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Sunteti aici :: Povesti » New York Marathon 2009 » 6.During the race (the crowd, the city through the eyes of a runner, last kilometres)

6.During the race (the crowd, the city through the eyes of a runner, last kilometres)

3...2...1....START!

The race begins on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge that connects Staten Island with Brooklyn, Long Island etc. Immediately after the start, in the background Frank Sinatra’s song „New York, New York" starts. Just try to imagine hearing „Start spreading the news/I’m leaving today.." and in the horizon you can see Manhattan with it’s skyscrapers, the place where the finish line was. It was the first time in a race when I was able to see, more or less, where was the finish, right from the beginning... also for the first time I was shivering, not because of being cold but because I was nervous.


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The start of a race is very important - if you’re not careful and you end up in a group that has a too fast pace, you might start too fast and find yourself tired after just a couple of kilometres; if you get caught in a much slower group, you will lose a lot of energy trying to pass through and move ahead at your target pace, which might lead to exhaustion or even an injury. The bridge was separated in two: the right side was for all the elite and professional runners, the left side for us, all the others.

Another important thing is to always keep in mind that you’re running YOUR race. Although there are thousands of other runners you must run as you initially planned. Obviously there will be faster or slower runners than you, but this really don’t matter. If you are hyper competitive - as I am - running a marathon is a good cure for that because whether you like it or not, there really are a lot of people that are faster than you or that started ahead of you and there’s nothing you can do about it but pay attention to what you are doing, how you’re running not at what are the others around you doing.

What was going through my mind in the first kilometre? „It’s cold outside, much colder than in Dubai. In Dubai I was drinking 0.5 litres of isotonic drink each 5 kilometres but this time the course is measured in miles, each mile has 1.6 kilometres and each 5 kilometres.. Mathematics". I was thinking at what water stations should I drink at and which ones should I skip? In the end I decided to drink by feeling. I thought about all these things by the time I reached kilometre 1 and then I realized that my right hand was heavier than the left - after a quick look I realized that I didn’t 100% followed my „before-the-start" ritual: I took the Power Gel but forgot to drink all the 0.5 isotonic drink. Another problem, damn, I could drink but I couldn’t throw the bottle anywhere on the bridge as another runner could have stepped on it and injured himself. So I drank half of it and placed it carefully (as careful as you can be while running) in the area that was separating us from the elite runners and made sure to mark in my mind   a „+1 glass at the next drinks station" to compensate for the liquid which was missing.
 
(3)s33YP4_30708.jpgOne of the things that I „experimented" in New York for the first time was to run some sections of the race for someone - in this case, the hilly parts. Once I was going to reach the bottom of one of the hills I was going to think about one person and what it means for me, why I’m grateful to that person etc. The first hill I ran for my mom, the second for my dad, third for my sister, fourth for my grandparents and last, right before the finish line, for a fellow AIESEC alumnus, Razvan Zainescu, that is currently „running his own marathon", recovering from a severe brain damage.
 
I was checking my watch quite often while running, to assure myself that I keep the right pace (not too fast or too slow). The problem with the watch was that I didn’t calibrate it as I should have, as there are different factors that matter: type of terrain (plain, hilly), speed. Because of this in order to run in „reality" with 4:11 min / km I had to run with 4:00 min / km (speed on the watch). From various reasons you always have to run a bit faster than planned: there are some hilly parts where you will slow down, the distance is calculated on the shortest possible way but in reality you cannot always run on it - sometimes you’re on the outside of a turn, you must do a couple of steps to the side to avoid some fellow runner, sometimes you’re on the opposite side of the road when you pass by the drinks station. Or, sometimes you see a small kid that reaches out with his hand for a „high 5" (or low 5 in this case) and you have to cross the street to do it, because you must, he came there to see you and the other runners and in this way he’s going to have some happy memories from the race as well.

It took about 10 kilometres until I’ve heard the first „Go Romania!", also because in the first part the crowd is not that numerous. From that point on, I kept on hearing along the way „Way to go Romania!", „Go get’em Romania!", „Looking good there Romania!".

The first 15 kilometres pass immediately. You just enter the race, have some time to warm-up, see a bit of the city, as some would say „you settle in". Thousands of people cheer for you and you see people that deserve your applause, especially the ones in wheel chairs which make their way slowly towards the finish line.. and on the same course you will run, with all the hilly parts... no shortcuts.

At the „kilometre 15" mark I was on track. According to my estimates splits I was doing well - although I started a bit slower than supposed to, I managed to recover the time. My objective was to run the first half of the marathon slower (average 4 min 13 sec / kilometre) and then, in the second half, to give it all that I have. My estimation was that the fastest speed would have been 4 min / kilometre or 15 kilometres / hour. This technique is called „running a negative split" and is pretty common among runners. The downside of this technique is that with a too optimistic planning you might end up without any energy to run long before reaching the finish line. However, with proper training and a „negative split" run, on the last 10 kilometres you will get a lot of motivation from the fact that you will be running hard and pass by a lot of people who kept running at a constant pace.
 
Because the marathon course goes through all the neighbourhoods in New York, you enjoy a lot of cultural diversity that you seldom can get in other races: from the Polish neighbourhood where a „ „polska bialo czerwoni" (all the friendships with Polish colleagues during the AIESEC times helped) assure you immediately a strong cheer from the Polish crowd: „Go Romania!". In Harlem, the crowds are organized in front of churches and support you the most classical way (for them) - singing gospel music. In Brooklyn, the area with a lot of artists looking for a breakthrough, there are tens of small bands playing on the streets for the runners, maybe a producer will hear one of their songs and give them a shot. My favourites, same as in Berlin, are the Spanish supporters - any time I saw a bigger crowd of Spanish people I just started shouting „eeee viiiiva espaaaagnaaa".. which was enough to start a fiesta.

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A powerful moment for me is connected to the Queens Borough Bridge that connects Long Island to Manhattan, somewhere at kilometre 25. One of the steepest hills on the course, exposed to wind and with no crowds whatsoever. Right before the bridge, while running, someone shouted „Go Romania!" and as usual I shouted back „Thank you!". Two seconds later, a guy on the right side of the road shouted „Fuck you, Romania!".. in a split of a second I weighted my options. Mugur from high-school probably would have stopped to have a little chat with the guy... however, the high-school times are long gone so while continuing to run, I shouted „Fuck you too man! People like you make me stronger" and I looked ahead as I was entering the Queensborough bridge, which I was running for my father. And I ran, intrigued by what just happened but in the same time stronger and more eager to climb hard on this bridge.. next was one of the moments I will not forget very soon. As I was coming off the bridge, the course was taking a sharp turn to the left, a place where all the runners had to slow down quite a lot as the curve was going back under the bridge. That exact spot was indicated on the marathon course map as a „cheering place" , a place where the organizers were suggesting that the crowd should gather together... and there were indeed some 800-1000 people. When I went off the bridge and I was heading towards the turn, I was alone - on the bridge I went fast enough to pass by most of the ones that were ahead of me. I saw the crowd; they saw me coming off the bridge, breathing hard after the hill... I raised my hand in the air as if I would have just conquered something and their answer came immediately... cheering, shouting.. it felt like I was the friend they were supporting.. like I was Marius Lacatus and I just scored a goal for Steaua Bucharest, on the Ghencea stadium in a match against dinamo Bucharest.
 
After entering First Avenue I was able to feel the city, New York, skyscrapers, the grid-like aspect of the streets, thousands of people on the streets.. what a feeling. Between kilometre 26 and 33 there was nothing, it’s similar to the silence before the storm - your legs hurt but not too much, nevertheless you know that now the marathon itself starts. For me, the critical moment is kilometre 35. In Vienna I was collapsing somewhere between kilometre 35 and 36. In Berlin, at kilometre 35 I started crying without knowing it, because my mind realized that no matter how many „messages" it would try to give to me and make me stop I was going to finish and in the last 2 kilometres I ran with 30 seconds faster than expected. In New York I didn’t know what to expect. I just knew that kilometre 33 and 34 were in Bronx, kilometre 35 was next to a park in the north part of Manhattan and kilometre 36 was on 110th street where the girls (Birte and Tiffany) told me that they’ll try to meet me.
 
At Berlin, at kilometre 36, although I felt strong on my legs and that I have enough pulmonary and heart capacity to be able to run, the upper part of my body was very instable, and it felt as if it would break apart at any point of time. In the training for the New York Marathon I added strength training (core and upper body training) and swimming sessions. At kilometre 36 I felt that my legs hurt, which was expected, but the upper part of my body felt much stronger and more stable.
 
Any runner that says it doesn’t matter if someone comes to cheer for him or not, either never ran a race in his life or he’s lying. I told the girls that it would be great to see them there but it’s not imperative that they come...nevertheless they came. Mentally, it’s very helpful to look forward to something which is before the finish line, to know that somewhere on the course there’s something like a milestone. The down side of it is that if you expect to see your friends, you might get disappointed if you don’t meet them. There are many valid reasons this could happen: a too big of a crowd and you cannot see them, the meeting place is not the best as there are many other people there waiting to meet their friends, they are stuck in traffic somewhere or you’re running on one side of the street and they are on the other one etc.
 
(1)j5SnEFUC_44396.jpgFortunately, at kilometre 36, right before the last hill on the course, I saw the girls. Now, putting all the pieces of the puzzle together from the previous paragraphs: feeling very strong, having trained in the gym for 4 months, being enthusiastic about my progress in the race, running with 15.5 km / h.. imagine me and Tiffany giving each other a „high 5". After the race she told me that immediately afterwards she was almost in tears with all her palm red.
 
From kilometre 36 to kilometre 40 I started running on known terrain, the same path where I ran the week before the race. These are the kilometres where some hit „the wall", others have cramps and all of us suffer from something.. pain in the leg muscles (hamstrings, calves etc). However, no matter the pain, there was always someone to cheer for a fellow runner who just stopped because of a cramp or decreased the speed considerably: „Come on man, pain is temporary.. the glory of finishing will stay with you forever!" and you could see the runner picking up his pace and starting again. I was running.. running a „negative split", outrunning other runners and breathing hard - according to the plan, I had to give it all.

The quotes or different messages that the crowd prepared for the marathon were everywhere: banners, flags, T-shirts go straight to the heart of every runner. At Berlin I saw for the first time „pain is temporary, glory is forever" (adapted after the phrase that Lance Armstrong’s mother was telling him before races). At New York, the phrase I will not forget was written on a banner a guy was holding up, somewhere at kilometre 37 - „No surrender" or how I interpreted it then, while running, „Never surrender" (to pain, thoughts of quitting etc). I shouted „Thanks!" and went on.. 2 more kilometres to go.
 
"Pain is temporary. It can last a minute, an hour, a day, a year, but in the end it will heal and maybe another one will take it’s place. Quitting, however, is forever" - Lance Armstrong

„I will do this!".. that was what I had in my mind in the past 2 kilometres. I felt invincible. I was suffering and later on, in the pics of the race I could see this. Nevertheless, I knew that I have enough resources to finish the race and not just finish the race but giving it all that I had. On the last kilometres I stopped looking at the watch because I anyway didn’t have that much energy to increase the speed much more... nevertheless, I was keen to give it all that I had and go as fast as I could. The crowds saw that I’m fighting, that I wasn’t having an easy Sunday morning run with my dog but a fight between me and the marathon. A quote that I read at one point during my training and that I can say now I understand completely:

„Children have the ability to ignore statistics and percentages. Why don’t we learn from them? When we think about it, what choice do we have but to hope? We have two options, medical or emotional: to quit or fight ‘til the end." - Lance Armstrong

The high point for me as a Romanian runner took place in the last 200 meters. During the race I kept listening to the cheering I got, to hear someone shouting „Let’s go Romania!" (in Romanian). Before the race I thought that I’ll meet many Romanians on the way... since there were 2 million people cheering across the city. With every kilometre that I ran, with every „Go Romania!" I’ve got, I was a bit sad because I didn’t hear anyone cheering for me in my own language. Towards the end, I got used with the thought that I will not meet a Romanian. As I was about to enter the last turn and go into Central Park and cross the finish line, I saw someone stepping out of the crowd. A gentleman, about 40 years old, was looking straight at me. I thought he’s one of those that had a bad experience with Romanians and similar to the guy from the Queens borough bridge will give me the „F__k you, Romania!"... as I was getting close to where he was, he smiled and shouted „Hai România!".. and for a fraction of a second I could swear that time stopped... I clearly remember his face.. and there I went on the last 200m.. stronger than I ever expected I’ll be at this point.
 
After the Berlin marathon, when I looked at the pictures and the movie from the finish line, I couldn’t help myself bursting in laughter. I was a mess - at the finish line, the photographer asked me to raise my hands in sign of victory but I couldn’t. At New York I went mentally through the last 200 meters many times - imagining myself running this part, the crowd, the sky, the trees... but even more than this, myself - pushing hard and looking strong as I crossed the finish line.

I entered strong the last hilly part, right before the finish line. For a second I thought of Razvan Zainescu and his own „marathon" to get back to a normal life... I raised my hands and that was it, I just crossed the finish line... I conquered my fear, again. Later on that day, I found out from my sister that my mother saw me crossing the finish line because in those exact moments they were showing an interview from the finish line and there I was, in the background, finishing the marathon.

7.  After crossing the finish line (what I felt, what’s next)
 
„I finished in 2:55:34!".. I couldn’t believe it. I really did it. Once again I proved to myself that there are no limits. All the fears that I had: that I will fail, that I will quit and be disappointed, that I bought so much stuff with the New York marathon logo that will remember me of my failure.. all these were gone.

After every run, it’s important not to stop suddenly but to „cool down" by running easy or walking for 1-2 kilometres to allow blood to wash away the lactic acid from your muscles. At Berlin, one year before, immediately after getting my medal I went and sat down on the grass. Because I didn’t cool down, it took me a long time to recover. At NY, the organizers are very experienced and they arrange the finish line area in such a way that you have to walk 2 kilometres to get to the truck that has your stuff (that you dropped off before going to the starting line). All throughout the 2 kilometres there are nurses and doctors, ready to help you in case of emergency.. however I didn’t need a doctor but rather a microphone and a stage, since I was in a mood for making jokes.
 
As I was walking, the medical staff constantly came to me to ask me whether I’m ok. There came one, then the second one, the third.. I was starting to worry. When the forth one came, a lady doctor, I looked at her and asked: „Excuse me madam, why do you come only to me? Do I look that bad? Look at this guy for example (pointing to a man walking alongside me).. there’s no way I can look as bad as he does - sorry man, don’t take it personal" and the gentleman and the others around started laughing. After another 200 meters, I saw a small uphill part and many people from the medical staff on the side cheering and congratulating the finishers... so I gathered the last resources that I had and forced a sprint (in ended up being a struggled fast walking), „high 5"-ing with every one of them. Towards the end I started bargaining with the medics: „How much for your legs? I just need to rent them for 2 days and I’ll return them afterwards"... overall a good atmosphere.
 
I also met the guy who told me at the start that he wants to finish in 2h 40 minutes and he really did it.. and on top of that, he looked much better than me.
 
After finishing the Berlin marathon I wrote a message to a couple of my friends. This time I wrote only one, to my family.

Finally, I met Birte and Tiffany and thanked them for coming to see me. Then we’ve met Antonio and Bianca. After every marathon I have a craving for a certain type of food - at Berlin I wanted a stake, at New York a pizza. After eating all the Power Bars and protein rich drinks (meant to help your muscles recover faster) we went for a pizza. Without any doubt I can declare it the worst pizza I ever had (Barbecue Chicken Pizza)... bleah.. not everything can be perfect.
 
I found out the results the next day: 640th out of 42,000 runners, 118th at my age category, fastest Romanian man to ever run the NY Marathon, though I don’t really take this seriously, considering the fact that no elite runner from Romania ever ran the race - instead there were quite some elite runners women with very good times, under 2 hours 30 minutes.
 
Afterwards, the next week was the beginning of the recovery period, planned long before the race. In the recovery you don’t stop running but rather you add some other training sessions in the schedule - lower impact, low effort - such as swimming, cross-training, easy biking, to make the blood move through your legs and wash away the lactic acid. After two days of walking like a duck in New York, I restarted running so in a week I was back to my usual schedule. With lots of sleep and lots of food rich in proteins and carbohydrates, my body started to recover, slow and steady.

8.  Conclusions

Everything that should have been said, has been said in the lines above. In the end, two ideas and a quote:

„The journey is the reward" - It was not the finisher’s medal that made me happy but the memory of the past months, the ups and downs that I encountered, the moments I thought about quitting and I didn’t... these are the things I will never forget and the ones that give me energy to keep going.
 
„Hello New York, Good Bye Old Mugurel" - the story of New York is another story that contributes to who I am, what matters for me, what I am capable of doing when I want to achieve my dream.

In the end, a quote from Michael Phelps, which I believe summarizes perfectly what I believe in terms of objectives, no matter if they are New Year’s Eve resolutions or things that we put on our „to do" list for today, tomorrow, next week or a couple of years from now:

„I wouldn’t say that nothing is impossible. However, I do believe that everything is possible if you put your mind into it, dedicate time and work hard to reach your objective."

Good luck,
Mugur Florea

December 30th 2009


Text and pictures by Mugur Florea

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