I did it! How I ran the New York City Marathon

Me flashing the UT “Hook em” sign in Fort Greene. Photo by Andy Cross.

A few extremely improbable things happened in November: the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, Donald Trump was elected president, and I ran the TCS New York City Marathon. I will leave it to Subway Squawkers readers to decide which of these events is the most improbable, but I myself could not have predicted even as recently as one year ago that a marathon was in my future for 2016. (Let alone three years ago, when I was as big as a house!) I figured I would do it someday; I just didn’t know if I was ready for it this year. You know that sports cliche “Wait until next year”? Well, next year happened this year!

How did I get to cross the finish line at the NYC Marathon? Read on.

Go the distance

“There’s something in your heart/and it’s in your eyes/It’s the fire, inside you/Let it burn/You don’t say good luck/You say don’t give up/It’s the fire, inside you/Let it burn” — The Roots and John Legend, “The Fire.”

Now, I did want to do something special in 2016. Heck, after seeing the movie “Creed” last December with “M,” my running coach, I decided to make the soundtrack song “The Fire” by The Roots (featuring John Legend) my theme song for the year. (Yeah, that’s how I roll. I have a theme song!)

When I got the opportunity in February to do the marathon (I’ll save the details for “Subway Squawkers: The Movie”!), I asked my coach if he thought I could do it. He said yes, as long as I followed his training plan. Which I did; his plan built up my mileage gradually until the point I was running five days a week, and doing over 40 miles per week. And I listened to “The Fire” nearly every single time I ran.

Me in 2013 and 2016.
Me in 2013 and 2016.

Before the race

“If you had/One shot/Or one opportunity/To seize everything you ever wanted/In one moment/Would you capture it/Or just let it slip?” — Eminem, “Lose Yourself.”

My face after the fall. Turns out my teeth got even more damage than my nose.

And this marathon training had taken over my life for most of the year. It was going really well, though, until I had a nasty fall three weeks before the race. I suffered physically and mentally from it, but after some soul searching I was determined not to let that setback keep me from doing the marathon. I had to put all the anger and upset feelings aside, and forge ahead.

So I continued my training. And I enjoyed the heck out of the events of Marathon Week in New York, including going to the expo three times, running with the legendary Meb, and even representing the U.S. in the opening ceremony.

Posing with my number at the marathon expo.

Multiple times during those days leading up to the marathon, though, I felt nervous and overwhelmed at the prospect of running it. It just seemed too much for me.

Fortunately, two people calmed me in those days before the race.  My coach had reminded me to keep my composure and not let my emotions get the best of me. And to stay disciplined and not go out too fast.

And Squawker Jon reminded me on Marathon Morning that I had run over 100 road races. He said that this was another race, just bigger. Good thinking.

On the starting line

“Started from the bottom/now we’re here.” — Drake, “Started From the Bottom.”

An official race photographer caught this in the start village.

I had put a lot of thought into what to wear for the marathon. It was almost like a wedding day with the something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue. (At least I got three of those categories in!) I wore my running club’s singlet with blue patterned running pants, Asics running shoes, sunglasses, and a NYRR race cap. I had worn those same pants on the day of my fall, and worried that maybe they would bring back bad memories. But I liked the pants, and decided to make new memories with them.

I listened to music and took pictures on the Verizon Moto Z Droid phone I was testing out (Thanks to them for letting me do so! It is a great phone!) and also had my iPod classic and my regular phone with me.

I also wore a bandanna that I received the day before the race, which was personalized with my name on it. It was a gift from someone in my running club, who had made them for several marathoners in the group.

Left arm…

And I wore my Garmin watch on my left wrist, along with some pace strips. And a Well + Good sweatband (I had been to one of the site’s events during marathon training — a fitness biathlon of back-to-back spin and running classes) and a sterling silver bracelet on my right wrist. The bracelet was a gift from AWE Jewelry. I had auditioned to be part of their marketing campaign but while I didn’t make the cut, they did send me the bracelet. It has a four-teardrop design exemplifying drops of blood, sweat, and tears — tears of sorrow and of joy. I was hoping I would only shed the latter that day.

Right arm.

One good thing about living on Staten Island was that we have a real “home-field advantage” when it comes to the NYC Marathon. I didn’t have to leave the house until 8:40 a.m., when I took a train and then walked to Fort Wadsworth, the start of the race.

It was about a two-mile walk — longer than I thought it would be, and more than I wanted to exert myself before the race. But I tried to relax and put my game face on. The weather was extraordinarily beautiful that day, so it made the walk pleasant.

I had been in the race village twice before as a volunteer, so I knew what the lay of the land was. By the time I got to Fort Wadsworth, the third wave was just taking off, and the place was relatively quiet.

I remember hearing about how the normally gregarious Roger Clemens kept to himself on days he pitched, and I had a similar reaction.  I stuck to myself for the hour before the race, sitting and reading and trying to relax.

Getting ready for showtime.
Getting ready for showtime.

When we walked to get on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge for the marathon, I was oddly calm. I really was trying to treat it like a regular race. I did start to get a little teary-eyed when I heard the National Anthem, but I remembered my coach’s advice about composure.

After the cannon went off, signifying our wave’s start of the race, I expected to hear Frank Sinatra’s version of “New York, New York,” but instead they played Whitney Houston’s “I Want to Dance With Somebody.” Very odd choice.

Under the bridge

I took this shot as my wave began our journey.
“I look into the window of my mind/Reflections of the fears I know I’ve left behind/I step out of the ordinary/I can feel my soul ascending/I am on my way/Can’t stop me now/And you can do the same/What have you done today to make you feel proud?/It’s never too late to try.” — Heather Small, “Proud.”

I was in the green group, Corral C, and we were on the lower level of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. I had studied a lot about the race, so I knew that it was uphill for the first mile, and that the bridge would take two miles. I had heard that the last wave was a more mellow group of people, but there were a slew of folks trying to push past and get ahead, right from the beginning. But I stuck to my coach’s advice and let them pass me, keeping a steady pace and not going out too fast.

I tried to act like it was another race, so I put on my headphones and started listening to my “Happy Songs” playlist, with Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” as the first tune.

Gus, one of our club leaders, always stresses not to wear or do anything new for a race. I kept that philosophy with the music as well. Every single song I would listen to that day was a song that I had listened to over and over while training, and which had a specific memory attached to it. I even had my finish line song planned, which I would not listen to on marathon day until the end.

Around the time I was starting to feel “Proud.”

One moment on the bridge sticks out in my mind. About a mile or so in, the song “Proud,” the theme song from “The Biggest Loser,” kicked in on my playlist. I could see the city skyline from the bridge, and I couldn’t help but think of how far I had come in my fitness journey. But I didn’t have time to break down and cry. I had a marathon to run!

Hello, Brooklyn

“Yeah, it’s been a ride/I guess I had to go to that place, to get to this one.” — Eminem, “Not Afraid.”

One of the things I get a kick out of during road races is when we get to be on city streets. So being on part of the Bronx-Queens Expressway, which I’m on via express bus nearly every day, was a real thrill.

Me running in Brooklyn at around mile 3ish. Photo by Josh Pesin.

When we made it onto Brooklyn city streets, that was cool as well. I saw masses of people on each side of Fourth Avenue, and I took my headphones off to take it all in.

A few minutes later, I heard a familiar voice call my name. It was Josh, my running club compadre and fellow blogger. He was out there to cheer on fellow SIAC members. When he saw me, he jumped out in the middle of the course, threw confetti in the air, and ran with me for a little while. (Some people in the race grumbled at him for doing so!)

I told Josh the mantra that I had been telling myself for the first 3.5 miles — that I was keeping my composure and staying disciplined. I’m sure I sounded like a lunatic saying it, though.

Squawker Jon and I do a selfie by Brooklyn Academy of Music, around the quarter-way mark.

I saw two other people I knew in Brooklyn. Andy, another fellow SIAC member, was taking pictures and got some great shots of me in Fort Greene around 8.25 miles or so. And just before seeing him, I saw Squawker Jon. We had arranged to meet there, as well as later in the race. I started to get emotional seeing him, and was excited that I had made it that far in one piece. I had asked him to bring an extra pair of my running shoes in case my current ones hurt, but I decided not to switch. We were going to meet again around Mile 18. If I was in one piece then, I would know I was doing pretty well!

Another great shot by Andy Cross.

What I remember now, looking back at the race, was how many people were still out there in Brooklyn cheering runners on. When you’re as slow as I am, you don’t really get to see spectators on the sidelines much!

I was also amazed at how many signs I saw. Many of them made Donald Trump jokes (“If he can run, so can you,” and “Grab them by the…” signs) and Hillary Clinton nasty women references.

Each neighborhood had its own flavor. My favorite neighborhood in Brooklyn was Fort Greene; they seemed the coolest and most enthusiastic. It was weird to see people in Williamsburg walking across the street as if there wasn’t a race going on. There were also a lot of bands playing music along the race course.

Halfway home

“Yeah, and if I’m ever at the crossroads/and start feeling mixed signals like Morse code/My soul start to grow colder than the North Pole/I try to focus on the hole of where the torch goes/In the tradition of these legendary sports pros/As far as I can see, I’ve made it to the threshold/Lord knows I’ve waited for this a lifetime/And I’m an icon when I let my light shine” — The Roots and John Legend, “The Fire.” 

The Pulaski Bridge was the halfway point. I wasn’t the only one feeling it then.

The Pulaski Bridge which separates Brooklyn from Queens marks the end of the first 13.1 miles of the race. At that point, I had run a half-marathon here in 2:56:26. But I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to keep up that pace, which was a little less than 13:30 per mile, as I was starting to get really tired. I didn’t quite know what pace to aim for. Coach M had said not to worry about time, just worry about finishing. I did have pace strips on my arm to give me some sort of guesstimate, and I was initially following the 5:45 race pacers, but I had lost sight of them a few miles before.

So I made the conscious decision to slow down for the next few miles, until I reached Manhattan, so that I’d have something left in the tank. Coach M was following online, and he started to get worried when he saw my times start to slow. But I was okay. I just wanted to finish strong, and not pull up lame in the Bronx or Marcus Garvey Park or Central Park or something. I had heard too many horror stories of people staggering across the marathon finish line. I was determined that this wouldn’t be me.

On the Pulaski Bridge. This is pretty much the exact moment I realized I would not be able to keep up the pace I had been running for much longer.

I did have one health-related mishap during the race: While I had put lots of Body Glide on me, I had forgotten to put it on my arms, and I was wearing my running club’s singlet, which meant that I has severe chafing under my arms. Fortunately, I was able to get some petroleum jelly from a medic standing out with the stuff in Queens.

Feelin’ groovy on the 59th Street Bridge

“I’m a be what I set out to be, without a doubt undoubtedly/And all those who look down on me/ I’m tearin’ down your balcony” — Eminem, “Not Afraid.”

I had heard all sorts of horror stories before the race about the Queensboro Bridge, aka the Ed Koch Bridge aka the 59th Street Bridge — how quiet it was, how spooky, how disconcerting, etc. But it really didn’t bother me, partly because I had already run across the bridge earlier that fall, albeit on the pedestrian path, not the road. (An aside: why name a bridge after a mayor who never wanted to leave Manhattan? He’s even buried in Manhattan! Just saying.)

A view from the bridge.

What I remember about this bridge during the marathon was that I saw the 6:00 pacers for the first time, which showed how much I had slowed down in those last few miles. But I was going to stick to my plan and conserve my energy.

I had also heard that 1st Avenue in Manhattan, which I would be running all the way up after crossing the bridge, would have Beatlemania-esque loud crowds.

That wasn’t my experience. Maybe it was because it was already after 2:30 or so in the afternoon when I crossed the bridge, but there weren’t all that many people out there at that point. Which reminded me of something my friend Michael had told me about the crowds there. He noted that all the top runners were already finished and showered by the time I’d be reaching there. And he pointed out that the people there were there to cheer for me and the people still running. They may have been smaller crowds, but at least that made me feel good to think about.

And soon, I would be seeing two friends who were there to cheer for me. But first, I had to keep on running up First Avenue, which seemed to go on forever! My times were getting better, though. Maybe it was knowing I would see friends soon.

Sharon took this around mile 18. I was still hanging in there!

At around the 18-mile mark, I saw Squawker Jon and our friend Sharon, who waited together for me. It was great to see them both, and they took a bunch of pictures of me. I told them, “I’m feeling great. I’m gonna finish this thing!”

And I really was feeling great. I noticed, looking back at the photos of me during the race, how many of them featured me smiling. I was finding that for the most part, the training was much harder than the race itself. (And the weather being simply glorious that day certainly helped!) I was treating the marathon like a celebration, and beamed for most of it. And I’m not a particularly smiley runner!

The last shall be (on) First

“Oh they want me to fall (fall)/Fall from the top (top)/They want me to drop (drop)/They want me to stop (stop)/They want me to go (go)/I’m already gone (already)/The shit that I’m on/I’m already home/(Hey, I’m already home yeah)” — “Already Home,” Jay-Z and Kid Cudi.

First Avenue seemed endless at this point!

I had gone through a lot to get to this day. I don’t think people understand what it’s like to realize that while I have improved a lot, I’m never going to be a good runner. People say you can do anything you set your mind to. Well, I may be able to run a marathon, but as much as I try, it’s going to be a slow one.  (I told Coach M about how somebody once insinuated my slow running was because I just didn’t try hard enough. He said to ask that person to do a 5-minute mile, if trying hard was all it took. Heh.)

It took a lot to get through — and not just the training — to get to the marathon. I had to get past all the slights. All the condescending or rude things people would say to me. All the times I felt left out, or let down. I’m not going to recount them all here, but as much as I tried to forget them, I remembered every bit of it.

Getting ready to head to the Bronx, and thinking about how far I had traveled to get there. And not just on November 6.

But I survived. I didn’t let any of that keep me from my dream. While I was thinking positive the entire marathon, and I was smiling pretty much the whole time, part of me was channeling every one of those negative experiences into my performance. I was not going to come up short here. I was going to show the world I could do this. I was going to finish this race, dammit!

When I finally got to the top of 1st Avenue and hit the Bronx, I thought a little bit about how far I had come. And now I was going to visit my fifth borough of the day. And hit the 20-mile mark.

A Bronx tale

“In New York/Concrete jungle where dreams are made of/There’s nothin’ you can’t do/Now you’re in New York/These streets will make you feel brand new/Big lights will inspire you/Let’s hear it for New York, New York, New York.” — Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, “Empire State of Mind.”

I wasn’t kidding about the dancing.

The Bronx was one of my favorite parts of the marathon, and not just because it is the borough where the Yankees play! The fact that there were still enthusiastic people cheering, many hours after the faster runners had gone home, really warmed my heart. I put on some classic disco and hip-hop in my headphones and felt like dancing — that’s how much the crowd moved me.

But it’s been said that there are two parts to the NYC Marathon — the first 20 miles and the last 6.2. I wanted to be feeling great by the end. And when I hit mile 20, I had already put in 4 hours and 40 minutes, and I still had 6.2 miles to go.  People around me were starting to get really tired. Many were walking. I was mostly running, but much slower than at the beginning of the race.

Mile 20. Where the race really begins, some say.

I had to get out of the Bronx, and then through Harlem, and then I would see Sharon and Jon again by the Museum of the City of New York. Then I still had another 3+ miles to go in order to finish. So I decided I would conserve my energy until I saw them, then use up whatever I had left in the tank for Central Park.

You’re gonna hear me roar

“You held me down, but I got up/Already brushing off the dust/You hear my voice, you hear that sound/Like thunder, gonna shake your ground/You held me down, but I got up/Get ready ’cause I’ve had enough.” — Katy Perry, “Roar.”

Welcome to the Bronx. The people were enthusiastic here.

I know there was supposed to be a jumbotron in the Bronx, but I don’t really remember it. What I do remember is somebody holding up a very welcome sign to see, saying that this was “the last damn bridge” in the race. Whew.

It is hard to tell in this photo, but somebody is holding up the sign about this being the last damn bridge.

I had heard so many horror stories of marathoners getting hurt in these next few miles, but as I ran back into Manhattan and into Harlem, I was feeling great. The crowds were small at this point, but personal. You got the feeling every person out there really wanted to see all of us succeed. (Although Squawker Jon joked that he was only out there to see me succeed. Heh. He did say that our friend Sharon enthusiastically cheered for everybody!)

I also remember Coach M’s description of what to look for in these next few miles. And before I knew it, I was seeing Jon and fellow Katy Perry fan Sharon one more time. Then it was time for Central Park.

I believe in a promised land

“There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor/I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm.” — Bruce Springsteen, “Promised Land.”

Jon and Sharon were among the many people tracking me during the race. Here we are just before I run into Central Park.

I didn’t know until after the marathon how many people were tracking me online during the race. And how detailed the reports were. Every single mile was covered, with detailed splits. So anybody watching at home would see that I had indeed picked up speed when I hit Central Park.

What I remember about that familiar ground was that I was, for once, actually passing people, because I had conserved energy and was leaving it all on the field here, going faster than I had gone in many miles. When others were walking, I was still running. That was something I could hang my hat on.

I knew at that point that I had a slim chance of breaking 6:15, but I figured — I’m going to run as fast as I can for these next few miles, channeling everything I had into it, and finish the race running like a warrior. If I reached that time goal, great. If I didn’t, I still just finished a freaking marathon!


“Bring back everything that’s ever hurt you. All the pain that you had inside. Everything that held you back. Put it in both fists. And I want you to drive it through his body. And I promise you his head will fall.” Rocky Balboa to Adonis Creed in the movie “Creed.”

Central Park South. So close and yet so far. I was running while trying to get one last photo in before the finish line.

As I got ready to exit Central Park around Mile 25 and head onto Central Park South, there were two songs I played back to back, again and again — Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and “The Fire” by The Roots and John Legend. I really derived strength from the music and the lyrics in those songs.

As I kept on running, I thought about how many places I had trained with those songs — in the depths of winter and in terrible summer heat, in rain and wind, and in the middle of nowhere. And now I was going to actually finish what I had been dreaming of — and working for — in just a few minutes.

But there was one song I had not listened to the whole race, which I had saved until the end.

Welcome to the finish line

“I was playing in the beginning, the mood all changed/I’ve been chewed up and spit out and booed off stage/But I kept rhyming and stepped right into the next cipher/Best believe somebody’s paying the Pied Piper.” — “Lose Yourself,” Eminem

Almost there!

By the time I exited Central Park, it was dark, which was what I expected. And the crowds had thinned, which was okay. I had pictured all of this over and over while training.

But I didn’t know that there was a public address announcer that you could hear when you passed Columbus Circle and headed back into the park for the last time. So I definitely got excited when I heard him say “Welcome to the finish line.”

And that meant it was showtime. Time to put on the training song I had listened to dozens of times while running: “Pride (In the Name of Love)” by U2. I listened to this song for inspiration when doing my first half-marathon and decided I would keep it for the finish line at the NYC Marathon.

I had pictured over and over what it would be like to hear The Edge’s guitar and Larry Mullen Jr.’s rhythmic drumming and Adam Clayton’s bass lines before Bono starts singing. Only thing was, the finish line was still a bit further away, so I had to rewind the song twice to make sure I hit the part I wanted before the finish line!

580185_241786432_xlarge-1The end (of this journey)

I crossed the finish line, running hard, just as I planned. And I finished the New York City Marathon with arms outstretched, hat off, feeling more triumphant than I had ever had in my entire life. And smiling, too; when I met Meb during marathon week, he had told me to be sure to cross the finish line with a smile on my face.

My final time was 6:16:09 — not anybody’s idea of a great time, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that somebody who was getting winded in mall walks three years before had been able to do this. Somebody who once weighed over 250 pounds had slimmed down and run a marathon. Somebody who couldn’t even run one lap around the track without walking a little over 18 months before had just run 26.2 miles.

Me with my medal!

My first words after the marathon, both in real life and on Facebook, were “Holy shit! I did it!” I am still amazed I could do it.

Yeah, I still can’t believe it, either!

I got my medal (that still gives me chills just to think about!) and my foil wrapping. And I picked up my post-race bag (which had an apple, pretzels, water, etc. in it).

I also posed for a few photos and saw my SIAC friend Dorothy, who was volunteering at the post-race finish area, during my “walk of death” after the race. When you finish the marathon, you still have to walk about a mile before you exit Central Park, even if you are getting the post-race poncho and did not check a bag. It was more exhausting, frankly, than the race itself! Fortunately, Dorothy carried my bag and kept me company for a little bit on the walk. Then I went to get my poncho and then get out of there.

My friend Dorothy helped me after the race with carrying my bag. She also took this picture.

I remember that it took all the energy I had left to get over to Levain Bakery on West 74th Street on the Upper West Side, where I would be meeting up with Jon and Sharon, and having one of the bakery’s delicious chocolate chip walnut cookies.

When I was sitting on nearby steps waiting for them, though, feeling triumphant, and texting them that I was there, some idiot guy pushed next to me on the steps and then tried to talk to me. I had a bad feeling about him, especially since I made it clear I was busy and did not want to talk. He asked me my finish time, I made the mistake of telling him, and he said condescendingly, “Well, at least you finished,” in an obnoxious tone. I yelled at him, “What the hell is wrong with you?” and called him an asshole. Which he was.

Sarah, me and Squawker Jon at Big Daddy’s

But I had many more positive people in my corner that day. I received a lot of texts and emails and Facebook posts and phone calls from people who had been following my journey in person and online.

Those leggings inspired a Guideposts story!

And then Jon, my Mets fan friend Tracey, my old Daily News friend Sarah, and my writer friend Jason from Massachusetts (who I met for the first time in real life that night!) went to Big Daddy’s on the Upper West Side and had a celebratory meal.

Now I’m planning another year of challenges, including my very first triathlon. But nothing will ever match the splendor of November 6, 2016. The day I defied the odds and became a one-percenter — joining the one percent of all Americans who have run a marathon.

And nobody can ever take that accomplishment away from me. Thanks to everyone who supported me and cheered me on along the way!

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