The Boston Marathon is the holy grail of most distance runners: it's difficult to gain entry, and the course is challenging and competitive. If you're the proverbial Type A runner (no walking, no chatting, no "good enough" races), once you start doing marathons you set your sights on a BQ. In recent years they've lowered the qualifying times, making it even more difficult to gain even a chance at entry, which only fuels the fire for people like me. You're gonna make it harder? I'll see your qualifying time and raise you 20 miles per week.
But the New York City marathon has always held the most allure. The crowds, the scenery, the intoxicating spectacle, the idea of running through the 5 boroughs in late Fall...it's almost too much to bear. Every year, I read about the elites who will be competing, and I watch the live coverage with an odd mixture of boredom and rapture (not unlike the experience of actually running a marathon). Sometimes, in the wee hours of my training runs, when the only sound I hear is my own breath, my own footfalls, I entertain myself with fantasies of running NYC: boarding the ferry to Staten Island just before dawn, shivering in my second-hand sweater (which I would discard in the second mile), compulsively checking my bag for adequate Gu and pre-race banana and bagel, standing with the 45,000 other runners at the start, trying not to work off too much nervous energy. Running through Brooklyn, scanning the crowds for my friends' faces; finishing, triumphantly, arms raised overhead, in Central Park; celebrating with old friends for the rest of that day in the city I love almost as much as my hometown. It's an almost painful fantasy--one of those that hurts too much to think about never realizing.
Last year, I entered the lottery for the NYC marathon and waited with a profound ambivalence; my previous marathon attempt was an abysmal jumble of injury and disappointment, and I wasn't sure I wanted to wreck my New York fantasy in such a dramatic way. And so, when the lottery results were posted and I saw that my number hadn't come up, I felt relief: not this year. At the same time, though, I started searching for other races, and I finally settled on Pensacola--I needed a corrective experience. My training for Pensacola was riddled with insult and injury, but I stubbornly persisted, and on the morning of the race I awoke at 4 a.m. from a dream in which I'd missed the race by almost 3 hours--in the dream, I'd spent the evening playing the party circuit, and at gun time I found myself at a bowling alley drinking beer straight from the pitcher. Some faceless person in the dream pointed this out to me and my response was "Oh well. It's not like I'm running New York."
I awoke from the dream, dressed in the dark in the tiny hotel room where my children snored precariously, brushed my teeth and grabbed my gear. It was a 3/4 mile walk to the start from the hotel, and it was fucking cold outside. I headed towards the water, nibbling my bagel and sipping my orange juice, ignoring the pickup full of drunks who tailed me for a few blocks, plotting my strategy, calming my nerves. At the start, I chatted with a woman who'd had a baby 6 months before: she looked my age, and her goal time was 25 minutes faster than mine. I wished her luck and turned my thoughts to the road.
Everyone says that the marathon is psychological. They're right, of course, but it's like childbirth: you don't really know the truth of it until you've been through it. You can sort of appreciate it, from a distance, maybe you think you can understand the pain and exhilaration of it, but until you do it, you can't possibly know. I ran the first 17 miles of Pensacola in a pleasant fog; it was a comfortable, predictable pace and pain. I chatted with a woman who'd shattered her pelvis in a previous marathon and had spent the last 18 months in physical therapy; she seemed resigned to misery. Since it was Veteran's Day weekend, a strange melange of ROTC kids lined the route, and they were intermittently aloof and frighteningly aggressive; around mile 20, when the terrible despair started to set in, one of them got in my face, ran alongside me for several yards, and yelled, "YOU'VE GOT ONE MORE 10K! YOU CAN DO THAT IN YOUR FUCKING SLEEP!" (Yes, it helped.)
The last 10k of that race were nightmarish; my body was failing me, I felt my right leg disintegrating, my will collapsing. It was hot and I was thirsty and nauseated. But at mile 26, when a woman cheered in my face, I didn't want to punch her; I actually smiled, and I cried. I knew I was close to my goal. I wanted to finish the race in 3 hours and 45 minutes--my Boston Qualifying time--and though I wasn't wearing a watch, I thought I must be close. And even when I crossed the finish line and saw that I'd missed my mark by just 2 minutes (2 minutes!), I didn't feel anything close to disappointment. I felt relieved, and proud, and incredulous: my body could actually do this? For real? Look at that woman, who was going to crush me, limping tearfully towards the aid station--that could be me, but it isn't. Not this time. This time, I'm going to enjoy my second place finish. I'm going to drink beer and eat 3 cookies and some boiled shrimp and collect my prize and take my kids to the beach. Today, I am whole.
Like most great races, the feeling didn't last long. After the new year I started the feel the itch again, and thought about running the Mardi Gras marathon. I ended up settling for the half marathon, and had a great race, and then I had another, and with a sort of fuck-it-all resolve, I entered the NYC lottery once again.
And guess what?
I got in.