Running the Empire
30 BEFORE 30 - Celine Novenario () - December 5, 2010 - 12:00am

Like most New York inhabitants, my marathon experience began long before I laced up my first pair of running shoes.

During the two years I spent living by Queensboro Bridge, I would get roused from sleep on marathon morning by the raucous cheers of volunteers and spectators. I’d bundle up and stand on the balcony with my coffee, watching wave after wave of runners fly by on First Avenue and dream about one day being right in the thick of this New York spectacle.

On Nov. 7, I got up for marathon morning as usual — but this time, I pinned a bib for the ING New York Marathon on my shirt and put on my running shoes. On this brisk autumn day, I was chasing my dream.

A slot in the New York Marathon is one of the most coveted in the world, with over 120,000 applicants vying for the limited number of given out in an annual lottery. This year, 45,344 runners from over 100 countries took to the streets of New York to run 26.2 miles through the city’s five boroughs: Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan.

Staten Island

The challenges of the marathon began hours before the starting gun was fired. Runners were bused and ferried to Staten Island, all wrapped in old coats, sweats, blankets or garbage bags — anything to keep warm in the 10°C cold and that can easily be discarded before the race begins.

Miles 16 to 19.5 take place on First Avenue in Manhattan, where thick crowds gather on the street and apartment balconies to cheer on the runners.

In spite of the challenges, the anticipation made hours fly by. Before I knew it, the final strains of Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York faded into the cheers of excited runners, the starting gun was fired, and off we were to tackle the first big hill of the course — the 1.2-mile Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connecting Staten Island and Brooklyn.

I was so pumped up with adrenaline that I hardly felt the incline. I was surprised to see runners who stopped to take photos of downtown Manhattan as their background. It was then that I realized people come here not to achieve personal bests but to simply experience of running in one of the most electrifying marathons in the world.

Brooklyn

The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge funneled runners into New York City’s most populous borough,

Brooklyn — and boy did the locals make their presence felt. With rappers giving thumping beats to alternative bands rocking out on the pavement.

Little kids wore Halloween costumes and shared leftover candy with passersby. A full high school band played with aplomb on a sidewalk. Williamsburg’s hipsters cheered while they brunched, drank coffee and sipped Bloody Marys on Bedford Avenue.

I fist-pumped to the music, gave high-fives to children on the street, and for a split-second allowed myself to believe the words on a sign held somewhere on Fourth Avenue: “In our minds, you’re all Kenyans.”

As we neared Pulaski Bridge and started to glimpse the Midtown Manhattan skyline over the East River, a tongue-in-cheek sign bid us adieu: “Bring out your passports. You’re heading for Queens!”

Queens

Bundled up runners wait upwards of three hours for their turn to toe the line at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

The marathon goes through less than three miles in Queens but this stretch is stamped in many a marathoner’s mind for one reason: the dreaded Queensboro Bridge.

While runners get a brief respite of traversing a flat course between bridges, Queensboro looms as a long and lonely hill with no spectators to motivate us on a seemingly endless ascent followed by a steep and winding descent. Thankfully, I had several friends in Queens who ran alongside me for a few yards and gave me a good laugh with a sign that read, “Beer misses you, too.” Those precious few seconds of support gave me a high that sustained me as I ran on Queensboro Bridge. The thought of the reward that lay ahead spurred me on: the 3.5-mile party that is First Avenue.

Manhattan

Finally, the moment I’d long dreamt of had come. Like hometown heroes being welcomed with a parade, First Avenue enveloped marathon runners with sidewalks that can be up to three persons deep, balconies laden with loud spectators drinking beer, and a blanket of overwhelming sound.

I briefly stopped below my old apartment to wave at my friends Tanya and Laudine who were watching from that very balcony I used to dream from.

In 2010, I finally chased my dream and joined 45,343 other runners in a 26.2-mile race throughout New York City’s five boroughs.

Since this is New York, after all, it can only get more fantastic. At this point in the run, I was sandwiched between one runner dressed as Spider-Man and another attempting to juggle apples from start to finish. Only in New York.

The Bronx

Willis Avenue Bridge, which connects the island of Manhattan and the Bronx, only measures 0.6 of a mile. But it comes right before Mile 20 — the point of the dreaded “wall” when marathoners’ glycogen stores hit empty and their bodies turn to fat supplies for energy, slowing down the body and sending the brain into survival mode.

My legs, while mercifully cramp-free, felt like lead and my brain took on the voice of a nagging, overprotective mother: “This is such a terrible idea. You know what you need right now? A shower, a hot meal and your bed — not one more hour of running!”

Too worn out to argue, I just kept on putting one foot in front of the other, and clung to merciful moments of distractions like a group of Chinese drummers solemnly beating their instruments on one sidewalk. I looked at Madison Avenue Bridge with a mixture of slight nausea and relief. The last thing I needed at this point was another hill but this was the very last bridge of the race. I had to overcome.  

Return To Manhattan

From Madison Avenue Bridge, we entered the giant block party that was Harlem. As I struggled to

keep going, I appreciated every show of support by the people of Harlem — from the live jazz played by a band on the sidewalk to a woman holding out a tray with cups of Gatorade clearly from her own home to a funny sign that read, “Chuck Norris never ran a marathon.”

I finally snapped out of my stupor when the treetops of Central Park came into view. The crowds on Fifth Avenue began to thicken and the noise started to escalate as we entered Museum Mile. When we reached Engineer’s Gate on Fifth Avenue and East 90th Street, I felt a rush of new energy and stolid confidence set in. I could glimpse the running path around the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, where I took my first tentative run in April and trained for countless mornings thereafter. As we ran down the Outer Loop of Central Park, I felt like I had come home. I was on familiar ground now; the worst was behind me. I had two miles left to go and I knew without a doubt that I had it in me to finish. So I didn’t hold back and I ran as much as my exhausted legs would allow me. I was so focused on getting to the end that I failed to notice friends to cheer me on for the final stretch on Central Park South.

Empire State of Mind blasted on the speakers while I ran the final stretch of the race, and the words of the song rang more true than they ever had before. As I crossed the 26.2-mile mark, I felt truly overwhelmed with gratitude for this city that embraced me into its fold, allowed me to attempt what I thought to be impossible, and cheered every step of the way in my pursuit of a dream.

AVENUE BRIDGE CENTER FIRST AVENUE NEW NEW YORK RUNNERS YORK
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