You've often heard about that finish line feeling, that wave of euphoria that sweeps over the body and makes you forget about everything else.
Well that happened around 9.10 a.m. Sunday morning, which was a sharp contrast to 6 a.m. that same morning. So, let's take it back to the start.
First of all, I went to the United Airlines New York City Half Marathon experience on Friday night after work to collect my bib and thoroughly enjoyed it. Surprisingly, it wasn't too crowded and I got through everything no problem and even had the chance to explore the all the cool little social media things they had on the day, such as this Times Square photo booth. With bib collected and two nights of fueling under my belt, the stage was set for the big day.
Due to the good old MTA, there was no 7 service from Queens to Manhattan, which meant I would have to get three trains from Sunnyside just to get to the corner of Central Park South at 59th St. Three! That was the plan, which included waking up at the unseemly hour of 5 a.m and shove a bagel down my throat before leaving at 5.30 a.m.
Of course when I arrived at the subway, a lack of trains forced a rethink. A short Uber ride later and I found myself at Central Park just before 6.20 a.m. Unfortunately, I accounted being on the subway for about an hour, so arriving this early in Central Park meant I had to brave the miserable cold for more than an hour. And although I wore layers, I wasn't the only one struggling to fight off the shakes. As one would say, “It was fecking freezing.”
Before going on through security, I nearly lost my hands to frostbite due to playing with my phone – taking videos and images (video to come later in the week I hope, unless editing plans go horribly wrong) – but after coming to my senses, I put the phone away, munched on a banana for some last minute fuel and made my way past security and into the park. It was only at this stage when I realized how much of a behemoth this race was – I had run all the other five borough races, but never this one – and it only dawned on me how much of a big deal it was when I saw the security protocols.
After a quick trip to the port-a-potty – being early also means smaller lines for the toilet. Go figure! I made my way to the corral, still with about 20 mins to go before the horn went off. And this is where the mental battle began. Standing there shivering with my fellow runners, I thought long and hard about my goals for this race.
My PR going into the NYC Half was 1:41:09, recorded at the Staten Island Half Marathon in October – just weeks before the NYC Marathon, when I was at the peak of my marathon training program. Right now, I'm in training for the Queens Marathon, but a few weeks haven't gone to plan – sickness, work, and other things have got in the way. So going into this, I thought if I could somewhat match 1:41, I would be very happy, ecstatic even.
However, as my knees began to tremble due to the freezing conditions, 1:41 seemed like a pipe dream. As I stripped off my layers, I realized I couldn't feel my toes. Mentally, I could feel my body shut down at this stage as thoughts drifted to just finishing, never mind a PR.
And they're off
When the horn sounded, I was more relieved than anything, just to get moving, rather than standing in a solitary spot in the corral. Pace wise, I knew I had to go at 7:38 a mile in order to hit 1:40 – which I didn't think was possible. As I crossed the starting line, I said to myself – just see how it goes and listen to your body, something I've often neglected to do with mixed results.
Mile one, I couldn't feel my toes. It felt like I was running on two ice blocks. Worse still, the first mile incorporated Cat Hill, an incline I know all too well, but still one I despise. Normally, I find the hill a tough slog, but I spent so much time thinking about how cold I was and wondering if my feet would warm up that I was up the hill without even knowing it.
By mile two, my feet were starting to warm up – ever so slightly and there were a few declining hills. I didn't look at my watch until the it beeped to signify the end of the second mile and I was shocked to see it read 7:14 for the second mile. Instead of thinking, “this is great,” my immediate reaction was “oh shit, this is going to haunt me in a couple of miles.”
Mile three involved leaving the park, only to come back in and up the dreaded Harlem Hill, something I've struggled with the past number of weeks on long runs ahead of the Queens Marathon. Even the tried-and-tested “use your elbows and push off with your arms” didn't seem to be working. Knowing I was coming up to a series of rolling hills, my legs felt somewhat flat at less than four miles in. This was not ideal, but my pace was still incredibly good. At this stage, it was time to play another mental game.
Break it up
In the corral, I had abandoned all hope, like a shipwrecked captain, and thought all was lost. It's amazing what freezing cold weather can do to a mind-set. Thankfully, my “just go and see how it goes attitude” had put me in good stead by mile four, but tired legs made the remaining 9.1 seem like a lifetime. This was it. Sink or swim. Looking around – inspired by fellow runners – I decided to take the race in stages. If I got past the rolling hills with a pace of 7:38 or less, I would go for it. If not, I'd be happy to finish with whatever time I could cross the line in.
I knew once we left the park, it was all flat, so the next two miles would determine things. And this is where the training finally kicked in. There's times when things start to click and you realize all the mornings of regular runs, tempo runs, intervals, and long runs finally come together for something amazing. As I powered through the rolling hills of Central Park West with times of 7:28 and 7:39, I left the park feeling empowered – and with a new lease of life. My legs were no longer tired, instead unencumbered and fully thawed from the morning's frost – and were ready for the adventure into Times Square.
Coming into this race, I had read many reviews of the Times Square experience – such as Dirty Old Sneakers' course preview – but it still didn't prepare me for how awesome it was. Remember the film Vanilla Sky, where Tom Cruise runs through a shutdown and empty Times Square. It was like that, but with people on the streets cheering you on. To be able to run through the center of midtown and just take it in – without being annoyed by someone in an Elmo costume or trampled by an overzealous tourist – was a serene and surreal experience.
It was also at this point where the “You got this Batman” shouts escalated. Coming into this, I knew it was going to be freezing, so I layered up in Under Armour cold gear and also went with my black Under Armour alter ego tee with the Batman logo on the front.
While I didn't think twice about it, spectators seemingly loved it. At every mile, about five people greeted me with “You got this Batman” or “Keep it going Batman.” Amazingly, those simple little calls helped me to keep pushing the pace.
The funniest was when I got to Times Square, several of New York's finest – members of the NYPD – saluted me with “Keep it going Batman.” It was if they fought alongside the Dark Knight against Bain in the battle of Wall Street in The Dark Knight Rises.
Embrace the grind
Coming out of Times Square, my pace was still on point with mile six at 7:29:1 and mile seven at 7:17:6. Best thing about it was I felt pretty good and was past the halfway point. It made the events of earlier seem so ludicrous where I was thinking, just see how it goes because at this point, all thoughts turned to breaking the PR of Staten Island.
When I hit the West Side Highway, the crowds somewhat disappeared – due to a mixture of the cold and the location. Those who did brave the elements huddled in bunches, giving the course an eerie feel of long silence followed by pockets of noise.
The mental game again became a factor. Mile nine I recorded a 7:28 mile and was worrying about slowing down with only 4.3 miles to go. It was then when I picked a fellow runner, a member of the Van Cortland Park team, and decided I was going to race her. She was kicking ass and consistent in her pacing, so I said, “I'm going to make it my goal to keep up with her.”
Over the next two miles, we passed each other out, with her oblivious to what my strategy was. Little did she know, but she was pushing me toward a new PR.
And then we entered a tunnel, which I knew very little about. The sporadic crowds soon disappeared as I descended into darkness with only a guiding light to take me that last mile.
Surrounded only by my fellow runners, my legs began to feel the grind. I could see my time slowing down, but I know that once I made it to the finish line in under nine minutes or so, a new PR was on the cards. And then I saw the light – and a hill. I shouted out “What the fuck, a hill,” which generated a chuckle from my fellow runners. Halfway up the hill, I got the extra little push I needed when I saw a familiar pink hat, belonging to the Muffin, who was there at the top of the hill, waving and urging me on. A quick embrace and then it onto the final push, which seemed to go on forever.
That last turn into the Financial District seemed a lot longer than it was on the map, but I knew the PR was mine and it was all about finishing and making it happen. Coming down the home stretch I just shook my fists in ecstasy as I crossed the line in 1:38:44.
Brunch was earned – as was a huge Cadbury's chocolate Easter egg that I devoured later on, one that put me in a chocolate coma for a short time.
A sub 1:40 half marathon, something I never thought I'd accomplish. And certainly something I never thought possible that morning as I stood shivering in Central Park, wondering “Why do I do this to myself?”
As a valiant volunteer placed the medal around my neck, that finish line euphoria swept over me. All those weeks of training had pushed me to a new goal, something I'd thought wasn't possible. And it reminded me: This is why I do this. That feeling, the one you can't bottle up. If only you could.
See below for a brief clip of volunteers passing out medals to finishers! And let me know about how your race day went!