Growing up, staying in shape is easy. For me, my age, various jobs and daily neighborhood kickball kept me on the move. Being in shape was simply a product of waking up in the morning and being myself. There was never a thought about it.
What I failed to understand at the time was that I was blessed with a phenomenal metabolism; a Muhammed-Ali-I-Am-The-Greatest type of metabolism. It kept me looking like this while Connie and Troy Zak served seconds at the dinner table.
But one of the early-20s realizations that finally made sense in 2014 was that my once-undefeated metabolism had peaked. It fought the good fight for about 15 years, standing alone as a complement to an active lifestyle. Much like Jordan with the Wizards, it was still good, but not quite enough. As pitfalls like NETFLIX haunt your ambition, and certain (read: pathetic) eating and drinking habits amplify the situation, you reach a breaking point with your body.
I arrived there sometime in early July 2014, needing to get into shape. Fate took hold.
It was during lunch at Time Inc. when a co-worker very casually mentioned that Sports Illustrated held spots in the New York City Marathon. My ears picked up what four others muffled as rubbish.
A marathon. The marathon. The freakin’ New York City freakin’ Marathon. I could run the New York City Marathon. Hot damn I needed to do this. This would get me back in shape because, duh, people don’t run 26.2 miles unless they’re already in shape. So a marathon it is.
The initial excitement that follows entering anything (job hunt, apartment search, cereal box sweepstakes, etc.) carried me blindly to online registration, right up to the checkout.
$260 is the price for entering the New York City Marathon—$260!—and you pay it three months before race day. When a significant portion of your paycheck is allocated to future pain, you meet an odd sense of perpetual discomfort.
Big deal, I thought. “I’m young, mobile and really only have a landlord to answer to,” I told myself (a.k.a there’s no stopping me). How hard can a marathon actually be? I’m athletic, piece of cake.
Naivety at its finest.
A survey of any marathon field proves that “athletic” is not criterion. “In shape” is, but athletic is definitely not. Every age, weight, shape, etc. is found running the New York City Marathon. Athleticism is, at best, a nice complement to being in shape. Nonetheless, I had three months to get in marathon shape.
Spoiler alert: never did.
The training was as basic as it gets. A few 5-mile runs defined my evenings while something like 12-15 miles made up my Sunday mornings. This seemed adequate to a first time marathoner (Note: first time marathoners are dangerous people, for a number of reasons). On race day, I’d rely on pure emotion and adrenaline to finish the final 10 miles or so. Meanwhile, the aforementioned co-worker from Sports Illustrated was running twice as much on a strict training regimen. (Note: DO THIS.)
Eventually those long runs become easier. However, they require planning and drastically cut into what I like to call my “social life.” When you read “social life,” think “go out in Manhattan” and when you read “go out in Manhattan” think “drink an abundance of alcohol, dance your shoes off, make bar close like it’s your job and stumble to the nearest pizza-by-the-slice shop before shamefully collapsing into your full-size mattress.” Who am I to deny myself that pleasure? So in early August, I made the decision (or rather, my friends made the decision for me) that I would not let this marathon thing ruin my “social life.”
After all, remember, I’m athletic.
I recalled those innocent words the night before the race as I laid to sleep on a buddy’s leather couch—yes, a couch, the result of not finishing an apartment hunt pre-race. Six hours later, I woke up on that couch. RACE DAY WAS HERE.
Roll off the couch, smack my cheeks with some tap water, pack up the goods, open the door and get smacked around a little more by 37 degrees of wind and rain. Mother Nature, seriously, thanks for everything. You’re the best. Those temps would rise to a balmy 42 degrees by the start of the race, the coldest start temperature in 20 years. Tight. It was at this point, hours before I would start running, the marathon had turned from a fun experiment into a survival test. Not. Good.
More than 50,000 people run this thing every November, all of them starting on Staten Island. You can imagine the traffic jam it creates trying to start such a gigantic race. Runners are ushered to different areas with different paths that lead to the same bridge—the big-ass Verrazano Bridge, our first wind-whipping hurdle.
The event volunteers continually say “Good luck with your race” to everyone that passes them. I’m over here thinking “THIS AIN’T A RACE. THIS IS ABOUT SURVIVAL.” So we stood huddled at those gates for an hour (which feels like four), pounding complimentary Gatorade and energy bars, filled with anticipation, anxiety, excitement and regret. Sign me up for that last one—regret times infinity.
A large video board like the kind you see in football stadiums displayed a live stream of the race. Thousands of shivering amateurs waiting/lamenting, watch the board (because there’s nothing else to do) as it shows the actual competitors trying to win the damn thing—the crazy people who cruise through a morning marathon like I cruise through a morning omelet. Alongside the live stream were other factoids and stats, like start times, routes and that running a marathon burns enough calories to consume 15 hamburgers.
“What a great excuse for my next week,” I thought, prematurely. Couldn’t think about food yet, unfortunately. I promised myself that once I pounded the complimentary bagel near the start, I wouldn’t think about food until at least Mile 23. That seemed fair, but oh, so many damn miles away. Lets think elsewhere. Lets listen to some music.
For more than a month I had a certain song picked out. “No Sleep ‘til Brooklyn” by the Beastie Boys was perfect, a mix of equal parts rebellion and timely motivation. Unfortunately, the Beastie Boys never played for me that day.
Rookie mistake. Such a damn rookie mistake. I actually didn’t lose the earbuds, but I had forgotten them in the bag that UPS delivers from Staten Island to the finish line in Central Park. It was too late to reclaim my music. What else had I forgotten in that bag? Oh yeah, my second pair of socks; the extra layer between my already calloused feet and my barely operative Nike Frees. Is it really too late to give up and try again in 2015? Sadly.
As the more competitive runners began their race, the less competitive fools like myself inch step-by-step on our death march to the starting line. The huddled crowd turns into huddled lines without enough room to spin around. Forget about stretching or a warm-up. At this point my cold, unprepared body has me smiling and maniacally laughing out loud. It’s go time and there’s nothing you can do about it, Sean.
The freakin’ New York City freakin’ Marathon. Frank Sinatra’s “New York” bellowed through the start-line speakers. (“Start spreading the news, I’m dying today…” was an appropriate remix.) Unfortunately, as we trod onto the bridge and 35 mile per hour winds push you left and right and left again, the anticipation Sinatra built quickly fades. 26.1 to go. For now, it was about surviving the bridge, then surviving Brooklyn. Brooklyn is difficult. It’s lengthy, unchanging, early in the race, etc. However, Brooklyn is where the groupies start. Almost immediately following descent from the bridge, there are friends and family lining the race route. They have signs, costumes, jokes and all kinds of encouragement. They both distract and inspire you to keep running. It’s a good thing, too, because my shoes didn’t want me to run much further. With 21 miles to go…
I had run with blisters before, but I hadn’t run 21 MILES with blisters before. Whatever man; you woke up on a couch this morning. You also drank a little too much alcohol ALL WEEKEND LONG in Chicago three weeks ago. You’re already a champion. Nothing about this was going to be perfect. It’s going to be small victories that keep you moving forward, like this one…
Someone just yelled “Great Mustache!” +10 — Sean Zak (@sean_zak) November 2, 2014
Half a minute later I noticed another marathoner with a much better mustache running directly behind me. Bastard stomped all over my mini parade. This mustache fiasco was the least of my concerns. After 6.5 miles—25 percent of the race—each additional mile gets longer and longer. Cudos to those folks who can keep a steady pace. Bravo.
At Mile 15, you cross into Manhattan and the final few stages of the race. First test? Another gigantic hurdle called the Queensboro Bridge. It’s that golden and brown bridge that is threatened to be blown up by Bane’s bad guys in The Dark Night Rises. Just like the people of Gotham in that movie, I was surviving.
My mind was fully into this marathon thing. “Fans” on the sidewalks. Weather improving. Music at each corner (love me some Michael Jackson mid run). The mind was there, but the body soon decided it wasn’t. At about Mile 16…
And Mile 20…
But I wasn’t the only one cramping. On the bridge from Manhattan to the Bronx, one runner 15 feet in front of me started screaming from the pain, limping into my lane and causing me to pause my (now slow) jog. I made my greatest quick-thinking decision of the day: I stopped to help him.
He was Paul from Illinois, but he was much more than that to me. Paul from Illinois became the perfect excuse to rest. It appeared like good samaritan Sean from Wisconsin was helping Paul from Illinois stretch those quivering calves, but I was honestly just giving my own a break. There is no shame in this.
With about six miles left, Paul from Illinois told me to move on. “Don’t sacrifice your race time on my behalf, man,” he said, which made me laugh out loud. “I stopped caring about my race time in September, bro.” I thought. But thanks, Paul from Illinois, it’s been real. Gotta finish this thing. But first…
It was a Sunday after all. I had to make sure DeMarco Murray was running harder than I was. My motivation was waning, and so were my morals.
And then, all the motivation I ever needed.
I didn’t know this woman. She didn’t know me. It didn’t matter (but the fact that she was still holding the sign meant I wasn’t the slowest Sean running that day. +10 points for me). She spelled my name correctly, used my favorite color and raised my beaten spirit at the 21-mile mark, when walking seemed the ultimate solution to blisters and cramps and aches, etc.
This woman wasn’t my only friend at the marathon, thankfully. Sarah Smith promised she would be at the 24-mile mark, and while that was a complete lie, she and her roommates were at the 24 ¾ mark, holding signs that I was too dazed to comprehend.
Clutch, another great excuse to pause my jog. But hugs and small talk last only a few seconds when you’re running a damn race.
It had been years since pain forced me to tears, but I felt it in this moment. Here I was at 22 years old on the edge of breaking down. My body did not want to keep moving. 1.5 miles seemed a lot like 15.
However, for the second time that day, I heard “Great mustache,” and this time, it was directed at me. Mr. Fancy Mustache was nowhere to be found. He probably finished an hour ago, but I didn’t care; my smile stretched that ‘stache wider and wider. Small victories.
Near the finish line are grandstands and hundreds of strangers gushing out congratulations. It’s the kind of setting that makes you feel like a champ even if your finish time renders you a chump. 200 yards to go. 100 yards to go. 50 yards. 10 yards. Boom. It’s over.
I cussed quietly to myself and gingerly crossed that finish line. Somehow my legs got me 26.2 miles from Staten Island. Let’s do this thing differently next time.
The whole “in shape” thing didn’t last long. Over the holidays you could find me on the basketball court, bending over to catch my breath. Oh well. It remains an accomplishment.
Throughout the week following the marathon, friends and coworkers reached out with congratulations. Most of them were surprised and said “I didn’t know you were a runner, Sean!” To this, I generally answered “You didn’t see me struggling to the finish line.”
I took off work the next day. If you asked me to run to the end of the driveway, I would have laughed in your face. My experiment was over and I was given a nice little prize to remember it A runner I am not, but a marathoner? Sure, I guess so.