It's dark and windy outside. I've only slept for two and a half hours. I walk out of Sam & Elaine's Williamsburg apartment at 4:50am Sunday morning. My Midtown Manhattan bus doesn't leave until 6:30, but this a year in the making and I don't feel like taking chances. As I turn onto Graham Ave the street is barren with the exception of a few young couples, still drunk and returning home from a crazy night out. There's also a Mexican dude watering the flowers outside of a bodega. It seems like there's always a Mexican dude watering the flowers outside of bodegas.
I make my way underground to hop on the L train. I grab a seat in the station and begin to munch on almonds and slurp my green drink, both of which will be burned up in a matter of hours on my marathon run. A beautiful blonde woman sits down next to me, dressed in running garb. "Hey there," she joyously blurts out in a sexy New Zealand accent. "Hey hey," I return. A year ago I would have been incredibly awkward talking to a stranger in a subway station, let alone a beautiful woman with an exotic accent. We jabber on about our respective running histories and our mutual excitement for the day's event. The train arrives and we continue our conversation until 6th avenue where the blonde beauty exits. I hop out at 8th ave and proceed to hop on the C train. As I roar up the west side i notice other runners on the train and give them the old "hey other runner" nod.
I rush over to 51st street, the wind smacking me in the face. It's going to be a chilly, windy day I guess. I arrive at my assigned bus an hour early. I'm the first one to board. I've only brought my warmup clothes and a pedometer. With time to kill I notice how dependent I am on my Blackberry in these moments. With nothing else to do I begin reflecting on what is about to happen, as I watch the diverse mix of fellow runners board. It's announced shortly before we leave that an older gentleman a few rows ahead of me has run in every single NYC Marathon (this was the 41st). I had been warned by friends who had run in past marathons that I would witness quite the array of inspirational people throughout the day and here, before even leaving for Staten Island, was the first.
Heading to the start line in Staten Island is awesome. The sun is just beginning to rise and our slew of buses has NYPD escort. Unmarked cop cars and motorcycles speed ahead to send the city's early morning traffic to a standstill. Look out, New York. Marathon runners coming. I feel a greater importance about what I'm about to accomplish. It takes about an hour and half to get to Staten Island and my fellow Charity runners and I make our way to the Team For Kids holding tent. There are advantages beyond the obvious ones to running for a sponsor charity. Our tent is heated and coffee is being dispersed to keep us warm. I chug my coffee and go to the (wrong) truck to drop off my bag of warm clothes and gatorade. "Goodbye, bag. See you on the other side."
I am blessed. I have been for some time. One of these blessings includes being in the first wave of runners. After hours of anxious waiting I finally get to make my way to my starting corral at 8:50am. A few minutes later the corral opens and we walk up to the start line. It is clear that, since I am starting at the beginning of the race, I am surrounded by elite runners. Everyone has a serious look in their eyes. The two men closest to me exchange their expected finish times. "I am finishing in 2:40," the first man says. "Me? Probably 2:45, but maybe I'll get lucky." One man is from Boston, but has a thick Italian accent. The other mentions he is in town from Luxembourg. 2:40? 2:45? My god, I'm hoping to finish in under 4:30 today.
I have decided to run in limited clothing (I can't run with layers on). I jump up and down and pace side to side to stay warm. 9:39am hits and it's a minute until the starting gun goes off. My goal is to absorb as much of this experience as I can today. A million and one thoughts flood my brain in this final waning moment. "On your mark. Get Set. BOOOOOM." The gun goes off and we begin to run over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The bridges are a fascinating part of the marathon. As opposed to the city streets that are lined with screams and cheers and music the bridges are nearly silent. Alone with your thoughts, beautiful views and the sounds of wind gusts and the pitter-pat of running shoes slapping the pavement.
I look to my right and see my Grandmother's old neighborhood just beyond Coney Island. I remember her love and how far I've come thanks to her. I look to my left and I see gorgeous skyline of the city that I called home for so many years. Back to my right, where last year's marathon winner and a slew of other pro runners fly by. They are gone in a matter of seconds. We get to Brooklyn and I see my time for the first mile is 7 minutes and change. "I better slow down," I tell myself. Then the first glimpse of cheering crowds becomes visible. Who could slow down now? There is a major advantage to being a part of the beginning flock of runners...the crowds are NUTS!!! They are beyond excited.
As we get to Brooklyn we quickly turn onto 4th avenue in Bay Ridge and, without knowing it yet, the best stretch of the marathon is about to begin. I haven't felt adrenaline like this in a long time. I have the word "Love" written on the front and back of my jersey, along with my last name and the name of my sponsor charity Team For Kids. People are screaming out things like "Love" and "We love Kids, too" and "Go Team For Kids." The smile on my face couldn't get any bigger. Every block has a live band playing things like Steppenwolf and The Beatles and The Doors. A school band with horns and drums blasts some Kanye West. This is one of the many bands full of teenagers. The marathon sprits have overtaken my body now. It's been 2 miles and I'm running a 7:15/mile pace when I should be running a 9:15/mile pace and I don't care. I feel like a superhero. Kids and parents of all ages cheer for my cause and I return the favor in the form of what feels like hundreds of high fives.
Mile three hits and I am running about 22 minutes. The first hydration station appears, flooded with volunteers holding out cups of water and gatorade. And as I take a paper cup of water I chug it and throw the empty cup to the ground. When I was a kid all I wanted to do was be a professional athlete and for the first time in my life I feel like one. Oh a guy dressed as Gene Simmons in full Kiss garb runs next to me before pulling ahead. 4th avenue is amazing for so many reasons, one of them being that the neighborhoods changed so drastically. It doesn't get better than New York City sometimes, does it? From Dyker Heights to Bay Ridge to Sunset Park to Red Hook to Carroll Gardens to Park Slope to Prospect Heights and Boerum Hill. Italians, Irish, Jewish, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Black, Jamaican, West Indian, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Thai. And my god the Chilean Pride! Edison Pena has set this marathon ablaze with Chilean excitement. Excitement, in general, really.
About 8 miles deep and still flying we leave the magical 4th avenue with downtown Brooklyn in our sights. We make a break for Lafayette and here we are surrounded by the brownstones of Fort Greene & Clinton Hill. These are great crowds, too. The highlight, not surprisingly, for me here is what looks like an entire congregation of a black baptist church. I high five some of them and feel like I'm soaring through the day on a cloud of love and pride. I am starting to feel a bit of runner's pain, though. I am worrying that I ran too hard thus far. I quickly dispel these thoughts as I see all of the Achilles (disabled) Runners, some of them in wheelchairs, some blind. Perhaps the most incredible thing I saw all day was a man with one leg hopping on crutches. Life is filled with some seriously incredible souls. This event is as much about willpower as it is about athletic skill and I am reverted back to the excitement. It's at this moment I see the first of many signs that read "Pain is Temporary. Pride is Forever." I yell out a big "WOOO" and continue on my way through the Chasidic crew in South Williamsburg. Then the Puerto Rican crowd between the Chasids and the Hipsters, yelling out to a Rican runner next to me "Bodiqua!"
If I had to pick a point where the crowd excitement was at its lowest it would definitely be Williamsburg. Which is why my close friends Sam, Elaine & Limor came at the perfect time. As I approached Bedford and N. 10th St I see them and all my energy returns. It's so amazing to have people who send you love I think to myself. I go nuts when I see them and continue into Greenpoint, the place I spent so many late nights with my best friend Danny. Here comes bridge number two and once again the sound turns from cheers and music to shoes and wind. Another beautiful view of Manhattan is present and all of sudden we hear a lively woman with a bullhorn yelling "Welcome to Queens. The nation's biggest and most diverse borough. Thank God you're not in Brooklyn anymore!" I am now at the halfway mark.
Queens feels like home, having lived here for three years. Unfortunately, we only shoot through the tip of Long Island City for three miles before making our way to bridge number three The Queensboro/59th Street Bridge. Once again the wind and the shoes...and the pain. I and my running brothers and sisters are at the Mile 15.5 mark and shooting pain begins in my left thigh. I see people starting to drop left and right, a sure sign that things are getting universally difficult. I see a kid my age come to a complete hault and begin to try and walk out what looks like a hamstring pull. My right foot is also cramping up, but I remember that the pain is temporary and I continue to run as I make way into Manhattan for the first time.
Manhattan is interesting. The crowds are huge, but First Ave is so wide that you feel the energy has dissipated a bit. This stretch will prove, however, to be emotional for me. The Upper East Side was a haven for a good majority of my College memories. I run by restaurants I frequented and bars I wet my whistle in, including Finnegan's Wake where I had my first legal drink on my 21st birthday. I run by my old apartment on 95th Street where I used to watch the marathon from. I fully realize how life has come full circle for me. The "New Dave" is tipping his cap to the "Old Dave." The pain is strong now, but I truck on, sucking down some Power Gel, arming myself with some sugar and Glucosamine to keep the energy up. I muck on through some more Puerto Rican love and more high fives in East Harlem, before hitting up bridge number four...The Willis Avenue Bridge. This was always the bridge the Futernicks would take into the city on so many visits and now I was running over it into The Bronx.
I start to get emotional now as we hit the 20 mile mark. As I begin to tear up I find that I can't breathe, an interesting position to be in. I try holding my tears back since breathing is sort of imperative with over 6 miles left to go. The Bronx is full of pockets of great energy and an amazing Asian Drum Collective, whose booming percussion comes at the perfect time as I begin to hit the infamous "Wall." I stick my right fist in the air and just as I have done for nearly every band and DJ I nod my head to the beat. We then circle around and hit bridge number five...The Madison Avenue Bridge and here we are...in the place I love so dearly...HARLEM!!!
A DJ Booth blasts some nasty breakbeats and I get a sudden burst of energy. But it doesn't last long. As we move downtown I grow tired again. I pass a booth where a woman is belting out "Lady Marmalade" by LaBelle and I try my best to feed off of the Soul music I love so much. The Universe has provided me with this little bit of aural fuel to keep me going. Just then an older man with a Team For Kids shirt that reads "Coach" runs up to me. "How you feelin, man?" "I'm doing well," I reply with what little gas I have left. "You're about 4.5 miles away, brother. Keep the pace up. Don't dare slow down. The hard part is over." This is huge. I take his advice to heart and continue down 5th avenue, supposedly the heart and soul of the marathon route. My training on steep hills in LA has prepared me well for this stretch, which, for New York runners is a tough series of inclines.
People on the sidelines here are overly enthusiastic, knowing that you are nearing the end and, therefore, incredibly fatigued. As I make my way into Central Park for the first time I am hurting. I have crossed the 23 mile mark and now every inch that I run is the farthest I have ever run at one time in my life. This, as much as the marathon itself, is a true landmark moment. Finally, at mile 24 I decide that in order to finish strong I need to walk for a second. So I do. I walk a bit and then run again. And then I walk a bit more. The crowd inside the park is so amazing that even though I'm power walking by them they cheer for me as If I was sprinting. This undying support is a huge part of why this event is so special.
Just then I see the marking ahead for 3/4 mile left and I start running for the final stretch down Central Park South. As I re-enter the park I am once again emotional. The magnetism of this experience is moving over my body. I made it and I made it in exceptional time. As I see the crowds on the bleachers I raise my fist triumphantly one more time and yell back to answer all of the cheers. I see the 300 yard mark, then 200, then 100 and there she is...the glimmering finish line. A year of hard work all about to be rounded out. I throw both my hands up as I cross the summit. The clock reads 3 hours 51 minutes 47 seconds. This is only 2 minutes longer than it had taken me to run 23 miles in my final long run of my training. I was handed my finisher's medal, along with a recovery bag of food and fluids. I took a picture with my medal and a shiny marathon sheet was then draped over my shoulders to shelter me from the cold. I was escorted to my recovery area and given a seat and a granola bar. As I chatted with a couple of fellow finishers, I dug into my bag and pulled out what was perhaps the sweetest tasting apple I'd ever consumed. I was on Mars, trying to catch my breath and reflect on what just happened. This moment, and the entire day really, was as surreal as it gets.
Now it was time to go meet up with my parents. After walking 15 blocks uptown to get my bag (because it was on the aforementioned wrong truck) and then 15 blocks back down to the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble I could not be more excited to see my folks. And as I made my way to the top floor in the crowded Cafe area, my Father, who hates public affection and drawing attention to himself, stands up and claps as loud as he can, cheering "Bravo! Bravo, David!" I began to cry, as I get the most amazing hugs from both of my parents. I cry as I write this now just thinking about it.
And so ends my story. In the words of Sugar Hill Gang "I don't mean to brag, I don't mean to boast, but I'm like hot butter on your breakfast toast." Just a year ago I had little direction and drive in my life and here I was competing in the world's premiere athletic event, finishing in the top 25th percentile, by the way. This is a lesson in the workings of the Universe to give yourself over to the journey of life. The journey is often beautiful if you open your heart to it. I promised myself this would be the one and only marathon I ever run because they are really bad for you. After running it I can't say whether or not that is still true, but I do know this...if it is in fact the only marathon I ever run I will be completely content. And that's that. A beautiful chapter of my life closes. As the kids say, on to the next...