***This is part 2 of a delayed race report from November 7, when I ran the New York City Marathon as a pacer/coach for tennis pro Justin Gimelstob. For part one, click here.***
Last year, I had been right in the front of my wave 2 start when Frank Sinatra started singing New York. This year, we were in the middle of the wave 1 start, which meant that we had a few minutes of just standing in place and then a slow walk to the chip mats before we could start running. I used the time to to sing along and dance a little bit as I got myself pumped up. I was later able to find myself on the news coverage crossing the start, and I found it fitting that I started right at the end, where Frank sings, “it’s up to you, New York, New York!” It was indeed up to me, and I was determined to make sure Justin crossed the line well before the 4:45 bet, so that we could win $10,000 for the children.
Justin had stopped to tie his shoe just before we crossed the start line, and in doing so, we lost most of his friends and the rest of our group – it was just me and Justin. Justin had his headphones on, listening to the special inspirational playlist he had put together, but I ran without music – I knew from last year that there was plenty of entertainment even without an iPod.
The first two miles of the race are on the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge, and while I had been excited to be on the top deck this year and get the glorious views about which I had heard so much, I actually didn’t find it to be much better than the lower deck. It was nice to see the sky, but from where I was, I couldn’t see much over the rails anyway, and try as I might, I couldn’t spot the fire trucks spewing fountains of water (an iconic image that I’ve only so far seen in pictures of the Marathon). With nothing much to look at other than the runners around me, I focused on my watch intently, with a goal of keeping us to a conservative 9:40 pace for that first uphill mile.
My pacing plan was to do around a 9:35 pace for the first half of the race and a 10:00 pace for the second half, slowing down on the uphills and speeding up for the downhills and for the crowds on First Avenue. According to my lan, the fastest we’d ever go would be 9:30 (miles 2-7) and the slowest would be 10:20 (the brutal uphill at mile 23). With this plan, we’d finish around 4:22 – meaning that we could give up almost a full minute on each mile and still win the bet to finish in 4:45. It was definitely a conservative plan, but I thought it was a good one considering that Justin had had the flu all week and the primary goal was to win the bet (with achieving a fast time being the secondary goal). Ah, the best laid plans…
Despite running what felt like an easy pace, my watch was showing around an 8:30 pace for that first mile. I kept tapping Justin on the shoulder (his music was cranked up high) and making a “pull it back” hand motion, but my efforts were futile, and we finished the first mile in about 8:40. That’s what the adrenaline of the start does! I continued trying to slow Justin down as we went into the second mile of the bridge, but that was even tougher given that we were now cruising downhill.
We entered Brooklyn and stayed to the right, picking up some crowd support as we went. I was really glad my name was on my shirt – my favorite part of the NYCM both years has been all the people who scream and cheer my name! I felt bad that I hadn’t told Justin to do the same, but I hoped that at least the general wall of noise that heralded our joint approach would boost him up as well.
By the time we hit mile 3, we were already more than two minutes ahead of schedule – oops! I pointed this out to Justin, but he wanted to just keep pressing forward. Given that he was a pro athlete, I didn’t want to cramp his style too much, so I tried to allay my concerns about going out too fast by reminding myself that I had built in a pretty big cushion for failure, and that I knew my motivational abilities were strong – even if Justin did burn out in the later miles, I felt confident that I could spur him to at least stick to the conservative pace I had planned at the end.
But my role in the race was more than just pacer/motivator/cheerleader. Justin joked that I was also his “sherpa,” because I was carrying extra gels and an extra iPod for him (in case his iPod shorted out from his profuse sweating). I also had my cell phone, as usual, but instead of being my “get motivational calls from Mom” device, it was now the official communication device of Team Gimelstob: we had given the number out to Justin’s friends/family as their way to keep track of us on the course. From mile 3 on, I was making calls and sending texts to alert supporters to our location and ask for “reinforcements” (you’ll see what I mean in a bit).
Our first stop was planned for mile 5, where we’d meet up with one of Justin’s friends who would have a change of shirt for Justin. Remember how I mentioned the profuse sweating above? Let me clarify exactly how much that is: by mile 2, Justin’s shirt was already saturated and dripping. Justin’s girlfriend had warned me not to run directly behind Justin, and around mile 7, I found out why: because it feels like you’re getting rained on! Hehe. Anyway, my point is that the five outfit changes along the way weren’t some sort of diva thing – they were pretty much a necessity.
I had planned ahead for the outfit changes, adding one minute per item of clothing we planned to change (i.e. if it was just a shirt, it was a one minute change; if it was shirt and shorts, it became two minutes), and the pace sheet I made had all the changes marked in, as well as who we were meeting and where they would be. However, I realized that for the mile 5 change, I hadn’t noted down whether Justin’s friend would be on the left or the right – uh oh! I didn’t have the guy’s number, but a quick call to Justin’s girlfriend got me the info I needed: he’d be waiting on the left. My mom was going to meet us at mile 7, so I quickly texted her to be on the left side of the road as well, all the while getting mocked by spectators for chatting/texting while running. Such is the life of a pacer/coordinator/sherpa! 🙂
I was worried about spotting Justin’s friend, but he saw us coming and flagged us down with little to no trouble. I held Justin’s headphones for him as he ripped off his shirt, and I accepted some extra PowerBars, gels, and a banana – Justin sure eats a lot more than me on the course! The entire exchange took less than 30 seconds, which impressed me – perhaps we’d finish faster than I thought.
While changing, another runner figured out who Justin was, and then turned to me: “Oh, you’re the one from the New York Times article yesterday, right?” HA! So cool. Yes, from now on I am “the girl from the New York Times.” That’s awesome 🙂 We ran together for a few minutes before drifting apart.
Our next brush with fame came when we saw a car with TV cameras on the right, and realized they were following the progress of Edison Pena, the Chilean miner. Justin immediately dashed over to go say hi, and I let him go for a bit – but then I realized we were due to meet my mom in another half mile or so. I ducked over across the road to let Justin know we needed to get back on the left, and was rewarded for my efforts with a brief “extra” appearance on the official TV coverage of the race – check out Justin coming in and running there, and me in the background in blue just before the end of the clip. It’s really too bad they cut that footage when they did – I stayed with that group for several minutes and you could have actually seen me for real if they were just a moment later!
We caught up to my mom, and I gratefully grabbed the sunglasses I had neglected to bring (I wasn’t thinking about this being a sunny race, but it was!). I love that my mom still brings her “Youngest Female 50 State Marathoner” sign to every race now – its bright, distinctive colors always make her easy to spot in a crowd.
And crowded it was! That particular section of Brooklyn around mile 8 is always tons of fun, thanks to the 5-deep crowds lining the streets. People talk so much about miles 16-18 on First Avenue being amazing, but I think that mile 8 in Brooklyn rivals that area. There is so much excitement, and because the crowds aren’t gated off the way they are on First Avenue, you get a lot more interaction/high fives/etc. I love it! I tried to pay attention and look for the gospel choirs that I knew were out, but there was just too much to see and hear, and my senses were confused by all the mayhem. We went up a hill, but with the crowds so loud and adoring, I barely noticed. This is what makes the New York City Marathon my favorite!
At the top of the hill, we caught up to Justin’s girlfriend, Cary, who would be running with us for the next 8 miles or so (at least, that was the plan). Shortly after we reached her, Justin declared that he wanted to go for a sub-4 hour finish. We had already done 8 miles at about a four hour pace, and Justin seemed strong so far; plus, my friend John had warned me that as a pro athlete, I should expect that Justin would have a stronger finishing kick in the later miles due to his adrenaline and how used to performing under pressure he was. So I finally gave in, despite my intuition telling me it was a bad idea.
Around mile 10, there were some people barbecuing/tailgating on their front lawn, and they were playing the Cha Cha Slide. Hamming it up, I danced along to the music while still moving forward – going backwards as they sang “take it back now y’all”, and hopping forward like a bunny when it came time for “one hop this time… two hops this time.” So fun!!!
Next, I got excited to head through Greenpoint, where I intended to shout “dzin dobry!” (good morning) to all the Polish people I saw. Last year I had done that, although hesitantly at first, but they loved it when I finally got up the nerve to do it. Plus, my father is Polish, and I loved being able to tell him about running through the mostly-Polish neighborhood. This year, however, I ended up on the phone trying to coordinate our mile 15 clothing change. The crowd kept being like “get off the phone, you silly girl!” but hey, what could I do? However, I didn’t end up seeing anyone who looked like they might be Polish, so no “dzin dobry”s were shouted 🙁
Just after Greenpoint, we came to the bridge to Queens – halfway there! The bridge was a bit of an uphill, but it was short, and coming at this point in the race, it didn’t cause a problem. Once on the other side, we started running through the somewhat desolate streets of Queens (at least compared to how crowded Brooklyn was). All of a sudden, there was a woman running alongside the road, yelling “Justin! Laura!” I didn’t know her, but quickly realized it was Becky – Justin’s agent, who was holding his next change of clothes.
This change was a complete change (shirt and shorts), so it took a bit longer than some of the others. However, after we finished, we realized that we had pinned Justin’s bib onto the back side of his new shorts! Oops. No time to fix it – hopefully it wouldn’t matter.
We continued through Queens, the crowds getting a bit better as we got out of the industrial areas and moved through some more residential areas. Still, this borough is probably one of the low points of the race – it’s just not very crowded, and you’re only there for a short time before the Queensboro Bridge to Manhattan.
Cary had originally planned to leave us before the bridge, but decided to keep running and experience the crowds on First Ave (Justin was able to get her a bib so there was no chance of her getting pulled off the course). The Queensboro Bridge was as quiet as its race reputation: no crowds, no spectators, just thousands of runners making their way across the river and getting themselves pumped up for a big welcome on First Avenue. However, the tranquility of the bridge didn’t mean it wasn’t exciting – we had a lot of drama going on within our team!
Justin started cramping up midway through the bridge, and declared that he needed salt to get better. Unfortunately, the best I could offer was a peanut butter Larabar – which would be too much food for him to handle. He needed salt tabs or flat out table salt, neither of which I carried (bad sherpa!). In lieu of actual salt, I called ahead to Justin’s trainer (who would be meeting us at mile 18), and asked him to make sure he had salt and pretzels when we got there. It would be about 25-30 minutes till we’d get there, so hopefully that would be enough time for him to scrounge up something.
We came down the ramp off the bridge and onto First Avenue, and as with last year, I was a bit underwhelmed by the First Avenue crowds. Not because they weren’t loud and awesome, but because everyone psychs you up for a “wall of sound.” Maybe it’s just that I’m not an elite athlete doing 5 minute miles, but here’s a note to anyone who is going to run the NYC Marathon: it is not a wall of sound. You do hear it before you get there, in the distance. You hear it on the bridge as you’re approaching, and it gradually gets louder and louder until you’re finally there. It is an awesome boost, particularly for some of the tougher miles, but anyone who tells you that you “burst off the bridge and hit a wall of sound” is mistaken.
Now, my disclaimer in the last paragraph is not to say that I didn’t love First Avenue – this year, I knew exactly what to expect, and I had an even better time than last year! I made sure to run along the left side of the road (the better to garner cheers!), and I had the technique of looking people in the eye and smiling at me down pat. All along the way, I had crowds of people cheering my name – and I loved it. Instead of running with my arms at my sides, I chose to run with them permanently up in the V for victory pose more commonly used at the finish, basking in the “I’m a marathoner; I can do what I want” attitude of the day.
First Avenue generally has a lot of handmade signs for runners, and soon one caught my eye: “Free Beer!” with an arrow pointing in the direction in which we were running. Assuming that it was along the same lines as all the other signs indicating that we should run to the bere at the finish, I laughed and called out to the guy holding it, “Wow, I can’t wait for that!” Lo and behold, his friend next to him reached out and handed me a can of Bud Light. He wasn’t talking about the finish; he was talking about right here, at mile 16! I hesitated for just a fraction of a second – it was Bud Light (yuck!) and there was a police officer standing two feet away from me (do open container rules apply at mile 16 of the New York City Marathon?) – and took it. While I didn’t see the police officer’s face, Cary later told me that his first reaction was disbelief, but then he started leading the crowd in a cheer. For my part, I cracked the beer, then returned my left arm over my head into a partial V, while holding the beer in my right hand and chugging it, all while still running perfectly on pace. The crowd LOVED it, and I managed to get even more applause than before. There were even flashbulbs going off as people took pictures of the beer chugging marathoner! (Now I just have to hope that one of them wasn’t the New York Times doing a followup article about how I’m a party girl who drinks before and during a race). About halfway through the beer, I got too disgusted to drink it anymore (yes, I am a total beer snob – give me a Southern Tier Pumking any day!), so I discarded the rest of the can and kept going.
Superwoman feat complete, I now turned my attention back to scouring the crowd for my mom (there she was – HI MOM!) and then looking for food for Justin. Justin kept gravitating back toward the middle of the road, but I stayed on the left, and was rewarded for my efforts with some people handing out big SALTY pretzel rods – exactly what he needed! Sherpa-style, I retrieved several of them for Justin, hoping they would help to stave off the cramps until we could meet up with his trainer in another mile or so and get salt tablets.
Soon after we got out of the crowds, we found Stephen ready and raring to go. The best part for me was that he had a whole backpack of supplies – I could hand off the sherpa duties for a while! 🙂 Cary left us at that point, wishing Justin luck before she headed off to try to catch us at the finish line, and now we were a different trio – with a lot less responsibility on my shoulders. I was thrilled to have Stephen around for these toughest miles of the race (fatigue-wise, at least) – he knew Justin’s workout style a lot better than I did, and would be a much better judge for how far his limits could be pushed. Honestly, that is the toughest part of a marathon, if you don’t do them frequently – determining when to keep pushing harder and when you’re already doing the best you can (without collapsing). It’s a delicate balance, and requires knowing someone very well if it’s not your own body you’re pushing. For that reason, I found pacing Justin to be much harder than being a hired pace team leader for a specific time goal. In that case, my goal was always to finish at the specified time, whether I had people with me or not; in this case, my goal was to push Justin to do the best job he could do.
Shortly after we hit mile 19, Justin started to fade. We had been steadily losing a bit of time ever since the cramping started on the bridge, but now Justin decided that we shouldn’t go for a sub-4 finish anymore – it was time to pull it back and just make sure he finished under the 4:45 time required to win the bet with Andy Roddick. I thought this sounded like a smart idea – we wouldn’t want to push too hard and risk the bet, so take it easy we would. Given that we had already done the first 16 miles or so on pace for a 4:00 finish, and we only had 7 miles to go, we had plenty of time to back off the pace and still win the bet comfortably.
We took the bridge to the Bronx at a walk, allowing others to pass us for a bit as we especially tried to save energy on the slight incline. With extra energy to spend, I tried to cheer on those around me as well (“come on, guys, only another 10 seconds and we’ll be at the top, with a great downhill on the other side!”). Hey, just because I was officially pacing Justin didn’t mean I couldn’t help others reach their marathon goals! Meanwhile, we reached the crest and Justin, Stephen, and I continued walking a bit more.
As we started down the other side, I suggested we try jogging a bit now, with gravity on our side – and the idea was well-received. In fact, a little too well-received – it was here that Justin got his second wind and really took off. “Let’s shoot for sub-4 again!” he enthused. Frowning, I checked my watch – we had wasted a lot of time by walking. While we could certainly still finish in a good time, we had been just barely hanging onto a sub-4 finish to begin with, so catching back up to finish sub-4 was now next to impossible. Unfortunately, Justin was in that post-Wall euphoric state where you believe anything is possible (one of the best parts of marathoning!), and he insisted that he could do it. Again, I harkened back to my friend John’s pre-race reminder – Justin was not one of us mere mortals; he was a pro athlete who could probably perform a lot better under pressure/fatigue than anyone else. With that in mind, I let myself be persuaded, and off we went.
While I had finished sub-4 (3:56) last year on the same course, I had kept a much more even pace when I did it. Looking at my watch and doing some quick calculations, we’d need to run just under an 8 minute mile for the rest of the race – not easy at all when you’ve already run 20 miles and have a long, steady incline coming up at mile 22. I started worrying about my own ability to keep up with Justin. How embarrassing would that be if the “marathon whisperer” got left in the dust as the first timer forged on ahead to an unprecedented negative split? If anyone could do it, Justin could, but I just didn’t know if I would physically be able to push my body that hard for that long. Could I keep this grueling pace for the entire rest of the marathon?
As it turned out, I didn’t have to worry for long – Justin’s burst of energy soon abated, and we pulled it back to a much more reasonable jog. I was a bit concerned that essentially “sprinting” (because that’s the kind of effort it takes to put forth a pace like that late int he race) might have worn Justin down even further, but he seemed none the worse for the wear, and we chugged along steadily toward the finish. Past the jumbotron, past the Robin Hood Foundation supporters, under the underpass, and through the hip hop music – we were now onto the last bridge of the race, and almost back to our final home borough.
A sign on the bridge read “Last bridge, last hill!”, but I warned Justin and Stephen that it wasn’t to be trusted. While it’s not steep enough to really be visible, the Museum Mile stretch from 22 to 23 is actually a slight incline – which I find to be even harder than a big hill. On a big hill, you can see that you’re going up, so your brain can comprehend that’s why you’re working so hard. On an invisible incline, your lungs are aching and you feel like your legs have lead weights attached – and you don’t notice the hill so you just think you suck at running. Not true! Always pay attention to little clues (like the angled edge of the steps of a building) and keep reminding yourself that you are on a hill, and therefore have to work even harder than usual. That little mind trick can be really important in these later stages of the race, when you’re especially prone to accepting defeat and walking.
While the year before, I had spent mile 21-22 frantically calling my mom and wondering where the heck she could be (ex-Boyfriend had derailed her with a pizza stop that put them totally behind!), this year I found her easily, with her trademark sign. I was so impressed that she had managed to get all the way uptown for this viewing point, and gave her a big hug before continuing on. We took a quick right, detouring around a small park and enjoying some bands in the process, then two lefts and another right to put us back on the same track as before. The invisible hill was here, but with it came the promise of a short straightaway, a jaunt in the park, one final sprint on 57th Street, and then a glorious finish by Tavern on the Green. We were getting close!
Museum Mile always reminds me of the 2007 New York City Marathon, when my friend Kelly and I headed out to see our manager, Rob, as he ran the race. Back then, the crowds were held back with barriers to keep them from getting in the way of the runners, but this year the barriers were nowhere to be found – which meant that in addition to contending with the insidious hill, we had to deal with an extremely narrow lane for running thanks to the spectators pressing in and crowding the street. Come on, New York – Boston can get barriers along almost the whole race route; can’t we get them for a one mile stretch where spectators are known to push?
But there were a few spectators I didn’t want held back. While the newspapers publicized the bet with Andy Roddick as Justin’s reason for running, the real reason was to honor a friend of his, Jeffrey Wernick, who had recently passed away. Justin ran the race carrying a laminated photo of Jeffrey, which he would sometimes pull out for inspiration, and it was at mile 23 that he got a huge boost: Jeffrey’s sister and his best friend was there to give him a hat that Jeffrey used to wear while running, and and old marathon singlet of Jeffrey’s for him to wear. It was an extremely emotional moment as Justin donned the gear, and all three of them were crying.
But Jeffrey’s memory was supposed to inspire us, not pull us back, so on we went. At this point, I too was getting tired – but Stephen still had fresh legs (having joined us at mile 19), so he was pushing us forward. For my part, I wasn’t falling apart, but I definitely wasn’t quite as peppy as I once was. No matter – the crowds were lining the Central Park loop to cheer us on, so we had plenty of support!
I reminded Justin how he had done this loop many times before, and even twice with me by his side – it had a few hills, but we could do it. Being on the East Side and coming from the north, we would get to do Cat Hill as a downhill… though there would be a pretty nasty uphill leading to 25, and of course the dreaded uphill from 26 to the finish. The road was narrow, and narrowed further by spectators and aid station volunteers who spilled into the streets – and at our pace, we were still right in the middle of the pack, so we weren’t getting any space that way. Still pushing the pace, Stephen led us like a row of ducklings as we wove through the crowds and tried to keep up.
I had been checking my watch for the last few miles, and to appease Justin when we knew we weren’t going to hit sub-4, I told him that a 4:10 finish might be attainable – but we’d be cutting it close. Normally, when I set a goal, I end up banking some extra time and knowing by mile 24 or 25 that I’m definitely going to make it; however, in this case I still wasn’t sure if we would. Stephen was pushing the pace to the extreme, and it was getting really difficult for me to be so smiley as I once was – now, I just focused on staying tough and showing Justin how to grit your teeth, dig in, and finish the marathon strong. Cornell always sponsors the water station at mile 25, and while I had spoken to some volunteers before the race, I just didn’t have the energy to do more than pass through – certainly nothing left to yell out that I was a Cornellian (sorry, guys!). Just one mile still to go, and I didn’t want to slow Justin down.
Just after mile 25, I looked over at Justin, and he looked back at me with a scary expression – with blank eyes, I could see that he was giving it everything he had, and wasn’t going to leave anything on the table. After that, I started to wonder if Stephen was pushing the pace too much. I had assumed that he knew Justin really well and knew what he was capable of, but that expression on Justin’s face scared me. Maybe I am just as much of a super athlete as he is… and even I was definitely struggling.
Mercifully, we made it to the top of the last hill before mile 26, and even got a little downhill to take us out of the park to 57th Street. I flashed back to the day that Justin ran his first half marathon, and we sprinted down this same hill trying to practice the art of finishing strong. I didn’t have the energy to remind him of that, but I hoped it gave him strength. And Stephen kept pressing forward…
Last year, when I hit 57th Street, I was ebullient. I had just seen Mom and ExBoyfriend before turning out of the park (a surprise for me since they had been lost for hours at that point), and I felt strong. This year, I saw Mom at that same spot (could not believe she made it down from mile 21 in time!)… but I was too wiped out to really enjoy it. Instead of a victory chute to Columbus Circle and then the finish, 57th Street became a death march… that Justin and I were trying valiantly to run. Too hard! Too much! I could barely breathe and I knew I looked like the typical marathoner instead of my usual “nah, this may be mile 25 but I look like I just started” self. People were still cheering my name, but it was with a look of pity, and instead of saying things like “you look awesome!”, they were yelling, “don’t give up now – you’re so close!” Meanwhile, there were a lot of photographers in this area, poised to catch our final moments before the finish, but I was far too exhausted to even muster up a smile.
We passed through Columbus Circle, and soon after crossed the 26 mile mark. Almost done! However, now we faced some trouble – the volunteers who are on hand to watch for bandits and pull them off the course. Justin had procured an extra race bib for Stephen to wear, so he was safe, but Justin’s own bib had gotten accidentally pinned to the back of his shorts during our mile 15 outfit change, so the volunteers kept trying to pull him off the course! Stephen and I cleared the way, yelling “it’s on his butt! It’s on his butt!” as we went through. I’ll give the volunteers this – they were certainly diligent, actually checking his butt for the bib before allowing us to keep going. I don’t think we lost any time in that are, but it sure provided some excitement!
However, we did lose Stephen to the bandit-watchers – while he was wearing an official race bib, he was not wearing a timing chip, which was apparently another thing the volunteers were checking for. They apprehended him for questioning, but with only 0.2 miles to go, Justin and I forged on ahead. We would finish the race as a pair, just as we had started.
I looked at my watch and saw that it was slightly over 4:08 – meaning if we could just finish strong, we had a chance at actually breaking 4:10, the goal I had kind of hinted at a few miles back. Despite how crappy I felt after pushing the pace so hard for the last few miles, it was time for me to do my job: motivate and coach Justin to the finish. So up the hill we went, with me staying just ahead of him and trying to play “rabbit,” while yelling “you can do it! Come on! Let’s break 4:10!” I barely even registered the people in the bleachers – all that I was focused on was that finish line ahead, and getting Justin there as fast as possible.
With a final burst of my energy, we crossed the finish line and I stopped my watch – 4:09:59. Depending on whether I started my watch right as we crossed the chip mat or not, we had maybe broken 4:10, but no matter. “Justin! We did it!” I exclaimed. But Justin was breathing hard, trying to keep it together. It had been a tough race! He walked to the side of the wall that held up the finish line, using it to balance as he caught his breath, and then he reached out for my help. “Justin? Are you okay?” I asked, as I reached out to steady him…. just before he collapsed on top of me.
TO BE CONTINUED…