Tuesday, November 9, 2010

26.2 (miles) at 27.8 (years) in 3:07 (doom)

This Sunday, I and 44,829 others with similarly terrible judgment ran the ING New York City Marathon.  In my case, I use the term “run” generously, for though my first 18 miles went at a decent clip, my body then succumbed to paraplegia.  The sheer bloodlust of competition would move me once more, however, as I spent the final miles in a duel to the finish with a transvestite Minnie Mouse.  But I give away the end of the story without properly addressing the origins:

In elementary school, I was never an athletic child.  While my peers played sports, I performed in the school plays in roles generally reserved for midgets (Munchkin, Tom Thumb).  To foist fitness upon me, my parents made me join a soccer team, for which I was always a fullback.  (Since AYSO wasn’t allowed to cut anyone, fullback was the position given to children deemed unsalvageable.)  In middle school, I did water polo—where I was whatever the water polo equivalent of fullback is—and basketball—where the coach, in his pre-game pep talks, used me as the baseline against which the competent players would be measured.  By the time I got to high school, I had sworn off sports forever and instead took jazz dance which has no fullbacks, only pirouettes and lots and lots of Paula Abdul.

In college, however, something peculiar happened: I developed motor skills, perhaps the result of going into a gym and/or through puberty.  I still wasn’t (and amn’t) your first choice for carrying heavy objects or kicking a soccer ball in the direction you want it to go, but finally I could run fastish and longish.  And so, five years later, what better outlet for my would-be athleticism than a marathon?  (Answer: throwing self off cliff.)

The ING New York City Marathon, whose participial name suggests the doom it dangles, is a 26.2 mile foot race (red flag #1) that requires you to wake up at 4:30 am (red flag #2), and crosses all five boroughs of New York City, including four that aren’t Manhattan (red flags #3-6).  If you’re a hardcore runner (namely, you don’t modify your athletic qualities with -ish), you’re guaranteed entry into the marathon.  If you’re me, you enter by lottery and, after losing three years in a row, get automatic entry with your fourth application.

Lauren, a coworker who has run marathons-in-the-plural and is therefore insane, was also accepted.  Early in the summer, she asked about my training regimen—hers included daily runs to hone the mental and physical stamina requisite for the marathon: I was just planning to show up the day of.  Lauren was aghast (and this from a woman who finds vegan brownies acceptable).  After my training anti-plan received similar levels of aghastliness from Maggie, Megan, my mother, and people whose names don’t begin with m, I reconsidered my nonchalance.  But by the time of my reconsideration, it was a month before the marathon, so my abbreviated-of-length/half-of-assed training would consist of three sessions: one 12-mile, one 18, and one 23.  I didn’t die, which in my book suggested all was dandy.  And then marathon day arrived.

Whereas “ow” is the sensation that would ultimately win the day, the morning started out on Staten Island with “brr.”  Staten Island, as you might imagine, is an island, so much of it, including the marathon’s starting line, is on the water.  And when you combine early morning, early winter, and unprotected shoreline, you get gale-force winds.

The marathon organizers don’t want you to die before the race, so they provide marginal relief from the cold that you might die during the race instead.  Dunkin’ Donuts serves thimble-sized cups of coffee which give momentary sensations of warmth.  They also offer hot-pink stocking caps, so you can choose between hypothermia and humiliation.  Even with coffee and cap, however, I was freezing.  An organizer exclaimed cheerfully, “You look miserable!,” and when my body went into convulsions, a concerned Australian offered me his shirt.  But by then the race was about to begin.

After a benediction from Mayor Bloomberg, the gun sounded, and we were off.  The first two miles go across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge into Brooklyn.  (Based on runner demand, the race gets you out of Staten Island as soon as possible.)  While you run across the bridge, loud speakers ask you not to pee on it, as this would make the bridge smell like Staten Island.

Come to think of it, the marathon organizers are very proactive about telling you where you can and cannot pee (one of the many ways they differ from India).  And such vigilance is necessary.  According to my former roommate Jack, marathoners often relieve themselves in medias race, lest they harm their finish time.  This marathon was very civilized, however; I saw no one effluviate en route.  For that matter I saw no one using a bathroom either, which leads me to believe all marathon runners are camels.

Aside from pee, the marathon organizers adopt a devil-may-care attitude to other forms of debris, and marathoners themselves are some of the more joyful litterbugs I’ve seen.  (Possible motto: “litter and be gay.”)  Runners don’t attempt to find a trash receptacle; if you’re done with something—energy bar wrapper, cup of water, article of clothing—toss it to the curb, or if that would cause you inconvenience, drop it in the middle of the course.

This trash creates minor obstacles, but it’s not a problem for the other runners at first.  Then, around mile 20, the food stations start distributing bananas and the peels thereof.  If you know your coefficients of static friction or have ever watched a Looney Tune, you will understand why this isn’t a good idea.  I myself slipped on a banana peel in the Bronx.  Since I wasn't also stabbed, I consider this one of my better visits to the borough.

Despite the tumbling and trashing, what keeps us marathoners going throughout the race?  Viewers like you.  Along virtually all 26.2 miles of the course, cheerers line the roads with signs which fall into three main categories:

1.       Kenya.  Kenyans are fast; cheerers find this hilarious.  Recurring signs include, “You’re all Kenyan to me,” or “You run so quickly I thought you were Kenyan.”  Whoever said “There are no new ideas” was referring to Kenya signs.

2.       Pooping.  Who knew so many would rally around this subject?  Examples: “You haven’t pooped yourself; you’re a winner,” or “You poop, you scoop!”

3.       Personal Support.  Most cheerers came to support a friend, roommate, or the miner from Chile.  (Some Subway employees were cheering on Jared, but they didn’t look too happy about it.)  The personal-support signs are of the form, “Hooray for <person who isn’t Greg, usually the Chilean miner>!” or the Forrest Gump equivalent, “Run, <person’s name>, Run!”

In Williamsburg, as expected, the cheerers were either absent or cheering ironically (“Pheidippides died at this point in the race,” or “It’s 26.2 miles.  Because 26.3 would be crazy.”)  In Queens, the cheerers were ecstatic that someone was visiting their borough for something other than Costco.

Cheerers also respond to the clothes you are wearing.  I did not know this, or I would have run in more cheer-worthy attire.  As it was, my criterion in selecting my shirt had been, “What do I own that is least likely to chafe my nipples?”  (When you are a now-veteran marathoner like me, you understand the danger of nipple wounds.)  Accordingly, I wore a running jersey—given to me by my hedge fund employer—which has the name of the hedge fund in huge, see-them-and-the-Great-Wall-from-outer-space letters.

Other runners dashed past onlookers in jerseys advertising altruistic causes, like “Spread Stroke Awareness!” or “End Tuberculosis!”  So you can understand why my jersey, whose subtext is “You Know What Happened to the Economy?  My Bad!,” didn’t drive the crowd into raptures.  During the race, I received a total of two cheers: the first from a coworker who recognized the company name (“Go <Company>!”), the second from someone who thought I had decided to print my own name on the shirt (“Go Mr. <Hedge Fund Owner>!”).

I had grown accustomed to silence from the crowds when suddenly, at mile 22, I heard a deafening roar.  What could it be?  Certainly, I hadn’t written something crowd-pleasing on the back of my jersey (e.g. “Feed the Hungry,” “Die Canada”).  But o, what a naïf I was!  So unaware of the terror in store!  For the crowd’s screams introduced him who would be my archrival.

In the corner of my eye appeared a man dressed head-to-toe as Minnie Mouse: huge ears and stringy tail, red shoes and black leggings, flowing skirt and tight polka-dotted blouse.  He was dressed to the Disney nines, and far less concerned than I about the post-race state of his nipples.  Having “hit the wall” several miles back (that’s a phrase we veteran marathoners use to mean, “My entire being is in agony.  If you are able-bodied, I will slay you and drink your soul.”), I was now accustomed to getting passed by everyone and their stroke awareness-supporting mother.  I drew the line, however, at Minnie Mouse.

Searching my heart and pockets for adrenalin and Power Bars, I forced myself to a quicker pace, propelled forward by the screams of “Minnie!” echoing in my ears and the flash of polka dots in my peripheral vision.  The whole situation was redolent of the Duel in the Sun of the 1982 Boston Marathon, except that was between the two front-runners—champion athletes both—whereas I was competing for 100,000th place against a cross-dressing cartoon character.

As I rounded the final bend onto Central Park South, my lungs burned, my head pounded, and He-Minnie was still on my heels.  Then—

We’re at the last turn!  The signs announce 200 yards, 100 yards, <some interim distance in meters that caters to foreigners/terrorists>, 50 yards, and—egad—I start pulling ahead!  My corporate jersey, though unpopular, is more conducive to the final sprint than Minnie’s ensemble.  I cross the finish line!  I have beaten Minnie!  I have affirmed my masculinity!  As such, I will shop only at REI!

Epilogue: I finished in 3:07 (technically 3:06:54, but who’s counting?), which qualifies me for the Boston Marathon, in case I want to try my luck against Boston runners, like the Little Mermaid or Dumbo.  A tempting proposition, I admit.  But my body has disqualified me from ever walking again.


  1. I am thrilled that you prevailed against the cross-dressing Minnie Mouse, for a BQ time after that would be down-right humiliating. Thank you so much for making me laugh out loud during this entire report. I am positive that your legs will love you again, and that one day, you and Minnie Mouse might walk hand in hand across another finish line.

  2. Greg, well done on the marathon - and thanks for a great read! For those of us seeing how far one can test the body -- did you not work out or exert any physical activity at all in the 2-3 months leading up to the marathon? Or did you do some regular workout stuff (gym visits, shorter runs here and there, etc.) in addition to the three marathon-specific training runs you mentioned?

    Congratulations again!

  3. @Lara, thanks! I hope one day that I may share your confidence :-)

    @Iris, thanks too! As part of my normal, non-marathon routine, I run 4-5 miles a day at the gym, 5 days a week. I don't normally run further than 5 miles, though, so I did the three long(er) runs specifically to prepare for the marathon.