Chris Palmer

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One month ago, I was standing at the starting line of the 2014 TCS NYC Marathon (my first marathon). The buses and Staten Island ferry were late, meaning I would be bumped into the last wave of the day, but I was there and ready to embark on what I had come to expect would be one of the most challenging days of my life (at least thus far).

And it delivered.

For those that are marathon runners, little that I write here will be any news to you, but for those that are yet to run their first, hopefully I can share a thing or two about the experience. I intend to follow this up with a deep mile-by-mile breakdown to help assist future runners, but for now I want to share my experience and some things I learned about myself, and about others, along the way. Hopefully I haven’t set the bar of expectations too high.

Training, and how I learned how much free time I really have

It should come as no surprise that training isn’t glamorous, nor is it all that fun. To be fair, I actually totally enjoy the runs. I have the luxury of running along the bow river in Calgary, which (rain, snow, or shine) makes for a beautiful, and often quiet, route. It’s the frequency of the training that became difficult. Over the course of the last year, I went from running 2 or 3 5-10km runs per week, to that plus a 21.2k a month, to eventually running 270km in my peak month (October).

nyc-training

Video games, movies, pub nights, etc. all fell from the schedule pretty quickly. What was really interesting to learn was that, though I always felt like I was busy, when I started to prioritize things to make room for my training, it became clear that I was actively choosing to make myself busy.

Strangers can be incredible

I still remember one training run this past August. It was later in the day with the sun setting, and I was about halfway through a practice half-marathon run. As I ran across the street under the north-end of the Centre Street bridge, I had a family yell at me “You can do it” and “you’ve got this.” Much like the nods and thumbs up that almost every runner gives other runners who pass, this small encouragement does a lot.

nyc-spectators

Now, picture hundreds of thousands of those people lining the sides of the road along 42 very long kiometers for an entire day doing the same. This was the NYC experience. I high-fived hundreds of kids, had my name shouted by dozens upon dozens of strangers, and even had a brass, strings, and vocal band play me along in Queens with a long and loud “Go Chris Go.” None of these people were paid to be there, and the superstar athletes were long gone, but they stick around in the greatest of numbers to see us through.

nyc-band

I suspect that if humanity could come together in the way that New York City does on marathon day, we would be a much happier bunch of people.

(seriously New York, I <3 you)

“Average only ends when the pain begins”

For some reason, this particular phrase from a sign held by a spectator sticks with me even a month after running. It seems like an appropriate take on old advice. Like many people, I’ve spent a lot of time in my comfort zone. Even training I sometimes had the tendency to stop when things got tough. This is fine if you want to get through life in one piece, but with limited personal improvement and few interesting stories to tell.

nyc-deep

Of course, specifically when it comes to physical challenges, you should always listen to your body, so things should be kept in perspective, but it’s an important and timely lesson on pushing yourself to be better.

Getting to the finish line isn’t easy

Signing up for a marathon (other than Boston anyways) is largely a symbolic step. You fill out some forms, hand over some money, and hope you get in. Getting in is exciting but, while it shows a big commitment, it is still largely a monetary transaction. Dieting and training are probably the hardest physical parts of the process. Without a doubt, however, the hardest mental part is around mile 20 on race day.

It’s about this point that everything hurts. Every muscle, joint, and bone in your body is telling you to stop or to at least, for the love of god, slow down. The Gatorade and water being handed out at every mile is having a progressively diminishing effect, as are the energy gels lining your pockets. There’s still 6 miles (~10km) to go. At my training mid-distance paces, that’s somewhere between 55 and 60mins.

The realization that you still have an hour to go, and your body is ready to scream to a halt is a pretty stark one. It doesn’t help that the NYC route has a number of pretty lengthy hill segments around this time.

nyc-tough

The next 4 miles were very hard. You can see it in my photos. I discard my trusty toque, and the smile disappears during this segment of the race. To be honest, while I have vague memories of running through the Bronx, it’s more or less a blur.

That moment when you realize that you can do it

There are no words to describe the feeling of looking down at your GPS watch and realizing that not only are you almost there, but that you are trending close to your target time. Legs burning, back pain, foot pain, sore shoulders, all of it slowly fades away as you get closer to central park.

At no point in the day did I feel more inspired than I did at this point. With less than 20 minutes to go, I knew I could do it, that I WAS doing it. It was now me vs. the clock as much as it was me vs. me, and it was on.

I sped up to the fastest speed that I could maintain, the crowd reactions came back into focus, and my smile came back. The runners high was kicking back in. I skipped Google Music ahead to one of my favorite running songs, and turned down the volume so that I could take everything in.

The Central park segment isn’t exactly easy. It’s hilly, narrow, and winding, but it sure is beautiful, and absolutely packed with people. The crowd is in full force at this point, screaming the names of runners as we pushed along.

As I came around the final bend, I could see the finish line. I took the outside lane and pushed further into what was (or at least after 4hrs+ felt like) now a full out sprint. As I bolted toward the finish, I heard a spectator yell “Way to go Chris! Finish strong!” I pushed harder.

nyc-close

It took everything I had to not completely collapse on the finish line. The flood of emotions that hits you when you finish was something I had been told about, but was still not entirely prepared for. Physical pain was soon met with tears of both joy that I had finished, and sadness that, after a year of work, it was all over. As an aside, if you do your first marathon far away from home, don’t go alone. That time after finishing is even harder if you do.

nyc-finish

For the curious, I crossed just shy of my target time of 4:20.

Wrapping it all up

Of course, I prefaced this as being about what I learned from the experience. So, to sum up:

First, I learned a lot about people. People are capable of being inspiring (meeting injured runners who finished, elderly runners, and runners from every walk of life) and simply all kinds of amazing (those that cheered on the 51,000 runners from in person and afar, and the New Yorkers that congratulated me over the following week every time I so much as hinted that I had run).

I learned that I have incredible family, friends, and co-workers. Friends that supported me throughout the training process (often dealing with me cancelling or avoiding plans because I needed to run), family that cheered me on, and co-workers who gave me the incredible schedule flexibility to reach the goal that I had set out.

And, of course, I learned a lot about myself. I learned that, with effort and determination, I could achieve what I had set out in front of me. I learned that I have the discipline to put in that hard work, and the strength to overcome when things got the hardest. I learned that I have it inside me to dig deep.

All that, and I managed to check another item off my bucket list.

I now am officially a “marathoner.” That alone makes it all worth it.

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