One from the bucket list
For many years my running was essentially a solitary act. I used to and still train with friends or sometimes run with a group, but once you have crossed that starting line you’re pretty much alone for the 42,195 metres of a marathon – apart from that voice in your head. That feeling changed a few years ago when I started running regularly with Ben, and this became even more obvious during our New York City Marathon in November 2013. This race had been on our wish list for a couple of years and was one of those special experiences in our lives.
Running with Ben not only kept me fit but added a challenge to my regular training. No longer would I jog along by myself listening to Queen, Steppenwolf or The Doors on my iPod, I had to start paying real good attention of where I actually went and point out every little cranny or uneven surface to Ben.
The first roadblock to get to NY certainly was Ben’s ‘fighting’ weight, and before we could even start thinking of 5th Avenue and Central Park, he had to take control of his nutrition and address his eating habits. My piece of help was buying Ben a talking scale, and combined with some serious pet-talks and regular encouragement, slowly but steadily he started to shed those kilos.
I am proud that Ben has shown real responsibility and kept his end of the bargain – five months of hard work had paid off and on the day of our departure Ben stood proud on that scale waiting for that voice to tell him that, for the first time in decades, his weight had dropped below 100kg and as a result he had lost more then 12% of his body weight. He certainly was ready for the Big Apple now!
After a long and frustrating flight for those sitting next to a screaming child (Ben), and a more relaxing one for others who enjoyed the upgraded Virgin Australia option (me), we arrived in an unusually warm New York with 21 degrees at 10pm.
On our first day we visited the marathon expo to collect bib #18878 and to receive some basic instructions for Sunday morning. Achilles International were hosting an event for over 300 disabled athletes participating in the marathon and they did the most amazing and wonderful job. In the afternoon Ben and I took a guided bus tour along the race route – this was quite an exciting and special sightseeing tour and certainly got us even more pumped about race. Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx, Manhattan… names of boroughs we only knew from movies and books… finally we walked those streets and breathed that air.
Seeing those streets for the first time allowed us to talk about race strategy, fueling techniques and unique challenges along the route, and I was very confident that the flat and especially straight course will allow us to run a fast race.
The next evening I was privileged to attend a special dinner for disabled athletes from all over the world, and if I did not already know it from sharing some time with Ben, I certainly got reminded that night again about real courage, real struggle and real humanity. Many of us don’t have an idea about ‘hard’ life until we meet people like Richard (blind since birth and run-over by a cyclist last year, training and recovering in hospital for months); like Amelia who lost her vision in her teens but kept her goal to finish her first marathon in 3:30; of proud soldiers who lost limbs and vision in unnecessary wars – they were all here to proof that life goes on and they were all certain that out there must be someone else worse off than them. And some of us still think we’ve got it hard sometimes!
Sunday morning, and in much colder temperatures, I picked up Ben at 4.30am to meet the special Athletes with Disabilities’ buses in midtown at 5am. We drove over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and were dropped off within a few blocks of the athletes’ village. It was a very cold morning fueled by a strong breeze from the water, but Achilles International took good care of us, having prepared a cosy tent, warm drinks and a nice spread of breakfast toast, muesli and muffins.
Since the start of the first (our) wave was not until 9.40am we certainly had a lot of time to make new friends and cuddle up in our six layers of Vinnies winter clothes for a few more hours.
The excitement at the start of the marathon is intense; it is no less intense for athletes with disabilities, but it is different. Ben did what all athletes do. He tried to stay focused, prepare mentally and methodically and overcome nervousness. We also still tried to find our local guide allocated to us by Achilles, however, we could not locate Michelle until the very last minute when, thanks to Ben’s elevated hearing, he picked up an official shouting his name, who then found us and united us with Michelle who was a first-time guide and marathoner for Achilles International.
Except for the hand cyclists who start in front of the field, athletes with disabilities start with everyone else. We were in corral 18, green wave 1. In practice that meant we were at the back of the crowd in the first wave. It’s not a terrible place to start, as from the beginning we basically had a clear road and we only had to start worrying about people overtaking us well into the race when the second wave (starting 30 minutes after us) caught up.
“Today we are honoured to run for New York, to run for Boston,” said marathon race director Mary Wittenberg. “Runners, we welcome you from around the world to our city of dreams. All of New York awaits you.” And did they wait for us!
With Michelle running behind us blocking anyone from getting between Ben and me (remember, we never run with a tether), we had a smooth start over the bridge and into Brooklyn. At km 7, Jon, another Achilles guide and friend of Michelle was allowed to join us and with three guides Ben was in good hands.
Jon would be our water man, meaning I would give Jon the bottle I carried to fill up in regular intervals, so Ben and I never had to slow down or stop for drinks, but could keep up our pace of 6.30min/km for almost the entire race.
Having made up big signs for Ben to wear on his back, pointing out his disability as well as our names helped other runners and spectators to encourage both of us verbally, which was a great boost all along the route.
After the initial quiet strech over the mighty Verrazano Bridge from Staten Island to Brooklyn, we started feeding on the energy of the roaring and cheering crowds along Forth Avenue barrelling towards Queens. Running through buzzing and vocal Italian suburbs, and across a very quiet and dull Williamsburg-South, the home of the ultra-conservative Hasidic Jewish community, who found nothing fun about sweaty people in lycra tights and shorts running along their main street. Across to Greenpoint and its Polish community and towards the halfway point. So far we had just four corners to navigate in 21km – a fairly easy task for me as Ben’s guide, giving both of us lots of time to enjoy and engage with the ever increasing crowd along both sides of the road. After a few km in Queens we hit the quietest and most eerie section of the whole race when crossing the Queensboro Bridge to Manhattan. At this stage, all of us had already 25km of running in our legs and the steady incline towards the middle of the bridge felt like a steep hill with every runner starting to look inside themselves trying to find that extra energy for the remainding 17km to Central Park. Most worries were overcome once we came off the bridge on the other end and were hit by an intense wall of cheering. I have run many races all over the world, but never ever encountered such enthusiastic support as received from the people of New York.
The long run up First Avenue between kms 26 and 30 was hard as it is in this section of a race where most runners start to think about their goal, their ambition and their sanity, and typically around km 33 comes the point where runners hit that feared wall. I could feel Ben slowing down and struggling, and with having less to concentrate on the route, being all straight, he had even more time to listen to that voice in his head. I could not let him stop now and I kept relentlessly pushing forward, and thanks to the crowd, which roared and cheered it made it almost impossible to even contemplate to walk.
We enthusiastically entered the infamous Bronx and Ben was looking forward to navigating those few corners along the south of the fourth borough. Once we hit Madison Avenue Bridge bringing us back to Manhattan and with 8km to go, still running even with sore and tired legs, I knew we were going make it all the way.
These are the moments were a seeing runner can build up a second wind by watching and overtaking all those tired runners around, but it was quite a different challenge to keep Ben going on this long, steady climb up Fifth Avenue and towards the only hilly section of the race in Central Park.
Everyone was hurting at this point and emotions started to build – it was hard. I could feel resistance and I began to update Ben more regularly about the distance left to cover. The crowds offered a wonderful boost through the park and after the last rolling hill, and for the final time, we left the park to run along Central Park South towards Columbus Circle, where, with 400m to go, I caught a glimpse of the green Kangaroo flag Ben had given my friends Eric and Patricia from DC. “Ben, come on, we are almost there, 300m, 200m…there it is! Ben, you did it!”
The mass of runners following behind us made it almost impossible to stop and even though Ben was ready to collapse, we just had to keep moving forward – collecting our medals, taking some photos, grasping a snack bag and a flimsy heat sheet to help block out the chilly wind. Finally an Achilles helper saw us and guided us towards the special reunion area for athletes with disabilities at 72nd Street. Ben collapsed on a first aid bed for some rest, holding on to that heat sheet and trying to keep the freezing wind out. A few photos with the flag and off we were to the warm shower in the hotel.
Running the New York Marathon with 50,000 others was a dream come true for both of us. Supporting and running with Ben made it extra special and showed me once again that running does not have to be a solitary activity but can be a great statement of trust, joy and fun mixed with some pain.
In the end, Ben finished the 2013 New York Marathon in a new personal best of 4:38:04. He was 31,311th out of 50,700 starters and finished 3,247th in his age group. I also finished in that time, but my name does not appear in the official race results. This time I wasn’t running for me, I was running for Ben.