nyc marathon 2014; one less bridge, one hard race

I am tired, and sore, and drained, and sapped, and fried. Yesterday was everything that is great and horrible about marathoning all wrapped up and delivered in a packaged wrapped in stiff, no nonsense, brown paper.  My blood sugar is crashing just reflecting on it.

It began much like every other marathon, early in the morning. After a 4:40 a.m. wakeup call, and a 5 a.m. breakfast the world's top wheelchair racers sat huddled in the lobby of the New York Hilton, chatting, nervously fidgeting and staring blankly at the tiles of the lobby floor. The chatter to be overheard was mostly about the race, and of the many mouths it was tumbling out of included numerous legends of the sport. 

Ernst Van Dyk, a massive South African mountain of a man, with 10 Boston Marathon victories to his name and a resume that almost makes you forgive his boisterous demeanor.

Heinz Frei, a bald, hunched, bespectacled Swiss man who, at the age of 56 more closely resembles a watchmaker than a wheelchair racer. Despite appearances, Heinz is the most prolific marathoner in history, with over 100 marathon victories to his name. 

Soejima and Kota, a menacing pair of japanese athletes whom you would be forgiven for mistaking as machines. Their ability to work is mythical and they are always in the lead pack at the end of a race, no matter the course or conditions.

Marcel Hug, the Swiss wunderkind who at the ripe old age of 28 holds the world record in the 800m, 1500m, 5000m and 10000m on the track. He is also a terror on the road and the defending NYC marathon champion.

Last of note, but certainly not least, my dear friend (truly family at this point) Kurt Fearnley. Kurt is the pride of Australia, one of the most popular athletes on that beautiful island, 4-time winner of the NYC marathon, course record holder and one of the fiercest marathoners of the past decade.

The day began much like any other year, until the announcement came from the elite wheelchair organizer Dorian Kail made her unexpected announcement.

"We have just received word that the wheelchair start has been moved to mile three. Because of the wind, it has been deemed unsafe for the wheelchairs to race across the Verizano Bridge."

You see, the NYC Marathon takes runners through the five burroughs of this amazing city, beginning in Staten Island and immediately crossing the Verizano into Brooklyn. The Bridge is a crucial feature in the race. The first mile of the 26 mile race being a sprint, uphill, to the top, and then a plummit to the bottom. It is the hardest first mile of any race in the world, and factors prominently in any strategy. Of Kurt's four wins, three came from breakaway climbs in mile one.

Without the bridge, the race is a different animal. We understood the reasoning. Going down the bridge is dangerous in normal conditions, but with wind gust of nearly 50mph coming off the river the likelihood of one racer getting blown into another at speeds of over 25mph increased significantly. It was a risk that the race directors deemed they couldn't take. Suddenly, our marathon turned into a 23 mile race, and one of the key features in separating the winners from the also-ran was eliminated. 

This was not exactly a bad thing for me. I was entering this race as fit as I ever have been and coming off the biggest victory of my career. Three weeks ago in Chicago, I won that city's marathon by outsprinting Ernst, Kurt, Heinz, the Japanese, and others. I knew that if i could survive to the finish, I had a shot of repeating that feat. One of the barriers to surviving, for me, is coming down the Verazano bridge. 

You see, I am not a large man. Conversely, I am rather small. I am the lightest racer in the elite field by 25 lbs, and thus I struggle to get down hills as fast as the larger racers. Not only that, I am also affected more by cross and head winds, getting blown around far worse than the heavier racers. Eliminating one very long downhil into the wind was quite beneficial.

It made for a strange morning, however. Gone was the journey across the bridge in a bus heading for the start line. Gone was the intense wave of emotion that hits when you see, after a year's absence, your brutal nemesis for the first two miles of the race. Instead, we began in brooklyn, comandeering a few side streets to ready ourselves for the race, and lining up on a foreign start align away from the cameras, sirens and cheers of the start line.

Also gone was the ability to thin out the field by attacking on the first climb. Over the past few years, the men's field of elite wheelchair racing has taken a huge jump forwards. There are more fast racers than ever before, and more racers that can stay together in a pack if they are not forced to climb or descend steep hills. 

The pack of racers for those first 7 miles through Brooklyn was enormous. Twenty deep and filled with anxious racers not used to pushing in packs at the front. The pack, combined with the horrible winds blowing in our faces and across our sides nearly caused a new accident every mile. The favorites of the race alternated biding their time in the middle of the pack, or spiking the pace off the front. 

We finally thinned the pack out with the first long climb of the race 7 miles in, and moved myself into third position. This was short lived, however. The ascent was followed with an equally steep and long descent, and after getting tossed across the road in a gust of wind, the pack I was with coasted away from me. 

I spent the next few miles battling alone and with a few stragglers, fighting to catch back up to the lead pack. 

Eventually I did, but the respite of ducking some of the wind behind other racers ("drafting") was short lived. After a brief mile in the pack trying to regain my strength we hit the climbs in the middle of the race, a short bridge going somewhere, followed shortly after by the 59th St. bridge that would take us into Manhattan. I survived the first bridge unscathed, but the 59th St. Bridge is a kicker.

It is the second longest climb of the race, basically the same length and distance as the Verazano; one mile up and one mile down. 

I began the climb by taking the lead. I am one of the top climbers in the world and I knew that this was the time I needed to make a move. I was climbing fast, handily dropping everyone except Kurt and a Polish racer named Tomas. Halfway up, however, Kurt wanted to push the race faster. As he passed he muttered at me, "Come on JG." It is the racing dream of both Kurt and myself to use our climbing skills to break away from the field in this particular race and work together to dominate. I thought this could be that day.  

At first, I went along. I tucked behind Kurt, put my head down, and continued to grind out the climb. But Kurt was too strong. He opened a small gap and suddenly Tomas was swinging around me to slide behind Kurt. the gap between me and the other two climbers opened to about 20 meters and then stayed put, but by the time we crested and reached the bottom of the bridge the gap had opened to a handy 50 meters. 

Coming onto 1st Avenue i was stuck in no-man's land, two strong racers ahead of me, and a group of larger racers behind me, huntng me down. For a while I thought I could do it on my own. There is entirely way too much downhill on 1st Avenue, but I felt if I could just survive those miles I would be ok.

Alas, I couldn't. While my small frame got tossed in the wind, the bigger bodies tracked me down, passing me down a steeper hill at a speed that did not allow me to tuck behind. Five miles after the 59th St. Bridge I had gone from 3rd to 7tth and was all alone to try and reel the leaders in. 

I worked hard. The wind beat my face and body with gusting fists, but my arms kept churning. I held hope until I entered Central Park for the first time, but after I enetered the park without catching the leaders I knew that my task was impossible. My focus shifted to maintaining 7th place and I grinded out the last few miles. They were some of the hardest miles I have ever pushed in my life.

I ended up finishing in 7th. Outside my goal of the top five, but an improvement from last year. My emotions were everywhere. My blood sugar had crashed during the slight climb to Columbus Circle before turing into the Park for the second and final time. After crossing the finish line my body gave out. I was relieved, pissed, frustrated, exhausted, sore, dizzy, self-deprecating, and flat, all at the same time.

It is a dream of mine to win this race. I am open to the possibility that one day it will happen. This year did not provide that day. I'm getting stronger, and though I yelled at myself to work harder, I don't know if I could have. I just need to come back stronger next year. And I will

The New York City Marathon is the greatest race in the world. It is the World's marathon, hosting 50,000 runners from every corner of the planet, and most importantly it is the one race every year that all of my family come to. I love when they are able to make it to races, and it made it mader, yesterday, that I got to go to my Aunt and Uncles after the race to relax and smother some bagels in chopped liver, egg salad, white fish salad, and chive cream cheese (not all at once) and shut down.

The only other thing that made the race a little easier was the fact that Kurt won. He is an amazing athlete, and amazing friend. He, his wife and his baby are family to me, and celebrating his return to the top of this race, after a four year absence from the crown, was definitely spectacular. Next year maybe we will live out the dream, and I will do everything possible to beat him. This year, we celebrated his victory.

And now I am off to Rio. 10 hours on a plane is not goign to make my body happy, but I'm excited to be running away for a week.