When the last wave of runners started the New York City Marathon on Sunday, Joyciline Jepkosgei of Kenya had nearly completed her victory in the women’s race. Back on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, Frank Sinatra had sung “New York, New York” so many times through the morning, even his recorded voice seemed to have laryngitis.
Those of us in the final wave were mostly back-of-the-packers. A number of us did not look like classic marathoners. Many, it appeared, had never run 26.2 miles. Our bibs read 60,862 and 70,267 and 72,237, numbers that seemed more like mortgage balances than race entries. Time seemed irrelevant. The goal was to finish. Anywhere but last.
“I am a slow runner,” said the back of one woman’s shirt. “Please let there be someone behind me.”
I am 65, and this was my eighth, and probably final, marathon. I started jogging nearly 40 years ago, while losing 70 pounds. There is nothing so elemental and uplifting as running, the light movement through the air, the warbling of birds in the quiet of early morning, the gracious support of people like Kadir, a cashier at a 7-Eleven in suburban Philadelphia where I bought water on my marathon training runs.
“I encourage you! I encourage you!” Kadir yelled at me from behind the counter, his words like anointing oil. “Good job! Good job!”
Still, this marathon was more about pain management than excited running. I did something foolish after falling on my right knee in April, never consulting a doctor, seeing a physical therapist only in the last two weeks. If I finished Sunday’s race, it would take more than five hours.
Was I driven by a darker impulse? Did I still fear waking up and weighing 240 pounds again? Was I trying to compensate for my shortcomings as a reporter? My failure to write every book I wanted to write? My decision to become a sportswriter instead of the doctor my parents wanted me to be?
“Why do we keep at this? That’s a very good question,” said Fred Abramowitz, 67, a native of Brooklyn who ran the first New York City Marathon through the five boroughs in 1976 and, by his count, has run 75 marathons and 50 to 75 ultramarathons.
“I think we all have a desire to test ourselves, no matter the age,” Abramowitz, who now lives in Fort Collins, Colo., said as we awaited Sunday’s race.
He added, “At least we’re on the right side of the lawn.”
By that, he meant not buried beneath it.
Roberta Valentini of Bologna, Italy, ran her first marathon at age 75 on Sunday, undaunted that it would take her more than seven hours. “I like the pure air,” she said.
Mary Miller of Haddon Heights, N.J., also ran her first marathon, a month short of her 65th birthday. She lost 60 pounds and entered her first race, a 5K, in 2013, finishing last. But she steadily built her miles and has completed six triathlons. “It gives me a lot of confidence,” Miller said, also unbothered in her prediction that it would take seven hours to complete the New York course.
“I’m slow, but who isn’t,” she said. “I compete against myself.”
Abramowitz and I set off together, determined to finish by sundown. At five miles, though, I fumbled with a pack of gel and lost him. I never caught up, drifting far behind his finishing time of 5 hours 27 minutes 14 seconds.
Running alone, I soaked in the New York atmosphere: The loud and encouraging crowds, the bands, the signs that read, “This is a lot of work for a free banana” and “Pain is just French for bread.” At 14 miles, I was high-fived by a woman and her cat.
The pain in my knee eventually disappeared, bathed by endorphins. On the 59th Street Bridge, from Mile 15 to 16, I ran while many people walked. A man dropped his phone and struggled to pick it up, his knees bent and legs spread uncertainly as if riding a surfboard for the first time.
Along First Avenue, I saw a sign that said, “Sure, running keeps you healthy, but God, at what cost?” I soon began to wonder myself when I grew distracted at a hydration station and nearly ate a sponge.
From 18 miles on, I began to doubt whether I could finish. My right calf seized. My legs became heavy. It felt like hurdling to step over manhole covers. As I scuffed along, I kept thinking of the remarkable perseverance of Amy Palmiero-Winters of Hicksville, N.Y.
In April, I wrote about her at the Marathon des Sables in the Sahara in Morocco. She became the first female amputee to complete the race, one of the world’s toughest, the rough equivalent of running a marathon a day through the desert for six days.
During her bad moments, her goal became simple: stay ahead of the camels that trailed the last runners during each stage. “At the end of the day, no one cares about our times,” Palmiero-Winters texted me before Sunday’s race. “It’s that we stay ahead of the camels.”
About two miles from the finish, Naila-Jean Meyers, an editor in the New York Times sports department, spotted me in Central Park. The moment felt so elevating, but only briefly. My left thigh cramped and an inflamed tendon arced fire across the top of my right foot.
I thought of something else that Palmiero-Winters told me: The pain “all passes once we cross that line.”
Finally, as light left the sky, I reached the finish with a run-walk shuffle in 5:43:56, nearly two hours slower than my personal best. It would have taken the same amount of time, and felt much less painful, to fly to Iceland. But I made it. And I stayed ahead of the camels.