Marathon man Mikhail 'innerpsy' Shalamov
I once played a marathon session of poker of 40,000 hands in 18.5 hours. It was a real test of mental endurance and power of will. I decided to put myself to another marathon test - this time of the running variety.
My road to the New York Marathon started in the Javits Center, which held a pre-marathon expo on 2 November. It was one place where runners could register and obtain their race materials. Despite the large number of participants, I witnessed no long queues. Everything was well-organized. After getting your personal number you could proceed straight to the expo with lots of sport companies having booths there. We ate a lot of samples - energy gels, cheese, etc - and also bought some stuff for a run that was going to happen on the next day.
My marathon morning started at 4am. I had been waking up once an hour because of being overexcited and at 4am I decided not to sleep anymore and spend the time preparing instead. I was supposed to be in lobby at 5.40am. Getting ready for the run is very important and includes many little things, such as polishing toe nails so they wouldn't scratch the adjacent fingers and tear the socks, protecting your nipples with bandages (no kidding - otherwise they would turn into bloody meat after interacting with clothes for 40,000 steps, no matter how smooth your T-shirt is). Anti-chafing ointment appeared to be useful as well. As for the outfit - it had to fit really well so nothing could disrupt the focus on the run. I had my breakfast shortly after (banana, yoghurt, and a drink). I got down to lobby right to join the crowd of other runners before our transfer.
The bus transfer took around an hour to the start line on Staten Island. That's the view from the bridge right before the start camp.
Getting to know the fact that it will take only your leg power to get to those blurry skyscrapers (not to mention that route is not even direct and has a lot of turns) is... refreshing, not to say more. We got dropped off at the start camp at 7am. I saw that there were almost no covered areas, so the waiting promised to be not that delightful, provided it was only 4C outside and I was dressed pretty light. I spent most of the time before the start under a tent heavily packed with other contenders who literally took every spare piece of free land they could. Well, at least the company saved us from the cold wind. All in all, I somehow managed to miss my wave's start (I signed up to wave 2 because I planned to wrap up my run in 3h40m lololol), so I had to start with wave 3.
Miss America has performed the anthem, MC has built up some hype, countdown, BANG! - and here we go! The first mile on the bridge was already a test; windy freezing, uphill. But overall euphoria made me forget about all the cons and here I was, cruising! Right off the bridge to Brooklyn and that's where the first fans started to appear!
The fans are one of the best things in the NY Marathon. I couldn't even imagine this would be so cool. It's like a city-wide holiday - with people making big signs, bringing sweets and bananas for the runners, screaming and cheering you along all 26 miles. Families come out to shout from roofs, balconies, and sidewalks. One of the mistakes I'd done was not to put my name and country on my T-shirt (though I was advised to do so by the orgs - I just forgot). The ones who had this written on them were encouraged by personal addresses, jokes etc. Nevertheless, it was beyond cool anyway. My biggest shout goes out to the guy with the jellies and a girl with bananas: they helped me out a lot in the absence of the official meal supply that didn't appear until mile 18.
There were a lot of funny signs like, 'You run NY better than Bloomberg' or 'Welcome to Brooklyn! And now - GET OUT!' or a sign with a huge button that said 'Press here for power-up'. There were MCs, bands playing every couple of kilometres, and the fans - they were not just standing, they were literally rooting for you, yes - YOU, like: 'Come on, run, you're the best!!' 'The finish line is close!' and when you felt almost drained that somehow managed to help spur you on big time.
Mile 25 and I was almost at the finish line. I was dying of muscle pain in my legs and began walking instead of running, when one of the lady fans yelled at me: 'You! Yes, you! Start running NOW!' Magically, I straightened up, smiled and started running again like just out of the start line though moments before I'd been sure I was unable to do that.
From the physical point of view, the run itself turned out to be anything but ordinary. Because of an accident, I hadn't had had much running practice for the three months prior to the marathon and was worried that this would stop me from making it to the finish line. Aside from that, I was confident in my shape. As it turns out, that was last thing I had to worry about.
There's a term called 'the wall' in long-distance running. When you run out of glycogens (fast energy harvested from carbohydrates), your body starts using its fat as the energy source instead. I never happened to reach the wall itself during my training runs (though I ran the half-marathon with the result of 1h40m), so I considered it being something more of a myth, disregarding the warnings from the experienced long-distance runners like my dad, who once completed an ultra-marathon of 600km on his bike. I was punished for my lack of knowledge.
I made two major mistakes. First was the initial euphoria combined with high speed running (which led to an increased glycogen consumption during the first half of the run) and second was lack of energetic gels. Together they made me feel hyper exhausted after 25 kilometres. It's quite bit hard to explain to someone who hasn't experienced it, because you think it just can't happen. It's like your legs are bare bones, each step is mirrored by pain in lower muscles and tendons. You feel like you're running but the speed is more pedestrian-like. And there's nothing you can do about it.
If I was shown the pictures of the people that would have outrun me I would really think you're nuts. How can an overweight old lady outrun a young fit guy with a thousand kilometer under his belt this year? Well, it appeared she's able to. I was astonished with how many different people were participating. It was an awesome experience to take part in and to share it with the rest who found themselves able to make it to the finish line.
For the last 6 miles I felt like I was running along an asymptote*. I was getting closer and closer to the finish line but it still seemed like I wouldn't cross the line. Each mile took me longer than the one before and I began to realise that I wouldn't make it into the morning NY Times issue (you have to run 4h 45m or faster), but I could still make it in 5 hours. I remember yelling at myself, 'Come on, Misha, for hell's sake, run!' and the crowd was surprisingly doing the same in English instead of thinking that I'd gone crazy. It even made me run my 26th mile one-and-a-half minutes faster than my 25th. My result was 4:59:49, which was pretty much average, yet I was so happy that I'd overcome the challenge and made it to the end.
* Asymptote: a straight line that continually approaches a given curve but does not meet it at any finite distance.
Mikhail 'innerpsy' Shalamov is a member of Team PokerStars Online.