NEW YORK -- At 12:57 Sunday afternoon, I ran past a man dressed as Jesus Christ on 44th Road in Long Island City. He was wearing leftover Halloween garb -- white robe, brown rope belt and a costume beard. It was Mile 15 of the New York City Marathon, and he held up a sign that read: "In 10 Miles Water Turns To Wine."
The false prophet would have been more accurate if he predicted that my leg muscles would turn to jelly.
As I approached the ribbed concrete of the Queensboro Bridge's entrance ramp, I knew that the next stride would be into the marathon's maw. The brown-and-beige overpass marks the beginning of the end for many. No crowds line the lower level. The only sounds are cars whizzing by atop you, the screeching wheels on the subway track to your right, and the huff-puff rhythm of breathing. It inspires the Rosie Ruiz question: Why shouldn't I go to the subway station, swipe a Metrocard and hop a train to the finish line?
I've lived in the bridge's shadows for three years now, but I only encountered its strength four months ago. One warm June night, I had a Forrest Gump moment. I tied my shoes, left my apartment, and just ran until I didn't feel like it anymore. I went under the Queensboro, then up its gradual, unforgiving incline and back down. I ran on grass, cobblestone and cracked asphalt, stopping short only of running on the water of the East River. Six miles later, I asked myself the 26.2-mile question: How about running the marathon this year?
A hurdler (but hardly a sprinter) in high school, I had muscle memory of what it was to endure as a runner, but distance was different. I jogged with the marathon idea in my mind the next few weeks, and then gained entrance the backdoor way. I had lost out in the official lottery. Unable to qualify as I had no previous time to submit, I pledged to raise money for Citymeals -- a charity that delivers food to home-bound elderly folks throughout the five boroughs. At our first meeting, one of the participants asked our group trainer what he thought of walking in the marathon. He responded, "Do you know how humbling it would be to walk as others ran in front of thousands?"
The message: the race will leave you humbled and hobbled. He was here to harden your mind beforehand.
I had fears. Day-light savings time occurred at 2 a.m. and I had flashbacks to the Seinfeld episode when Elaine's marathoner friend needs a wake-up call. (Kramer: "Alarm clocks? I never use 'em. Don't trust 'em.") I awoke on time, but faced obstacles. Conditions were near idyllic (58 degrees, breezy). No rain fell in the morning, but roads were slippery from the previous night. When I jumped on the charity's bus at 6:17, I figured we would easily make the 7 a.m. bridge closure, but then two cars jostling for position in the left lane bumped each other. One smashed into the cement median and ricocheted into the bus, knocking out the driver's side front wheel.
Four months of training flashed in front of me. Three 5K races -- one through the Battery Tunnel and into Ground Zero -- and the Queens Half Marathon would all go for naught if we didn't figure out a re-routing to Staten Island. Jerry's pleas echoed in my ears: "Make way! I've got-I've got a runner here! Get outta the way! Make way! Make way, it's a contender!"
Fortunately, a replacement bus came within 10 minutes and we made it.
Meb Keflezighi and Derartu Tulu -- the respective men's and women's winners -- were mere rumors to me at the 10:20 start time of the third wave. My starting neighbor was Michel Bach, a gray-haired Frenchman standing inside a 10-foot tall plastic Eiffel Tower. "That's a whole lot of infrastructure to carry on your back," said the public address announcer at the bridge as Bach ducked his head to avoid popping balloons.
If pacing is the marathoner's prime concern, then Brooklyn is a stretch of great temptation. Fourth Avenue seems to run from Bay Ridge to California. Its seemingly endless straightaway is only survived by its promise of three more boroughs. I'm an ascetic runner -- no iPod, no earphones -- but music motivates beginning in Brooklyn. Bishop Loughlin High's band played Gonna Fly Now from Rocky and I entered First Avenue in Manhattan to Kiss's I Wanna Rock & Roll All Night. When that wasn't enough, I turned to my performance-enhancing glucose infusion -- branded simply as Gu -- for a lift. All of a sudden you feel like you just acquired a star in Mario Bros. You can run through brick walls, take river-wide leaps and land at the finish with little effort.
Cheering can massage cramps and strains. I slowed three times to stretch a right calf that seemed to stick in place when it rose on each step. French fans yelled, "Allez!" The Spanish shouted, "Arriba!" An English-speaking woman offered, "Move it or lose it, baby!"
Two of the same sign-holders from Brooklyn made their way to Central Park. One read: "It's OK to cry." The other screamed: "You have no f------ option but to finish."
As I crossed the finish line and looked up, I could hear a volunteer yelling, "Medic! Medic! Medic! Cramps to your right!"
The many-mile monster had claimed another. I had escaped.
Now, where exactly is that wine I read about?