A Beautiful Day: Pounding the Streets of New York
What's it like to Run the New York Marathon?
Unquestionably, it was a beautiful day. As clear and as perfect as the day a few weeks earlier had been when two planes crashed into New Yorks famous Twin Towers. Somehow it felt like a day of destiny. As eight security helicopters circled not far above, I was honoured and privileged to be a small part of the city's defiant show of putting up two fingers to the murdering terrorists. In my relatively short time in this city, I had soon learnt that this was a very New York way of doing things.
Back at the end of August of 2001 for some indefinable reason was it boredom, restlessness, who knows? - I had decided to put myself through another marathon. It did not take me long to be reminded about what a major undertaking attempting to run over 26 miles actually is. I think I must have selectively remembered all the good bits, like crossing the finish line, from my first and only other marathon I ran in Paris.
Well inside two months to go the training was often an arduous, stressful and unenjoyable slog. I had read up on recommended approaches and all seemed to suggest living like a monk for whole months, which I didn't want to be, and training like an Olympic athlete, which I was not. You are recommended to do a 3-hour run or equivalent every week as well as several other runs.
This was far too excessive for my dodgy knees or boredom threshold to sustain, so I found myself struggling to do an hour and a half run every week. Even some of these were too challenging, so by the end I had resorted to cycling instead and simply relying rather loosely on overall general fitness to pull me through on the big day.
I was 'working' from home in London on the day of September 11th 2001 and vividly recall events unfolding live on the TV screen in front of me. As the news flash interrupted in my attention was initially drawn by casual interest and then intensely captivated by the horror unfolding. For quite a few minutes none of it seemed real. It was like an action film.
After September 11th the world went a bit funny for a while as everyone altered their perceptions of things, before normal service resumed again some months later. I was made redundant form my job less than two weeks after September 11th and a couple of days short of my birthday. I kept expecting an announcement that the New York marathon, scheduled for 4th November, would be cancelled. But, this being New York, there was no way this was going to happen. They confirmed it was going ahead and I had no excuse to ease up my training, especially with nothing to do in the daytime now as well.
I would like to say that after this, I set about training vigorously with a ruthless purpose and undistracted drive, but I did not. Things got more and more frustrating when I realised my knees would not let me run for one and a half-hours. What was my body trying to tell me? Probably that I was not built to be a lost distance runner. The anguish was more mental than anything else at my frustration in failing to complete what I had set out to. Then I thought about the people of New York and resolved that I would be giving this thing everything I had.
Sometimes things are relative. It is an effective technique I have used regularly in pushing myself further and harder. There are always people worse off than you are and there is plenty we take for granted. Mentally I knew I had it within me, but physically I was far from convinced that my body would stand up to the battering that a marathon inflicts.
I walked into Heathrow airports departure lounge and a rather ridiculously long queue snaked past me for as far as I could see on both sides. My heart sank a little as I guessed this would be the queue I would need to patiently join the back of. I counted down the check in desk numbers and mine was right at the end. The queue was even longer than I had though. Fortunately though, it moved along steadily enough and I made it onto the plane on time.
I was unable to spot any suspicious looking Middle Eastern looking chaps with knives, so settled comfortably into my seat. The eight-hour flight passed relatively smoothly without hijacking and we touched down into New York in darkness.
It was quite late in the evening and, after a long day, I was looking forward to settling down in my hotel room for some rest. However, I came back to life again as we pulled through the bright neon lights and hive of activity that was Times Square. Here I found the animation alluringly captivating.
Before my eyes were the famous yellow cabs, legions of street food vendors. Car horns and street music drowned the air. My hotel practically overlooked Times Square and, in spite of jet lag, I could not help setting out to have an exploratory wander under the bright, flashing lights. Around 20 million people visit Times Square every year. Frenetic, noisy and visually overwhelming, full of energy...I knew Id well and truly arrived in New York.
Before the race day I had allowed myself a couple of days to check out some of what New York had to offer and was excited by the prospect of doing so. The city did not disappoint. A good deal of my exploration was carried out on foot, which essential as it seemed at the time, obviously was not ideal for someone attempting to conserve their body and energy for an upcoming major test of endurance. I didnt think too far ahead, as I was too busy enjoying the life and colour this great city presented.
They say that if it is raining and you can stand on the crowded street and successfully hail down a taxi, then New York belongs to you. People walking shout abuse at drivers, and people driving shout abuse at passing pedestrians.
Before I came out to New York I was not too sure what to expect. I had heard that the people were rude, in-your-face, brash and uncaring in their non-stop pursuit of trampling over everything to make money.
From my experiences none of the above were true. Most people couldn't have done more for me and the atmosphere was one of determined patriotism and friendliness. Only a cynic might suggest this had anything to do with how desperate they were for tourists like myself to return in droves and pump money back into the city once more.
For quite a few years when I was younger I always thought of New York as being one city on the East Coast of America. New York is also a rather large state as well, but it is the city, which dominates perceptions. A city, which perhaps like no other on earth, since its earliest days, has been shaped by waves of immigration into a multi-ethnic environment. The best thing you can do in New York is just join in. No one could ever accuse the place of being boring.
One of the critical things I needed to get out of the way was collect my race number and register at the vast exhibition hall where the other 35,000 runners appeared to have chosen to do so at the same time as myself. I was on my feet queuing and waiting around for a couple of hours or so, which is not exactly ideal rest the day before trying to run a marathon.
Earlier in the morning I had also been for a gentle warm up jog with the other British runners from Leisure Pursuits. It was quite relaxed, but still had a professional air to proceedings, which was novel to me, as was the environment of Central Park, where blazing reds, yellows and oranges abounded everywhere in true autumnal style. Here we familiarised ourselves with what would be the finish area on race day. Empty metal stands were being erected, which would no doubt be full tomorrow.
Then as a large group we jogged across to the United Nations Building, which rises up on the banks of the East River. Outside here was a large gathering of runners from all around the world draped in diverse flags and colours. A couple of speeches were underway right at the front. One speech, I think, was by Rudy Giuliani, the mayor of New York. Then in a display of international harmony and unison, which Kofi Annan would have been proud of, everyone set off for a mini warm up run around some adjacent Manhattan streets.
Elsewhere afterwards, I had never seen taller buildings anywhere and my neck was aching from straining to look upward at so many impressive constructions. For elegance and style the Chrysler Building, the worlds tallest until 1931 when it was overtaken by the Empire State Building.
Like Everest is for mountains, the Empire State Building is not particularly pretty or stylish, but you just know from its formidable and intimidating bulk that it is the biggest. With 86 elevator levels, after a short wait, you travel upwards at a rate of 1,200 feet per minute. The alternative is around 1,500 steps, which have been ascended in a record 11 minutes. With a marathon coming up I did not think twice about not taking the stairs!
A Dutchman once bought New York for $24 in 1626.
Standing high above it all, it was hard to imagine how different this small island of land must have been all those years ago. It was late afternoon and the sun was beginning to sink gloriously to the west inland over the Hudson River and state of New Jersey. To my left was the East River and on the other side the borough of Queens.
Skyscrapers were congestedly dotted everywhere like small blocks of Lego. Until, that is, my eyes arrived at a defiant rectangle of green 843 acres of Central Park. Manhattan is one of New Yorks five boroughs and only a small, relatively thin island. It may only be a part of New York, but as far as most people throughout the world are concerned Manhattan is New York.
It really does seem like a small island as well. Maybe that is the effect of having so many lines of tall skyscrapers you feel like you are underwater already. But with a grid format of streets it is relatively easy to navigate, although somehow the pace of life here does not afford you time to pause and look at a map.
Towards the Southern tip of Manhattan Island I could see yet more skyscrapers. Somehow this view, impressive though it undoubtedly was, now seemed more ordinary and marginally less inspiring than it should have been. Something was missing, something big.
The Empire State Building remained the worlds tallest building until 1973 and the completion of the World Trade Centre, 1,350 ft high and home to 50,000 workers until we know the rest.
An open topped bus was a recommended way of getting around and seeing all the sights. Only 6 weeks after the Twin Towers had been blasted to the ground, they had just re-opened the bus route to its original passage next to the Ground Zero site. This would be strange. I felt compelled and fascinated to see as much as I could. But how should I react mourn for those lost in respectful silence or take photos as if it was just another tourist destination to tick off the list?
I think several other people were having the same dilemma. And in all honesty there appeared to be a bit of both mourning and camera clicking occurring. The bus took a couple of sharpish turn and everyones eyes were transfixed to the right-hand side. We were all striving to spot something, which didnt actually exist any more. There was nothing, just a sweeping expanse of emptiness in what was previously one of the worlds most densely populated areas.
On first glimpses the rubble and ash could have passed for an ordinary inner city building site anywhere. But on closer inspection there were hints of the magnitude of what recently occurred here. The scene was eerie. There was a noticeable stench of burnt metal and a few puffs of dust and smoke in the distance. Sturdy yellow dumper trucks were moving into position. Workmen in yellow helmets went about their tasks with business like efficiency, which I have never seen workmen do before anywhere.
In truth neither me nor anyone else could really get close enough to recognise or identify anything with any clarity. It was enough merely to be there on the margins, out of the way and let the professionals get on with the cleaning up. It was still hard to properly come to terms with the magnitude and scale of what had been torn down here.
Rather appropriately, my next New York landmark was one which remained proudly in tact and was perhaps best symbolically epitomised everything the city and so much of the world holds true the Statue of Liberty. I took the ferry across the water to Staten Island, where the marathon would start from the next day. The ferry cruised past the most potent and enduring symbol of the land of opportunity.
This famous American emblem, recognisable throughout the world, was actually intended by its French maker to stand above the Suez Canal in Egypt. But in 1871 he changed his mind and decided the entrance to New Yorks harbour was more suitable. The statue was unveiled in 1886 and is 150 foot high, bigger than I had realised.
The views looking back to the bottom tip of Manhattan were superb and put the citys geography into better perspective for me. Skyscrapers once again competed for prominence and sprouted up like they were all in a race to be first to touch the sky. Although, without the powerful dominance of the Twin Towers, it appeared like the young pretenders were jostling for the right of succession against a backdrop of fiery orange sky.
Ahead of me in the other direction was the magnificently grand and imposing entrance to the harbour of New York, and probably America as well the Verazzano Narrows Bridge. Appropriately this would be the start point for the marathon, before the route went on to cross through all five of New Yorks five boroughs.
On the way back to my hotel I took in some more neighbourhoods of New York Little Italy being pushed aside these days by the growth of Chinatown. In a city, which is probably the most powerful in the world, I also had to go to see the centre of economic activity, Wall Street hold its famous bull statue by its horns. It is easy to forget that as well as being a seduction magnet for tourists, in the eyes of many with nothing but aspiration, New York holds out opportunities of a better life and opportunities like nowhere else.
When I returned Times Square had not changed much it just got darker. A Bolivian pan pipes band was playing away merrily on one street corner. Theatre tickets were being flogged left, right and centre. A giant Britney Spears winked down at me from a huge electronic billboard. I needed to rest my feet and conserve some energy though after almost forgetting that I had come here to run a marathon.
Also I was not really eating correctly. Instead of fruit, vegetables and pasta, I had been surviving on fast food takeaways, crisps and chocolate snacks. I slept well. It was good that my mind had been so effectively taken off the trial that was looming ahead of me.
It is never the most pleasant of thoughts lying awake in bed in the morning, knowing that ahead of you lies a day of torture and agony (largely self-inflicted as well). Running slightly late I stuffed some chocolate and peanuts down for a makeshift breakfast with a banana to redress the health balance slightly.
There were people in lycra and running vests everywhere, looking super fit and rather too keen at such an early hour of the morning, a bright but chilly morning. A couple of blocks over from the hotel a giant queue began to form, which must have been a couple of miles long as it snaked its way along Manhattans streets. From here buses were transferring all the runners to the start line over on Staten Island.
Even the start line area was vast and initially easy to get lost in. Here I waited for a good hour or so. I forced myself to do plenty of stretching and a few little practise jogs like most other people were doing. I was not at all nervous. Basically I just wanted everything to get underway and get stuck into things.
'New York, New York...'
I shall never forget the scene on the start line where thousands of runners converged together from three separate areas. I couldn't see who was speaking, Rudy Giuliani I think, again but I roughly got the gist of what he was saying. Then the gun went off and thousands of legs crowded into action. Frank Sinatra began to ring out, New York, New York It was very fitting. As was the next song, U2, Its a Beautiful Day. It was a perfect day for running.
Above the Verazzano Narrows Bridge I counted no less than 8 helicopters swirling around. Clearly 35,000 people crossing one bridge together would have represented an easy target for the terrorists and there was a slight edge in the air, as well as a relief to get underway. It took me about 5 minutes just to reach the start line proper. People would surge forward and then have to slow down and virtually stop quite a few times such was the congestion.
Crossing the bridge was a wonderful feeling and a fantastic sight looking back on so many people running together. The crowding loosened up a little and the views could be enjoyed. The bridge was on two levels and below was another identically full layer of running bodies. One man couldnt wait to relieve himself, however, and appeared to be doing so from over the top level down to the bottom level below.
The bridge was surprisingly long and as it ended I set foot in the borough of Brooklyn sensing that here my marathon had begun for real. I was impressed by how deep and noisy the cheering crowds were. I kept half-expecting them to dwindle or fade away the further I went, but they just got better and louder.
'Go Johnny!, You're the Man!' Anyone with NYPD or FDNY written on their T-shirts got an extra special cheer and encouragement. Anyone with their name or country emblazoned across their chest or back also got plenty of attention Go British people, Go! High fives were popular with the crowd - I particularly enjoyed slapping peoples hands as I ran past. It was all part of the experience.
For the first few miles I was feeling excellent and was absolutely flying. I had overtaken loads of other runners and was comfortably ahead of my target times per mile. The longer I could comfortably sustain this pace the better it would be as I knew I would need plenty of credits in the bank to draw on in the later stages. It sounds a silly way of doing it, but I wanted to get as much out of the way as I could in the early stages before doing my best to hold on towards the end.
I was feeling surprisingly good. Despite being soaked with my own sweat already, there was no evidence thus far of rubbing blisters, chaffing between my legs or, indeed the dreaded joggers nipple. The middle of the day November sun now felt warm, but I was in the groove.
My half way split was excellent about 1 hour 30 minutes, which I realised would not be repeated in the second half, but, even though there was still a bloody long way to go, I began to get a sniff of finishing under the magical time of 4hours.
Each neighbourhood had a contrasting culture from the previous one. African bands, Puerto Rican dancers, wise old Jewish men most of the living cultures of the world encompassed within a few streets of New York City. The music varied from light jazz to a thumping rendition of Rocky's Eye of the Tiger, which certainly pumped some more adrenaline through my veins.
Inevitably after 13 or 14 miles my initial fast pace dropped off a little, but I was still keeping things going. The incline up Brooklyn Bridge proved to be the first strong test of exertion, but the roar of the crowd coming down off the bridge on the other side into Manhattan was deafeningly inspirational. At first the depth and vocalness of the support astounded me, but then I reacted by surging forward with even more determination and momentum, which seemed to generate plenty more cheers. Polite clapping this was not.
It is impossible to accurately relate this sensation or to explain why I reacted as I did. It was hugely uplifting and for a short while I sampled a small peek into the world of the professional sports star who is roared on by the fans, the footballer scoring a winning goal, the cricketer scoring a hundred, the rugby player scoring a crucial try, etc. It must be like an addictive drug. Believe me, having your ears drowned out by people on the sidelines, who genuinely believe they can make a difference to the athletes performance, makes a huge difference.
In fact, a couple of miles or so down the road the passionate support had been toned down marginally into polite clapping and occasional shouts. I was steaming ahead, but slightly regretted throwing caution to the wind with a sizeable chunk of miles remaining. I knew for certain that I had it in me now to beat my previous best of 4 hours 7 minutes, as well as get under 4 hours. I calmed down a little and told myself I had plenty of time to play with still.
The drink stops were becoming more frequent and longer. More water was being poured over my head and body than into my mouth by now. My minds sharpness became blunter and my vision less sharp and concise. I knew where I wanted to go though. Each huge mile banner clocked up became more and more of a personal achievement. And they seemed ever further apart. I had now clocked up enough to count them downwards to the finish 17, 18, 19 down, only 7 more to get through.
Try to think of other thoughts and images, pleasant dreams of faraway places, I kept telling myself. Try as hard as I might I could think of hardly any. All I had in my head were recurring thoughts of pain, agony, suffering and how much longer I still had to run. I was now in the Bronx, but could have been running anywhere, so little attention was I paying to my environs. All I could see was the road markings in front of me. There was the occasional false mirage of spotting the next mile marker post further down the road. When I could definitely see one, it lifted me to produce sustained effort. With 5 or 6 miles to go had embarked on a policy of lengthy one-minute drinks breaks every mile to ensure self-preservation. After timing myself out for a minute each time it was with great reluctance that I pushed myself into a trotting jog again.
I knew all too well that this part of a marathon 21-22 miles is where people hit the wall. It was not hard to see why. You have expended a lot of effort and, in comparison to what you have already completed, the distance to the end does not appear too significant. However, it reaches the desperation stakes where even completing 100 yards within a mile is an achievement to mentally tick off. The attraction of walking or even stopping altogether is strongly alluring and compellingly seductive.
In normal circumstances it would probably be perfectly acceptable to stop, have a sit down or even call it a day completely. But with deep noisy crowds hanging off the railing at the side of the road through Central Park, these were definitely not normal circumstances. It was embarrassing to pause for too long as people do not relent in trying their hardest to offer you undying encouragement.
My stop-start routine was gaining me steady progress in the final miles. But with around 2 or 3 miles to finish, it all seemed so close yet so far. I knew that seeing the One Mile To Go banner would be inspiration enough to see me all the way home. But two or three times that distance suddenly seemed like doing another ten miles.
Even the extra 285 yards after the 26-mile mark was torture. I remembered how I had finished my first marathon in Paris in sight of the Arc de Triomph by sprinting with absolutely everything I had towards the line. I had overtaken several people and the crowd in the stands noticed and roared approval. Here I threw myself into finishing with as much sprint as I could manage. But the tank did not quite have enough resources to keep the accelerator down all the way. I was just relieved to cross the finish line.
Just finishing a marathon felt like an incredible achievement. My first emotion was relief, which soon turned into ecstasy as I looked at my time 3 hours 43 minutes, which was a sensational 24 minutes less than my previous run and ridiculously far under my rather optimistic 4 hour target. Today I knew that I had been inspired and for some reason destiny had helped me to run well. The perfect performance on a perfect day.
Then followed, arguably the most painful part of the whole day, having to stagger back to my hotel room, which was only a mile away, but it probably took me about an hour to get there. Walking out of the finish area draped in the obligatory silver foil blanket and with a medal hanging proudly around my neck, it was nice to see other people looking exactly how I felt knackered and in bits.
I got talking to a wiry Irishman and we both resolved not to undergo such self-inflicted torture again. Then a man approached us and asked if we would mind doing an interview for Eurosport.
'So how does it feel to have just completed the New York marathon?'
'Its absolutely amazing', I replied, 'The atmosphere out there was incredible today. The people really made a difference.'
'Does 26 miles seem like a long way?' was what his next question to me sounded like.
'Its absolutely amazing', was all I could churn out once more, in my fatigued mental state. 'It was an incredible atmosphere today. The people really made a difference.'
After 20 seconds lag, the thought occurred to me that my second answer had sounded rather familiar to my first one.
He turned to my Irish friend.
'And what were your thoughts on crossing the finish line?'
'Ah it was f***ing wonderful', the Irishman blurted out without a care in the world.
'Right OK, thank you very much for your time', said the Eurosport man abruptly as he departed swiftly to interview other, more coherent and articulate finishers. To this day I have no idea if that incisive interview ever went out live.
A long hot wallow in the bath never seemed more luxurious or hedonistic. I also indulged in a large steak meal that evening washed down with some red wine. That evening was the climax of the World Series baseball with the New York Yankees, the American equivalent of Man Utd, in contention to win. Everybody in New York was going mad about this, but it was not good they were losing.
It did not take long for stiffness to ambush and immobilise me. Each morning waking up seemed to be worse than the day before. There were plenty of Oohs and Ahs. I could not walk properly or normally in comfort for about a week, and probably looked absolutely ridiculous in my attempts to do so.
Yet however much discomfort I was in or however much pain and suffering I had endured, I reminded myself that I was still in one piece and no one had died. Whatever it meant to me, in the big scale of things for New Yorks recent history it was all pretty insignificant. But the beauty of life cannot always be sampled from the comfort of an armchair.
The next morning in New York was overcast and drizzling with rain as I went to check out Madison Square Garden, the home of so many sporting epics. Exactly one week after I flew back to England another plane crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. I was glad to have taken the opportunity to visit when I did.
Perhaps you only properly taste life when you have proximity to the reality of death. And when you have sampled a beautiful day you never forget the significance of it.