I spent 11 months in 2011 working to gain automatic entry to the New York City Marathon. I ran the requisite nine races — seriously burning out in the process — and volunteered at that year’s NYCM Expo.
Finally, after dropping too much money on entry fees and a New York Road Runners membership, I was, as the weekly emails reminded me, “in.”
In April of this year, I signed up to run the New York City Marathon. My goal was to run the marathon in under four hours, and I was ready to train my butt off to make that happen.
But then I got sick.
And then I got sicker.
And then my doctor was like, “You’re a medical mystery, check yourself into the hospital.”
I didn’t train for 16 weeks. I attempted speedwork all of four times and I did half-ass hill repeats once. Though my training was far from ideal, I did manage to knock out some solid long runs, including my first-ever 22-mile long run.
My confidence was shot, but my enthusiasm wasn’t. As November 4 approached, I wasn’t sure I had a sub-4:00 in me, but that was OK: I still had my love for running. After a year-long battle with a crappy immune system, the race was no longer about a time goal. Of course clocking in at 3:59:59 would be nice, but I had other goals this time around:
- Love it.
- Appreciate it.
- Run the mile that I’m in. Don’t dwell on the miles gone by and don’t anticipate (or freak out about) the miles ahead. One at a time. Stay in it.
- Regardless of the pace or finish time, put forth an effort to be proud of.
- Look around. Take in the course. Don’t run in blackout mode like always.
- Stay positive.
- Don’t think about it too much.
- Keep running.
- Try to remember to thank the volunteers.
A ton of goals, none of which were time-specific — all of which pertained to one very specific part of my body: my brain.
I just wanted to have a happy race. And, as my racing history has shown, I do best when the goal is more along the “run happy” lines and less rigid when it comes to paces and splits.
So I had my goals, and I used the New York City Marathon course to carefully map out “dedication miles” along the way. Mile 1 was dedicated to 2012: A year I hated. My first step of the marathon would signify an end — a literal step forward — to a very negative, frustrating year.
Mile 16 was dedicated to my first solo apartment and mile 17 was dedicated to my dear friend Lauren who has always supported my running. Mile 18 was for my first NYC roommate, who got me hooked on running and taught me what “half marathon” means. Mile 19 was for Lauren and mile 20 was for Emily, since she ran my first-ever 20-miler with me.
The final miles were for my family. Ryan and Michaela got mile 22, my mom was my mile 23 inspiration and Brian got mile 24, since mile 24 during the marathon passed by the spot where we filmed the JackRabbit commercials and spent our first day together. Mile 25 went to my dad, because he’s been known to jump in to run the final racing miles with me, and mile 26 was for my main man Tyler.
That last .2 was for me.
But then — breaking news — the New York City Marathon was canceled.
Suddenly I was in New Hampshire with my friends and family, about to run a very different marathon.
For so long I had envisioned running my second marathon among the crowds of New York City, my new home. Instead, I ran with my family through the streets of Manchester: just miles from my childhood home.
In a huge turn of events, the Manchester City Marathon became the perfect place to throw down a hugely unexpected 22-minute marathon PR — and it became the site of my latest “best weekend ever.”
Now for all the sweaty details…
I spent the night before the marathon sleeping in my unchanged-since-I-was-16 bedroom. Brian made a big pasta dinner for the whole crew — my mom, dad, Lauren, Evan, Emily and me — and we stayed up a bit later than we should have the night before a slightly long race.
My alarm went off at 5:30 Sunday morning and I sprung out of bed. I vaguely recall jumping on Sleeping Brian and yelling, “It’s race day!!!” Yes, he did love that.
After the usual shower/sit-ups/MultiGrain bar/bathroom bathroom bathroom routine, we piled into our carpool at 7:30 to head into Manchester.
In the car, I talked with Emily, my hero of the day. The only “plan” we had was that she was going to run with me. I wouldn’t wear a watch and I’d do whatever she told me along the way. We never said we’d “go out at 9:15s and then drop down to 9:00s at mile 10” or anything specific. Shocking: Emily without a plan. (Or if she had a plan she just didn’t share it with me, and I was fine with that.)
A few things to note at this point:
- We knew nothing about the course except that it was “hilly” and “challenging.” It was also described as “scenic through Manchester’s mill yards.” We had watched a course video on YouTube the day before and swore “those weren’t hills,” but we later found out we were oh so wrong. Idiots.
- I did not have a pace plan or a specific goal time.
- I did not check the weather for the race.
In other words: We went into this thing blindly.
And I highly recommend that strategy.
We got to the start with just enough time to do the Porta Potty thing and the bib-pinning thing. Soon, it was time to get into the pack of runners, so many of whom were wearing their New York City Marathon shirts. There were no corrals and I don’t remember a National Anthem.
Then we were running. I remember looking at Emily on my left and yelling, “We’re running a marathon right now!”
I never got nervous. I was never worried about my stomach. I was in total “go with the flow” mode. I never tried to sneak a peek at Emily’s multiple watches…
…and I never even asked her what our pace was. There were mile markers every mile and clocks every two miles, but I never looked at them or tried to do the math to figure out our pace.
I just ran.
The course was hilly. Like, super hilly. Like, we ran in a constant “up” direction.
And for the first 20 miles I loved that!
I remember nothing from the first five miles except that I was smiling the whole time. Emily and I talked a bit and we met two dudes during the first mile who were really great. They assured me that I could not, in fact, run a sub-4:00 marathon on “this course,” and assumed that I didn’t lose power like some people in NYC because I’m a “wealthy white girl.” Needless to say Emily had to run in between the men and me to act as a barrier, because I was ready to throw down.
Around mile six, we ran onto a dirt trail, which was my favorite part of the course. We hit the 10K mark and I told Emily, “just a long run left.” She cheered.
We stayed on the trail for about two miles, running around a big lake and trying not to trip on rocks and branches. It was my first trail-ish experience and I think I’m hooked.
As we exited the trail and ran through the relay transition area (the race included a relay option and a half-marathon option), there were hordes of spectators screaming, and a DJ announcer man who yelled my name over the loudspeaker. I cheered back for him. Great times.
We saw our crew of spectators for the first time at mile 8 — exactly where they said they would be.
We were running uphill, as usual, and we danced and I acted like a fool and I expended way too much energy doing some sort of Gangnam Style Macarena Slide routine.
And then we kept running uphill.
All the while, I was feeling great. I was running happy and Emily was constantly saying, “Bring it back.” I got too excited. I wanted to go faster.
But she kept me right on whatever pace she wanted, and the first 14 miles felt easy. I remember passing the 13.1 mark at 1:55 and Emily asked, “Are you happy with what you see?” Yes, Emily. Yes I sure was. I ate some Honey Stinger Chews and stopped at every-other water stop to drink water/accidentally throw it up my nose.
Emily continually said all the right things. She ran on my left the whole time, because having people on my right makes me anxious (I’m normal). She congratulated me at the top of every hill, assuring me that despite running uphill for a mile at a time into a headwind (thank you, mile 15), we were staying “right on or under pace.”
I didn’t turn on my music until mile 15, which was a long, tough hill. The wind had picked up and my legs weren’t hurting yet, but I was starting to feel it.
We got to an amazing downhill around mile 17, and I knew we’d see our fan club again at mile 18. I ate a chocolate Hammer Gel which was delicious and we cruised on a nice gentle downhill. I still felt good and I was thrilled. I was all, “Marathon running is wicked easy!”
Then came the best part of the race.
So I’m running along, downhilling and stuff, and I see my sister-in-law, Michaela up ahead on my left.
Then I see my brother, Ryan.
Then I see an empty stroller.
Then, up ahead on my right, I see that my best friend has come to cheer me on for my second marathon.
Tyler was cowbelling his little heart out (kind of) and I just about lost my shit I was so excited.
I swerved to the right, gave him a massive sweaty kiss, grinned like a fool and continued on my way. Best surprise ever? Yes.
I was stupid-happy for all of mile 19, thinking this marathon may have been on a brutal course, but that kept it interesting.
And then, right at the mile 20 marker, it got extra interesting. Another way of describing mile 20 would be “a bitch of a hill.” It was short but steep and did I mention it was at mile 20?
This hill took a bit of the wind out of my proverbial sails. Or rather, it ripped at my quads, hamstrings and “weak glutes” and made me angry.
It took me a full two miles to recover from that hill. But I knew to keep running. I reminded myself that walking would hurt just as much, and it would take longer. I may as well push through the pain and get it over with sooner, right?
At mile 22, we ran down a steep hill, which I didn’t like so much. I spotted the Mile 1 Douchebags up ahead, and decided to throw some choice words their way. My choice words began with the letter F, but I had my headphones in so I figured I was just whispering loudly. Then Emily was all, “Ali, that was really loud…” so I calmed down.
We got to the bottom of the hill and ran onto another trail for a bit.
I started counting down the miles and I started hurting.
At mile 23, Emily said, “Only three miles to go. That’s less than you ever run at a time.”
Good point, wise coach.
The sides of my legs had started to hurt and I feared I was slowing down (I wasn’t).
It was also at mile 23 that Emily asked me a question: “What was your Hamptons time?”
“4:13,” I told her, knowing she had a plan brewing.
“OK,” she said. “If you can hang on to this — if you can stay on pace for the next three miles — you’re going to set a 20-minute PR.”
I mean…OK. If that’s what we’re going for. Frankly, I was just going for a 3:59:59, but “20-minute PR” is cool, too.
I just stayed with her and kept trying my best. I never wanted to quit. As badly as my legs started to hurt, I knew I was so close to the finish line.
I spent a lot of time in the final miles thinking about Lauren up ahead, hoping she’d run a strong race (duh, of course she had). I couldn’t wait to see my family at the finish and I was so so so grateful for all Emily had done for me along the way.
You’d think the agony would end there, but it didn’t. Because as we left the trail and got back onto Manchester’s city streets, we saw the mile 25 marker. And suddenly there were runners going in every direction around us. I knew the finish line was to our right, but the cop man told us to turn left. I screamed at Emily, demanding that she find out if we were going the correct way. (Sorry, Halnon.)
So during the last mile of the marathon, we were running along a river, through those “scenic mills.”
This was rough.
The wind was gusting into our faces and it was freezing along the water. Everything hurt and I knew we still had one more hill to bring us back up to the finish line.
I started unattractively grunting. I made really ugly non-ladylike noises that no one should ever hear, but Emily didn’t seem to mind.
Also, I noticed, we were passing people. It was the last mile of a marathon, and I was hurting, but no one was going ahead of me. Instead, for once, I was cutting in front of them.
We wrapped up our time by the mills and another cop guy showed us where to go: “to the left, and up.”
Alright, then. May as well finish with a serious ass-kicking, right?
That last hill hurt so badly, but I knew the mile 26 marker was just around the corner. Emily was all, “You’ve got this, you can do it, we’re almost there,” and I was all, “ugh, blerch, mwarf, bokchoy.”
Then we were at the top of the hill. We turned right and I saw the finish line up ahead.
I told Emily I couldn’t sprint the final .2 miles. She was cool with it. “We’ll just coast in and enjoy it,” she said.
But then there was a familiar face on my right: my brother.
“Let’s race,” he said, and I think I called him a word that starts with a D and rhymes with kick.
He bolted toward the finish (outside the fence, like an appropriate, rule-abiding spectator) and we just kept cruising.
But then I remembered what Nicole, Coach Cane’s wife, told me during my first marathon: It’s so much cooler to sprint to the finish than to jog to the finish.
So somehow I found my kick. I was thrilled realizing I never hit “the wall,” and we started to push it. I don’t know what our pace was — I don’t know if was even faster than our miles along the way, but it felt fast. It felt awesome.
I don’t remember seeing my parents or Tyler or Michaela or even Brian. I just remember seeing — and hearing — Lauren in her lime green head, screaming her face off. You may think Lauren is tiny and cute, which she is, but man that girl can get one heck of a deep scream going!
Then I saw the clock.
I was shocked and thrilled and completely surprised.
Emily made this whole race happen for me. She kept us on pace — our splits are beautifully, astonishingly even, and our average pace was right around 8:50 — and she kept me running happy. She said all the right things throughout every mile and I don’t think I could (or would) have run a 3:51 without her. (And, for the record, while I have been limping for the past two days, she’s doing just fine. Ultra marathoner legs, NBD.)
I spent the rest of Race Day drinking sangria, snuggling with my nephew and eating Halloween-colored Oreos.
So that’s my recap. I ran a happy race. I was never stressed. My stomach was calm and happy and I realized that sometimes the very best things happen when everything you’ve planned for falls apart at the last minute.
I got to run my first and second marathons with my entire family waiting for me at the finish line.
It just doesn’t get much better than that.
And despite searching after the race, I never did find those guys who said I couldn’t go sub-4:00 in Manchester on Sunday — but I’m sure they knew. I was right behind them, after all.
Oh and Crohn’s disease: Thanks for coming out to play in 2012. It was great having you around and all, and I really appreciate the way you challenged me and tested me day after day. Sorry that, in the end, I still came out on top this year. Solid effort, though.