Today: Follow the signs.

As I’ve mentioned once before, marathons aren’t easy.  That’s sort of the point.  This past weekend’s ING NYC Marathon nearly broke my foot (or maybe it did?  I haven’t made it under an X-ray device quite yet.), but New York City stole my heart.  It’s taken me a few days to recount the experience, as I’ve been at a bit of a loss for words.  Moans and groans?  Yes.  Thoughtful, coherent words?  Not quite.  Lots of sleeping? You better believe it.

And then this morning I had the chance to talk with someone about the quieter things.  We didn’t talk about how many hills there were, or those infernal bridges.  We didn’t talk about the medal, or how a Gu somehow exploded in my pocket before the race even started.  We talked about the little moments, each adding up to something so huge that it could push, carry or drag me across the finish line.

I’m not especially in tune with the Universe, but every now and then I look up from my iPhone or Sudoku puzzle, and I notice the smaller things.  The signs.  If there was any question that Sunday was going to be a day to remember, all I had to do was follow the signs.

I am proud of you.

Before I even entered the athletes villages at Fort Wadsworth, I saw an older woman, standing by the side of the road with a handmade cardboard sign.  “I am proud of you, complete stranger,” it read.  I had heard story after story about the incredible crowd support in New York, but if this woman was the only New Yorker I saw all day, she would have been enough.

After finding my way to the green village, I spread out my trash bag and hunkered down with a pre-made PB&J (which tasted like an old shoe), and waited to be overcome with nerves.  And waited.  And waited.  But somehow, amidst the buzzing of 45,000 other runners sampling random flavors of Power Bars (witnessing this gave me a second-hand stomach ache) and going through their pre-race rituals, all I felt was ready.  This, from the girl who usually becomes a hot mess before a walk to work or a friendly 5k.  I knew I had done the work.  I knew I had a plan.  I knew that this was my day (and, like, everybody else’s, too… fairly certain that’s bad grammar.).

Brooklyn loves marathoners.

As I took off running up and over the Verrazano Bridge, and Sinatra crooned over the speaker system, I felt invincible.  Coming down the backside of the bridge, I reminded myself to stay the course.  Slow and steady, not free-wheelin’ and crazy.  After peeling off my gloves and dealing with the aforementioned gu-tastrophe, I looked up to see a man holding a “Welcome to Brooklyn” sign.  Alongside him was the first of several “Brooklyn loves marathoners” signs.

And, man… do they know how to show marathoners the love.  I felt my heart swell with every word of encouragement, every high five, every smile, every nod.  I have never heard my name pronounced so many different ways.  I have never made non-awkward eye contact with so many strangers.  The crowds were dispersed perfectly– there were so many people out on the streets that the energy was constant, but not so many people that you couldn’t say thank you.

There was a rush of noise at the top of every hill, around every turn.  I fell in love with the New York Marathon in Brooklyn.  And fell out of love with it in Queens… just kidding… or am I?  In all seriousness, Brooklyn practically ran those 12 miles for me.  Sort of.

Beware.  Hipsters ahead.

I knew exactly which block my friend Meg would be standing on in Williamsburg, but at some point, I lost track of where that would be mileage-wise.  In an especially daft moment, I mistook the Harlem United cheering zone for our entry into Harlem.  10 miles too early (with no bridge yet crossed, nor 1st Avenue climbed).  When I looked up to see a sign warning us of hipsters ahead, I knew Williamsburg, and therefore Meg, wasn’t far away.  I picked up my pace just a bit, and registered the only bit of soreness I was experiencing: on my face… from smiling.

After hugging Meg and Sue over and over, I set off, feeling like this was going to be the run of my life.  Which was fitting, because I planned to never run again after Sunday.  Not for the T, not from a strange dog, not from a strange man, even.  I was going to crush New York and then hang it up for good.

I’m just trying to cross the street.

An especially cheeky fellow in Brooklyn held up a sign reading, “I’m just trying to cross the street.”  He was either joking, or he needed to make more of an effort.  Dude was just standing there.  He got me thinking, though, about how grateful I should be.  And, most of the time, I am.  I am amazed my body can do this.  But beyond that, some people really are just trying to cross the street, while I get to spend hours lost in thought.  Hours jamming out to Michael Jackson.  Hours running through the city, with only one task at hand: to keep running.  Running is a privilege.  It’s a luxury.

Though at points it sort of felt like I was being poked with a red-hot poker, no one was forcing me to run.  This was a choice I made.  And I am darn lucky to have choices.  Thank you, snarky spectator, for reminding me of this.

Hurry up so I can watch football.

As runners, we ask a lot of ourselves.  We also ask a lot of other people.  We need people to encourage us, to support us.  We need people to walk our dog when we’re out on long Saturday morning runs.  We need people to help us find the perfect shoe, and give us advice.  We expect people to put up with our overwhelming volume of laundry.  We need people to listen to us tell the same stupid marathon story six hundred times.  We need entire cities to shut down, just so we can live the dream.  Marathoners allegedly make up 1% of the world’s population.  The other 99% has better things to do. Like sleep outside South Station in tents and make broadcasts over the “people’s mic.”  Just kidding… kind of.

Thank you, kind sir in the Bronx, for the laugh.  And the reality check.

The body says, Stop.  The spirit cries, Never!

You know how I feel about boxing, so when I noticed that one spectator had borrowed a lyric from Survivor’s “Burning Heart” (yes, from Rocky IV), I just about fell to my knees.

In the warrior’s code

There’s no surrender

Though his body says, Stop.

His spirit cries, Never!

By the time I saw that sign, the race of my life was far behind me.  Shortly after texting Nick “I feel great!” I started to feel… not so great.  I pushed over the Queensboro Bridge, knowing that I would be coming around the bend onto 1st Avenue soon, where Nick, my sister Andrea, and my cousin Katie would be just blocks away.   By the time I reached Manhattan, that legendary “wall of sound” was more like a small row of shrubbery.  Or an old picket fence.  I didn’t mind much; my personal cheering section awaited.  I leaned over the barrier, and buried my head in Nick’s shoulder as one or two tears snuck out.  The three had a plan to see me again towards the finish, so I moved along with that to look forward to.

Thirty blocks later, I saw Kristine running towards me for a big hug.  Am I lucky or what?  I stopped to walk with her for a few minutes, and even sat down to stretch.  Just shy of mile 18, I felt some real concern creeping in.  My foot shouldn’t feel like this, I kept thinking.  Eleven minute miles became thirteen mile minutes.  Though I was still running, I was getting passed by people walking.  Hell, I even got passed by a joggler.

What started as a dull ache in my right foot around mile 16, soon became a sharp pain.  The last eight miles of the marathon were brutal.  I knew something was wrong.   I tried to focus on that sign, and the encouraging smile of the woman holding it, hoping it might carry me to the finish line.  I wanted to cross that last mat so badly, and felt my spirit crying Never! just as I felt my eyes, well, actually crying.  Good thing I’m not melodramatic, eh?

Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose.

Several people advised me to have plenty left “in the tank” for the last few miles.  Despite the best of planning and intentions, I felt like I was trying to coast in on fumes… uphill.  I wasn’t expecting 5th Ave to be such a climb.  I also didn’t expect my iPod to time Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb” so perfectly.  I sort of wanted to drop that thing down a storm drain.  But then I saw a solitary sign, left propped up against a tree.  A nod to Friday Night Lights: Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose.  No matter how much it hurt, I wasn’t going to lose.  I couldn’t.  By the time I saw Nick, Andrea and Katie at Mile 25, I could barely put pressure on my foot without wincing.

With tears streaming down my face, I pushed and pushed and pushed through that last mile.  I thought about all of those people who stood along the Bay Ridge Parkway, 4th Avenue, Lafayette Avenue, Bedford Avenue, Manhattan Avenue, Greenpoint Avenue and McGuinness Boulevard in Brooklyn.  I thought about the people on 11th Street, 48th Avenue, Vernon Boulevard, 10th Street, 44th Drive, Crescent Street, and Queens Boulevard in Queens.  I thought about everyone on Willis Avenue, E. 135th Street, 3rd Avenue, Morris Avenue, E. 138th Street, Rider Avenue, and 138th Street in the Bronx.  I thought about the people on 1st Avenue and 5th Avenue in Manhattan, and the people who stayed so late in the day to lend their support in Central Park.

I thought about that woman, by the side of the road, on Staten Island, who told me and 45,000 other people that she was proud of us.  I thanked God (and the people who actually put magic marker to poster board) for all of those signs.

In the final 800 meters, I saw the one sign I had been looking for all day.  I looked up.  It said, FINISH.

Also On Tap for Today:

What’s the best marathon sign you’ve ever seen?

27 thoughts on “Today: Follow the signs.

  1. Ouch! Your foot looks painful! Good for you for finishing anyway!

    1. I’m sorry for assaulting you in the bathroom line to say hello! (I was the disheveled girl in the playground bathroom in Brooklyn. :))

    2. Somewhere in Brooklyn there was a house with a HUGE “NY LOVES YOU” sign hanging. I burst into tears when I saw that because I couldn’t believe no matter how many times I had seen pictures, the immense amount of support and love coming from New Yorkers that day.

    3. I don’t know if I would have made it through the race without the spectators. At my worst point some lady on 1st ave called my name and clear as day said “You’re going to finish this.” I thanked her and again she said, like she knew me, like she actually believed it “You. Will. Finish. This.”

  2. Ouch your foot looks like it hurts…but congrats on finishing. I hope it turns out to be a bruise and not a break.

    Best sign…Because 26.3 would be crazy. Summed up how Hunni feels about any race distance.

  3. Girl, your writing and unique points of view never cease to amaze me. Where a bazillion recaps of that marathon exist in blogland, your post is a shing star.

    By the time I got to the FNL reference I was crying.

    Proud of you!!

    Hopefully your foot recovers soon. Hugs.

  4. It may be PMS but I totally just teared up reading this. Great recap… I cannot even fathom running a marathon so “hey stranger, I’m proud of you!”

  5. I totally shouldn’t have read this at work, because now people are going to wonder why I’m sitting in my cube with tears in my eyes. Great recap.

    I’m proud of you for pushing through and finishing. Marathons are no joke! I hope your foot is okay!

  6. I just teared up reading this! Congratulations on completing the race, especially while your foot was throbbing! I loved your account of all the supporters and their signs, particularly the Coach Taylor/Friday Night Lights sign. You did it!

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