It’s the Hope That Thrills You
I’ve always been intimidated by The City. As a kid, my family would make regular trips in for Broadway shows and other assorted tourist attractions they wanted my brothers and me to experience—ice skating in Rockefeller Center, a horse carriage ride in Central Park, dinners in Chinatown and Little Italy, trips to the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty and the Twin Towers.
To be clear, I was not afraid of The City. Just intimidated. It was out of my suburban comfort zone. The buildings were big, the sounds were loud, the people were everywhere. Home was quiet and calm and familiar, where people kept to themselves in cars and houses and the tallest structure in town was the water tower.
As an adult, I appreciate that my Long Island–rooted family took advantage of The City in a way that so many Long Islanders, despite their proximity to Manhattan, did not. Not just the stuff that broadened my cultural horizons (like seeing Rent at 8 years old or Rocky Horror at 10), but even the trips to tacky theme restaurants like the WWF Zone or Jekyll & Hyde. I have fond memories of all of it. Despite the sensory overload of it all, I always liked going into The City.
But I always loved returning home, about 26 miles east to Plainview, Long Island.
The City has really never stopped intimidating me. Even as an adult, I feel a certain relief when I get off the PATH back home in Jersey City, or when I emerge from the 36th Street DNR stop in Sunset Park for work (for the record, “The City” is Manhattan. Brooklyn is Brooklyn). Manhattan is and has always been good for an adventure, but I could never settle there because I can never get settled there.
The City was never as intimidating to me as it was on Sunday, when I made the wonderfully stupid and stupidly wonderful decision to run the New York City Marathon.
Nothing prepares you for this race. I don’t mean in a technical sense. Your training prepares you to get from the starting line at the Verrazzano Bridge to the finish line in Central Park. But nothing prepares you for the 26.2 miles in between. No matter how many times you’ve spectated the race (which I had several times, in Williamsburg, the Upper East Side, and 5th Avenue) or how often you visualize yourself along the course, there is absolutely no preparation for the real thing. The physical and emotional pendulum swings of the race are cosmic in scale, spiritually befitting of its host city. New York City makes you feel—usually everything, usually all at once.
Let’s start in Staten Island. It was easy to get swept up in the pageantry of the start of the race. You forget for a moment how long the literal road ahead of you is. All you see (on a perfect day like Sunday, at least), are bridge arches and blue skies. Once the Howitzer goes off and you make your way up the Verrazzano—and we were lucky enough to be in the lead corral on the upper level—you become immediately enamored with the skyline in the distance. It brings the intimidation with it though, like a far-off thunderclap you weren’t sure was real or just a phantom sound. The City is so far away, but I have to run to it…and even beyond it…and then back. But those are future you’s problems. Current you is on Miles 1 and 2, and he’s feeling great.
Current you then noticed the Curtis Sliwa wild postings all over the place in Bay Ridge. Just a thing he noticed. New York City contains multitudes!
Like everyone who had run the race and spoken to me about their experience said, South Brooklyn was a block party. Families, bands, day-drinkers, sign-holders and everyone in between. I wasn’t sure if this is how it always was, or if it was any lighter because of the pandemic, or crazier because of the two-year layoff. It was all valuable energy to feed off of as I steadied into a comfortable pace.
The crowds swelled up through Sunset Park—where I pointed out my work subway stop with pride to my wife—and into Gowanus. I had “JORD!” taped clumsily onto my shirt and the calls of my name started to happen more frequently (mostly “Yeah Jord!” but a few “Yeah Jordi!” for those who thought the exclamation point on my chest was an “i”). It wasn’t until I heard my first “Jordan!” that I realized I was running past people I knew. Here’s something I never realized as a spectator: You have to work to get the person you’re cheering on to notice you. I would’ve missed every single person there to see me in Brooklyn if they didn’t crane their neck out or yell my name at the top of their lungs. The crowds were so dense and loud, it was hard to pick people out of the pack in the fleeting time you have before running past them.
Which brings us to the end of Mile 8 — still chugging along just fine—where I knew I’d be coming upon my family. Specifically, I’d be seeing my parents, and my younger brother and sister-in-law, who were sweet enough to be coming down from Rochester for the weekend to watch us run. What we didn’t know was that my other sister-in-law—my older brother’s wife—whose own running of the 2017 NYC Marathon inspired me to take my running more seriously, came up from Orlando to surprise us. We knew she was in Philadelphia for a wedding on Saturday night, but we didn’t know she’d be on the corner of Bergen and 4th Ave. wearing one of the matching green and yellow shirts my family made, there to cheer us on. Can’t describe the first of three times we saw my family as anything other than pure elation. This already was, and would continue to be, a day that delivered everything.
And of course, I couldn’t escape Barclays Center’s orbit without a Nets fan emerging from the pack, wearing a cap with an old New Jersey-era logo, stretching out and shouting “Go Nets!” Nets World is the best.
That moment gave way to Lafayette Ave. in Fort Greene, which my wife described as a drug trip. Neither of us has ever done any psychedelic drugs, but it felt like the right analogy. The street was so narrow, and the crowds so enveloping and dense, that it felt like we were running through a human tunnel of sounds, shapes and colors. It was at once disorienting and life-affirming. Among the pack of converging runners, you felt like you were the only one the crowds came to see.
And then, another burst of exuberant energy as we ran past our friends from college and our friends from Plainview—standing on the same block near Lafayette and Washington Ave., unbeknownst to each other. More gratitude, more elation. We momentarily ran astride a woman who said this was nothing like Chicago. She said it was her first New York Marathon and asked if we were from here. We said yes, but that this was our first time running it, and despite spectating a few times, we could not really process what was happening either. I hope she ran a good last 16 miles.
We turned into South Williamsburg, where we dodged a pack of Hasidic schoolgirls trying to cross the street and I made the business decision to pull over into a porta-potty to empty out of my bladder what I thought would leave as sweat instead (Is this how human anatomy works? I don’t know, I just needed a euphemism for peeing. I had to pee.)
Folks had mentioned how quiet South Williamsburg was, but no one really spoke about the emotional deflation of leaving Fort Greene. Like any drug trip, there’s a come-down. You don’t hit a wall, but you sort of get a nail in your tire. Thankfully, Williamsburg provided more of what Fort Greene offered, patching up that proverbial tire and re-energizing you past McCarren Park and into Greenpoint. Then suddenly you’re halfway done, departing Brooklyn on the Pulaski Bridge as someone’s speakers blare “Empire State of Mind.” You realize cliche and profound aren’t mutually exclusive adjectives.
Our quick jaunt through Queens brought a few more small packs of friends, as well as the first Jersey City Runners watch location. It was all welcome. A twinge in this glute, a pinch in that foot: reminders that I would soon need all the help I could get. And the 59th Street Bridge loomed.
My memory is already spotty, so I’ll try to dig deep (wouldn’t be the first time I had to do that this week). I don’t remember the bridge itself being too punishing. I was slowing down, permanently, but walking didn’t cross my mind. No, the long, quiet uphill climb wasn’t pleasant, but it was what it was. I knew it was coming and I made it up and made it down. It was time to tackle The City. And like The City often does when someone tries to tackle it, it uses the Truck Stick back, 10-fold.
Before the race, my wife and I made an agrement similar to the one we made for the marathon we ran together in April. We’d stay together for as long as we could, but if one of us felt the spirit and caught some wind, the other would let them fly and run their best race. Well, she felt the spirit in April and she caught some wind in November. As we made our way down the off-ramp onto 1st Avenue, I waved her on with the universal signal for “Go! Go ahead on without me!” We were now alone, surrounded by thousands of screaming New Yorkers.
The first half of the race was incredible. The next two miles were just fine. The bridge was even tolerable. But the next 10 miles were brutal. As difficult as anything I’ve ever done, and I mean that without exaggeration. The famed Wall of Sound didn’t hit as hard as I thought it would, probably because my mind started to fixate on the neck and back pain that have plagued me after Mile 16 on long runs before. I did my best to let the crowds be a salve for that pain. As it turns out, it doesn’t exactly work that way.
I saw another pack of friends at 75th, one with a “TEAM RUN-BINOWITZ” sign that made me, in my raw emotional state, do a genuine heart-over-hands-clasp. I spotted my family again up on 96th — now joined by my wife’s brother, mom, and aunt—where I was still in good enough spirits to goof around and Euro-step into their outstretched arms (which my brother would later tell me scared the hell out of him). A few more surprise friends here, another Jersey City Runners station there, and a pack of my wife’s home friends there to cheer me on in East Harlem.
Most pictures of me from the marathon found me with a big smile on my face, even the ones from the final miles. At first I thought that was weird, considering the physical and mental toll I paid over those last few miles. But then I realized: Of course I was smiling. How could I not? It was because of the physical and mental toll this leg of the race took on me that I was compelled to smile wide when I saw people I knew. Energy is finite, and I needed some of theirs.
Just before the entrance to the Bronx, I took my first walk. That’s when the descent started, down into the depths of my psyche and spirit. I began making deals with myself. You can walk through that water station, but then run out the next mile. That didn’t work. You can walk for a minute, but then run for the next five. That didn’t work. I was over the Willis Avenue Bridge and in the Bronx now: a wonderful, lively borough that I wish I escaped my head long enough to enjoy. You can walk for a minute, but then run for the next three. That didn’t take. The voice in my head starting asking questions. Why did you choose to run this race? Why do you run to begin with? How in the world is this worth it? Do you even think you’ll run a half-marathon again? Do you even think you’ll keep running again? The voice, clearly fed up with my refusal to answer, moved into declaratives. You’re so far from the finish. You’re so far from home. Brooklyn wasn’t worth it. The crowds weren’t worth it. You’d have been so much happier if you didn’t run this. You’d be so much happier if you didn’t run at all.
I’m a Mets fan. The Bronx never did anything good for me.
There was no magic solution. No mindfulness technique to pull me out of it. I just kept moving forward, dealing with aches and pains up and down my neck and back, and nausea every time I picked up a trot after drinking water. Move forward. Don’t walk for too long or you’ll tense up. Move forward. Eventually I moved closer and closer and closer to the finish. And the mile times on my watch were surprisingly low. Only in the 12s and 13s, which, I could have sworn one of them was 15. Those were encouraging numbers, all things considered. A reminder that despite the pain and despair, I could still make it to the finish line in under five hours.
And suddenly I was back in The City, unsure if I really scaled the wall physically, but fairly certain I had at least circumvented it mentally.
As I passed Marcus Garvey Park, I thought about how a coach on a pre-race strategy panel I watched on YouTube mentioned not to be fooled by it, and that many runners think it’s Central Park and are taken by unpleasant surprise by the ensuing climb up 5th Avenue, down towards 94th Street. The good news is I was in such pain at the moment that when the lesson crossed my mind, it went in one ear and out the other. I remembered it when I came upon the mirage park, but it hardly applied because the only thing I could focus on was managing pain, and reminding myself that the distance I had remaining only felt long. In reality, I could do 4 miles easily on a bad day.
Once I got back into numbered streets, I made a deal that stuck all the way up the 5th Avenue climb: Walk for one block, run for two. It stuck less because I felt compelled to run but more because I knew what would happen if I didn’t. My muscles were already starting to feel heavier and tighter with every pick-up from a walk to a jog, and I just needed to be done. There was only a 5K to go at this point. I hung my hat and hopes on seeing my family one more time near 94th street, and had them doubly lifted by surprise friends a few blocks before. I made one last blow past my family, and there was no Euro-stepping this time. Only waving my dad off as he offered out food I knew I couldn’t keep down. He kept insisting, and my sister-in-law dutifully jumped in between me and him and signaled me to keep moving. She knew the drill. She’d been there before.
I turned right into the park and came upon a surprise second sighting of some friends I saw earlier in the race on 1st Ave. and in Fort Greene. Don’t tell the authorities, but a friend of mine, [REDACTED] (I ain’t snitching!) (I know I haven’t mentioned any names in here anyway!) jumped in and ran a quarter mile with me to the crest of a hill, where he did his best to get me to jog with him when I slowed to a walk atop the hill, and I did my best to not slow to a walk atop the hill.
Somehow I made it out of the park and onto Central Park South, where I felt like J.D. walking down the hallway in the Scrubs finale, being feted by everyone I had known in my life, welcoming me to a ceremony in my honor. I saw one last friend while I was walking by the intersection at 7th avenue, and told him that for him, it was only fair for me to pick it back up into a run. So I ran, and kept running into the park as “Levels” blasted in Columbus Circle, towards the spotlights gliding across the trees, towards the finish line. I noticed the Wave 4 clock atop the structure, and threw my hands up as I saw I would finish in under five hours. Then I had done it. 4:56:44.
It really is amazing how quickly the body forgets pain. It didn’t take two hours after I finished for me to start plotting what I could work on and how I could train differently to produce a better experience and result. This, despite the fact that I could barely eat anything among the beautiful bagel spread in front of me that mine and my wife’s families had prepared. She beat me by 16 minutes, by the way. She’s a beast, and my inspiration.
As I type this I’m trying recreate the worst of the pain to remind myself why and how it got so bad that it caused me to think all those horrible things. If I can round up evidence to make the case against the part of my brain that wants to run another marathon, maybe that part of my brain will lose. But I guess when the body forgets pain, it forgets pain. Or maybe it just knows that making it to the other side is worth it.
The boy who always found comfort in returning to the suburbs had finally gotten one over on The City. Sure, I only bounce between Brooklyn and Jersey City these days. It’s not like I enjoy spending too much time in The City. But on Sunday, when The City looked big and sounded loud and felt crowded, I used that to my advantage, and I humbled The City.