Participating in the world’s biggest marathon has been on my bucket list for a few years, but it really did not become a significant goal of mine until last spring. It was then that I submitted my lottery entry for the 2016 New York City Marathon, the event’s 40th anniversary. The marathon requires a qualifying time for competitive runners but since I am not an elite athlete there was no guarantee I would get in. For the average runner, like me, who enjoys running as a hobby there is the lottery system. Luckily, I got in!
I had been to the Big Apple a couple of times before, but this trip was exciting and truly memorable, as 21 members of my ever-supportive family accompanied me. Their presence was a treasure in itself.
We spent the first few days in New York City taking in all that we could. But trying to avoid staying up late was necessary and trying to stay off my feet was impossible, for I love roaming the streets of that lively city.
As race day approached, I was beginning to feel the anxiety but with Broadway calling and a visit to 9/11 Memorial a priority my body was not receiving the rest it deserved.
After a few days of exploring, race day, Sunday, Nov. 6, had arrived.
The NYC Marathon is not only world’s largest—more tha 51,000 runners participated this year—but it’s also known as a “party” in the streets.
Rising early that morning, I noticed that the streets were still asleep.
I left the hotel wearing my Raiders' headband, silver JLo hoop earrings, and a custom-made tank top that read, “My family and my students have my back.” (Editor's note: Perez-Picha is an English Language Development (ELD) teacher of first- through eighth-grade students at Spring Grove Elementary School.)
On the way to the subway to Battery Park, I met a fellow runner. We skipped the subway and agreed to split a $5 Lyft car ride. Once at our destination, we boarded one of the many ferries reserved for marathon runners.
The free coffee, carb snacks, and runners' gear I was handed at the ferry terminal left me feeling pretty special. The trip to Staten Island, which is where the marathon starts, was quick and calm.
Anxiety set in when I arrived at the island’s terminal. Thousands of runners maneuvered the stairs and escalators in order to board the many buses that would take us to Fort Wadsworth, a staging area near the starting line.
Tons of police, military personnel, and civilian volunteers greeted us when we reached the fort. So too did thousands of porta-potties—a runner’s best friend.
The scene at the base was amazing, and, at times, comical.
The majority of runners arrive at big race events consuming lots of bananas and dressed in layers of throw-away clothes and blankets. The throw-away items aren’t really tossed, but placed in donation bins before the start or stripped off during the beginning of the run. I donated some gloves, my son’s old Chicago Bulls jacket, and a princess blanket that did a great job keeping my bottom cushioned as I sat for an hour on a curb awaiting my wave line-up.
The race began at 8:30 a.m. Professional wheelchair competitors started first, followed disabled athletes, the professional women’s division, and the professional men’s division.
I started at 10:40 a.m. The starting line is on the Verrazano Bridge, the country’s longest suspension bridge.
As I watched the other groups of runners being ushered on the bridge, I could hear the starting gun. A police helicopter flew overhead, its occupants waving to us from the sky—a surreal moment.
I had read much about the marathon’s history, its route, and how to attack the miles ahead, but being there was magical.
As I was ushered to the starting line, I sipped my last water and anxiously walked toward the bridge. A live performance of the National Anthem and a variety of music that follows awaits every wave of runners.
At the starting line, I heard the song, “Welcome to New York.” Positioning myself next to complete strangers I felt alone, while at the same time I had a sense of belonging.
The sound of two field artillery guns were heard and off I went, a two-mile run up and down the Verrazano Bridge, leaving Staten Island toward the Big Apple!
The miles and minutes were quiet over the 13,700-foot expanse, but once I hit 4th Avenue, thousands of spectators cheered me on, a reception I received at every avenue and street.
Some neighborhoods offered more crowds, but each had children lined up hoping to give out free high-fives. And I did not disappoint!
My biggest thrill was maneuvering my way to make contact with each kiddo that had their hand up. There were plenty of signs offering “Power” if we touched them and a plethora of humorous signs as well, many with political references as the election was two days away.
I fell in love with Brooklyn, daydreaming that I could actually see myself settling there one day. If only I could afford it!
The marathon travels through the city’s five boroughs.
From Staten Island, through Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan, there is a party everywhere and live music of all genres. A choir on the steps of a church brought a smile to my face.
I wore a constant smile until mile 17 and then things became a bit more difficult.
The run takes you over five bridges, the Queensboro being the most challenging. Personally, the bridges were the most difficult part of the race because they lacked an audience and the structures themselves were not made for sneakers to tread on.
My pace began to slow, but I kept going even though my feet ached and my neck grew sore.
To my left and to my right, I saw people succumbing to their injuries, and it was heartbreaking. People traveled from more than 130 countries to participate in the race, and it broke my heart that there were many that had to stop.
I pushed myself harder and thought of the finish. When I made that turn onto 5th Avenue, I realized that Central Park was within a few hundred feet. Overcome with emotion, adrenaline, and pride, I began hyperventilating. At this point, I knew my grand finish was a few miles away. I picked up my pace, wanting to finish strong.
I have been to Central Park a few times, including running its paths days before my race. But entering the park as a runner of the NYC Marathon is life-changing.
The aches and pains I felt miles ago suddenly left my body. I looked ahead, periodically glancing to my right and left in search of my family. Along the last two miles is where I encountered them.
They had strategically placed themselves along the path to the finish line to cheer me on. My hyperventilating returned each time I caught a glimpse of one of them. I had to tell myself to re-focus.
My finish was strong and receiving that beautiful medal was thrilling.
At the end of a typical race, runners quickly meet up with family and friends. But not this one. There was a long, two-mile walk to the exit, which is pretty tough after running 26.2 miles. But it was very controlled and organized.
The entire run occurred under a beautiful, sunny sky. But as soon as my race pace slowed to a walk, the chill set in.
I was so anxious to see my family that the walk to the exit seemed like an eternity.
I was given a commemorative bag filled with fruit, a granola bar, a protein drink, and Gatorade. An apple satisfied my appetite as I enjoyed the beauty of Central Park.
After exchanging calls and text messages with my family members, I finally found them. The emotion of the day swept over us all. Tears of pride and joy surrounded me. Having my three children beside me as I tackled a challenging goal was something to be cherished. After a nice shower, my entourage and I went and celebrated at a wonderful, authentic Italian restaurant in Little Italy.
Unfortunately, we had to leave NYC the next day, Marathon Monday.
Fortunately, my son purchased the New York Times at the airport and we found my name listed in the Special Marathon section. The paper only lists the first 35,000 runners who finished, so I was pretty proud that I made it. I didn’t run my ideal time, but I didn’t care. I thoroughly enjoyed my run and the experiences before, during, and after it. Would I do it again? Yes!
The New York City Marathon is pretty special and if I’m going to put my body through that much intensity again, it would only be for a return to the world’s biggest marathon or perhaps one held overseas.
In 1967, Katherine Switzer became the first woman to compete in the Boston Marathon, despite efforts by the race’s organizer to break her stride by physically removing her from the event. Switzer would later go on to capture the NYC Marathon in 1974.
Switzer once said, “If you lose faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.”
Our bodies are really capable of greatness, and I never lost faith that mine could compete and successfully finish a marathon.