And then there’s the Bronx. This is the last of the five boroughs on this five-borough adventure, it comes between Mile 19 and Mile 20 or so, and as you cross over the Willis Avenue Bridge, you’re hurting a little bit. But there are at least two things that keep you going. First, the energy of the crowds is terrific. Not as large as some parts of First Avenue in Manhattan, but so supportive on the steps of churches, at the intersections, along the blocks. It’s almost as if they know how much you need it, and they aren’t going to let you down. There are a lot of improvised help stations, and people with big smiles pass out candy, orange slices, Kleenex, even Band-Aids. Then you do a loop and head back over another bridge into Manhattan, and you feel like you’re almost done.
But of course, you are somethings short of almost done. And you discover something improbable, actually, two improbable things, about Manhattan. The first is that First Avenue northbound is very long and—this is important—it runs uphill. And the second is that somehow, Fifth Avenue southbound, just a few blocks to the west, similarly is very long and—this is also important—it similarly runs uphill, especially at mile 23 and thereafter.
When you enter Central Park at 86th Street, you feel like you’re almost done. And you are, almost. Almost done is a tantalizing and somewhat excruciating thing. People are everywhere, signs and smiles abound, landmarks are frequent. Happily, this is very familiar territory for anyone who runs New York Road Runners races on a regular basis. Also happily, there is a good bit of swooping downhill curves. So again, you feel like you are almost done, and again, not quite.
One of the longest miles in the race comes up next. This happens when you exit the park at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street and turn onto Central Park South. I am sure that it is not a mile in fact, but it sure feels like it. And again somehow—this is important—it is uphill. At this point, you really know you are really almost done. People are cheering on the sidewalk and I’m sure, thinking oh my gosh why do these people look so happy and so miserable at the same time? At Columbus Circle, you make a big turn, the last big turn, into Central Park and see the distance marker - 800 meters to finish. I think this must be the longest 800 meters in the history of the world and of course—yes, this is important!—they are also uphill.
It’s hard to describe how it feels to finish. It’s wonderful, of course, and it’s a huge relief. Your arms just sail up in the air, you can’t help it. Your time doesn’t matter, because everyone wins. The runners win, the volunteers win, the people who cheer for your win, I think even the people who are thinking that someday they might want to try this crazy thing also win.
When you are absolutely, positively sure that you have crossed both of the finish mats and therefore recorded a time, you go from running to walking and maybe even just standing still for a moment. Half joking, I asked one of the volunteers if she was sure that we were done. She laughed, and assured me that yes, we were. You collect a great big medal, a great big blue poncho, and a recovery bag full of food that you are told to eat and drink. Nobody needs to be told twice.
There’s a kind of marathon magic. Unusual and interesting things happen. They just do.
Sometimes they happen in your head, sometimes they happen with the crowd or another runner, maybe even on the Staten Island area the bus.
For me, Marathon magic happened quite unexpectedly just after the finish line. I saw someone I recognized from the 2019 New York City Marathon expo, when I was excitedly and nervously anticipating my first marathon run. At that time, we spoke at length, and she gave me some very thoughtful, simple, and good advice: run your own race. That advice helped me enormously in 2019 and again this year.
And even though I was pretty tired, and a bit depleted, Joan Benoit—my hero since she won the first women’s Olympic marathon in 1984—is unmistakable. I said, “Joan?” Presumptuous, I know. I introduced myself, told her that we had met at the 2019 New York City Marathon expo, and thanked her again for that advice.
Benoit could not have been more gracious, and she congratulated me on my run. She asked me my age and noted that we are the same age. And she observed it while I had run, she has not. I told her she had run plenty, and that she had been my hero since she won the first women’s Olympics the Los Angeles in Olympics some decades ago in a time of 2:24, or nearly two hours faster than my time of 4:16. And still, she congratulated me—that’s marathon magic, too.
Run your own race. I think about it often, in many contexts. Own it, don’t let anyone take it away from you. Listen to wise counsel, learn from experience and from inspiration too. Attend to people that you admire, and at the same time, remember that their race may not be your race, and their goals and gifts may be different than yours. Run your own race. And celebrate no matter what—I finished 9,977th and I’m thrilled. How often can you be thrilled when nearly 10,000 people beat you? Every single day, if you run your own race.
Finally, a postscript. You can do this. Yes, you. If I can, anyone can. You need to plan ahead, and you need to be a little bit stubborn. It also helps to be in reasonably good health, though if you aren’t, this is a good way to get on that path. It takes about four months to train, and it could take up to a year to qualify by running nine races sponsored by the New York Road Runners and volunteering once. But you can do this. Run your own race, and be alert for your own marathon magic. Maybe you’ll meet your hero, or your she-ro, at the finish. And maybe you will see him or her when you look in the mirror, too.