One Twisted Path to the NYC Marathon

The legend goes that in 450 B.C., Pheidippides ran from Marathon to
Athens, a distance of about 26 miles, to bring news of Greece’s victory
over Persia in the eponymous battle of Marathon.  Upon arrival in
Athens, Pheidippides cried "Victory!" collapsed and died.  Last
November, along with 39,265 others, I ran from Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island
to Central Park in the New York City Marathon.    Pheidippides had some important news to
deliver and was under orders.  Why would anyone else run 26.2 miles? 

The New York Times ran a story that quotes Runners World Executive Editor, Amby Burfoot (Now that’s the fates working, eh?) that the marathon has become an everyman’s Everest."  In 2006, 410,000 Americans crossed the finish line.  What’s the appeal?

I was not an a jock in school.   I stuck to drama and academics and maintained a certain amount of disdain for sports.  It wasn’t until I was snowed under with the simultaneous demands of work, attending grad school while working and getting out of a bad relationship.  My waist size increased by 4 inches.  I felt like a sloth. 

So instead of taking the subway, I started biking to work.  I reasoned that it was efficient–I’d be on the train and that I could make it to work in the same amount of time.  I’d also be helping to burn off the extra calories that I accumulated around my waist. What I realized was that I felt better on days that I rode–much better.  My head thinking was clearer.  I felt more relaxed and focused. (See: this HBR article for a discussion of how exercise is important for productivity)  I felt less guilty about whatever I was eating (and took liberty to eat more of it.)  These innocuous trips to work led to longer weekend rides, which led me to join the New York Cycle Club (a great organization, if you live in the city and want to join rides.)  After getting in shape with NYCC, I rode in a Century ride–that’s 100 continuous miles.   The problem with cycling is that it’s not a great winter sport in the northeast.  It gets awfully cold on the bike, and ice on the roads makes for easy slip ups.  By now, I was fairly addicted, and was looking for another fitness fix. 

What about a triathlon? (Swimming, biking and running.)  I reasoned that I know how to swim, I’m reasonably strong on the bike, and that running is a more all-season friendly sport.  I attended a Team in Training information session led by Scott Willett–a seasoned, jocular endurance athlete and amazing coach who joked that triathletes "try to be athletes," which sounded about right to me.  After all, I was trying to be an athlete. 

It turned out that I didn’t know nearly as much about swimming as I thought I did.  It was one thing to be a lifeguard at a community pool.  It was quite another to be able to swim 1600 meters of freestyle in the ocean. I completed the St. Anthony’s Triathlon in April of 2004 and was hooked.  I was amazed by just how much there is to learn about swimming, biking and running. I had found a new respect for athletics–sport lends itself to continuous improvement.  There’s a better time to be had, a cleaner stroke, a neater stride–a better way to breathe.  And one of the joys of being a beginner is that I made significant improvements in a relatively short period of time.  I competed in area races and even managed to place within my age group in a couple smaller events. 

When I became a father, I realized that I wouldn’t have as much time to train, but I didn’t want to give up all I gain from training.  Of all the disciplines of triathlon, running has the most impact on your fitness in the shortest time.  You only need a pair of sneakers, and shorts.  You can do it anytime of day.  The bike has weather requirements and you need more time in the saddle to build endurance.  Swimming requires a pool, and the time to get there and back. I had limited my triathlons to events that maxed out at around 3 hours–I reasoned that a marathon would be a good next, doable step.  I even thought it would be easy.

I was right about it being doable, I was very wrong about it being easy. 

The training requires a little planning, and a fair amount of consistency.   A reasonably healthy person needs about 16 weeks to prepare to run a marathon.  Even though I had a fairly good base of fitness, I stuck to the 16 week plan.  I started out running about 12 miles a week, and by the time I got to week 12, averaged about 35 miles.  I ran 5 days a week.  I also commuted by bike a few days a week, thinking that the cross training would help.  Though I was consistent, the plan was not perfect.  I missed a week because of a nasty cold. After a 21 mile training run, I worried that I had   reached my limit. I was following a training plan that had you run your first marathon on the day of the marathon.  I did feel good on those 21 miles.  It was the next 2 days of having trouble walking because I was so sore that I hadn’t anticipated. 

I ran the race with a friend, Sam Coppersmith.  I had set a goal of finishing between 4 and 4.5 hours, though I was secretly hoping to finish in just under 4 hours–say, 3:59:59.  The New York City Marathon is the world’s largest.  The start at Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island was like a United Nations camp.  There were signs in English, Japanese, German, French, and Spanish.  Over half of the participants are from other countries.  We arrived at 6:30am, but didn’t start running until 10:10.  Given the sheer number of people, it took us half an hour just to reach the starting line. 

I am not sure what I expected.  I know I expected to finish.  I expected that there would be lots of people on the course.  I was not disappointed.  One of the things I like about running is that it gives you a chance to see new places and really take them in–you can drive down a street in a car and it’s just another street, but run a street or a neighborhood an you get a sense of its essence.  And so I ran over the Verrazano Narrows bridge and into Bay Ridge, where I was greeted by familes on a an overpass.  It was sunny and warm.  I sheded my extra layers and picked up the pace. 

"You cheated," Sam  shouted when he heard folks in Bay Ridge cheering "Go Ted!" After much equivocation, I decided to pin my name to my shirt, and boy was I glad that I did.  I felt great for the first 18 miles or so.  I had heard about the proverbial wall, where you have exhausted all of your carbohydrate stores and are running on the biological equivalent of fumes, but I dismissed this notion.  The Wall was an artifact of poor nutrition race plans.  I had eaten 2 bowls of Steel Cut Oats and drank plenty of Gatorade along the way.  I also had been eating "GU," basically liquid sugar to replace what I was burning.  I was well easily 10 minutes ahead of my goal time when I reached the 59th street bridge.  It was a carnival like atmosphere–people stopping to take pictures, everyone cheering.  I spotted a former colleague who had his name on the back of his shirt–a perfect New York moment.  We chatted a bit and I proceeded to run up first Avenue.  That’s when the race got excruciatingly hard.

Larry Hollander, long time member of the Essex Running Club said that the marathon is basically 2 races, a 20 miler, and a 6 miler.  And those last 6 miles almost left me like  Pheidippides.  They say the crowds on First Avenue whisk you up to the Bronx.  What they don’t tell you is that First avenue is all uphill.  So this is the wall they were talking about?  I was cold, I was tired.  I wanted to stop.  I made jokes about being able to hail a taxi.  Who were these people shouting "Looking good Ted!"  Was I really looking good?  I felt peaked.  How many more miles?  8?  I’m in trouble. 

But I kept putting one foot in front of the other.  I watched my sub-4 hour goal tick away on my trusty Timex Ironman digital watch. I told myself that finishing would be a noble goal, and then even if I had to walk from this point, I’d still make it to the finish line.  I made it to the Bronx.  I was heartened by the little kids who wanted to slap me 5 and by running into a grad school classmate gave me a needed boost.  I crossed back into Manhattan and from there, I had the benefit of being able to count down streets.  Marcus Garvey Park, and then Central Park, never looking better at 110th Street.  I still wanted to stop and walk, but I was afraid that if I stopped and started walking that I wouldn’t want to start running again.  So I kept going. 

There were more and more people along the race course now.  More "Go Ted’s!"  I owe finishing it to them.  I owe it to everyone who’s supported my bid.  I owe it to myself.  Into the park.  The crowds were several people deep now. And every one is cheering.  I pass by an older woman, who’s wearing a shirt that says, Mia–my daughter’s name.  So now I am hearing them cheering her name, and am thinking heh, they’re cheering my little girl’s name.  She’d want dad to finish.  I see 2 more friends in the park cheering for me.  More high fives.  I just want to be done.  When you round the corner at Central Park West, they’ve got a screen setup so that you can see yourself running.  I look up and am kind of surprised to see that I look like, well, a runner.  I manage a modest kick to get up to the finish line.  I am almost in tears as I run toward the finish.  I raise my hands and take a look at the clock. It reads 4:38.46  I stop runTedmarathonfinishsmallning and start walking.  (My official time was 4:02:14 – it took almost half an hour to cross the starting line)

I am surprised by the human traffic jam.  A volunteer hands me a food bag and tells me to keep moving.  I don’t want to move.  I want to pass out.  I move to the side, out of the way and lay down, feet in the air.  I feel nauseous.  Someone offers to bring me Gatorade.  I ask for water. He says, you need Gatorade.  I offer no resistance and thank him for the cup.  I drink.  I shuffle in the parade of silver mylar blankets and quip that no one told me about the post-marathon obstacle course to pick up my gear.  I fight off the urge to puke and eventually gather my things.  I am grateful for the tip that an experienced marathon friend gave me to get changed in the park.  I am warm.  I go and join my fellow runners on the bus back to Jersey.  I completed my first marathon. 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank everyone who supported me on the way–as this post implies, the road to the marathon was much longer than the race itself.  I couldn’t have more gratitude for all the encouragement I’ve gotten along the way.  A million thank yous.


2 thoughts on “One Twisted Path to the NYC Marathon

  1. Clement Wu

    Ted, what a fantastic post and I’m glad you wrote it. I’ve personally never found “endurance” sports of interest, either as a spectator or a participant, but listening to you talk about it recently and now reading your story gave me an appreciation for what runners go through and what it takes, both physically and mentally, to complete a marathon. You drew a vivid picture and I could almost see through your eyes and imagine what it would be like to run in the NYC marathon. (Though if that were me running I probably would have checked my wallet at the three mile mark to see if I had enough cash for a cab.)

  2. ted bongiovanni

    Wow, Clem – thanks so much. I sure enjoyed writing it and am glad you enjoyed reading it. I’m sure you could complete a marathon if you set your mind to it. I bet everyone thinks of bailing along the way. Folks were joking about Rosie Ruiz, who took the subway in the NYC marathon to get a Boston Marathon qualifying time.


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