11.1.2009 NYC MarathonSee part 1
Last year I approached Achilles Track Club about participating in the New York City Marathon. Achilles gets all of the handcycle seeds from the New York Roadrunners. I tell people in jest that NY is heavily unionized and hence Achilles is like the handcycle union for the NYC Marathon. To be fair, this great organization does much to promote the mainstreaming of disabled athletes into world-class events. For the NYC they coordinate a ton of logistics and pre-race planning to make the event accessible to individuals like myself. It takes an organization with insight into the needs of those with disabilities to manage those details. Most race directors are clueless when accommodating the disabled and Achilles does a fine job of making it happen for NYC and other races.
In July I received my registration from Achilles. I was elated. My teammate was not. NYC was going to be a difficult race physically and logistically. And it was going to follow MCM by only seven days. The simple fact that it is a point-to-point race complicates issues such as transportation, parking, transfers from the wheelchair, etc., in ways that the average person would never understand. Then, too, there’s the issue that I’m a high quad and I have more unique needs than other athletes. I call myself the “problem child.” I had put my faith in Achilles. My teammate worried.
In August, we drove to NY to recon the course. Achilles could handle the logistics. I had to handle to hills. We planned to ride the course and do a workout in Central Park for a “wheels on the ground” feel of the course. If my teammate was apprehensive after the outset, after the NY trip, I began to worry. I told folks that there were 5 boroughs, five bridges, and five thousand potholes. The significance of those potholes can’t be understated as they can trip a runner, destroy a fragile wheelchair wheel, or deflect a chair into the path of a runner. I also joked that the Wilson Avenue Bridge was paved by the guy that landscaped the moon. My friend C- told me a horror story about doing a face plant on the metal grate surface of the bridge that didn’t bolster my confidence either. And then there was the issue of maneuvering down the hills amidst 40,000 runners. If you read this blog, you will know that despite my cynicism, my philosophy is to tackle the difficult with all the resources I have, confident that I will find a way to overcome the seemingly impossible.
On The Town
On Friday we arrived in New York, hurriedly unpacked, and worked out an “understanding” with the hotel personnel of where to park my oversized van. I would need its scooter lift race morning for the ritual of transferring onto my handbike. We had a great pasta dinner at Salute at the recommendation of the hotel clerk. Fortunately, we got to bed early.
Saturday AM we got up early and did a pre-race mini-marathon around town. Using my wheelchair-attached handbike I call “Tortoise,” we set out across town from East Mid-Town to the Hell’s Kitchen area for the Expo. The expo was busy, not to mention the largest one I’ve ever attended.
Achilles offered to provide me with “guide runners” to help me with moving through the congestion of runners, a big problem for me at the MCM. I didn’t know what to think but with all the stories I had heard of the congestion on the NYC course, I could foresee some real advantages. Little did I realize at the time what a great experience it would turn out to be. The guides and I had emailed each other in the weeks prior and agreed to meet at the expo Saturday AM. The two guides, A-, and G-, were both delightful individuals.
I think we all knew right away we were going to hit it off. I happened into a third guide, AX- who was asking Achilles if they had needs for additional guides. It seemed to me there was room for a third guide in our little team. I suggested it to the Achilles official, she agreed, and there we had it. There would be four of us running together. We met A-’s mom who was a race volunteer and was handing out T-shirts. She had already organized half a dozen or so cheering and support squads throughout the course for A- and several other family and friends.
We ended up spending so much time getting to know each other and discussing logistics with Achilles that we ended up getting away at noon without buying a thing. We had to beat it to upper Mid-Town on the East Side for a meet-and-greet with Hope For The Warriors. Tina had asked me to speak to the NYC team of runner-fundraisers. It was about 25 blocks away and we had an hour to get there by sidewalk. We trekked across town; my teammate afoot, and I, cranking Tortoise on the second leg of my Saturday mini-marathon around town.
The function with Hope For The Warriors was great. Chris, one of the wounded warrior guides for team Bradford spoke a little about how he and the other guides had trained with LCpl Bradford for the MCM. LCpl Bradford is a blind double amputee who cranked a handcycle through the entire MCM. Yes, you read that correctly. He was guided by three other wounded warriors on handcycles who shouted voice directions to him.
The NYC team raised about $118,000. Over half came from two teammates who did a fundraising event at a NY night club. My little talk didn’t go that well. Much of the material I intended to use in my speech was already covered by other speakers and I’m not that good at changing a speech on the fly.
Afterward it was back over to Restaurant Row via tortoise to join G-, her husband, and family for dinner at Becco. Again, we had a great pasta dinner consisting of pumpkin ravioli, spaghetti w/ pesto, and tortellini and shrimp in a tomato cream and basil sauce. I have to say the pasta is one of the best parts of a marathon. Becco was actually plan B if the NYC pasta party wasn’t do-able. A- and a friend ate at the pasta patry, we opted out because of the threat of rain. Lucky choice. Our dinner was great. A- said the pasta party wasn’t all that good. We wrapped up our busy day by hiking back to East Mid Town to our hotel.
Rain, Rain, Go Away!
Sunday morning we were up at 3:30 AM. Friday night’s sleep had been full of fits and jerks as I think my metabolism was stoked up and trying to burn up all the pasta I had eaten. Saturday night I slept like a log. I woke up 5 minutes before the alarm went off.
The forecast had changed numerous times from perfect weather to monsoons. Before going to bed it looked like the rain would pass early in the night and the sun would come out Sunday during the race. I had set out shorts and my Achilles t-shirt. I planned to wear leg warmers and a jacket until the start. A quick weather check changed all those plans. The radar showed rain everywhere. Instead, I wore rain pants (a base layer would have been nice) and the Achilles t-shirt under a raincoat. We had brought breakfast items back to the room on Friday so I threw down a muffin, coffee, and OJ. I carried a banana with me and planned to eat it on the bus, along with my usual Snickers and energy drink about 40 minutes prior to the start. In retrospect, I should have considered more carefully that it was going to be five hours before I started the race.
My usual fuel plan is a BIG breakfast, Snickers and energy drink 30-40 minutes prior, and meet my teammate for a Snickers and energy drink again at the halfway point. Because of the locations of subway stops and the fact that I didn’t want to lose my teammate in the subway and the halfway point was on the Pulaski bridge, I made some last-minute changes to my fuel strategy that were going to prove disastrous.
At that point, however, my worry list was preoccupied with my tires, potholes, and the Verazanno-Narrows Bridge. I had over 6400 miles logged and never a flat tire. I recently replace all three tires to have good rubber for my fall races. Within the last three weeks I had ruptured three tubes and had one tire go bad. One tube blew a bubble out from under the bead of the tire and ruptured during a race. Miraculously, the air pressure pinched off the tube to hold air until the end of the race. One tire had become defective the night before the MCM. My bike shop guy said, “Just ride on them and forget about it. You’ve done everything you can do.” I carried a tire, two tubes and a change kit with me nonetheless. I couldn’t do anything about potholes, nor the V-N bridge.
Getting to the Start--No Small Feat
My teammate got me loaded onto my bike. I was on schedule. The drizzle was bearable. The temperature would be right for runners. Not ideal weather but compared to what was on the radar, we were LUCKY. The rain was supposed to be gone by start time.
I met my guide runners, A-, G-, and AX- at the Athletes With Disabilities boarding area.
The AWD bus loading area was rehearsed chaos. The bus drivers knew exactly what to do. The NYC firemen did too. A-, G-, and AX- and I waited our turn to board the bus but like every bank teller line I’ve ever been in, it’s the wrong one.
Patience and good nature prevailed until the firemen literally picked up my bike with me seated in it and carried me on the bus. Once on the bus the anxiety began to ease.
For the time being our destiny was in someone else’s hands. You have to pause to appreciate the hard work and planning that Achilles puts into making this event accessible to people like me.
Darkness faded during the bus ride and so did any inhibitions we had between us. We had the chance to spend some time chatting and getting to know each other. We strategized a little about how we would tackle the uphills and how we would clear a path on the downhills. I feel like I couldn’t have asked for better guides. Our personalities clicked perfectly. We were through the forming, storming, and norming in minutes and ready to get our little team on the streets and start performing. As we approached the V-N Bridge, my worry list re-entered my mind. The bridge seemed steep. I knew it was high, but I didn’t think it would be steep.
The good thing about our late departure from the boarding area was that we weren’t waiting around at Fort Wadsworth. Some of the folks waiting around in the staging area looked a little bluish. The bad thing about the wait was that bladders were stressed by the time we got to the staging area.
New Found Warmth
We didn’t wait very long before the AWDs were called to the starting line. The fast pushrim division had launched 25 minutes earlier. My guide runners helped me come out of my rain jacket. The drizzle was gone and the gaggle of handbikers, everyday wheelchair pushers, amputees, and other folks with all kinds of disabilities started their trek to the starting line. At this moment we experienced our first taste of the legendary warm New York hospitality. Many of the runners awaiting their start stood, nearly all applauded, and many shouted words of support.
I have to admit that I had different feelings before this race than afterward. When I asked others about this race, I heard three things universally. 1) It was crowded. That would mean trouble for me. 2) The wait in the staging area could be long and cold. I could see first-hand how that could be a real problem. 3) The New York spectators were the most supportive of any I would ever encounter.
I never thought the crowds would be important. I train on country roads frequently and am used to having to motivate myself to get through to my training goals. My independent attitude told me, “I can do just fine without cheering.” My attitude was rapidly changing.
The warmth and friendliness started at the expo with the Achilles volunteers. It extended through to my guides AND their families that I felt had “adopted” me and my teammate. The little things that I noticed throughout the race completely changed my mind by the finish. I like different things about different races. At the MCM I like the monuments and the scenery. At the Dismal Swamp Stomp, I enjoy the solitude of nature. At the Jax Bank Marathon, I like the shade trees. At NY, I like the crowds.
At 8:45 we rolled across our line of departure. The V-N Bridge loomed high into the sky before us. The closer tower of this expansive span actually leans towards us; the farther leaning away by several inches because of the curvature of the earth. The roadway arched so high into the air that it obscured most of our view of the east tower. I started out with my signature slow roll, cranking out a moderate cadence in my lower gears. G-, A-, and AX- walked along and we laughed and conversed as I took my familiar last place position amongst the handcyclists.
The grade was not as bad as I feared. Another item to check off my worry list. As we ascended the span we were all alone. We enjoyed a treat that few others ever experience. We took in the vast, breathtaking views of the New York Harbor, the NY skyline, and the Statue of Liberty. There were no runners and no traffic to abate our view. At my uphill pace, we had plenty of time to take it in. As we approached the crest of the span, I sent G- and A- ahead to make a path for me through the other AWDs who were ahead. AX- stayed back to assist another AWD just starting his descent.
Unsure of the turns ahead, I held back on my speed coming down. I passed my guides at about 20 mph and cruised into Brooklyn. The first thing that greeted me was a big sign that said “Welcome to Brooklyn.” I remember that sign because, like the warmth of the crowds, it also made me feel not like a visitor, but like a guest. Immediately, as I turned onto 92th St., I felt that warmth that would persist throughout the race. Crowds had come out of their homes and lined the streets not just to watch, but to welcome us to their neighborhood.
Another treat awaited me in Brooklyn. NO POTHOLES! All the streets, I think throughout the entire course, were freshly paved! My tires were holding up great and my worry list was now the farthest thing from my mind. G- and A- caught me about a mile later and we traded the lead repeatedly as my speed varied from a 5-minute pace on the downhills to a 20-minute pace on the ascents. AX- had joined up later after guiding for the lone AWD coming down the bridge.
About mile six we were treated to another unique aspect of the course that few others enjoyed. While enjoying free run of the streets of Brooklyn, we were gifted with a prime view of some of the fastest women in the world as the elite females flew past. I even hit a little downhill stretch as they blew past, allowing me to pick up some speed and ride along for a block or so.
I met my teammate about that point and made a big mistake. She had a second Snickers bar that I wanted to carry to eat about halfway through the race. Through some miscommunication I left her without my crucial fuel. It was now about 10:00. I ate breakfast about six hours ago. I ate my pre-race snack almost two hours ago. I planned to refuel in about another seven miles. I should have been mindful of the time elapsed since last eating.
The elite men flashed by on the right. Again, we enjoyed a unique vantage point. Later, the sub-elite men passed. I dropped in behind the little pack of leaders and drafted them for a bit. Even the leaders yelled in support as they passed.
We continued at a about a 10:00 pace as the Brooklyners yelled at the top of their lungs. This marathon was fully underway by now. Even though the pack was thickening, I could still hear individual shouts of, “Go Paul,” and Go Achilles!” as we made our way up 4th Ave. G- and A- did their best to work up the spectators by motioning with their palms upward. It was unclear who was enjoying themselves the most.
At mile 8 we met the first cheering/aid station set up by A-’s family. Thinking I had my candy bar with me and thinking I could refuel any time, I made the unwise choice not to fuel up. I planned to gobble down the Snickers somewhere about the Pulaski Bridge. The three starting courses had converged and the runners were thick by now. It was difficult for my guides to stay with me on the downhills because the hills were so long that I got up a lot of speed. They were still catching me without any problem when I had to gear down for the uphill. In Bedford and Williamsburg the streets were narrower so the interaction with the spectators was even more personal. I still had no problems when I needed to pass runners because they were running fast.
Throughout the race, in every neighborhood, musicians, singers, dancers, bagpipers, and DJs entertained us.
Even those tied up indoors watched on TV.
Halloween was the previous night. Many runners wore costumes. This was clearly an event for every member of the city.
At mile 11 we met one of A-’s family’s cheering squads. A- handed me a power drink I had pre-positioned with his support team. He searched my basket to no avail for the Snickers I thought I carried.
Trouble in Queens
In the Greenpoint neighborhood, the course made a Z as it switched from Manhatten Ave. to Greenpoint Ave. to McGuiness Blvd. At the latter turn I got a glimpse up ahead of hay bales stacked on the outside corner of the street. I had heard stories of the hay bales from other wheelers so I knew that they had my name on them. I refrained from taking full advantage of the downhill on Greenpoint and took the inside of the turn to avoid embedding myself into the wall of hay. My passage through Greenpoint was successfully uneventful.
I don’t recall exactly how the events played out over the next two miles but I was nearing my normal refueling stop; halfway through the race. In retrospect, when I do the math, one thing is clear. It was time to eat something. I hadn’t eaten anything solid in 3 ¼ hours. Breakfast was 7 ¼ hours ago. By now G-, and A- were used to me leading and lagging them by distances of several blocks as I sped up and slowed down on the hills. I should have asked them to stay in closer as the field became more dense. We were all having too much fun and everything was going OK. At some point, A- offered me a goo but I turned it down. I had never used them before and wanted to stick with the fuel my body was used to.
I seem to remember G-, and A- walking up the top of the Pulaski Bridge with me and running ahead on the downhill. I remember asking if there was a turn at the bottom and G- said it was straight. Again, I went ahead through the path they made for me. They caught me later in Queens and went ahead when I slowed for a hill. At the Queensboro Bridge, the wheelers were diverted off on a separate route on the left. The diversion wasn’t obvious as you approached it. G-, A-, and AX- all missed it and ascended the bridge with the main field of the runners. I was routed under the bridge and took the bicycle/pedestrian lane over the bridge off the right side.
I bonked almost immediately as I started up the bridge. It’s not a good feeling. I had plenty of strength but no energy. Off to the left the runners were thick as molasses in the eastbound traffic lane with the westbound lanes vacant between us. I would crank and stop and rest. I tried calling A- on my cell phone. No answer. I tried calling G-. I could hear her phone ring in my basket. I tried calling AX-. Success.
AX- was at the top of the bridge. He jumped across the barriers to the pedestrian lane and came back down the bridge to meet me. He searched fruitlessly for the Snickers bar I thought I carried. I called my teammate. Turns out the Snickers she thought I had was the one I had eaten before the start. Finally, I sucked down one of G-’s goos and got some instant relief. AX- walked up the bridge with me. I was better although I had lost about 30 minutes in my debacle. The significance of that was I was now going to be much farther back in a much denser field of runners.
One distinct memory I recall of the Queensboro Bridge was the eerie quiet. Since leaving the V-N Bridge we had been immersed in constant, deafening, crowd noise. On the bridge the only sound was the pitter patter of thousands of sneakers. One could hear a whisper.
I rolled down on the bridge ahead of AX- to 1st Ave. It was the last I would see AX-. He somehow managed to pass us in the latter miles of the race. He didn’t see us nor did we see him when he went by. He went on to finish ahead of us. A- called me. He and G- were up to about 95th St. I asked him to grab some extra goos at the water station and wait for me. My teammate was at about 72nd St.
Again hay bales waited for me at the bottom of bridge. Again I opted not to use them.
The trip up 1st Avenue was an entirely different race. The runners were as thick as a swarm of bees. I knew that I wouldn’t be passing anyone until I caught up with my guides. The crowds were different here too. These were the legendary spectators that make the NYC Marathon unique.
If you can imagine the World Series with the Yankees at bat in the bottom of the ninth, two runs down with bases loaded, two outs with a three and two count; that was exactly the kind of cheering coming from this 1st Ave. crowd. This was major-league spectating.
My teammate had affixed my name to my helmet. Crowds yelled, “Go Paul!” They recognized the bright red shirt worn by the AWDs and shouted, “Go Achilles.” The noise would not stop before the finish line. Just past a sponge station at about 72nd St. I caught a glimpse of my teammate. Somehow she had crossed the crowd barrier and was waiting for me while talking to a policeman. I don’t even want to think about how she pulled that off. She produced the long-awaited Snickers. I gobbled it down with huge chomps and washed it down with an energy drink.
I knew G- and A- were waiting for me about 20 blocks north. I wanted to catch them so they could resume running before their muscles set up in the cold.
The support from the crowds and the other runners was amazing. I picked my way through the crowds slowly, more intent now to enjoy myself than to try to make up the time I lost on the Queensboro Bridge. As I neared the spot where I planned to meet G- and A-, I made my way over to the right side of the road. The closer I got to the curb, the more the spectators yelled my name.
I met G- and A- at another of the cheering zones set up by his family. A- was waiting for me with goos. I was probably OK with the Snickers I had just eaten but I sucked a goo down anyway. Anyone who has ever bonked knows they don’t want to do it again, particularly twice in one race. G- and A- were great. We started working as a real team. G- would flank me while A- ran in front and ‘suggest’ to other runners to make room to pass. G- knew the course and was able to warn me of turns that I couldn’t see in front of all the runners.
Next Bridge, Next Difficulty
We made our incursion into the Bronx. On the Willis Avenue Bridge we came upon a fallen runner. A lady was laying face down on the steel grating. It would be a matter of time before someone stepped on her or tripped over her. While all the other runners were trying avoid her, A- ran to her. I stopped upstream of her. He helped her get up. She acted a little dazed but seemed to be OK. She had smacked the steel surface hard with her face. It was a little thing, but I think A- saved her from getting trampled.
The Bronx crowds were excited. They were as friendly as any along the course. We made our way back into Harlem. We weren’t passing many runners at this point. A- was having some difficulty with his knee. G- seemed to have enough energy to power the city. I was pretty tired. I think bonking at 15 was taking its toll now. I think I sucked down another goo about this point. I seemed to remember a long uphill on Park Ave. from our recon trip in August. Soon after mile 23 we found it. It seemed like it was uphill most of the rest of the course.
It's All Uphill From Here
At one point the hill on the right side of the street sloped downhill giving the illusion that we were going downhill. Despite the mirage, my tired arms knew that we were still climbing. On the few brief downhill respites, G- was ready for a burst of speed. The grimace on A-’s face when he tried to sprint told me that we needed to take it easy from here on in. I told A- to set the pace on the downhills. The most important thing now was to avoid injuring his knee. We started as a team. We were going to finish as a team.
I dialed my mother on my helmet headset like I had done at the MCM. I let her listen to the crowd noise along 5th Ave. It was all uphill. The crowds provided the motivation as did other runners. Tina and Sue from Hope For The Warriors were there on the curb with Halloween candy for the Team Hope For The Warriors runners. We saw several of the Team. And throughout the final miles, as it had been for the entire day, other Achilles athletes inspired us with their own personal triumphs over multitudes of individual adversities.
I felt a pat on the back. I looked to my right and saw a gaunt man hobbling along on two prostheses. He was the highest amputee I have ever seen. I shouted in encouragement as did everyone around us. He seemed to be very tired because he was constantly getting tripped up. He, too, had a guide runner that caught him several times when he stumbled. Last year I learned from double amputee Ironman Scott Rigsby that running on blades was pretty tricky and it is easy to trip. The amputee beside me tripped and fell hard, eliciting a massive inhalation from the crowd around him. When our running mate got back to his “feet,” the massive inhalation manifested itself in a thunderous cheer of support for him. I later learned why he looked so tired. He had just run across the United States.
We turned into Central Park for the final leg of our journey. NY had treated us to many pleasures throughout this day. From the spectacular views atop the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to the warm, welcoming neighborhoods, we experienced a unique cross section of this race. We started out all by ourselves with free run of the streets of Brooklyn. As the field of runners advanced past us we had the rare opportunity to run beside the 2-hour champions of the sport and the 5-hour heroes of their homes. And all throughout the race, the New Yorkers cheered for us like we were their heroes. As we turned into Central Park, the city bestowed one last indulgence upon us.
Central Park was resplendent in its fall majesty. Throughout the race the scenery had been mostly man-made. Here, nature’s beauty bedazzled us with the magnificent colors of autumn’s splendor. The afternoon sun filtered through the fiery foliage adding a glimmering brilliance to the spectacle.
My teammate found us in the park. She had climbed over a wall to get to the street. This woman knows no obstacle. We passed G-’s parents and waved. G-’s husband caught us too. Somehow he had been able to leapfrog along the course and catch us at numerous spots. We were approaching Cat Hill in the park. G- and A- both seemed like they were ready to turn some of the energy of this crowd noise into a burst of speed.
G- and A- cleared a path in front, I yanked on the cranks, and I shot through the hole. The speed felt good but it was short-lived. There were just too many runners at this point. With only a mile remaining, it wasn’t going to change our outcome anyway. From here on in, though we never really stated it aloud, I think we all three mutually consented to just enjoy the crowds, enjoy the runners, and enjoy the finish.
I know I slowed down at the finish. I had to because my arms were spent and there was a hill at the end. But I think there was a mental component to it also. I didn’t want this experience to end. Our little team had come the 26.2 miles through the streets and boroughs and bridges of the Big Apple. For 43,000 marathoners including ourselves, the triumph that day was not in the victory, it was in the finish.
I carry an American flag on the back of my handcycle. For me it is the symbol of immense pride and a source of tremendous motivation. I have carried it for over 6000 miles including seven other marathons. After visiting the five boroughs of New York City, that little flag created a minor stir in the bleacher seats that slowly grew until it erupted into a mantra that carried us across the finish line. The spectators shouted in unison, “U-S-A—U-S-A!”
Such was the day of this humble country boy from eastern NC. It was day full of challenges and inspiration. The marathon known for its warm friendly spectators lived up to its reputation. Amidst the 50,000 people that started this great event a handful of strangers forged a new friendship that will last a lifetime, I’m sure. I told the other two that if they ever want to do this again to let me know. Only time will tell if our intrepid little team will ever reunite.
Somehow I think it will. Somehow I think it will be on a dark November morning on a bus headed to Staten Island.