2008 NY Marathon: the view from the curb*

What’s more exciting: running a marathon or watching one? You can’t do both at the same time. But you should do at least one or the other once in your life. I’ve done the former four times, and now, the latter once. Here, I provide my awestruck impressions of watching the fastest people in the world running within 10 feet of me yesterday morning.

First of all, it was a total pain in the ass to get to the Bronx yesterday. I did it the wrong way, taking a train to Fordham and then walking about a half mile along Fordham Rd to the 4 line. That took forever to arrive and then I discovered that it doesn’t stop at 138th St, where I wanted to be. So I had to get off at 149th, walk into the bowels of the subway system to catch the local 5 train and endure another 15 minute wait in a rat- and cockroach-infested dungeon. I found myself wondering if it was all worth it.

Here’s the right way to get there from Westchester: Take the train to 125th St, walk two blocks, then hop on the 6 line north for one stop to 138th St and 3rd Ave in the Bronx.

I arrived at about 10:30 and milled around for 20 minutes, carefully setting up my camera to take poor quality pictures. I planted myself on 138th, just east of 3rd Ave (and just after the 20 mile mark), before a water table, thinking perhaps they’d slow a bit at that spot.

This little area was not the “dead zone” in terms of spectators I’d expected. There was a crowd on 3rd Ave and a band, and a few pockets of people to the west. But it wasn’t like the scene on 125th St in Harlem, where I went and hung out after I’d seen all the elites go by.

Here I will admit that I suck as a photographer. I may have learned never to experiment with new shoes or fueling strategies for the marathon, but I threw caution to the wind yesterday and experimented with the camera that I don’t know how to use properly. I tried the “burst” mode, which I thought would take a series of full sized shots of each runner in motion. Instead, I got a series of postage stamp sized shots. All of my runners are tiny.

So, I’m not going to embarrass myself further by uploading tiny photos. Especially when there’s a perfectly good series right here. Since I have no intention of running this race in the near future, I’ll go watch again next year and I’ll learn to use my camera properly by then.

The elite women

The excitement builds in the minutes before the first runners arrive. Someone barked “Ten minutes!” into a bullhorn at 10:50. Then, at 10:55, a new update: “Radcliffe first, Petrova second, Goucher third.” A few minutes later, we saw and heard the helicopter, followed by the roar of police motorcycles. They came around the corner and there was so much noise and activity that the two runners (Radcliffe and Petrova) were lost in the mayhem around them. The motorcycles and camera truck passed and suddenly it seemed very quiet.

The two women passed by me and I was struck by the fact that I could actually hear them breathing. Radcliffe, although only 5’8″, seems much larger in person. And she runs like a fucking machine. Petrova was hanging off her shoulder, looking like a little bobbing tugboat, but a tenacious one. One look at Paula and you knew she was going to win. Goucher came through about 15 seconds later, also looking larger than life, and wearing a facial expression that was, paradoxically, both relaxed and determined.

Incidentally, Petrova, 40, broke Priscilla Welch’s 1987 masters world record for the marathon yesterday by over a minute, with a finishing time of 2:25:43. I don’t think this was mentioned once in the televised coverage, which was too bad.

Tune came through shortly thereafter, followed by Wami (who is one of the most light-on-her-feet runners I’ve ever seen, and tiny). I was expecting Catherine “The Great” Ndereba next, but instead saw Jeptoo. Then a few others: Simon, McGregor and Morgunova. Then a big pause and the last few women who I would recognize came through: Lewy-Boulet, Scotswoman Hayley Haining (who is built like a tank; I wonder if that’s what I look like under my 24% body fat) and 19-year-old newcomer Ilsa Paulson, who is a tiny little wisp of a woman. I was disappointed to not see Kim Smith of New Zealand; it appears she dropped out just after the 30K mark.

The elite men

With the second-tier elite women straggling in one by one, the excitement began to build anew: In a few minutes, the elite men would start coming through. Once again, you could tell when the moment was near, with the arrival of a helicopter and phalanx of cops on bikes.

I was rooting for the Brazilian, Gomes Dos Santos, to win — and here he was in the lead! Goumri was right on his heels and looking very strong. Next up: Bouramdane, Tergat, Rono, Kirui, Macharia. And, finally, some Americas: Abdi, Rohatinsky, Lemkuhle. After that, I stopped recognizing people, with one exception: I saw James Carney, who looked awful. He was jogging along, looking slightly bewildered. He turned and asked another runner, who was passing, a question, and I thought, “He’s about to drop out.” When I got home and watched the coverage, I could see what happened: He went nuts and led the pack from the start, running like a rocket straight into a head wind for the first half mile or so.

Some familiar faces

Just a few: Takashi Ogawa, a friendly age group rival of Jonathan’s, was powering his way through to a 2:50 finish. He looked good when I saw him. A few minutes behind him, I spotted Zola Budd. She is no longer the barefooted rail that she was during her cross-country and track days. Perhaps 20 pounds heavier, she still managed to break three hours in her first marathon yesterday. Finally, after I switched positions to go watch the throngs in Harlem, I saw fellow running blogger Pigtails Flying (who I have not met, but who sent me a picture so I could look for her). She also ran a huge PR yesterday (42 minutes!), breaking 3:55. Go Pigtails!

*In honor of Paula Radcliffe, maybe I should say “kerb.”