Chapter One: Ed Sheeran Ruins Lives
This attempt at the NYC Marathon was meant to be my do-over. Last year, after taking longer than expected to recover from a ridiculous injury, I crammed all my training in last minute. Not ideal but I stumbled through (as I do most things in life) and crossed the finish line after 5 hours and 32 gruelling minutes. And though I was pretty proud of myself all things considered, I immediately vowed to return in 2017 and do better.
This year, I was doing well. No injuries, no clumsy tumbles. I was training for a mountain expedition in January 2018 involving a lot of strength and core training which, despite the benefit for runners, I usually avoid (because I’m a genius). It was all going great until my body (approaching thirty) decided to (not so) slowly decay. About 8 weeks before the race, I experienced discomfort in my calf. At first, it was mild so I ran through the pain (again, genius) but after a few weeks it got worse so I decided to be sensible (possibly for the first time ever) and see a physio.
The physio was concerned (appalled) at the state of my muscles but was very reassuring. She explained that I needed to actually stretch after training. Not doing so, coupled with my unique (special) running style was not helping. Now I’m not (entirely) stupid… I knew all of this but somehow I’ve always gotten away with doing very little stretching. But the idiotic behaviour of my early twenties is now coming back to bitch-slap me in the face. So, my physio assigned me some rehab exercises and told me to lay off running for a bit. A minor set-back but after a few days’ rest I’d be back on track.
A normal person would go home at this point, elevate the leg and apply ice. I, however, decided to go to the pub, get twatted and improvise a contemporary dance routine to Ed Sheeran’s greatest hits. The whole thing’s a bit of a blur but I remember a sudden jolt in my calf mid jump (presumably whist attempting some sort of pirouette) followed by a Pterodactyl-esque yelp. I woke up the next day unable to walk at all.
So back to the physio I went. After explaining my situation (that I’m a lunatic), she looked at the rest of my muscles. It doesn’t take Einstein to figure out that the problem in my calf was connected to my foot, my hamstrings and my (non-existent) glutes. Everything was fucked. So I had to make a call: mountain or marathon. I could skip the marathon and hope to be back in shape quickly enough to train for the mountain; or postpone the mountain, wing the marathon and just deal with the consequences later. I of course chose the latter. Such is the way I live my life.
Chapter Two: Beer Is A Carb, Right?
This year, I’d actually thought through the travel aspect of the trip and scheduled a stop-over in San Francisco to combat jet lag. A good idea in theory. What I hadn’t accounted for however was acquiring a snot-fuelled lurgy prior to departure which mutated into a chronic cold over a 14 hour flight sharing recycled air with grotty strangers. By the time I arrived, I may as well have copulated furiously with Russell Brand… I was riddled.
Between the jet lag and the man-flu, San Francisco was quite the treat. After sleeping until 1pm, I attempted a 5km run on the hotel treadmill. Having not run at all in six weeks, this was a genuine struggle. I looked like a mixture between a mutant beetroot and a baby giraffe learning to walk for the first time. After that, I met up with an old Uni friend for beers. I figured my marathon was buggered at this point so I might as well enjoy myself!
This mentality continued in New York. After going to the expo to pick up my race number only to find that it didn’t exist, I decided that the universe was firmly against me running this marathon. Again, a sensible person would have tucked themselves in bed with a hot drink, but not me. I decided to meet up with another friend and once again got royally wankered… 36 hours before the race.
The day before the race, most people go for a short run and enjoy some healthy carb loading. I of course was horrifically hungover and didn’t surface until 3pm. With the breath of an off-duty pirate and resembling something out of a Ke$ha video, I stumbled to the nearest Arby’s for the greasiest burger I could find before dragging myself to the Pasta Party (undoubtedly the best part of marathon prep).
It is safe to say that by this point, I was in the worst pre-race state of my already disastrous marathon career. I honestly wasn’t sure I should (or could) run. Many friends who were marathon runners urged me not to run but the stubborn arsehole side of my personality (Geoff) was nagging me to see it through. And upon the advice of one friend to “take a cement pill and run the bloody marathon”… I set my alarm for 4am and tucked myself (and my pickled kidneys) in bed ready for the race.
Chapter Three: Making Friends
Surprisingly, on race day (thanks to a cocktail of adrenaline and flu medicine), I felt pretty good. I bumped in to an old classmate in the hotel lobby and we got chatting to a mother and daughter team. We all piled on to the bus towards the Staten Island Ferry and made our way to the start village together. This is a huge part of the New York Marathon experience. Unless you are an elite athlete (which, surprisingly, I am not), you will set off at 5am, arrive at the village by 7am and then hang around until 11am before you can even start running. Good company is crucial. Otherwise you’re just a Sad Susan, sitting alone in a bin-bag, eating bananas and slowly spiralling into a pit of despair.
Meeting new people is one of my favourite things about marathon day and this year’s crowd did not disappoint. Everybody has their own reason for running with many runners overcoming immense challenges just to make it to the start line. I stuck with the mother and daughter team. They were dressed like “Momma Bear” and “Baby Bear”. Momma had run the NYC Marathon 12 years previously and had set her sights on completing it again aged 60 after overcoming some personal challenges. This was a big deal for both of them and their determination (and on-point Northern English banter) was uplifting. We sat around bundled in bin bags, stuffed ourselves with bagels (god bless carb-loading) and laughed our way to the start line where I popped several more flu tablets, a just-in-case Imodium, lathered myself in deep heat and hoped for the best.
Chapter Four: Fuck The Wall
The actual race was both absolutely awesome and unreservedly horrific. Despite the fact that it rained the entire time, I was on top of the world jogging alongside the bears for the first 8 miles. I soaked up the atmosphere and enjoyed the cheering crowds. After that, I decided to pick up the pace and set off on my own.
An amazing thing about the NYC Marathon is that it takes you through all five boroughs. Brooklyn without a doubt has the best crowds. I spent the next few miles laughing at the brilliant signs. Some were the same as last year… “If Trump can run, so can you!”; some were hot off the press… “Run like you’re alone with Harvey Weinstein”; and some were old classics…“Never trust a fart after mile 20”.
Whilst for the first 15 miles of my race I was unexpectedly loving life, this feeling faded quickly on the Queensboro Bridge. A particularly sore point (figuratively and literally) for many runners, it is a mile of solid incline under cover with no supporters whatsoever. If you don’t have music to keep you going, all you can hear is the thumping of trainers and heavy breathing of fellow runners. This is where I decided to walk. I had fought to keep going as long as I could and was rather proud of running this far under the circumstances.
Despite having to walk, I still felt pretty good and started running again as the downhill section of the bridge led us towards the Manhattan crowds. The next 5 miles (a mixture of running and walking) weren’t too bad either but around the 20 mile point as we made our way into the Bronx (where I was aptly greeted by a sign saying: “Fuck the wall”)… a small part of me died.
The last 6 miles were an insufferable slog. Leaving the Bronx and heading back into Manhattan, I was simply over it. Around the 23 mile mark (which is an unrelenting, soul-destroying hill alongside Central Park), my arse felt like a block of cement attached to a giant anvil that I was unceremoniously dragging around. I shared this sentiment with a random Dutch fellow running beside me. He looked at me in utter horror as though I was insane (which I am, but that’s beside the point).
The last 3 miles take you through Central Park, which for the elite runners is rammed with enthusiastic supporters. For us stragglers desperately trying to finish before sunset, it’s a somewhat different experience. The last mile or so was hellish. I was in absolute agony and the running distances between walking were becoming shorter and shorter. As I rounded the last corner and felt the effects of the cruel (ever so slight) incline leading up to the finish, I just wanted to cease to exist. With meters to go, I summoned up strength I didn’t even know I had left and threw my arms in the air to cross the finish line in a vaguely triumphant manner.
Surprisingly, I finished in 5 hours and 17 minutes which was 15 minutes faster than last year’s equally calamitous attempt. I should have been at least a little pleased but I was in absolute agony which, judging by the state of my finish photo (despite my arm-flinging efforts), was clear to everyone. At first glance, it may look like I’m smiling… but I can assure you that it is most certainly the pain-ridden grimace of a tortured human.
Chapter Five: It Ain’t Over ’Til The Fat Lady Faints
Undoubtedly, the worst part of the New York Marathon is the unnecessary 27th mile. For an otherwise superbly organised event, this cluster-fuck of a system to get you out of the park is absolute hell. With darkness descending (both literally and figuratively) and the adrenaline leaving my body like a buddhist monk fleeing a bachelorette party, I was in immense pain. My shoulders were aching, my arse in tatters, my head was thumping and my body temperature (much like Kevin Spacey’s reputation) was plummeting. I just wanted to get home but instead, I was walking an unrelenting extra mile in a crowd of zombies.
Normally, I would breathe through the pain but every time I took a breath I produced an alarming wheezing sound. Dangerously close to hyperventilating but trying my best to stay calm, I was stopped by an official to check if I needed medical assistance. In hindsight, I probably did but being Welsh (stubborn and fiercely independent to a fault) I insisted I was fine as to not make a fuss. Instead, I threw an obnoxious amount of Deep Heat on my shoulders before passing it to random strangers as we shuffled along in mutual distress.
After I finally escaped the park, I walked an additional couple of miles to the hotel. Alone, wrapped in a bright blue poncho and, quite frankly, broken, I waddled slowly like a geriatric Smurf on day-release. I figured it couldn’t get much worse.
About half way back to the hotel, my left knee gave way, making every step utterly excruciating whilst every breath produced a useless wheeze obtaining no air whatsoever. I was visibly shaking, hobbling and trying my best not to cry and/or collapse. Walking by this point was so painful that I could barely continue. Every fibre of my being urged me to sit down but what little common sense I possess told me that if I sat down in the street I would never get back up. I just needed to keep moving and get to the hotel.
After waddling for about a decade and receiving several dodgy looks (and no help whatsoever) from strangers, I finally made it. I got into the lift which was of course full. Still in immense pain, I squeezed into the corner, breathing (wheezing) heavily and trying my best not to faint. Other than the time I injured myself performing an Ed Sheeran ballet, I believe this to be the most dignified moment of my adult life.
Once I finally got to my room, I lay down in the foetal position, battled through a one-legged shower, ordered some victory pizza and promptly fell asleep. This was unequivocally the worst I had ever felt after any marathon. It was brutal. Never again. I’d rather shit in my own hands and clap.
Epilogue: The Definition Of Insanity
The next day, sitting in the airport with a large jet-black blister on my foot, an open wound on my shoulder (from where my sports bra had chaffed to the point of drawing blood) and unable to stand or walk without producing tears, I started planning my next marathon. Next time will be different…