Friday, December 26, 2014

The New York City Marathon, Part II

Sunday, The Day Begins

I am delusional. I think I am in a race in New York City, but, in fact, I am in a warm bed in an old farmhouse with the branches of thousands of apple trees embracing the house, my friends, my family, and me. I hear a dog off in the distance, a muffled bark at deer crossing through the trees like phantoms in the night. A fog has seeped into the hills and I wonder how the deer know of the time change? Time change? Suddenly, I am awake. I am in the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan. What time is it? I will run a marathon in a couple of hours, and with the time change earlier, I am worried I will miss my five-thirty bus to take me to the start of the race on Staten Island. Where’s my phone? My wife digs into my side, “Go back to sleep,” she says. My daughter is in the hotel room with us, and my wife and I share a tiny double bed. We lie tight against each other, and she wants to stay in our dream of being together at the farm. We are in the green grass on a hillside high in the orchards with the trimmed brown trees and dark red apples and the grey fog below us, and time, itself, is standing still. It is four-fifteen. It is too early, but I get up and dress for the rain and the cold and the wind; time to go down to the lobby and join with other runners drinking coffee and eating bagels. I wonder if this will be the best part of my day.

I say goodbye to my wife and daughter. My wife gets up, hugs me, and takes my picture on her cell phone. I am sure I look like an Eskimo about to race the Alaskan Iditarod. She says, “You look warm. Good luck.” I tell her I am way too hot with all the clothes I am wearing: I have on black tights and running shorts and gray sweat pants; I have on a tight-weave, short-sleeve, running shirt, a lightweight, long-sleeve running shirt, a gray sweatshirt, and a multicolored running jacket. I am carrying a scarf, wool hat, and two pairs of black gloves. I am ready for a blizzard. I only need goggles, a sled, and White Fang, and I could be prospecting in the Great North.

I hear a mumble from the other bed; something like “Good luck, Dad.” It is our daughter; she is in our dream too and beside us on the hillside looking out at the forested ridge above the farm. She senses I am about to descend into the fog. “I love you, Dad!” she says. “I love you both,” I say, heading to the door. “See you soon,” my wife says. “Yes, soon,” I lie. With the race starting at nine-forty and the course not reaching Manhattan until mile sixteen, and given my pace, which has slowed considerably since the hamstring injury in the spring, yet alone my ongoing marathon malaise all fall, my wife and daughter can spend the entire morning in bed; they can wear the white terrycloth bathrobes hanging in the closet, eat eggs benedict from room service, drink champagne from long-stem glasses, and still have time to take luxuriant baths before meeting me; they will not see me coming off the Queensboro Bridge until noon or sometime thereafter. My race, concluding in Central Park, will not end until an hour or so later, not until I run the gauntlet up to the Bronx and back. It will be another hour to find them, time to recover, and nightfall before it is all over. On the other hand, I think as I close the door softly, placing the “do not disturb” on the knob, “soon” is rather vague; if they have to dredge the East River, it could be days.

I realize upon leaving the hotel that it has stopped raining, but it is very cold and wet from Saturday’s downpour and, as expected, the wind has picked up for what appears will be a blustery November day. The wind, in particular, is disconcerting. I hope it will die down before the race begins, though according to last night’s weather report, that’s not likely. I shiver, put on my two pairs of gloves, pull down my gray wool cap over my ears, and trudge up to the New York Public Library. I am not alone, in addition to the homeless and the junkies huddled together outside of Grand Central Station, other runners are walking up 42nd Street toward the library. They look like phantom deer in the dark.

I see glistening buses with their twinkling running lights lined up two-by-two down 5th Avenue at the intersection with the public library; it is like I am looking into infinity as the buses extend down the street beyond my vision. Suddenly I realize thousands of runners must be using the buses to get to Staten Island. This is why so many of us stay at the Grand Hyatt and all the other hotels in Midtown. The hotels are the great beneficiaries of this event, even though the race never passes by any of them. At $400 a night for the room, along with the other costs of getting here and being here, the hit on our finances is enormous. Running the Big Six Marathons in Chicago, New York, Boston, London, Berlin and Tokyo is an expensive proposition: money well spent if you are ready; a highly questionable enterprise if you are not.
I am on a bus by five-fifteen heading to Staten Island. The man I sit beside appears to be older than most of the other runners. He tells me he and his wife are here for five days to enjoy the city; he says he is in charge of running, she handles their itinerary. They spent last night at a Broadway musical his wife arranged back in Wisconsin. He couldn’t remember what they saw, he says, but he was glad to be off his feet. I spent the night bunched together with a thousand people in Times Square, freezing in the rain while my friends and family took pictures of the glassy neon billboards. Later we walked blocks and blocks looking for an inexpensive restaurant before settling on an Irish pub near the hotel. A blonde-haired bar maid from Northern Ireland wished me luck. That was a good sign, I decide, though I turned down her offer of a free draught until later. My family roots are from Northern Ireland; maybe my ancestors are reaching out to me here in Manhattan; maybe they are organizing a work gang to help me get through this madness. My companion on the bus mentions he has run a number of marathons, but this is his first in New York. He laughs at how crazy it is to be doing this at our age – how crazy it is in this weather. He too is a good omen, I decide. I feel much better with him and thoughts of my distant ancestors as the bus drives through the darken city. Twenty minutes later we cross the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and stop at the empty tollbooths on the very edge of Staten Island.

I feel the wind blow against me as I step off the bus and onto the hard road surface; the early morning air is cold on my face and seeps through my heavily bundled chest and legs. The wind pushes against me as I pass through three security checkpoints, two checkpoints manned by the New York City police and one consisting of a body scanner/metal detector; the wind fights me every step of the way as I walk through the staging area, as I repeatedly show my bib number to race officials and police officers, everyone shivering in the last of the night air, everyone freezing as I walk the long sequence of passageways, roadways, sidewalks, and residential lanes, directed ever onward by an endless host of volunteers in heavy marathon-issued coats as they point the way further and further into the secured area; the wind is relentless as I arrive at my corral, a large cordoned off area where I will wait for the next three hours for the race to start: for the heavens to pick me up and blow me over the river of runners and drop me off twenty-six miles later in Central Park; the wind barks at me like a tethered dog until I spot a sheet metal shed and sit protected against the leeward wall. I am with five other runners and together we watch our corral fill to capacity: runners in coats and gloves, wrapped in blankets and black garbage bags; everyone wearing orange Dunkin' Donuts knit hats handed out by race volunteers. I too get one and wear it over my wool hat. We all are excited with our carrot tops yet miserable at the same time.

I am told we are in the old Fort Wadsworth military installation on the Brooklyn side of Staten Island; the old fort, which helped protect the city for three hundred years, will fill with 50,000 runners, all of whom must be in their respective corrals before the race can begin. My guys and I are sitting on a cement foundation of the corrugated yellow shed. Together we watch the Italians spread out as a group over plastic tarps on the lawn; we see the Swiss, the Germans, the Peruvians, and the Japanese too find room in the packed area. My buddies are from northern California, the Netherlands, Sweden, West Virginia, and Australia. I am impressed with the distance they have traveled, with their fortitude, and the lengths they have gone to get here, and I am so aware of their youth: only the guy from Northern California is in his mid-forties, the others are in their twenties and thirties. I am the Old Man of the group; soon they will realize I am not wiser and have no advice to impart, no thoughts at all to share with them about running; I sit with my orange Dunkin' Donuts hat over my gray wool hat pulled low on my head and my tight scarf covering my face and wonder why I am doing this. I see myself stripped bare. I have nothing to give and nowhere to go from here but down, down, down…

I watch the clouds break up in the early morning light and speed across the sky; a continuous stream of shifting shapes and shadows crossing the corral, like a flickering movie. Trees twist; leaves swirl and fall in full sail.

“I like running when the temperature is in the mid-forties,” says the guy from Northern California; his hands, in thick gloves, are hugging his chest; he sits next to me in a heavy jacket zipped up to his nose; his Dunkin' Donuts hat pulled down on his head. He tells me he will deposit his coat in the bagging area before the race begins and pick it up afterwards. “I run in a few races like this every year,” he says, “but I prefer triathlons.” He coughs into his glove. “This is my off-season activity,” he says. “Too cold to swim.”

“I too,” says the guy from the Netherlands. “I like to run in weather like this.” He is sitting on the other side of Northern California and has a quick smile; he is slim and young, and way under-dressed; he too is wearing an orange hat to cover his ears; he continually clasps his chest and appears to be freezing. He says he came to New York with his girlfriend; he was chosen in a lottery held in the Netherlands and won a slot into race after being turned down three years in a row. This is his first time in the States. “New York is very big,” He says.

I agree. “— and fucking cold!” I say. Fucking New York. Running in the high-fifties or low-sixties would have been nice. I can’t remember the last time I ran with temperatures in the low-forties. Running twenty pounds lighter would have been nice, running with more workouts under my belt and a few more hills in my routine would have been nice too. I can see them looking at me. How long will the Old Man last, they wonder. I wonder too. Twenty-six miles, that’s all that matters.

I look up as the guy from Sweden swoops down in front of us. He had gone off to find a port-a-john and now is back. He is in black leggings, a yellow running jacket, and the obligatory donut hat. When I first sat against the shed, he told me he had just run the marathon in Reykjavik, Iceland; he is now my expert on cold and what to do about reindeer on the route. “The last time I ran in New York," he says, “the weather was like this.” He pauses for effect, “but, guess what?  I was so hot in Brooklyn, I threw away my jacket, hat, and gloves and later, even, my long-sleeve shirt!” How absurd! How could anyone toss his jacket and clothes in weather like this? “I was so hot, but then, when I reached Manhattan,” he says, “the wind on First Avenue was freezing, I was so cold!  Only, I didn’t have anything left to put back on."  He laughs.  "Oh man, what an experience!”  We all laugh at this, like this is the funniest thing in the world…  “This year,” he says, “I've learned my lesson, I am not going to freeze in Manhattan.”

I wonder why has he told me this. Is he a demon? Did he really run in Reykjavik?  I planned to take off my sweat clothes before the race, but I wore my old running jacket so I could toss it as well; the ratty gloves and old hat can go too; my long-sleeve shirt if I have too.  That’s what I told my wife when I packed them. That’s what I assured my daughter I would do when we discussed this: I had learned my lesson from earlier runs. Don’t worry, I said, I will dump my clothes. But now I am thinking, maybe I should wait until after Manhattan; maybe right before entering Central Park. It’s so cold and windy, what will it be like when I am alone and facing the furies of First Avenue?

I get up and check the temperature as I cross the corral to a row of fifty or so port-a-johns lined up along a parking lot; I find the shortest line and wait my turn behind a woman who looks to be in her thirties. She says she’s from Kansas City; she flew into New York yesterday. She says it is cold in Missouri. The wind gusts up and barks at us. “Not as windy,” she says.

We are herded into our respective lanes. It is eight-thirty. Though I am part of the first wave of a billion or so runners, I am placed in the last large group; I am at the tail end of this dog. I expect to be handed a broom to help with the cleanup as clothes, water bottles and plastic bags full of half-eaten food, banana peels, and power bar wrappers are strewn everywhere on the ground.  Abruptly, after forty or so minutes, we surge forward; runners start taking off their sweat clothes and winter jackets; many throw their donut hats to the side. I too take off my sweat clothes and retie and double-knot my shoes.  I’ve lost my guys from the shed and my will power from what I said I would do earlier. I pin my bib to my jacket.  I keep my two hats on my head.

I am caught up in the moment, everyone is. We move forward as a group through the various waiting areas and stop at the very base of Verrazano Narrows Bridge; the Swiss are singing a loud song in French or German – maybe they don't even know.  They are jumping up and down, giving each other high-fives. The Japanese are singing too and so are the Peruvians. Everyone is taking pictures of themselves and with each other and shouting to the world. But I am speechless. I am thinking I should be shouting too or at least have a song to sing, but I can’t think of anything. This is my moment, after a year of waiting for this, after months and months of prepping; here I am: wide-eyed and dead silent. The noise and song and celebration surround me, but I am a deer in headlights, and, in the din, I hear a loud horn, or a shot, or a boom, or something, and, just like that, with a series of yells and me wondering, “Oh my god! Have I been shot?” we all start running. Within steps of passing under the race tower and over the electronic mats, we begin the long climb up the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge; the wind is blowing us backward and forward and sideways and I can’t handle it. I am pushed and pulled and swatted and poked, and as cold as it is on the bridge, with my jacket and paper bib rippling hard in the wind, as cold as it is as I struggle up the great metal expanse crossing the bay to Brooklyn, less than a mile into the race, already I have a problem: I knew it. Fuck!

The Race
[To be continued.]  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The New York City Marathon, Part I

Pre-Arrival, Three Days Before

We are passing through; we are in rural Adams County in south central Pennsylvania on our way to New York City. We spend the night on a farm on the Eastern slope of South Mountain. We sleep in soft beds under thick quilts in a restored farmhouse built in the early 1800s; we lie undisturbed in the ancestral embrace of the only family who has ever lived in this house deep in the heart of orchard country. We are passing through. We are back.

We arrive after the harvest; thousands of bushels of apples have been picked, yet hundreds of apples are still on the ground, apples that fell before the pickers could get to the trees, rows and rows of red apples, carpet runners under the trees, strips of dark red apples crushing the high green grass. The blue rented minivan looks out of place next to the white farmhouse on the gravel lane alongside the organic red runners slicing through the trees.

We walk up a small hill early in the morning to the farm’s solitary vineyard, five acres of vines and aging yellow leaves, the grapes harvested and sold to a local winery. The leaves decaying, curling, hide the remaining clusters of the dark purple fruit; we pick a grape, and another, and the juice tastes sweet.

We view the surrounding mountainside: the amber and gold forests of the hilltops, the red and white barns, the black lanes and red brick farmhouses, and the dark brown trees: rows upon rows of trees lining the mountain slopes, spotlighted in the rising yellow sun.

We hear workers talking in Spanish trimming the trees. Most of the field hands have left the area following the harvest south; the apples picked off the trees now in cold storage or at the processing plant where, pressed into sauces or strained into juices, they will be canned and bottled and shipped to thousands of small grocers and large supermarkets, like the stores in the shopping centers where we live or in the neighborhoods where we will be this weekend.

We spot one of our friends coming out of the farmhouse, carrying her camera and walking along the lane away from us; I jog down the hillside to tell her where we are and that she shouldn’t go too far as we still have a long drive to the city. Returning to the hilltop out of breath is not a good sign, but I don’t want to leave. Not yet.

I study the blue sky above us: thin, white cirrus clouds slowly seeping in from the North. The forecast calls for rain tonight with temperatures dropping all weekend; rain to continue Saturday and end with cold and blustery conditions on Sunday; no rain, but a stiff head wind on Sunday. This morning on the hilltop, I see the wispy white fingers beckoning me.

I am at home in the orchards: the organic continuum of the countryside, the rural mosaic my wife and I escaped when we were so young, the destination and extended family to whom we always return; here now is the place I could remain; the feeling is overwhelming…

I feel it pushing against me. A gusty breeze is kicking up this early Friday morning. A storm is coming.

I see so vividly the disaster about to unfold. Standing on land so gloriously cultivated by generations of family members and so solidly grounded in the shelter of South Mountain, is there any reason to leave?

Arrival, Two Days Before

We drive out of the Lincoln Tunnel and the city sparkles; it is exciting and exasperating all at once. We arrive early Friday night to rain and endless chaos in Manhattan; we are here for Sunday. Tonight, though, is Halloween: cold, wet, and bright. A crazy world of towering skyscrapers, shiny steel structures and gray stone buildings, endless windows, fanciful manikins and pictures of anorexic models on large billboards, traffic signals and bright, electric neon lights filling the night sky; vehicles rushing by, yellow taxis, black limousines, cars honking, whistles, arms waving, transit buses and the crush of noise against the rental van; pedestrians by the thousands: hurrying home, some dressed in costumes, everyone merging together, along with the homeless and the restless and the way-too-busy – indeed, it is Friday night and Halloween, and we are soon part of the decadence and madness of 42nd Street in Midtown Manhattan.

We have entered what seems like an international runners convention sponsored by the travel industry. In the Grand Hyatt, guests in wintery running attire have taken over the lobby; everywhere we see men and women in heavy jackets promoting Italian, Swiss, and other European running teams. It is a distortion, we know. Most of the city is not like this: the quiet neighborhoods, the distinct boroughs where residents live their lives, cities upon cities upon cities surrounding Manhattan. To me, the numbers are overwhelming: so many people live here, but, like us, more are arriving by the minute: Sunday will see thousands of runners in the city, runners from international locations as well as from the States and surrounding region – 55,000 in all and, adding friends and families, the number will bubble to more than a million; a bonanza for the hotels and restaurants throughout the city, the shops and department stores, the theaters and the tourist attractions. I feel the press of everywhere to go, everything to see, everyone around me all at once.

We say goodbye to our daughter after we settle in our small hotel room; she sets off to experience Halloween with her friends on the Upper West Side. Watching her leave so happy and excited to be in the city, I wish I was with her. Instead, we eat dinner in a nearby Italian restaurant; it offers a two-pasta dinner for marathoners. At the table I bask in the new persona, like wearing my own Halloween costume. I would get a stiff drink if I didn’t have my wife and friends watching. They want to believe, after all, after taking days off from work and spending so much time and money to be with me, that I am ready and Sunday will be a celebration. For their sake, I want to believe too.

I suffer from defeatism and deep down it is overwhelming. The clock is ticking like a heartbeat: less than 36 hours and dropping like the temperature. The thoughts reverberating, like breathing: cold and windy Sunday, cold and wintry Sunday, old and rickety Sunday. Now in my sixties, I am, indeed, too old for this and even if I am not, I have not trained at all for cold and windy conditions. Though I packed my winter running clothes: my leggings and tight-weave tee-shirt that I’ll wear under my long sleeve running shirt and windbreaker, though I packed a scarf, wool cap, and two pairs of gloves as well as extra socks, though I told my friends I would be ready for the conditions come what may, I am not into it at all and I have not run in this wearisome attire in months, in fact, not since the dead of last winter. Nor have I trained on hills; my effort toward the end ignored hills in favor of distance, and now I dread running across the expansive steel bridges on the course. I envision sixteen miles into the race, being brutally exposed to the punishing wind while crossing the Queensboro Bridge from Queens to Manhattan, being pushed like a crumpled newspaper against the cold metal railing and plummeting, plummeting over the side and dropping like a bright orange ball of flame between the frigid girders, snuffed in a plume of black smoke into the chop of the East River. I am not horrified by this thought.

Saturday, The Day Before

We go outside Saturday morning and it is colder, as forecasted. A rain is falling now with no let up in sight, at least not until later tonight, so we have been told on the TV in our room. The combination of the cold, rain, and wind when we go outside for breakfast is numbing. Not a great day to be in the city. My daughter joins us at the local breakfast diner, reporting on a night of parties and Halloween celebrations, and I so wish I had joined her. We get in line outside the hotel to take the official bus to the Jacob Javits Convention Center where I am to pick up my race packet, and together with my friends and family, we will enjoy all the sports booths at the exhibitors’ hall. It isn’t long before we are standing in the aisle on a bus and crossing the city.

We engage in loose conversations with others on the bus. A tall woman in her mid-sixties with a thin face and short, stringy hair and a toothy grin stands behind me. She says this is her second time running the New York City Marathon, but it has been ten years; not only has she completed the Big Six marathons, tackling Berlin, Tokyo, London, New York, Boston, and Chicago, but she also has completed a marathon in every state in the union. In fact, this is her hundred-and-first marathon and, she confides as the bus pulls into the Javits Center, this will be her last. As we move forward to get off the bus, she adds behind me, she is tired; she is tired of running marathons. Me too, I say. Me too, though I have barely started. I can feel her tiredness seeping into my pores and my morning enthusiasm drains out of me. Here is a runner who has accomplished so much more. She has been to the mountaintop, but has nothing to show for it but a bunch of old bones. At the center we go our separate ways, and in telling her story to my wife and daughter, they think she is amazing. I think, rather, she is a witch sent to haunt me, or, if nothing else, a bad omen and I need to exorcise her from my memory. I swear, as she walked away, her head swiveled and she stuck her tongue at me. I want to scream, but she has sucked my energy.

I separate from my group when I get my bib and race packet. The exhibition hall is packed with so many people, I realize I could walk past my family and our friends and never see them. This is not at all how I imagined enjoying ourselves visiting all the booths and sports exhibits, and when I finally find everyone through a series of text messages and cell phone calls, we decide to leave the crowds of the convention center and enjoy our day instead as tourists, guests of the city.

We walk the five blocks in the cold rain to the subway and slowly work our way to the 9-11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan. My umbrella has turned inside out against in the stiff wind, and I now feel the rain soaking through my jacket. I keep thinking this is not good, not good at all, as I walk the long blocks with my cluster of friends and family. I should be in a museum somewhere or at the theater, anywhere other than here, and I can feel my nose starting to run, my throat getting sore, and this is inevitable, I decide, as we study the rain pepper the pools of the 9-11 Memorial.

We meet a man at a deli near the memorial. We are seeking a respite from the rain and he approaches us with a big smile and limited English. He is in his late fifties and wears a Greek team running jacket. He is very gregarious, and soon is sitting with us at our table. My friends and family enjoy talking to him and we learn it is his first time running the New York City Marathon; he recommends we travel to Athens, where the conditions are much nicer; he tells us we need to pay homage to the Mother of all Marathons. We agree and my family says we will include Greece in our list of marathons that I will run, and he is very pleased. I am wondering who he is; really, is he for real or is he too an omen? Is he a god in disguise? Will he show up tomorrow?

I am lost in thought. Someone asks me what I am thinking.

I want to ignore the others and say, “If you are a god, I need help,” I want to say it directly to the Greek man with the comforting smile. I want to say, “Please, please help me,” but I lie, smile, and say nothing. When he leaves, he touches my shoulder and says he’ll see me when it’s over.

We tour the Empire State Building later that afternoon. Too much time spent standing out on the observation deck, and I am thoroughly chilled, tired, and dismayed by the wind and rain. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, where the race will begin on the tip of Staten Island, appears off in the misty distance, like a figment of my imagination; I feel like it’s the day before D-Day and I am staring at Omaha Beach from across the Atlantic Ocean. The bridge is miles away, miles and miles and miles away. I need to go back; I need to go to the hotel; I need to lie down in our room with the TV off and the curtains pulled across our windows overlooking the twenty-six miles across the city. I need to get psyched. I need time alone to commit suicide.

Sunday, The Day

[To be continued.]