Empire State of Mind

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Concrete jungle where dreams are made of, there’s nothing you can’t do… (Image from http://www.kick4life.org/get-involved/fundraising/)

Up until my 24th birthday, I had never run a race outside of Boston. That’s not surprising, considering I’ve lived almost a quarter (!!) of my life in Boston and only started running a little over three years ago.

New York City seemed like a natural choice for my first race outside of Boston. I grew up in Northern New Jersey, less than half an hour outside the city on a good day, and my infatuation with the city was part of the reason I moved to Boston (that is, away from the suburbs). On top of that, the race was scheduled for my birthday – what a way to ring in 24 years!

I signed up in late November, a few weeks after my last race, the B.A.A. Half Marathon. Though that race was grueling and miserable, I was still excited to run another race. Since then, I had been going to classes at the Y – strength training, circuit training, etc. – but was eager to get back into running. I got confirmation a few weeks later that I got in, leaving a week or two of rest before jumping back into a training plan!

… well, “training plan” isn’t necessarily how I’d put it. I put all the dates and distances into my calendar for future reference, but really only ran two to three times a week (in addition to strength training classes) – a three-to-four mile run during the week, maybe another, then a long run on the weekend. I hadn’t mixed strength training with running before this period, but it definitely made my muscles feel stronger and more resilient. I felt like I could run longer distances for longer stretches of time, and my pace got slightly better as well!

As race day neared, I felt nervous – as always – about not sticking strictly to the training plan. My mileage had gone up, yeah, but only because of my ever-tiring ever-lengthening long runs. I also had to skip a few longer and faster runs because of snow. I even did one short 5K on a treadmill two days before the race that left me completely winded – if I couldn’t go a 5K, how on earth was I going to do a half marathon??

(Well for one, running on the street and not on a treadmill is a good way to start.)

I spent a couple of days with my parents in New Jersey before heading to New York for the race. My mom always takes me to the mall when I come home, so she was surprised when I turned down the chance to walk around indoors for five hours in my flat, hard-soled boots (sorry, mom). I spent a lot of time reading and watching TV (read: House Hunters) instead.

That Saturday, I met up with friends in New York and wandered a bit around the city – hanging out at the Half Marathon expo, hitting up Wall Street to see the Fearless Girl (and the Charging Bull), then grabbing dinner (wonton soup!) in Chinatown. We turned in early in preparation for the long day ahead.

Finally – race day! I agonized over what to wear – leggings? shorts? a long sleeved shirt? a short sleeved shirt? a short sleeved shirt over a long sleeved shirt? a sweater? a headband? gloves? I finally settled on leggings and a short sleeved shirt with a sweater over it, with gloves and a headband to cover my ears. The weather forecast jumped from “warm and rainy” to “cold and icy” and everything in between, so I figured I’d play it safe.

We took and Uber to the starting line, but had to kill some time before our corrals opened up. It was absolutely freezing – I was starting to wish I had worn more layers! – so at Francis’s suggestion, Sam and I took refuge in a nearby hotel, where other runners were stretching, warming up, finishing up snacks (a banana for me), and taking their last bathroom breaks before lining up. As our starting time neared and we made our way through security (the first time I had ever been for a race!), the weather seemed to warm up a lot, and I contemplated taking off my sweater and dropping it in a Goodwill bin.

(Though I eventually decided not to, mostly because I had already pinned my bib to my sweater and dreaded the thought of having to deal with safety pins again.)

Finally, after what seemed like endless hours of waiting, we were off! I silently chuckled to myself over the number of sweaters dotting the side of the track, especially right after a sign that said “Last chance to donate sweaters to Goodwill!”. It was getting warmer, but the air was still cool and easy to breathe.

The first 6 or so miles winded through Central Park, with a (much-hyped but ultimately quite boring) dip into Harlem around mile 3. The course was winding and hilly, but I was able to push through most of it, albeit with a few walking breaks. I trailed the 2:30 pacer team (one in a onesie!) for the first 3 miles or so, but eventually lost them around the first big hill.

Next, the course turns out of the park and into the city. Up ahead, so close yet so far away, you can see the ubiquitous lights and fanfare of Times Square. Around this time, my race playlist (compiled the night before with friends) started playing “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. I’ll admit that I had been so sick of this song before – the New York radio stations we got back home overplayed it for years – but I’ll admit that hearing Alicia Keys belt out that chorus while running toward Times Square kind of gave me butterflies (the good kind, of course).

Speaking of butterflies, my stomach started cramping around this time as well, which was seriously the worst timing. I tried lifting my head to take in everything around me – cheerleaders! bands! lights! billboards! – but every step made the stitch in my side ache more and more. I eventually took a few quick breathers right in the middle of it all, and as I set off again, a police officer (who must have seen me struggling) gave me a big smile and an enthusiastic “You can do this!”

(In retrospect, it was definitely the lack of an actual breakfast that did me in. No amount of energy gels could fuel my energy exertion! Seriously, I thought gels and Gatorade would help, so I ingested as much as I could, but nothing seemed to help. The pain eventually went away, though for the life of me I can’t exactly pinpoint when…)

The rest of the race was flat and dull. At one point, I looked up at awe at the World Trade Center building, marveling at how it majestically jutted out over other buildings in the skyline and beautifully reflected the clear, blue sky. My admiration slowly turned into annoyance when I realized that the course eventually runs past this (still far, far away) building. I didn’t glance up after that.

The last stretch, which seemed to go on forever, went through a tunnel. There were few signs within the tunnel and, because it was gradually curved throughout, it was difficult to tell where it ended. I wanted to take a walking break because I was so beat, but hated the idea of slowing down right before the end of the race – so I kept trucking on.

Finally, after emerging from the tunnel and winding through some final twists and turns, I ran past the last few groups of screaming supporters and through the finish line!

I stumbled past volunteers who handed me my medal, a heat blanket, and even a bag full of food (coincidentally provided by an old college friend!). Wandering past groups of friends and family excitedly greeting each other, I eventually caught up with my friends (who had finished a while before me), did some stretching, and traded stories from the race!

Afterwards, we grabbed some birthday lunch – ramen for me! (Long noodles, long life, right?) We even ran into a few New York transplants from Boston at the restaurant, who recognized the B.A.A. logo on Bryan’s shirt and gave us some recommendations (soup dumplings!).

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House special ramen! (Image from http://www.johnnyprimesteaks.com/kung-fu-little-steamed-buns-ramen/)

Afterwards, we cleaned up (I was VERY salty), rested a lot, and got birthday dinner at Jeepney with friends! All together, a very eventful and definitely memorable weekend.

(Someday I’ll find the time to write about something other than running. Someday.)

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