Erin Ward is a runner on the Oiselle racing team. She lives and trains in Minnesota. Her nickname is Jungle Chicken and she is a self proclaimed "crazy cat lady" for her two cats: Stanley and Harvey. She enjoys snowshoe racing, reading and champagne. Not in that order.
Erin Ward's Blog: NYCM Recap Part One "My Jog Along the Streets of New York City"
(Reader be warned: In the likely event that this lengthy and narcissistic recount of my experiences over the last four days at the New York City Marathon begins to bore you, I will start off with highlights and lowlights, and you can skip the rest.)
My roommate, Firehiwot Dado, won the race. She won the New York City Marathon.
On Monday morning I spent $157 at m&m’s World in Times Square.
Miles 11-26.2 of the marathon (with a few exceptions, to be outlined herein).
Thursday, November 3
I arrived in New York City around noon and was instructed to take a van from the airport to the Hilton hotel where I was being housed courtesy of the ING New York City Marathon (I like to pronounce the ING as if it were the ending of a verb, as in runn-ing, rather than as the separate letters I-N-G. People look at me with pity, like “you poor ignorant Midwesterner.” But I play up to this stereotype because it’s fun.) I was told by the woman at the desk that the van would arrive within 15-20 minutes. After waiting 45 minutes and seeing everyone who had arrived after me boarding a van, I finally asked if my van was coming. At this point someone called my van to pick me up. This was my first lesson that my patient, passive, pensive personality would not fly in New York City. It was time to man up and get a little aggressive! Unfortunately, this realization didn’t really change my personality, as you will see over the next few days.
I arrived at the hotel and had a little trouble checking in. The room had been reserved in the name of my roommate, Firehiwot Dado, and to make matters worse, she had used a different name to reserve the room. The Africans often have multiple secret names, in my experience, and we Americans are not privy to many of them, because we won’t pronounce them correctly anyway. I also use two different last names, one my maiden name and one my previously married name, so between me and Firehiwot, we had about 200 total pounds of runner but five or six different last names in the room. Finally I went up to my room on the 14th of 44 floors. I walked in and saw a small pile of Ethiopian runner laying on the top of her covers in her bed. Firehiwot!!
We hugged and said our names, and then we stared at one another because we had run out of words that meant anything to one another. The funny thing about Americans, or perhaps English speakers more generally, is that when someone else doesn’t speak our language and we know this to be the case, we persist in trying to explain things by using gestures, which may be somewhat effective, and also by using English words! I probably did this a hundred times over the four days. In contrast, Firehiwot never once tried to speak to me in Amharic, as though by now even an idiot would have obviously picked up at least a few words of Amharic, for goodness sake! I brought out the wrapped Oiselle shirt that I had brought for her as a goodwill gift, and she opened it very carefully and hugged me and kissed me on both cheeks.
Firehiwot had just arrived that afternoon as well, but from 17 hours of travel. So she went to bed at about 5:00 p.m., and I had very little choice but to do the same. I didn’t want to wake her up—she needed to rest. She had one of the biggest races in the world to win in a few days.
Friday, November 4
Firehiwot’s coach, Haji, called before 7:00 the next morning to get her up for a run. He asked me if I’d like to come along and was surprised, I think, when I politely declined. First of all, I don’t tend to run before noon, and second, I don’t tend to run with the best in the world, at least two days before a major marathon. Haji and I had an interesting talk later that afternoon. He coaches a large group of elite runners in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and among these are eleven sub-2:28 marathon women and eight sub-2:08 men. He asked me for my marathon time, and I said, sheepishly, 2:45. He took this information in and asked me a very simple question: “Why?”
The answer is more complicated, though…. It is hard to explain to someone why you are so slow. He then said, “Your body is good,” meaning, I suppose, that it is very hard to fathom why someone who is not carrying at least 50 extra pounds would still run so slowly. It is an interesting question, and one I will continue to ponder over the next few post-marathon weeks. Why? I’m a little old. I’m a little lazy. I am fairly weak. I tend to allow negative thoughts to creep in. I eat way too much candy and drink way too much Red Bull and a little too much wine, but I’m not the poster girl for sloth or gluttony. I train well, and smart, and get a lot of (too much?) sleep. But wait… 2:45 is not slow! I totally forgot. This crazy shifting of perspective and comparison was one that I had to fight continuously all weekend. Every time someone said to me, “Your agent will help you with that,” I thought, “My agent?” I am going to create a fictional agent next time I do something like this. His name is going to be Slick McCool, and I am going to refer to him often. In fact, he is going to be my new best friend, and I am going to seek his assistance in all manner of difficult circumstances.
Friday otherwise passed in a sports-drink-induced-haze of elite athlete sightings and Ethiopian soap operas. I spent a solid 90 minutes trying to help Firehiwot call her husband back home from my cell phone without it costing me a hundred dollars. In order to place a call we had to dial an 11 digit toll free number from the phone card, then a 10 digit PIN code, then the international code, country code, area code, and number. But somehow we had one number too many in the sequence, and I could not communicate this to her, so I ended up trying pretty much every permutation and combination of numbers possible, all after entering the first 21 digit toll free and PIN digits. I wanted to cry. And then the soap operas started. If you want to know what the winner of the -ing NYC Marathon does to pass the time pre-race, google Dire Tube and Gemena 2. And then ask your friendly, endlessly compliant, eager-to-please Midwestern roommate to download episodes 1-25, one episode per 20 minutes. When that roommate tries to leave the room, look sad and point to the computer and ask, “How?”
In order to get away for a couple of hours and to clear my head, I was forced to walk to the marathon expo and spend my expected race winnings in advance in a frenzy of crowd mentality spending. Now that is what I’m used to—manic materialism! At last I felt at home. After gathering my loot, which weighed about as much as Firehiwot, I decided that I should try to hail a taxi to save my legs rather than risk the two mile walk back to the hotel. But, once again, I am not as aggressive as I might like, and after a few failed attempts I decided to just suck it up and walk back.
Saturday, November 5 (day before the race)
An odd and disturbing thing happens to me when I’m around free stuff. I’m not a wealthy person by any means, but I can certainly afford to buy beverages when necessary and don’t need to steal my food on a daily basis. But when food is free, as it is in the elite athlete hospitality suite, I suddenly become a hoarder. Gatorade is free? I’ll have three in each flavor! Power Bars are available? I don’t really like them, but they’re not cheap if you have to buy them, so I want a box!! And if I eat four for dinner, I can save my per diem allowance and actually make money!! What is that about? And heaven help me if there is free alcohol…well, that’s another blog post for another day. It is titled: Lemon Drop Martinis and Erin Drops to the Floor.
Another odd and disturbing thing happens to me when I’m in an unfamiliar and somewhat intimidating environment. I start to get this running commentary in my head about what is happening; I think it is my mind’s attempt to explain the situation to myself as if I am reading about it happening to someone else. This phenomenon in and of itself would be okay, perhaps even adaptive, but I think sometimes this commentary is not entirely in my head, but rather comes out of my mouth. Did “I just stepped into an elevator with Paula Radcliffe” just pop into my head, or did I actually say it? In order to make this less weird, I am going to start addressing these observations and narratives to Slick McCool, my new agent. I can hold up my cell phone as if I am actually talking to someone. Yeah. That would seem way more normal.
There is a saying that scares me that goes something like this: Sports don’t build character. They reveal it.” I’m pretty sure that it’s a bogus statement, because there is no way that I am a quivering, neurotic, self-conscious hoarder. Right, Slick? I have seen some odd behaviors from some of the pro athletes out here, though. For the most part, the world-class runners seem incredibly down-to-earth and friendly. I met Lauren Fleshman, and she could not be more personable and charming. Deena Kastor hugged me in the lobby, and I met her a couple of years ago when I stayed in her rental condo on Mammoth Lakes. She would have no reason to remember me. I did, however, overhear a runner pleading with a member of the race staff that, “I have very special needs.”
End of Part One
(photo credit: Miz Moo blog)
I thought this woman had to be kidding—surely she was being sarcastic. Nope. She really meant it. I immediately sent a text message of this little episode to my friend back home saying, “These are not my people.” I felt out of place, intimidated, and a little shy. And I don’t get shy. She wrote back, “That is why you need to qualify for the Trials. We need as many of our people out there as possible.” I felt safe and loved again. Friends are great, aren’t they?
Pre-race day always brings two mainstays of the elite marathon runner: the preparation of the water bottles to be put out on the course, and the elite athlete technical meeting. The former I love, and the latter I despise. I had brought out some special paint-spattered duct tape given to me by my buddy to decorate my water bottles, and (warning: product endorsement here) I can only put Nuun in them, an electrolyte beverage with no calories, because anything else makes me barf. In fact, at the expo the day before I had gone to the Nuun booth and told my pathetic barfy story to the woman working there, and she gave me a free Nuun bottle and a pack of 12 tablets in their new flavor, lemon tea, which has caffeine. I love Nuun! So I prepared my bottles, adding little foam jungle animal stickers to spice them up, and schlepped them up to the 43rd floor of the Hilton to turn them in. While waiting in a short line to check them in, I chatted with a guy who turned out to be a reporter from the Wall Street Journal who was writing an article about the whole process of elite athlete fluids. I may at this point have shamelessly tried to say something erudite in order to get my name into the WSJ, but I must have failed, because the article ran without any mention of the Minnesotan with the cute jungle animal stickers on her bottles.
The next step was to go back to my hotel room to rest before the technical meeting. This was easier hoped for than accomplished, however, because Firehiwot’s people kept calling the room to make sure that she had turned in her bottles. First her coach, then her agent, then a stream of random Ethiopian dudes stopped by the room to make sure that she had turned them in. I am super jealous that she has people who check on this type of thing for her, because I have arrived at the starting line of races without my chip, without my number, and with two left racing flats. So next up: the technical meeting. I really wish that I could just send my agent, Skip, to these for me; the reason that I don’t like them is that they make me tremendously nervous and strip me of any confidence that I may have ever had about the upcoming race, which is historically quite low to begin with. Here’s the problem: these events are usually the first opportunity that you have to see what/whom you’re up against. In this case, I was up against the best in the world. The New York City Marathon technical meeting magnified this by a power of ten, and I suddenly felt very slow, very fat, very tall, and very white. And not just white compared to the Africans, which is to be expected, but also white compared to the Americans, Brits, Kiwis, et al who are supposed to be white. I live in Minnesota and don’t get much sun, and I had bleached my hair in an effort to be noticeable to my friends and family for the first 30 seconds of television race coverage. The other problem that I run into at the meeting is that I can sometimes convince myself in the days before big marathons that I have received an all-expenses paid vacation because I am so charming and witty, a real down-to-earth rock star. My fantasy is shattered when I go to the technical meetings and realize that I am expected to compete in a very long, grueling race as payback for the generosity of the race organizers. This is always the moment that the weekend rudely shifts from pleasure to business.
This business aspect of the weekend was further evidenced as I went to the pre-race dinner, which surprisingly offered neither alcoholic beverages nor candy corn. How did they expect me to calm my nerves? Well, I thought, I’d get something healthy in me and head back to my room to call some friends, maybe order a movie on TV, or read a little. First, though, Firehiwot requested that I administer a little physical therapy on her hamstrings in the form of applying kinesiotape, a fancy form of athletic tape, for those of you unfamiliar with the latest in expensive but well-marketed placebo therapies. I’m a big fan, so I had brought with me a roll of camouflage tape. I was a little concerned about playing doctor with one of the world’s fastest runners, but as it is non-invasive and non-pharmaceutical, I figured I couldn’t do too much damage. I did have an opportunity to do a lot of damage later that evening, however, when Firehiwot produced a sheet of what looked like over-the-counter pain medication pills and said, “One? Two?” and then pointed at her hamstrings. Oh boy. Had I been an equal competitor, I could have ruined her race by saying, “All of them. Twelve.” But as it were, my PR is 20 minutes slower than hers, so I had no reason to sabotage her race. So I told her to take one, and possibly one later if the pain persisted. I’m sure she had no idea what I was saying other than the number one, but dang! I should not have been the one to answer such a question. She took one, and then crawled under her covers and said “Goodbye,” which was her way of saying goodnight. It was so sweet, except that it was 6:00 p.m., and now I had hours to kill in the darkness before I could get to sleep. In fact, it was the night before Daylight Savings, so it was actually the new 5:00 p.m., a full 12 hours before we needed to wake up.
Or so I thought. At about midnight the light went on and I heard water from the faucet gushing and what sounded like water bottles being mixed up with the powdered sports drink that Firehiwot had brought in little baggies from home. Uh oh—I feared that this was when Firehiwot woke up for her major races. What did I know of her pre-race habits? We couldn’t talk to one another, so maybe this was the end of her night of sleep? Now I am a peace-loving girl, but I was not getting up for good at midnight, and so I was ready to fight. I got out of bed, turned out the bathroom light, and looked at my roommate sitting on the edge of her bed. She pointed at the little digital clock on the side table and said, “How many?” I don’t know what she meant, exactly, but I said, “Five more hours to sleep.” Again, I like to speak in English to people who don’t know English. But I also held up five fingers and made the international gesture for sleep (you know it—the hands together in prayer-like form with the head resting on them), and she went back to bed. Crisis averted.
Sunday, November 6 (RACE DAY!!)
The sound of the alarm clock on marathon morning brings the most intense and mixed emotions for me. Anything can happen—anything is possible! I got out of bed, cracked open a Red Bull (I know that my writing is laden with sarcasm, but I really did crack open a Red Bull), ripped open a Clif Bar, and began to get in my zone. And by “zone” I mean terrified stupor. I took a quick shower and put on my cute Oiselle outfit, which included a short-sleeved shirt that would set me apart from all of the other competitors who would be wearing either bra tops or singlets, at the most. But I always get cold, so I felt confident in my choice. My bib number, for the first time ever, had my NAME on it and not a number, and I was exceedingly proud of and excited about this. As Firehiwot got ready, she put on her brand-new bra top from Nike and found that the elastic around the ribcage was too tight. She elicited my help in cutting this elastic, first with a plastic knife with peanut butter residue and then with my fingernail clippers. Whew—close call on the wardrobe malfunction. Then she asked me by pointing if she should wear just her bra top, or her bra and a singlet. It was so bizarre to me that she was asking for my help in making this somewhat crucial decision, so I brought up the weather forecast, switched the scale from Fahrenheit to Celsius, and she still looked at me as if to say, “So what should I wear?” I thought at this point that an executive decision needed to be made, so I said “This,” and pointed to the singlet as well. And so, as evidenced by her soon-to-be-historic photos as she won the New York City Marathon, she wore both.
We headed down to breakfast at 5:45, and I plunked myself down next to Meb Keflezighi. Best move ever! This guy is truly a great man and a worthy hero and role model for all runners. He was friendly to everyone, chatting with us and seemingly relaxed about the upcoming race. Because the women’s elite race starts 30 minutes before the men, any woman running over 2:35 could look forward to getting caught by the elite men at some point. I told Meb that I would cheer for him as he passed, and he said that he’d cheer for me. I thought he was just being kind, because of course he would be too caught up in his race to notice the stragglers from the women’s race, but, as it turned out, he was sincere (foreshadowing…). He asked me what my uniform looked like so that he could look out for me, and I pointed at my shock blonde bleached hair and said, “You’ll recognize me by my hair.” He then smiled and pointed at his own bald head and said, “You’ll recognize me by my no hair.” If I wasn’t in love with Meb before, I certainly am now!! He has replaced Ryan Hall as my not-so-secret crush
We boarded the buses at 6:10 a.m. and I sat down next to Devon Crosby-Helms, whom I had met the night before at dinner. She is a famous ultra runner (and one helluva fun girl) who was slumming it with the marathoners for this race. In front of us sat Tyler Stewart, a wicked good triathlete, who also was competing in the race to see what it would be like to do a marathon without swimming and biking for the better part of a day beforehand. Across the aisle was Molly Pritz, who would debut at the distance in impressive fashion, establishing herself as a possible dark horse at the Olympic Trials. And then there was me, Erin Block Ward, an ACT and SAT tutor from Saint Paul, Minnesota. I am really good at math. Not so relevant in my present situation that morning, perhaps, but I was struggling to save some shred of self-confidence and worthiness.
The elite athlete warm-up tent was unreal. Hello Lauren Fleshman. Hello Jen Rhines. Hello Mary Keitany. I had promised myself that I would soak in the experience as much as possible, and not just sit there and freak about my race. At about 8:45 the race staff gathered us together and marched us to the starting line on the bridge. I was in utter awe of the magnitude of the event, and I was excited! When I got to the starting line area I saw my good friend Carrie Tollefson, a 2004 Olympian in the 1500m and my neighbor, who was doing broadcasting for the New York Road Runners. It was great to see a familiar face. I warmed up a little with Devon and Tyler, my new BFFs, and tried to remain calm and soak it all in. I stood on the starting line with all of these talented runners from all over the world and felt truly blessed. That feeling would last about two miles.
The gun sounded and we were off! Lead vehicles and photographers on motorcycles led the way, and I tried to remain in contact with a group as we climbed the bridge. The first mile is entirely uphill, and we passed the mile marker in 6:22. Perfect. The only problem was that I had a fairly significant side cramp. I only get these in races, never in training, and only when I am particularly stressed. I prayed, actually prayed, that it would go away, because I couldn’t run with that thing stabbing me for 26 miles. It did go away around mile three, but those miles should be fun and relaxed, and instead I was focused on my breathing to try to ease the cramp. We ran mile two in about 5:50, but it is entirely downhill, so it was effortless. And that’s when I realized that I would be running solo for this race. I went through the 5K much faster than I should have, but still I was all alone. The little pack that I had been with was running too fast for me, so I wisely let them go, but I was a little sad to be alone. It is so much easier and more relaxing to breeze through those early miles with another runner or a pack of runners, but I tried to focus on the crowds and the cheers of “Go Erin.” I know my name was written on my bib, but still I felt that I had a special connection to the crowds, as though they were my friends. As each mile split came and went, I calculated (I told you I am good at math) how far under pace I was. It was frightening. I flew through the 10K, and then the 10 mile, in splits that I would be happy running for those distances alone, rather than as splits in a marathon, early in the season. It was at around the 10 mile mark that I realized that starting out so fast would end up being a pretty tragic error. By the time I hit the halfway point in 1:22, I knew that my dreams of qualifying for the Trials were over. While I was, at that point, a full minute under pace still, my body was already starting to shut down. I had my first thoughts of, “Oh, this might be difficult to finish.” Around mile 15 the course goes over another bridge, and it is dark, windy, cold, and lonely on this stretch. Spectators are not allowed on the bridges, and apparently neither was my will nor my soul. I felt like I was crawling. I felt cold. I felt disappointed, and mad, and weak. I felt like giving up, and I had ten miles to go. And then, nearly the end of the bridge, I could hear the faint beginnings of what would be a life-saving roar from the crowd. I had promised myself two things pre-race, that no matter how bad things got out there, I would: 1) finish the race, and 2) appreciate the crowds. As I turned the corner off the bridge and saw the cheering hoards, I waved in both directions and smiled my most grateful smile. And the decibel level doubled. And I was once again a happy runner. I was slow and happy, but happy. Thanks, New Yorkers.
End of Part Two (it’s almost over, I promise!)
I was embarrassed and felt like I let down the race organizers who paid my way out and gave me a free room and all of those free Gatorades, Power Bars, and kittens. And then David said something that meant the world to me: “Thanks for finishing, Erin.”
I really like that last line as the final sentence in the story; I feel it’s a powerful way to end this little journal. It’s a nice summary statement, isn’t it, for running and life? But then I would leave out the best part of my weekend. After being helped to the heated finishers’ tent, I sat on a chair and felt my legs cramp and my body lose heat for about five minutes while I stared into space and contemplated whether I could get my pants on by myself or would have to summon additional help. With the will that I had been desperately trying to summon over those final miles, I managed to put on my pants and my jacket. Yeah, that’s right—all by myself. Victory! I hobbled out to the van that took us back to the hotel, hearing stories of victory and defeat. I sat next to German Silva, who is past the racing prime of his youth but once, as legend has it, used his race winnings to bring electricity to his village back home. I also commiserated with another American guy who said, “I honestly don’t know why I bother anymore.” Humans have all manner of strengths, and all manner of weaknesses, and a marathon shows a tiny part of this essential struggle. We convince ourselves that it is the end-all-be-all of who we are (or at least we do if we are neurotic like me), but it is actually a laughably inconsequential part of who we are. In fact, I don’t know why we bother anymore. But I know that after my typical two or three weeks of post-failed-marathon temper-tantrum retirement, I’ll start looking around for my next big race. I’ll ask my coach to write up a training plan, and I’ll get excited about it. One of my best friends says that she thinks we run because we’re just not creative enough to think of anything else to do. But it’s probably more that we can’t think of anything we’d rather do.
But the best part of my weekend? I got back to my hotel room and flopped onto the bed, completely drained of anything strong or courageous or good that I had in my body. (No, that’s not the best part…wait for it.) I called my friends and my family to complain, and to struggle to explain, more to myself than to them (because, really, they don’t care that much about the difference between a 2:45 and a 2:55), what in the world had gone so terribly wrong. And then there was a noise at the door and Firehiwot walked in. I threw down my phone in mid-whine and ran to my roommate, picked her up in a big hug, and screamed and twirled us around the room! About an hour before, I had received a text from one of my friends back in Minnesota with the news: “I was just on my way out the door to work when I saw that your roommate won the race.” That was the first I had heard of it, because she had already been whisked away to press conferences by the time I finished, a full thirty minutes after her. I was thrilled for her, and so happy to celebrate her victory; to see her shy excitement was an indescribably fulfilling experience. She kept saying, “Thank God,” over and over again as I showed her the photos that had already been posted on the internet from her victory. NBC was playing a two-hour highlight show from the race, and I was glued to the coverage of her, but she didn’t appear to be too interested. I guess she knew the outcome. About an hour later she pointed to her head and made a sad face: headache. She laid down on her bed and turned out her light, so I turned off the television where she was about to win the NYC Marathon on the big screen, turned off the rest of the lights in the hotel, drew the curtains, and left her to sleep. I headed out to find a Red Bull, call a few more friends, and see Times Square.
The next morning when I woke up, Firehiwot’s gold medal was sitting on the bedside table next to my empty Red Bull can and our running watches. We had been through quite an adventure, and today was a new day.