It’s time.

I check out of the very pleasant and efficient Wall Street Hampton Inn at 6.30am, as dawn is breaking over the Financial District. I woke up at 4, and couldn’t quite get back down. In a few minutes I am at the Staten Island ferry terminal, heaving with people; sleepy and excited. I am lucky enough to not be able to exactly count the number of times I have been to New York, but for some reason I have never taken care to see perhaps its most iconic sight; as the runner-packed ferry (one of a dozen) pulls out into the Lower Bay, the windows are suddenly crowded with cameras as the Statue Of Liberty rises in the east. I didn’t realise quite how many overseas people there were; at least as many as Americans. Everyone is suddenly surrounded by new friends. The collective miles, hours, sweat. We’ve all had to do it. Fifth marathon. First. Thirty-third, according to one old guy’s shirt. Husbands and wives. Charity teams. All together.

We land on Staten Island, New York’s southernmost and least visited borough, and a vast fleet of buses ferries us a few miles to Fort Wadsworth, the start ‘village’. More like a temporary town for 47,000. Over all looms the immense modernist prow of the Verrazano Narrows suspension bridge. It gleams proudly in the morning sun. I drop a numbered clear plastic sack with my clothes and sundries into a UPS truck which will drive it to the finish.

This is the day I have been planning for the last six months. I have everything I need, and nothing I do not. Everything seems OK. I have tried to be as organised as the immense operation around me of corralling three separate waves of runners into three different lanes leading onto the approach ramps of the bridge. The atmosphere is like a nervous rock festival; nylon and rubbish everywhere, there is even a horrible blues act on a stage ‘entertaining’ the runners. It’s cold. Sips of tea, half a banana. Vaseline my bits. Recheck the safety pins, spares in the belt, gels, the D-tag chip attached to my left shoe that will relay my position to the world. Now give me my robes and put on my crown. I have immortal longings in me. As we head to the corrals I hang on to a chainlink fence and run through my sheet of stretches as a vast boom sounds above me; the gun for the first wave of runners. Everyone with me in the second and third wave cheers them on. Shuffle forward. Dump my old hoodie top onto a pile of thousands of others, it will be turned over to charity. Jesus, that’s cold. The efficiency has distracted me well. No fear. Good lucks all round. In five languages.

As the second gun goes off at 10.10, the three corrals take their first separate steps uphill until 12,000 runners are surging over the Narrows. It’s glorious, and would be joyous if the crosswinds weren’t freezing. My hands are numb. I dump my hat after a mile as I warm up. There are clothes strewn across the bridge; hats, tops, bottles, gels, scarves, everything. On the concrete off-ramp descent toward Brooklyn there are hundreds of pairs of gloves; people have done this before.

It’s happening. People are slowly creeping past me. I had to put a predicted finish time on the application, and I plucked 4 hours 11 minutes out of the air. Ha ha ha ha. Onto 4th Ave, running through Brooklyn’s southern suburbs, and the crowds appear. Whoop, whoop. Cowbells seems to be popular this year. I chat to various British runners (there are literally thousands). In these early miles, everyone is in a good mood. I see my first band; the marathon organisers proudly tout that the route is lined with over 50 bands to entertain the runners and spectators. What they don’t mention is that every single one of them sucks, and hard. Horrible local bar bands, hairy old blues hippies, shitty rock, hipster rubbish, singer-lamewriters, wack rappers. A vortex of bad. The knees are twinging. The crowd is singing. I spit and miss and a huge gobbet goes down my tights. Balls. 65th street all the way down to 1st street and beyond, and we can see the beautiful, brutal Brooklyn Academy of Music rising at the end of the road. Park Slope. I love Park Slope. Flowing OK. We curve round at the bottom of Flatbush Ave, and the crowd is three deep. High-fiving, cheering, screaming. Giving it everything. It’s awesome.

North. North. Through the lovely brownstones of Greenpoint and Williamsburg. Hipsters and orthodox Jews – just like home. I glance for the first time at the clock, offset by half an hour,  as we head toward the halfway point on Pulaski Bridge. I am slightly surprised to find I have run the first half in 2 hours 23, only eight minutes slower than my half-marathon in London a month ago. Whoah. I didn’t even think I was moving that fast. In the parlance, I am running ‘blind’; without a watch clocking the miles. This was deliberate, part of how I wanted to experience the whole thing. Feeling my way through. It’s worked so far. I feel great, with a slight worry in the back of my mind. A mind niggle to go with the achy knees. Have I gone out too fast? I thought I went out like a snail.

Into Queens, the third of the five boroughs. Welcome to Queens! We make more noise than those Brooklyn assholes. WHOOOOOO! I meet Jodi with a sweaty hug just past the 47th Ave water station, and she hands over a couple of gooey gels I gave her yesterday. I didn’t want to carry five. She takes an over-posed photograph. Past halfway, and the noise of the crowds dims as we turn west and head across the lower level of the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan. The sound of thudding footsteps and breathing. No one speaks or whoops now. Hundreds and thousands of silent runners. We are past fifteen miles, and the bridge is a long, long hill, and it’s starting to bite. I take a quick walk break and gobble a gel. Round the corner and the noise builds again to perhaps the nicest part of the route, up 1st, one of the glorious, wide Manhattan avenues, stretching to the horizon. The crowd noise echoes off the building. The roar. We spread out across six lanes. The sun is behind me as I run with my shadow. The twinges have gone, and I am moving. 17 miles. They are falling fast. More Gatorade. More water.

But now it’s starting to toughen. My legs are protesting, and getting louder and more strident. By the time we grind it out to 19 miles and cross the Willis Avenue bridge into the rundown southern reaches of the Bronx, I have to walk up the ramp. My right leg is starting to seize. Walk a little, run a little. Sound systems blast reggae and soca across the dirty concrete. 20 miles. I was wondering, with a surge of optimism, if I could run this in under five hours, but this is fading as the pain is worsening. I’m gonna fucking crawl to the finish if I have to. I shuffle southwards, and have to stop and stretch on a hydrant shortly before the final push over the Hudson back into Manhattan. Aaaaaaagggghhhhh. Jesus, that fucking hurts. My right leg is worse, but everything is protesting: quads, feet, knees, flexors. Everything. I’ve never demanded as much from my legs. Good little legs. Carry me home. There is a marathon aphorism that ‘the last six miles are the last half of the race’. I’d kind of heard and dismissed it as just one of many, glib and factually inaccurate (see also “How do you run a marathon? Step 1: start running. There is no step 2”). Of course it’s true, like most truisms. Yes.

“So I / Drew what I had from the central trust.” The last five. Walk, run. Walk, run. The pain is now continuous, despite a on-course dose of ibuprofen. By Marcus Garvey Park a longer stretch of running leads me to let out a scream as I start to stumble a little, salt-streaked and grimacing. A volunteer lady of a certain age walks over to me. Are you OK, honey? How are you feeling? Can I see your eyes? There is a medical station just there if you need it. Doing her job. I’ll be OK. I’m not 100% sure, but I’m close. Closer. The crowds are still there. Pushing us on. They are doing a different job now, at this stage, when people are tiring. You can do it! Almost there! Kicking ass! Gimme five! You’re looking great! Beautiful. Just beautiful. But it hurts. I’m running out of everything.

I haven’t “hit the wall”, which is when the body runs out of glycogen. Fewer people do these days since the advent of gels, plus the few sips of Gatorade fluid replacement I have taken almost every mile. There is no problem here fuelling yourself enough that you don’t run out of energy. But I am running out of will. The only way you can fail this is if you don’t give it everything you can. I chat to a girl next to me and we compare pain notes. A good distraction. Runners from everywhere, all countries, all shapes and sizes and ages. All standards. A guy has a T-shirt which details the dozens of marathons he has run on the back, he is struggling more than me. Perhaps it’s time you gave it up, chum. As we head down through Harlem and the tree-lined park roads, a strange chill comes over me. I now know I am going to finish. But I shiver slightly, and think of people at home following me on the internet tracker, and all the people who have donated to the charities and all the work and all the pain, and I am almost overcome by a wave of emotion mixed with nausea. Dizzy. I stop and hold my head for a couple of seconds. Dry heave. A few tears. Come on now. Hold it together. Not quite. Almost.

The last three, as we curve into Central Park, are almost the best, despite the stumbling and the grimacing and the pain. The crowd are incredible. It really is like all your friends came to cheer you on. The legendary ‘spirit of the race’ I’ve read about is right here, on the last little stretch that seems like it will never end. Never. Come on. Please. That must be it. Come on, you can! Nearly there! Round the bottom border of Central Park, toward the gleaming Time-Warner building at Columbus Circle. 800 yards to go. Turn. The flags are up. The noise booms. I am welling up, and in the final, agonising stretch to the line I lose it completely. I am bawling my eyes out as I cross the final mat into the finish funnel. A year that has changed my life, a marshalling of so much, all for this single moment. I cross it with an older runner, a lady in a yellow shirt, and we hug. She is crying even harder than me.

______________

As I shuffle southwards through Manhattan in my space blanket, clutching my belongings to more high-fives and how-did-you-dos from complete strangers in the gathering gloom, I look at the finishers medal. Not as pretty as I’d hoped. The medal is really inside you. I know that sounds drippy and self-helpy. But you could cheat and get a finishers medal. You know when you’ve done it. Five hours, nineteen minutes and twenty seven seconds… yeah, and the rest. I did want to go faster. I didn’t have the legs. I asked for a lot, and the bank was empty. Most everything else was fine, from the cardio-vascular system to the planning to the equipment. The first half was strong, but I didn’t have enough experience on the long field. The split says it all: 2’23” for the first half, nearly 3 hours for the second. I didn’t have the legs. I can look at why. Addictive? Soaking the pain away in Audrey’s bath, I start musing. Well, if I’d just trained an extra month, and put more distance work in, and I was five kilos lighter, and I worked on the form, and I strengthened my legs a little… we’ll see. Coulda woulda shoulda. I did what I could in the time I had. Where to go, and what to do now? I need to think. But… I did it. It’s done.

I owe a debt of thanks to so many people. Firstly all the dozens of people who were kind enough to donate to the two autism charities. We raised over 1200 pounds for Autistica and 900 dollars for the Autism Society Of America – and I still have to pay in some cash donations. Thank you all so very much indeed.

Particular thanks also go to the people who have put me up or contributed so much useful advice or training, including (but not limited to): Liam P, Audrey M, Jodi S, Alison W, Ian D, Ed A, Sarah E, and Lara B M.

And most of all, to Sarah S. It’s all you. Oh yes.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog. Now I will head outside with my weary, creaking legs and eat my way round this lovely city.

John S. New York City. 8th November 2010.

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