Race Report: TCS NYC Marathon 2018
Just over a week after running the TCS NYC Marathon I’m feeling normal again: walking without pain, not constantly re-evaluating my race day, and even starting to get excited to run another race. I ran a 4:08:50 marathon last week, which is a far cry from the time I aimed for — but even during marathon itself, I realized that while it wasn’t the time I wanted, it was the race I was trained for and the race I deserved.
Harsh? Maybe a little. But also freeing: finding the connections between the 18 weeks of training I did and my performance on race day adds clarity and order to my experience, even if I wish I’d been in better shape, run harder, or prepared better.
And setting aside my own performance, the New York City Marathon was an absolutely incredible experience. The wild crowds, the grandeur of the city, the stunning clear day, and the culmination of a really rough season were overwhelming in the best way. I laughed, I cried, I blistered, I chafed, I high-fived strangers and smiled for the cameras — and in the end I accepted the result I achieved and was thrilled to run those 26.2 miles.
I joked after the race that everything that could have gone wrong did — from avoidable mistakes on my part to some bad luck as well. I knew by the 15k mark I was in over my head, but stuck to my race plan nonetheless, and by mile 18 I was really struggling. But as my race pace slipped away and my morale slipped, I kept moving forward. Running, even. I didn’t give in to the little voice that suggested pulling over, stretching, wasting some time, and taking a break that would inflate my finish time — enough that I could deny it. At first I frantically checked my time against my pace bands and wished for a way to avoid admitting I couldn’t finish before the clock ticked up from 3:59:59 into the 4-hour bracket. But short of a few impossible 5 or 7 minute miles, nothing was going to save me, and the only thing worse than a slow finish would be one that included lying to myself and attempting to sugarcoat my performance.
So I didn’t stop running. I let my paces go but held onto my pride, and I didn’t stop giving my best, even when I was devastated at what “best” meant on Sunday, November 4, 2018. And from the moment I crossed the finish line to the chipper conversations I struck up with other finishers in Central Park, from the dehydrated sobs I shed on the Upper West Side and stoic post-mortem I had with an experienced marathoner on Monday, I held tight to that realization, and allowed myself to feel proud of it as well as the effort of finishing 26.2 miles. Even when my goals exceeded my abilities, I “went for it” right from the start, as he pointed out, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. I had hours and miles of opportunity to give up, but I didn’t. This result is just more fuel to draw on next time, and an experience that toughened me up mentally even as I couldn’t hang in physically.
But for all the accepting attitudes and inspirational realizations I have drawn from this race, I still began by looking back at every decision and misstep along the way — first to punish myself, and then to learn and start preparing for next year. So what happened? What did I do wrong, what miscalculations did I make, what avoidable errors tripped me up, and what can I chalk up to bad luck or happenstance?
The first moment I thought my race was in trouble was 12:30am the night before. I woke drenched in sweat, after an early bedtime of 10:30pm. I’d had horrific nightmares that began as stress dreams about the marathon itself, but soon devolved into terrifying, gory, slasher-flick visions that jolted me awake in a panic. I’d wanted to get to sleep earlier but was full of nerves and struggled to get too far off my night owl routine — and now I was wide awake and freaking out halfway through the night. I calmed myself down and decided to mix up a glass of Nuun electrolyte drink in an attempt to undo the damage of sweating so much before even reaching the course! I felt sick, but eventually drifted back off to sleep before waking at 4:30am to catch the Queens Distance Runners’ shuttle to the race start.
But this was where I made the first truly bad decision: I woke, dressed in my warm throwaway clothes, grabbed my start village bag with the rest of my race day kit and some morning essentials, and biked the mile to the shuttle pickup in Astoria. I didn’t eat breakfast, and I didn’t have any coffee. At 5:15am when I left the house, I wasn’t hungry — but by the time I got to the shuttle, my body had woken up and also realized the clocks “fell behind” an hour. It felt like 6:15, when I’m usually either running, eating breakfast, or at least drinking coffee, but instead, I was just settling in for a 2-hour bus ride. I watched runners around me prepare tidy bus breakfasts and clutch to-go coffee cups, and my stomach grumbled. My plan of eating oatmeal and a banana at the start felt foolish and impossibly far away. I ate the banana and steeled myself for a hungry ride, hoping I could get some sleep.
Obviously this was not a good start to an intense day of running! When I told this to another marathoner they looked at me in shock, and declared marathons are a “two-breakfast day”. Frankly, with the time change I probably should have eaten three times: at home, on the bus, and maybe a little bit to top me off in the start village. What’s the point of carboloading the night before if you use up all that carefully stored extra energy before the race even starts?
Unfortunately I didn’t sleep on the bus either, as my body was starting to wake up and the bright, beautiful sunrise streamed through the windows. I chatted with my seatmate, who luckily for me had a bagel with peanut butter in her bag that she didn’t want. She offered me some and I ate a quarter of it — but even as it calmed my rumbling stomach I worried the unusual breakfast would come back to haunt me later in the day. I enjoyed meeting her and was grateful for the snack, but there’s a cutthroat part of me that wonders if I would have fared better if I’d insisted on sleeping and had 2 more hours of rest, but less food, before crossing the start line.
Still, the bus ride was pleasant and passed relatively quickly, and the experienced QDR team and driver even warned us passengers to use the on-board bathroom before we reached Fort Wadsworth. When we stepped off the bus we immediately joined the streams of runners walking to the massive start village: roads were blocked off by police cars and garbage trucks, the Verrazano Narrows bridge loomed in the distance, and more than 50,000 runners (to say nothing of staff) descended on Staten Island’s historic national park.
The security process was pretty quick and after walking about a mile to the marathon village, my new friend and I split up. She was in Wave 3 and waiting to meet up with someone else who’d bring her some race-day supplies, but as a Wave 2 runner I was already starting to feel strapped for time when we arrived around 8:00. My corral wouldn’t open until 9:35, but I had yet to eat my oatmeal or drink any coffee, and I knew I’d need to use a bathroom at least one more time.
I found the blue start village —which would house one third of the runners, released in four waves over the course of the morning— and walked in, looking for the coffee and food stations. I didn’t quite know what to expect, and the sheer volume of the village was overwhelming. Runners as far as the eye could see, vibrant clear skies, and announcements in several languages warning runners not to be alarmed by the start cannons (or directing them to the therapy dog zone, who knew?) all overwhelmed me. I found the coffee line and tucked in, but when I realized it wasn’t moving because there was no coffee, I decided to prioritize making my oatmeal using the hot water at the tea station and come back for coffee later. I did just that, though I couldn’t find a spoon, and finally ate my intended breakfast with coffee stirrer chopsticks while chatting with another first-time NYC runner in the coffee line. My oatmeal was supposed to be a familiar and comforting breakfast, but it proved to be stressful and one more hassle to deal with at the start; I should have just had a free bagel like everyone else, or brought it pre-made and ate it on the bus.
Taking my cues from the other runners in line, I grabbed two cups when I reached the front of the coffee queue, and then headed right for the portajohn line. As 9:00 approached and the Wave 1 runners neared their start, I began to stress out about having enough time before my own wave start to pee, put on all my race gear from my bag, and get into my corral. Of course, my timing was fine, but as I gulped down the hot coffee, used the bathroom, and then sat down to swap my throwaway shoes for race-day shoes, I realized I had been on my feet for over an hour “running errands” in the start village. One more avoidable mistake to remember — I should have been resting and getting my head in the game, instead of trying to make oatmeal for the sake of my usual morning routine.
The day was warming up quickly and I was glad I wore shorts with my longsleeved shirt instead of tights. As I entered my corral, I swapped my warm throwaway hat for my baseball cap and ditched my start village bag — which I realized shortly after still contained my water bottle. But I was too concerned with my rumpled bib to worry about that. After one race this fall where my bib failed to register crossing the finish line, supposedly because I wore it on my leg and not my torso, I had pinned my bib front and center on my shirt. But the timing tag seemed bent, and I worried that I’d sabotaged myself even worse and broken it entirely! I considered moving the bib to my leg so I could have the option of removing my shirt later if the temperatures kept climbing, but kept it in place to make it as visible as possible to volunteers and cameras — a backup plan to gather evidence of myself on the course if the bib itself failed me. My jitters made the final 30 minutes in the corral pass quickly, and before I knew it all the runners were streaming through the starting chute towards the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. I stopped to tie my shoe —my usual starting-line concern— and saw the archetypical runner sneaking a pee off to the side of the road, before walking up onto the highway with everyone else. We passed police and armed guards, but even those sights that usually make me nervous couldn’t compare to the river of the runners walking towards the enormous suspension bridge.
I wanted to get my head on straight for the race, but ironically the excitement of this starting line was distracting in and of itself! We crowded on the approach for the highway, and after a runner sang God Bless America, the starting cannons fired, and we were off.
THE COURSE: START - 5K
The Verrazano Narrows had me very nervous before race day: starting a race with a steep climb over a bridge longer than any I’d ever run was an intimidating thought. But just like everyone assured me, I didn’t notice the grade on the way up at all. The massive starting cannons, excitement of finally running, energy of the the crowd (and my shock at the number of people climbing highway barriers to take selfies with the bridge—during the race!), helicopters buzzing alongside us, and stunning views from the upper level were more than enough of a distraction. My 9:25 first mile flew by, and I wondered if I was going to kick myself later for taking the advice to go out slow too seriously. How optimistic I was!
Mile 2 clicked by in 8:21, though I tried to hold back on the way down the bridge. The bright sun and warm weather were already gnawing at my nerves, and I saw sweating runners left and right. As we descended into Brooklyn, I dropped the handwarmers I’d tucked into my gloves in preparation for a 40-degree morning — temperature was at least 50 or 55 degrees, and I didn’t want to overheat so soon. I reached the 5k split in 27:34, right on pace at 8:52 min/mile. I hoped to run the first half of the marathon just under 9:00 minute miles (defining “half” as ending when the Queensboro bridge spit me out onto 1st Avenue in Manhattan) and then pick up the pace in the second half if I could. If I executed this plan well, I could potentially PR by beating my 8:55 overall pace from Philadelphia 2017; if not, I still had some wiggle room to squeak in under a 4 hour marathon, which would only require an average pace of 9:09 minutes/mile.
5K - 10K
The next 5k were just as exciting as the first, with hordes of screaming Brooklynites waving signs, playing music, and even handing out mini bottles of water. I was surprised to see such support early on, but didn’t think too much of it. I took off my gloves and balled them up in my hand as I rolled up my sleeves; I planned to toss them to my boyfriend around the 10k mark if I saw him, or maybe just throw them away. I reached the 10k mark in 55:21, or 8:54 overall pace, and remembered he might actually be at mile 7 or 8. No problem! I used the gloves to wipe sweat from my face and ate my first Clif Bloks. I wasn’t sure if he knew to be on the runner’s right, where I had to be as the Blue runners ran down the right side of a divided highway, so I kept an eye out but prepared myself that we might miss each other.
I considered taking off my shirt, but didn’t know what to do with it. Tie it around my waist? Carry it in my fist? How would I display my bib and avoid crumpling it worse? I thought about trying to keep my arms through the sleeves while exposing my shoulders and torso to try and keep cool, but decided the risk of tripping, being mistaken for a bandit with no bib, or just looking ridiculous was not worth the trouble of such a move that might not even keep me comfortable. I was strategizing, but overall in great spirits — the fact that I factored if I would look silly into my decision is a testament to how relaxed I was about the possible physical effects of overheating! I wish I hadn’t wasted such a beautiful day with an inappropriately heavy shirt; just like with my breakfast debacle, I overdressed because I decided everything in advance and didn’t think carefully about the conditions of race day.
10K - 15K
My pace dropped in this section and I started to worry at how hard I was working — but I think part of the reason I slowed down was the traffic. After my “Blue Wave 2” group of runners met up with the Green and Orange runners and suddenly, the streets of Brooklyn were jam-packed. I had to work harder to stay focused, not just on my pace but on avoiding slower runners or potholes on the tiny streets. I started giving high-fives to kids and spectators, thinking if I couldn’t stay on pace I could at least enjoy myself and enjoy the support NYC had to offer — I’ve never been such an energetic runner, and I was really surprised how much I enjoyed interacting with the crowd!
After mile 7’s 8:58 split, miles 8 and 9 involved a few 90-degree turns; the pair of 9:11 and 9:01 miles put me at 1:23:32 net time when I crossed the 15k timing mat. That 8:58 overall pace wouldn’t have worried me, if the 3:55 pacer hadn’t blown past me between the two sharp corners. I don’t even think I knew there was a 3:55 pace group at all, and was shocked that one went charging past me so early in the race. I fell in beside a runner I thought was keeping pace, and tried to ask him if he know why they were going so fast —were they making up for lost time or on a specific plan?— but he either didn’t speak any English or didn’t think I was worth responding to, and just stared at me as we ran down the road. I didn’t try asking anyone else, as the pace group charged into the distance, and I tried not to be worried and focused on running my own race. In hindsight, it’s obvious that if they caught me when I was 15 seconds off pace, they would have seemed to fly by, but in the moment they shook my confidence while I struggled to wrap my mind around the fact that they even existed.
15K - HALF
The crowds continued and I felt I was losing steam, leaving me to really start worrying that my goal pace was unsustainable. Little concerns started to pile up, and in addition to issues I expected (but hoped against) I made some more ridiculous errors. My fueling plan of 2 Clif Bloks every 2 miles had to be replaced with the more high-maintenance, but slightly easier on the stomach backup plan of 1 Blok every mile, but I was already feeling cramps and a sticky mouth — early signs of not having enough water to keep them down. I took at least a full cup every aid station I passed, but I was sweating heavily and knew I wasn’t able to drink and digest the water fast enough to keep up. I finished my first sleeve of 6 Bloks, and with my gloves in my left hand, grabbed some Vaseline-on-a-stick with my right when I passed a med tent — all the Vaseline I’d smeared on my thighs in the start village was gone, and I could feel the chafing of my sweaty legs already. The last thing I wanted to hold me back was raw skin, and I smeared the new layer of Vaseline on myself as I ran.
I was proud of myself for identifying a problem and fixing it, until I got out my next sleeve of Clif Bloks and realized I had forgotten to cut the corner open in advance — my usual preparation so sweaty hands won’t keep me from my running fuel! Now that I was covered in slimy Vaseline, I was in an even worse version of that predicament. I tried wiping my hands on the gloves I was still carrying (fortunately I’d never seen my boyfriend to hand them off, and hadn’t thrown them away either) but I still couldn’t get a grip on the plastic to tear it open. As I passed mile 12 I started to panic, and there’s a noticeable spike in my heart rate around the stretch of road where I frantically tried to keep pace while tearing, chewing, or squeezing open the packet! I figured that if I truly couldn’t open it, and if I saw my boyfriend around mile 15 as planned, I could give it to him to open while I would make the switch to fueling with the dried dates earlier than planned, and then take back the open packet later in the race. But that would involve successfully seeing each other twice more on the course, and with one failed rendezvous already, I didn’t want to count on that plan. I could also abandon the packet and take a gel at the fuel station later, but I didn’t want to rely on unknown foods when I was already starting to feel crummy. Fortunately, I finally broke into the packet and crossed the 20k split in 1:52:01, or 9:00 overall pace. 8:50, 9:08, and 9:06 miles didn’t put me in the red just yet, but I needed to get my act together if I wanted to have a chance of meeting any of my goals. These miles were hurting more than I wanted to admit, but I didn’t consider slowing down to save myself for the second half of the race: as I started to recognize the Northern edges of Brooklyn, I felt that Queens, the Queensboro Bridge, and the second half of the race were looming and I couldn’t afford to quit on myself now. I knew I’d need to keep fueling and stay hydrated, but somehow convinced myself I might be able to gut out a negative split.
I cruised onto the Pulaski Bridge to head into Queens, my home borough, and crossed the half-marathon timing mat in 1:58:30. I’ve run the Pulaski many times, and felt energized as I ran a familiar route and down into Long Island City. My pace was now 9:02 overall, but I held back the panic here and began steeling myself for the bigger Bridge, while also keeping an eye out for my boyfriend. We cheered for the 2017 race in this neighborhood, so we thought we’d have a better idea of where to look for each other, but Long Island City was completely unrecognizable to me on race day.
HALF - 25K
I’d almost given up hope of seeing my boyfriend at our second planned spot when I realized I was running straight towards him: he was standing practically in the middle of the road, on the curb leading up to the Queensboro Bridge with a huge sign. I waved and ran up, and saw he was holding out a pair of lime-green plastic sunglasses with his free hand. I snatched them as I ran by and tried to be grateful as well as pragmatic, if he was going to be my mobile aid station. “I love you! Water bottle!” I tried to yell as I ran by, but I think my opportunistic command was ruined by the yelp I let out when I realized another dear friend was there cheering too. I threw on the sunglasses to shield my eyes from the hot noon sun, and sighed in relief as I turned my annoying cap backwards and let my forehead breathe. I might look like a jackass with shades and a backwards trucker cap, but after the adrenaline boost of seeing my cheer squad, I was feeling comfortable and ready to get down to business.
I swung left onto the Queensboro Bridge, and in a stunning New York City Marathon Moment, an N train rumbled overhead, honking like mad. An Achilles athlete and his guide were running directly ahead of me, and I saw the guide turn around and sign to his deaf athlete what just happened — though I think we could all feel the vibrations and rumbling of the subway cars and echoing horn! I waved at the train, hoping the passengers could see down to us, then put my head down to grind out this demanding stretch of the race. With 9:20, 9:19, and 10:06 miles weighing me down, and an average pace of 9:09, I now had to sharply negative split the marathon to beat my last-ditch goal of 4 hours. The difference between my secret stretch goal of a PR, <3:53, my B-goal of running between 3:55 and 4 hours, and this “last chance” goal suddenly didn’t feel very big at all.
25K - 30K
The Queensboro Bridge is long. Not as long as the Verrazano Narrows, but beginning at the 15-mile mark, it did some serious damage to my competition. (Yes, I was feeling competitive here!) I’ve trained on this bridge, I’ve biked on this bridge, and I was feeling amped up — and as tough as inclines can be, I consider hills a strength of mine and often fine I outperform my running “peers” on uphills, compared to who I’m running near on flat or downhill courses. I started passing runners left and right, even as my pace dropped and GPS went haywire from the interference of the bridge with the signal. I picked people off one by one but as the bridge wore on, tried to strike a balance between keeping a steady pace and not wasting too much energy on the incline. The bridge was quiet, like everyone says it is, but it didn’t bother me. I was surprised to see a few spectators and even EMTs blasting music and cheering from their parked ambulance about halfway up, but focused on just pushing through the bridge, and staying to shady parts of the road whenever possible. A 10:20 mile later, I roared down onto 1st Avenue and began the long, bright road uptown. The crowds here are just as wild as I imagined — throngs of shouting people, more giant face posters than I’ve ever seen, and a clear view of 4 miles of runners, literally thousands of racers as far as the eye could see. Brooklyn had some long and scenic stretches of the course, but this was even more impressive — maybe from the energy or maybe from the bright sunshine, or the energy as I descended off the course's largest obstacle and legendary halfway point.
But as the crowds screamed and cheered, I felt my body start to threaten more insistently. I grabbed cold sponges from a hydration station, dumped a cup of water over my head for every one that I drank, and struggled to get back on pace. 9:43 and 9:37 splits were all I could muster for miles 17 and 18, and when I caught the 4 hour pacer passing me on the far side of 1st Avenue I realized my 4 hour goal was gasping out its dying breath. I considered trying to catch up to the group, but just like with the 3:55 group in Brooklyn, they were ahead of me before I even saw them. But here, I knew I was being passed because I had fallen well off my intended pace. Again, I decided to run my own race, reasoning that to try and up the pace with 7 or 8 miles to go would doom me to burning out early. If I felt I could up the pace closer to the finish, I promised myself I would, but I didn’t want to sabotage myself by trying to “kick” at mile 18.
At this point I was getting really worried about having enough water to drink, but unlike the spectators in Brooklyn, the Manhattan crowd was handing out bizarre things like candy (fully wrapped!) and more logically, dried fruit and chunks of banana. I was desperate for some water by this point, as I couldn’t drink enough at each water station to counter my fluid loss, and I even impulsively asked a spectator with a water bottle, “can I have that?” at one point, but didn’t hang around to hear the answer. The 30k split, 2:51:49, put me officially behind schedule, with an overall pace of 9:13.
30K - 35K
Part of the reason I wanted water so badly was because I wanted to try taking a salt tab to put some spring in my step. After finishing the second sleeve of 6 Clif Bloks, I couldn’t bear the thought of more gummy candies in my aching stomach, but I had brought two electrolyte pills, carefully wrapped in a plastic bag to protect them from moisture, and I wondered if electrolytes might be what I needed, instead of sugar. My legs weren’t dead with screaming muscles, but I was struggling to pick up the pace at all, let alone stick to my intended race pace. When I was training over the summer, I’d come home crusted in salt, and after a series of difficult runs started to suspect electrolyte loss was a major factor in my exhaustion and inability to hold paces I thought I should be able to achieve. Sluggish muscles and fatigue, cramping, and foggy mind were familiar feelings and a list of symptoms I desperately wanted to avoid during this race, to say nothing of the knowledge that a severe loss of electrolytes could ruin my race entirely. Of course, as I grabbed the plastic bag from my armband and tried to unfold it, my trembling fingers bobbled it and one pill went flying into the street. To avoid losing the second one, I clutched the bag until I reached the next water station — I think this was at mile 19, but they blurred together at this point in the race. I downed a cup of water, dumped a second over my head, and then carefully unwrapped the pill to gulp it down with a third.
I soon impulsively grabbed a chunk of banana from some cute little girl handing them out to runners, thinking that “real food” might sit better than any other fuel at this point in the race. I struggle a lot with processed food like the Clif Bloks, which are the best option I’ve found to date, but over time and at high effort or fast paces they don’t sit well at all and make me nauseous and crampy. I don’t know why I didn’t alternate eating Bloks with the dates I was carrying — that was my plan from the start and the approach I used in Philly last year. Well, last year I dropped them around mile 18 and had to stick to Bloks from there on out, so maybe I was nervous about a similar mishap! But either way, I think it was a big mistake to only fuel with chemical-laden gummies, and not break up the harsh monotony with simple, whole foods. The banana went down okay, and I don’t think it did me any harm, but it didn’t make me feel any better either.
My boyfriend was wearing a bright plaid shirt, and I spotted him as I neared 125th Street, where I’d take the Willis Avenue Bridge into the Bronx at mile 20. I came to a dead stop as I reached him, baffled as he shoved two whole sleeves of Clif Bloks at me. “Nonono do you have any water??” I gasped. He told me later he hadn’t heard my shouted plea in Queens, and simply guessed I’d need fuel here, so he had it ready for me. Unfortunately it was the last thing I wanted at that point, and his gesture of support was met with frustration and panic in the moment. Fortunately, he also had a full bottle of water in his bag, and dug it out for me. I dashed off towards the Bronx, glad I had waited for him to dig it out, but also feeling guilty about the few seconds of rest while the clock ticked.
The Willis Avenue Bridge was another moment where I was passing people despite feeling like I was running through molasses. (Actually, I felt like that when I passed through Gatorade fluid stations, where the thousands of discarded cups of sugary sports drink leave a sticky film across the pavement, which cruelly grips the shoes of runners who pass by next!) But my effort is not one that shows in my splits — with my pit stop, mile 20 came to a 10:20 average, a disappointing change from mile 19’s 9:32 pace, which is in and of itself a pointed reminder of how my expectations had changed from the marathon’s early miles.
Mile 21 was one hell of a party, though. If I thought Brooklyn was great and was shown up by Manhattan, then the Bronx was only upping the ante further. Harlem would continue this energetic trend when I re-entered Manhattan, but the marathon’s 21st mile was loud and raucous, with wide streets and crowd support to match. My knees and IT band were starting to complain by this point, with my quads also joining in, and as we streamed past the NYRR’s new sponsor BioFreeze I considered grabbing some of the pain relief gel. But I didn’t want to chance any strange new products at this vulnerable moment — I knew I could handle the pain of running, and didn’t want to sabotage myself unnecessarily. When I sampled the new gel on a sore knee after the Expo it burned for a terrifyingly long time, and I wasn’t sure it benefitted me at all. I’m sure there are runners who appreciated having this offering on the course, alongside bananas, gatorade, gels and water, but the product placement didn’t work on me.
Mile 21 brought me back to Manhattan via the Third Avenue Bridge, where Harlem’s energy, confetti cannons, cheering church choirs, and more packed streets kept me going. I was really starting to struggle here, and though I knew I should be eating I simply couldn’t find the energy or faith to ingest anything else while I was feeling so borderline. I focused on drinking small sips of water at regular intervals, to hydrate without ending up with a sloshing stomach full of liquid, and poured it over my head as well to keep my body temperature in check — but as my hand cramped around the plastic water bottle, I couldn’t wait to finish it all so I could throw it away and run free. I dug out the bag of dried dates and tried to eat one, then spat the sticky mess onto the sidewalk.
My pace continued to fall to 9:20 overall, as I reached the 35k split in 3:23:04. I slogged through mile 21 in 10:00 exactly, but the worst was yet to come.
35K - 40K
I simply waved to my boyfriend at mile 22, not because I had no seconds to spare but because I couldn’t force myself to run the extra steps towards him for a hug or words of encouragement. I may not have hit a wall that kept me from running, but mentally, I was in a terrible place by these final miles. The crowds screamed support and I focused on putting one foot ahead of the other. My bluetooth headphones ran out of battery, and while I’d kept an ear on the crowds, I was glad to focus on them at this point — my running playlist was built for paces faster than what I could manage at this point, and when I couldn’t match my footfalls to its cadence or energy, it felt out of sync and grated on my ears. I plucked out my earbuds and drank in the sight of the Empire State Building down 5th Avenue (at least I wasn’t going to run that far!), the skyline, the hordes of people, and unbelievably, the fact that as miserable as I felt, I was still passing people.
This was hellish stretch of the race for me. My thighs, quads, and IT band were screaming as loud as my knees, a little voice in the back of my mind whispered to stop. Just pull over, stretch a bit, take a breather. My 4-hour goal is long gone, and I’ll never get it back — might as well let all this pain recede, for just a minute.
But with every stationary runner that I passed, or walker with their head hanging, I knew I wasn’t done yet. I still had the energy and the will to run, at increasingly slower paces, but running nonetheless. Mile 22 in 9:52, mile 23 in 10:19, mile 24 in 10:33, but I wasn’t giving in to the urge to quit.
I stopped once to refasten my knee strap, abandoned the dates I couldn’t eat, and began running again. Soon after, I dropped my empty water bottle and continued down 5th Avenue, confused about how long we had to go until the course entered Central Park. I didn’t read any street signs, since my location didn’t matter —I was following the course and completing this race no matter what— and had long since stopped checking my pace bands to calculate my possible finish times. There was no race pace anymore, and all my goals had slipped away, so all I could give at this point was my physical best, no matter what the clock said. None of the details I had focused on early in the race mattered anymore, because I was in the slow, uncharted territory I hadn’t even considered planning for.
We entered the park and somehow, the crowds were even more insane. Running the familiar park loop backwards and lined with cheering masses was surreal; except for the grinning Cheshire cat of Cat Hill, I don’t think I could have identified any stretch of the road. The rolling hills were difficult, though unlike my companions I dreaded that downhill slope. One spectator watched me crest Cat Hill and grimace as I ran down, gritting my teeth through the lightening flickering across my thighs with every step. “You’ve got this, Philly Marathon,” she screamed and caught my eye, pointing toward my shirt. “Enjoy this downhill!” I guess she thought I was in pain from the gentle incline I’d just climbed and this would be a reprieve; but even though I nearly screamed back at her how much the downhills hurt, her support still fed my pride and I again didn’t let myself stop and let her down. Or maybe she knew what she was doing all along? Maybe I should have taken her at her word, and tried to enjoy the downhill, exactly like she said? It couldn’t have made that steep section of the course hurt worse, that’s for sure.
The 40k mark came out of nowhere as I approached the southern edge of Central Park. I think I had forgotten there would be a 40k split — when I reached it in 4:55:39, or 9:28 pace, I was completely baffled at how I could be so close to the race’s end. My watch hadn’t even clicked over to mile 25 yet, but we only had 2k left to go of 42? I’ve never been great at math, but this confusion was a new low for me.
40K - FINISH
Once my watch blipped 10:21 for mile 25, I understood. 2 kilometers is more than a mile, of course — suddenly my clarity was back. 1600 meters is a mile, and 2000 meters is even greater than that! I grinned and smiled for cameras and spectators. I had reached the delirious point, a new spin on the runner’s high. I could do math, just a mile or so to go, and all of a sudden I was flying down Central Park South. Again I started passing people, when I heard someone cheer my university’s name and automatically looked that way. I saw a close college friend I had given up hope of seeing on the course after I entered the park, and screamed her name over my shoulder as I passed by. I later found out she wasn’t the one who yelled whatever it was that caught my attention after all — and she had missed me because as I ran by, so did her brother! Unbelievably, of 52,000 runners, after starting in different waves, we still reacher her within seconds of each other. I later found out I had spent most of my race within a few minutes of another acquaintance as well — a mutual friend tracking us both thought were deliberately running together!
The adrenaline and deep breath to fuel my shouting kept me moving even if they were in vain: mile 26 brought me a relative burst of speed with a 9:40 mile.
The energy of the finish again outshone any other on the course. I did my best to sprint up the final stretch, re-entering the park and finally reaching my race pace again, with an 8:38 pace for the final .2 mile distance. As I thundered towards the finish line I felt my right foot light on fire, a sharp pain under one toenail. I couldn’t believe it — after 26 miles, this is where my toenails start to go? If I didn’t stop on Cat Hill, Fifth Avenue, the Queensboro Bridge or any other low point, I sure wasn’t stopping now, but I was infuriated at my body for giving in to such a ridiculous and specific pain at the very last second. But my rational brain knew the sooner I finished, the sooner I could stop, and if I wasn’t already giving the final meters of the race everything I had, this though pushed me forward more. I crossed the finish line at what felt like a dead sprint. I’d only made it down into the low 8:20s, but that was an improvement over my last few miles. After 4:08:50 minutes on the race course, averaging 9:30 minutes per mile, I finally stopped to breathe.
The race finish is as blurry as the final 10k to me. Medal, heat sheet, poncho, then I could leave the park. I took off my shoe to check out my throbbing toe and saw a stain on my sock, so I made a pit stop in the medical tent to get a bandaid for what I was sure was a missing toenail. As it turns out I only had a gnarly series of blisters, so they taped me up and sent me on my way. I chatted with a few other runners on the long walk out of the park, and was grateful to only be getting a post-race poncho instead of heading to retrieve a checked bag, which would add a half-mile and at least 20 minutes to “mile 27”.
I eventually exited the park and found my boyfriend, and we made our way back to Queens. I was exhausted, emotionally and physically, and though I squeezed out a few desperate tears when we found each other, it would take me a few more days to fully process the race and my results.
I know running a marathon is something to be proud of, but it has been tough to accept how unrealistic my goals were. Frankly, when I set my sights on 3:55 or a 4:00 finish time, within striking distance of my 3:53 PR, I was getting in over my head. I knew I was less fit than last year, and I’d also be running a much tougher course. I didn’t put in nearly as many miles of training or hours of cross-training, slacked on my nutrition, and consistently rested less and worked more this year. To aim for a race pace practically equal to what I ran last year after a big positive split was verging on insane. My 11-minute positive split this year is no surprise at all from that perspective.
But I wasn’t just running for a time. I also wanted to believe in myself, and test my limits. I didn’t want to sell myself short, and wanted to give myself a chance to live up to my most optimistic hopes and dreams. At the end of the day, I tested myself in terms of finishing time and failed, but I also tested myself in terms of sheer tenacity and grit, and I won.
I didn’t stop when the late miles were brutally painful, as the sun shone down on my sweaty body and my knotted stomach and I felt I had wasted a perfect day. I didn’t stop to try some fancy new pain relief gel or tie my shoe for no reason, just to rest. I didn’t stop when I realized I’d fall short of every goal I had set, and I didn’t give up or search for excuses to lean on: I ran my best, which simply wasn’t what I thought I could.
I tried to set aside those thoughts and the desire to analyze my race in the moment, and I just kept running. I focused on doing what little I could to push on, passing people, planting my feet tens of thousands of times, breathing, running when I forgot why I wanted to run this race in the first place, until eventually, I remembered.
I wanted a chance to push through, even when I thought I couldn’t. I wanted to overcome, succeed, and persevere. And if I couldn’t do all of those things on Sunday, November 4, 2018, then I wanted to set my sights on doing so another day, with a clearer picture of what that goal would mean, the growth I would need and the obstacles I would face. I wanted to test myself, and see what my “best” really looked like, even if it meant also feeling my worst. There’s no satisfaction or joy in achieving only easy goals, and the only way to find your limits is to crash into them headfirst: I want to achieve my goals, but I also want to set goals that mean something. Having found a limit of mine, I can now start to chip away at it, little by little, until I’ve used a series of achievable goals to accomplish something unimaginably large.
The 2018 NYC Marathon was the result of almost two years of work, training, and hope. The victories I achieved and lessons I learned, pride I felt and pain that nestled in alongside, and highs and lows of this race and training cycle satisfied me, to an extent. But now that I’ve run this race, and have started to process that experience, I’m already excited to rest, reset, and give it my best shot all over again.
LESSONS AND GOALS
With so many clear lessons learned and goals on the tip of my tongue for next year, I also wanted to say these things “out loud” while they are still fresh. After more than a week of reflection, but still holding the marathon vividly in my mind, I’ve come away with a lot of general revelations, and some specific to this race as well. I want to crystallize these thoughts so I might look back on them for inspiration or direction, before my next race or before the 2019 NYC Marathon, when I’ll draw specifically on these experiences in my training. And perhaps some of these running goals, seemingly-obvious lessons, and abstract realizations will be helpful to another reader or runner, too:
Eat breakfast. Race day needs trump routine.
Don’t stress about the weather too far in advance. Do check it obsessively through race day, and dress appropriately!
Sleep matters, but so does coffee.
Use the starting village as a final chance to relax and get off your feet. Try to avoid standing in too many lines. Get your head in the game.
Do not go out too fast! You are not special, you won’t somehow lose the race in your first mile.
Have a plan to meet up with spectators. Make it specific as possible, down to the city block — and note “runners right” or “runners left”.
Look up and look around, even if you’re in the zone. Drink in the sights, crowds, signs, and unique energy of the race around you.
Don't forget to snip open your damn fuel packets in advance. (Unless it’s a gel!)
Learn to fuel with gels.
Train on bridges. And add hill work, especially downhills.
Love the crowds! Give high-fives, feel like a rock star, use their energy to keep you going.
Try running with a pace group from the start sometime — maybe test this plan at a half-marathon before committing for a full.
Pace yourself, and listen to how your body responds to that pace.
Set stretch goals and chase them — but think realistically too, and don’t always get in over your head. Be honest with yourself about your training.
Don’t give up.
Practice pacing in some smaller races — including picking up some speed near the finish, but before a final sprint. If I have a kick, I have some energy left. I want to learn to use those final reserves more steadily over the last few miles, instead of just in the last few hundred meters.
Get the post-race poncho. Bag check might as well be another 26.2 miles from the finish line.
Give credit where credit is due: finishing the race, sticking out a tough day, and other unexpected little victories are important, especially on days where the big wins are out of reach. Don’t sell yourself short.
Smile! Race photographers are everywhere. You might want that picture some day.
Don't forget, you signed up for this for a reason! Don’t let love of running, competition, or adventure slip away. But if it has, don’t force yourself to jump back into running right away. Take the time you need to recover mentally as well as physically.
Brag a little. Take the Monday off work, if you can. Rest, recover, slowly re-enter the real world, limping and proud.