New York City Marathon race report

There’s one problem with spending a week in New York and doing things like staying out past 3 a.m., seeing the High Line Park you desperately wanted to see, wandering through Central Park in gorgeous fall weather, and hanging out with your sister and a couple good friends. What’s that problem? You return home and have a lot to catch up on, to the point that it takes you days to write about the biggest event of the whole trip: the New York City Marathon.

I considered splitting this into three posts, but it’s just one massive novella. Get a drink if you plan to read the whole thing.

Two-word summary: Great day.

Six-word summary: I want to run it again.

One-sentence summary: Despite a bad fall that curtailed all cross-training and most stretching two weeks before the marathon, I had an enjoyable race that I will never forget, and I learned that I can truly dig deep in the last few miles.

I finished in 4:02:20, my second-fastest of the five marathons I’ve now completed. Considering my recent fall, that we crossed five bridges (hills), and I was weaving around people the whole way to run an extra 0.4 miles, I now know that I am capable of a faster marathon time than I have dreamed.

I arrived in New York the Wednesday morning before the race, after a red-eye flight in a seat that hurt my back and refused to recline. Including a nap on my sister’s bed, I slept about three hours total. We wandered around the Lower East Side, and I walked stiff-legged the whole time. You see, my knee wounds had finally gotten tolerable, but only when nothing was touching them. New York was too cold for skirts/shorts, so I had to bandage my wounds and put on pants. Those wounds rubbed the bandages with Every Single Step I took. It hurt.

Wednesday night we went out at midnight, had free booze that included Grey Goose by the bottle, then got home after 3 a.m. I was up and out the door at 9 a.m., where I proceeded to run out the rest of the alcohol. It was a glorious morning along the East River.

The snowstorm that hit the previous weekend? No sign of it!

Then I headed to the NYCM race expo, where I met up with Desiree, a friend from DailyMile and Twitter. We hadn’t met before, but I knew immediately that I liked her. We wandered through the expo, discovering that we both like to take our time and look at everything. More than once, I saw people giving my gait a second glance — they were clearly thinking, “She looks like she can barely walk; why is she thinking she can run the marathon?”

Friday involved more wandering/attempting to walk, and then I gathered my luggage and headed to the Upper East Side to stay with my friends Josh and Erin. Saturday morning we lazily ate Erin’s awesome raspberry pancakes, and then I went on my mandatory pre-race-day run. It’s good that’s my only pre-race requirement, because this run involved an errand: buying socks. Yes, that’s right, I had left my running socks at home on the drying rack, so I was going to buy and run in brand-new ones. They say to avoid doing anything differently on race day, especially trying new clothes. Oops. Along the way, I came across a bookstore and found that the new Runner’s World magazine had just hit the stands — one featuring me! I had this moment of pure bliss, photographing the display until a crazy guy tried to get in my picture and give me his number. The rest of Saturday involved hanging out, going to see a weird but good movie, and then going out for beer and pasta.

Sunday morning, I was up before the proverbial crack of dawn. I walked to the nearest subway station and joined other runners for the trip to the southern tip of Manhattan, where we boarded the Staten Island Ferry. Desiree and I met up, and this was another good part of the day: We got on the ferry around 6:15, and spent the next four hours keeping each other company.

Sunrise view from the ferry.

We boarded buses that seemed to take us on a very long tour of Staten Island, but we finally arrived at the race start. This was a whole village, and it was huge. Come to think of it, 47,000 people were running the marathon, so this could actually be called a city. They provided bagels, coffee and water. I’d brought a travel packet of peanut butter, so my breakfast was set. The sun was up by this point, and Desiree and I found a place to sit in the sun. All around us, we heard multiple languages and saw shirts bearing country names from around the world. I’ve never been in such a diverse place. At one point, a runner was confused, and a volunteer with an accent asked what language she spoke. When she got an answer, she said, “Oh, no, I don’t speak Polish.” Eventually our starting corral opened, so Desiree and I headed over there. We took off our throw-away sweats (which are given to charity), and began moving toward the start, closer to the Verazanno-Narrows Bridge. This was happening.

A tiny fraction of the piles of discarded clothing. 47,000 runners, two items each = about 100,000 articles of clothing.

Our wave started at 10:10, the second of three waves. Each wave also has three different starting areas; we were on the upper level of the bridge, on the right. A boom sounded, the strains of “New York, New York” echoed across the crowd, and we were on our way, crossing the starting line and heading up the bridge. The view was amazing — the water and boats below, Manhattan in the distance, and a sea of runners wearing every color possible. I was running the New York City Marathon, and it was amazing. THIS was redemption.

I was supposed to run this marathon last year, but a stress fracture derailed everything for four months. I was able to defer NYC, so this year I figured it would be a victory comeback, and that I’d try for a PR (personal record) in January 2011. Then, in June I blew away all my expectations by running a 4-hour marathon on sub-par training. That changed my goals. I wanted to break four hours in New York. I had a knee get mad at me and throw off my training in September, but I rebounded. Then, the day I set out to run 20 miles two weeks before the marathon, I fell.

I still ran 20 miles the next day, but there went my plans of cross-training (couldn’t hold bike handlebars with my wounded hand). Stretching was very limited, because it just hurt far too much if I bent my knees. And then there was the whole “walking around New York stiff-legged” thing, which was taking a toll on my body. I had no idea what I might run in New York. I did know that, without the fall, I should be able to hit 4 hours. But the week before New York, I ran a mellow, slow-paced 12-miler and felt the bruising in my knees starting around mile 8. At the expo, I’d picked up pace bands for 4:00 and 4:05 finish times. However, I chose not to wear either one on race morning. I have a GPS watch and know those paces and times well enough that I didn’t need the added pressure. So I just set out to run as well of a race as I could, and to make sure I took in everything around me.

The race started straight up the bridge, and I knew this was an uphill to be given some slack. I also knew that what goes up must come back down, so I wasn’t worried.

Mile 1: 10:35 (up the bridge)
Mile 2: 8:24 (and down the bridge)
Mile 3: 9:05

The race goes through Brooklyn for a while, and I saw a funny sign reading, “Get out of Brooklyn.” People had all sorts of signs, and in Brooklyn they were really hamming it up.

Mile 4: 9:11
Mile 5: 9:05 (gel)

It was at this point that I got the same feeling I had in Alaska at the third mile: Things were feeling so good and easy, that I was getting scared. I still had 21 miles to go, and I knew a lot could change. But everything felt GOOD.

Mile 6: 9:18
Mile 7: 9:10
Mile 8: 9:11

I suddenly felt like I was on top of the world. I was having a ball, and I was loving all the spectators who lined the entire route. I don’t cheer and yell in races, in order not to expend energy, but I make sure I smile and give thumbs up to spectators. Here I also began giving a few high-fives to the kids. I was happy, and I wanted to share that happiness with them. This came at just the right time, because I’d felt some of the bruising in my knees. I put it out of my mind, and never thought of it again the rest of the day.

Mile 9: 9:28 (gel)
Mile 10: 9:13

Desiree and I hadn’t planned to run together, because we were each running our own race. Plus, we’d never met or run together before, so I think we both knew that we might either a) not hit it off, and/or b) run differently. But we found ourselves running together for miles. The course was very crowded, but we were using the same dodging techniques — try to conserve energy and not run extra steps, while still managing to get past people. We were wordlessly taking turns following each other, or sometimes taking different sides and meeting up after passing people. It was nice to have someone to run with, and we passed a big camera point together.

Low-quality screenshot, but there we are. (Oh yeah, along with new socks, I wore a new visor, too.)

And then I lost Desiree. I saw her behind me, slowed a bit for her to catch up, and then saw that she was still behind me. Desiree was running this race after battling a cold-turned-into-bronchitis for 11 days, and she was still pretty bad on race day (including taking Robitussin near the start line). I knew it wouldn’t be good if I encouraged her to go faster than her lungs would allow, so I kept running. We’d planned to call each other at the finish line, anyway.

Mile 11: 9:19
Mile 12: 8:51
Mile 13: 8:54

I reached the halfway point at 2:01:51.

Mile 14: 9:04 (gel)
Mile 15: 9:17

At the Queensboro Bridge, we suddenly had a strong cross-wind. I tried to move over to the right to get some shelter from other runners, but I think everyone had the same idea. At this point I passed a runner in military fatigues, wearing a full backpack and wearing boots. I’ve heard of soldiers running in full combat gear, and I know it adds about 50 pounds of weight. “You rock,” I told him. He thanked me. I also saw a lot of Achilles Track Club members — disabled athletes who run with guides. They are amazing and have obviously overcome extreme obstacles just to reach the starting line of a marathon. They created bottlenecks because many of them were obviously placed in too fast of a starting position, but I didn’t fault them and was nothing but impressed.

Mile 16: 9:44 (bridge)
Mile 17: 7:50

Yes, that was a 7:50 mile. Yes, it was too fast for the middle of a marathon. Oh well. I actually couldn’t go as fast down the bridges as I normally go down hills, because the crowds of runners seemed to want to take it easy. After the Queensboro Bridge, though, we turned onto First Avenue, and the course got so much wider. I suddenly had room to run without being boxed in by other runners! I felt so free!

This mile also had the two biggest highlights of the day. At 71st Street, a friend of my grandmother was waiting for me. I’ve never met the woman, but she’s in NYC so her husband can undergo cancer treatment, and she offered to come outside and spectate. By the time I heard about it, she already had a sign ready. I knew to look for her, but the time estimate I’d given her was off because it took longer to start than I’d expected. But there she was, because who else would have a sign with “Layla” on it? I screamed her name in excitement and thanked her, and then I went bounding down the street, full of happiness.

Then the second highlight came nine (short) blocks later. Josh had to be out of town on race day, but Erin was around and wanted to come over and see me in the race. I was also late for the estimate I’d given her, but there she was, still looking for me. I was thrilled to see her, and then I saw that she was holding a bright yellow sign reading, “Go Layla!” It was such a great surprise and I shouted, “You have a sign!!” I slowed down to thank her again, and a guy said, “Don’t stop! Keep going!” I know he meant well, but hello, my friend had just stood outside waiting for me, and had made me a sign!

In the five marathons I’ve run, there has never been a sign in the crowds for me. That’s ok, and I don’t expect it. But on Sunday, there were two signs, and I loved them so much.

Mile 18: 8:43
Mile 19: 9:15 (gel)
Mile 20: 9:27 (stopped to fill my bottle so I wouldn’t have to slow for water stops)
Mile 21: 9:00

At mile 21, I did the math. Considering that my run was turning out to be longer than 26.2 miles, I needed to run faster than 9-minute miles until the finish if I wanted to hit 4 hours. I didn’t know how much over 26.2 I’d be, though, so I didn’t know if I needed 8:50s (doable) or 8:10s (not doable). I couldn’t quite do enough math at that point, so I just kept running.

Mile 22: 8:49 (caffeinated gel)
Mile 23: 8:57

And then I felt it in my right calf: a cramp. I’d felt it briefly a couple miles earlier, but I’d downed a bunch of Gatorade and made it go away. Now the cramp had returned, and it was all I could do to keep from falling over. I made it to the side of the road and stopped, trying to ease the cramp. I was fighting tears, because I’d been doing a little more math and knew that if I could run for all I was worth, I still had a shot at breaking 4 hours. But that was before this cramp had stopped me in my tracks.

As I bent over and stretched my leg, I thought of just jogging to the finish, since I’d still have a decent time considering the hills, the crowds and my knees. But that thought didn’t last long, because I’d been thinking of Chrissie Wellington throughout the race. Before the marathon, I wrote that I was going to “channel Chrissie.” She crashed two weeks before Ironman Kona, then won the race. So I could also fall two weeks before New York and go run my best. I was a few yards away from Chrissie when she crossed that finish line, and I saw her sheer joy. She hadn’t given up.

And so I lifted my head, determined to keep fighting. There, only a few yards ahead, were volunteers with bananas. I didn’t want to eat, but I knew the potassium might just save the day. So I took half a banana, pulled the skin off, and made myself basically inhale it while walking. I took several swigs of Gatorade, then tried running. The cramp vanished!

Mile 24: 10:33

When I crossed the next mile marker, I knew there was no way I would break 4 hours. But, as I thought of Chrissie, I decided to give it my all. I didn’t care that I wouldn’t have a PR. I was going to run as fast and as hard as I could, because I was not going to give up. Assuming the cramp didn’t return, I was going to see just how fast I could run at the end of a marathon. I would leave everything out there. (Plus, I saw a runner dressed in a bright pink sasquatch costume, and I decided there was no way in hell a pink sasquatch would beat me. I zipped past him and never saw him again.)

Mile 25: 8:35
Mile 26: 8:16
Mile 26.6: 4:56 (8:18 pace)

The finish was one big blur, though the video shows me pumping my arms in happiness and apparent coherence. But I was so much more dazed than I appeared. The next day I wandered back through Central Park near the finish, and I was stunned to discover that, yes, it finished at a gradual incline and then a short, steep uphill. That incline and that hill never fazed me on race day. I never noticed them, and I didn’t feel them. That’s what adrenaline and sheer determination will do.

I have no memory of running up this hill in Central Park.

I crossed the finish line and someone gave me a medal.

The bling.

Someone else gave me a mylar heat sheet, which I wrapped around my shoulders. Someone else taped it, which was a great idea and should be done at all races so that runners don’t have to hold heat sheets around their rapidly chilling bodies. We had to keep walking, since there were so many runners finishing. I couldn’t stop and pose for the official photos because it was so crowded that the race directors had the photographers stop shooting.

That guy's face sums up most feelings: "I just ran 26.2 miles and now I'm stuck in this mess?"

We kept slowly shuffling, and I knew that I desperately needed water. Things were starting to get hazy, though I desperately tried to just keep moving with the crowd. Then I noticed that people were carrying orange bags and drinking out of water bottles. Somewhere I had missed those finisher bags. I took a few more steps, and it was all I could do to stay upright. I could barely see (that happens to me), and I had just enough coherence left to know that I was about to black out. I found myself at the side, leaning against a barricade, and volunteers with megaphones were telling everyone to keep moving. I couldn’t, because I was holding onto that barricade for dear life. A volunteer told me to keep walking, and I gasped out that I needed water. I bent over; some part of me knew that I needed blood flowing back to my head. I heard volunteers saying to keep walking, and then I head someone shout, “Medical!” and something about an ambulance coming. NO! I did not want medical. I did not want to be taken somewhere on a stretcher. I didn’t want to be kept somewhere against my will. I would be OK if I could keep my head down a little longer and get water. I certainly didn’t need to take attention away from people who truly needed medical help.

I kept saying “water,” and finally a female volunteer listened to me. I’d had my head down long enough that a little blood was circulating again, and I managed to tell her that I’d missed the finisher bags and that I just needed water, not medical. Someone went and got me a finisher bag while I kept clinging to that barricade. The female volunteer opened the bottle of water and handed it to me. Suddenly my face was numb and tingling, but the black haze was lifting. I could see her, which was a big improvement. She opened a bag of pretzels and held them out, and I began eating them. The haze lifted. The tingling sensation was still strong, but that angel of a woman stayed with me. She got me talking, and I remember mumbling about Chrissie Wellington. She asked if I’d done other marathons. I told her this was my fifth marathon, despite the childhood doctors who said I’d never do much running.

I don’t know that woman’s name, but because she actually listened, got me water, and stayed with me for a couple minutes, I didn’t wind up in the medical tent. I was able to continue walking on my own two legs — past the ambulance that had arrived.

We kept walking forever, and I finally got to the UPS truck that had my bag. The man there was good: He had seen me coming, glimpsed the race number on my bib, found my bag, and was handing it to me before I could even stop. I moved a bit more to a sunny spot and stopped to pull off my soaking wet shirt and put on a dry sweatshirt. I’d had no cell phone signal, but now I finally got one, and text messages came tumbling in. I called a couple people, sent a couple texts, and before too long Desiree was calling me. She was coughing almost uncontrollably, but she’d done it.

We were both cold, Desiree was coughing, and my arches were hurting badly, something I hadn’t experienced previously. We were in no shape to walk as we’d previously planned, so we followed a cop’s directions to head further west where cabs would be easier to find. This was awful advice. We spent the next hour in a slight daze, trying to hail cabs that were full. (I have since heard that the best thing is to get on a subway any direction just to get away from the race finish, then get out a couple stops later and find a cab. Now I know.) Eventually we decided that we’d have to walk. Desiree headed south, and I had to head north and then west. We both wound up adding three miles to the day. It didn’t help that my phone battery said it had 31% left, but then it went dead. This was a recurring theme throughout the week, and a strike against Apple.

The walk was long, but I must say that New Yorkers eschewed the haughty stereotype that day: Complete strangers saw my finisher’s heat sheet and congratulated me. At one point, a crowd of young people burst into applause and cheers, and I almost cried in gratitude, since I’d been walking for a very long time by then. I finally got back to Josh and Erin’s apartment, took a wonderful shower, put on compression socks, and we went out for pizza and wine. The next day we walked all over Central and High Line parks, and the latter will have to be its own photo-filled blog post. My feet hurt so badly, but the walking was good for the rest of my legs.

The day after the marathon, before the finish line vanished. Of course I wore my hard-earned medal and finisher's shirt.

New York was my fifth marathon, and it capped a year of comeback. Last year I fractured my leg, quit my career, severed some personal ties and went on a 16-day roadtrip. This year, I’m at a new job, living in a new place and meeting more people. I ran two marathons in one year — a first for me, due to my injury-prone self. I beat my previous records at the marathon and half-marathon. I am doing my best to live life.

Thank you, New York, for teaching me lessons, for welcoming me, and for giving me a great race.

New York City was full of marathon-related ads. I saw this one while hobbling around the day after the race, and it resonated.

Update: I subsequently blogged more post-marathon thoughts here. And mentioned another NYCM runner here.

14 Responses to New York City Marathon race report

  1. PINK SASQUATCH! Why haven’t I thought of this!?!

    I love this report, Layla — you certainly have overcome so much in such a short period of time, and this race was the perfect little bow to put on top of all your determination. What a magnificent event; congratulations on a solid finish. :)

  2. Avatar Ben and Barbara
    Ben and Barbara says:

    To Our Strong and Brave Granddaughter!
    What a great story…and race. Don’t know which deserves more accolades! We are so glad you had a very good finish and very proud. Also, was so pleased that our friend, Susan, was there to cheer you on.
    Keep up the good life.
    All our love, Grandpa and Grandma

  3. amazing recap and amazing time! you should be proud :) the last 3 miles for me were extremely tough and there is no way i could have dropped my pace that much if i tried! just an FYI, the achilles runners actually start before everyone at 7:30AM to get a head start but most of them walk, so that’s why they are still on the course when all the runners start.

    • Thank you for the tidbit about the Achilles runners. So when I was passing them three hours into my race, they had already been out there for six hours. That exhausts me just thinking about it! I have nothing but respect for them.
      And congrats on your finish!

  4. What a great report! I almost cried imagining you walking dazed through the city streets and finding perfect strangers wishing you congratulations.

  5. What an awesome, awesome recap! So proud of you and congrats on a great race. You definitely channeled Chrissie!!! So scary how light headed you got after you finished, I’m so glad you had a guardian angel watching out for you! Can’t wait to hear about the rest of the trip and I hope you’re recovering nicely!!!

  6. Congratulations on a GREAT time, even with that knee issue! This race sounds so amazing… I need to do it someday! They taped the mylar sheets in Boston, too… it’s such a great idea.

  7. Of course I am VERY proud of you, but even more I am happy for you.

  8. LOVED this race report. LOVED that you showed up and ran it so well in spite of everything leading up to it. Loved the detail as you brought me along making me feel like I was running along with you through that city that I visited but once but fell in love with…of course I wasn’t running anywhere near as fast as you were.
    Now to look for that issue of Runner’s World.

  9. Thank you, everyone, for the kind comments. You remind me that I still do love writing for an audience.

  10. Sounds like an awesome time Layla! I put in for the lottery this year but obviously didn’t get in. I’ll keep trying though, because it’s definitely one I want to run. It sounds like the huge crowds and logistics of getting to the race and then getting out of the finisher’s area was similar to what I just experienced at MCM.

    It made me chuckle when you mentioned that 47,000 people at the start could considered an actual village. The city I grew up in only had 30,000 people, and it’s crazy to think that if every single person in my hometown got together to run a race, it still wouldn’t be as many people as were at this marathon.

  11. Congrats again, Layla! What an amazing experience! Fingers crossed that you get in again next year so we can run together!

  12. What a great race report, Layla! I loved every word of it. You are truly inspiring.

  13. Awesome race report! I felt like I was running the race with you. Sounds like you had a great race considering everything and that you had fallen 2 weeks prior. Your last 2 miles were super fast, I bet you were blowing by everyone out on the race course!

    That volunteer that helped you out at the finish line sounded really cool, glad you avoided going to medical or the ambulance.

    And I saw your story in Runners World this month, I was reading through the stories and was like “I’ve seen her blog before!” lol That is a great story.