NEW YORK STATE OF MIND, PART 2
Continuing my look back at our 1997 New York City marathon; scroll down for Part 1.
So it’s race morning, November 2, and Annie and I leave the hotel and walk the half-dozen blocks to the NYC Public Library (you know, the one with the lions, where everybody hid out in The Day After Tomorrow). There, we’re loaded onto an armada of luxury touring buses and hauled out to Staten Island. It’s an incongruous picture. A November morning in Manhattan gets pretty damn cold, but you’re going to be spending most of the day running, so you can’t exactly pack a parka. Most everyone opts for disposable clothes; some buy five-dollar sweatshirts at the Wal-Mart, while the cheap bastards wear garbage bags. And we all STINK already…that peculiar combination of Ben-Gay and nerves that characterizes every race everywhere.
Once we reach Staten Island and are basically dumped at the foot of the Verrazano Bridge, you can add a new aroma to the olfactory stew–the stench of human waste. You pack 25,000 people into one small holding pen, you’d damn well better have some serious toilet facilities. And they do–a marvel of Archimedean engineering I imaginatively dubbed the “piss trough.” Like the name says–it’s a trough that must run half a mile long down toward the river. (East? Hudson? Hell, I dunno.) Anyway, as you might imagine, you REALLY want to get as uphill as possible on the trough; I shudder to think of the tidal waves that are gaining speed the closer you get to the bottom of the hill. (Where does it empty out? Hey, who knows?)
Oh, and this is only for the dudes. The chicks get the Hobson’s choice of waiting in a mile-long port-a-potty line or squatting by the fence, covering their nethers with a garbage bag or poncho. (Covering from the view of other runners, that is. For anyone passing by on the bridge, it’s Full Moon Fever.)
Jeez, I just wasted a hundred words on peeing. Anyway, we got out to the race start site a couple hours before the race even began. We were smart enough to bring magazines to read, and I still remember reading a Vanity Fair article by Seymour Hersh on the Kennedy assassination that did a fine job of distracting me from the fact that my knee felt like my patella was about to pop off and skate across the pavement like an air-hockey puck. We got to within 45 minutes of race time, and decided to pay the facilities one final visit–yep, back on the pee topic–and it was there that Annie had a fateful meeting.
Seems a television producer from ABC’s World News Tonight was looking for a runner who averaged an 8-minute mile. Annie volunteered me. (What a champ.) There was this old dude who was running his sixty-fifth marathon or something, and ABC wanted a runner to run alongside of him and get some in-race shots. Fine by me. They introduced me to this old fella, hooked up a contraption that involved Buddy Holly-style glasses (the lens was in the bridgepiece) attached to a tiny VCR that I carried on my hip.
While we were waiting for the race to start, the ultrahip producer and I chatted. “Memphis?” she said when I told her where I was from. “I always wondered…what do people DO down there?” A number of sexist, racist, and mean-spirited replies came to mind; I think I settled on an innocuous “Same things you do, but for half the cost.” (Hey, I was friggin’ nervous about the race. My A-game wasn’t on.)
So the race begins, and the producer and her cameraman are good enough to get us in the background of a shot focusing on the old guy as he starts the race. The producer called my folks, they ran a tape, and I’ve still got it buried somewhere in the basement along with that drifter…again, another story.
But then, our problems begin. See, you wouldn’t think it, but the Verrazano bridge is freaking two miles long, and it’s a LONG slow uphill to the crest. We’re cruising along, I’m trying to keep the old dude in front of me for his close-up–and HE STARTS WALKING. I turn around, and the balloons of the starting line are what seems like forty feet back. And he’s walking ALREADY? Within moments, we are literally among the VERY LAST RUNNERS in the race, with the sweepers–ambulances with sirens flashing–following behind, ready to pick us up if we drop behind further.
Annie and I exchange some extremely nervous and angry looks; I’m sure the producer looking through the tape was happy to see Annie snarling “What the fuck is this guy DOING?” We “encourage” our charge to pick up the pace a bit, and we descend into Brooklyn. Now, I have no idea what ANYTHING is in Brooklyn, but it was a damn cool sight, running down the middle of–some big street or other, with crowds six deep cheering us. And then–we’re a whole THREE miles into a twenty-six-mile trek–our old dude decides he’s going to take a leak. (Yes, AGAIN with the pee stories.) We duck into a service station, then WAIT IN A FREAKING LINE to use the bathroom. (Inside the bathroom, I take care of business–Number One only, but with full rearrangement–forgetting that I’m wearing a camera. I guarantee that footage is still being sold somewhere on a Pakistani streetcorner.)
So we reach the five-mile mark, which is where the ABC crew was to meet us to take back the camera equipment. They’ve got a cameraman there to catch another angle on our old guy’s progress. And they call out to me to see if I want to follow him another five miles, and viewers of World News Tonight that night got a clear view of me in the background saying “HELL NO,” mercifully with the sound muted.
So our old cat is gone, and Annie and I set about busting our asses to make up some time. We cruise past some sort of big old tower in Brooklyn around the eight-mile mark–my Brooklyn contingent knows what it is, I’m sure–then cruise into Queens, where we spend an inordinate amount of time running around warehouses and other French Connection-era-looking locations.
Annie and I have very different styles of running. She’s quick out of the gate but tends to slow down after ten or so miles. I’m almost the exact opposite; the first four or five miles are hell for me, then I settle into a groove and can go forever. Today, we reach the Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge (where, an hour behind us, our old guy will give up the race) just as a rainstorm starts to kick in. Climbing that bridge is a wet hell; even though we’re on the lower level, rain is still pelting us sideways. Annie is bone-weary, but in one of the signature triumphs of her life, keeps running up that bridge even as people all around her are stopping to walk. We crest the summit of the bridge and descend onto First Avenue in Manhattan, and feel as good as we’ve felt all day. Now, it’s only ten miles to go.
We cruise down First Avenue toward the Bronx. Just before crossing over into the fifth borough of the day, we stop to get some water and bananas. We decide to shed the last of our sweatshirts and sweatpants, and Annie looks to give one to a little kid who’s wandered over. Unfortunately, his buddies seem to take this as a cue that Annie’s having a yard sale, and descend on her, pointing at her CD player–“You givin’ this away?” Race officials run off the kids, and we run off ourselves.
The race doesn’t spend a whole lot of time in the Bronx. As we’re crossing back over into Manhattan, I shoot a double bird over at Yankee Stadium, the memory of the Braves’ ’96 World Series collapse against the Bronx Bombers still painfully fresh. We’re now on into Harlem, pumped along by gospel choirs on the front steps of churches, and cross 110th Street feelin’ fine. And then comes Central Park.
The park is one of the city’s landmarks, and it’s certainly welcome to see the green after all the skyscrapers, but DAMN, does this park go on forever. We shoot down Central Park East, make the turn at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th (I think)–the old FAO Schwarz intersection–and it’s here, with about three-quarters of a mile left, that I start to fall apart. My legs feel like leaden lumps, my back is screaming, and my mind’s in a fugue state. We make the turn at Columbus Circle and dip back into the park for the last time, running past Tavern on the Green–it feels like weeks since we were here. And tears are streaming down my face. I don’t really know why; I’ve run marathons before, but maybe this time I realize just how freakin’ hard these stupid things are. I still haven’t done one since.
We get our medals and our foil body wraps, and then begin the long hike back to our hotel. And we learn one of the race’s nasty secrets–taxi drivers HATE runners. The race plays havoc with the hacks’ routes, and they get their revenge by not picking us up afterward. I see more than one switch off his “on-duty” light when he sees our foil and running shoes. So we have to walk something like twenty blocks back to the hotel. And all’s going fine until we reach Avenue of the Americas, less than two blocks from our hotel, where the cops have blocked all traffic and halted all pedestrians on the sidewalk. We ask what’s going on, and a cop says President Clinton’s about to come speak at the Waldorf-Astoria. We ask him if we can cross–no dice. We ask him how long it’s going to be, and he says probably 30 to 45 minutes. We’re damn near homicidal until a kindly New Yorker–yes, we found the one–points us to the subway entrance, where we can duck under the street and pop up right by our hotel.
I grab us a couple sandwiches from the deli nearby, and we scarf them down as we watch ourselves on TV. It’s probably the best food we’ve ever eaten. Not much else happened beyond that; we ate at some restaurant (it was still only about five in the afternoon when we got back to the hotel), still wearing our medals. The next morning, when I went out to get bagels and danishes, I was pleased to see that Annie wasn’t curled in the fetal position in pain on the bathroom floor when I returned, like she’d been the night after we got engaged. But that’s a story for another day; this one’s gone on long enough already.