I ran the New York marathon on Sunday, my first, at 48. A short sentence that does nothing to convey either the agonies or the highs of the day. As often happens in these situations, there was a catalyst to my decision, a conversation with a customer, Helen Bull, who was setting up a charity and wanted some assistance. The cause was noble, the prospect somewhat enticing; who hasn’t watched the marathon live or on TV and not fantasized about participating? Well, at 48, you are fast approaching the unassailable fact that if you don’t get on with it now, you probably never will. So, full of bravado and good intent, I signed up. That was six months ago.
The first part was quite fun. I hired a trainer and got going on the hills and downs of Clifton, Bristol, where I work. My executive lifestyle involves much travel, and in truth I had gained some unwanted pounds over the years. So the initial weight loss and rapid progress served to reinforce the wisdom of my decision.
Then the niggling injuries begin, and the early excitement wears a bit thinner as the temperature drops and the rain starts. The hills at 6 a.m., wonderfully depicted in all movies with great soundtracks playing and the lighting just right, are not quite as attractive or rewarding in real life. Still, I persevered; the sponsorship money had begun to flow in, and was being put to excellent use on a daily basis. There was no backing out now.
As the big day approached, I have to admit to wondering whether I was good enough, whether I was up to it. The niggles in knees and achilles were more pronounced and my body was beginning to complain about the new strains I was putting on it. I did my last training run of any length three weeks before the big day, and having got to 22 miles, convinced myself I would at least finish.
The posh English headmistress would not allow the kids to accompany me (I know, I shouldn’t have even asked). So with wife and mother-in-law in tow, off we set. The other runners on the flight out were a really scary sight – lithe, toned and clearly ready for the off. In contrast, I was beginning to panic.
They say that in life you have to stick with what you are good at, and for 48 hours in New York, I found what I was good at. Or should I say I rediscovered it. I refer, of course, to the carb loading, ensuring that your body has all of the fuel it needs to get through. Except, in my case, the pounds gained as a result of this eleventh-hour stock-up made the schlepping round the course all the more difficult.
Before you have the race, you must do the obligatory Marathon Expo – an enormous event in Manhattan’s Jacob Javitz Convention Center where you come to register and pick up your electronic shoe tag and bib number. Here you consider buying a ticket for all of the other events going on, wonder whether you will partake of the free Dunkin’ Donuts coffee all day for runners, and then quietly and obediently empty your pockets and challenge your credit card limits in favor of vendors selling you running accessories you had no idea existed or, in my case, even knew how to use.
THE BIG day dawned. Five-thirty a.m. pick up from the hotel for a 10.40 a.m. start. That is the only way to gather 45,000 runners and to overcome soon-to-beclosed New York road systems.
It was absolutely freezing, so cold you could hear your teeth chatter. The hat and gloves bought on Friday on the streets of New York did their best, but what do you want for 10 bucks?
This being the US, three helicopters and a plane hovered overhead. The crowd waved enthusiastically – keen to see themselves on the evening news. The banner trailing from the plane read, “Breathe in and appreciate the moment.” I am never quite sure about the cheesiness of some of the US sayings, but at that moment, overwhelmed by fear, it worked a treat for me.
And then came one of those life-affirming sights that you often get as a
Jew: A sign on the top of an opensided tent that said “Shacharit 8.15
a.m.” And davening inside, amid all the people in tefilin and running
gear, there was that special bonding atmosphere – Jews from everywhere,
drawn together for a common purpose, and knowing that you probably knew
their sister- in-law’s cousin without even having to go through the
process of discovery. That was the positive Jewish experience.
In contrast, as we weaved our way through the five boroughs, the more
religious Jewish areas were noteworthy less for the ethnic diversity
than, unfortunately, for the sense that the hasidim were unfriendly
bordering on hostile; perhaps it was because of the women runners being
dressed in shorts? The support, encouragement and cheering elsewhere was
not to be found in the religious areas such as Williamsburg. What a
shame – a lost opportunity, taken by all of their neighbors, for a big
impression to be made. The gospel singers by the side of the road,
dressed in their Sunday best, so obviously full of life and love, made
for a sharp, positive contrast – in a reaching out, handsacross-
the-nation, one world kind of a way. The hasidim need a new PR agent, I
Anyway, no more negativity. The two million New Yorkers who take to the
streets and encourage you are really inspiring. I had taken the advice
of those who went before me and had my name and city of origin printed
on my T-shirt, as well as the cause for which I was running. And when
the cramp kicked in, during Mile 18 – the notorious “wall” – the
encouragement made a big difference, I can tell you. A cute girl holding
a “Proud of You, Total Random Stranger” banner can have a very
uplifting effect when you need it most.
As I ran, I thought of Helen, who ran the marathon last year riddled
with cancer and with the aid of two Macmillan nurses. As I felt the
pain, I thought of the bravery of Helen battling the course. I thought
that if she could this, with such health challenges, then these pains
for me should be nothing. She inspired me to be brave and push through,
however much I wanted to give up.
Aside from some very fast chaps from Ethiopia and Kenya, almost everyone
was running for a reason, a cause that they believed in. As I ran, I
watched the other runners – not for insights into technique, but to see
what causes they were running for. They came from the far corners of the
world. And they brought supporters with them too, urging them on with
homemade signs that had taken time and thought to create. There was
something of the positivity of humanity here that you couldn’t help
being overwhelmed by at times. The strangers in the poorest areas
handing you a tissue or a candy – that is what I will carry with me.
IT IS an incredible day: Random strangers becoming best friends. Going
to the very edge of exhaustion but refusing to give in to it. And the
feeling when you limp through the finish line – to get the medal, and
the foil blanket, and the obligatory Prime Grill steak dinner – make it a
day you will never forget. And no matter that I missed out, by five
minutes, on the target I had set myself: 4 hours, 45 minutes; the Monday
New York Times publishes the names of all runners who beat it.
Since finishing I have discovered that Jerusalem is hosting a marathon
for the first time in March. I might currently be on a high and somewhat
irrational, but I look forward to meeting readers there – either
watching or as fellow runners. Take my advice, give it a go.The writer, who lives in London, is
the managing director of Harding Brothers, a specialist cruise line
concessionaire that runs the gift shops on 54 of the world’s most
luxurious cruise ships. Married to Jacqui, with daughters Emily and
Gabriella, he has been improving his fitness over the past couple of
years and always packs his trainers when visiting his offices in Sydney
and Fort Lauderdale.
He ran to raise funds for The Magic
Wand Foundation, a special fund within the UK’s Willow Foundation that
grants special days to adults with terminal cancer. The fund was set up
Helen Bull, a customer of his, who has run several marathons since being
diagnosed with cancer.www.justgiving.com/Harold-Gittelmon