by Angela Ortiz
There are few moments in my life where I can sincerely say that I completely surprised myself, and surpassed my own expectations. Last Sunday was one of those days.
I was awake long before my alarm went off on Sunday morning. I’d set my alarm for 4AM, but at three in the morning, I rolled over, alert, and stared at the clock. One more hour before I could get up. Too excited to sleep, my mind played through the various scenarios the coming day might deliver. I had a good feeling, but I’d been restless and fidgety for the past two weeks. I knew my training had been solid. I had managed to stay healthy. Everything had, more or less, fallen into place. All that was left was the race, and I was itching to get to the start line. I just wanted to try.
NYRR was kind enough to accept me into the sub-elite field this year, the highlight of which is the police-escorted bus caravan that carries the elites (and us lucky mortals) from midtown to the holding area at the Ocean Breeze Athletic Complex in Staten Island. As we made our way out of the Battery Tunnel and up onto the BQE, I looked over my shoulder and out of the window. The sun was coming up behind the bright gray haze over New York Harbor. I caught a quick glimpse of the Red Hook track, and my mind flashed back to the countless workouts I’d done there over the past year, often sharing the track with third grade gym classes from a nearby school. They did their best to steer clear of lane one, and sometimes they’d even cheer me on: “Don’t slow down, lady! You’re almost there!”
I put my headphones in, and pressed play on the pre-race playlist that I’d meticulously assembled the night before. Time to focus.
At the warm-up track in Staten Island, I passed the time with teammate and local hero, Taeya Konishi-Schogel. Taeya somehow finds the time to shoehorn training into long, exacting workweeks, around kids’ birthday parties, family obligations, and travelling. I don’t think I will ever understand how she finds the time or energy to do it. An inspiration.
We chatted and pretended not to watch Shalane warming up with Emily Infeld, or Mary Keitany and Edna Kiplagat chatting while slowly jogging around us. Or Matt Centrowitz munching on a bagel behind us, or Jared Ward laying down on the bleachers to our left. We tried to stay focused and get our warm up in while Wilson Kipsang, Lelisa Desisa, and Meb jogged past us. Ho-hum, just a normal day. NBD.
9:53 AM, the start cannons go off. I planned on the first mile being slow, because the second mile is always a bit fast. Settle in after mile three, I told myself. Just stay calm and confident through Phase One: Brooklyn.
Back in July, the NBR team captains were kind enough to allow me to take one of the last team spots. Part of my reason for wanting to run this year was the anticipation of that incredible charge you get when you run through this city. I’ve lived here since I was a teenager. It’s my home. Everyone that runs New York talks about the spirit, the vitality, and the warmth of the spectators along the course. That unmistakable intensity is why I don’t think there is any race that can compare. It’s just one gigantic party. Everyone’s smiling, everyone’s energized, everyone is your neighbor.
I saw and waved at countless friends throughout Brooklyn: Laura, Emma, MK, James, Teresa, Miguel, Becca, Diana, Marie, Sue, Shawn, Masha, Chris, the entire NBR water table at mile twelve, Lucie, Katie W., Jennuh (and so many more that I didn’t see but heard shouting my name). I smiled so much that my face hurt. My husband Dimitri cheered me on at mile seven, our first of three agreed upon checkpoints along the course, and I glanced at my watch. I was going a few ticks faster than I had planned, so I put the brakes on.
I had to keep slowing myself down at the beginning of every mile from about four to thirteen. My body naturally wanted to settle into a faster rhythm. I purposely interrupted that rhythm every time I slowed, which felt unnatural at the time, but in retrospect it was exactly what was needed. The second half of NY is notoriously brutal, and what I saved in miles four through thirteen, I would have later.
I don’t remember Queens at all, but I remember the singular silence of the Queensboro Bridge. Footfalls and breathing, footfalls and breathing. In a minute we would be approaching my favorite part of the race. You can hear the screaming and cheering from First Avenue at the top of the on-ramp to the Queensboro, but you can’t see anything for another twenty seconds until you make the turn off the bridge. When you finally fly around the corner, the roar is truly deafening. After the relative quiet of the bridge, the intensity of the sound on First Ave. knocks you out of whatever pain cave you’ve burrowed into. Your focus pulls out - and it’s not just you anymore, it’s you and tens of thousands of people out there on the street, celebrating, supporting, and moving each other along. I couldn’t stop smiling, bolstered by the crowd and so relieved to be up and over the Queensboro. The bridge was the first real speed bump in my head, and now it was behind me. Phase Two was next: The Bronx.
Still feeling good, I unintentionally dropped some faster miles between 17-18 and had to warn myself not to get too excited - there was still a lot of race left. Upon passing Dimitri Checkpoint #2 at mile 18, I leveled my gaze towards the Willis Avenue Bridge. Get up and over it and into the Bronx, I thought. Find the Puerto Rican flags and give a fist pump. Not much time is spent in the Bronx during the race, but on the two random industrial side-street blocks in the Bronx, I spotted Brenn Jones and Mike Stermer, both providing a much-needed boost at in a place that would’ve otherwise been silent.
Upon seeing the clock at mile 20 I calculated that I needed to run a 40-minute 10K to run sub-2:45. I was feeling pretty comfortable at 6:10 pace still, and for a second, I allowed myself to feel the excitement of what was happening. Am I actually doing this? I didn’t dwell on it. I quickly blotted that thought out and returned my focus back to my cadence. I reminded myself that this race wasn’t over. I hadn’t earned it yet. I still had to make it through the final, most challenging section of the race - Phase Three: FIfth Ave. I passed the last Dimitri Checkpoint at mile 22, and readied myself to fight.
When people ask me why I run, I never have a great answer. But I guess, for me, it has something to do with control. I don’t pretend to have any real-life power or influence, nor do I seek it out. But when I’m running, I’m in control. I have final authority over myself. It’s me making every decision. It’s me who has the power to speed up or slow down. It’s me who decides if this is going to be a good or bad day. The time on the clock at the finish, however arbitrary, was determined by me.
Most people will tell you that the long uphill between miles 23-24 can break you. I won’t lie. I had my first real glimmer of doubt here. I started to feel my hamstrings tighten, and my quads feel heavy - the first time in the race I’d felt the sting of the previous miles. But I knew this would happen. I told myself that the pain made perfect sense, and I reminded myself that I was in control. I decide when to stop fighting. I kept my eyes up and focused on the big, colorful Jumbotron at the 90th street entrance to the park and repeated “Relax. Breathe down. Just get to the park.” I refused to let one little mile break me.
More crowds of unbelievably loud cheering as I made the right turn into Central Park. At mile 24 I told myself it was time to stop looking at my watch and just run. Dimitri and I had joked earlier on in the week that my mantra for the race would be “Uphills are the new downhills.” It’s completely ridiculous and makes absolutely no sense, but it came to mind as I ran down Cat Hill for once, after struggling up it so many times during training. I also summoned the memory I had filed away that morning on the bus: those track sessions at Red Hook, negative splitting intervals in the heat, the kids cheering me on: “Don’t slow down, lady! You’re almost there!”. I thought back to the Dimitri-supported long runs I’d done on this same road a few weeks back. I concentrated on relentless cadence, keeping form. I refused to dwell on what was not there. The only thing that deserved my attention at that moment was the strength that I had left.
At mile 25.5 I caught sight of Kalli White and Eve Marenghi leaning over the barricade, cheering noticeably louder than everyone else (a unique accomplishment on 59th street). They are both talented and dedicated runners in their own right, but injuries kept them from the start line this year. Seeing their joy and support in the final mile, despite the bitter sweetness of having to watch a race they were originally slated to run, gave me tremendous heart. It’s never lost on me how much of a role team support plays in the marathon journey, and seeing them there underscored the fact that running a marathon is not a solo endeavor. I’m grateful I am able to have a coach who put together a great training cycle, to the people at Nike who helped organize Project Moonshot, and for my teammates, friends and family. I’m also very lucky to have a husband that supports my constant craving for naps and food, who will gladly bike alongside me for 22 miles while I request various beverages from him as my energy crumbles and my ability to be civil withers. I considered all of this as I ran the slight uphill of 59th street towards the finish line.
On the last turn back into Central Park, I miscalculated how long it would take me to run the remaining 400m to the finish. Catching a glimpse of the clock at high 2:41ish, I panicked for the first time in the race and thought I wouldn’t be able to run that last 400m in three minutes, so I sprinted with everything I had left up that last little hill. This was the first time being bad at math has ever been a relief to me.
I crossed the finish line and bent over, overwhelmed with emotion, exhaustion, disbelief. I stood up to see Alex Walsh coming towards me for a hug. I congratulated him and Jack Mulvaney who had also finished around me, and basked in the drizzly glow of my post-marathon stupor.
I was done. One of the scenarios that I saw unfolding in my mind, as I laid in bed wide-awake at 3am that morning, had just taken place. It was the best-case scenario, and no one was more surprised than me.
I dealt with pesky injuries this past spring and then had the first ever DNF of my life earlier this year in Boston. I tried for two years to qualify for the Olympic Trials in 2016 and came up short three times. I took most of 2016 off, not really sure that I wanted to race again. I started to think earlier this year that I was done getting faster, that the inevitable march of age and time was finally forcing me into lock step. Two weeks ago if you had asked me if I was going to qualify for the Olympic trials I would’ve probably answered in the negative. I’ve come to accept that, you know, many times things just don’t work out - despite your best efforts.
And then, sometimes they do.
I guess that’s why you keep putting forth your best effort, right?
Isn’t life funny?