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20 Miles of Hope - 6 Miles of Truth
Martin Poppelwell

Race day dawned early…woke at 5:00 am and threw myself in the shower. I had decided to get a taxi to the library where the buses were talking everyone to the start area. The taxi driver said he will drop me off as close as he could get. We turned the corner into midtown and my mouth hit the floor. At 6:00 am there was about 20,000 people already lining up for the buses - Times Square was lit up like a Christmas tree! Volunteers were all in force as was the police; this was huge.

Out of the taxi I got and started walking and ran into Jazzman and Maurice, some South Africans I had met the day before. Who would have picked it? It was great as they were such fun and very nice people. So on to the bus we went as they reminded me that there was a marathon to run in four hours time…so calm down! The ride to the start took 1-1/2 hours. And I wasn’t even going to go to the buses until 7:15; I'm glad I changed my mind!

Once at the start area you could get food, coffee, and all that stuff. There was music, heaps of toilets, and a church service. It was Sunday after all. It was required that you were to go to the marked areas that coincided with you race number so when the gun went off you went from there. It wasn’t far from where we were to get on the bridge, but the opening wasn’t that big. People were going to the toilet where they stood. And the portloos were working over time! I had my coffee and a dry bagel and tried to go to the toilet but nothing; this is normally the case for me on race days as I only eat what my body will burn up in the two days to any big race. Fortunately the coffee did the job and I took care of business five minutes before the gun! I was at ease now and while waiting to go off I quietly sang a song to myself. Then bang - the race started.

I walked to the start. It was so crowded you could do nothing else! It was strange to work so hard in the last year and in front of you was an orange mat signifying the start; beyond it was 20 miles of hope and 6 miles of truth! I tried not to think of what was going on preferring to be mindful of not getting stood on and doing the same. There really wasn’t much room to even walk let alone run but the crowd was moving at a pace only faster than walking.

On the Verrazano Narrows Bridge all I could see was a sea of people. Some were going to the toilet halfway up the bridge as like me, tried to go before the gun but were so nervous they couldn’t. The bridge was huge and people were talking and taking photos. I just thought what are they doing - This is a marathon! It took an age to cross it and 20 minutes later we had crossed its one kilometer span.

Normally I can run 4K in 20 minutes. This was going to be a hard race time wise. I quickly got my game face on and focused entirely on threading my way through all the slower runners of which there were thousands. A gap here I grabbed it, over to the left another, quietly threading my way through this endless wave of bodies. All I could see as far as the eye would allow was slow runners. At one stage I thought maybe I going to hard. But as the miles clicked by, I was assured that wasn’t the case. I started in the blue section and the others, green and orange, were in a different part of the bridge where we weren’t getting together until the eight-mile mark. It was only going to get worse unless I got going! So it was head down and working the gaps, pushing my way between slower runners who were more interested in running with their friends and not moving over.

It was an amazing feeling to just stride along and see a gap and speed up to get through it then settle again. This became the norm for me as it turned out for about 30K. At the 25K mark there was a guy telling us that we were ranked 9000 out of all the runners; that got me going. Real progress and my plan was working!

I had decided to rely on my carbo stocks for the first 21K. I had a shot when I woke and another with 30 minutes to go. I washed the last shot down at the 21K mark which I used as a treat. I normally don’t have them but I realized their value here, taking into account the importance of this race. It wasn’t that hot; you could run in the shade or the sun in some parts of the course and I felt good. I was so focused on what I was doing that some of the great neibourhoods past me by.

I will never forget going through the Israeli community where outside the school they had all the wee girls on the entrance steps in uniforms singing. For them to show their respect in this fashion will be something I will remember for a long time… It was wonderful! Going into Queens further on was a woman who just shouted out “welcome to Queens”! She didn’t have to say anything else. Later, it was strangely quiet going over the Sixteenth Street Bridge. Everyone had their heads down by now, some hanging low too.

Up the bridge we went into Upper East Manhattan hearing the biggest roar of the day. It was a tight down hill to the left and you felt like you were running the Olympic 100 meters as was the lift you got! I was yelling at myself to calm down as I was starting to wave at people; the moment was so neat. And with my black uniform on, I felt invincible at that time.

After the 21K mark there was a noticeable difference in most. Fatigue set in and plenty were hitting the wall. I remember patting some on the back as I went by to encourage them… blank looks the only reply. “You’re going well” I said to another who was struggling going up a hill…no reply. The lights were on but no one was home!
At one point, even I lost the plot thinking the race was 21miles! I even got excited, woke up, and decided to just watch the mile signs as there were 26. There weren’t many kilometer ones that only confused you when tried to work it out.

I always like running as it’s so easy compared to most sports. You just run and keep going until someone tells you to stop. No offense or defense, just one foot in front of the other from point A to point B. Simple really… Not!

I was catching some time back through the 20-mile mark and the pack I was with was faster. I was still passing many and had moved up the field considerably. This was great, running my first marathon and going through my most favorite city in the world! Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan. I even got a glimpse of Yankee Stadium! It’s funny that the crowds were at their thinnest in the Bronx; it’s still rough but a big improvement on years gone by. Going back into Manhattan was neat, mostly downhill to the bottom of Central Park.

Most of you reading this will know that when you’re doing a big run, you are always sore at this time, even if it’s a bit downhill. So it was one foot in front of the other. I drank at every Gatorade table in the last 5K as it made me feel good and I decided to go with it. I didn’t drink any water though which instead I used for throwing over myself.

There were plenty of people hitting the wall in the later part of the race. One guy just fell over; you don’t see that to often and it woke me up to be careful again and keep out of people’s way. Funny that when he fell over, someone just walked over and dragged him into the gutter! Others just stopped or walked. I wanted to complete it without stopping as I was about to enter Columbus Square and into mile 25. People were still screaming!

I was thinking that I can stretch things out and finish strong. Coming into Central Park, I tried and was able to lengthen my stride. What a feeling… Here I was a year after deciding to do this race and was 300 yards away from the finish! It was fantastic, a medal over my neck and photos being taken, knowing that my plan had worked. I wasn’t just a runner any more, I had become a marathon runner!

Thanks Martin for sharing your article.

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