It was 4:35 am when my alarm woke me up on November 6th, and I stumbled out of bed, flicked on the bathroom lights, and stood, dazed, for a few moments before it hit me: today I would run a marathon. The next time I would stand in this spot and look at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, I would see the reflection of a marathoner. Twenty-five to five was far too early for these kind of thoughts, so they just stayed in my head and directed my final steps of preparation. "Nothing new on race day," I thought to myself as I made my toast and almond butter, the same thing I had eaten every morning for the past five months. I pulled on my shirt with my race number already attached, and then it began to sink in. Today I would run a marathon.
My mind was a steady blur as I boarded the bus for Staten Island. Crossing through New Jersey seemed to take forever, and I stared out the window at the world going about their typical Sunday morning. The sun began to peek above the Statue of Liberty's silhouette as she stood in the harbor, an epic reminder of the journey still to come.
We finally arrived in Staten Island and joined up with the other 46,000 or so runners making their way to the starting villages. Huddled masses, indeed. After what felt like endless walking, showing our numbers, and more walking, my group of fellow sojourners and I sat down in our village to wait for the start. And wait for the second start. And wait some more. Finally, the third and last wave of runners was called to find their corrals. This was it....after more shuffling. Soon, the race officials began shuffling the throngs of runners closer and closer to the Verrazano Bridge and as I approached, I could hear "New York, New York" blaring from the speakers. Only a few minutes of shuffling more, and then I was there. At the starting line of the New York City Marathon. And a moment later, my race began.
The Verrazano Bridge is the longest suspension bridge in North America, and also the starting point of the New York City Marathon. It also means that the entire first mile of the race is spent going uphill, and after 10 minutes of marathoning, you start to wonder if your conditioning is going to last you another (what you hope to be) 5 hours and 50 minutes (if you're me and have a goal time of going under 6 hours). At least, that's what was going through my mind. As soon as we were off the bridge, there were crowds of people lining the streets holding signs and yelling "Welcome to Brooklyn!!!!!"
Brooklyn is often described as one giant block party, and with good reason. I made my way down streets lined with people having cookouts, sitting on lawn chairs, blasting stereos, and offering the runners water and encouragement. I kept hearing people cheer "GO EMILY!" as they read my name off the front of my shirt, and felt a solidarity with this city like never before. I felt strong and was keeping a comfortable, steady pace. I can only describe the miles in Brooklyn as a 50,000-person surprise party. The energy was unbelievable, and the groups of cheering spectators grew larger and larger as we got closer to downtown. I couldn't believe I was there, in the thick of it - these people were out cheering for me.
Once I hit about mile 9 or 10, the cheering crowds died off a bit, and I kept thinking "get me the hell out of Brooklyn." I kept my eyes out for two friends who lived along the course and spotted them around mile 12, waving and hugging then getting back on the road. The Pulaski Bridge marks the halfway point in the race. As it came into my sights, I was filled with a mixture of excitement and nerves - I felt like I had been running for hours (and I had - three, to be exact) and I was only halfway?! I had been keeping a fairly steady pace and hit the halfway point at 2:59 - right where I needed to be, but with no room for error and my body starting to feel the effects of three hours of running. Not to be too discouraged though - I had friends waiting for me in Queens with signs and excitement, which was just the boost I needed to make it through my third borough at a steady clip and push through the Queensborough Bridge. I was so excited to run up First Avenue after watching the runners back in 2007, and the crowds didn't disappoint. As I came to the bottom of the Queensborough Bridge, spectators had huge signs that said "10 more miles to go!" Ten miles - piece of cake, right?
About halfway up First Avenue, my legs started to feel a little heavy. And my stomach started it's long aria of discontent. And I kept pushing forward, through mile 17, and 18, until all I could think was "I just want to sit down." I was so tired physically and mentally, and by mile 19, I started walking. As I kept walking through Manhattan, I looked down at my watch and realized that although I was walking, I wasn't losing any speed. I had figured that I would hit a wall at some point and so had incorporated quite a bit of walking into my training. And so I pushed on, up and over the Willis Avenue Bridge, into the Bronx.
Most people think the Bronx leg of the marathon is the most difficult borough, and with good reason. If you're going to hit a wall, it's hitting you full force at that point. The crowds are much thinner, and there are a couple of jaunty little hills to keep you on your toes (literally and metaphorically). But personally, I have the best memories of the Bronx. Between miles 20 and 21 I found a part of myself that was stronger and gutsier than I had imagined. I had been on my feet for nearly five hours. I had an hour to go. Every joint in each of my legs was ready to just sit down. And yet, every step I took was the furthest I had ever gone.
The next five miles were a blur as I willed myself to keep going. I would run for a bit, then walk, and my body ached as I made my way down Fifth Avenue, through Central Park to 59th Street and down to Columbus Circle. I powered through every bit of energy that I had until the entrance back into the park got closer and closer, until I was back in the park and coming up on the 26 mile marker. Just one more turn, one more hill, and I would cross the finish line. And so I ran. I ran back into the park, over the hills, like I had done so many times before. I pushed forward as hard as I could. And then I saw the finish line. It came into sight, then closer and closer until I was crossing it myself.
I had finished a marathon: 26.2 miles in 5 hours and 58 minutes. Words and emotions failed me at that moment, but looking back now, over a week later, I find myself getting choked up as I comprehend what I have accomplished. My journey to the center of Manhattan was finished.