The power of human connection

2015 NEW YORK CITY MARATHON, NEARING THE FINISH LINE IN CENTRAL PARK

2015 NEW YORK CITY MARATHON, NEARING THE FINISH LINE IN CENTRAL PARK

The New York City Marathon. For those who have had the privilege, you will have experienced it in your own way. For those who haven’t (yet!) or might not create the chance to, I wanted to share my experience and attempt to paint a picture of the day. For this truly is one of the most amazing examples of the power of human connection I have ever experienced.

It’s not just on ‘marathon day’- the hype and momentum build in the days leading up. Marathon enthusiasts occupied what felt like every second seat on the plane. I must have had race strategy conversations with at least 20 people on the epic 30-hour door-to-door journey to the Big Apple. It’s a special conversation with those making NYC their 1st marathon. The streets are a buzz with marathon fever - café owners, taxi drivers, people in the hotel lift and lobby ask if you’re doing ‘the run’ and wish you ‘good luck’ (and if they don’t – you tell them anyway!).

Through a chance meeting a week earlier I had the opportunity to meet and run with the beautiful and courageous Katherine Switzer on Marathon Eve. In 1967 she became the 1st woman to officially complete the Boston Marathon despite an attempt to stop her, and pathed the way to 'allow' women to partake in marathons - changing people's attitudes about women’s so-called limitations. She's a New Yorker, 68, has won NYC and in 2017 she'll be running Boston again, 50 years on. What an inspiration! I can’t help but think her presence had something to do with the record number of women who ran NYC this year.

One more sleep to go – we watched the Wallabies' disappointing loss to All Blacks in the World Cup, then it was time for final preparations, a mix of anxious nerves under pinned by excitement, and very little sleep!

Race morning – show time! 50,000 people make their way to the start line in Staten Island before the roads are closed for that one-day in November, either by ferry or one of the 900 buses. A 2 hour ‘bus traffic jam journey’ in sauna like conditions (air con issues), with pump up tunes consisting of Eye of the Tiger and Uptown Girl, nervous energy pooled together as we add a comical touch to the ‘back seat’ with Team NYC – school friends from Adelaide were re-united, about to take on the biggest marathon the world has to offer.

We opt to walk the last 1km to get some fresh air and soon enough we’re going through airport like security screening and donning free ‘dunkin donut’ beanies. 1,700 port-a-loos accommodate final ‘pit stops’, and provide a chance meeting point for friend Annie and I to wish each other good luck! We add our hoodies and trackies to the 65-tonne of gear donated to the homeless and eventually enter the ‘corrals’ for our respective wave starts.

The MC revs us up, telling us how lucky we are to be here, how tens of thousands each year miss out on getting in. An Aussie girl tells me how under prepared she is, I can sense the nerves in her timid voice. ‘Hey we’re here, this is so cool, just enjoy it’ - I encourage her.

I place my hand on my chest to the rendition of the USA anthem, and can’t help but feel just how big a deal this is. In a country that’s full of guns, it’s not the sound of one that starts us off – a cannon fires! It thunders through my heart epitomizing the next 26 miles that lay ahead. A solo clapper slowly builds into a chorus of clapping as we make our way towards the start line, and the start of something very special.

'New York, New York' plays as we cross over the line and the 1st mile is straight up hill - over the longest bridge in America (Verrazano Bridge) connecting Staten Island to the Bronx. The pita pater of thousands of feet are nearly drowned out by the helicopters circling above – for security and filming purposes, it feels like a war zone and red carpet all in one.

An amazing view of Manhattan provides the perfect backdrop. I’m already taking more photos than I am concentrating on running. I pass a lady wearing a fascinator, being Spring Racing week in Melbourne she must be Australian – ‘love your fascinator, is that for the races?’ She can’t understand a word… guess she was just dressed up for the run!

We reach the peak of the bridge and start on the descent… as we get closer to the bottom a dull cheer soon builds into a loud American ‘roar’! A never-ending chorus of ‘WELCOME TO BROOKLYN’ greets us! Along with signs, whistles, bands, horns, screams, high-5’s. The old and the young, the tourists and the locals - it’s as if each one was there just for us - just for me! A custom made cheer squad – one that could not be more electric!  As the journey progressed I learned this was just the beginning… Brooklyn set the tone for the next 38km and it was only on bridges people couldn’t line the footpath.

‘Don’t go out too hard – leave something in the tank’ - that’s the age-old advice any marathon veteran will tell you. In fact Kathrine Switzer offered me those same words ‘the last half is much harder, this marathon has been won and lost on 5th Avenue’. It was near impossible to hold back during the 1st 15km – Brooklyn really was electric! (it was a joint consensus that Brooklyn broke us!). Crowds 6+ deep lined the footpath. Other waves with a different start path joined our course – it was like a river of marathoners combining into one as we flowed through the streets of New York!

NYPD lined the streets and happily obliged when I put my hand out for a high 5… Firemen up in cherry pickers with a birds eye view, and standing by their trucks with signs of dedication to mates they’d lost in 911… 130 bands line the course with one fading out as the other one starts up… An old guy is wrapping in his back yard as his mates work the BBQ… A runner with a prosthetic leg sits on the footpath as his mates help adjust his leg... A fearless blind man is lead by his guide through the crowded sea of runners…

People told me I would hear ‘you got this Alex’ about 20,000 times and they weren’t wrong. But I didn’t anticipate the depth and power with which each ‘you got this’ would be delivered. I’d make an effort to connect with the eyes behind those voices, and each ‘you got this Alex’ tugged at the heart strings giving me that little bit more oomph. One I can still picture now – a guy in his 50’s, a very strong / powerful American voice - ‘you got this Alex’ - it went right through me.

I catch an older lady perhaps in her 70’s with the words ‘Thanks Fans’ written on her back. She’d done this before. Another guy has ‘38 NYC Marathons’ on his back. I congratulate him as I pass, but he’s hurting, and can’t find the energy to respond. Not yet half way – I was soon to experience some pain myself.

I reach the 20km mark and there was Anna and little 12-week-old Jude. I was more than ready for one of her high-5’s and words of encouragement. In fact it wasn’t till later I reflected that she was the only familiar face I’d seen amongst the millions lining the streets.  There was such familiarity with the crowd, no one felt like a stranger that day.

I caught up with Luke – his 1st marathon, he was on a high but hurting… My pain was creeping in but I was trying not to focus on it for now. Luke had dropped his painkillers, so I went on a hunt for both of us, with no luck! By nature of a global event I think I came across all the non-English speaking runners. We crossed the bridge into Manhattan together and started the epic journey up 1st Avenue. Electric is a word I will over-use as I write this – but it’s almost an understatement – this was incredible! I took high 5’s, photos and video footage – I just had to capture this, and hopefully be able to share it with others.

I gained so much more respect for the marathon distance that day. My poor legs were in the hurt locker from about 20km onwards… perhaps it was my oversight to warm up before ascending that 1st hill, maybe I went out too hard, who knows – but this one hurt. I wasn’t alone – so many people were stopping to take a break or stretch out a cramp, I gave pats on backs and words of encouragement where I could, knowing the difference it can make.

I remember wondering how far I could push my legs, I just hoped I wouldn’t tear a calf going up hill - they felt like rocks… Then on the downhill I was in ITB strife! Not ideal on a rather hilly 2nd half course. Although – I was sure this was nothing relative to what others were going through – I was fit and able! Many who take this on aren’t, yet they still do.

I was looking for Coke from about the 25km mark, but in the land of ‘Coke is it’ it was nowhere to be seen! I had to beg for some at a private supporters table, and it hit the spot!

At 32km I could hear a band playing ‘Eye of the Tiger’ up ahead, one of my favourite race songs. It was as if Dave Nanfra has staged it there. Only 2 weeks earlier – he’d ridden the Melbourne Marathon course cheering mates on with that song pumping! He’d done NYC 13 years earlier – and shared his amazing experience with me. I fumbled for my phone to film this as they stepped up their performance as I ran past, but the universe wanted this one to remain etched just in my memory – as nothing recorded! I danced and sung as I ran past the band – I fired them up, they fired me up!

The last 10km seemed like 20! At times it was more of a hobble than a run. One guy generously offered – ‘Alex you might feel slow but you look strong’. Another runner encouraged me as I slowed ‘Do it for the Aussies’. OK – we can do this… I got this… just be in the moment, look towards the next traffic light and get to that, then to the next one… I can feel the turn into Central Park nearing, and looked up at the underneath of my cap where Kathrine has signed ‘Alex – Be Fearless’ just the day before.

This crowd just did not let up, although the closer we got to the finishing line they were studiously searching for friends & family, not wanting to miss them. It was different to Brooklyn, in sections they seamed to be holding their applaud slightly, waiting for a familiar face, but they were ‘on their marks’. I put my hands out moving them up and down as if to signal to them to ‘lift’, to cheer, and that they did! They didn’t take much encouragement – I’d lift my hands running up alongside them and they’d just roar! As silly as it might sound – I felt like I was instructing an orchestra, or had just won gold medal at the Olympics and doing a run by!

Finally 1 km to go – and I just opened it up (well in my mind more so than reality I’m sure;) and the pain went away, I was about to finish my 1st international marathon, the biggest of the top 5. In that moment, running alongside the crowd giving my final high 5’s and absorbing every last ‘You got this Alex’, I could not have felt like more of a hero amongst 50,000 other heros. I put my hands up as I crossed the finishing line and I can’t recall a time I felt more relief. I’d made it. My legs had held out. And I had experienced something very special.

A well-earned medal was placed over my head, and I was then overcome with emotion, looking up and thinking of my dear friend Georgie who I’d dedicated my run to. She passed away just 3 weeks earlier, to Breast Cancer, aged 39 - leaving Russ, Clem (6) and Harry (4) behind. She had shown the most incredible strength. I felt sad yet proud to have just run 26 miles through the streets of New York with her name on my back. This was a day to remember for so many reasons.

A conversation with a good looking French guy soon bought me back to the present - reflecting on the race as if we’d been friends for years. I stopped to stretch and caught a glimpse of tee shirts 2 girls were wearing with ‘If found drag body across the finishing line’ written on their backs.  This was the stuff marathons were about – hard work, sweat, tears, pride and sharing moments with strangers!

It didn’t stop there – the 3km walk back to the hotel would entail many a conversation with other runners, most I will never see again, but that day – we connected. A guy from New York asked me how I went - he’d done NYC 17 times, but a heart attack brought his marathon days to an end. I thanked him for the amazing event his city had put on.

Back at the hotel the guy on security asks me if I’d won. I laugh to myself reflecting on the advice my little nephew Will had given me ‘just look straight ahead, and try to win!’ I respond with a ‘no, not this time’, looking at the guy next to me with his medal and poncho – how about you ‘did you win?’ He laughs.

I was like a sponge that day – I absorbed more than I can remember! It was only when I woke through the night that I wrote copious notes. It blew me away – I began to process just how much I’d experienced. A day I could write a book on, a memory that will stay with me forever.

If I was to run it again maybe I’d do it differently – I’d warm up and maybe not go out so hard? But we don't always know what's coming, we don't always get a second shot, we've got to wake up each day and do the best we can, as the quote goes to ‘give all of ourselves to all that we do’.

I realized how critical that balance was between ‘effort’ and ‘support’. One doesn’t mean as much without the other. NYC would not be the incredible event it is without enormous amounts of both elements - people willing to put themselves on the line, and people lining the streets willing others on.

Connection is such a powerful thing – both within us (our minds and bodies), and between us (strangers united). Sometimes we need to zone inwards and other times we need to zone outwards. Days later in my travels - Remembrance Day in Vancouver part of a poem during the service read: ‘We are the captain of our own souls'. How true that is.

They say if you lose faith in the human spirit 'go watch a marathon'. I say ‘go run one’. Either way you look at it - the power of human connection a marathon enables and ignites, between those running and supporting, truly is testament to the human spirit.

What a privilege life can be to experience a day as incredible as the New York City Marathon, and the power of human connection.

'WE GOT THIS!!'

 

(Originally published - 15th November, 2015)


A few pictures of the big day and further below 2 video clips that come highly recommended...