Thursday, November 7, 2013

THE (RUN-)WALKING DEAD: NYCM 2013 "Event" Report

After two October trips to the pop-up Halloween store, it appears that the zombie apocalypse is nigh.  It used to be that female-targeted Halloween costumes tended to the "Sexy/Naughty/Slutty".  While that remains true, now it seems that "Sexy/Naughty/Slutty Zombie ___________" is the order of the day.  The title of this post, therefore, comes from the fact that this blog - moribund for so long - simply refuses to die.  It may also reflect my guiding experience in last weekend's New York City Marathon.


Every marathon race is a 26.2-mile journey (YES! that's the official marathon distance, dammit) that begins long before the runner toes the starting line.  In this case, my journey began in the late summer of 2012, when I was lucky enough to be chosen by Achilles International to guide a triple-amputee Marine who would be doing his first marathon in a handcycle.  Alas, Superstorm Sandy nixed that.  Then came Boston, where I was assigned to run with an above-the-knee amputee (we'll call him TS) who was shooting for a 4:30 finish.  As with so many of life's endeavors, things did not go as planned for TS there.  He set out a bit too fast in the first half, but the second-half fade spared us from being much, much closer to the finish line at the time of the bombings.  We made it to Mile 25.5, and immediately made a pact to try again in NYC in November.

So, for me, NYCM 2013 started more than a year earlier.  For TS, this would be a race almost seven months in the making.


If finishing time is the only measure of marathoning success, then NYCM 2013 would have to be filed as an unqualified disaster.  Fortunately, though, it isn't, so it wasn't.  And because the metrics are not conventional, neither should a "race report" be.  Rejoice, therefore, Dear Reader, since this post will not take you through a mile-by-mile recap of the good, the bad, and the ugly which tends to comprise the marathon race experience.  In fact, this wasn't really a race at all, so I won't treat it as such.  Instead, I would characterize more like a series of wonderful and discrete experiences tied together by consistent forward motion towards a blue and orange banner in one of the world's most famous parks.

Knowing that his training had not been optimal, and dealing with a problem in his knee (as in, his only knee), TS dialed back his original 4:15 goal.  As I pressed him, he cagily said "4:30-4:45".  Having run and paced and guided quite a few of these things by now, I prepared myself for a mostly pleasant five-plus-hour amble through the Five Boroughs which are New York City.  It was a good thing that I did, because it turned out to be all of that and more.

What follows here, though, is a list of the encounters, images, and memories with which I left New York City.  Maybe every significant life experience changes in some way.  Serving as a guide for NYCM 2013 certainly changed me as a runner; time will tell how much it has changed me as a person.


View from the AWD starting area
The ride from Midtown Manhattan was dark and long, though the sun was up by the time we got there.  TS and I rode together, and I mostly just sat quietly, preparing myself for the long day ahead.  The Achilles bus was full of Athletes With Disabilities (aka, AWDs) and their Guides.  All of the athletes on our bus were ambulatory, as the wheelchair/handcyclists require special transportation.  AWDs span a wide range in terms of the conditions which lead to their needing a Guide.  Amputation, blindness, paralysis, and cerebral palsy were among the reasons I heard from fellow Guides and their runners.  We were shuttled to a special AWD staging area, and the most striking visual was the scores of wheelchairs and other adapted contraptions which would allow so many people to pursue their dream of hurtling 26.2 miles through the five famed boroughs of New York City.


Having been on the course during Boston 2013, and having pored over every announcement about heightened security at NYCM, I was prepared for anything.  TS was checked quickly and allowed to bypass the metal detector/body scanner, since his composite carbon-fiber prosthetic leg would have set off the machine.  I was extended no such courtesy, and therefore waited, and waited, and waited while a malfunctioning metal detector was resuscitated by NYPD officers.  Not surprisingly, the police department was out in force, but I noticed many officers with special badges, including "Auxillary", "School Safety Division", "Taxi Squad", and others.  Everyone was on call.  And virtually every one of them was attentive and courteous.

From the time we arrived at the start area until I made it back to my friends' Upper West Side apartment some 8+ hours later, I saw more uniformed police than I had ever seen in a single day in my life.  Other shows of high-alert included police buses, armored vehicles and strategically hovering helicopters.  I was able to take the following picture from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge:

The ubiquity of armed personnel watching over 50,000 runners and more than a million spectators was simultaneously comforting and unnerving.  After Boston, authorities weren't going to take any chances.  Since the 2013 NYCM went off without an incident, their abundant caution worked.  Still, perhaps some day such measures won't be necessary to thwart prospective wrongdoers, or even to assuage public concern about bad things happening.  For now, though, reality dictates differently.


Staten Island gets the race start, and - as in life - apparently not much else.  On the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge we climbed the first big "hill" amidst a cold, strong crosswind as we headed towards Brooklyn.  The eerie quiet of the first few miles soon gave way to people, lots and lots of people.  People yelling.  People dancing.  People playing musical instruments.  People holding signs.  People clapping.  People encouraging every single person who went by in the most unequivocally positive terms.  It's not something one sees every day, and certainly not in a city of over 8.3 MILLION (!) which would not be named a bastion of congeniality on a normal day.  The New York City Marathon makes for not a normal day.

Brooklyn was a blast. 

Because TS lost his left leg above the knee, he has to run as far to the left of a course as he can, which is the safest thing both for him and for other runners (in fact, my job as his guide is to create a buffer zone between him and the field).  That means that we always stayed close to the spectators on the left side of the road.  And so, in Brooklyn, began the high-fives.  Little and medium-sized kids were the most eager to get a hand-slap from a passing runner.  I tried to get every single one (often yelling as I passed, "MAKE SURE TO WASH YOUR HANDS!"), and then, to my surprise, nearby adults would extend their hands, too, offered with a sincere word of praise.  Not just the parents, either.  Adults cheering alone.  People in traditional garb from other countries.  Old people.  Religious people (well, not the Hasidic Jews in Williamsburg).  Even some of NYC's finest extended a hand along the way.

Brooklyn included people of virtually every conceivable nationality and skin tone.  To think that they all convened just to see us (us!) was a happy realization indeed.  I heard my name yelled by a guy I know from online running circles, the only time that would happen over the course of the race.


During the first half of the race, I was pretty pumped up, so I checked and rechecked our pace to make sure I didn't lead TS out too fast.  Unfortunately, that I didn't didn't matter.  It wasn't his day to chase a new marathon PR, but he stayed laser-focused on that finish line.

After settling into a decent groove, putting us on pace for a 4:45-ish finish, TS started slowing down.  Runners often describe that feeling as the moment in a race where "the wheels come off".  Well, not long after we started experiencing that, we came upon an AWD who was the literal embodiment of the phrase.  At almost exactly the Mile 14 marker, TS and I say an Achilles AWD in a prone handcycle off to the side of the course.  The athlete seemed dazed and confused.  He also did not speak much English.  Turns out he's Italian, which felt like karma since I have been shirking my self-guided Italian study and was thus able to say only, "Io non capisco l'italiano" ("I don't understand Italian").  The right rear wheel on chair was cracked.  It had been temporarily held together with duct tape, but as he sought to move the hand pedals, the wheel just came off the axle.  He seemed like he might be hurt, so we called on available race medical volunteers until they thought they had found one who spoke Italian.  10-15 minutes after we came upon the poor prone fellow, we were moving again.

I have tried to find out what happened to him, but no one seems to know.


Dealing with the athlete in distress was our welcome to Queens, so perhaps in an effort to get back into "race mode" (or, at least, "finish mode"), I was less aware of my surroundings in Queens.  It's also just a few miles.  Still, I remember more high-fives; more clever signs ("SMILE IF YOU PEED A LITTLE"; I smiled, even though I hadn't ... yet), and more wild cheers.

Then came the Queensboro Bridge, where we had another AWD encounter.  This time, it was a stopped Achilles amputee, whose prosthesis had become unsafely loose.  We needed a specific hexagonal key to tighten it, but no one had one.  I tried "MacGyvering"it from detritus I found on the ground (a paper clip, a zipper pull, a piece of a key), but no luck.  So, I jumped the concrete barrier, ran up to an ambulance, and asked for help.  No dice.  We left that runner and his Guides behind, but saw him pass us a while later, which made us happy.

At this point, I felt a bit low.  The wind whipped across the Queensboro Bridge; the sky was still gray.  It had gotten crowded on the course, which presented more challenges in terms of keeping TS safe.  We still had over 10 miles to go, and we were walking.  A lot.

It's not very often that I have the impulse to punch a 70-something year-old (much less a runner) in the face, but at about Mile 15.5, we experienced the one act of nastiness amidst a day of otherwise unfettered kindness.  As an elderly gentlemen passed us during a stretch of walking on the bridge, he literally yelled that we were "taking up half the path".  As he kept moving, I replied, "Sorry [sarcastically] . . . we have a disabled runner here."  Most people would apologize, or otherwise acknowledge their overreaction, but he instead doubled-down: "I don't give a shit!  You should be in a single file."  When we caught him less than a half-mile later, I might have eased over to the left again just a tad closer than what one might call socially acceptable.  My job is to keep my runner safe.  Other runners, beware: I take my job seriously.


Manhattan brought what Manhattan is known for bringing: crowds.  People lined up 10 or more deep.  Lots of well-dressed folks sipped coffee.  A few of those who leaned their Starbucks cups over the railing were surprised when I pantomimed helping myself to their tasty hot beverage.  Reactions ranged from pulling away, to laughing, to offering their cup with the greatest sincerity.  We may have been moving slowly, but I was having fun.

The East Side blocks ticked off.  Somewhere, maybe around 100th Street, I started hearing a loud female voice roaring, "JESUS!  JEE-SUS!!! JEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSUUUUUUSSSSSS!!!!!"  Turned out to be an older black woman, waving a black leather-bound bible.  "JESUS!!!!!!!!"  We walked.  "JEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE-SSSSSSSSSSUUUUUSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!"  We jogged a little.  And, finally, we reached her.  Looking more through me than at me, she let it rip, the bible shaking in her hand: "JEEEEEEESSSSSUSSSSSS!!!!!"  I looked at hear, smiled, and said, "No, thank you."  Some runners around me smiled.  TS yelled something about foregiveness.  We forged ahead.  She kept screaming.

A few blocks north of the Church Lady, another exuberant spectator was putting on a cheering spectacle of her own.  On the right side of First Avenue I noticed a younger black woman, slim, with bleached blond hair.  She was sprinting up and down the side of the course, pointing at runners and screaming, "This is YOU runnin' fast," over and over and over.  It was also her, but it's not clear if she appreciated the irony.

And then, seemingly in a flash, we reached the Willis Avenue Bridge, for our brief foray into The Bronx.  As we neared the end of our first pass through Manhattan a guy yelled, "You're almost in the The Bronx!"  I jokingly asked him, "Is it safe?"  His response: "You won't be there long."  I felt so much better.

The Bronx really was just a blip.  A little over a mile and then we were on our final bridge, the Madison Avenue Bridge, for our return to Manhattan and the final push towards the finish.


The gray skies finally cleared, the temperature rose a few degrees, and we were in the home stretch.  More walking.  More high fives.  More cheers and signs and massive good will.  We were moving slowly, but no one seemed to hold it against us.

I had a nice moment with an older lady in Harlem.  She was in a wheelchair/scooter, sort of slumped, with a sign which read "Harlem HEARTS You".  I looked straight at her and smiled, and she sat up straight, beaming a huge smile back at me.  A perfect little moment like I've never had before, and likely will never have again.

Somewhere after the Mile 22 mark, Central Park came into view.  What a sight, though we were still walking and we still had 4 more miles.  At Mile 24, we turned into the Park, still walking more than running.
 It didn't matter anymore, because the time on the clock meant nothing to us.  The only thing that mattered was that a man who'd lost his leg in a car accident about 8 years ago and a big-eared, Jewfro sporting goofball who likes to cover long distances on foot in the company of others were inching ever closer to the Finish Line denied them in April thanks to a couple of terrorists with a horrifically misguided sense of purpose.  For TS, this would be another finish line in a sport he took up before he became "disabled".  We were cold.  We were tired.  We were ready to be done.  But, I think I speak for TS when I say that we also felt like yelling, "Fuck car accidents!" and "Fuck terrorists!" and "Fuck anyone and anything which seeks to get in the way of people and their hopes, their dreams, their spirit!"  We were going to finish, and finish we did, 202 days, 5 hours and 34 minutes after we first started running together in Hopkinton, Massachusetts.  Not fast by most measures, but at least ahead of Pamela Anderson. :-)