After years of sitting at home and watching the New York Marathon, I decided to give it a try in 2003. Then last Sunday morning, as I watched the women start the 26-mile, 385-yard course through all five boroughs, my anxiety mounted as I stood surrounded by tens of thousands of runners, knowing I’d soon join them dashing across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge that connects Staten Island to Brooklyn.
As I waited, I began jumping in place to diminish the jitters and reminisced about what it took to get me there.
A week before Thanksgiving 2002, I contacted the Road Runners Club, which organizes the marathon, and asked if they could give this out-of-condition beginner (who rarely ran since I was a kid, except to the mess hall at chow time in the Army) some advice about how to prepare for the 2003 event. They gave me the names of several trainers, including one who lived in my Brooklyn neighborhood. After playing telephone tag for a few days, we hooked up after Thanksgiving weekend.
The first thing Marcus — the trainer — told me was to radically change my diet and establish an exercise routine that would have to gradually intensify. For a nominal fee, he agreed to train me for three months. He said if I met his expectations and adhered to strict dietary rules, he’d work with me through the following summer to make sure I was prepared for the arduous task that few even dare to consider.
In our initial meeting he was curious why I wanted to do this at this stage in my life. I told him I didn’t really know because despite being moderately active in my youth and maintaining a random walking regimen the last few years, I wasn’t the athletic type — in mind or body. It was, rather, something about which I fantasized every fall.
At first the training and diet were almost unbearable, but I found the challenge and changes invigorating. If I accomplished this, I thought, maybe — just maybe — I could start the novel that I’ve aspired to write.
Two weeks into the regimen, my body felt different — aching, somewhat rejuvenated, but strange. Marcus encouraged me and said I was doing well. Those who saw me frequently — friends, co-workers — may have noticed a change, but they never said a word.
When the training period ended, Marcus never said a word and kept working with me. By then I’d managed to start running five miles a day, three times a week in nearby Marine Park. I still had a long way to go, but even this was remarkable for this part-time couch potato.
When summer began, Marcus enrolled me in several mini-marathons around the city so I could experience an actual race atmosphere. I barely finished most of them, until mid-July, when I completed a 10-mile race in Eisenhower Park on Long Island. I finally gained the confidence that I could do this.
The man next to me interrupted my thoughts and asked if this was my first NYC marathon. I nodded and he said it was also his. He asked me if I wanted a marathon partner. I agreed. We exchanged names and shook hands.
As we reached Mile 4 in Brooklyn, a bunch of friends, from as far away as Baltimore and Albany, loudly cheered me on. I looked at them and waved then got my head back in the race.
By Mile 10, my running partner realized he couldn’t keep up and wished me luck.
More than six hours after I crossed the Verrazano, the Central Park finish line was in sight. Yet it still seemed miles away. Nevertheless, I was energized realizing I had the stamina to complete the 26-mile course. My legs were as heavy as anvils. My body was drenched in perspiration, partly due to the unseasonable weather. My body ached from head to toe. But my heart and mind were euphoric.
I got a last minute boost from friends, who managed to squeeze in a mile from the finish line; once again giving me thunderous, vocal support.
I glanced at them, smiled and raised my hands in Rocky-like triumph. As I crossed the finish line minutes later, I was a bit startled when I heard what sounded like an alarm After crossing the line, I collapsed on the concrete and closed my eyes, when I felt someone drape a foil blanket around me so my body heat didn’t dissipate too quickly.
I heard the alarm again and when I opened my eyes I realized I was in my bed in Brooklyn.
My marathon race had merely been an exhilarating fantasy.
Maybe next year? Nah, but, a guy can dream, can’t he?