The day began at 4:45AM. Like a good little marathoner, I had my gear laid out and ready to go the night before so it took almost no time to get out the door. By 5:10AM, I was making the walk to the NYC Public Library where the buses were waiting to transport us to the race start on Staten Island.
I arrived in SI around 6:40AM, about 3½ hours prior to my assigned start time. I set up a little campsite near my corral and waited. Over the next few hours, I watched what started as an empty, wide open field slowly become a bustling gathering area of anxious runners.
At 9:30AM, I made my way into my start corral and eagerly awaited my 10:15AM start. A short walk later and we were standing at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
So there I was standing at the start line of what was about to become the largest marathon ever. As we waited for the start, I set a very simple intention: Be strong — whatever that means at the time. If that meant haul ass, I’d do it. If that meant, stop for a picture, so be it. Be strong, Alison, be strong.
I can say with absolute certainty that the first 2 miles of this race were the most challenging for me. It wasn’t because of the steep mile-long incline or the insane winds whipping through the bridge — no, it was because of equipment difficulties.
A few days before this race, I remembered that Camelbaks (my beloved hydration backpacks) are prohibited on the NYC Marathon course, which wouldn’t have been as issue since I own 5 hydration belts that would be permitted; however, I’d just upgraded my phone and am now sporting a fancy new iPhone 7 Plus. Compared to my old iPhone 6, the new phone is a freaking monster. Turns out, the new phone didn’t fit in any of the belts I own. Crap! So the day before leaving for NYC, I ran to my local running store to get a new belt. In other words, I was fixing to break the cardinal rule of marathoning … nothing new on race day. Dun dun dun…
Well, as you can probably imagine, the belt created some challenges for me. It was adjustable but not adjustable enough to get snug around my waist. As I started to run, it started to bounce. As it started to bounce, the water bottles kept popping out of their holders and rolling onto the course. I was chasing bottles around and growing increasingly frustrated. No way was this system going to work for another 25 miles. I wanted to panic but I chose to be strong and trouble-shoot the problem.
I decided that as soon as I got off the bridge and into Brooklyn, I’d toss 2 of the 4 water bottles I was carrying into the nearest trash can. If that didn’t work, I’d lose all 4 bottles and rely on course water stations. If all else failed, I’d toss the whole belt and carry my phone and energy gels by hand.
But just before reaching the end of the bridge, on a whim I turned the belt around so that the pouch was in the front and — what do ya know — no more bouncing. Problem solved. My focus shifted back to the race as I settled into a steady pace.
Somewhere around Mile 6, I saw the creepiest race sign ever — a dude dressed as a hot dog holding a sign that said “FREE HUGS (if you’re not wearing underwear). It was amusing to watch runners moving toward him only to get close enough to see the parenthetical phrase and run the other way. God Bless Brooklyn.
As we crossed the bridge and headed into Queens just after Mile 13, we were greeted by a bunch of spectators yelling “Welcome to Queens”. Half the race done, moving into our 3rd borough. I was still feeling very solid and very much in the zone, holding a very manageable 9:40 pace.
Near Mile 15, we hit the Queensboro Bridge that would carry us into Manhattan where we were greeted by a huge crowd at Mile 16. Moving into the 4th borough and I was still feeling strong. People around me began to struggle but I carried on — still in the zone.
When we got to the Willis Avenue Bridge to head into the Bronx, I was feeling pretty awesome but it occurred to me that I had just run nearly 20 miles without really noticing it. So, I decided to walk the bridge, look around me, take some pictures and take in the experience. And I was glad I did, the humor of the people in the Bronx was refreshing and enlivening. Sometimes being strong means slowing down to take it all in.
Shortly after Mile 20, I was back to cruising. As we turned onto Fifth Avenue just after Mile 21, it become harder and harder to stay focused because I was fighting back the emotions. I could feel how close I was to the finish and it began to penetrate my stoic facade. As we approached the Mile 23 water station, I drank slowly and lingered a little to take in the scene surrounding me. With Central Park to my right now, I knew there was only one thing left to do — bring it home.
And that’s exactly what I did. Every step become a little quicker and a little more powerful. But the emotions were really rising now. As we turned into the Park at Mile 24, the noise level intensified dramatically. Confetti everywhere. We were in the home stretch.
By the time I got to Central Park South between Miles 25 and 26, I was moving at a 8:45-9:00 pace and it felt like I was floating … well until I hit the uphill finish anyway. The hill — while not nearly as steep as the uphill finish at Marine Corps Marathon — felt a lot longer. This was fine though, it gave me time to see and truly feel what was about to happen.
I crossed the line feeling superhuman and 14 minutes faster than I’d ran Marine Corps Marathon 7 days earlier. Within milliseconds, the tears began. I could barely breathe. Holy shit, I did it.
In hindsight, the biggest hurdle I had to overcome when deciding to tackle this challenge was the question of whether or not I could actually pull it off. I had to be in the supremely uncomfortable and vulnerable position of knowing that there’s a possibility that I might not get it done. Knowing this, I still stepped out there to give it my best shot. For that, I am incredibly proud.
Because that’s the real lesson here, in order to do something really brave you’ve gotta be willing to fail, be willing to be wrong, and (most importantly) be able to see that no matter what the outcome, it doesn’t define who you are or change how you feel about yourself.
I had to believe in myself enough to take the chance that my self-worth would remain intact no matter what I accomplished or failed to accomplish in these 2 races.
You see, I’m not immune to the vulnerability that comes from standing at the start line and not knowing what’s gonna happen out there. Unfortunately, discomfort with this type of uncertainty comes with the territory and doesn’t disappear with experience. It’s just as uncomfortable for me today as it was on the day I stood at the start line of my first 5k — that may never change. However, what has changed is that I’ve become more tolerant of it. Instead of seeing this discomfort as a threat, I now see it as a normal part of the growth process. Through the years of constant practice, I’ve become more resilient and more able to withstand the friction that happens when I rub up against my own vulnerability.
In the end, this was never really about the 2 marathons. It was about taking a chance and dreaming big. I succeeded the minute I decided to go for it. The result was irrelevant.
After we accomplish something we thought would be really difficult, we often start to believe that the task wasn’t as hard as we originally thought. But I’m not so sure. It’s not that running 2 marathons in 7 days wasn’t as hard as I thought — I’m just a whole lot stronger than I ever imagined.
The truth is that you’ll never know what you’re made of if you aren’t willing to put yourself out there under threat of being torn apart, all the while trusting that, even if you are torn apart this time, you’ll become even stronger in the process.