This is a picture of the finish line of the New York Marathon. I took it yesterday afternoon. Like many other runners, I did my last training run in Central Park, and when it was over I walked up to the finish and stood there, imagining that moment on Sunday afternoon when my legs will finally stop moving.
I took pretty much the same photo two years ago, when I ran New York for the first time. (Runners love their rituals.) Back in 2017 I felt lucky to be there at all. My training had been badly disrupted by injury, and up until three weeks before the race I did not think that I would be able to participate at all. All that uncertainty (and inadequate training) meant that all I wanted to do was finish. Which I duly did.
This time around, my preparations have gone more smoothly. Training has been hard, but steady. I’ve put in the hours and the miles. And, this year, I have a goal: to finish in under four hours, which is more than 30 minutes quicker than in 2017. I’ve been feeling nervous about it – running marathons is way more fun when you’re not worrying about time and glancing compulsively at your watch.
The thing about goals is that sometimes you miss them.
Because here’s the thing: yesterday’s run in Central Park did not go well. Right now my legs feel stiff and heavy. My knees are sore. My left foot is aching, just a little. As I write this, on Saturday evening, I am full of apprehension. The idea of running 26.2 miles seems impossible. I worry that my body is desperately signaling that all this is a very bad idea.
I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Rather like writing a novel, running a marathon is, at the beginning, an act of faith. Nobody, not even the most experienced runners, knows for sure how things are going to pan out. Whether it’s adrenaline, or something more mystical, unforeseen factors can come into play – “race day magic”, my friend Pat calls it. For example: two years ago, at Mile 21, I was prancing down Fifth Avenue like a young gazelle in springtime.
Of course, the only way to find out how this particular story ends is to take the first step. So I will get up tomorrow morning and I will catch the ferry to Staten Island. And I will give thanks every inch of the way, no matter what happens. There’s so much to be thankful for. I’m grateful for both my friends looking out for me, and the two million strangers who just like to cheer everyone on. (To say nothing of my wonderful wife, who is going to see me at three different points during the race.) I’m grateful for my fellow runners, all 50,000 of them. I’m grateful that the weather should be perfect. Most of all, I’m grateful that I am healthy enough even to contemplate doing this thing. Yes, I’m scared. But Good Lord, it’s the New York Marathon! I’m going to run my heart out, and see what happens.
The thing about goals is that sometimes they don’t matter.