The pre-story to this race is a tale within itself, as I only gained entry to the race—I had been waitlisted along with Chip— a week prior to the event. Aside from the short notice, I was going to be in Death Valley training for Badwater 135 up until Tuesday of that week, when I was to fly home to Florida on the redeye.
When I arrived in my home sweet home, NYC, late that Friday night, my mind and emotions were not interested in racing a 100 miler. I felt ill – sore throat, exhausted, chills and all, not to mention, I had to re-acclimate from the scorching temperatures of Death Valley to the cool and airy NYC temperatures. But I believe in showing up. In the power of transformation. In what can and may happen if you just start. That said, I was ready to quit a few times during this race – at the 100k mark, at 90 miles. I promised myself that I wouldn’t feel bad about it. Heck, I am no quitter. But I also knew that if I kept going, I may learn something about myself. I may even acquire an inkling of confidence that was nonexistent before the race. I am not sure how this ultra-running stuff works in any scientific way, but I do know that with each race, I become a little more invested in life, and in the greatness of the people around me. I become a little more accepting of myself and learn that while I may feel like a failure at times, it—life— has nothing to do with failure or success. I accept that sometimes, often, life is hard, but I don’t have to begrudge it. I can change the channel – I can find the humor in the hardships, strive to keep going, and have some fun. Joy doesn’t in any way deflate the journey and its learning’s. Joy only makes life more accessible and inviting.
New York City
The start-line huddle for this event was invigorating! There is nothing quite like the energy of New York City pre-dawn. The crowds are not yet in full force, the air feels cleaner, workers are scattering to and from, and there are some stragglers who are still finishing up their Friday night festivities. Add to that some 90 runners congregated by the discount ticket booth on 46th and Broadway. Aside from the usual suspects of Brad Lombardi and Carmello, who I seem to run into at every race –he was crewing this one versus participating – and some others, it was fun to see a whole new crowd of ultra crazies. We all chatted away, and at 5 am, we were off
The Great New York 100 miler started at Times Square, and we headed north up Broadway, before we entered Central Park, heading west towards 110th street. I felt great the first few miles – suddenly my exhaustion and hesitation to run had vanished. My best girlfriends met us bright and early in Central Park and ran with us – Chip and myself– in those early miles. Note – my NYC buddies are yogis and walkers – as in we love to walk anywhere and everywhere in NYC, all day, all the time, endless miles. Somehow, though, they were able to run alongside us for those Central Park miles and share in the fun. Chip and I were in slow and steady mode. I didn’t care who passed us and after a few miles, we eased into a groove of forward motion.
It was upon exiting the park up on the West End, that Chip and I first took note of the yellow arrows marked on the ground. From there on out, they appeared every few feet, like little guardian angles directing us.
By 11 miles in, we reached the Bronx and journeyed through Van Courtland Park to the John Muir Trail. The beauty only miles outside of NYC was astounding. The hills and trails and the vistas and views made me feel as if I was in California. There is something about running and biking in NY that makes one appreciate the city on a whole other level. This early in, I felt really happy and upbeat. My exhaustion for the week faded more and more as we progressed, and I was beginning to feel less sick than I had felt all week. I am always up for an adventure, and in my beloved NY, it was a win-win situation for me. Until I fell, hard, on my knees, dirt splattering all over me as we traversed the John Muir Trail. I guess my old motto holds true: it’s not an ultra until I fall.
At some point around 20 miles in, Chip and I spotted a Dunkin Donuts and veered off the course to get something to eat. I should mention that while there were aid stations every 5 or so miles on this course, they were mostly equipped with water, some nuts, some potato chips, and some had soda or pop tarts. But these were city style make-shift aid stations in the middle of streets, on corners, sometimes situated in parks; they were great check ins, but when you are running in and around the boroughs, you have access to pretty much everything you ever dreamed of eating. We wanted caffeine and something of substance, which turned into croissants and café lattes. We made friends with some sanitation workers in DD, and as we stuffed our faces, our clothes drenched in sweat, backpacks, hats, calf sleeves and other running gear visible, we seemed to be the center of attention while everyone else sipped coffee on a casual Saturday morning.
About two hours or so later, when we came upon a McDonald’s, Chip decided to make a pit stop, and came out with French fries and a vanilla milkshake, which he used as dip for the French fries. Somehow, he made me partake in eating some of the fries. Apparently, running races with Chip has cured my stomach issues – suddenly, I am able to eat some of the junk he eats during ultras. Before we headed onto the Triborough Bridge on our way out of the Bronx and into Queens, we spotted numerous black squirrels—was this some citified breed?—and had the pleasure of running along some less than desirable Bronx boulevards, adorned with abandoned cars, tons of litter, and other junkyard paraphernalia.
As we covered the miles, our lives were reduced to following small yellow arrows that vandalized city sidewalks. Chip and I instantly adored the race director, Phil McCarthy. The sheer focus and determination he displayed in getting those yellow arrows on the ground fascinated us. He was my hero, and without him, I would have absolutely gotten more lost than I did.
We passed through Astoria, then made our way to the World’s Fair Marina, where we came upon what I thought was the best aid station of the race! Nutella, fruit, dates, and these coconut chip concoctions that Chip was fixated on. As he stuffed them in his mouth, we was sure to tell other runners who approached how great they were. He managed to eat spoonfuls of Nutella, some peanut butter and jelly wedges, and I am sure some other random items – nuts, coconut water. I am in awe of what and how much Chip can devour during an ultra. It’s not the calories so much as the fact that he doesn’t get sick from mixing up everything! When I don’t run ultras with Chip, food is often my enemy. As in, I cannot get anything down. It is truly magical that my last few races I can go Pringles to Pringles with him and even get a few peanut butter and jelly halves down minus the stomach issues.
Did I mention that it is easy to lose your way in this race? That if you get too involved in a conversation, or too distracted looking for something in your pack, or even stop thinking for a moment, you can miss a yellow arrow? And then you are stuck looking at your tiny font instruction sheet that gives you play by play directions that can sometimes be useless if you have no idea where you are. Chip went so far as to cut up and laminate the instructions into 12 mini direction sheets, front and back covered, one for him and one for me; he clipped his to his pack, while I carried mine in my hand. We got lost in Queens. Numerous times. The first time, it had started to rain, and as we opted to stop and put on our rain jackets, we somehow got ahead of ourselves or the arrows, and about a mile or so later, with dismay and grief and every other ill-fated sensibility, we acquiesced that it had been some time since we had seen an arrow. How could this happen? Why did it keep happening? It was pouring rain. I think we were both verging on a tantrum, not that that would help anything. So back track we did, and voila! We eventually come upon a yellow arrow, which sent us in a completely different direction.
Later, we were running through neighborhoods in Queens –it was at one of those points that everything and everyplace started to look alike—and there was another McDonalds, which led to Chip purchasing more fries, and this time a frozen café mocha latte type of drink. I sipped it a bit, but had an inkling it was going to make me sick later in the race (this premonition came true around 3 am, in the pouring rain, when the cold pizza I ate at the 100K aid station and the mocha latte started to rumble my stomach).
What often went through my head as we ran this race, crossing numerous busy intersections, running on bike paths that coincided with highway and parkway entrance and exit ramps, was that it was not for the light of heart. It was not for ultra prima donna’s, who like to be crewed, like to be pampered at aid stations, like to be free from cars, traffic, and every day life when they are running a race. That said, this race is for those who love adventure – who view getting lost as part of the journey, who have a great sense of humor and like to intersect and interact with random and unusual suspects when running a race (such as, concert organizers in parks, sanitation workers, homeless folks, random shop owners). To me, this race reminded me of my weekends when I lived in NYC, mixed with sleepaway camp, and a bit of a treasure hunt.
Queens seemed to go on forever – in actuality, Queens spanned miles 35 through 75. About 50 miles in, we stopped at a random Chinese takeout restaurant and bought a can of coke for $1, which we sat in a booth and shared. The young girl at the counter seemed interested in conversing with us, until her mother practically shooed us out of the restaurant.
After the 100K aid station, something strange and unusual occurred: we ran. Fast. For at least 4 miles. Nightfall had started to take its hold on the city. This was when the group of Filipinos enveloped us in their team comprised of racers and pacers – there were actually 3 racers, and about 5 pacers. We ran with them from Forest Park to Cross Bay Boulevard. I would pull ahead, but when I realized I didn’t know where I was going, I would back off and let them catch up and pass me. We did this push and pull for some time. I should mention that I am not competitive, and feel distress when I am in these situations. I don’t deal well with the drama of going back and forth. Chip is a much faster runner than me. It is an act of charity when he stays with me for a 100 miler, but he likes to tell folks that I get him through it. (I do think my navigation skills throughout NYC and Brooklyn were helpful, but he’s still faster.) Back to the Filipinos. I knew that he could pass them and drop them quickly if he wanted to – if I would have been willing to. Only I had a meltdown just about then. I decided to walk for a few minutes. I was dripping with sweat in the 60 degree coolness. I felt ridiculous. Why and who was I racing? I still had some 35 miles to go. Steady. This was about being steady. I wished the Filipinos well, but did not want to partake in their race challenge. In a few minutes, though, there we all were, caught up with one another at the next aid station. That’s when Chip and I took off; we stayed in the lead for the next 30-40 minutes.
Rockaway Beach was next up on our adventure, where we encountered some bars and streets I preferred not to be visiting at something o’clock on a Saturday night. A mile or two later, we hit Bell Harbor, where so many of my friends from sleepaway camp had lived while we were growing up. Block after block, I passed by houses in which I had been a guest! Beach 141 was also where my mom and I had gone to the beach when I was a young girl, and it was on that same block that my teenage girlfriends and I hung out on the beach years later, when we were in high school. I was about 20 minutes from the house in Mill Basin that I had grown up in. It was a bit of memory lane for me and my eyes teared up more than once.
As we made our way to Jacob Riis Park, Chip decided to take a nap for 5 minutes in the medium in the road. We lay down on the sidewalk and attempted to sleep while cars passed by us, beeping. At one point a police car stopped to glance at us. We were the only ones out in what is an affluent neighborhood, not to mention our running outfits, which had been through rain, trails, road, bridges.
We crossed over the Marine Park Bridge and just like that, we were in Brooklyn! My favorite place in the world! It’s where I spent my childhood and where I later returned for graduate school. It’s where I had some of the best times of my life, with the most incredible people in my life. After running along the Belt Parkway interchange for a few miles (for Brooklynites, the concept or running here in the wee hours of the morning is beyond preposterous – it is something you do if you wish to get run over), we arrived on Emmons Avenue in Sheepshead Bay, home of none other than Roll N Roster, one of my favorite high school late night haunts with my best buddies – where else could you have broccoli with cheese at 2 am?
This is about when the next phase of rain started. Torrential rain, which came down in sheets. Endless rain, which drenched us through and through. We made our way through Manhattan Beach, then towards Coney Island. I was euphoric, rain and all, as I know Brooklyn as well as Manhattan, and running on the rebuilt boardwalk, passing the Cyclone – it all touched my heart, brought me back to a time when I could in no way predict what the future would bring. A time when my mother was still alive and healthy. For me, it was more than a journey back in time – it was a journey rich with memories and full of the hope and optimism that the days ahead may be even better than the days that have passed. And then we made our way to Bensonhurst, where my mother lived in the early years of her life, and again, I was overcome with emotions and a sense of love and hope. When I saw the next aid station up by Caesar’s Bay Bizarre, where I actually hung out and shopped with my buddies when I was in the 9th grade, I was really a mess of memories. The Great New York 100 gave me the opportunity to go back, bringing this new version of myself to take it all in.
Then, we were on the final stretch – well, the last 15 miles at least. Here, under the Verrazano Bridge, the race with our Filipino friends was back in motion! At points, Chip would have me run all out in the rain, and then allow for a walk break; until he saw the Filipinos and made us run again! At one point, I called him out on it: “I am not racing these people,” I said. “I want to run my own race. I don’t have the same drive that you do to beat people.” He let me have my tantrum, telling me I was completely wrong – he was just trying to finish the race—and yet he pushed us forward. That is, until he decided that we needed another nap on a bench under the Verrazano, in the pouring rain. I almost think that I feel asleep on that bench, until he said it was time to go.
Finally, the rain plummeting now at full force, we arrived on 4th avenue in Bay Ridge, a la 90 miles in. At the makeshift aid station (two gracious souls on the corner, getting soaked, offering us water from a jug), I helped myself to a giant black garbage bag, made a hole in it for my head, and it became my new outfit. I was exhausted. My eyes were having trouble staying open. We had not used caffeine – in between the rain and our not making time to go into a store and buy a coffee drink in the past 10 hours – and I really needed a boost to keep me awake. It was nearly 5 am and daylight was dawning. I was shaking in the 60 degree temps. We stopped in a deli on the avenue and while Chip ate an egg sandwich and downed a sugary cappuccino drink as we sat on the deli floor, I downed a 16 ounce Starbucks espresso drink beside him. The counter guy was telling us that years back he ran a half marathon but that now he was fat and out of shape. I wanted to quit. I was cold. Exhuasted. The race had stopped making sense to me. Who did these things? Maybe I would join the counter guy in a future half marathon.
Once outside, Chip promised a high-on-caffeine me that if we started to run, we would warm up. He had taken off his soaking wet shirt and only wore a paper thin rain jacket. He was likely colder than I was. He asked some guys on the street where he could buy a shirt. It was now 5:15 am. After trying in a few delis, in his attempt to buy clothes, he gave up, realizing that it wasn’t going to happen.
About a mile down, I walked into a gas station wearing my garbage bag and asked the clerk if I could use his bathroom. He stared at me for a few moments before he handed me the key. I probably would have never let someone who looked like me, wearing a garbage bag, use the bathroom. When I exited, he asked me what I was doing. I told him: “I’m trying to finish up a 100 mile race.” He was fascinated by my 100 mile adventure and somehow, his excitement got me excited again. Onward!
The caffeine was in full effect now and Chip and I were running. This always amazes me: how our bodies somehow, someway, have the strength to push forward, or perhaps it is our minds that are pushing, which is more likely. We were approaching Carroll Street, and soon after, we would run on Court Street to Borough Hall: our last aid station check in. And then, we were Brooklyn Bridge bound! I should mention that running, biking, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge is one of my favorite city things to do. Somehow, Chip was running all out now and believe it or not, one of our Filipino friends and his pacer were right there, beside us. Chip turned around once or twice motioning for me to catch up with him, which I did. And then we were back in New York City – where we had started out, some 26 hours earlier.
New York City revisited
I always get a little confused around Centre Street, so when we saw a police officer and asked him if we were heading in the right direction to hit Broadway/Times Square, he laughed and shook his head. “That’s over 40 blocks from here,” he said, as if he was daring us. “Perfect,” I said, knowing that we were about two miles from completing the race.
All signs of exhaustion had passed. Chip and I were on a mission. With traffic, red lights, and rain drizzle, we had to maneuver a bit as we made our way uptown. I wanted the race to be over. It was at this point that we lost our final Filipino friend once and for all. As we approached 6th avenue and 34th street, the familiar panic – I am really going to finish this race! – set in. I had to focus on my breathing, on staying steady. I felt the tears – of gratitude and faith—riding up in me. These events both torture me and bring me joy.
Some races, like some books, like some people, have that magical quality to them. This race was in that category for me. I had the opportunity, on foot, to smell, see, hear, experience how people on random streets and avenues, from all different walks of life, lived. We passed neighborhoods rich with ethnicity – Asian, Jewish, Italian, African American. We passed through areas that I would have been afraid to drive through with my doors locked, and yet on foot, when it was just me and the world (and Chip), I felt a little bit more in touch, if not vulnerable, and open minded, too. In the end, we are all just people, finding ways to live our lives on a mid-June weekend.
We came upon Times Square full of a medley of people and there, on the corner, we saw a woman waving us in, pointing us to the left. We kept moving and crossed over a chalked picture that said: TGNY100 Finish. And just like that – it was over in 26:52.
In the struggle and desire to give up at times during this race, there was also a voice in my head that knew I would go on, that knew I would cross that finish line, that knew that tomorrow would come and I would be caught up in other facets of my life that are not about running. But so much of my inner battles and journeys take place while I am moving forward – while I am finding my way, while I am a part of the world rather than stuck in front of a computer or in a meeting or on a conference call. Sure, exchanges of ideas happen then, but there is nothing so pure, so fulfilling, so hard, as running through a dark and stormy night, with what feels like endless miles to conquer and having to find motivation from deep within to keep going. Because no one and nothing depends on my finishing a race. It is a motivation that is imbedded in my heart, in my mind and my soul. The only reward I will ever gain from running these events is an internal one. The knowledge that I can. That I will, that I do. For me, these races are about no one and nothing. They are about being alive. The Great New York 100 was in fact, great. So great, that I intend to return next year!