On November 4, 2007, still drowsy from too little sleep, we quietly gathered at Park Avenue and 32nd Street in Manhattan just before dawn. Our buses sat idling as we runners climbed on board for the first leg of what we hoped would be a spectacular 26.2-mile marathon run through the five boroughs of New York City.
You may wonder what compels someone to run that distance. For some, it is the desire to test themselves beyond their limits, and in the process hope for a transformation of sorts. My own journey began in the winter of 2005, when the death of two loved ones had propelled me into a pit of grief and despair, and I needed to find my way out. First my grandmother passed away, followed by my great aunt three months later. They were eighty-nine and ninety-nine years old respectively. Since my own mother passed away many years earlier from breast cancer at age forty-two, they had become surrogate mothers to me.
One day in the spring of 2006, not long after my great-aunt’s funeral, I came across a flyer at a local nail salon, offering a training program for endurance sports such as a marathon. Interested, I went to an information session where I learned more about Team in Training (TNT), which is sponsored by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. I admired the work that the Society does, not only in training ordinary people like me for extraordinary events, but also for their work with cancer patients, and the commitment and resources they put into funding research to help find a cure for cancer. We were told about our honored team mates, including a cancer survivor whose “courage would provide the motivation and inspiration we’d need – someone whose challenge was greater than our own.” Over the years, I had been involved with various organizations to help raise awareness and funds for cancer research, so this seemed a natural fit. Before leaving the session, I signed up for the San Francisco half-marathon, and endeavored to fund-raise on behalf of the Society.
After months of training, I was on a plane to the west coast with a group of about one hundred runners from the NYC chapter of TNT. This was my first time in San Francisco, and the run proved a great way to experience the city. On the morning of October 22, 2006, at 7:00am with the thick morning fog drifting in from the bay, the race began. From downtown Union Square we ran west to the Pacific Ocean some 13.1 miles away. We ran through many diverse and sometimes hilly neighborhoods of San Francisco; then down to oceanfront along Fisherman’s Wharf and on out to the Golden Gate Bridge where all we could see through the fog were her two magnificent, gleaming red peaks. With my father and brother cheering me on along the route, I crossed the finish line of my first half-marathon in just under three hours.
With the half-marathon successfully under my belt, I joined up with the New York Road Runners (NYRR), organizers of the New York City Marathon, and completed the mandatory nine races to gain guaranteed entry into the marathon. The New York City Marathon is one of the oldest and most prestigious road races in the world, and has become the most popular. Over 100,000 runners apply each year via a lottery system. In 2007, 39,085 were accepted. Once I received my official notification of acceptance in the mail, I decided to use the opportunity to help raise more funds for cancer research, and rejoined the Team in Training program, thus initiating the process of becoming a marathoner.
Twice a week, five dedicated and qualified coaches put us through our paces. The larger group of approximately three hundred runners was broken down into smaller units and trained according to their event. Additionally, each smaller group was assigned a mentor to help with everything from fundraising to training. I asked to be assigned to Wanda, my mentor from the San Francisco run, a patient and experienced marathoner. Each Tuesday evening at 6:40pm we would congregate at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park to work on form and technique. On Saturday mornings we’d meet up at 8:00am to complete longer runs, beginning with three miles, eventually progressing to twenty miles. We were given a training schedule to follow for the other days.
Early on a coach taught me that I could talk and run at the same time, which made training with my friends easier and more fun. In the park and on the road, we would share our stories, doubts and anxieties, and as the months went by and the miles grew longer, I began to feel lighter, less encumbered by the grief I once felt.
Six months later I was on a bus to Fort Wadsworth Park on Staten Island to the famed starting line of the NYC Marathon: The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, two miles long: one goes up, one goes down. Here, 39,085 runners from more than one hundred countries and all fifty states gathered for the 38th New York City Marathon. They came with the common goal of crossing the finish line some 26.2 miles later in Central Park—unfortunately, some would not make it.
A former military post dating back to the 17th century, Fort Wadsworth has guarded the entrance to New York Harbor for hundreds of years. On Marathon day it became a massive village, with large white tents erected to shelter the runners until the race began at 10:10am. With so many runners participating, it was necessary to separate us into different color-coded starting corrals, which were easily identified by the large arches of colored balloons floating high in the sky. We exited our bus and headed over to orange corral, where some of our Brooklyn team mates had staked out space in a tent.
Inside, we spread out our blankets and began unpacking our food and supplies: bananas, apples, water; Gatorade, Vaseline and Body Glide were the major staples. As we ate, we began sharing our stories: from the final days of preparing for the marathon to our 4:00am that morning. After months of preparation and training, the last days and hours can be the toughest, when we most needed to focus our mental will and energy to get ourselves to the starting line. Our coaches had warned us about the effects of tapering, and told us to expect the following:
Tiredness—sometimes you’ll feel like there is no way can you run a marathon
Little aches—the body is rebuilding itself and it’s more aware of things
Nervousness—hey, who isn’t? You are running a marathon
Ups/downs—today you feel great, tomorrow you can’t take a step
Doubts—did you train enough?
With the start time approaching, I double checked that I had everything needed for the run: purple race shirt (check); race number pinned on race shirt (check); yellow chip to record time attached to white sneaker, (check); sunglasses (check); six Power Bar gel packets for nourishment (check); hat (check); running pouch (check).
A little while later my phone rang. Tom, an old friend from my village in Ireland who was also running. He was in the blue corral, and called to see if I wanted to join him and our friend PJ (also from home) at an all-faith service in half an hour. I thought that some spirituality might help, but with my stomach in knots, I figured God wouldn’t mind if I skipped out on this one.
Finally, at 9:00am, we were instructed to begin packing up our remaining things and drop them off at one of the designated trucks, which would deliver them to the finishing area in Central Park. A flurry of activity followed, as we took care of last minute tasks and applied Vaseline and Body Glide to various body parts to prevent chafing.
One key piece of advice that I had been given, but somehow managed to forget, was: “never try anything new on race day.” “Hey, Geraldine,” one girl said, “make sure you put some Body Glide on your feet, that way you won’t get blisters.” Absentmindedly, I went about splattering the Body Glide on my feet, only to regret it miles later. As the runners began to leave the tent, Debbie and I were the last in our group to clear the long line.
For forty-five minutes we chatted with the people around us, until we reached our respective trucks and handed in our bags. By the time we reached the orange corral we couldn’t find anyone else from our team.
Then surrounded by thousands of other runners, Debbie and I began to inch our way towards the start line. The sun peeked from behind the clouds, and the frosty bite subsided as the temperature rose to about forty degrees Fahrenheit. All around us, runners were busy shedding their warm-up clothing. Debbie struggled to get her navy oversized sweatshirt over her head and ceremoniously threw it near the fence. Then she pulled back her long blonde hair into a ponytail and fixed her black running cap on her head. I could tell she was ready. I kept my blue zippered sweatshirt on until closer to the bridge. The ground and surrounding fences were piled high with rainbow mounds of sweatshirts and pants of all sizes, making the walk to the start-line a bit tricky. Later, when we had all left, local kids would pick up the stuff and donate them to Goodwill organizations throughout the city.
In the distance, we heard the starting gun go off as the marathon officially got underway. I shivered with excitement and anticipation as we neared the bridge and knew it was time to discard the blue sweatshirt. After adding it to a nearby pile, I felt ready. Helicopters hovered overhead as the pop music blared through the speaker system. Soon we were crossing the start line, and in an almost dream-like trance we slowly made our way up the first uphill mile, accompanied by thousands of runners and spectacular views of the Hudson River below. I checked my watch, the time: 10:20am. I had set the goal of finishing under six hours. I figured this was an achievable time since I usually ran a 12:15 minute pace, and with the additional time factored in for water stops (about 20), bathroom breaks (lots), and socializing en route, I should be good. When we reached over the crest of the hill and saw thousands of runners in front of us, realization was surreal: “I am running the NYC Marathon.”
At the end of the bridge we entered Bay Ridge in Brooklyn where we were greeted by a local high school marching band belting out the theme to “Rocky”. As we ran through the colorful neighborhood, we also got our first sampling of the famed spectators who come out each year. All told, over two million spectators and one hundred bands would line the route from here to the finish line in Central Park, making it one of the biggest, boldest, and loudest marathons in the world—just like the city itself.
In Bay Ridge, I saw my first cheering friend, Marcela. I spotted her before she saw me. “See you in Manhattan I called out.” “Hey, well done, Geraldine, you look great,” she yelled back. Up ahead we saw the 5K sign, and were pleased that we had run the first three miles in under thirty-seven minutes.
Debbie and I ran together all through the first part of Brooklyn, and vowed to stay together as long as possible, but as commonly happens, we fell into different paces and lost each other in the swelling crowd somewhere around mile nine. I ran through the neighborhood of Park Slope but didn’t feel alone with the thousands of spectators lining the route; the little kids reached out their hands to high-five us as we went by.
From the tree-lined brownstone neighborhood of Park Slope we ran further north to Clinton Hill where we passed the 15K mark. I looked at my watch: one hour and fifty-eight minutes into the run. Here the enthusiastic spectators made it difficult to run as they had taken over much of the road in an effort to get closer to the runners. Then came the Hasidic Jewish Neighborhood of South Williamsburg, where “Yiddish Only” signs dotted the storefronts. Along the sidewalks stood large groups of men with their long flowing biblical beards, dressed in their traditional long black overcoats; the women in conservative long skirts, and sleeves past the elbow; and the children in similar garb. No one seemed to pay much attention to us as we ran by them.
In contrast, a little further down the street in North Williamsburg, condo construction has blossomed, now making this area one of the trendiest and most expensive in New York City, much to the chagrin of those who live there. Here, on Bedford Avenue, my brother and his girlfriend Aisling were patiently waiting for me. I felt emotional running up to them, as we’ve watched the marathon together most years—some years we’d be cheering Aisling on… now they were cheering me. Aisling was holding a big sign, which read “Run Geraldine Run”, an Irish flag on either corner. When they saw me coming, they clicked and churned an array of cameras and videos—running the marathon can make you feel like a star for a day. After a quick chat, I was away again, continuing north on my journey.
Knowing that the halfway point was coming up at the Pulaski Bridge, I began to relax into my run. From the distance I could see the Manhattan skyline, overhead the gray sky blended in with the skyscrapers, which dominated the landscape. The cool temperature, now about forty-nine degrees Fahrenheit felt good on my body—perfect weather for a run. When I reached the half-marathon sign at the entrance of the bridge, I had completed 13.1 miles in less than two hours and forty-eight minutes. That bridge offered another steep incline and then the decline, as I literally rolled into Queens, the third borough. The Body Glide which I had applied so liberally on my feet earlier was making them slide furiously on the uphill and downhill portions of the route. With this extra friction, I could feel the blisters swell on the soles of my feet*, and regretted taking the advice.
“Welcome to Queens”, the onlookers called out as I ran past them. The once industrial area of Long Island City had now given way to another wave of condos springing up like mushrooms throughout the city— a sign of the times. A little further down the road, I saw some friends who ran with me in San Francisco; they were shouting and waving as I passed. This gave me an extra boost of adrenaline until I got to mile fifteen and the Queensboro Bridge at the 25K mark, where after running for three hours and twenty-five minutes, I encountered another steep incline, and one of the toughest parts of the run.
As I climbed the steep incline, and made my way along the lower level, darkness enveloped us, and an eerie silence took hold. Both sides of the bridge had been covered over with dirty white canvases for construction, which blocked the sunlight. Over the East River, all we could hear were each other’s footsteps.
From the dark quiet came light, and cresting the bridge, I could hear rapturous roars coming from the Manhattan side. At the top of the exit ramp I stopped and looked down at the massive crowd that had gathered at the base of the bridge. We had arrived! Here was Manhattan and the cheering First Avenue crowd lived up to their reputation as being the loudest of any of the boroughs. Their cheers echoed through the canyons of mid-town Manhattan as I made my way north. On East 96th Street, I stopped briefly to talk with my friends Ellen and Greg. “Hey you just missed Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes by about fifteen minutes,” they informed me. Turns out, Katie was also running the marathon; I wonder why she was running this year. After the water station I could see the sign for the 30K mark; just over four hours had passed since I started my run nineteen miles earlier on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and I felt strong. Continuing north, I encountered Vinnie, Aisling and Marcela again. Aisling, the veteran marathoner, gave me advice to tackle what was coming next.
THE BRONX AND MANHATTAN AGAIN
Up ahead was the fifth borough, the Bronx and mile twenty, the dreaded so-called “Wall.” At this point many runners simply run out of energy, and the remaining six miles can seem torturous. I also remembered the words of our coach: “there will be no wall if you behave yourselves during the early miles.” Since I had taken it relatively easy throughout Brooklyn, I was feeling good. “There is no wall,” I repeated to myself (as instructed by Aisling) and I ran towards mile twenty. Across the Third Avenue Bridge I ran into a rapturous Bronx welcome.
There, local Jazz musicians lined the street, belting out music loud and bold. During the one short mile in the Bronx I forgot about the wall and continued to the Madison Avenue Bridge, which brought me back into Manhattan, where I ran confidently south through the famous Harlem neighborhood, once heralded by Langston Hughes as the black capital of America. Just before the twenty-two mile mark, after running for four hours and fifty-seven minutes, I saw the 35K mark come into view. Churches dotted the tree-lined boulevards, and on the steps of one, a group of nuns sang loudly, while a few blocks away, gospel singers with their sweet voices encouraged us toward those last remaining four miles.
Soon after Harlem, as we turned right on to Fifth Avenue, I noticed a runner who was being carried off in a stretcher. A hush descended on the runners, knowing how difficult the last couple of miles can be. Around me people were grimacing in pain, both for their fellow runner and for themselves. I felt pain in my own body, my muscles getting tighter in my thighs, but pushed on knowing that the finish line was within reach.
When I saw the magnificent trees of Central Park, I felt a sense of relief. I know the park well because the majority of my training was done there and I’m familiar with every winding twist and turn, hill and bump. Running south alongside the park, I saw Ellen and Greg again, and still more friends that I had run with last year cheering me on.
At East 90th Street, I finally entered the park and headed south, relieved that the next mile was mostly downhill. Beneath the trees on either side, spectators lined the park as the late day sun splattered rays of autumn light on the just turned leaves of gold, red and orange. We passed the Reservoir on the right and the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the left, and continued down Cat Hill past the Boathouse. Some of us knew that at this spot the day before the elite runner Ryan Shay had died during the trials for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Team. He had been about five and a half miles into the race. An autopsy is still inconclusive in determining the cause of death. It was a sobering moment for many of the runners to pass the area where he had died.
At five hours and forty-one minutes into the run, we came to the 40km mark at mile 25, where I was in new territory, having never run that far before. We exited for a short run along Central Park South surrounded by hundreds of cheering fans, passing the scaffold-enclosed Plaza Hotel and nearby horse drawn carriages. My friends had gathered there to give me the extra boost I needed for the last mile. First I spotted Christina flapping her arms madly, as she flipped a sign back and forth, which read: “Geraldine, you’re a star” and on the other side: “Geraldine, run like mad.”
Enthusiastically, she ran behind the sidewalk crowd, parallel to me, encouraging everyone to shout out my name as I passed (which they did). With less than a mile to go, I could feel the energy from the crowd pulsate through my body. Diana was stationed further down along the crowd, and then joined in the run with Christina. Following alongside them was my running friend Cathy who seemed to appear from nowhere. Soon all three of my dear friends were running with me.
At Columbus Circle, the police barricades prevented them from entering the park with me. After waving goodbye, I turned the corner and entered the park. Up ahead, a sign read: 800 meters to go. Okay, I thought, savor this moment. In the blue bleachers I saw Vinnie, Aisling and Marcela cheering me for the third and final time that day. At the 100 meters sign, I ran over the crest of the final hill, and waved in jubilation. Then with a huge grin, I took the last steps of the 26.2-mile journey and crossed the finish line in just under five hours and fifty-eight minutes to complete my first marathon.
*Footnote: after a hearty dinner of fish and chips with my dear friends at the local and friendly Malachy’s Pub on 72nd Street and Broadway, I headed home exhausted but happy at 9:00pm. There I gingerly removed my running shoes to inspect the damage, where to my wonderment and surprise, there were no blisters on my feet.
So far I have raised over $8,000 for cancer research.
Geraldine Sweeney is a photographer/writer in New York City. Originally from Ireland, she has travelled extensively throughout the world to photograph the beauty of the people and landscapes of faraway lands, including the Himalayans in Nepal and the temples of India. Her work has appeared at a number of group shows in New York and Santa Fe, New Mexico.