Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Marathon

Right, instalment 1 of the New York tales. First up, I have to say that it was the most amazing experience of my life, on so many levels. Not just for the race day experience, although that was the best marathon I've ever run in terms of enjoyment and the sense of achievement, but for what I learned about myself, how I interact with other people, how teams work, what matters to me, and where I want to be. And also, because of the sheer amount of fun I had. I managed to leave my current troubles at home surprisingly well, and it was lovely to have a chance to let my hair down for a while.

But first up, it's time to talk running. Or the marathon part of the running, a couple of us also ran the International Friendship Run on the Saturday, and we went out for a team jog round Central Park on the Thursday we arrived (or five out of six of us did, but that's a different subject), but the marathon was the big one.

The first thing we had to deal with was how early the start was. The clocks changing did give us a welcome extra hour in bed, but having to meet in the hotel reception at 5am for a race that started over 5 hours later was excessively early. But to get over the bridge to the start that's the time we had to leave to get the buses, so that's the time we met. Matt's parents cycled to the buses, Matt, some carers and Chris got a lift from one of the guys at Team Reeve (or at least his driver), and the rest of us walked. We were on the AWD (Athletes with Disabilities) buses, and had to clamber over wheelchairs to get to some seats. Most of the people on the bus were in racing chairs, and going off in the early starts, but because the bus was accessible we were put on it too, even though we were on the main start. The bikes made it on too, as I don't think Chris and Glenda fancied cycling to the start as well as the 26.2 miles back!

At the start there was then a fair amount of hanging around. It was pretty cold, and I'd bought some cheap tracksuit bottoms to wear over my running kit, as well as my Achilles Guide t-shirt and a space blanket. I wasn't officially running in the marathon, and if you look in the official results you won't find my name. I was registered as a guide, rather than as a runner. Of the seven of us, Matt was registered as a runner, three of the other runners were registered under their names, and three of us were registered as Matt's guides. We still got all the goodies at the expo - the finishers t-shirt, and the medal at the end as long as we finished with the person who we were meant to be guiding, but it was made clear that we were running for the disabled athlete, not for ourselves, and the way we were registered reinforced that. If we were caught running without our athlete, or finishing without him, we could be removed from the course and denied our medal. We had no right to be there without him, and we had to look after him if we wanted that medal!

The start area was huge, although we didn't do that much exploring, both to save energy and also because Matt couldn't get onto the grassed areas anyway. I probably ate a bit more than I sometimes do before a mara, because I knew that I would be on my feet for longer, and I wouldn't be pushing myself as hard to mess my stomach up if I ate too much. Plus the bagels at the start were free...

There was another reason for the lack of exploration at the start. It quickly became clear that the battery in the chair was running down far quicker than expected. Matt had been up even earlier than us to get ready for the race, and before the start he was worried about how little power he had left. The original plan had been to change batteries at 13 miles, and we had Matt the wheelchair guy waiting there with batteries for us, but Matt was worried that he wouldn't make it. There were a couple of frantic calls before the start, and at one point I was worried that Matt wouldn't want to start at all, it took a bit of persuasion for him to take it one mile at a time, and to see what happened.

Unlike the Great North Run where we were right at the front, although we let the faster runners go past before filtering out, this time the race director wanted us to start right at the back. The main reason for this was the bikes, they were very worried about letting the bikes onto the course at all, and they wanted us at the back so we didn't get in the way. But we still seemed to get over the start faster than I expected, and certainly faster than if you're at the back of FLM or the GNR. The start really was spectacular. I'd seen the Verrazano Narrows Bridge from the Staten Island Ferry a couple of days earlier, but I hadn't been expecting the weather on the day to be so perfect, and the views back towards Manhattan to be so spectacular. That really gave us a sense of where we were, and where we were going, and sent a tingle down the spine.

At first we were OK, and were overtaking runners quite nicely. But the situation with the battery was never far from our minds and we tried to get in touch with the wheelchair guy and get him somewhere earlier on the course. There were constant frantic phone calls, as he tried to work out how he could get closer to us when all the roads were closed, and a surge of runners was coming up it. We kept on going, but Matt was getting more and more worried. We started to give the chair a helping hand. Gently at first, more as reassurance than as a significant form of propulsion, but more strenuously as time went on. As one of the stronger, more experienced runners I felt like I should take on a large part of the burden and let other people concentrate on running, so I tended to stick behind the chair, pushing it, with the help of one other person, with the others switching responsibility between them.

Matt was getting worried about it. He knew that we were slowing, and asked us to stop at the side of the road. The wheelchair guy wasn't in sight, and he knew that the chair wouldn't make it to him. This isn't a lightweight, racing wheelchair, by the way. I think when it was being loaded onto the plane they said that it was about 160kg, and that's without Matt's weight and the weight of the ventilator. It's a chunky piece of kit. Matt told us to go on without him because we were slowing him down. At this point there was a universal chorus of nos. We were a team, and the only reason we were there was for Matt. Matt couldn't simply follow us at his own speed, because he needed people with him. The three guides amongst us couldn't go on ahead anyway because our only right to run was if we ran with him, and none of us had gone into the race intending to race it. We had gone into the race to get Matt to the finish, and we told him that if he pulled out, then so would we. After a nervous few moments, Matt agreed to go on, although he still wasn't happy about the battery situation.

To be honest, I don't remember too many details up to mile 11. I remember frantic phone calls, and I remember pushing the chair. I remember our BBC camera crew catching up with us at about the 5k mark, taking a shot as we ran past, then sprinting down the road to try again. There are occasional snippets, the gospel choir in Brooklyn, the eerily quiet Jewish area, the guy racing on artificial legs who was sitting at the side of the road adjusting them. The Team Reeve runners who ran past us and cheered us, having met us at a lunch event the previous day. The crowds. But mainly I was focussing on reassuring Matt that if the worst came to the worst we would carry on pushing him, and telling him that the new batteries would come before any of us were willing to give up.

Then finally, the call we had been waiting for. In a flash of inspired, but unorthodox thinking, Matt found a way to transport himself and the batteries towards us. Sunday was the first, and very likely the only, time I'll ever be rescued at mile 11 of a marathon by a short cockney wheelchair mechanic in a rickshaw. We found out where he was waiting, which was a mere block or two away, and let out a huge sigh of relief when we saw the rickshaw parked up in a side street. It turns out that Matt had had the ride of his life from his driver, Mo, across football fields, with games in progress, along busy roads, and over bridges. But they'd made it, and in his excitement to get started with the battery change Matt managed to fall out of the rickshaw rather than stepping out gracefully...

But our relief was short lived. As we took the opportunity to take on some food, some of us turned round and saw what had probably not been too far behind us, but which we'd been blissfully unaware of. A police car with the sweeper bus behind it. I hadn't actually read the race booklet before the race - because I wasn't registered to run as such I hadn't been sent a copy of it. But even though the finish line was open until something like 8 hours, the sweep bus was travelling at 6:30 pace. If the roads were re-opened we simply wouldn't have been able to carry on on the pavement, with the constant ups and downs. We needed to be on the road, and we needed the roads to be closed. While Matt worked on the batteries, a party was sent to the police car to beg for time. They succeeded. We got two minutes, and a bit of leeway beyond that when they saw that we were almost done. Disaster averted, we set off again.

Relieved of the responsibility for pushing, it was time to start enjoying the race. We were very much at the back of the race, and maybe the crowds as well as the race itself were thinner than they had been a couple of hours earlier, but the crowds that were there, and the runners around us, went wild when they saw us coming through. We started overtaking people who had gone past us while we'd been pushing the chair, and we got a bit of confidence. We had a few good miles, and got into a rhythm. Being in a thinner crowd there was less need to send people ahead to clear other people out of the way for Matt, so we could just weave a path through, and concentrate on enjoying the atmosphere and keeping everyone's spirits up. The stronger runners concentrated on winding the crowds up, so that the slower ones could take the benefit of it, and concentrate on running. I say running, for me it was a pace that I could power walk or jog, and I switched between the two, but some of the girls did need to run to keep up with us.

We went over the Queensboro Bridge, and knew that we had the BBC waiting at the end for us, to take some more "action" shots, and to do an interview once we'd passed the half way point. We did a bit of GNR inspired singing while we were going through the bridge, but I started to notice that one of the girls was falling back. She'd fractured her elbow and hadn't been able to train as much as she'd have liked, and was starting to struggle. I dropped back to check that she was OK, and made sure that other people knew to keep an eye on her. We got to the end of the bridge, did the interviews, and headed up first avenue.

This was by far my favourite part of the race. I really could concentrate on enjoying the crowds. Past the bars there was a lot of noise anyway, but when they saw Matt coming they went up a notch. Then we cheered back and they got even louder. It really did make us feel like heroes. People were asking what Matt was called, although I felt for the kids who didn't understand why he didn't high five them when they wanted him to. A couple of us went to the side of the road to hug a guy with a sign saying "free hugs here", we did high fives, we got given sweets, and it was fantastic. However, all the girl who was struggling kept on saying was that it stretched out a long, long way in front of us, and that there was a long way to go.

Having recovered from his own "I want to drop out" spell, Matt was in his element, and had started to focus on the rest of us. He was constantly checking how Laura was, adjusting his pace to let her catch up, and making sure that after our determination that we'd finish as a team, we did that. Laura was a star. I've never seen anyone with such a look of determination on her face. You could see the pain by looking at her, but you could also see that there was no way she was going to give up. She was a little behind, but never out of sight, and never left on her own, through the Bronx and then back into Manhattan and down 5th Avenue towards the park. As the pace got more comfortable, there was time for more of a chat with the other runners. There was Larry the Lighthouse, there was a bloke from Bedford, there was a bloke running in military uniform who kept saluting us (you can see him on the video the BBC did). And, on 5th Avenue there was a woman who came up to us to say that she'd seen one of the features on Matt on TV before she came out, and that she was so pleased to have met us.

Meanwhile, I was doing all the atmosphere, enjoyment type things that I don't normally get to do in races. Doing an aeroplane run down 5th Avenue, singing along with the bands, clapping my arms above my head, enjoying the party. Checking on Matt, checking on Laura, and persuading everyone that four miles isn't that far really. It was starting to go dark, and it was getting colder, but the end was in sight and we were going to make it, even if we had to carry or push people.

Having made up some ground on the sweeper bus, it seemed to catch us up as we got into Central Park, but never overtook us. I was aware of the lights, but knew that by this stage, reopening the roads wasn't such a concern, and that we were going to make it.

Or were we. At about mile 24 Matt's ventilator gave a worrying sounding bleep. The main battery had gone, and it had switched to internal power. It was still working, but it made us aware that we were up against time issues. We didn't have the luxury of being able to take as long as we wanted. We weren't running for a time as such, but we needed to finish before the batteries gave out. At this point we needed to make decisions. We'd been keeping the pace slow to make sure that we didn't drop Laura, and Matt was adamant that we wouldn't cross the line without her. But we needed to get Matt there as soon as possible. We couldn't put his life in danger. Our compromise was to pick the pace up a bit, and hope she'd respond. If not, we'd get as close to the finish line as we could, and wait, in the knowledge that at least we were there, with carers waiting for us on the other side, if the situation got tenser.

When you spend time with Matt you look past his disability. He's such a strong personality, and he defies his limitations to such an extent, that you sometimes forget how fragile he is. Running those last two miles with the ventilator beeping was a powerful reminder of why people in his condition don't tend to compete in marathons.

We got to the 26 mile marker, and slowed to wait for Laura and the others who had gone back to help her keep going. She hadn't dropped too far behind, and caught up with us in time for a final push for the line. Her words as we approached the line were memorable, but part of a different story, for another day. As we came up to the line there was a slight incline, and Matt asked me if I'd push him. If you look at the finish photos or the video the BBC did (linked below and well worth a look) you'll see me pushing that chair over the line (probably to the mortification of the wheelchair guy who wanted to use the run as a powerful advert for what the chair could do), and I was honoured to be asked.

Our official time was 6:48:40, closer to 7 hours than our original 6 hour limit, but not too bad considering the situation with the battery. Matt, his parents and the carers embarked on a desperate dash to the hotel to get him sorted out (I had been worried that the course actually went very close to the hotel in the last mile, and that we might have needed to pull out at that point for his health, which would have been heartbreaking having got him all that way), I unpinned Laura's number and got someone to take her back (ironically in a rickshaw, transportation of choice when the roads are closed, clearly!) while I went to collect the bags and made my own way back.

And then, having felt fine all the way round, I had one drink in the hotel on the way for a meal after the race and promptly fainted. I don't know whether it was the length of time on my feet, or not paying as much attention as normal to taking my dextrose tablets with having so many other things to think about, but it wasn't pretty. One of the other runners was a nurse, and took my pulse and sent Matt the wheelchair guy to get something sweet, like Kendal Mint Cake. He came back from the bar with a cocktail. Ah well, it was a very sweet one...


Blogger Shauna said...

bloody amazing... i'm lost for words :)

9:51 PM  
Blogger Rev said...

This is just an amazing account, and I can't wait to read more about it. What an honor and a great experience to be able to accompany M. I've been checking and rechecking your blog every day to see if you've posted and here you are ! Now I'm off to watch the video...

3:14 AM  
Blogger Lightning said...

You deserve more than a medal, lass!

11:25 AM  
Blogger Brenda said...

I am so thrilled for all of you. Thanks so much for sharing such a wonderful detailed account.
Way to go!

2:13 PM  
Blogger Amanda said...

YP that was an amazing story of the run you took part in. How amazing that must have been to cross the finish line after the troubles you had along the way. That must have been a once in a lifetime experience! Do you think you would ever participate again in New York? I am happy for you and everyone who helped Matt on the day. Well done to you all. :)

8:28 AM  
Blogger Linda said...

Thankyou for sharing this with us - you are such an inspiration :)

10:46 AM  

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