Tuesday, November 08, 2011

My (bitter)Sweet 16th Marathon Run

My (bitter)Sweet 16th Marathon Run


Martin Bodek

There are days when you wake up in the morning, and you feel real good, and you roll out of bed and you’re in a good mood, and you brush your teeth and comb your hair (in my instance, whatever’s left of it) and you feel right, and you get dressed and you practically whistle, and breakfast is yummy and you go out for a race and smash a PR and everything is well with the world.

Then there are days when everything is shifted a bit, when you’ve got some rust on you, and you don’t like what the scale says as a result of six days of holiday fressing combined with a taper, and when you head out for that run, you get punished with a hard, violent lesson.

My 16th marathon run – my 14th NYC – was the latter. The lesson: you do not wear Vibrams for the NYC Marathon. I paid for that lesson in pain. Lots of it.

I smashed my marathon PR last year by 14 minutes, finishing in 4:10. I rejoiced (the pictures are great!), and immediately thereafter resolved to find an edge for next year. One week later, I purchased the Vibram Five-fingers and found that edge, combined with a 20 lb weight loss over two years. I published an article praising the Vibrams and detailing their proper breaking-in for Trail Runner Magazine. Through 2011, until this year’s marathon, I had run 14 races and PRed in 11 of them through cold and rain and rough terrain.

Little did I know that the course of the NYC Marathon would prove the most brutally punishing terrain of them all.

We begin with my alarm going off.

4:00 AM: My alarm buzzes me awake, and I’m amazed to have actually caught some shuteye after getting a good nap in the afternoon and dealing with a nervous and agitated stomach. I don by usual marathon outfit – Superman T (with the symbol in the shape of a magen david), red shorts with gobs of nutrition, minor first-aid, salt packets and cash in the pockets lined across the back, Vibrams, arm warmers, gloves, kippa (I haven’t had a haircut for two months and still barely have enough for it to stick to!), my bib with a TheKnish.com sticker, Livestrong cancer bracelet, 4:00 and 4:10 pace bracelets, “14th NYC” sticker on my arm, JRunners tattoos on my calves, a “Martin” sign on my chest, a sign that says, “If I’m walking, pat my back, thanks!” on my upper back and a sign that says, “’The main thing is to have no fear at all.’ – Rebbe Nachman” on my lower back. I calm my nerves for a few minutes by writing a page for the novel I’m working on while I partake in NaNoWriMo (http://www.nanowrimo.org, check it out), have some light breakfast, and I’ms ready to rock.

5:30 AM: My father-in-law drives me out to the Meadowlands, where, for the umpteenth time, absolutely no signs are available to show us where to go. I find the buses only because I know where they are. Why they can’t have the buses in a spot viewable from the major highway that passes by, I have no idea, but I will complain again. I do find my favorite seat, all the way back left (perfect for zoning out) and enjoy the bumpy, fishtailing ride as the sun rises. Before the bus comes to a full stop I hit the yellow strip indicating a passenger would like to get off at the next stop. Because I’m silly like that.

7:30 AM: After my 3rd of 5 bathroom trips for the morning and a scouting-out of my corral, I join the International Marathon Minyan, co-hosted by my JRunners brothers with some nice, new amenities. I hang around for the 2nd minyan as well, chilling in the risen sun and thawing out my frozen feet. The organizers of the Jerusalem Marathon are there. I kibbitz with them and say that if they’d cover my plane ticket, I’d be there in a heartbeat. It’s merely freezing at the staging area, which means it’s the warmest I’ve ever been at the start. It’s been bone-chilling and even marrow-chilling, but it’s just right for the start. I wouldn’t have minded it colder. I hang out with my Bro Eli Friedman (3:59 on his first marathon try!). He is freezing to death, one foot from me, while I feel felt balmy and comfortable. Go figure.

9:15 AM: I enter my corral, sit down to rest my legs and sip some water and think about my wife and kids, who I didn’t see last year because said wife gave birth to said youngest child just five days before the marathon. I’m always amazed when women who’ve just given birth show up at their son’s brissim, but I don’t think I’d expect them to holler at runners on a marathon course just a few days after giving birth. When we’re ushered out of the corral towards the start, I Facebook that my race is dedicated to my children, and that I’d make them proud. While we wait in position before the start line, I – yet again – experience some German racism. Well, maybe not racism, but certainly hate-ism, or run-ism, what have you. You decide: Behind me I hear some of them talking, fully understanding what they’re saying because I speak Yiddish. Suddenly one says to the other to check out the sign on my back. Now his response doesn’t even need an understanding of German or Yiddish to interpret, because it basically sounds like this: “Err shtinkin in laufen, untz klappen eim un backen der gantzen vaygen.” Didja get that? I ignore it, but I think that’s the last time I do. Anyway, just before the start, I take a last look at my kiddies on my phone and the pre-race chizuk from my wife and it elates my mood.

10:10 AM: P’toom! The cannon fires and we’re off.

Mile 1: I’m on the lower level this year. Good for faster starts and two miles free of the sun, bad for clothing being tossed off from the upper level and the urinators who are unmindful of those below. My goal is to run the first half at an 8:00 MPH clip and slow gradually for the 2nd half and perhaps claim another PR. It takes me 3:06 to get to the start line and I finish the first mile in 9:37, which is very, very nice. We can start some 8s from here. I notice a lot of T-shirts bragging about 15+ marathon finishes and a lot more saying the run is dedicated to a brother or sister or son or daughter or father or mother killed on 9/11. So many.

Mile 2: Though there’s quite a crowd, the pace picks up. The urinators from my corral begin their work. The men go against the wall of the Verrazzano bridge, the women go just behind the concrete barriers separating the road from the grass. Such a perfect setup. There’s a guy running with a Giants helmet. I just can’t understand why a person would run with something that induces hardship. Yes, I’m dressed like Superman, but it contributes to my ability to run, as opposed to detracting from it. I finish the second mile in 8:25. Great, now let’s get those 8s.

Mile 3: Did I say 8s? How am I supposed to do that with this crowd? Man, there are an awful lot of people around me, and I can’t break free. The Brooklyn energy begins, with lots of hootin’ and hollerin’ and cowbells. I gotta have more cowbell! The route here is new, so it’s nice to experience a few different parts before re-joining the familiar, which – when it happens – frustrates the heck out of me! At approximately mile 3.6, the course rejoins the throng of runners, and there is NO room to maneuver. None. I’m trapped. I’m forced to go at the speed of those around me. There’s just no getting away. I’m hoping it will loosen up soon. I have another problem at the first water stop, which are now a block long. This means that my feet get positively soaked as I try to wend my way through the melee. It’s seriously uncomfortable. At 74th and 4th, I expect to see a co-worker of mine hanging out. I don’t see him, but one block later, I see someone holding up a sign with my co-workers’ name! Interesting! I see a little girl with a “Free hi fives” sticker stuck to her jacket. Free? I’ll take one! I finish the mile in about 9 minutes. Hey, that’ll still get me a PR, but I still want to break free of this crowd!

Mile 4: Did I say break free? There is no breaking free. I want to climb back to 8s but there’s little chance of that. The crowd is just too thick. At least I’m running steady 9s. I’ll make my peace with that for now, but sometime before Mile 10, I need me some 8s! Another water stop, and more foot sloshing. I run through a minefield of Gatorade trash, and my Vibrams get all sticky, then they get rinsed at the water stops. It’s starting to make me cranky, but if the liquids were reversed, I think I’d lose my mind! The signs people are holding up are a little grosser this year, such as “I think black toenails are sexy.”

Mile 4.7: Pit-stop 1. My mommy’s waiting for me with a tray, like she’s my concierge. Upon it are a salt bagel, sliced four ways, a Powerade bottle and four orange wedges. Just like I ordered. Now that’s service! My Aba is there and my sister Devorah and my old mailman Charlie with his wife. We take some pics, hand out hugs and kisses, and just before I depart, I notice some of my JRunner homeys there! Joseph Pancer, Shai Grabie, Sam Weisz and Yehuda Braunstein give me fives and I’m on my way. Hoo-ha!

Mile 5: Still traveling at 9s with the immovable phalanx. It feels like all 47,000 runners are crowding me, and I’m liking the idea of a two-day marathon more and more. The water stops are becoming grueling and aggravating. The signs are cleverer this year: “You are the 1%.” Heh, I like that.

Mile 5.2: Pit-stop 2. I spot my dad, rocking his Justin Timberlake hat real cool. My little twin sisters are there and my mum. Hugs and kisses all around (no need for food, I’m still munching the bagel I got a half mile ago!).

Mile 6: Okay, my feet are now officially annoyed by all their waterlogging, and I’m annoyed that I can’t break free from this pack of people. There is no loosening up that can be seen and no way to dodge the water deluge. I can’t mount the sidewalks and running in middle of the road is no help whatsoever. I can’t believe I have to deal with this for another 20 miles. It’s already clear that Vibrams do not work in a race of this magnitude. The crowd energy is still good though, and the signs are noticeably more profane: “There are two kinds of runners: those who run $#!T, and those we eat $#!T.” Okay!

Mile 7: I try to dodge the waterfall any way I can, I can’t. I try to pick up the pace to move away from this pack and only find myself at the same pace with another pack. I feel like I sped up to the rear of the next wave. I try to grab some food, including my usual banana spot just before the Prospect park Expressway, from the sidelines and keep missing. What’s going on here? My mojo’s all busted.

Mile 8: I suddenly and serendipitously realize why I’ve been having a problem getting away from the pack when I look behind me to get a look at the crowd. What do I see about 50 feet behind? The 4:00 pace team with their bobbing balloons. I then notice that the people I’ve been traveling with mostly have 4:00 pace team bibs on their backs. It seems I’ve been enveloped by the front end of the bubble surrounding the pacers! I speed up just a smidgen, break free of the bubble and whaddya know! A sub-9 mile for me! Woohoo! Just when I pull that off though, I run into a massive bottleneck, coupled with another waterstop, the combination of which practically grinds me to a halt. This is getting really, really annoying. However, I’m still around 9:00 per mile pace, slightly ahead of the 4:00 pace team and once I’m free, I’m cruising.

Mile 9: I stay ahead of the pace team and pull off another sub-9, and the streets are wider here, so I survive the rinsing and still get a cup of water. I’m still at sub-4 pace and I’m finally in a buoyant mood. It’s gonna be a good day.

Mile 10: We turn into Williamsburg, home of the Chasidic Froggers. They need to build these people bridges or tunnels, because they are going to cross whether the runners like it or not. A little girl offers me candy. I ask her in Yiddish if it’s kosher. She probably still has the look on her face that she gave me, which is: stunned and scared to death. I notice several chevra toting tallis bags. The time now is about 11:45 AM. If it was PM, I’d understand. Y’know, tefillin dates and all.

Mile 11: Bedford Playground is at about mile 10.5. There’s a bathroom here some runners take advantage of. There’s a black woman standing about 20 feet ahead of the bathroom hollering at runners that there’s a bathroom, which means runners have to double back to make use of it. Hey lady, you’re helpful, but how about moving 40 feet down so runners can veer directly into the facilities after you alert them to it? I can’t do all the thinking around here. At this point, the 4:00 pace team finally surges ahead of me. I stay far enough behind them to move out of the bubble and keep them in my sights, traveling at their speed. At this point, I scarf down the first of the gels in my shorts, to combat the “heaviness” feeling that’s plagued me in the past. I’ve determined that this was the proverbial “wall” due to improper nutrition. I’m doing what I can to avoid this.

Mile 12: We enter the hipster – or non-Frogger - portion of Williamsburg, where my man with the Twizzlers is hit or miss every year. I miss him this year. Darn. I’m still behind the 4:00 pace team, still at PR speed.

Mile 13: We enter Greenpoint, a bit of an uphill but a nice, wide expanse. Still with the 4:00 pace team, things are looking up, uh, literally. My feet have been mostly dry for a few miles because of the wider streets and pocket I’ve found for myself. Clever sign: “Chafe now, brag later.”

Mile 13.1: At the halfway point, the 4:00 pace team pulls away from me because of the hill up the Pulaksi Bridge ramp. I don’t want to overdo it, so I let them go. I’ll fall back and try to stay ahead of the 4:10 group, which would still be a PR for me. I hit halfway at 1:59:21. That isn’t bad considering the aggravation and annoyance my feet have been experiencing. Only 13.1 miles to go!

Mile 13.6: Pit-stop 5: Chabad of Long Island City is here! With hammer gels and water and a band and some of my fellow JRunners! Woohoo! My man Chanan Feldman is manning the station with some of his compatriots. They even capture a picture of me enjoying my hearty swig of elixir!: http://www.chabadlic.com/templates/photogallery_cdo/aid/1671872#!5841100 . Cool!

Mile 14: I can now see the Queensboro Bridge in the distance, begging me to take it on. I’ve conquered my fear of it through repeated attempts and have finally learned to manage it well. I fear it no longer, but I must have in mind to climb it with a measured pace, to run down the middle as others fall back and to the side and run steadily and surely. If I’m laboring, I use a mantra (“Up and over! Up an over!”). I got this.

Mile 15: At about mile 14.5, I turn the corner onto Crescent Street, which is the straightaway toward the Queensboro. I spot something I’ve never seen before, a frum guy fronting a rock band. Cool! Rock on! One block before I make the left turn up the bridge ramp, a woman on a megaphone yells, “Last water stop before the bridge! Last water stop before the bridge!” I grab an extra cup of water. I’m gonna need it. Just before we turn, I hear at least three runners mutter stuff along the lines of “Okay, here we go,” “Here goes nothing,” “Here we go again,” etc. This bridge really takes its toll on people, but I got this. I got this. As I approach the mile marker, at nearly the same exact spot where, years ago, some German bunghole whacked me on the back and sneered “Greeeeeeeeeeeeetings! From Gerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrmany!,” the same thing happens again. This time it’s a couple of Netherlanders. How do I know they’re Netherlandites? Because I later google what it says on their t-shirts (“KiKa Kinderen Kankervrij” – yes, I memorized that), come up with a web site, run some phrases through Google Translate and learn that it’s Dutch. Well the first guy slams me in the back and says, “Nize shooooooooooooze!,” and the second guy slams me in the back and says, “Gooooood for youuuuuuuuuu!” So what is it with the Deutsch and the Dutch with their harsh backwhacking? Somebody clue me in.

Mile 16: I make it over the bridge hump with some good energy. My man Joe Herman passes me by. He has a goal of 3:58 today (he will eventually finish with a PR of 4:06, nice going!). It has long been a standard for me that if I run over the Queensboro Bridge, then I run the rest of the race, and if I don’t, then I don’t. As I come screaming down the ramp into the shouting throng of NYC, I’m in good spirits and feeling great, still holding on to my PR pace. And then-.

Mile 17: Disaster.It’s one thing to run with Vibrams over maybe ten straight feet of gravel, or hey, 100 feet in some circumstances, but they are NOT designed for four straight miles of punishment! I’ve driven down 1st avenue before, and yes, walked with shoes across the street, but it only took wearing Vibrams to realize I was going to be in a world of hurt for a long, long stretch. I do my best to dodge the gravel, but there’s nowhere to dodge. I try to go into the crowd and run on the sidewalk, but there’s no room! There’s no escape! I contemplate running one avenue over and running parallel until The Bronx, but that’s insane. I just can’t get away from this. My feet are ground to hamburger patty, and I slowly fall off my PR pace. That’s not even the worst. I get a massive soaking at the next water stop. Runners partake a lot here because they’ve just run the water-less bridge and need to hydrate. I can’t escape two straight blocks of Powerade and water flooding of my toes. But wait, that’s not the worst! There’s a hydration zone a bit further up, where they hand out sponges! Sponges! Noooo! I’m forced to squish through three straight blocks of this. Oh GOSH the aggravation! Make it stop! Make it stop! Total misery!

Mile 17.7: Pit-stop 4: I get a short reprieve when I meet my brother-in-law and nephew. They’ve got Powerade for me and something very, very refreshing: pizza! Oh yum, it’s cold, but it’s delicious and it’s a sight for sore eyes, or a taste for sore feet, or however you want to remake that metaphor. Oh yum yum yum. I stay for a minute or two and explain my predicament. Knowing today is no PR, I have the time. I take another couple of swigs, rip off the crust, and I’m on my way, thankful for the oasis in the desert of pain.

Mile 18: The crowd is more sparse here, and I do some sidewalk running, but I’m forced back repeatedly to the road and it just hurts so bad, man, so bad. My feet just can’t take it anymore.

Mile 19: Oh G-d it hurts, it hurts it hurts it hurts. Get me off this avenue of agony. Get me the hell out of Manhattan. I need The Bronx. Get me to The Bronx, I need it now. My favorite-named band is along this stretch: Squirrels from Hell. I just love the name, amuses me every time. Hey, I could use the distraction.

Mile 20: I pull off to my annual “urinal,” the beams for the highways supporting the Triborough - oh excuse me, RFK - Bridge. I’m aware I have a yarmulke on my head so this spot allows me to do this discreetly. I’m grateful for every stop. My feet need the break. We head over the Willis Avenue Bridge and I get no reprieve whatsoever. The road has vertical grooves. I can run with the Vibrams over more common horizontal grooves, but verticals HURT! They HURT! Get me the hell off this bridge!!! I get off the bridge, finally, and pretty much the worst thing that could happen to me on a day like this, does: I slip, on a banana peel. You may take some time out of your day to laugh at my predicament. Done? Okay, so I slip on a banana peel and go kersplat on my elbows and face. I feel, at the same exact instant, like I’ve been pulled apart like Stretch Armstrong AND smashed into the Earth by the Fist of God. I wrench my left knee, my left hip and my right ankle. At this point, I’m just completely demoralized. However, I remember a lesson my father taught me when he used to chaperone me on Purim when I tended to drink a bit much. He constantly admonished me to never, under any circumstances, allow myself to be in such a state that I was wallowing in my own mess on the ground. I carry that lesson with me always, so I get up to my knees immediately, but can’t stand up right away. I’m in too much pain. I’m just so embarrassed at this moment. Here I am, SuperJew and all that, surrounded by a field of banana peels. Uch, just psychologically horrid. I do get up, but I’m not the same after that. My left leg isn’t working. I do a fair amount of walking, and the pats on the back start. Lots of them, with lots of encouragement.

Mile 21: I limp through The Bronx in agony. My left leg locking up, getting worse. Balance is getting to a be a challenge. For the first time ever in my marathon life, I have to pull over to rest my head on a fence and stretch out my legs and breathe, breathe, breathe before continuing on my broken, painful, agonizing path. I come back into Manhattan, where I pray to the living God that 5th Avenue isn’t gravel-filled like 1st. It isn’t. Oh, thank heaven. I don’t know what I would have done had it been the same. I think I would have curled up on a sidewalk in the fetal position and begged for my mommy, or at least beg someone to throw me on his shoulder and carry me to finish line. The irony? While I’m thinking that, that’s exactly what I see on a runner’s t-shirt: “Notice: if you should come across my lifeless body on the road, please drag to finish line.” Now that’s an awesome t-shirt! It gets me going. Sometimes you need little things like that to give you a charge. I can’t keep it up forever though, and I find myself getting a LOT of attention, both from runners behind me with their back-pats and words of encouragement, and the spectators shouting for Jewish Superman to fly already. I gobble up every piece of nourishment offered, and keep digging into my gels. Energy, energy, I need energy. I need my legs to stop hurting, I need to see my family, I need to finish this race. It’s hurting me so bad.

Mile 22: Ow ow ow. At Marcus Garvey Park, I pull over to the sidewalk and walk slowly in parallel with the runners. It’s peaceful here, a nice pocket of silence. I’m able to gather my thoughts together and invigorate myself a bit. I do what I can to combat my despair. I rejoin the crowd after a few blocks of walking in this fashion and then, I get what is probably the most refreshing thing I’ve ever had during a marathon: beer. A guy is standing on the sidelines with Coronas in hand, offering them to runners. I pull up to him and say, “You know what? I could really use that.” He says, “No problem, just two things: 1) Smile for the camera, and 2) Just try to keep your lips off the bottle. I know you runners know how to do that.” Dude, no problem. I smile and make it to someone’s Facebook page,I turn up the bottle and pour it down my throat. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh that feels goooooooooooooooooooooood! I thank him profusely and as I rejoin the runners, one of them asks me if that was enjoyable. I said, “Man, that was the most amazing beer I’ve ever had.”

Mile 22.5: Pit-stop 5: My family! Woohoo! My wife is here with our three kiddies, all beaming and giving me different items. My 6-year old daughter gives me a bagel, my 4-year old son gives me Powerade, my none-of-your-business how old wife gives me my 1-year old son, and we smile for the camera. As with my last stop, I spend some time detailing my woes to my wife. There’s no PR today. I’ve got the time. I need the break. Because I can’t run anymore, it’ll also be a bit before I see them again. After kisses and hugs cheek-pinches all around, my trek of travail carries on.

Mile 23: It’s uphill here. I don’t need that. I really don’t. I munch my bagel and my gels and realize that hey, I actually have all the energy in the world, and I don’t have that heavy feeling. I avoided the wall successfully with proper nutrition and hydration. It’s just the punishment my legs and feet have taken that keep pushing me to the sidelines for temporary reprieves. I get so much encouragement from the crowd and the runners, but I’m an embarrassment to Krypton. Under this yellow sun, I should be much more powerful than this.

Mile 24: Somebody’s holding up a sign that says, “Quitting is not a f!@cking option.” Your damn right it isn’t. But that’s not what gets me going. What does is a sign that says, “I’m proud of you, complete stranger!” Why that gets me going, I don’t know, but it does. I need to get away from all these back slaps. It’s not that they annoy me or anything, it’s because my throat is dry from my saying “Thank you” so much. I feel obligated, ya know? I notice that every time a runner gives me a pat, and I give my thanks, that runner has a smile spread across his or her face, as if they’re grateful to have a fulfilled opportunity to provide requested encouragement. The youngest runner of the race, a kid named Louis, 18 years of age, passes me. Two runners are on either side of him holding a banner over him declaring that fact. Interesting. We enter Central Park.

Mile 25: Central Park has hills. Lots of them. It also has a lot people yelling at me to get it moving. I manage a bit, but not a lot. I try to look triumphant for the cameras (I am looking for a good replacement for my current Facebook pic), but after a while, I just can’t fake it anymore. My left legs hurts too much. I pull over at a bridge. A guy says, “Don’t jump! You gotta finish the race!” I assure him I’m not jumping, but I spend two minutes relaxing, watching the pedestrians go underneath, zoning out. I snap to and continue on my tour of torture.

Mile 26: I try to run, it doesn’t work. I try to hop, that doesn’t work either. I try to shuffle, nope, that’s not gonna work. A barefoot runner passes me. Holy hell, how do you do that, man? The “1/2 mile to go sign” pops up. I feel a resurgence of strength, and somehow I manage to right myself into something that might closely resemble running. I can tell it looks kind of like running because the back-pats stop. I enter the park, and graduate the “run” to a gait where I’m charging forward while dragging my left leg behind me like I’m a zombie from Night of the Living Good. It’s good enough, but I’m hurting so bad, I’m actually crying. I can’t remember the last time I actually cried from physical pain. But the crowd keeps yelling for me and I see the finish line in the distance, and – hold on, I’m getting emotional…there, all better – I’m closing the gap, and somehow I get my left leg under me and I’m able to actually run for the last tenth of a mile, and…

Mile 26.2: …I hit that finish line and exult like never, ever before. I did it. Through pain that I’ve never experienced before, I did it. But boy did I learn my lesson hard. I get my medal, I take my photo, I get and give hugs to strangers (I’m like that sometimes, particularly at the end of marathons), I shuffle with the crowd to the exit, meet my wife and kids, head home, have a junk-food dinner (My two week junk-food post-marathon binge will be reduced to two days, I’ve got an ultra scheduled, and I’ve got to stay in shape), put the kids to sleep, take an Epsom salt bath, write some more of my novel and head off to sleep. A good day. I just now have to rethink what I’m going to do about next year’s NYC.

The morning after: I wake up with the feeling that my legs were detached yesterday and re-attached all wrong this morning. I head into work though, it’s good to get the muscles moving and the blood flowing. I should be okay in three days, and I’m psyched for my ultra. Anyone wanna join me?


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