The Big Apple – 7 years in the making

The start

5am and the alarm goes off, what the hell am I doing is my first thought.  True to form all my gear had been laid out the night before, at this ungodly hour I want to have the minimum of fuss, so a quick toilet break and change and myself and Woody set off for our journey to the start.
A few blocks down from our hotel is Times Square, 5am and the lights are still glowing bright.  There’s people milling around even at this hour taking selfies, there’s a man preaching about Jesus the saviour, even he can’t help me now, I think.
A quick left turn and we’re heading towards the city library, the meeting point for our lifts to the start. We gather into the wave of runners heading towards the large queues that are forming, beside us are some English blokes, typical all this way and you’re next to an Englishman in New York, there’s very much something Sting-esh about this.  His cockney accent seems more cockney as the time goes by and at this early hour it’s starting to grind on me.
After about 15 or so minutes we’re funnelled onto the bus and the cockney bloke seems a distant memory and so begins the 90 minute journey….I wonder if I can sleep.  Nb – I couldn’t sleep.
After what seems an eternity we arrive at the start point, hordes of people filing off buses to join yet another queue, this time an airport style pat down. Show your number, put everything in a clear bag we’re told, there’s the army and many (well) armed police, I’m co-operating, I’m thinking. 
Despite the significant police/army presence no one is tense, this is a happy place.  People are smiling and laughing, we look down at our watches, its 7.15am.  My waves starts at 10.15am, ‘argh balls’ I say, ‘only another 3 hours to kill!’.
The beginning is well organised, free bagels, tea/coffee, energy bars, even some stress reducing dogs to pet and more toilets than the eye could see, Sarah Garrett would be in heaven.  To be honest I’m pretty chuffed too, off I pop for my second toilet break…
Oh, just a note for those future NYC marathon entrees so that you are not unprepared.  I unlike my colleague, Woody, took the sensible option and brought a jumper, you may want to consider this when standing/walking around. However, we were dwarfed in comparison to those people who brought lilos and blankets to have a kip, I did envy them.
Skip to another toilet break and it’s time to get into the starting pens (just so you know I’ve worked out that 3 trips to the toilet is the optimum amount).  After a bit of asking around Woody’s allowed to join me in Wave 2 (he initially put down for Wave 1) and after a couple of minutes the elite athletes are lining up, predictably the American National anthem pipes up, they’re properly belting it out hand on chest and everything.  I’m kinda envious of the whole national pride thing but nethertheless I don’t join in. Just as it’s in full flow 3 huge American helicopters fly over in formation, it’s no Red arrows but it’s still impressive.  A few seconds later and from out of nowhere 2 huge cannons are set off, everyone thinks wtf and the first wave is off.
Cue another 15 minutes and its Wave 2’s turn, everyone shuffles towards the start, repeat as wave 1, national anthem, 2 cannon and Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York starts bellowing out, we’re finally off!


The middle bit aka the marathon
The fist mile and a half is over Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, everyone’s jostling to find some space, Woody decides to be unconventional and darts onto the skirt of the bridge, I follow.  We think we’ve found the perfect place, oh no other people have thought the same and it’s not long before we’re once again jostling amongst the masses.
A few mile on the freeway (motorway to you and me) and we’re into the first housing estate, its adorned with typical styled American houses, the type you’ve seen in the films. It seems as is the American people have come out in force, hundreds line the streets shouting and waving flags and banners, I note one says ‘ONLY 23miles to go’….ONLY.
Another mile or so and we’re funnelled into the path of the other waves we’re now on 4th Avenue, only another 6 or so mile on this road…great.  Like a vanilla ice song, bumper to bumper the avenue was packed (substitute people for bumpers) they’re on either side of the four lane road, two or three deep all shouting and cheering, all wanting high fives, holding up placards with witty comments on, I’m so busy looking around that I cannot remember any but some did make me chuckle.&nbsp

The street is littered with the typical red brick houses with large staircases to the front door. Families are out, sitting on each and every step, hip hop blasting from the boom box, people are dancing and everyone’s cheering.  This is why I wanted to do it I thought.
Further down the street there’s a preacher outside a church, the end is nigh, says the huge bed blanket banner.  I hope not mate, I’ve got a race to finish.
With each pounding foot we move ever closer to towards half way, this time on the side of the street is someone rapping, it sounds awesome and as if possessed I unwittingly give him a black panther style fist in the air.  The whitest guy in the NY marathon from the most northern city in England giving him a fight the power sign, I think we’re all caught up in the moment, he gives me the thumbs up and shouts go on Saltwell.  We both move on, I just got a shout out from a street rapper, I’m made up, my brothers would be proud, if not a little embarrassed.
The next set of miles go by, each as entertaining as the rest. I’m slowly regretting my decision to take a drink from every drinks station (every mile btw), the gatorade has went right through me, I try to put it off, no use, toilet break it is.  It’s at this point I feel sorry for Woody, who is basically standing around waiting for me to pee, he doesn’t complain.  He’s been having too much fun running in and out of people trying to high five them on the side of the road. We set off again.
There’s three points during the race that I’ll never forgot, the first of which comes soon after the pee break (the others I’ll get to).
We turn into what can only be described as the Jesmond of Brooklyn, there’s posh coffee and cake shops, mini little stores, it looks high class and the posh people look as if they want to watch the poor run, maybe it reminds them of the time they released the hounds on the beggars coming to their door, who knows!  The locals start encroaching on the course but unlike most races no one minds, they’re three or four deep and screaming encouragement.  I can only describe it akin to being on the tour de france people are in front and to the side of you shouting encouragement, patting you on your back and high fiving you.  I don’t mind admitting I choked up a little, this was better than I could have ever imagined and I’d been waiting a long time to run it. The moment went over all too fast.
At about the 15 mile mark woody gets a message, Linda and Gemma are at the 16 mile mark. Unbeknown to Woody, albeit I was trying to hold him back more for pace purposes, I was struggling. As usual it was more mental than physical, 16 mile is always a difficult one for me, all those miles down and still double digits to go.  The thought of seeing our support gave me a little lift.
The next part of the race is my second memory.  We were fast approaching the 16 mile marker, we were coming off a bridge where there was next to no support (there were no sidewalks – pavements for Phil Askew) and coming down a hill to turn back on ourselves for the next stint when there was a massive wall of cheering people, it was at least 5 or 6 deep.  People were up on boxes or anything they could find to get a better view, I was scanning the crowds left to right to see if I could find our support.  We were passing fast, I’ve missed them I thought.
From out of nowhere two beaming faces popped up above the crowds shouting and screaming ‘Darren, Woody, Saltwell’, it was Gemma and Linda. Me and Woody both spotted them, I was particularly happy to see them both, it came at the perfect time for me just as I was struggling. I must have looked like an idiot for the next 2 minutes with my grinning face.
I knew that the next part of the race was a virtual 5 mile straight upto the Bronx, as with all the race there was plenty of support either side of the road.  I felt good after seeing the girls and then it happened, the dread for any runner, the twinge. I tried to put it from my mind but I couldn’t. I could sense my slowing down, I turned to Woody and simply said, ‘I’m sorry mate, I think this is me’.
He tried his best to encourage and I tried to go a little further but I thought that I needed to maintain at a slower pace and it seemed unfair to Woody who had clearly been running within himself besides me for the previous 19/20 mile, ‘nah mate, you go on’.
I walked for a minute or two and set off again.  About a half a mile up the road there was a turning point where you came back on yourself I saw Woody through a gap in the buildings, he’s not too far ahead I thought maybe I can catch up.  That’s the mindset of a runner right there.

No sooner as I got to the point where I had seen Woody that I got cramp.  For whatever reason it always seems to happen around 20/22 mile, I got cramp in my knees both of them.  Let me tell you, it hurts! 

I had thought by drinking at every water station and taking on board food during the race that this time it might not happen.  Unfortunately it did.  This is the one, not regret, but slight disappointment of my marathon, the fact that I couldn’t run it all the way.  I had secretly hoped I could still get under 4 hours and as the pacers slowly went past me, the runner in me still thought I could still get under 4 hours, I reluctantly admitted to myself it was no longer possible.  It was time to get over myself and enjoy the remainder of the race and soak up the atmosphere.
The last mile or so came into sight, the finish was in central park and you dipped in for about 3 quarters of a mile then went back on the outside of the park along the road. It was at this point I met some runners from Middlesbrough a.c, ‘alright Saltwell, how you doing, do you want to run in with us?’, ‘im injured’, came the reply, ‘just crack on’, ‘nah, so’s the misses just come in with us’ he said.  After about a minute of running came, ‘so do you know James May?’, I laughed, you can’t go anywhere without someone knowing a hoop!
The last mile was basically a procession, my new found Middlesbrough a.c mates kept me on the right path and we all encouraged each other, none of us stopping.  I even had the pleasure of seeing the support crew of Linda and Gemma just before turning onto the final straight shouting and waving, once again me grinning from ear to ear, this time however I didn’t require as much encouragement as the finish was insight, I’d just about done it.
Now comes my third memory the final straight.
As you can imagine, and a general theme within this report, the final straight was packed to the rafters people from all walks shouting and encouraging, ‘nearly there’. I know I thought I can see and my legs are telling me too!
The expected arms loft didn’t quite materialise and, as someone commented, it looked more like I was doing jazz hands and for Claire Lloyd, you now know who I was hugging at the end, it was my new found Middlesbrough mates helping me through the last mile. 

As I finally crossed the line and there was someone waiting with my medal.  This is the point I most came to crying, even now writing this I can feel some emotion coming through remembering that feeling. I had finally done it, after 7 years of trying I had finally realised my dream of running the New York marathon.  I looked down at my medal and let it sink in for a minute or so and then the biggest smile came over my face.
I had finished in 4 hours 8 minutes and 19 seconds. 


The last bit, usually called the conclusion
I think back to the start when I turned to Woody after seeing a guy wearing a gopro and remember saying ‘who’d want to look back at four hours of running’? The answer, I now know, was me.
Heading back to the hotel, I had no phone or way of contacting anyone, my thoughts turned to whether or not I could have done better.  Maybe. With marathons cramp is my nemesis, I felt fit and I’d gotten over my mental barrier on mile 16 but what the hell, I do not have a single regret. This was my dream and I thought I’m not wasting time on what could have or might have been. 

On the way back I bumped into Craig who was waiting for me, we messaged the girls and agreed to meet at a point further down the road. The girls were as happy to see us as us were to see them.
The walk back to the hotel was a recant of the sights and sounds of the previous 26.2 mile and we couldn’t resist getting a hotdog from a vendor, after all when in New York. The conversation then turned to what to do tonight, ‘What do you think, let’s drink, we’ve all earned it!!!’ was the reply.
I think this is supposed to be the point, in my best Jerry Springer style summarisation, I give some meaningful, poignant last words and I’ll try….
For me, New York is one of the best places on the Earth.  We all have a perception of American people from films and the News and I can safely say its rubbish.  You couldn’t meet a bunch of more friendly and genuine people anywhere, say for Newcastle (I know my audience). The whole of New York made my dream more special than I could have imagined and I’m also thankful that I had the best company anyone could have hoped for to share it with in Craig, Gemma and Linda.
Since I’ve come back I’ve been asked are you doing another marathon and to a person I’ve replied that I think I’ve only got 1 marathon left in me.  After writing this and reliving some of my memories, perhaps that may stretch to two……. 😉


Darren Smiley