Despite bumps and bruises along the way, the path to the TCS NYC Marathon was ‘amazing’
Reprinted from my column for the Newspaper Media Group
They say it is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before … that it is like one big party … that, for some people, it will change your life. And what an amazing experience it was. The TCS New York City Marathon.
I was never a runner. I played baseball, basketball and soccer, and even field hockey. I coached those sports on the scholastic level. But I never ran track or cross country, and I never coached those “running” sports. The fact is, I loved all the sports I played and coached, but hated running.
I only began running later in life for what would seem like a silly reason – I am a Disney nut. And, yet, for so many years, I never knew that Disney hosted running events. It was during a family vacation to Walt Disney World that I came upon some people wearing really cool shirts with some medals around their necks. I learned that I happened to be there during marathon weekend. The kid in me, the Disney nut, wanted one of those shirts.
So I decided I would run a Disney 5K and get my shirt. One and done. It took me five years to be able to get into that Disney 5K because the event was so popular that it would sell out almost immediately upon the opening of registration. When I finally got in, I was so excited. But I realized that I had never run a 5K in my life. I began running, went to the gym, and altered my diet for seven months leading up to that first event.
It was an amazing and exciting time, and much different than I had expected. It was family-friendly, it was casual, there was no running “for time.” Frankly, it didn’t seem like anyone cared about how long it took them to finish. Everyone seemed more concerned with what characters they would find around the bend and how many character photo ops they could have.
The one and done turned into “one more time” and I went home and began signing up for every 5K I could find. And then I would return to Disney for the next marathon weekend and to the 5K and 10K events. That time I insisted my kids do it with me, simply to get the family picture with the medals around our necks, and I would be done.
But doing that only made me want more. I had to do the Dopey Challenge. I saw so many other people doing it and I wanted that. So back to the gym and back to working feverishly toward being able to do a 5K, 10K, half marathon, and marathon on four consecutive days: 48.6 miles.
I did a number of 5Ks, 6Ks, 10Ks, 10-milers, and half marathons, in a number of different states, leading up to Dopey. And when I finally did Dopey in January 2020, I had completed my first marathon, and I felt like I was on top of the world. I was in the best shape of my life. I felt like I could run a marathon every week at that point.
The thing I came to realize is that as a runner you think in terms of the distances – the numbers 3.1, 6.2, 13.1, 26.2 – they all have a special meaning and for most of us runners, you become almost obsessed with those numbers. And you also become obsessed with something else – the need to do more.
I returned home to New Jersey following Dopey and after some weeks of recovery, in February 2020, I ran the Manhattan 7-Miler in New York’s Central Park, a race that ended right near the finish of the New York City Marathon. I knew that I had to run the most coveted race in the world.
But then COVID hit, and the world shut down. No running events. No gym. Nothing. I was going through withdrawals and coming unglued. I was still running my 3.1 miles a day, but it was nothing more than laps around my mother’s complex, an adult community in Old Bridge. I attracted a lot of attention from the residents sitting on the park benches and those getting in their daily exercise. My “fans” would stop me to ask who I was running from, why I was running, and if my feet ever hurt. Some gentlemen stopped me to ask what image was tattooed on my leg, they had bet each other on what dwarf it was. (It is Dopey, of course, to go along with Marathon Mickey and Goofy). And one woman even called my mother to “rat me out” for wearing shorts when it was too cold. It was a real thrill.
Every race event I had signed up for was either converted to virtual or canceled altogether. I did get in a few virtual 5Ks, making my way to the South Amboy Waterfront and getting in the 3.1 miles down there. But that grew old quickly.
As the COVID restrictions began to loosen, and the gyms began to reopen in March 2021, I started my workouts again. I was not in the shape I was in prior to Dopey, as the layoff took its toll. But I was still in pretty damn good shape.
I also got a message that it appeared that the NYC Marathon, which had been canceled in November 2020, would, in fact, be held in 2021. And I was accepted to be a participant in what was said to be a life-altering event.
But then, on April 7, I got hit with a different kind of life-altering event, literally. After my girlfriend, Melissa, and I had completed our workouts at the gym, we picked up my daughter, Beckie, from work at The Vitamin Shoppe on Route 18 in East Brunswick to take her home to Old Bridge. We were driving south on Route 18 and as we drove through the Maple Avenue intersection by the Wawa, we were T-boned at a high rate of speed by someone who drove through the red signal.
I was in the front passenger seat and don’t remember the accident. Melissa was driving and Beckie was in the back seat behind me. Apparently the air bags saved us as the impact was severe and sent the vehicle spinning out of control and off the road. Beckie got the worst of it, suffering five fractured vertebrae, a broken nose, a concussion, and severe facial lacerations that have already required two plastic surgeries, and there are more to come. Melissa suffered multiple fractured ribs and a concussion. I suffered a fractured sternum, multiple rib fractures, and a concussion.
The accident was traumatic, and frustrating. The three of us were subjected to poor treatment, misdiagnoses and sheer malaise. Especially Melissa, who was totally ignored at the scene and went untreated by the trauma team. It was straight out of the handbook of “How Not To Treat People After A Motor Vehicle Accident.” It was that bad.
I was so concerned for Beckie and Melissa, that I didn’t immediately realize how severely injured I was. And when you are 60 years old, your body certainly doesn’t bounce back like it did when you were 20, 30, or even 40 years old. Coming back from a major car accident would not be easy.
I knew I was going to be out of commission for a while but the thought of not being able to run the NYC Marathon was killing me. I realized that there was but a small window for me to do it. It is difficult to get into the marathon and, again, being that I am no longer 20, 30, or even 40 years old, the opportunity begins to slip away.
After I got the OK to begin physical activities again, running was difficult as each time my feet would hit the pavement, the sensation that ran through my body wasn’t pleasant. And my gym activities were curtailed as I could not perform many of the activities on the machines because of the pressure it created on my sternum and ribcage. That was a problem because core work is huge, especially when running long distances.
Some local events were live again and so Melissa (a five-time marathoner and three-time NYC Marathon finisher) and I started doing some 5Kss to get back into the swing of things. Having the company helped. Melissa is a runner who loves the solitude. Me, on the other hand, I thrive on the energy of those around me. While the live events helped, I spent most of my time running throughout Sayreville, where I grew up, revisiting all of the sites I frequented as a kid. In a lot of ways, it was a comfort to “go home.” It helped psychologically and, physically, the uneven and sometimes tough terrain assisted my training.
As the months passed, I still didn’t feel right and was experiencing discomfort, especially after getting into the longer distances that got me breathing heavier. Further tests disclosed that I has suffered a non-displaced fracture of the rib-cartilage juncture on my left side – the images looked like a jigsaw puzzle. Something that was missed by the trauma team after the accident, and something that doesn’t heal very quickly.
In October, exactly four weeks before the marathon, Melissa and I headed to Baltimore for the Runfest. She was going to do the 5K and I was going to do the “Baltimoron” – the 5K followed immediately by the half marathon, a total of 16.2 miles, which would serve as a great test for me.
Melissa and I ran a “casual” 5K, enjoying the sights of the Inner Harbor. I was apprehensive about doing the half marathon, but I viewed it simply as a training run. Much to my surprise, after the first two miles, I began to feel “good.” I still hadn’t felt like that since prior to the auto accident. But something kicked in and I completed that half marathon finishing with a “PR”: a personal record.
The run in Baltimore made me confident that I was on my way back. I knew I was nowhere near the shape I was in for Dopey, but I was finally starting to feel back to myself, even if I couldn’t do my usual cross training. Instead, I racked up the miles in Sayreville, running past the famous Sayre and Fisher smokestack and Borough Hall, hitting Main Street and Washington Road, and incorporating the exact route I took to walk the 1.8 miles every day to the high school.
As the day approached, excitement, nerves, anxiety, apprehension, everything began to hit me. I took that last week off, eating certain foods to get myself ready. I got hit with a head cold on Tuesday, but I still ran one last mile on Friday.
I didn’t sleep well on Saturday night, Nov. 6, and the extra hour from the time change just gave me an extra hour to toss and turn.
I opted out of the transportation offered for the runners; instead, Melissa dropped me off at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, at the base of the Verrazano Bridge, where the runners’ villages were stationed. It would be three hours of hanging out with thousands of others awaiting for that gun to go off.
I was in Wave 4, Corral F of the Blue Wave. That was good because the Blue Wave goes on the upper level of the bridge and you get the best views. My start time was 11:20 a.m. and the excitement began to build as the announcement was made to make our way to the corrals.
Standing at the base of the Verrazano Bridge, listening to the singing of the National Anthem, was surreal. I could feel my heart racing, but not in a bad way, it felt really good. And when that cannon was shot, it was almost like floating on a cloud. It felt effortless, like I was being carried.
And what an amazing experience it was! I had been so apprehensive because of the accident that had affected my training, and then getting hit with a head cold just days before. But the atmosphere and energy was so incredible. I was actually feeling the best I had felt in such a long time.
The people lined the streets everywhere. People I didn’t know were screaming my name. Little kids clapping for me, reaching to give me a high five or a fist bump. Not once did I have to turn on my music that I listen to when I run. I was so taken by sights, the sounds, the smells, the absolute energy of the people in the streets of the boroughs of New York City.
I didn’t even realize that I had come out of the shoot so fast, that I had done the first 5K (the first 3.1 miles) about five minutes faster than I had wanted. I had a goal of finishing in under five hours. That was subconsciously in my head. However, I knew, given the circumstances, I should just be satisfied with crossing the finish line no matter what. But I truly felt comfortable and I was ecstatic about the pace I was on.
I was lucky enough to have Melissa out there, parking herself in three different locations, sporting my face on a stick so I could find her. And other people like Felicia and Jana were out there to surprise me and take pictures. And a lot of others let me know that they were following me on the marathon’s app.
I had a bit of an upset stomach between Miles 11 and 12 but overcame that and was still running a better pace than I anticipated. Until just after Mile 18, I felt something wasn’t right in my knee and hit the first medical tent. An orthopedic surgeon told me that my knee was dislocated. He asked me if I intended to quit or finish. I told him that there was no damn way I was quitting. The moment those words emerged from my mouth, he popped my knee back and wrapped it. I ran for the next half-mile but realized it was too painful. I had to walk most of the last eight miles with an intermittent jog every so often.
I was so disappointed that my body failed me. I ended up not getting to the finish before the 5-hour mark and I finished after the sun went down. I heard a lot of people talking about “hoping to finish when it’s still daylight.” I have to say that I have run very early in the morning, especially at the start of the races at Disney, and I have run at night after dark. For me, it is very disorienting and I have a really tough time with that.
I finished with a time of 5:57:28, still a PR for me for a marathon, even walking for much of those last eight miles. Had I not injured myself, I would have finished around 75 minutes sooner, and would have crossed the finish when it was still daylight. However, running in Central Park under the lights at the finish was actually extra special and I truly enjoyed it.
I am thankful for having the opportunity to participate and I am still amazed at the people who do it, who put their bodies through so much. I am in such awe of everyone who gets out there, starts the race and crosses that finish line, whether they run, walk, crawl, it’s just so amazing.
It was a truly a phenomenal experience that I will never forget.
And now what. Anybody need their house painted?