Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Marathon Mania

This all began with a bridge. Two years ago, I made a New Year's Resolution to walk all the bridges linking Manhattan to the mainland and other islands. I have always loved bridges -- the beauty, the height, the connection, the betweenness -- and in 2002 I had crossed the Brooklyn, the Manhattan, the Williamsburg and the George Washington; in 2003, I decided, I would finish them off. The effort turned out to be one of the great joys of that year, as it took me to parts of the city I'd never seen before (the Bronx, Roosevelt Island, Inwood Hill Park) and provided many wonderful walks, stories, and views.

But it also created a thorn in my side: the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connecting Brooklyn to Staten Island. The V-N is the tallest, highest, longest, bridge in the New York City area and the sixth-longest suspension bridge in the world, 4,260 graceful feet from span to span. Even though it was out of my Manhattan-bridge purview, it was so big and so beautiful I longed to cross it on foot, and I felt I couldn't say I'd walked all the major NYC bridges until I conquered that one. But the V-N doesn't allow pedestrian traffic and never has, which means I've been talking disconsolately about it for years.

Until finally, this last September, Rachel brought up the one exception to the pedestrian rule. She said, "Why don't you crash the Marathon?"

"I don't want to run the Marathon," I said. "I'm not in shape, I'm not registered, it's too late--"

"You crash, idiot," she said. "You don't register officially. You sneak into the starting area, you run across the bridge, and that's it."


The more I thought about the idea, the more I liked it. If I were officially registered, I'd be taking a place away from another runner who could actually go 26.2 miles, and I'd feel guilty cutting out without completing the whole thing -- I could just picture my ancestors with their Protestant work ethics frowning down on me for leaving a job unfinished. Running unregistered avoided those problems and provided an attractive air of minor illegality. And I would finally get to cross the Verrazano-Narrows.

So I researched the requirements to enter the starting area (a timing chip and a number) and procured the chip at a NYRR race last week. I consulted Jimmy about his 2004 Marathon experience; Melissa Anelli offered me the use of her apartment in Staten Island (which I had to decline); Katy and Rachel encouraged the skullduggery. Most crucially, the most excellent Jeremiah scanned his number and, through the miracle of Photoshop, made it mine:

(He changed the number and removed his name from the left side so it now reads "Cheryl Klein.") On Saturday he even nobly took time out from the Notre Dame game to help me fake a decal for my timing chip. That night I laced the chip on my shoe; laid out my new running top, t-shirt coverup, and favorite shorts and socks; reviewed the plan; and went to bed in a state of high excitement.

Sunday morning I was up at 5:30, on the subway by 6, on the S53 bus by 7, and at 7:30 I was lying through my teeth to a nice man from Dallas who wanted to know how long I'd been training and what my pace was. "Oh, about four-thirty," I said.

That is four hours and thirty minutes, for the record. Who's crazy enough to run that long?

The answer is 37,000 people, and all of them were in Fort Wadsworth at Staten Island. I tried to be inconspicuous, but I wasn't enough of a runner to know that you always wear long-sleeved shirts and pants to a run to keep your muscles warm, so I stood out a little in the 55-degree cool. . . . I kept my number covered and my chip out of sight. I was supposed to be in the green group, which was relegated to the bottom level of the bridge, but fortuitously I met up with Jeremiah and his friend Mike (Jeremiah's on the right in the picture), and we decided to join the blue group instead. We hung out for two hours (much of it in line for the Port-A-Potties) before the Powers That Be finally began to move us to the start.

This was where it got exciting. People yelled, whooped, did team cheers. Clothes flew through the air as runners stripped off their warm-ups and threw them into the trees. Jeremiah and Mike peeled off for one last bathroom break. I streamed forward with the crowd through a few bends, down toward the toll gates, around a big U, where I tossed away my t-shirt . . .

And there was the Verrazano. It was gorgeous, but I was almost too caught up in the energy and exhilaration of the morning to appreciate it: We were running now, all of us, up the long straightaway to the first anchorage, with volunteers cheering on the sidelines and TV cameras capturing our first enthusiastic sprints. I loped two hundred feet, took a picture, ran another two hundred feet, took a picture, and kept that up pretty much all the way across the bridge, trying to preserve as many memories as possible. (I discovered after about ten pictures that my memory card was full, so I started running and deleting old pictures from my camera at the same time, which must have looked incredibly goofy.) The morning was bright and cool and the spirit was electric. I whooped as I crossed under each anchorage, the Verrazano mine at last.

And then we were off the bridge, following the curves, descending into Bay Ridge. The good people of Brooklyn greeted us with shouting and signs and applause and encouragement. Here I came to my big dilemma: I had thought that I would come off the bridge, run to Fourth Avenue, and catch the R straight back to Park Slope -- I had to be at church to count the offering at 12:30 and I definitely needed to shower before then, so that was surely the most sensible thing to do. But it was only 10:30, and I was curious about how far I could go. . . . I passed the 92nd St. station and thought, I'll just run to the next subway stop.

By 89th Street I'd decided: I was running home, all the way to 9th Street in Park Slope. And it was a glorious happy four miles after that, waving to the spectators, humming along with the bands, grabbing water, taking the occasional picture, all the time forward forward forward in that blind runners' drive. Everyone yelled or yodeled as we crossed under the highway bridges. The shop signs changed from Italian to Spanish to Arabic to Chinese to English. I watched the street numbers count down and thought about how much I loved New York. Is there a greater city in this world? No, there is not.

I turned off at 9th Street with regret; I had gone nearly seven miles, my longest distance ever, but I was still so hyped up I wanted to run even farther -- to do the entire marathon, if I could. There was one picture left on my camera, and I asked a passersby to take my photo before I removed my wonderful number:

And then I walked up to 5th Avenue, went straight into a Dunkin Donuts, and ordered a Boston Kreme. Best. Doughnut. Ever.

Next year, I'm running the whole thing.


  1. yay! I've been waiting for this post...glad to know you had so much fun. :-)

  2. Congratulations! I'm so pleased Jeremiah was able to help you out!

  3. I usually don't pay the NYC marathon much attention, but when I saw the Times article on the guy running the marathon from his correctional facility, I thought of you.

    Don't read too much into that.

  4. that's a fantastic post! congrats :)

  5. Woo hoo! Bully for you, Brooklyn Arden!

  6. Way to go! Congratulations! I don't know what's more impressive, your derring-do, or your lovely recap of the experience.

  7. Good on you!

    Now come back to SI and walk the Bayonne. There's good eats on the other side if you stroll Kennedy Blvd.