New York Road Runners' Eighteen Mile training run was this Sunday. I was exceptionally nervous to be quite honest. September 17th stood strong in my mind for a number of reasons:
I constantly remind myself to trust my training but eating your own advice when running frantic and late isn't always the best feeling. During the train ride, I attempted to unwind in the middle seat, in which I despise since being the "big girl", by listening to my music while preserving some of my battery life through my portable charger. Once there, I followed a small crowd of frantic runners who were anxiously attempting to make to their respective corrals. Thanks to procrastination and a busy schedule, I darted to race central to pick up my bib and tee shirt. Obviously, I had the same idea as many because I was in line for at least ten minutes. It's been a while since I saw the line this long on race day. Once collecting my items, I checked off my items to baggage and heard the announcement for the staggered start. Guess being a back of the pack girl wasn't such a bad thing after all.
Phone app, check.
I started approximately twenty minutes after the start time, which didn't concern me too much. Beforehand, I made peace with my mind to be forgiving if I couldn't make it through the eighteen miles that awaited me. Unfortunately, I had no idea that I would be dancing in a sea of humidity. For a 7:30AM start in September, it felt disgusting for the first few miles. I allowed Rap Strength Training Radio on Pandora to do its thing and it was like Snoop Dogg was cruising my feet through miles like a gazelle.
Around mile 2 1/2, I noticed a familiar face on the course. My friend James, a fellow runner was volunteering, cheering the flocks of people who ran like colorful ants onto the course. I could beat him with a stick not knowing that it was his birthday but from my short stint of knowing him, it didn't shock me of how humble he was to spend his birthday cheering on exhausted endorphin laced runners like myself on the course. After a selfie and hug, I continued on with my distance knowing that there was someone on the course who I would have to see two more times. It's always intriguing to know that it is small things like this that can keep me going when my mind starts to wander off into the sunset.
The first loop was strangely not terrible. Perhaps it was New York Road Runners' brilliant plan to start the race at 102nd Street versus near the beginning of the 60s of Central Park. Within the first two miles, Cat Hill greets you with open arms. For my non New Yorkers, Cat Hill is a gradual buildup that extends itself for a bit over a half mile. For people who regularly train on hills, this is absolutely nothing. For my short stubby legs and being a 13 to 14 minute pace marathon distance runner, it's truly a holy fucking Christ moment. Sometimes, I have brave moments and I try to convince myself to run but most times, I succumb to the feat of the hill that is annoying as a feisty alley cat living in the projects and scrapping with dogs for respect. I met this hill graciously on my second loop purely off of a runner's high and amazed that I was able to maintain a 12 minute pace.
My spirits were relatively high for the second loop, as there were plenty of water stations waiting for me to touch it and a guaranteed energy gel and Gatorade to keep me out of my head. My music completely bounced back and forth between West Coast Rap to dirty South music. Most times, I'm not much of a rap music fan on my runs but finding a good beat helps at times on my long runs. When I'm deep in thought, I'll choose from a weird selection ranging from Prince to Marilyn Manson and even Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross. Not today. My heart was set on being called a bitch in every other song and while some songs were completely intolerable causing me to skip the track, I enjoyed the slowly shifting tunes that I grew up to in the 80s to late 2000s.
Strangely enough, my mind contemplated quitting around mile 12. My tree trunk size quads burned a bit when hitting mile 13 and while I wasn't fatigued, a part of me was ready for it to be over after that last go round on Cat Hill. I couldn't go back. It's my last loop and even if I quit, I would still have to go back to 102nd Street to pick up my bags, which was less than 5 miles away. Besides, I promised James at the second loop that he would see me. In turn, I opted to continue running.
My stride slowed down to a 14 minute pace after seeing James and soon after, I could feel myself craving to go for a run-walk variation. Perhaps it was seeing that the energy gel table was gone by this point or at one station, the water table was already dismantled. I couldn't focus on Snoop Dogg's Gin and Juice any longer and opted to slide back my headphones, pull the glasses from my face and just cruise.
I wasn't alone in this thought process. In front of me, I saw three women huddled together and without hearing the music, I could hear their strategy to run all of the downhills and speed walk the flats and inclines. Although I never chimed in nor joined their party, I used them as my way through the last five miles. In my mind, they were the all black team. Two slicked back medium length brunettes with matching tops and another with a solid black tee and short hair cut. While they were trying to trek it through as I was, they were my unofficial markers to keep me going. At mile 16, I used a different woman as my target who had a fluorescent pink tee. I conjured up a game in my mind that I needed to pass her to make it to the finish line. Around mile 17, I caught up to her on the pavement and surpassed her. As I inched towards the finish, I felt compelled to speed walk. I knew I was close but it was like my mind was playing tricks on me. Two loops ago, I heard a male announcer who spotted my headphones and called me a running DJ. His voice was no longer there but I could hear a woman speaking from the intercom. The music was in the distance but my feet and mind was partially dead. I needed this race to be over.
Around the 400 meter point, I saw a New York Road Runners official not too far off from the medical tent. Alas, I am exceptionally close the finish line but still didn't feel the urge to run.
"Do you need medical? You're so close..." a cheery slender New York Road Runner rep said to me.
"I'm just waiting for this to be over, sir," I replied back.
"So, are you training for the New York City Marathon?"
"Yes, actually I am but Chicago is first, then New York City and two weeks later, I'll be doing the 60K with you guys."
"Well whoa! I admire your tenacity," he stated while doing a light stride with me to the finish line.
I ran with him across the last 200 meters and boom, I was done. Elated to see a smiling face and for it to be over, I gave him a light sweaty hug and a handshake.
"What's your name by the way?" he asked.
"Latoya! Nice to meet you dear, and yours?"
"Peter. Great to meet you too," as he extends out a generous hand.
My foggy brain managed to remember that the race director for New York Road Runners has the same name.
"Wait, as in Peter the race director?"
"Yes," he chuckled. "Yes, I am" and we turned around to the camera taking a photo together.
"Congrats and good luck with all of your races for this year."
"Thank you and great meeting you!" stammering on my words.
Peter Ciaccia, President and Race Director for New York Road Runners, huh? He is such a really nice and humble guy.
I searched for the bagel that I only managed to make half way through and drunk a few cups of water, then zombie shuffling my way to pick up my bags. I changed my exceptionally drenched race shirt and stretched for ten minutes, taking a few selfies and took it all in: I managed to persevere through an eighteen mile run after a terrible summer.
Race day eve, I told myself that I would dedicate my miles to my friend who's been gone for two years, losing her battle with lupus. I remember Itsrealight for her tenacity and ability to smile through the most unfortunate of circumstances. She beat boxed, opened up for numerous acts and performed with some of the legends. I admired her more for her honesty. One of the best conversations that I had with her was at a restaurant called "Food 4 Thought" in Bedford Stuyvesant after performing on an open mic. She looked at me after the show and stated: "Toya, I know you're angry about a lot of circumstances in your life but what do you plan on doing with it? I can hear the fire and rage in your poems. It's hard to look over it with all of the profanity but how can we, the audience, really see you?" Itsrealight was one of the first poets who forced me to not only question my choice and style of writing but my purpose of life. She strongly urged me without words to persevere. Through her friendship, I learned how to be more than just an angry product of my environment and circumstances. Through this amazing woman, I learned how to persevere. How much do I miss her. For this reason, I dedicated every single last mile to you.
Happy 37th Birthday to you, Natasha Leonore Spence. Thank you for always showing me that this life is really "Light."
In loving memory of
Natasha Leonore "Itsrealight" Spence
September 17, 1980 - June 9, 2015