It was cold. Way too cold to get out of the bed that had swallowed me with its warm white down comforter and 4,000 pillows. Well, there were only four pillows, but I was alone in a King sized bed on the 18th floor of a Midtown Manhattan Hotel and I was a Queen. I laid the phone back into its cradle and pushed the warm comforter aside. I opened the window to peak out at the temperature reading. A balmy 34 degrees was registering on the neighboring building. It was 5 am on November 3, 2013 and I was about to run the most amazing race of my life. I felt it in my bones. My head was clear. My body was rested. This was the day I trained months for. I proudly wore my ING Orange NYC Marathon training shirt on all my long runs. That shirt sustained an 18 mile run and three 20 mile runs with nary a tear or pull.
After a warm shower to wake the muscles, I prepared for the task ahead. I dressed and tried very hard to eat something. It was too early and my body, still on California time, was screaming that a banana with peanut butter at 2am PST just is not what it cares to ingest, digest, and process as future fuel. But, I forced myself to eat and drink. I watched the clock knowing that I had to get to the New York Public Library to pick up the bus that would be taking me to the start of the marathon on Staten Island. There was no way back to Manhatten but to run.
With a white sweatshirt over my race garb and prized bib, I wrapped my $6.50 drug store red blanket around my shoulders. I giggled to myself that I had not left the “house” with a blanket in years. As I made my way through the hotel lobby, the undercurrent of excited marathoners bounced off the walls. There was electricity in the air. Those who were not running were watching those who were in awe and amazement. Some fretting over their runner that it was cold and they should wear another layer. Others sitting in silence for fear if they said anything, their head would be handed to them. The life of a marathoner on race day is very emotional and stressful.
I made it out into the cold, brisk air. Immediately, the breeze began and it cut through the thin blanket, the white sweatshirt, the tech tee, and the Nike dry fit fleece for cold weather. I was naked out there on 6th avenue. I pulled the blanket tighter, pulled the cap on my head down a little more over my brow and put my head down. I had a 10 block walk ahead of me and I needed to get busy.
Midtown Manhattan is really beautiful. It is temperamental with its calm in the morning hours and its rage in the late afternoon. The evenings are sultry and sexy as they attempt to apologize for the craziness of the day. The apology looms but all is forgotten because of the beauty of the lights. As I got closer to the Library, I noticed the crowds thickening. This was one day where I was glad I trusted my instincts to leave by a certain time. The crowds were misleading and entry onto the buses were prompt and efficient. All I had to do was show my bib and I was on a bus heading to Staten Island.
I sat in my window seat and I looked at the Library. I choked up with the thought that I was really about to do this thing. I was about to run the New York Marathon; the most coveted marathon in the world, the most popular marathon in the world. A marathon that I grew up hearing about on television, but never ever once envisioned myself running. That was the first of many “choke-ups” that morning.
A gentleman sat next to me and we exchanged greetings. He was from Florida and was running the race for the first time too. He told me how he tried numerous times to get in and with the 3 strikes policy, he was now in and running. He and his wife had grown children and he shared with me the events of being in NYC just 45 days before 9/11 with his boys. His stories were amazing. We sat in silence a lot too. Each of us going to our own mental spot, dealing with what we needed to deal with regarding the race, and then emerging again to check in with one another. We took pictures with our phones of the neighborhoods that we passed through. I captured the true Brooklyn with a simple road sign that said, “You are leaving Brooklyn – Fuhgeddaboudit”. It made me laugh, because all the anxiety I had stayed there – in Brooklyn.
I saw the Statue of Liberty in the distance and she made me cry. My ancestors came through Ellis Island from Sicily. Seeing that entry point amazed me. What amazed me even more was how small Lady Liberty looked from where I was. Why did I think she would be a looming presence from miles away? Her greatness was not lost in my poor judgment of distance.
Slowly we made our way across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to Staten Island. We looked at the Fort that protected the entry into the New York Harbor. Ft. Wadsworth reminded me very much of Ft. Point in San Francisco at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. For a moment, it was like being at home and seeing the cannon turret bases and windows, now empty, but still with shadows of days long ago when they were pregnant with cannons ready to protect our nation from invasion. I joked with my Florida friend that the lawn at Ft Wadsworth looked impeccable, but someone needed to mow the roof. Years of dirt had collected on the roof and seeds from grasses and weeds have since collected, rooted and bloomed at the top of the Fort. It was an interesting sight.
Our bus pulled in behind all the buses before it. It was approximately 8:35. I wondered if we would be able to sit on the warm bus for a while longer when we were told that we were at the end and to grab all belongings. I wrapped my woobie (aka blanket) around my shoulders and exited the bus into the chill. Already there were thousands of people lining up to get into the villages they were assigned. I was in the Orange village. As I lined up with other runners for security check, I noticed the thick presence of NYPD’s finest. We were told to have our numbers out and our cell phones in our hand. People tried to lift the precious first layer of defensive clothing to bare their numbers while holding onto their phones. Nobody complained. Our world was protected by these very fine men and women and we all wanted one thing, safety.
After a number of checkpoints, I bid adieu to my Florida friend and we were on our way to our respective stake out points, wherever they may have been. I tried in vain to reach a friend who was in the Green Village to wish her the best race, but our phone connection was dropped and I am certain we missed each other by seconds. As I entered the Orange Village, I was immediately greeted by a block of port-a- pots. Tiny blue buildings all lined up in a row like soldiers standing tightly, shoulder to shoulder. For every two buildings, there was one line. It was astounding. I worked my way through the village and grabbed a free bagel and some hot tea. I sat down in a reserved parking space and watched the Jumbotron display in multiple languages which direction we are to exit to get to our corral. I still had about an hour and a half to wait before my wave was called. So I sat. I sat in that parking lot reading Tweets and Facebook messages that the NYC Marathon displayed on the big screen. I read how families and friends were sending messages of love and support to their runners. I got choked up again at the amount of support and effort the NYRR put into this experience for all of us runners.
The wind picked up again and I pulled that red blanket tight over my head and around my shoulders to create a cocoon. In my warmth, I was able to keep calm and keep from shivering. I listened as they announced the first wave. I heard the howitzer and immediately my chest tightened and a lump in my throat formed. This was it. Now an hour from my start, I began the countdown of what I wanted to do in final preparation for the journey ahead. Wave two was being beckoned for and the chatter of teeth became the chatter of nervous excitement. The Good Will bins grew with discarded sweat shirts and sweat pants. Someone somewhere would use these articles of clothing for something more than warmth. It would be their everything.
Again the howitzer blared. With this wave, tiny heads began bobbing up and down on the lower half to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. On their way to Brooklyn, were runners of all sizes and abilities. Yet on this day, we were all the same. The Orange Village yelled and cheered for them as they ran and looked over the edge. We waved. We teared up and cried. We were proud of our fellow sisters and brothers. Just as quickly as they appeared, they were gone. I started to stretch my back and legs out knowing that my time was nearing fast. The benefit of being the last wave, the blue buildings are nearly empty.
With all preparations finalized, I found a woman with whom I chatted as the third wave began their journey across the bridge. It turns out that she has a running page just like I do. That little similarity brought two strangers together for a few moments and we forgot about the fact that we were both nervous. Wave 4 was called to their corrals and with that, I shed my first layer of armor against the wind and cold. At the top of the Good Will bin sits a white sweatshirt that kept me warm for nearly 4 hours. With red blanket in tow, I marched with all the other runners to the staging of our corrals. My assignment was to find corral number 61. As I entered the corral staging, lines were forming and people were trying to stay warm. The need to stay warm was not as pressing as it was fifteen minutes before, but we all huddled close. I knew that my blankie’s moments were numbered, so I held on to it till the last possible moment. I was in the First corral to head up to the upperdeck of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. As I left the staging area, my now beloved and priceless red blanket stayed behind.
Walking through the sea of police officers wishing us good luck was like no other experience. Men and women in blue uniforms all lined up with smiles on their faces, bantering with the good natured runners as we headed to our fate. At the beginning of the rise, a blue NYPD helicopter circled overhead. That presence was the reminder that we were safe. There was nobody messing with us today. We had the most prestigious police escort that our registration could buy. We were the elite at that moment in time. We were greeted and congratulated. We were treated to the singing talent of Ms. New York as she sang, “God Bless America”. We were then given the final go and our howitzer went off. Every man and woman who owned a running watch pressed their start button and away we went to the sounds of “New York, New York” by Frank Sinatra. As we sang, we ran further away from the start and the music dimmed. We were on our way across the 2 mile stretch of steel and cable that kept us high above the New York Harbor. A Police Helicopter above us and a Fire boat below us, we were on our way. It was our turn now.
The first two miles were effortless. Paying attention to other runners was high on my mind. However, I was pleasantly surprised that I was not elbow to elbow with other runners and that I actually had “personal space”. People were well-behaved and there was no zig-zagging or cutting off other runners. Clearly the runners in this race knew what they needed to do to conserve energy. We exited the bridge and hairpinned our way onto 95th Street. The amount of spectators that were outside in the brisk air was amazing. We were the fourth wave and we were treated as if we were the beginning of the race. As we made our way onto 4th Avenue, I recognized a neighborhood a dear friend of mine wanted me to pay attention to. The Bay Ridge Neighborhood in Brooklyn was home to my friend before she made her way to Chicago and now California. I paid respect to the neighborhood in her honor and kept on going. I do not remember running mile 5 or the 10k point, I was just amazed at the amount of support from the spectators. I would run by little children with their hands out for a high-five. I would receive high-fives from rows of people. For that moment in time, I was a celebrity.
Every once in a while the headwind would slow things down. With 20 mile an hour headwinds, there is no way anyone is going to hold onto a pace consistently. The hat came further down on the forehead and the determination intensified. I had this thing. I began getting water at the water stations offered at each mile. I was working my way up to Mile 10 in Williamsburg. Hearing music from various street bands and store fronts along Fourth Avenue was quickening my pace. I enjoyed seeing the Hasidic Jews on the side of the street watching us as we ran by. I encountered Jewish schoolgirls in their uniforms walking to school, chattering amongst themselves and pointing at us. I began smelling different aromas of foods cooking in neighborhoods as people were in various stages of greeting the day. At the halfway point, I realized that I had just run a half marathon in a little over 2 hours and now another race was beginning.
I started the race with a mate from the UK. We talked a bit but lost each other around mile three. We found each other again and I wished him well on the second half of his race. Just then, a runner came up from behind me and after reading the back of my shirt asked me, “Who you callin’ a jogger?” That made me laugh. I wore my personally designed race shirt that says, “I RUN California” on the front. On the back it says, “You just JOG it.” I loved the nature of the guy and he moved on as we crossed over the Pulaski Bridge into Queens. Queens was a very short lived run. Only two miles, but they were colorful and so full of cheers.
Queens led me to the longest bridge rise I have ever crossed. I have ran over the Golden Gate Bridge and I have ran many hills here in California, but nothing prepared me for the endless rise of the Queensboro Bridge. I honestly was so ready to walk at this point. My right calf was on fire. My left quad was screaming at me. But I kept going. I was rewarded with the faintest din of noise. As I grew closer to the end of the bridge that noise grew louder and I realized it was the people at mile 16 cheering for all the runners coming off of the bridge. They were such a welcome sight. It was also at this time that I realized that I only had 10.2 miles left to run in this amazing race. I actually got a little sad.
As I made my way up First Avenue in Manhattan, the crowds thickened. There were so many people and they were a blur as I tried to focus on faces and say thank you. The aid stations came quicker and I was feeling wonderful. I entertained myself with the thought that running through the aid stations were a great thing as the spilled Gatorade provided a stickiness on the bottoms of my shoes. They gave me traction and I enjoyed those little moments till the Gatorade wore off. A runner will often find things to entertain themselves during a race or a run. At that moment in time, Gatorade making my shoes sticky was quite entertaining. At mile 20, after crossing the Willis Avenue Bridge, I found myself in the Bronx. It was such a short visit – not even a mile in this very eclectic neighborhood that we ran through. I do have to say that I found myself singing to the bands that were playing. They were awesome.
At mile 21, I finished crossing the Madison Avenue Bridge and I was back in Manhattan. This was the real race now. I was beginning to feel the effects of dehydration and noticed that my pace was slowing. I had to make an unscheduled rest and that added 7 minutes to my finish time. I was disappointed, and marked this as something to work on for future races. I was handed a banana and my world righted. Miles 22 and 23 were a blur. The crowds in Central Park were phenomenal. Never in all the thoughts that I had about finishing this race through Central Park did I envision just how special the spectators would make this moment. I heard my name called, but I know it was not because I had “Stephanie” on my shirt. Someone near me named Stephanie was being cheered for. I borrowed her cheers and they helped boost me too. People read my shirt and would scream out, “Come on Cali, you got this thing.” That was really awesome because I know I was the only one they were talking to at that moment. They all got a thumbs up.
At mile 24, I started the final 2.2 miles in. I was in a landing pattern and I was ready to get these last 2.2 miles behind me. I ran my heart out. Mile 25 crept up fast and all I could think about was, “Where is 26???” I was quickly rewarded with people yelling, “you are not far now, only a mile left.” “You are almost there!” “Only a 1/2 mile.” And then I saw it. The blue and orange finish line. I put it into gear and I ran across that finish line as if I were Priscah Jeptoo myself. I ran like I won the whole thing. I put my fist in the air and that is when it hit me. I had just finished the ING New York Marathon. Not only did I finish, but I finished in less time than what I had put on my registration. Those 45 seconds meant the world to me.
As I walked through the chute, I was handed my medal by a young girl who wished me congratulations. I was in a crying jag by this point and could barely utter the words, “Thank you.” As I made it further down the line of volunteers handing out medals, an older man saw me crying and holding my medal. He said to me, “It is okay, darling. Let me put that around your neck.” With that gesture, I began crying even more. I was an emotional wreck and still tear up thinking about it. I walked gingerly along with all the other finishers. Each of us in a daze, but still managing to take selfies to post on our Facebook or text to our loved ones. We all were separated by different finishing times, but we all found each other again, like we did at the start. We were sharing the same emotions, yet again, for the second time that day.
My foil blanket wrapped around me, I managed to get my bag filled with water, pretzels, a bar and replacement drink. I wish that things went more smoothly here, but this is where I left a little on the course. The aid of the Red Cross and the NYPD was exceptional. They immediately opened my water and had me take sips even though it was the furthest from my mind. It happens to the best of us. The greatest thing was that the cute police officer wanted to make sure I was okay to go home. That made me laugh.
Watching the finishers walk to the next station was like watching a scene from The Night of the Living Dead. We were all swaying from side to side, unable to make a full step and unsure of the steps we were making. Our bodies were trying desperately to repair the damage we had just done. Our minds were in a fog, yet we were full aware of the fact that we were heading to the family and friends greeting area. We had only one last gift to receive.
At the coveted Poncho table, every runner was treated to a fleece lined bright ING Orange poncho. We all audibly sighed when they were wrapped around our shoulders. Our hoods were raised over our head and onward we went with our march. Bright Orange clad runners with slow, meticulous steps all heading for our family.
My family in presence that day, were my friends whom I met while traveling to New York. I had the distinct pleasure to meet a dear woman who I know will forever be a part of my friend base. She texted me and let me know where she was as she and her friends finished before me. They were in Wave 3, yet they waited for me. I tried to hurry to the letter she told me she was standing at, but my body would not let me go much faster. As I approached letter S, I saw my three new friends. The one who did not run, was holding a sign with all of our names on it. I was overcome with the love and support from these women. We gave each other celebratory hugs and chattered about the race before we made our way to find a cab back to our hotels.
The cabs were never going to stop. They were all full of orange poncho-wearing runners. One lady in her family car saw us from her back seat and she gave us all a thumbs up as if to congratulate us for finishing. We decided that the subway was the next best option. Wearing our medals and our ponchos we gingerly attempted the stairs down into the bowels of Manhattan. We were given free entry for being marathon finishers.
We made plans for dinner and we went to our respective hotels to clean up. As we met once more and for the final time of the trip, we toasted our accomplishment with complimentary champagne. We feasted like Queens. We reminisced about the miles behind us and quickly made plans to do it all again. New York will always be my favorite Marathon. There will never be another like it.
The journey did not end at mile 26.2. For the days after the marathon, I was rewarded with a trip home from JFK to SFO in First Class. I was treated like a celebrity because I wore my medal with pride. I heard a young mother tell her son as I was boarding the plane, “Look, she ran THE Marathon.” My “celebrity status” earned me a spot in the New York Times along with 50,000 of my closest friends on November 3, 2013. My spot is not among those in the crime blotter or the obituaries. I found out that my mother was watching the Marathon on her computer and was actually able to see the very moment that I crossed the finish. She told me what I had done when I crossed and said she saw my shirt and white hat. Knowing that at least one of my family members saw me finish was very cool. Knowing that they did not have to wait in the cold to see that finish was comforting. My husband and children were ecstatic with my achievement and I continue to be a celebrity in my own home.
My running page, http://www.facebook.com/IRunCalifornia, grew by nearly 300 new followers during the week of the New York Marathon thanks to the generosity of pages much larger than mine sharing my link. I earned a spot at the big boy table when the Legendary Bart Yasso, whom I met at the expo and had Tweeted with before, began following me on Twitter.
Now, as I prepare to build my endurance again for a 1/2 marathon in a week and another Full Marathon a month from now, I will know what I am truly capable of. New York was my 4th Full Marathon, but it is the first one that I left the course knowing that I would keep on running. I left New York with many new friends. The experience I was given was an opportunity of a lifetime. I will forever be grateful.
~Stephanie Davies, New York Marathoner, Class of 2013
I RUN California