Friday, March 2, 2018

Rolling to Boston: Part 1

A little catching up on my events.

Last year I entered the Fort Lauderdale A1A Marathon for the first time.  It was a lot of fun, a Boston qualifying time, and a personal record for me.  I decided to do the race again this year and signed up a year ago, right after last year's race.

I have learned that I can perform much better in a race if I can dedicate some time the week prior to  long distance riding for a few days prior to the race.  Last year I spent a few days working out on the Withlacoochie Trail in Brooksville, FL, prior to the A1A Marathon.  Before we drove home last year, we took a day trip to Key West from our hotel near Miami.

Along most of the highway through the Keys, there exists a bike path.  I reasoned that a ride from Key West to Key Largo, roughly 100 miles, spread over several days, would be just the right pre-race tune-up.  Or at least that was the plan.

I did a bit more research, made some hotel reservations, and began the planning to 'ride the Keys' over a year ago.

Fast forward to last October at the Marine Corps Marathon.  Always my favorite event.  After my best MCM in 2016, last year was a lackluster performance on my part.  I blamed it on the brutal heat during the training season last summer.

2017 Marine Corps Marathon  -Kathryn Palmer photo

The next day, I think the real reason was beginning to manifest itself.  I was coming down with a nasty UTI.  This bug took me several weeks to shake.  It gave me a good scare.  There were times last November when I was feeling veerrrry mortal.

Heading to Boston

It was during this period of recuperation that I received an email from the Boston Athletic Association announcing that I was entered into the 2018 Boston Marathon.  After several years of being turned down, I didn't believe it was true.  I double checked the sender's email address.  I thought it had to be a hoax.  For several weeks I watched my email, expecting to find some sort of retraction.  It didn't come.  This was real.

Working out was difficult.  My illness had left me weak.  But after a few weak attempts, things started falling into place.  Then the cold weather set in.  And it stayed.  The few times I dared a workout, I came home with my hands completely numb.  When we got a break in the weather, I would get in a few promising workouts and feel more optimistic.

Not a good day for a workout :(  -Sally Kelly photo

But through the month of January bad weather and bad circumstances kept me indoors more than I felt comfortable when I considered me upcoming A1A Marathon and the planned ride of the Florida Keys.  More than once I considered canceling the trip to focus on training for Boston closer to home.  In the end, I needed a race.  And I needed a big workout surge to get my Boston training into high gear.

By way of the Keys

I checked weather before we went south. It looked like it would be mid-60s at night and mid-70s during the day with winds from the south. So we drove the old van with the broken AC.  Bad idea!

It turned out south FL was on the verge of a heatwave and a drought for this time of year.   Our first night in Key West we road our bikes around the island.  I hoped this would allow for a little sightseeing and a good workout to warm up for the long rides through the Keys.

The wind was blasting 15 mph from the east.  For that night’s outbound leg, we had a good ride.   For the 4 miles back to our hotel, the wind and the heat (yes I said night) kicked my butt.   I knew that was bad news for my planned daytime rides.

The second day was planned for sightseeing.  During breakfast we made a decision to get me started on riding riding through the Keys from west to east.   It looked like 50 miles in one day, against a 15 mph headwind, was not going to be feasible.

With the late change of plans it was almost noon before we got the handbike ready and I started on the trail heading east.  Right away I started overheating and I had to apply water to myself.  The headwind was brutal but it and the water from my Camelbak were the only things keeping me from overheating.

Florida's Overseas Heritage Trail  -Sally Kelly photo

As it got hotter in the afternoon I had to stop about every mile where I could find a patch of shade and cool down.  I plugged along all afternoon.  Sally picked me up at Cudjoe Key after only about 17 miles.

After that experience with the killer headwind and the stinging sunshine, I decided to scrap the idea of riding the entire length of the Keys. There were other factors that shaped the decision. For about one-third of the length of the Keys the trail I hoped to ride was not available.  Mostly through the middle Keys where the Irma damage was almost total in places.  Many places the trail had never been built yet, requiring riding on the roadway.  Other places bridge repairs made even that option impossible.  The excessively high volume of traffic, particularly heavy (read “wide”) construction vehicles made it unnerving at times.

So my third day, which I had planned to be my first long ride, I decided to ride the lower Keys again and to see how far I could ride by leaving earlier during the day.  Riding east to west with a tailwind was not an option because I needed the wind for cooling.  It felt a lot better in the AM but the headwind was still brutal.

I failed to study the local fauna before my ride. I kept seeing a lot of hungry-looking iguanas about the size of my arm scurrying about as I rode.  Sitting so low to the ground made me feel more than a little vulnerable. When I would stop in the shade to cool down, I kept looking around in the swamps for ‘gators.  A friend reminded my that alligators don't live in salt water environments.  Always the skeptic, I looked it up.  She was right.  The threat wasn't alligators.  It was CROCODILES!!!  The American Crocodile to be exact.  That fact got my heart rate up in the VOmax range!

The third day I made it 26 miles and as far as Big Pine Key.  Sally picked me up that evening hot, tired, sunburned, sore, and wore slam out. We discovered the cushion on my backrest had migrated over to one side, exposing the sharp edge of the seat back shell.  My shoulder had rubbed that edge for two days and it made a nasty raw wound on my shoulder blade. My SPF 30 sunscreen was totally inadequate.  Facing east all day left me sunburned on my right side.

After a few days of healing my chaffed shoulder blade was looking better

The one thing that did go right for me was Sally.  Even though she was still recovering from a nasty bronchitis, she was right there making things happen for me.  She picked out a fun restaurant, the Sunset Grill, where we enjoyed a nice Valentine's dinner.

Our view from the Sunset Grill lived up to its name  -Sally Kelly photo

The A1A

The original plan was to ride upper Keys, from Marathon to Key Largo of the fourth day.  I hate to admit defeat but it was time to rest, heal, and get ready for the A1A Marathon the following weekend. We slept in late and set back toward Fort Lauderdale on the fourth day.

It was a big race this year.  LOTS of  half-marathoners  -Sally Kelly photo

The A1A Marathon was a lot of fun.  Two of the four hand crank division were from Carteret County, Bruce Newman and myself.   A year ago this race was a PR for me.  I knew with my training challenges that would not be the case again.  I was just hoping to finish in 3 hours.   I was concerned with my week’s struggles with the heat and the heat that I might not finish in 4 hours.

 Two of the four hand crank participants were from Carteret County!  From left, Sally and Paul Kelly, Bruce and Lish Newman

The other challenge with the A1A Marathon is that for the last four miles, the course is congested with the slower part of the half-marathon field.   The weather forecast was for upper 60s at the time of the start and getting up to the 80s by noon.  The race starts before daylight.  One part of the course is pitch black with no lights.  I learned my lesson last year to bring a headlight for my bike.

The bars in Fort Lauderdale stay open until 4AM.   When you are making your way to the starting line downtown, you're faced with an added challenge:  trying not to get run over by the drunks leaving the bars.

Four hand crank participants survived Fort Lauderdale's 4AM bar-emptying and made it to the starting line intact  -Sally Kelly photo

So when we started, I felt much better than I had in the previous days’ heat.  Still, after only about a mile, I was beginning to feel quite hot.   I began feeling a little dampness on my face and realized it was starting to rain a light, misty rain.  The mist felt good and started cooling me down.  I met Sally about mile 13 and refueled with a Snickers and a Red Bull.   She put a wet wrap around my neck which did the trick to keep me from overheating.  Dark clouds came over and for nearly the entire race we had a nice shade from the threatening-looking skies.

A1A Marathon mile 13.1 timing point  -Sally Kelly photo

I picked up a motorcycle escort just after mile 13.  On the return leg of the race the lead runner started catching me and my escort left when I fell behind the lead runners motorcycle.  Sally splashed some water on me as I passed by on the return leg.  I picked up my pace and the motorcycle had to drop back to cover for the lead runner.  With no one taking point for me, I slowed again as I began getting bogged in the back of the half-marathon field.

The lead runner caught me and passed me at about mile 23.  Since he had a motorcycle escort, all the sudden I could pick up my pace.  I no longer had to work my way around the slower runners.  Pretty quickly I passed the lead runner but I was back among the slower half marathoners.

Mile 26.  Making it back through the field of half marathoners  -Sally Kelly photo

At about mile 24 a pair of bicyclists dropped in front of me and began helping me work through the runners.  My “wingmen” took me all the way to the finish where I finished in just under 3 hours. It was not my best effort, but I was very happy nonetheless.

The race offered awards to the top three in each bracket.  Since one of the wheelers was a woman, I managed to bring home a third place trophy!

Carteret County winners! Second & Third place Male hand crank wheelchair.

Roll with me to Boston

It was a great weekend and a lot of fun but mostly a much needed boost to my Boston Marathon training.  One thing I've learned over a decade of handcycling is that training needs to have quality.  To motivate myself during difficult training times I dedicate my efforts to something bigger.  Please help out by support our cause, Hope For The Warriors.  Use our secure online donation page to contribute to this great cause.  2008 Miles of Hope.

Run for Hope  -Sally Kelly photo

And follow me as we roll on to Boston.

-Lets Roll!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Turning 100

From spectator to marathoner

"I think I can do that"
In 2006 I had no idea I could do a marathon.  The thought was as foreign to me as flying to Pluto.   

My niece was running in the Marine Corps Marathon 10 years ago this weekend.  I sat on the corner of Wilson Boulevard and Lynn Street in Rosslyn, VA.  I was waiting for the Marathon to start.  I was positioned at mile 1, hoping to catch a glimpse of her as she ran by.
Spotting my niece in the runners

I saw several athletes pass by on handcycles, or crank wheelchairs, they are sometimes called.  I said to myself, “I think I can do that!”

Crank wheelchairs
My niece and I made a pact that evening over dinner to be back the next year.  Running the People’s Marathon together.
I went home and began training.  And training.  And training.  I also began looking for a cause.  Something to benefit casualties of the post-9.11 war.  In March of 2007 I took part in my first race.  It was a local 10K.  I was hooked.

Training and training

I began looking for another local race.  I found the Run For The Warriors at Camp Lejeune.  I emailed Sally, “Here’s our cause!”  We had a great time at the race.  We met many motivating individuals from the military and civilian communities.  We learned about Hope For The Warriors and their mission to give Hope to wounded military, their families, and the families of the fallen.  They also had a Team Hope For The Warriors for the Marine Corps Marathon.

Run For The Warriors 2007

Team Hope For The Warriors

Team Hope consisted on military members, community members, and wounded military, all united on a mission to raise money for Hope For The Warriors.  I vowed to be on that team at the Marine Corps Marathon.

Later in the spring of 2007, I visited Washington, DC.  Sally and I drove the entire Marine Corps Marathon course.  I knew I would have trouble with the hills.  Particularly the last quarter mile, the entrance to the Marine Corps Memorial, the last steep hill known to Marine Corps Marathoners as, “Iwo.”  We got a chance to ride the bike path next to that stretch of course.  Or, I should say, attempt to ride.  The hill was too steep for me.  I thought I could just use lower gears.  They just don’t make gears that low.
Marshall Drive, the final qurter mile, or better known as, "Iwo"
I returned home to regroup.  I had to have to become a lot stronger.  Sadly, I let Hope For The Warriors know I would not be on their team at the Marine Marathon in 2007.  I told my niece that we would re-focus on 2008.  My training centered around laps over the Atlantic Beach Bridge and a steep, block-long climb up East Atlantic Avenue at the Beach.

Ironically, during a workout about two weeks before the ’07 Marathon, I learned a climbing technique with my handcycle that would get me up the hill called Iwo.  It was a bittersweet success.  The technique would get me up a steeper hill than ever before.  But its discovery came too late to get into the race I had my sights set on. 

The climbing technique I learned that night eventually got me to the top of Iwo.  My focus was no longer on discovering “if” I could climb the hill, but “when.”

2008 Miles of Hope

2008 was to be my 30th anniversary of living with a disability.  I have been a quadriplegic since 1978 when I broke my neck in a pool while teaching swimming lessons to kids.  That’s another long story for another time.  I was going to celebrate my 30th year with a disability by conquering Iwo--completing the Marine Corps Marathon.

I started a fundraising campaign I called 2008 Miles of Hope.  All the money we raise goes to Hope For The Warriors.  Friends, neighbors, family, and local businesses support us with generous donations.  As of this writing, we have raised over $80,000 in donations for Hope For The Warriors.

Taking Iwo
In 2008 I climbed Iwo.  The hill itself took me 20 minutes to climb, I seem to remember.  It wasn’t exactly pretty but spectators screamed at me at the top of their lungs as I inched up Marshall Drive.  Two Hope teammates that had finished their race joined me and walked beside me to the finish.  Robbie Powers, the finish line announcer, asked all the spectators to remove their caps in respect to the flag I had carried throughout the Nation’s Capital.  Marines lining the finish rendered crisp salutes.

The Marine Corps finish line
And that was just the beginning.  Sunday will be my ninth trip to the People’s Marathon starting line.  “Hope”-fully it will be my 8th MCM finish.  There was a nasty little crash in 2011.  My best MCM time is 4:30-ish.  I’m hoping for a new MCM PR.

But most importantly, it will be my 100 finish of a long stretch of full and half marathons for Hope For The Warriors.  The journey has taken Sally and me to races in 15 different states.  My total mileage rolled in races, training, and fundraising events has well exceeded the distance around the world.  I completed the Chicago Marathon earlier this year and the NY City Marathon four times in previous years.  I completed the Air Force Marathon, the Army's All-American Marathon, and the Soldier Marathon; but the Marine Corps Marathon is still my favorite.

All American Marathon, April 2016

Help us spread Hope

Runners often ask each other, “What’s next?”  It’s an acknowledgement that you can’t quit.  For me the answer is simple.  Another marathon.

Please help us with our cause.  Donate to Hope For The Warriors.  Their mission is still critical.  Use our secure donation website:  Spread hope.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Never Quit!—2013 New York City Marathon

I've fallen far too far behind in my blogging to ever catch up.  Sunday I sat by my fireplace and watched the 2013 NYC Marathon on TV.  I was a bit overwhelmed by a wave of nostalgia as I read facebook posts from families of friends as they wished their runners Godspeed.  As I watched the drama unfold, I remembered the thrill of crossing the starting line of the previous four NYC Marathons.  So I dusted off the following account of my previous journey through the Big Apple and finally got around to posting (As you read the tale, bear in mind the dates of events are a year prior to this posting).

If I make it to the starting line, I WILL finish!

The alarm clock blinked two AM when the phone rang.  I said to Sally, “That’s pretty rude;” expecting the wakeup call at three AM.  My watch told the bad news…it really was three.  In a fog of disorientation after travelling through six different towns, I thought “If today is Sunday, this must be New York”.

On the street around 4 AM, a “gleeful” couple invited me to help find a liquor store.  In the “city that never sleeps,” my ‘Sunday,’ was just the unwelcome conclusion to their Saturday activities.  “Yes, this must be New York.”

Two weeks prior, I rolled out of my hotel toward the starting line of the Detroit Marathon.  One week ago it was Arlington, VA, and my destination was the Marine Corps Marathon.  This day, the New York City Marathon was to be the capstone for a difficult and fulfilling year.

Sally and I raise money for Hope For The Warriors through my participation in marathons and half-marathons.  This year I attempted six marathons and three half marathons.  The New York City Marathon would be my 70th such event in the past six years. 

I reminded myself, “You’re not at the starting line yet.”

Leveling the field

I don’t consider myself an athlete.  “I’m a participant.”  For those that don’t know me, I’m a quadriplegic.  I use a unique crank wheelchair to ‘participate’ in road races.  For years I bragged of an unsullied legacy of last-place finishes amongst the other wheelers.  ‘Participating’ with other “quads” (quadriplegics) is rare.  But somewhere, I caught a competitive bug.

Last year, with the help of Bertram’s Machine shop, in Morehead City, and Crystal Coast Bicycles, at Atlantic Beach, I developed some unique modifications to a new handcycle.  Now I put to full use the few arm, shoulder, and back muscles above my level of paralysis.  I ‘participated’ in a few events with other quads.  Not only was my last place legacy behind me, but often, my competition, the other quads, were behind me too.

My greatest accomplishment was my final event last year.  At the Palm Beach Marathon, as I entered the finish chute, I could see the winner’s tape stretched across the finish line.  As I approached, the finish line crew hastily retracted the tape, which was intended for the runner behind me.  Nonetheless, it was a personal achievement to have crossed the finish line ahead of the winning runner.

The fall challenge

Early this year, that ‘competitive bug’ gnawed at me as I registered for these three events.  Each was uniquely exciting and rewarding to me.  The Detroit Marathon was a physically difficult event that included a crossing of the Ambassador Bridge into Canada and a return via the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel.  The grades of the bridge and the tunnel were no greater than the Atlantic Beach Bridge, so I was confident of completion.  More importantly, since I knew another quad who would be there, it would be a race. 

The Marine Corps Marathon has a sentimental meaning for me.  In 2006, I watched from the sidelines for my niece to pass by.  I witnessed crank wheelchair athletes for first time.  With the words, “I think I can do that,” my marathon career began.

In New York City, five bridges, including one of the longest suspension bridges in the world, make it strenuous.   A record 50,000 runners ensure a congested course, a problem for wheelers on steep downhill streets.  The biggest obstacle to the event’s starting line, however, is its popularity.  A limited field of crank wheelers are admitted into the event.  It was August before I knew I was in.

I knew the volume of runners would be my biggest challenge.  Hills slow down quads tremendously on the uphill climb.  The bigger problem is safely maneuvering through the runners at high speeds on the downhill side.  For that problem guides are essential.


Detroit provided bicyclists to guide the wheelers as they maneuver in the field of runners.  Many of the guides came from the legendary Wolverine Sports Club.  The club has trained more than 100 National Champions, 300 National medalists, and several Olympic and Pan Am athletes.  Certainly my Detroit guides would be able to cover me at any speed I could muster.

Ambassador Bridge:  Detroit Marathon
Unfortunately for my ego, the other quad I expected to race was recuperating from an injury.  I was the only quad in the field of approximately 30 wheelers.  The guides were crucial to my completion.  The two longest downhill stretches, the Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel were extremely crowded.  My finish time of 4:35 was only two minutes off the self-proclaimed “quad course record” set two years prior by my absent counterpart. 

Marine Corps: paying it forward

The Marine Corps Marathon is my favorite marathon.  It is tough for a wheeler, particularly for a slower quad.  The fall colors, the national monuments, and the unique spirit Marines impart to the race provide an unending motivation throughout the course.  The first two and a half miles, however, are uphill.  For slower wheelers, that means falling behind a thick group of runners early in the race, making the downhills more difficult. 

That day, my goal was to beat the popular benchmark of Oprah Winfrey’s time of 4:29.  On the initial climb I was doing better than previous years.  Even with a few minutes earlier start than the runners, I fell well back into the thick of the runners by mile two. 

The Marine Corps Marathon doesn’t provide guides for wheelers.  I find passing runners who are deafened with their mp3 players blasting to be frustrating.  As I wheeled down Rock Creek Parkway I shouted at the top of my lungs to warn runners I was passing from behind.  Then runners along my path started their own impromptu guiding.  Some would run in front to clear a path, others would shout forward to runners ahead of me.

I was amazed at what I experienced.  Even in some of the most congested areas, runners moved over.  But at about mile eight, I started hearing some confusing shouts from runners.  When I started downhill and shouted "wheels on the right," runners started shouting "wheels left."  After about a mile of this I saw the reason.

I was close to another wheeler, AJ, who was on the left.  I knew AJ from my first Marine Corps Marathon in 2008.  AJ and another amputee, Zach, both had been “Warrior” team members in our Team Hope For The Warriors.  He wasn't being too aggressive about moving forward through the runners.  I transitioned over to the left and asked him if he wanted to move right and work the crowd together.  He said he was doing pretty well on the left.  I went in front and pretty soon noticed he was having trouble keeping up, particularly on the climbs.  I would lose him and stop for him to catch up. 

"Guiding" for AJ
I knew in that 2008, AJ and Zach had trouble with crowds.  A runner named Kip had spontaneously guided the two to help them get to the finish.  I felt AJ could use some guiding this year and maybe I could help.  From about mile nine until the final grueling hill affectionately known to Marine Marathoners as “Iwo,” I got in front of AJ and he followed in my ‘wake.’

Guiding for AJ was a unique experience.  I was unknowingly paying it forward for what I would receive in my next race.  I finished in 5:08, far better than any previous Marine Corps Marathon time.  Oprah's time stands unopposed, but I felt better about this race than any previous.

The Big Apple: Getting to the start

Four and a half hours was my goal for New York.  Some basic high school physics told me that if I wanted to do well in New York, I would need fast guides.  As luck would have it, this year I was given the opportunity to invite my own guides.  It was not the last time that luck, or maybe divine intervention would play a role in my New York experience.

In August, I contacted Heidi Tucker from Morehead City and Anne Wheatly from Beaufort to see if they were interested in guiding in New York.  I know several others equally capable of guiding me at a fast pace.  However, those that could be ready for a November marathon were already registered and training for a specific event.

I had spoken to both the previous year about guiding but neither were available at that time.  This year, luck was again on my side.  Both were already training at distances that were compatible with an early-November marathon schedule.  Both had expressed interest in the New York City Marathon in the past.  Most importantly, both women were sub-three hour marathoners.  In fact, all three of us held a marathon personal record time within five minutes of each other.

I knew that I could not complete New York at their pace.  But their speed would not be wasted on me.  Heidi’s and Anne’s quickness would enable me to attain better speeds on the descents, especially in the thick of 50,000 runners.

During the weeks leading up to New York, the two women often trained together.  As close friends and training partners, they also solidified personal bonds that were to benefit our run in New York.  On several occasions we coordinated training runs that gave them the opportunity to learn how my speeds would vary with the terrain.  They shifted the focus of their training to interval and speed workouts as opposed to endurance building.  In New York, there would be ample opportunities for rest as we walked up the hills.  But as they sprinted downhill, they would not be avoiding runners; they would be moving runners to clear a path.

For the first time I had an opportunity to train with NYC Marathon guides2

We discussed logistics of the race by email and in particular the AWDs (athletes with disabilities) divisions.  I wanted Heidi and Anne to understand unique issues associated with transportation to start.  Sally would meet us at several locations along the course and she could assist us by positioning clothing, drinks, and energy foods.

Bruce Gentry, at Crystal Coast Bicycles, had helped get my handbike as ready as possible.  I had new tires and new cables on the shifters.  With spare tires and tools, Sally and I prepared for our two and a half week, three-marathon trip in mid-October.  By race day in New York, it was a relief to have all of those preparations behind us.  I have always said of a marathon, “The 26.2 miles in front of me is not the hard part.  It’s the 1000 miles behind me that were difficult” (in this case the 1000 preparations too).

Some things you can’t prepare for

The New York City Marathon is a point-to-point race renown for a course that takes runners through all five of the city’s boroughs.  On the day of the race, 50,000 runners were transported to the start, mostly by bus or the Staten Island Ferry.  At just before 5 AM I met Heidi and Anne at the “AWD loading zone,” in mid-town Manhattan.  The pre-dawn light of Fifth Avenue street lamps and bus headlights cast a criss-crossing maze of shadows over the growing gaggle of wheelchairs, racing chairs, crutches, and canes as the congregation of AWDs grew.

An exercise in logistics
We were all buzzing with the excitement of race day as I was loaded onto one of the first busses.  Seated in my crank chair, I was picked up by the transportation workers who loaded me onto the bus alongside half a dozen or so amputees.  Heidi and Anne were getting settled in one of the passenger seats as were other guides.  In the well-lit interior of the bus, it was then that I saw “the look” on their faces.  In all our discussions of the AWD division of the race, the abbreviation “AWD” had become a euphemism for the very stark spectacle now before their eyes. 

Athletes with disabilities on the bus to the start.
Though fleeting, the look that flashed across their faces was that same “oh my gosh” look of disbelief that I saw on the faces of my friends 35 years ago.  Then they first looked on my disabled body after I had broken my neck.  It was the same look I had seen on the faces of previous guides when they first laid eyes on the multitude of AWDs in one place.  Nothing these ladies had imagined had prepared them for the hodgepodge clutter of prosthetic devices, missing limbs, scars, and every conceivable form of adaptive conveyance that was scattered in front of them. 

As we bounced along FDR Drive, the sky clung to the last remnants of darkness like a gray backdrop to the Brooklyn skyline reflecting off the East River.  The scene was accentuated by the lights of the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges.  All the while the chatter and conversation grew amongst the athletes and guides.  One Marine amputee took an interest in Anne’s stories of extreme trail runs while another shared with us stories of rehab at Bethesda and the “frat house” lifestyle they enjoyed during their convalescence.  The ice was broken. 

Only 26.2 miles left to go

We arrived at Staten Island around six AM and made our way through the growing sea of runners assembling throughout the east end of the island.  The weather was falling short of the promised temperatures in the upper 40s to lower 50s and abundant sunshine.  The 15-20 mph winds would be bitter while we crossed the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, but we hoped for comfort from the sun as New York’s tall buildings blocked the wind.

Organized chaos

We waited in a tent in an assembly area for the AWDs.  I had brought a breakfast with me consisting of boiled eggs, Fig Newtons, and milk.  Anne and Heidi were taking in the strange spectacle around them.  They asked if the other guides met their athlete before the race.  “It seems like there is not a lot of mingling between the guides and their athletes,” Heidi observed.  At about that moment, Adam, one of my guide runners from a 2011, stopped by.  We embraced and chatted for a few moments before he had to depart to locate his athlete.  I explained to Heidi that our opportunity train together was truly a blessing.  Many of the guides were from the New York area but the athletes come from around the world.

My former guide, Adam and I reunited
"I always took the time to try to get acquainted with my guides in advance via email,” I explained.  “But it has always been the weekend of the race that we met face-to-face.  Usually I arranged to meet for a warm-up run in Central Park.”  But the race always solidified our friendship.  “The bonds of friendship forged in the fires of a difficult endeavor are strong enough to endure a lifetime,” I later explained.  Indeed, the bonds between these two friends were growing as they were amongst the three of us.  Later in the day I would appreciate the value of those bonds to the endeavor that lay before us.

At 8 AM the AWDs and guides were called to stage short of the starting line.  The trip was probably about a half mile from our area.  Nearly entire trip was uphill.  We got our first taste of the warm New York reception in for us.  Runners awaiting their turn to start stood as we passed and welcomed us with applause.  At the approach to the starting line, we were personally welcomed by Mary Wittenberg, the President and CEO of the New York Road Runners, the host organization for the marathon.  We were also greeted by an NYPD Police Chief and numerous other dignitaries.  It seemed as if we had just stepped out of the celebrity tent.

Like everything else about the NYC Marathon, the first bridge is overwhelming

The view from the starting line was intimidating.  There was nowhere to look but up.  The Verrazzano Narrows Bridge in front rose to a height of 250 feet.  The towers rise to a height of nearly 800 feet.  It was a mile to the top of the roadway.  Even higher overhead two NYPD helicopters circled the bridge to protect us from the unthinkable.

Windy, raw weather for the slow climb
The starting horn sounded, but the start was anti-climatic.  It was a slow uphill roll off the line and a long climb to the top.  The weather reports were right about the winds and the temperature but there was no sun to be seen.  The wind on the bridge was raw.  I got a good workout on the climb but Heidi and Anne were freezing.  They were dressed to run.  Their work would begin in a few minutes. 

New York harbor
The Verrazano Narrows Bridge is normally off limits to pedestrians.  This event is the only time one can enjoy the views of the New York Harbor, Statue of Liberty, the lower Manhattan skyline, and the majesty of the bridge itself as a pedestrian.  And even during this event, only the guides and the slower AWDs are able to linger over the unfettered views.  For other runners, the roadways are too congested to stop and sightsee.  The three of us took it all in as I ground my way up the first mile.  As we neared the top of the span, a stir of activity behind signaled that the race was getting underway for the professional women.

Before we started our first downhill run, I asked Heidi and Anne to run ahead to warn the other athletes and guides in front to move to the left as I passed them.  The professional women had just started.  The elites were about to pass us on the right side of the bridge.  Heidi and Anne were about to have the rare chance to run alongside some of the fastest professional marathoners in the world on the left side of the bridge.

On the downhill side.  Anne and Heidi are behind me in the bright green shirts.  Elite women are on the left.
The two women took off and sprinted down the bridge.  Professionals Deba Buzunesh and her training partner, Tigist Demisse, had already stepped out in front of the lead women.  It looked as if Heidi and Anne were the only women who dared to give chase.  I topped the crest of the bridge and was buffeted badly by the wind down the second mile.  I passed Heidi and Anne near the bottom of the span and rolled into Brooklyn at the bottom of the bridge.  Crowds already lined the streets.  It seemed the AWDs and guides were getting as much attention as the professionals.  A handmade sign read, “We love you!”  A spectator shouted at the top of her voice, “Welcome to Brooklyn!”  The intensity of the welcome never diminished throughout the day.
Brooklyn loves you!


Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn comprises about six miles of the course.  The street is lined with homes, shops, apartments, and on Marathon day, spectators.  Heidi and Anne caught me about mile three.  They were emotionally pumped up after running alongside the elites.  We were also sheltered from the raw wind biting at us on the bridge.  I crawled up the hills and flew down the hills.  We, the other AWDs, and guides had the course to ourselves.  Our pace was good; we were well ahead of my position for this time in my previous NY races.

NYC Marathon icon Sister Mary Gladys
We caught up with my favorite NYC Marathon icons, Sister Mary Gladys.  I slowed to chat with her and her guides as she cranked her way up one of the hills of 4th Avenue.  Sister Mary has completed 29 New York City Marathons and is still going strong at the age of 81.  She once participated on foot, but now, as she puts it, “My knees aren’t doing so well.”  The crank wheelchair has become a blessing for Sister Mary as it has for me.

Farther up 4th Avenue we passed the 10K timing station.  I recall our time being around 1:15.  My GPS was not charged up so I did not record my timing.  The time was good since it included the time it took to cross the first bridge in a nasty headwind.  

At mile eight we paused briefly to meet Sally.  We also met Geeta and her new son, Avi, who is the same age as Heidi’s younger son.   Geeta had been my guide two previous years.    This was my first opportunity to meet Avi.  Geeta expressed her admiration of Heidi’s return to the marathon.  

Molecular biochemist, marathoner, former guide, and dear friend Geeta and Avi
 The girls handed off their jackets to Sally.  I took in some quick energy food and we launched quickly hoping to retain our pace.  I told Heidi and Anne that we were about to share the road with fifty thousand runners.  “Keep an eye open behind for the elite men,” I told them. 

New York uses three separate courses for the first eight miles of the Marathon.  We were just a few blocks short of the spot where the courses converge.  In previous years, the elite men had passed me around mile seven.  This year it was around mile nine.  It was another sign we were doing well.  The men came flying by as I was bogged down on a slight incline.  Heidi and Anne used the opportunity to release some of their pent up energy.  Once again, they sprinted ahead alongside the pros.  When we rejoined, they were unanimous, “That opportunity, by itself, was worth the trip,” as Heidi put it!

Anne running beside the Pros
Bad luck lay in wait for me around mile nine.  Heidi found a piece of paper stuck to my left tire.  She removed the paper, sensing it was annoying me.  Unbeknownst to us, the paper had a staple attached.  The staple was now embedded in my tire.  Our pace was about to pick up.  We took off up Bedford Avenue, and finally Heidi and Anne had a chance to get in some running.  The elevation drops slightly; perfect for me.  As more and more sub-elite runners passed us, the congestion on the streets began to increase.  Occasionally, we got a long downhill stretch clear of runners and a chance to take off.  Heidi and Anne would catch me on my next uphill climb.  We made good time through Williamsburg until about mile 12.  

Trouble in Queens

After one long downhill run, I began to hear a lot of noise from my left tire.  Heidi took a look and said, “It’s flat.”  She found the staple from the piece of paper she found back at mile nine.  I continued on the flat tire to mile 13 but I was being excessively cautious as I took corners.  I didn’t want that tire to come off the wheel.

Has the fun come to an end?
The Pulaski Bridge joins Queens and Brooklyn.  It is also the halfway point in the race.  Our time was a little over two hours at that point.  Even on the flat tire, we were doing better than I had hoped.  We stopped at the foot of the bridge where we could talk and started to put together a plan.  I felt I could drag the tire along for the rest of the race, but that was not a very wise idea.  Sally had my spare tire and was supposed to meet us anyway at mile 16. 

The originally planned spot was the Manhattan side of the Queensboro Bridge.  Anne called Sally and asked if she could meet us on the east end of the bridge instead.  If she did, then we only had to go about two miles further on the flat and I would wheeling a good tire across the bridge.

Our little team drug our way through Queens, stopping to check with race officials to see if any assistance was available.  No joy.  We were on our own.  Our only hope was meeting Sally with the spare tire.  We continued our progress, be it only a slow grind.  

At the east end of Queensboro Bridge, our optimism was as deflated as my tire.  There was no Sally.  Without a tire, this was potentially going to be either a very long day or a very short one.  Regardless, forward motion was critical so we continued our way up the bridge on the flat tire.  We were heading in the direction I thought Sally would be coming from.

Confusion also played our mindset.  The west end of the bridge is where we had originally planned to meet Sally.  I assumed she would just walk over the bridge heading east.  After the phone message from Anne, garbled by background noise and cell-phone-grade audio quality, Sally asked a New Yorker for directions to the east end of the bridge.  

Cultural differences played into the confusion.  Living in a rural environment most of my life, I would opt to walk anywhere I had to go if it were a mile or closer.  The New Yorker, however, directed Sally to a subway to take her beneath the East River to The Queens end of the bridge.  As Heidi, Anne, and I trekked upward and westward, Sally emerged from the subway behind us, waiting for us to arrive.

Most runners overlook the challenge posed by the Queensboro Bridge.  At a point in the race where the miles are beginning to take their toll, this formidable beast rises high over the East River.  Fifteen miles beyond the excitement and adrenaline of the start lies one of the most difficult challenges of the race.  Runners climb to nearly the height of the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge, but in only half the distance.  On the downhill side, bales of hay line the turn off the bridge into the streets of Manhattan.  Wheelers quickly recognize those hay bales are there to mitigate the consequences failing to heed one's speed in a steep turn.

Crossing the bridge, high above the screaming throngs that lined the streets below, runners find an eerie quiet.  The hauntingly muffled pitter-patter of thousands of sneakers on the steel grate is mind numbing.  It is a time of introspection for many, when the aches, pains, and stress of a marathon play their horrid tricks on the mind.  Having drug a flat tire for five miles, the difficult climb and the raw conditions were wearing on my mind, too.  Cold was sinking in again.  Not only had the weatherman forecasted non-existent sunshine, but it was now starting to sprinkle.  Atop this steel pathway, the wind was bitter. 

Certainly, my enthusiasm was at its nadir.  Was this how the race going to end for us?  Was months of training by myself and these two women going to be wasted?  All because of a mere staple?  I was trying to decide the best strategy.  I also pondered ‘plan B.’  I told Heidi, “In the event I have to DNF (do not finish), I will drop out and link up with Sally.  You and Anne continue ahead and connect up with the next AWD you meet and continue guiding with them.”  These were not words I wanted to say and not words Heidi wanted to hear.

High above Roosevelt Island, a few rays of sunshine seemed to signal that our bad luck had run its course.  Heidi spotted Sally behind us, jogging to catch us.  From her vantage point on the ground, Sally had spotted us, specs about halfway up the bridge.  Anne jogged back to meet her while Heidi and I continued upward across the bridge.  Sally and Anne caught up with us near the top of the bridge. 

I'll take Manhattan

Because of the bitter conditions up there, I made the decision to continue on the flat and try to find a place out of the wind on the ground to do our work.  I began to coast downhill and rolled out ahead of Heidi, Anne, and Sally.  At the bottom of the bridge, directly in front of me was a sight that was so unbelievable, I had to stop and stare.  A policeman walked over to see if I was OK.  “Is that a bike shop?” I asked.  I wasn’t sure if I was hallucinating.  The policeman assured me it was real.

Never a more welcome sight
I coasted over to the sidewalk in front of the bike shop while the policeman stepped inside to ask if they could fix the flat.  Sally, Heidi, and Anne caught me in a few minutes.  Now there were four who were dumbfounded by our luck.  Not only was the tire about to be fixed, the buildings sheltered us from the wind.  To top off our good fortune, the sun appeared with its overdue warmth.  Anne attributed our good fortune to her best fans, her mom and dad; now angels watching over us.  Indeed, in the warmth of that spot and amidst the reception of our new neighbors, at that moment I felt as if I might be back in Beaufort.

Not exactly a NASCAR pit crew, but exactly what I needed
The first attempt with a new inner tube was unsuccessful.  Even though the bike shop guy checked my tire carefully, when he inflated it, the new tube exploded with the crack of a gunshot.  Did I mention the nearby policemen?  As they walked over to check us out, Sally thanked them for not drawing their side arms.  On the second try, Sally's spare tire and a new inner tube did the trick.  We were back on the road.  We had lost about an hour and a half by being slowed by the bad tire and the ensuing stops.

A whole new game

At mile 16, the course runs northward up 1st Avenue in Manhattan.  It is one of the uniquely 'New York' aspects of this marathon.  Runners are rousted from their quietude on the Queeensboro Bridge as they turn onto 1st Avenue.  The contrast is electrifying.  New Yorkers lining the streets screaming to cheer on the runners provide a jolt of energy that is non-stop through the end of the race.

As we rolled out with new rubber, our relative calm at the bike shop was replaced by the deafening screams of millions of spectators packed along the entire street.  The tall buildings reverberated the roar of the crowds and the bands.  “Toto, I think we’re not in Kansas any more,” I told myself.  Just before they stepped onto the street, I reminded Heidi and Anne that their work was about to begin in earnest.  After our delay, more and slower runners were going to be in front of us.  Their job was about to become much tougher.  However, what I was about to witness, was when the going got tough, the tough got tougher.

Finding room to roll amidst the crowds
Almost immediately we hit a downhill stretch amidst a throng of thousands of runners packed shoulder to shoulder.  It was far too noisy to communicate by voice.  I was having no problem keeping up with the two.  They sensed the downhill grade and pushed forward.  Heidi, being taller, and hence, more visible, took point and raced up ahead.  Anne ran just to the side of my front wheel.  The technique they improvised worked amazingly well.  Heidi plowed through the crowds, I followed in her wake, and Anne screened me with the ferocity of an offensive tackle, zealously guarding the space that Heidi had opened.

All three of us shouted ahead to clear the runners.  At water stations we moved to the center of the street and slowed to a walk.  We used this technique for the rest of the course.  On the uphill grades we slowed and Heidi and Anne would catch their breath.  On the downhill sections, they sprinted flat out.  On a few spots where I caught a long open stretch, I would pass them and crank flat-out.

It seemed like only minutes later that we left Harlem and started up the Willis Avenue Bridge.  I had just witnessed an amazing transformation.  Before the flat tire these two ladies had not been challenged by our race.  They had enjoyed the sights and the experience, but in terms of flexing their muscles, they were itching for a run.  Between mile 12 and 16, we were held back by the flat.  But after mile 16, there was nothing holding us back except the crowds.  New York is the world’s biggest stage for a marathoner.  Both were eager to make the most of their debut.

Anne is an accomplished runner and marathoner.  She established her prowess on the dominant NC State University Women Cross Country team.  In 2009 she placed second in the women’s open division at the Shamrock Marathon.  She finished that event in 2:52, only 48 seconds behind the first place winner.  But injuries and the recent loss of both her parents made her set aside marathon aspirations.  The New York Marathon had been one of those aspirations.  Getting back onto the course with a close friend like Heidi in a non-competitive role like guiding turned out to be the perfect emotional boost.  “It was so much more than a race for me, it was a way for me to start placing the pieces of my life back together,” Anne reflected.

Marathoners Heidi and Anne
Heidi, too, was ready for a comeback after a hiatus from the marathon.  In her first marathon attempt 10 years ago, she surprised herself by qualifying for Boston.  After Boston she ran 12 more marathons with a personal record of 2:57.  Bringing two baby boys into the world changed her lifestyle completely.  Like Anne, marathon training and aspirations took a back seat in 2009 to the commitments of her family.  “When Paul offered this opportunity, it was just the push I needed to get back into the marathon,” Heidi shared.

Bronx:  Get ‘er done!

Finally things were going well.
At mile 20 we crossed the Willis Avenue Bridge into The Bronx.  The two women running before me were on a mission.  They had transformed into a people-moving machine that tore through the streets of New York at a breathtaking pace.  It was amazing to see their responsiveness to each other as they found the path of least resistance.  At times I was hesitant to exert all-out in such a heavy crowd, but the two never once let me down.  It seemed the faster I went, the faster they would clear the path.  “I think Anne and I surprised ourselves with the way we were able to plow folks out of the way and with how much of a thrill we got doing it,” Heidi later reflected.  I never guessed how much of a role their close friendship would play in the success of our team, but as Heidi put it, “…whatever it is we do, we want to do it the best we possibly can!”

The final mile
Of my four trips down Fifth Avenue, the last few miles of the race, I have never felt such a boost of energy.  I enjoyed the race so much at that point I was tempted to slow down and savor the last few miles.  But on the heels of Heidi and Anne, with millions of screaming New Yorkers lining the streets, our trio entered Central Park and cruised through the crowds to the finish line.


In retrospect, I could not have asked for more out of this marathon.  If I had not succumbed to the flat tire, at the speeds we tore through Manhattan, we would have beaten the 4:30 goal I set for myself.  But absent the added challenge, I don’t know that that I would have pushed myself as hard.  Or if Heidi and Anne would have either.  Once we hit the streets after our delay, there was new purpose in their steps and a more focused, shared determination in our hearts.

It was not the New York personal record I had hoped for.  Our time was 5:41.  Either of my guides could have easily run this race almost two hours quicker.  But their speed had its effect.  After significant delays, we made up enough time in the most congested miles of the course that our time was within six minutes of my PR for the course! 

Both Heidi and Anne were moved by the experience working with AWDs.  Heidi credits the experience with, “opening my eyes to what it takes for an AWD to not only get to the starting line but also what it takes just to get through the course.  It was incredibly humbling and motivating to be around such an upbeat and determined group of people.”  For Anne, the experience was spiritual; she drew on an inner strength derived from the memory of her parents. “From this experience I now stand tall on my own two feet; for the first time as a true adult and I'm facing the sunshine.  I know that my family extends so much further past its physical characteristics.  I know that I will never truly be alone.” 

After the race the two gals savor a hard-earned accomplishment
For me, the experience was an undeniable success.  If I had to recap the sum of the experience that day, I would have to recant Anne’s insightful words:  “When God gives you a flat tire, just keep peddling until you find the bike shop at the end of the bridge.”  Words we can all live by.


2008 Miles of Hope

With the help of my beloved wife, Sally, and support from hundreds of great people like Anne and Heidi I have been fortunate enough to complete 77 marathons and half marathons.  This is my way of raising money for and awareness of a great cause,  Hope for The Warriors.   Hope looks out for our Nation's wounded service members, their families, and the families of the fallen. 
The world in which we live and the freedoms we enjoy would be vastly different without the dedication and sacrifice of our nation’s service men and women.  We owe them so much.  Freedom is not free.

Please help with a donation to my fundraising campaign. All the money we raise goes to Hope For The Warriors.  Learn about the great things they do.

Please make a secure online donation at my donation page: 2008 Miles of Hope donations page.