On Thursday 3rd November I left the UK for New York, to run marathon number one of my mission. I was excited and nervous in equal measures. Not only was it marathon number one of my mission, it was marathon number one of my life! Up until that point I had run three half marathons and got up to a distance of 22 miles in a training run, but I had never run as far as the 26.2 miles that were looming before me. As the biggest marathon in the world, with over 55,000 runners competing, the New York marathon seemed like a good marathon to start with. The race route is predominantly flat (although I later learnt there a few undulating slopes hidden within it) and it covers all five New York boroughs: Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Manhattan.
My mum (AKA my biggest supporter) was my cheerleader for marathon number one. When I was thirteen I had very briefly visited New York as part of a trip to Philadelphia visiting cousins, however at that age I was too young to appreciate the glamour and beauty of the “city that never sleeps”. I was therefore excited to explore the city on the few days we had pre-and post-race day. As well as the marathon, on my New York to-do list was visit central park, go to Ground Zero, do some Christmas shopping and enjoy some pre-race carb loading in a city well known for its extensive food options.
After touching down at JFK airport (and eventually making it through customs) we jumped into a yellow cab and headed towards the city. In the taxi I got my first glimpse of the incredible Manhattan skyline and had to pinch myself. As the evening was drawing in, we were dropped off at our hotel in Times Square. I was overwhelmed by the lights, billboards and skyscrapers surrounding me – I couldn’t believe we were in New York!
In the days before the race we enjoyed wandering aimlessly around the city, soaking up the atmosphere and hitting the shops. The weather was cool, crisp and dry, allowing us to meander around Central Park and get a great view from the “Top of the Rockefeller Centre”. It also meant the final of my pre-marathon runs was a dreamy 7am jog through the heart of Manhattan, just as it was waking up on a sunny Saturday morning.
On race day I woke up at 5am and took the long journey across the city to the start line on Staten Island, along with my fellow runners. Needless to say, the start area was a hectic holding pen of 55,000 people with pre-race nerves… I’ve never seen such long queues for portaloos in my life!
I crossed the start line at 10am (after hours of waiting around in the crisp New York November weather) and my little legs carried me across the Staten Island bridge into Brooklyn, where crowds of people had flocked to the streets to cheer on us runners. The further I ran the bigger the crowds (and my smile) became. I couldn’t believe I was actually running the New York marathon! With election day looming, the Donald Trump related signs provided some light distraction, as did the bands and singers who had set up on the streets to give us a boost with some motivational tunes.
At mile 10 I passed from Brooklyn into Queens, where the crowds got slightly rowdier and the cheers got louder. It was amazing to see how the boroughs differed in terms of population, housing and general atmosphere. I ran for 5 miles through Queens, until I reached the 1.5 mile long Queensboro Bridge at mile 15, which proved to be a difficult point in the race. The bridge spans New York’s “East river” and it is totally exposed to the elements, meaning the freezing cold wind swept across the bridge and took us runners as prisoners. It was tough running a mile and a half on a concrete bridge, through the icy wind, with no supporters anywhere to be seen and no scenery to distract me from my thoughts. I remember turning to my right whilst running across that bridge and locking eyes with a man running next to me. Despite the evident pain and exhaustion on his face, he had a glint of determination in his eyes. Neither of us said a word to each other, but we shared a nod of acknowledgement. At that point I realised I wasn’t alone- all 55,000 of us were suffering, but if they could make it to that finish line then so could I!
As I neared the end of the bridge I heard a buzz of noise in the distance. Stepping off the bridge into Manhattan I was hit by a wall of sound expelled by the crowd. The crowd was massive- it must have been 10 people deep for the entire 4 mile stretch up First Avenue and the noise was unbelievable – I could barely hear the music coming through my headphones over the woops and cheers!
At mile 20 we crossed from Manhattan into The Bronx, an area with a bad reputation, but all I saw was the kindness and generosity of the strangers offering support, cheers and sugary treats to all the runners, many of whom were struggling both mentally and physically by this point.
At mile 21 a big bridge loomed in the distance (luckily we were running under rather than over this one). There was a massive banner tied to the bridge stating “you have now officially hit the wall”. As well as the physical challenge of running a marathon, it takes a massive amount of mental willpower to get through. Up until that point the crowds, my music and all the adrenaline pumping round my body had kept me going strong, but the message on that banner hit me hard. It would have been easy to have given up or dropped out at that point, and I had to continually remind myself of my reasons for running to encourage my little legs to keep pumping forward.
Miles 22-26 were tough. My hips and knees were aching and my eyes started blurring as dehydration and hypoglycaemia kicked in. Each mile felt like it was longer than the last and I found myself fatiguing. Despite my legs continually moving I felt like I was hardly moving. As I re-entered Manhattan and the course meandered its way through Central Park I knew there were only a couple of miles left. As I passed the 25 mile marker I suddenly had a little surge of energy. I knew my mum was waiting in the grandstand at the finishing line and I was desperate to spot her. As I approached the grandstand I saw her standing up, cheering and waving in my direction. I crossed the finish line with tears in my eyes and when the medal was put around my neck I was overcome with a combination of pain, achievement, and general exhaustion. I had earned that medal through hard work, determination, and self-belief. I hadn’t relied on anyone else to get me there- I had achieved it all by myself and for that reason I was so proud.
That evening we went to a post marathon party arranged by the tour company I had booked my trip though. Here I got the opportunity to meet some other runners who had completed the 26.2 miles and heard their reasons for running. From the school teacher who was running in memory of her Dad who had recently passed away, to the seventy year old lady who wanted to complete 10 marathons before the end of the year so she could give a medal to each of her 10 grandchildren. Whether they were running away from their past or running towards a new future, everyone’s journey was different and everyone had a story to tell.
When I left England for New York I had raised £1890 for my charities. By the time I returned I had smashed through my £2000 target. I am so grateful for the generosity of my family, friends and work colleagues who have donated to my fund and helped me raise so much money.
I can’t write this without giving a little mention (and saying a huge thank you) to my wonderful cheerleader. My mum is my biggest supporter and my best friend. Not only was this trip an achievement for me, it was also a massive achievement for her- she has worked so hard to lose a huge amount of weight over the past year and consequentially has gained bucket loads of confidence. After losing so much weight it was her dream to go ice skating again, something she hadn’t done for over 20 years. On 7th November, with the Manhattan skyline towering over her and the glistening Christmas lights twinkling in the background, she laced up her ice skates and whizzed around the rink in Bryant Park. I am so proud.
Lots of people have asked me what went through my mind during the run. Despite the distractions provided by the many supporters, during the marathon (and throughout my training) I was left alone with my thoughts for several hours. For a substantial part of the New York marathon my thoughts were focused on a patient who I had been particularly fond of. Mrs T was a 93 year old lady who had passed away the week before the run. She had been a patient on my ward for almost 2 months and provided us all with a lot of entertainment whilst she was there. She was a fiercely strong woman, which in hindsight I believe was the result of enduring many challenges (the complexity of which I cannot began to contemplate), through a long and eventful life. She proudly spoke her mind and kept me and all the other staff members on our toes at all times. If I wore trousers to work she would frown and tell me I looked unladylike. If my hair wasn’t perfectly neat she would encourage me to go and re-do it. Despite her deteriorating health, she rarely accepted help from others as she wanted to stay independent and she would not be made to do anything she deemed unnecessary (AKA she took no shit from anyone). She put up a fight right up to the end, but unfortunately died a few days before I left for New York, wearing her signature Chanel no 5 perfume, bright pink lipstick and a beautiful pashmina draped around her neck. And so I wanted to dedicate marathon number 1 to Mrs T, a lady who unknowingly taught me a little bit of self-belief and a touch of glamour are two important principles for success.
Someone once told me I couldn’t go to New York. Well, I went to New York, I ran the marathon and I got the medal (and blisters) to prove it. I wanted to finish by saying (in a nice little cliché) that when life throws you lemons don’t let them knock you down. Catch them when they fly towards you, slice them up and pop them into a nice cold gin and tonic.
Don’t let anyone crush your dreams.
New York marathon: 3 hours 49 minutes