How me 'n Dave won the NYC Marathon last year.
You probably thought that Marilson Gomes dos Santos, the slight Brazilian who gave us cut-away opera gloves covering the arms as a fashion statement, broke the Africans' modern stranglehold on the New York City Marathon last year and won it. And he did win the race, tactically. But Dave and I won it strategically. (Above: Dave and I smiling before the marathon after it took us ten minutes, total, to get there. Photo credit S.)
The Problem. Everyone knows what the problem with the NYCM is. It's the 10:10 start from way down in the far corner of NYC on Staten Island. Everyone has to get there from somewhere else and it usually takes quite awhile. Official recommendation is to catch the 8 am Staten Island ferry and corresponding bus, because there are no later buses. To get to the southern tip of Manhattan to catch that ferry, many runners will be arising at 5:30 or earlier for the race.
There are buses that transport you to the race's start on Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island that leave from various parts of the city. But they leave very early, starting at 4:30 am. Don't try to catch one after 6:30 am (7 am from NJ) because they will be non-existent by then. (Left: Old Fort Wadsworth is dwarfed by the bridge.)
Stories abound about how uncomfortable the wait at Fort Wadsworth for the race to start is. Those hours are horrendous, especially for the obsessive-compulsive types (know any runners like that?) who catch the first bus in their can't-miss-the-start paranoia. It's cold in the early morning, sometimes bitterly so, and keeping warm for all that time is a problem. People bring blankets, snuggle in sleeping bags, make beds out of newspapers, beg clothes from strangers, go into a trance; all sorts of strategies are used. (Below: Fort Wadsworth.)
The race itself is fantastic, a twenty-six mile traipse through the five boroughs and over five bridges that range from the fabulous (the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and the Queensboro Bridge) to the interesting (the Pulaski Bridge) to the merely fun (the Willis Avenue Bridge and the Madison Avenue Bridge). Screaming spectators line much of the passage and immerse you in the diversity that is the genesis of the melting pot of America.
A funky bed and breakfast without the breakfast. When I got into the NYCM last year, I googled "bed and breakfast" and "Staten Island." Up popped a funky place on Daniel Low Terrace. It seemed roomy enough and it was only $100 a night. A call to the "hotel" gave me the owner who said he had several "units," and he'd give me the best one available when I got there. As he described each one, they were all suitable for my needs. I'd get one of them, he assured me. He told me to send a hundred dollars deposit now. Contract? Paperwork? Naw. Just the hundred, and show up.
It was a perfect location. Just off Victory Boulevard near the ferry, it was within three miles of Fort Wadsworth. Back roads would lead me right to the race's start. I received conflicting information concerning the availability on race morning of city buses running down Bay Street in Stapleton on their regular routes to Fort Wadsworth. If there were problems, I could jog the distance in thirty minutes. (Above: I watched this bridge being built out of my bedroom window when I was a boy.)
When I arrived six months later on the Friday before the race, it was funky alright. The owner was an iconoclast who had built, in stages, a series of units off the backside of his old house there in St. George. He was quite talkative and had plenty of stories about his battles with the zoning commission as his house grew. He also knew Hilary Rodham from school and ventured forth his opinion about her. It would hearten the soul of any Republican and many a misogynistic Democratic. My unit was a long narrow unit on the ground floor in the back with an outside entrance.
Dave? Dave's Not Here! I met Dave, another runner from Chicago, sitting on a settee on the house's porch enjoying the view of the lower Manhattan skyline across the harbor. Dave was in the initial throes of his discovery of running in middle age. (Left: Funky? Well yeah!)
He had run six marathons, all within the last year. His pace of running marathons was increasing. He had run two in the last five weeks. He had arrived on Wednesday to steep himself in the course. He expected to better his PR of a little over four hours because he had discerned that the course was pretty flat except for the bridges and several rolling hills on First Avenue in Manhattan.
His wife was with him, trying to share in his new found zest for life. They walked to the ferry to go into Manhattan every day and he would go scout sections of the course while she went shopping. He was leaving on Tuesday, his wife having said "no" to him staying until Wednesday to recover. "Remember the kids at Aunt Maybelle's, dear?" was how she put the reasoning behind them leaving sooner rather than later when he was explaining all of his running plans and aspirations to me. Dave was scheduled to run another marathon, necessitating another trip, two weeks after New York. She was going with him there, too. (Left: My unit stretched all the way across the back of the house.)
I got the feeling from looking at his wife as Dave spoke that this exhilarating new phase of his life, with its frequent one-on-one challenges that put new meaning into a life where awareness of mortality had intruded lately, was about to end. His wife had a tightness in her facial expressions, a quietness as he spoke animatedly, that demonstrated to me a noticeable tiredness with his ongoing personal quest into self-worth. Real life was about to descend upon this running warrior in the form of his family's real or perceived needs as mandated by the non-running member of the union. Hence, to us all when we take up running.
Dave is an electrician. I got the impression that he had mostly finished his life's work and the family was comfortable. He told me that his unit at the house was great, very comfortable and well-appointed. He told me, though, that he wouldn't stay there long-term. You really don't want to look too closely at all the new wiring in this old house, he said in mock horror. Dave and I arranged to go to the race's start together. A friend would drive us both there.
Excuse me, I've got a race to run in 55 minutes. Race day dawned cool, clear, crisp. I woke up at 8 and lay in bed thinking of the horror stories friends had told me about catching a 4:30 am bus and then spending four hours shivering in the open on Staten Island. That was a prominent memory of the race for all of them, whiling away the long hours in Fort Wadsworth. Starting the race itself was like swinging open the jailhouse doors wherein they burst onto the race course, trying to put the fresh memory of those enervating and anxious (and freezing) hours out of their thoughts.
By 9:15 I was dressed and ready to go. I met Dave and we climbed into the car. I directed the person driving onto back roads I knew from childhood, having grown up in this section of Staten Island. The trip to the race, as a matter of fact, was a trip down memory lane for me. Down St. Pauls Avenue, past my old church. Back-track on Broad Street, past the Projects which I used to walk by on my way to the den mother's house during my one year of being a Cub Scout. Then a straight shot out Tompkins Avenue past the YMCA where I used to attend summer camp to School Street, the race's entry point. Distances that had seemed to stretch out so impossibly far for a ten year old boy seemed incredibly compressed forty-four years later to a full-grown man. (Yes, on Staten Island forty-four years ago, little boys could and did walk around and play miles from their homes.) (Above: St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Staten Island.)
Encountering no traffic, we arrived at the traffic barricades half a mile from the race's actual starting line in ten minutes. Plenty of time for two visits to the port-a-potties and to find our respective starting corrals. (Below: Celebrating the finish of the 2006 NYCM with J (who is running today, good luck!), H (who ran the MCM a week ago), me and A (my charity partner who helped me finish at sultry Chicago last month)).
Last year I finished the NYCM more than a hundred minutes behind dos Santos. Dave discovered the course was hilly after all and finished a little further back. But we both strategically won the race by having pristine memories of an incredible run on a perfect fall day through the greatest city in the world, unblemished by a single bad memory of the transport to the start line or the stay in Fort Wadsworth.