NEW YORK MARATHON - RACE DAY (Part 2)
“I WANT TO WAKE UP IN A CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS” - Frank Sinatra
I woke with a start at 2.10am and quickly compared the time on my phone to my bedside clock to see whether it had automatically adjusted for daylight savings. I was reassured to see that it had and drifted back to sleep. At 4.20am I woke naturally and felt surprisingly alert. I assessed how my limbs felt as I walked to the shower and had to remind myself that after weeks of anticipation, race day was here. I ate my usual breakfast and sipped a coffee whilst making sure I had packed everything I needed – race flats, bib number, anti-friction balm, sunnies, sunscreen, spare socks, gels, earphones and snacks.
At 5.30am dozens of athletes, coaches and agents strolled along the dimly lit street to the bus. It was the quietest I had seen New York city – a stark contrast to what it would look like by midday. I could feel the energy building. I had chosen to wear shorts and despite the early hour, still felt warm. Elzy and I sat beside each other on the bus and admired the speckled lights of buildings in the distance. An excited hum of athletes chattering filled the bus and Elzy joked at one point that it felt like we were a part of a Hen’s Show. I read an email that Adam had sent to me, reiterating what we had discussed a day earlier. “Calm. Focus. Control” were three key words that I held onto. 75 minutes later we arrived at an air-conditioned indoor track, where we stretched, relaxed and completed our warm ups, before taking another short bus ride to the start line. There was a moment of panic when one athlete was missing from the bus as it was about to depart. When she finally stepped on after a short sprint to get there, everybody clapped and cheered. We were off. Waves of people were filling the parks and streets. I was amazed by the long rows of “Porta Potties” but knew they would all be necessary.
“RIGHT THROUGH THE VERY HEART OF IT - NEW YORK, NEW YORK” - Frank Sinatra
Upon arrival at our final destination, athletes completed their final warmup routines - leg swings, drills and strides for most. I handed my bag over to the support staff and joined Elzy to follow the pack towards the start line. We rested in the shade as the race announcer gave his pre-race speech and the American National Anthem was played. With a final splash of water over my neck and arms, it was time to toe the line. Time stood still as we waited.... and waited for the call to take our marks. I felt immediate relief when the starter’s canon fired. It was time to spill my motivation and energy onto the streets of New York’s five boroughs.
New York Marathon starts with a steady uphill climb on the Verrazzano Bridge. The pace felt controlled and comfortable. I noticed the entourage of vehicles and cameras sitting in front of the pack. Adam’s words “stay hidden” popped into my head and reinforced the importance of being patient early on. As we reached the top of the bridge and began the steady descent, a couple of athletes made some surges but the pack didn’t follow. I was tucked in behind Edna Kiplagat and admired the ease of her stride. I felt my backup gel start to slip through the gap between my skin and my crop top, so plucked it out and shoved it back down in a different spot. My mouth was already starting to feel dry and I could feel sweat trickling down the backs of my legs. The sun was beating down more than I had expected and I was grateful for my sunglasses. Surely the 5km drink station was nearing.
Photo credit: @craigsbeds
When the drink tables popped into view I beelined to the right side of the road to ensure that I could scoop my bottle up from its position on table 2. Elbows swung, bodies ducked and arms flew in the fuelling frenzy. For the first time in my 10-year Marathon history I drank my first bottle dry, minus a few squirts for my head. As the cool liquid trickled down my forehead, I wondered whether the Maurten drink mix crystals would set hard or be sticky on my skin! It seemed that the entire pack had surged to navigate the drink stations and I found myself a couple of metres behind. The pace felt manageable but I was concerned that it was perhaps a bit aggressive for the current heat and humidity. Somewhere between the 5km and 10km mark, Elzy and I found each other and I immediately felt comforted by her presence. Elzy noted the current pace. It was quicker than the parameters that Adam and I had discussed and whilst it was difficult to get an accurate idea of pace due to the undulating road, logic told me to back off the pace. Elzy and I agreed to ease up a touch. We knew that the conditions would eventually take their toll and we wanted to be able to finish strong. In the pack ahead, a U.S runner raised her arms to hype up the crowd - this was the New York Marathon and I was loving it.
The next significant incline came just before the 15 kilometre mark. Two athletes had fallen off the main pack and catching them became my focus during the climb. The party atmosphere in Brooklyn was swelling and I admired colourful confetti on the road ahead. My lungs and legs felt strong on the uphill, providing an important confidence boost early in the race. As I passed an athlete near the top of the hill, I felt a sense of validation that our plan to be conservative early would pay off. At the 15 kilometre station I noticed that my bottle was one of very few remaining on the tables – highlighting that the majority of the field was ahead of me. I didn’t know an exact number but I guessed I was sitting in about 25th place. Fortunately I didn’t feel fazed. Again, I guzzled my entire bottle bar a couple of squirts for my head.
THE MENTAL GAME
For me, the mental game begins when fatigue starts to trickle in yet I still have many miles ahead of me. It is a psychological rather than a physical discomfort and staying composed is crucial. As I pounded down the second significant descent in the race, I noticed a sharpish ache in both outer quads on landing. It is something I had not experienced on the hills of Birmingham 3 months earlier and I started to think of reasons why my muscles were feeling the pinch a little earlier than anticipated. The obvious answer was my lack of hilly training runs compared to my Commonwealth Games preparation in the Swiss Alps. I tried to stay light on my feet and move as efficiently as possible.
My eyes darted between the road surface in front of my feet, the passionate crowds to my side and the sky-scrapers ahead. Hand-written signs danced amongst the people, featuring messages like “You got this” and “Go Mamma”. I did my best to avoid looking at the bright red numbers with the official race time on the car ahead. To pass time I imagined myself as a young girl running cross-country, oblivious to the running adventures ahead of me. I tried to reflect on my earlier Marathons but was having trouble concentrating…. Time for a different mental strategy.
As we passed through a narrow section of the course, I prepared myself for the impending second bridge into Queens. I maintained my effort as the incline grew and refrained from checking my pace, an instruction that Adam had reinforced. To this point I had not looked at my watch. I managed to edge past a couple more runners during the uphill climb and saw 73-something on the clock at the half way mark. I had accepted on the start line that it probably wasn’t a day to chase a personal best but rather a good opportunity to compete against a strong field. Amongst the elite women were World Champion Hellen Obiri (KENYA) on her Marathon debut, Marathon bronze medallist at the 2022 World Championships Lonah Chemtai Salpeter (ISR), 2011 and 2013 Marathon World Championship Edna Kiplagat (KENYA), former US Marathon record-holder Kiera D’Amato and 2018 Boston Marathon winner Desi Linden. I was ranked 14th on time but treated it more like 16th given the strength of a couple of the women on debut. My goal was to work my way into the top ten and from there, see what was possible.
On a couple of occasions I tried to pluck a cup of water from volunteers’ hands but only ever ended up with a few drips to splash on myself. A cool breeze in the open sections of the course provided welcome relief from the warm conditions that did seem to be easing as time went on. As I neared the infamous Queensboro bridge, I remembered what Adam had said about this section of the course. “It is the longest bridge of them all. It will be dark and silent and your GPS will be out of whack so don’t pay any attention to splits. When you get to the other side, the crowd will be roaring so enjoy the serenity.” That I did. I worked on bridging the gap between two runners ahead and told myself “this is the calm before the storm”.
As we spiralled our way down to first avenue, the noise steadily grew. By the time we hit the long stretch of road through Manhattan, the crowd’s support was deafening. I knew that my sister-in-law planned to cheer in this section and I tried to isolate her voice. I thought about Jack on the course behind me and the Indigenous Marathon Project runners. How would they be feeling right now?
“ITS UP TO YOU - NEW YORK, NEW YORK” - Frank Sinatra
I had heard that First avenue was predominantly downhill but I only seemed to notice the slight inclines. My lungs felt strong at the thirty kilometre mark and my quads were holding up well given their early signs of distress. I took a gel with water and noted how well my guts seemed to be handling the gels and fluids. A short climb over a bridge at the 33km mark took me into the Bronx. I decided to take the backup gel that was hiding in my crop top to give myself an extra energy reserve for the late stages of the race.
I was becoming less aware of my surroundings and started paying more attention to my own thoughts. For some reason "Blue suede shoes" was playing on repeat in my head. I was able to move up and over the next small bridge quite comfortably, focusing on catching a couple of athletes ahead. The 36 kilometre point was our final fuelling station. I whisked my bottle from the table and tore off the gel. This would be my third gel within twenty-five or so minutes but my guts seemed to be handling them. I rounded a sharp bend and smiled at the police officer cheering loudly – it looked like he was enjoying his work shift.
Fifth Avenue hit hard. The incline was gradual but brutal. As it slowly sucked the energy from my legs, I fixed my glaze on U.S.A's Emma Bates up the road. I was desperately hoping that she would make a right turn into Central Park soon – indicating that the end of the uphill grind was near. It was difficult to absorb the crowd’s energy at this point.
A couple of weeks earlier I had been sitting in the waiting room for an important medical appointment with my Dad. The discomfort I felt was nothing compared to what he had endured. He and my family were my inspiration during this race and will always be in life. In Central Park I saw Elzy’s husband Jono. He yelled out words of encouragement with a big fist pump. I thought about the training runs we had completed on this exact road and didn’t recall the undulations being so aggressive. Shade from the trees made my surroundings darker and I decided to take off my sunglasses. Rather than hold onto them, I handed them to a girl cheering enthusiastically on the sidelines. I thought it was a nice place to retire my much-loved pair of Goodrs.
“IF I CAN MAKE IT THERE, I’LL MAKE IT PRACTICALLY ANYWHERE” - Frank Sinatra
When I saw the large 40km sign I winced. 2.2 kilometres to go! The final uphill section was lined with roaring crowds. I looked at the road in front of me. One step at a time. As I rounded the final turn, a few uneven pavers caught my eye and I placed my feet as carefully as I could in my state of fatigue. I followed the line of country flags, eagerly awaiting a glimpse of the finishing arch. I couldn’t see it until it was close and my heavy legs cheered. As I crossed the line I felt a rush of relief and happiness. I had no idea of my position but knew I had executed my plan as well as I could have.
Minutes later I found my agent from Posso Sports and coach Adam. They informed me that I had finished 9th and I was stoked to have achieved my top 10 goal. I hobbled over to the recovery tent to grab a banana and some dry clothes. Adam had been tracking my brother Jack throughout the race and told me that he was on track for a 2:47 finish. After a quick leg flush (Macy the masseuse only had to touch my quads for me to flinch), we walked back to the finish line to see whether we could sneak a peek of Jack's finish. We stood by the people handing out medals and excitedly cheered as he came into view over the finish line. Adam told the medal-givers that my brother had just finished his first Marathon and they generously gave me a medal to put around his neck.
My little brother has achieved a lot in his life so far but sharing this moment was particularly special. I was so proud of him!