It was tough getting to sleep on the eve of the marathon. I’d flown in from Australia the week before and after an intense sightseeing adventure I was a nervous mess in the lead up to the race.
I woke early on Sunday and dressed in my kit laid out the night before.
It was a very strange feeling getting ready for a race all by myself, family and friends a mere 20,000km away.
I met a fellow Movember team member and Aussie on 49th street and we headed to Times Square to catch the subway. As soon as we walked down to the platform the vibe hit me. Runners everywhere, smiles on their faces, bananas in their hands. We just looked at each other and said “Wowser, this is really happening!”
Once on the train we excitedly engaged in conversation with other runners, letting our broad Aussie accents ring loudly through the carriage. After a short ride we all jumped off and made our way into the “Staten Island Ferry” terminal. All of these iconic New York experiences made the whole adventure all the more exciting.
As we passed through the gates there were congratulations and high fives from NYPD and race officials.
This was such a warm and welcoming feeling and it didn’t stop all the way through to the end of the day.
Surprisingly we all boarded the ferry without delay and we were soon away. The ferry ride was full of more interaction with strangers and sharing of stories. I made a point at this stage to keep a lid on my excitement to reserve energy. Before long we were docking on Staten Island. It was 8am at this stage and with a starting time of 10:15 in Wave 2 Corral B I was starting to think I should’ve caught the earlier ferry.
After we disembarked things started to slow and we then lined up for an hour and 1/2 before the bus ride to the start line.
I began to get nervous as 9:30am crept around and we only just boarded our bus. I started to realise I would miss my 10:15am start and quickly turn my thoughts to starting in a later wave. Once I accepted this I realised it wasn’t the end of the world , it’s not like I wouldn’t be allowed to race. I just wouldn’t have the relevant pacers in my Wave which was fine as I planned to use average pace on my Garmin to keep me on track anyway.
After we finally got off the bus I made a dash for the porta loos, then dropped my bag off and quickly located my starting area; Orange Wave 2 Corral B. I was surprised how friendly everyone was and looking at my bib they yelled at me to head to the organisers fielding runners through the gates so I could get to the front. Looking around you could tell runners had been waiting here for hours. Abandoned space blankets and mountains of unwanted clothes paved the way to the start line.
As the officials directed us through some gates and onto a road I then realised we were standing on the ramp to the top level of the Verrazano – Narrows Bridge. This was the first time I’d really seen it up close and it sure is a beautiful bridge. With 8 minutes until this wave was due to start the crowd was excited and the music was making everyone dance. “Welcome to New York” by Taylor Swift was playing loudly and with the sun beaming down I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.
It should be noted that at his stage my pre race plan hadn’t really gone to schedule, due to being late I hadn’t had time to take in water and my gel or caffeine tablet so I was starting slightly parched and unprepared. Though I did have a back up plan (it would’ve been foolish not to) and it was to consume both at the first drink station 3 mile from the start. I was fine with this as the race jitters alone would get me far further than 3 mile.
The music stopped as did the dancing and the crowd stood tall and still as race officials invited Cynthia Erivo to sing the national anthem.
It was breathtaking and when she finished there was a “ready, set” and as the cannon fired it cut sharply through the silence. We were off..
As with all large crowd races there was a walk before the runners actually started to move but once we did there were screams and whistles and just general hype followed quickly by a huge Hawaiian wave crawling down the pack. I looked up at the incredible sight that is the Verrazano – Narrows Bridge. Oh this feeling was one I’ll keep with me forever, overwhelmed I let out a little gasp and then a few tears. I really couldn’t believe I was here. I let the excitement drive me forward and before long I was ducking and weaving to get a few steps of clear ground ahead of me. During line up I’d managed to squeeze toward the front of the group so before long I was clear out of the pack and felt like I had the Verrazano all to myself. The sun was warm and without a cloud in the sky it really was a picture perfect day. I soaked up these first few km, really paying attention to what was around me. The one thing I loved most about New York was the architecture and to view it all from a distance at the height of the bridge was something special I won’t ever forget.
After the bridge was behind us, about 3km in I started to think about my pace, my plan and keep my training front of mind. If there’s one thing I know, coming into this race I didn’t feel like there was anything I would’ve done differently to prepare, the training plan had been such a good fit for me and my fitness level, but that’s for another story to come soon.
The plan was to go out at about 4:40/km- 4:50/km and keep it steady until the second half.
I knew the second half of the course was harder than the first so I planned to pare back to 4:45/km – 5:00/km and keep it together to the end. I started out with a goal of sub 3:45 however after various conversations with locals about this not being a pb course and needing to tack on an extra 15 mins to your normal mara time due to the course congestion I decided I’d be very happy with sub 4:00.
Mile 3 the first drink station, phew! I cracked open a caffeine tablet and a gel and tried to get as much of the water in my mouth and not all over me. I feel like this is where the race really started. Now I’d had my pre-race nutrition I was game face on and heels kicking up high. I shot off and settled into the next 5km with a big smile on my face. If I’ve learnt anything about running marathons it’s to take it in bite size chunks. 5km here, a tree off in the distance there. Depending on where your head is at it can be the difference between making it to the end or rocking backwards and forwards on the sidelines at the 15km mark.
There were drink stations at every mile, so 1.6km for me, and while I initially thought this was a bit over the top I ended up grabbing a cup more often than not. This was because the crowds were so thick and navigation was tough that most times I didn’t get much out of one cup before it was knocked out of my hand or thrown all over me so I just resigned myself to less, more often. As I neared the 10km mark I grabbed a caffeine tab and gel out of my waist band – note these marathon crops from Lululemon I bought specially for NYC were incredible. Waist band has mesh gel pockets all around the top and everything just stays put while also being out of site; so amazing. I quickly consumed both with a gulp of Gatorade and then bang…… I fell over and my knee was killing me….. I looked around and a volunteer holding a huge wooden broom looked like he was about to cry. Fu…… I swore looking straight at him. He was so overly apologetic and as I stood still rolling up my Lulus to see the damage (and now feeling bad for yelling at him) some spectators, clearly seeing my name on the back of my shirt, yelled out “C’mon Gabby, you can do it girl!” I jumped up and in a couple of skips was back on my feet. It was only a few moments until the burning stopped and my head was back in the game, I’m in New York I thought to myself, nothing’s stopping me today. I did a quick pace check here and was sitting on 4:54/km average which I was very happy with, if not a little surprised.
I had gels and caffeine tabs for a refuel every 10km so already ¼ way through this epic race I planned to settle into a rhythm and enjoy the next 10km.
Still in Brooklyn at this stage I was starting to get into the crowd a bit more. For as far as you could see the sidewalk was paved with families, bands, kids wanting high fives and random groups with their own support stations providing drinks and food. It was a full blown party and one which up to this point I’d tried not to get too sucked in to. Some of the Elites at Expo pre warned about using all your energy dancing and engaging with the spectators only to realise you still had 35km to go after feeling like you had a big night out; this was something I wanted to avoid. By km 13 I had given a few high fives to some of the kids and smiles and waves to those who yelled my name – which they just loved. Then I knuckled down to for a strong few km to the half way mark.
As we neared the half way mark and I consumed another round of nutrition we were entering Queens and the sidewalk entertainment reach another high.
It was like each borough was working hard to outdo the last, or maybe that was just in my head.
We’d been warned about the Queensborough Bridge being a quiet and eerie part of the course due to no spectators allowed either side or near by. As we started the climb to the bridge there were screams from kids “This is the last stop! Get your high fives here!” before the climb I did a pace check I noticed I was sitting on 4:55/km average and was very happy with this though I kept a lid on my energy knowing I was only half way and the I didn’t’ know how much it was going to blow out in the second half. 4:58/km average would get me a 3:30 finish and I thought I’d be looking more like a 4:00 finish so I thought the worst was yet to come.
As we entered the bridge it was just as the Elites had explained at Expo; quiet, cold and yep, eerie.
There were a few calls out from different groups in an attempt to keep the vibe light until we reached the other side but it was definitely different from the consistent cheers and music that had filled the first 24km. Before long we could hear the chants and cheers as we prepared to be welcomed into Manhattan for the first time on the course. We veered around the sharp corner, off the bridge and then boom into civilisation again and boy did the crowd go wild.
Now I’d read about First Avenue and the ability for it to get into your head. As I turned the corner onto the 8km straight stretch of road in front of me and saw the never-ending trail of runners I took a mental picture because it was just so incredible. I then made the decision not to look again until we passed over to the Bronx because while it was an incredible sight, it was also a long and far away sight and at this stage in the race where fatigue was setting in, I didn’t need any help to psych myself out.
Even though we were only in the Bronx for 3 or so km they sure did put on a show, with spectators lining the streets and the music ringing through the buildings, it was a shame to be leaving so soon.
I think this was where I really noticed the fatigue from constantly navigating the sheer volume of runners on course.The constant ducking and weaving had taken it’s toll and I remember thinking “God if only I could just run in a straight line.” Mostly I was holding up my arms to avoid another elbow to the boob or face. As we crossed the last bridge into Harlem I hit a bit of a wall and started to drop my pace. I spent the next km talking myself into a dark ish place, where I started to acknowledge how tired my body was and then started to think all those things you do when you’ve been running hard for 3 hours straight. I stopped for a walk and noticed my body was buzzing… My muscles didn’t let go and having been in this place before I knew the window of opportunity to keep it together was brief.
I frantically dug deep in my head for some help; how did I want to be feeling when I got home?
Did I want to feel disappointed? Did I want to make my family proud? Did I want to finish this race with no regrets? I knew the answer to all of these but needed something more, something solid. I looked down at my watch and through fuzzy, dazed eyes located my average pace at the top of my Garmin screen.
4:56/km What!!!! If I could come back from this I was on track for a sub 3:30 finish. I couldn’t believe it, really?
I mean I’d been preparing myself for a blow out but it was so close. It was only matter of seconds before I just told my legs to start again, I’d deal with the rest after I was moving…. Those few steps felt like running through deep snow but I ignored what was happening around me and just focussed on the steps ahead of me I told myself to speed up and started to think of my family back home in Aus. Bec had told me a few days earlier to dedicate a km to each person I love if things got tough, and to think about them for that whole km. It really worked as I started with the kids and my amazing husband who had supported me every step of the way on this adventure.
Before long I only had less than 5km to go – “Just a parkrun to go” I told myself, another Bec nugget of gold.
I felt lucky that this was through central park as the beautiful surrounds made for a wonderful distraction. As I weaved my way to km 40 a little second wind snuck in and I felt the relief of not having to battle the demons for moment. I took this opportunity to clock up a sneaky 4:30/km and then in my last turn to the finish I felt the exhaustion kick at the same time spectators were screaming “Only ¼ mile to go!”. Oh gosh this is it, its almost over, have I enjoyed it as much as I should’ve? Have I made the most of it? Yep silly I know but all these thoughts rushed through my head as I tumbled over the finish line in a far from glamorous state. A little confused if I’d actually crossed the line yet or not I reached out to the official standing close and said “Is that it?” He laughed, “Yep honey, you’re done, congratulations!” And I was done, in none less than 3 hrs 28 minutes and 37 seconds.
I had pushed myself to limits I would normally have opted out of on this race. I’d kept my pace consistent and dug to incredible depths when I needed it the most. I think being there all alone and having to support myself through the whole thing was literally a once in a life time learning experience I will never ever forget. This just reiterates my love for running which is the awe and respect I have for what the human body is capable of. We just have to be prepared to feel out of control and the possibilities are endless.