, I assume, punching. The spectator signs are one of the best things about the race. HIT HERE FOR POWER BOOST. SMILE IF YOU HAVE TO PEE. RUN LIKE YOU STOLE SOMETHING. And the perennial in-joke for locals: YOU’RE RUNNING FASTER THAN THE MTA.
At about mile 4, the front of my hips started aching.
This is the same ache I felt in last year’s race at mile 17. I remember first feeling it after entering Manhattan. I managed to not only finish last year’s race but speed up in the second half; I negative split by two minutes. So it doesn’t make running impossible, just annoying.
This year, I felt it again. In mile 4.
This was not good.
I noted how I hadn’t felt this ache on my 6-mile run three days ago. Like the wise athlete I am, I decided to ignore it, letting the crowds and my music distract me.
I passed quite a few streakers – not nude runners (sorry), but those who have run the NYC Marathon more than 15 times in a row. They’re easily identifiable from the bibs on their backs showing their streak number. The most hardcore of the bunch have run it 40 times or more. As I’d done last year, I gave a thumbs up or said “Congrats” to each one as I passed. I believe they all start in Wave 1, regardless of their expected finish time, so generally I pass them in Brooklyn. I’m in awe of all of them.
My pace for the first 7 miles ranged from roughly 8:45 to 9:15 – about what it had been last year. For me, this is not “hard” but it’s faster than a jog. And it was much faster than I should have been running.
I should mention Brooklyn’s Emmanuel Baptist Church and its gospel choir. Anyone who’s run the NYC Marathon knows them. Each year during the race, they stand on the steps outside their church in Clinton Hill and sing. When I saw them, I was so relieved to have something nice to distract me from my aches and pains that I raised both arms toward them in praise. I blew them kisses. Some of them waved.
I was feeling a big sense of gratitude this year. Even a week earlier, I wasn’t sure this race was going to be possible. I was truly happy to be running today, even if it wasn’t at my fastest. My feet may have been worse this year, but my mood was better.
I slowed in mile 8, which starts on the uphill of Lafayette Avenue. Uphills were particularly hard today. I knew I was slowing down and was fine with this. I began running around a 9:30 pace and would have been happy if I stayed there for the rest of the race. This section of Brooklyn was mildly irritating in that there were no barriers separating the crowds from the course so people spilled into the street. I was running along the right side of the road and wound up slamming into a few spectators.
Somewhere in Brooklyn I started thinking about my mom, something I tend to do during times of struggle. I spoke out loud to her, which is a bit out of character for me, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I said “Help me, Mom.” I said this over and over. To be clear, I don’t know if I believe in an afterlife. I’m not sure her “spirit” could “hear” me. But saying this made me feel better. It seemed to relax my muscles. My shoulders became less tense, my breathing more even. So I said it.
As we made a hard left in Greenpoint, I saw a woman holding a big sign: PAIN IS TEMPORARY. I gave her a thumbs up and a slow, profound nod. Yes, the knowledge of pain being temporary is what was helping me through this race on increasingly sore legs. I started thinking about pain. What is pain? Is it different for everyone? Is it always bad? Can pain be good? Could it even be… a gift? Pain is a gift, I thought as I snatched a Twizzler from a spectator and stuck it in my mouth like a stalk of wheat. Pain is a gift. I said it out loud. “Pain is a gift.” Why? Because it meant I was alive.
You can only feel pain if you’re alive.
I was so happy to be alive.
The Pulaski Bridge connects Brooklyn to Queens. It’s not a long bridge and last year I don’t remember it being much of an issue. This year, I stopped to stretch at the bottom of it for maybe 20 seconds. My calves were feeling tight and I needed a break.
My heels weren’t feeling so great either. I’d wondered how long the Meloxicam would dull my pain; apparently the answer was a firm “not long enough.” My right heel was worse than my left so I’d begun to compensate by landing more on my right forefoot. My gait was uneven. This is never a good sign. Only very stubborn people continue running through this.
I was relieved to reach Queens because it meant I was almost at the Queensboro Bridge which meant I was almost in Manhattan which meant I was almost in the Bronx which meant I was almost in Manhattan again which meant the race was almost over. The logic of a runner in pain.
There is one unfortunate feature of Queensboro Bridge, much like most long bridges, and really only unfortunate if you are a runner having an off day in a marathon: the first half of it is a fairly unforgiving uphill.
It’s not the steepest hill of the race. That would be the Verrazzano. But mile 1 of a marathon is an okay place to have a long, steep uphill.
Mile 15 is not.
This is where the wheels, such as they were, began to come off.
I’d stopped paying attention to my pace at this point, and on the Queensboro it’s pointless – the runners are on the lower level and the upper level blocks any kind of wifi signal. Your pace could read 17 minutes a mile when you’re running 8s. It doesn’t matter. You either have to guess or forget about it.
As I struggled up the bridge, feeling as though my legs were being punched by several angry boxers, I heard my name from behind. Margaret passed me. I greeted her and said “I just have to get over this bridge,” as if once I got over the bridge I’d be free to sprint my way to a personal record finish. I wished I could have stayed with her. My legs said no.
I was looking forward to getting across the Queensboro; if for nothing else, that on the other side stood several thousand cheering spectators, including the Harriers cheer section at mile 18. I knew I had to reach my team members standing outside the White Castle on First Avenue. If I could make it there, I could finish the race. I was sure of it.
Help me, Mom.
MANHATTAN, PART I
You can hear the wall of sound while still on the bridge. It’s pretty cool. The excitement of meeting those cheers head on made me temporarily forget the pain in my legs.
Still, I stopped to stretch again before I made the turn onto First. This was a longer stop than the previous one. My calves felt like rubber bands that had been sitting overnight in a freezer.
First Avenue is long. And mostly flat, at least for the first mile. Not having a hill to contend with helped a bit, and my pace picked up here. I ran mile 17 in 9:55. This normally easy jogging pace was a huge effort for me. It would be the last mile I’d run in under 10 minutes.
I was hurting. But nobody looking at me would have been able to guess – I had the biggest, stupidest smile plastered across my face. I had never felt so happy to be alive. I couldn’t believe I had gotten here. Not only had I started the race, I had reached Manhattan. I was more than halfway to the finish.
Pain is a gift. Pain is a gift. The road was wide enough now that I could say this out loud and not feel weird about it.
Mile 18 was fast approaching and I was eager to see the Harriers. Over 70 Harriers were out running the marathon that day but many had chosen to run other fall marathons instead; some didn’t run any. One or two were sidelined with injuries. All I knew is that they were outside the White Castle on the west side of First. I practically strained my neck looking for that blue and white restaurant sign.
Then I saw them. I threw my arms up and almost cried. It was so nice to see familiar faces.
(Thanks for the pics, Vera!)
I hadn’t seen any of my family members yet. I knew one of my sisters would be in the second phase of Manhattan and the other somewhere along Fifth Avenue, so I had time. My next task was getting to the Bronx. I kept watching the numbered street signs increase as we headed north. They went by way too slowly.
For those who might not know, the boroughs of NYC are separated by rivers. A small one called the Harlem River runs between Manhattan and the Bronx, which means, yes, another bridge. Then you’re in the Bronx for one mile. Then another bridge.
The first one is the Willis Avenue Bridge. Like the Pulaski, it’s not long or steep and I barely remember it last year. This year, not only did I stop to stretch at the bottom, I walked up it. I had no choice. My legs were shot. I could no longer physically move my legs in a running formation up any kind of hill. As I crested it, a photog caught me (as a photog myself I am very aware of them) and I started jogging again. And forced a smile.
By the way, these shorts by Ultimate Direction were a game changer and I will wear them in every marathon. Pockets for Gu, pocket for my phone, pockets for water bottles and they come with the water bottles. NO BELT! Incredible. Highly recommended.
Anyway, this was all in stark contrast to last year’s race when I saved my fastest 10K for the end. From the Bronx through to the finish in Central Park, I was a powerhouse.
This year, my mile in the Bronx was my slowest yet: 13:03.
For some people this is a normal running pace. And that’s fine as everyone is different. Speed is relative. For me, this is not a normal running pace. It is a I’m-very-much-in-trouble pace.
I can’t remember where this was but maybe the Bronx: a Biofreeze station where Biofreeze employees were spraying runners’ legs with their product, which is Biofreeze (not sponsored). I had a sudden “why the hell not” moment and stopped to get sprayed. The guy pointed the nozzle at me and said “Where?” I said “Everywhere. Anywhere. All of it.” So he sprayed my legs until they glistened like the top of the Chrysler building during sunset and I was on my way. Did the Biofreeze help? I’m honestly not sure.
I think I took some candy from spectators in the Bronx. I know I grabbed part of a banana. Pretzels, maybe. Whatever I could get my hands on. I’d had three gels already and had two more stashed in my pockets but I needed solid food. Anything to give me some kind of energy boost, not that my legs would have responded.
One of the great things about the short Madison Avenue Bridge back into Manhattan is that it’s last bridge on the course. Or, as well-known spectator Emily Litman likes to say, the LAST DAMN BRIDGE. I was happy to see her, even if she didn’t recognize me from the Facebook group we’re both in.
I desperately wanted to see my sisters and nephews. I knew one of my sisters would be somewhere after the Madison Avenue Bridge but I wasn’t sure exactly where.
MANHATTAN, PART II
I searched the crowds for my family. Both sides of the street. I was firmly in the 13-14 min/mile pace range at this point, so it’s not like I was going so fast I’d miss them. My legs were just… bad. Calves, outer left knee, inner lower right quad. My worst pain was there. The rest of me just ached. I couldn’t even limp on one good leg – I didn’t have one.
At this point, I knew it wasn’t my heels I should have been most worried about. My legs were severely undertrained due to my six weeks of plantar fasciitis and I was finally feeling the full brunt of it. Oops.
Unfortunately, I never found my first sister on the course. I later found out she and my nephews were much farther south; by then I had given up hope and stopped looking. They never saw me either, which is weird, because I definitely looked out of place.
People were passing me left and right, although mostly left because I tried staying to the far right of the course, like a car with a broken engine chugging along the highway with its hazards blinking, smoke pouring from its exhaust. Move around me, everyone. Sorry.
I could have quit. Nobody would have cared. But… would I rather live with another hour of pain or a lifetime of knowing I’d given up? I considered this. I kept going.
To my relief, at mile 23 I saw my other sister and her family. I made the fatal mistake of stopping for a full minute to talk. My sister took a few pics and I formed my face into what I hoped resembled a smile.
Meanwhile, my legs were like “Ah, we’ve finally stopped! Now we don’t have to do any more work ever again!” When I tried to get going again, they flat out refused to work. Assholes.
For the last three miles of the race, I hobbled. Central Park was a nightmare. Race volunteers asked me if I was okay, if I wanted water, if I needed to stop. Yes, no, no. I got photographed here a bunch, but I’m honestly glad because this is the truth of how I was feeling at the time. I don’t need to hide it. I did this to myself. I take full responsibility. This is on me.
By the time I got to the south end the park, I was in such bad shape. All I had to do was get across 59th Street and then enter the park again for the last short stretch.
The entirety of 59th Street along the park is a slight upward incline. It’s not that bad under normal circumstances, but today I found it impossible. Once I made the turn onto 59th, I gave up. I walked.
My mood actually improved as soon as I started walking. I smiled for the cameras. I even laughed. This was, by far, one of the most ridiculous things I had ever done.
I stayed along the right side of the course, so close to the crowds that some of them gave me high-fives or pats on the back, telling me “You’re almost there!” and “Don’t give up!” Don’t worry, stranger. It would be silly to give up at this point. I took a Jolly Rancher from someone and stuck it in my pocket. I really do love free food.
Once inside the park again, I managed to force my legs into a slow jog. Less than a mile to go. I was grinning at this point because I knew I had all but made it. I couldn’t believe it. So much pain, so much stupid, avoidable pain, but I had made it.
I saw the finish line approaching. A clock read 5:00 something. Did I finish in over five hours? Probably? Who cares? I was here. I was done. I raised my arms with relief and crossed the finish.
My official time was 4:56:43. Just under 5. And last year all I wanted to do was break 4. I remember feeling disappointed last year that I didn’t. This year, a full 56 minutes slower, I was thrilled.
You would think I would’ve been glad to stop running. But I found myself freezing, exhausted, hungry, and all I wanted to do was lie down. After getting a heat blanket I asked a NYRR volunteer if she would take my photo and she kindly obliged. I look way stronger than I felt, trust me.
I didn’t want to sit down. I had to get my poncho, get out of the park, and make my way over to the 1 train on Broadway and 72nd. Normally, this walk might have taken me about 10 minutes.
Today it took me 75 minutes.
First of all, the slog to get to the poncho is interminable. This is not hyperbole: it was Hell. Seriously, at one point I figured if there is a Hell, it would be this walk. It was horrible. I’ve studied the maps; there doesn’t seem to be a better place to have the poncho pickup if they want it separate from the bag check (no runner can have both). I get it. It’s just… so… so… long.
Here’s a photo I took of the long walk to the ponchos.
This was the last photo I took. My hands were cold. I didn’t feel like draining any more of my dying phone battery. Also, my hands were full carrying two post-race goodie bags because someone discarded theirs on the side of the road and I wanted more free food because I’m selfish.
I finally reached poncho pickup where it was somewhat of a free-for-all. I grabbed one off a stack and shuffled out onto the street where I hobbled slowly to Broadway. I had to stop and rest on the side of a mailbox at one point. The subway stairs were a nightmare (down is always worse than up). On the train, there were no seats. So I did something I have never done before but came very naturally today: I sat on the floor of the subway. I didn’t get up until we reached my stop.
Finally, I was home. I forget what I did first. Maybe showered. Maybe ate something. Maybe both at the same time? Is that even possible? It’s all a blur.
After I showered, I took a cab down to my sister’s, took a hot bath, and ate about eight servings of pasta and meat.
There’s a lot to write about the aftermath of this race, but I’ll save it for another post. This one has gone on long enough. I learned a lot in this race – about myself, my body, my abilities, my stubbornness, my drive, my weaknesses, and my strengths.
One great thing about the race? I did not have to stop to go to the bathroom once. Not once in over six hours, from the start to my arrival home, did I have to pee, poop, or even fart. Wow. I should get an extra medal for that.
But this one’s nice.
If you’d like to read about how Sunny, Margaret, and the rest of the Harriers did, please check out this race recap I wrote for the Harriers blog!
Thank you for reading this very long, very detailed race recap. I’m so glad I ran the 2019 TCS NYC Marathon, even if it was mostly an ugly painfest. Here’s hoping the next one goes slightly better.
Thank you to MarathonFoto who took all of the official photos of me on the course.
MY OFFICIAL RESULTS
Age Group: 1731/3076
4 thoughts on “Pain Is A Gift: 2019 TCS NYC Marathon Race Recap”
Congrats on your finish. I too have had a similar race and the mental/physical struggle weighed so heavily on me, it took me 3 years to sign up for another marathon. Every race before that (including a BQ the month before) had been so great, that it just broke me for awhile. I hope that with time and healing you will find yourself ready to get back out there. NYC bridges are no joke!
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Thank you! I am running again and begin official marathon training for Boston NEXT WEEK! 🙂 I heard there are hills there too. 😦
NYC is one of those races that would make me feel a little claustrophobic (haha) but maybe one day I’ll do it to be one of the *cool* kids. That is if I can ever scale back on running ultras. 😉 How cool that you got to run your ‘hood. Congrats!
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Thank you! Yeah it seems like I SHOULD do NYC because I live here. But my goodness, there are SO many runners. Too many. It is nice as a once in a lifetime race, though.
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