Yesterday was one of the best days of my life.
I ran the New York City Marathon, my first full. After 16 weeks of training, I took off through the five boroughs — Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Manhattan — to say that I did the damn thing. And by that, I mean running 26.2 despite the hiccups the last 4 months throughout my training: a knee injury, work + freelance commitments, canceled social plans, weekends out of town, wilted motivation to meet my goal. Everything. But at the end of all these excuses, I just ran for myself. I ran through tears of joy, pain, self-doubt, nostalgia, pride, and fear. And it was incredible and beautiful to do all that in my favorite city in the world.
- - -
Before I graduated high school, I created a bucket list. It was stupid, I didn't know what to add. But for some reason, I wrote: "Finish a marathon." I remember laughing at the time and saying, I'll never do this, but I'll put it on here anyway because it would be cool. After all, I was a track runner at the time and not a serious one.
Flash forward to 2013 and a friend convinced me to sign up for the Pittsburgh Half. I didn't think I could finish 13.1, but decided I was up for the challenge. After crossing that finish line, I was hooked on distance running. It was a time that I really needed some confidence and I just got tangled up in how amazing it felt. I continued to run after that race because I realized that it was the only time that my mind was a blank slate. Nothing else, no one else mattered; in my everyday life, my moderate anxiety was turning severe. This was the only time I could shut my brain off. I started to learn what my body was physically (and mentally) capable of and eventually channel my stress, anxiety and the inevitable uncertainty of the next few years into just running, step by step. The rhythm got me good.
After running 3 more half marathons, I knew I needed a new challenge. But the full always scared me. During some half marathons I've done where some runners are doing the full distance, there comes a point where a sign pops up that says something like, "Half marathoners go this way, you're finished" and another that says "Marathoners, go that way, you have 13.1 more miles to go." I would always laugh to myself and think, Thank God I'm not going that direction... that would be brutal.
Boy, was I right. But I'd learn the hard way.
- - -
The NYC Marathon is the largest, most in-demand marathon in the world. And somehow I got chosen to run through the lottery system; I threw my name into the drawing where apparently 15% of the entries get accepted. It seemed like a miracle, and I was excited. And yet, I didn't feel ready for it. It seemed so colossal, so out of reach. I guess what I'm saying is that I knew that I was going to have to work my ass off from July to November.
The race starts on the Verrazano Narrows bridge, which connects Staten Island to Brooklyn. The views of Lower Manhattan were breathtaking. I felt like I was in a helicopter viewing the city. I smiled the entire first 3 miles and well into Brooklyn, where the crowds surged and strangers cheered for me and I high fived them, flying on 4th Avenue. Before I knew it, I saw my friends and felt more undeniable happiness. By mile 8, I realized I wasn't out of breath and my knee was holding up well. I was killin' it. This was a BLAST. Marathons are FUN! AHHHH, energy!! I even ducked into a port-a-potty at mile 9 with no line. All was smooth so far.
Exiting Brooklyn got tougher. I cheered out loud when I saw the 13 mile mark, but realized I was slowing down on the Pulaski Bridge (which connects Brooklyn to Queens). I knew that the dreaded Queensboro Bridge was coming up at mile 15 though, so I had to conserve energy. It was so quiet on that bridge. People around me were walking, but I tried not to stop, thinking about the roar of the crowd I knew we'd hear nearing First Avenue. I thought I was still on pace to break 4 hours, a bonus goal besides finishing.
First Avenue was not disappointing. The people were LOUD. My mom and boyfriend met me at mile 17, where this photo was snapped. How are you?! They asked as I hugged them. I'm FINE! I said, too excited. But I was on that runner's high from the drunken crowds. Up until mile 20, I thought about how I was really feeling. Am I fine?
I tried to focus mile-by-mile, but by mile 22 in the Bronx, I was not fine. I was past the distance of my longest run ever, and my knees killed. I felt my pace drop even more. What are negative splits, again? There was no way I was going to finish this thing faster than when I started. Hell no. But at this point, I still thought I was on track to make it under 4 hours. Until I saw the runner carrying the 4:00 pace marker in front of me. Wait, what?! I thought. My Nike+ Running app and Nike watch were both telling me I was running faster than I really was. I caught up to the pacer and kept up until mile 23, when he took off on Fifth Avenue. I still didn't believe I was behind the mark. But I knew the race was ending because we were in Central Park now.
Everything hurt. Every goddamn thing. My calf ached even though it never bothered me before in my life. My knees swelled and my ankles wobbled. My hands were frozen because the sun went away. And yet, I knew that if I stopped to walk even for a second during mile 25, I would not run again. It was that physically painful, but more mentally so. Because I had to tell myself that even though my lungs felt that I could go faster, my body could not.
Nearing Columbus Circle at mile 26, I started to feel relief. Only 0.2 to go! Oh wait, it's uphill? WTF? I tried to remember to smile at the finish line for the photos. But immediately after crossing, I sobbed like crazy as they put my medal around my neck. I was disappointed that my time was 4:04 and not sub 4, but I knew that wasn't why the tears came. It was because I didn't want it to be over.
Not the run, I mean. I just love chasing long-term goals. And this was a tough one to let go once I knew it was complete. I found so much happiness and strength and humility in the journey that the marathon training took me on. I found pieces of myself that I never knew I could unlock and trust and love. I found solace in the 6 a.m. workouts in the gym and the sunrise runs under the bridges. I fell in love with doing this awesome, huge thing for the first time ever. And I realized, with that gorgeous medal around my neck, that I would never get to experience this for the first time ever again. Even if I ran another NYC marathon.
The mental exhaustion was real. Physically, I limped for the next mile the finishers had to walk to get out of the park. I wasn't even hungry, just kind of depressed. I felt such a high the entire race until the I crossed the finish line. How did that happen? You'd think it would be the opposite; a feeling of relief at the end. But I really just felt kind of distraught.
Today, I feel so proud (and SORE. Watching me go down stairs has got to be hilarious). I got my medal engraved and will be spending the rest of the day in bed, stretching and icing and just smiling because of how beautiful this experience was. Sure, it's over, but I can find another race or goal to tackle next. Sub 4 next time? Hmmm. Tempting.
I don't know, guys. It was the best, to do this in New York, my new home. Finishing this marathon changed my life, OK? And besides, now I get to cross it off that bucket list that I never saved...
Thank you all for your support throughout my journey, it means the world to me.