Saturday, April 23, 2011

New York City Marathons

Recently, the media has reported that the Norwegian Olympian marathon runner, Grete Waitz passed away at the age of 57 of cancer. I have never met Grete Waitz but I once ran in the shadow of her footsteps during the 1992 New York City (NYC) marathon. A record nine times NYC marathon champion at that time (she has won more NYC marathons than any athlete), she had trailblazed the women marathon event and she did not need to prove herself anymore. But she ran in that 1992 race to give support to Fred Lebow, the then New York Road Runners president, who was running in that race. Fred was fighting brain cancer at that time. She ran together with Fred finishing the race at close to five and a half hours. Grete's running time was usually in the range of two and a half hours and under.

I got into marathon running on a lark. I had watched my husband's training closely and cheered him during his run in the NYC marathon in Manhattan. I also greeted him at the finish line in Central Park. The following year, I decided to try out for it. Reading about Grete Waitz and the other elite women runners gave me a lot of encouragement. I was not a fast runner. My humble goal was to go for the experience and finish the race.

The training was strenuous. I started picking up the distance to run up to 5 miles and then built it up to 10 miles. Then I slowly increased the distance to run up to 13 - 15 miles. The longest training run I did was 18 miles before the marathon. Per the advice of friends who were also in the race, we moved the training to Central Park a few weeks before the race to acclimatize to the Central Park hilly terrain. The training regimen also included participating in a couple of short races sponsored by the NY Road Runners.

The NYC marathon spans the five boroughs of the city. The race starts in Staten Island and then move to Brooklyn, then Queens, Manhattan, Bronx and back into Manhattan where it finishes inside Central Park. My first NYC marathon was in 1991.  When the race started in Staten Island, I ran on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge which connects Staten Island to Brooklyn. I remembered stopping for a moment to tie my shoe laces and I felt the bridge shaking and swaying with the pounding of thousand pairs of feet on it. Moving from the bridge into Brooklyn, I was greeted by wildly enthusiastic crowds. They were cheering the runners all the way. There were bands playing, some even playing the "Rocky's theme".

The Brooklyn route eventually lead into Long Island City in Queens. As soon I crossed the Queensboro 59th Street Bridge (immortalized in Simon and Garfunkel's 59th Street Bridge Song), I arrived in Manhattan (a novelty moment - arrival in Manhattan on foot ! Up to that point, my arrival in Manhattan was usually by train or car). The spectators in Manhattan was as enthusiastic as those in Brooklyn. Just when you thought your feet were full of lead and could not carry anymore, the crowd enthusiasm gave you enough impetus and courage to carry on and on. During the race, I was carrying a water bottle in a wrap around belt. On First Avenue, I discarded it, feeling much lighter to carry on the race. Along the way, I saw medical aid tents where you might even get a massage to relieve your leg cramps. I did not experience any cramps but one of my knees was hurting like crazy. To keep my mind on focus, I hummed the "Chariots' Fire" theme song in my head every now and then.

Up to this time, I did not see my husband who was also running in the race. I was not expecting to see him since he was a faster runner and we had agreed to meet at the finish line. I trod along feeling exhausted and finally crossed the Willis Avenue Bridge into the Bronx borough. The Bronx borough route was shorter than I expected and it was a relatively flat course. Then the race continued into Manhattan onto Fifth Avenue and then moved into Central Park. I felt a surge of exhilaration upon entering Central Park because I knew the race had only a few more miles to go. With heavy (and happier) feet, I ran the leafy hilly course of Central Park in the autumn sunshine, picturing the glorious moment that soon would be mine. When I approached Columbus Circle, with my heart pounding in excitement, I let the heavy feet carried me along towards the finish line. Probably a late surge of adrenalin kicked in and soon I was at the finish line. I did it ! 26.2 miles in 1 day ! Felt like a Greek warrior ! Not a world record finish time but I conquered my first NYC marathon !

After all the training, why let it go to waste ? So I signed up again for the 1992 marathon race. I ran wiser and a little faster and but the pain and exhaustion were no less. To Grete Waitz and the other elite women runners, a salute to all of you for inspiring a novice runner to dream big and be a proud participant in New York City history!

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