I signed up to run NYCM for the Semper Fi Fund all the way back in March. It was one of two big goal races for the year, the other being a half iron distance triathlon in August. My training plan was to train for the tri all spring and summer and then jump into marathon-specific training after the race. That plan was sidelined when I re-broke my hand on the race’s bike course preview ride in June. I channeled my disappointment of missing out on my goal race into focused training for NYCM with the goal of a PR. Originally I was thinking of shooting for sub-4 (which was my pipe dream goal), but realistically I knew that NYCM is a tough, crowded course, so I decided to save that goal for another day and just get a solid PR.
Training went well. I slogged through the summer with hill repeats and long runs and even a little speedwork thrown in. I was extremely consistent in my training until about 5 weeks before the race when I had a flurry of migraines that sidelined me for the better part of 3 weeks. I still managed to get my long runs in, but daily runs were hit or miss. My nutrition and hydration plans were working well, and I went into race week feeling confident.
I hit the expo with my bf on Saturday, and I soaked in the energy of the race. NYCM was my first marathon back in 2002, so the whole experience brought back good memories for me. We had lunch with the rest of our SFF teammates, then headed back to NJ to chill out for the remainder of the day. It was definitely strange prepping for a marathon in my own home and sleeping (not sleeping) in my own bed the night before the race! My alarm went off at 4am and I popped out of bed excited to start the day.
Logistics of getting to and from NYCM suck if you live in NJ. There were buses from the Meadowlands, but you couldn’t park there, but that didn’t matter since there was no transportation back to the Meadowlands after the race anyway. Bf and I settled on driving to the train station in Secaucus, ubering to the Meadowlands, taking a bus to the start, then getting a train back to Secaucus after the race to drive home. We would have just ubered to the Meadowlands from home but surge pricing was in effect at 5am and it would have cost us almost $50!!
The bus trip to Staten Island was uneventful. We saw the gorgeous sunrise over lower Manhattan and knew it was going to be a perfect day to race. It was in the upper 40s and would be in the lower 50s throughout the day. Bf and I hung out near his starting corral for a bit over an hour, and we got to see all of the Achilles runners and racers head to the start. Seeing all of them was a great way to start the day and ultimately helped me keep my wits about me when my race started to go sideways after the halfway point.
Bf headed off to his corral, and I headed over to my area to hang out for another hour or so since I was in a later wave. My tummy was acting up despite hitting the portos 4 times, so I just chalked that up to nerves and excitement. Once my wave was called, we lined up like cattle and stood there for about 15 minutes until we were finally herded into our corral. Honestly the wait on Staten Island went quickly for me, and I met some nice runners along the way. They released us to the start line, someone sang God Bless America but got a lot of words wrong (we were wave 3, you’d think by the third time she sang the song she’d get it right), the starting cannon fired, and we were off to the sounds of Frank Sinatra singing New York, New York.
The Verrazano Narrows Bridge is the biggest incline followed by the biggest decline on the course. I knew not to go out too fast, which is nearly impossible anyway since there are so many other people running around you. The first mile went quickly (but not fast), and the second downhill mile more than made up for the first.
Brooklyn was a 10-mile parade. I definitely fed off the bands and crowds and was running a bit faster than I had planned. I was hitting around 9:30 miles when I wanted to be closer to 9:45s. As the miles clipped away I was able to settle into a steadier pace as I tried to stay within myself and run my plan. At about mile 10, I started looking for a bathroom as my tummy still wasn’t feeling great. I added about 2 minutes to my mile 11 time by stopping at a porto and having rude other runners run in without letting the people waiting go first. Mile 12 was back on track, but I had to stop again during mile 13, and I feared that this race would turn into the great 5-borough porta potty tour. My tummy settled after that and I got back into the groove heading through Queens.
Queens was a much different experience than it was 14 years ago. Then, it was desolate with few spectators, and even the water stop was unmanned. This time, there were raucous crowds just like in Brooklyn. We were in their fair borough for a short period of time before heading up onto the Queensboro Bridge. A funny thing happened on the way up the bridge: my right calf started twinging. It wasn’t a full-on cramp, just a twinge, but it made me slow my pace since every time I pushed off, it twinged again. Three-quarters of the way up the bridge I stopped to walk because I felt a full cramp coming on. Once I crested the top of the bridge I resumed a slow shuffle down the back side through mile marker 16. Downhill felt much better and the twinges went away unless I started to speed up, so I just kept it slow down the bridge into Manhattan.
Coming off the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan is always an awesome experience. You can start to hear the crowds before you even leave the bridge, and once you round that corner onto First Ave. you feel like a rock star since everyone is cheering for you. My excitement was a bit tempered this time around since I was focused on my calf, but hey, at least my tummy troubles were gone! I slowly made my way over to the left side of the avenue because my calf was threatening to cramp again. I thought maybe if I stopped to stretch it I’d be able to head off the cramp. I said a cheery hello to the spectators in front of me as I stopped to stretch, and that’s when my calf seized up. Full-on nothing-you-can-do-about-it cramp. I doubled over and tried to straighten my leg, but that’s when my foot cramped up too. The spectators asked what was wrong, and I told them, and one of them calmly talked me through it. He told me not to panic and that it would pass, then to try to wiggle my toes because I couldn’t actually move my foot, then to move my foot when I could, then to massage my calf while straightening my leg to finally relieve the cramp. The cramp finally let go, and he advised me to walk and slowly work my way back up to a jog. I thanked him and the other spectators and was off again with the masses on First Ave. I was able to work up to a jog before another cramp hit, not as bad this time but bad enough to make me pull over again and stretch. I hit mile 18 and got salt from the med tent. They also forced me to drink Gatorade which was gross and made my tummy hurt again.
And so went the rest of my race. Walk, jog, cramp, stretch, repeat. At some point, my left leg cramped when I stopped to stretch my right leg, and the cramps kept alternating legs. At this point I knew my race was out the window. There might have been some tears of frustration with that realization (and with a few of the times I stopped to stretch) because I trained my ass off for this race and I was set for a huge PR and my stupid body let me down. At one point I realized that I could just hop off the course and cut across town to meet bf at the finish, but then I thought of all the money I raised for the SFF and how the veterans we help have gone through much more grueling trials than just cramping during a race, so I told myself to suck it up and finish the freaking thing. I also took special notice of the Achilles runners on the course, and told myself if they could finish with all of the challenges they had, I could finish too.
At mile 19, I texted bf to let him know what was going on and that I would be way over my expected finish time. At that point I calculated in my head that my finish time would be somewhere near 6.5 hours, but that just confirms that I should never do math while running because I was nowhere near that time. I just kept moving forward and took in all of the sights and sounds around me.
I crossed mile 20 in the Bronx and saw a bunch of runners pulled over on the side of the road lined up for something. A bunch of locals were out with sticks massaging peoples’ muscles and rubbing this blue gel stuff on them. I decided I needed some of that and got the gel rubbed into my calves. I can’t say that it helped, but it was a nice distraction from the pain.
I took salt at 2 more med tents and generally just let the encouragement from the other runners and the spectators push me toward the finish. Whenever I stopped to stretch, the spectators showed genuine concern and encouraged me to keep going; one guy walking his dog even told me his dog was proud of me! I was offered all sorts of food and drink to help with the cramps and was even yelled at to “keep running Marine!” since I was wearing my SFF shirt. I finally got to Central Park and enjoyed that part of the run. I used to run there all the time over a decade ago, and it was nice trip down memory lane. We got to Central Park South and I was determined to run the rest of the way but my calves laughed at that and made me stop twice. Up to Columbus Circle, back into the park, where my calves had one last hurrah and cramped in front of the 400m to go sign. A woman standing there said, “But you’re almost there!!” and I replied, “Tell that to my calves,” while laugh-sobbing. Once that subsided, I jogged my way to the finish line, determined to run through it no matter what my calves had to say.
Finish time: 5:16:18, an hour or so slower than my expected finish time. I semi-aggressively made my way through the crowds taking selfies at the finish line, got my medal, and walked briskly toward the park exit. I just didn’t want to be around all of the people who were so happy and proud to have finished because I was angry and frustrated that something that had NEVER happened in training happened on race day, despite my doing everything exactly the same way I did it in training. Nutrition and hydration were on point, and clearly salt and electrolytes weren’t the cause of the cramps since they persisted despite my salt loading during the race. Blech.
The long walk out of the park was good for my head though, because I slowly realized that even though this was the slowest marathon I’ve run, it was the hardest. I realized that I was mentally tough enough to gut out those last miles in pain, and quite honestly I didn’t know I was that strong. And I finished a farking marathon for goodness sake, that’s pretty amazing! And it was a lovely day for a tour of the 5 boroughs, and I got to experience the kindness of strangers helping me along the way.
Of course I still dissolved into angry tears when I saw bf, but they didn’t last long. We made our way to the subway and back out to NJ and the train station where we had started the day.
Post mortem: the nice thing about being so slow those last 10 miles is that I don’t feel like I ran a marathon. My body (aside from my calves) has almost completely recovered already, and I am itching to go for a run. My left calf was sore for a few days post-race, and my right calf was painful and tight. Yoga and massage have helped, and it is almost back to normal as well.
So what’s next? A little birdie put the NCR Marathon in MD on my radar. It’s the Saturday after Thanksgiving and 3 weeks out from NYCM. If I feel recovered enough I might try to tackle that, otherwise I will jump into maintenance running and tri training for the spring.
As for my calves, I bought calf panties last night and will see how they work out for me. I did some research and it seems that my calves probably weren’t prepared for the pace that I was trying to run on Sunday, which led to some Golgi tendon thingies to freak out and for my calves to contract and not let go. So more mileage, especially at MP, and actually doing strength training will be part of my next training cycle. Onward with this experiment of one. Relentless forward motion….