Expressway: A marathon waltz through the five boroughs

A team including Patricia Rossi of Merrick, left, A team including Patricia Rossi of Merrick, left, helps guide runner Michael Lloyd, in white shirt, during the 2011 New York Marathon. Photo Credit: Courtesy of blindrunner.com

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A New York City Marathon banner flapped overhead, beckoning runners gathered on the Staten Island side of the Verrazano Bridge. On a crisp November morning in 2011, I waited to tour the five boroughs by running 26.2 miles -- me and more than 45,000 others.

I have run several marathons, including Long Island's, which each May presents 11 lonely miles on the desolate Wantagh Parkway. But on this morning, my usual pre-race jitters were different. I had responded to an invitation on a website to help guide a disabled athlete, and was about to become the marathon partner of a 41-year-old runner from New Zealand named Michael Lloyd. Michael has been vision-impaired since age 10. He can distinguish light from dark, but not definition or color. Even so, this was his fourth New York Marathon.

Physically, I felt in shape, having trained at the Massapequa Preserve, Bethpage State Park and other Long Island areas. I would be part of a four-person team that would take turns guiding Michael. As we waited to start, however, I got the sinking feeling of being ill-prepared, like the recurring nightmare of being dressed for gym class on the wrong day. This fellow was blind and partly in my care. I had to rise to the occasion.

So here we were, his muscular 5-foot-6 frame next to my slight 5 feet. A rope connected our wrists, his right to my left. I described to him the vibrant crowd and the colors of their outfits. I triple-checked our shoelaces. He said he could feel the sun's warmth and was ready to "rock New York City."

As our team began to run, I worried about potholes, uneven road grades -- and clothing, a hat here, a sweatshirt there, all discarded as other runners warmed up.

Running together was difficult. We needed to find a mutually comfortable pace. It felt like two preteens at our very first dance.

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Michael wore a sign on his shirt that said "Mike@Blindrunner.com," a reference to his website. The three guides wore Day-Glo yellow shirts that said "Achilles guide," a reference to the Achilles Track Club, an organization for disabled runners that brought us all together.

Michael would smile when musical bands played and announced his name. As we ran, I looked for water stations, which were helpful, but also crowded danger zones. I would shout, "Slight left, Mike!" and we would pivot to the left, or, "Slight right, Mike!"

I described landmarks: the streets of Brooklyn, the 59th Street Bridge, and First Avenue in Manhattan, where a wall of cheers greets every runner. As we entered Central Park, mile 24, I described the beautiful foliage. When I saw the finish sign and clock, I told Michael how close he was to his goal.

Somewhere along the way our awkward first dance became a synchronized waltz. At the finish line, Michael raised our wrists in triumph. I realized that our shared determination was our real tether.

Michael said, "Hey, same time next year. What do you think?"

I was exhausted, more mentally than physically, but said, "Yes, definitely."

Of course, in 2012, the marathon was canceled after superstorm Sandy. But Sunday, we will again be among the thousands on Staten Island, ready for a new dance.

Reader Patricia Rossi lives in Merrick.

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