At least I'm still in the race
During the four months I was in training, I envisioned this: Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012. About 47,000 runners are gathered on the Verrazano Bridge for the start of the annual, 26.2-mile, five-borough spectacle known as the ING New York City Marathon. I am one of them, pumped up and excited to be running this race for the first time in 25 years. I've been training hard. Friends and family members are out on the course to support me, I'm ready to go the distance.
There was only one problem: superstorm Sandy.
As most of the country is aware, the 2012 NYC Marathon was canceled for the first time since 1970. After having asserted that it would be run despite the ravages of Sandy, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York Road Runners were forced to reverse fields by a rising tide of negative public opinion and concerns about diverted resources. Late on the Friday afternoon before the race, the announcement was made -- the marathon was a no-go.
On any list of damage wrought by the superstorm, the fact that a bunch of people were deprived of running the marathon is way, way down in priority. It obviously can't compare to the hardships that were and are continuing to be endured by so many on Long Island, in New Jersey and the city boroughs.
Still, when you've worked hard for four months toward a goal, it is disappointing to have it vanish before you even get a chance to attain it. But the surprise and disappointment that I felt on hearing the announcement that Friday, quickly gave way to what I'd like to think is a more mature reaction worthy of someone in the Act 2 generation: acceptance and a recognition that, as the bumper sticker says, in a slightly earthier way, "stuff" happens.
So, I began formulating a Plan B. You know -- one door closes, another opens and all that. That door led me to the starting line of the Port Washington Thanksgiving Day 5-Mile Race. One of seven "Turkey Trots" held on Long Island on Thanksgiving Day, the Port Washington 5-miler is a first-class local race, and unlike the NYC Marathon, has been a bit of a tradition for me: I ran it last year, and probably a dozen or more times in years prior. The race benefits the Community Chest of Port Washington, which provides funds to needy people -- and there are probably more of them than ever, in the wake of Sandy.
On Thanksgiving morning, I lined up for the 8:30 race start and paused to reflect. All of us who survived this storm with our homes and sanity (more or less) intact got a reminder these post-storm weeks of some of the things we need to be thankful for, our health and safety, shelter, dry basements, electricity and full tanks of gas. And again, while life threw me and a lot of other people a bit of a curve ball with that NYC Marathon cancellation, I was thankful just for the fact that I had another opportunity to race.
So what if it was 21.2 miles shorter than the one I intended to do originally?
When the gun went off, I bolted out just behind the lead pack. A mistake -- my legs felt tight as we ran up Cow Neck Road and into Sands Point. My first mile was slower than I had hoped. If I wanted to try and better my time from the previous year and somehow justify all this training I had done (albeit for a different race), I now had a choice: slow down and enjoy the next four miles as a pleasant run -- or suffer.
I chose to suffer, as I picked up the pace and tried to make up time. Hey, just because I'm older doesn't mean I've given up being a type A, competitive New Yorker!
Up and down the undulating hills of Middle Neck Road we went, past gaggles of spectators handing out water and cheering. Someone even played the "Rocky" theme from a pair of speakers set up on a car. By the last mile, along Shore Road, I was just trying to hold on. In a reckless move, I surged past two high school runners, a few yards ahead of me. I could imagine them, after I passed, looking at each other and saying, "We're not going to let this old guy beat us." And the old guy didn't. As we made the final turn off Manorhaven Boulevard into the park, those same two youngsters came sprinting by me, their springy adolescent tendons and finely tuned cardiovascular systems leaving me in their dust. Still, I crossed the finish line in 32 minutes, 16 seconds. I was the 31st finisher overall out of 2,627.
But there are a couple of asterisks next to those stats. First, many of those who started the race did not come to compete. They were families, kids home from college, guys wearing turkey hats, who were just out to get a little exercise, support their community and have some fun.
Second, my finish time was six minutes slower than the winner (that's a lot if you're competing) and almost three minutes slower than my best time at this race (which I achieved in the last century). Moreover, there was a runner a year older than me who finished almost two minutes faster. I couldn't even claim the title of Fastest Old Guy in the race.
Still, my time was a whole 15 seconds faster than what I'd done in the same race last year. That may not sound like much, but when you're almost 58 years old, improvement in anything -- even 15 seconds worth -- is worth celebrating.
As I clutched my finisher's medal and headed back to my car, thankful for friends, family and a pair of knees that still work, I had forgotten all about the New York City Marathon.