Discovering my limits at the New York City Marathon

Learning how to push myself to the brink of mental and physical exhaustion

Matt trained for months in preparation of running the New York City Marathon.

Turning the corner onto Lafayette Avenue, I looked at my arm. 

It was covered in goosebumps for the sixth time in the last 50 minutes. I’d been counting. Two hours later, the pain had set in and I was incapable of thinking anything so small. At that moment, there were 26.2 miles of the New York Marathon behind and I was crossing the finish line in Central Park. 

It was a long time coming—eight months and three hours to be exact—of turning pain into more pain.

The idea of running the New York Marathon came up last February. I’d put my name in the lottery after my mother said she was going to participate for another year—she and my dad had temporarily moved to the city for work. When I got the email that night, I ran around my house yelling to my mom on the phone. 

I’d wanted to run a marathon for a long time, but didn’t think it’d happen at 20 years old.

But it was a wait of eight months, and my excitement settled. It was always in the back of my mind, but I frittered July and August away with work over the summer leaving me with over two months to prepare.

I arrived in Kingston on a hot summer day in Frosh Week, and my training cycle began. Four days of the week were for relaxed 10 to 12 kilometre runs, and Friday afternoons were dedicated to the famed long run, which varied from 24 to 32 kilometres depending on the week.

I won’t sugarcoat this with any false motivation: the training wasn’t glamorous.

The long runs were lonely—my playlist ran dry and, as one would expect, not many other people want to spend their afternoon trying to pretend Kingston is a runner’s playground. Sometimes I’d pause the music to let myself think, but after two hours of running alone, even life’s biggest questions get boring.

I was tired a lot. After scheduling my long runs for Friday afternoon, I spent the following nights with my legs up on a wall. I saw my friends less and pulled back on social drinking. Sometimes I’d play Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” to try to fire myself up again.

The training changed  my lifestyle—I felt better than usual. Drinking less alcohol and more water cleared my brain, the constant activity made for beautiful sleeps, and my running shoes became my full-time therapist.

Needless to say, preparing for this marathon was a needed slap in the face. When the time came for my two-week taper—the period before a race where your body gets some much-needed rest and muscles fully recover—I welcomed it with open arms.

Next thing I knew, I was on the Staten Island ferry headed to the start line.

The journey to the start line is long but majestic—it makes your heart pump a little quicker, watching the Manhattan skyline shrink in the sunrise as the inevitability of the race dawns on you. The Statue of Liberty skirts by and leads to a bus ride into a small town that feels like the middle of nowhere, making me realize how immense this task was. 

After standing in line for the porta-potty and reading the race plan I’d written on my left forearm, I was ushered into a packed corral and onto the Verrazzano-Narrows bridge. I peeled off my last layers of throw-away clothes as spectators sang the anthem and played “New York, New York.”

Before I could take so much as a deep breath, the starting cannon went off.

I’d been told a lot of things before Sunday’s race. There were two that were true.

The first: nobody cheers for a marathon like New Yorkers. Those goosebumps I mentioned—New York did that. Around every corner was a sea of locals screaming, kids putting their hands out for high-fives, and bands 

playing on the side of the road. It was the reason I didn’t pack headphones with me; I wanted to soak in every moment.

The second: nothing can prepare you for the final 10 kilometres of a marathon. 

I ran the first half of the race with that in the back of my mind, but it didn’t show in my times. I ran my fastest half marathon ever and was almost 15 minutes ahead of pace when I hit halfway. It was as if I wasn’t even using my legs. I felt like a god. 

And then, I felt like hell. 

I hit the Queensboro bridge, where participants commonly start to feel the distance in their legs—otherwise known as the runner’s wall. The crowds disappeared. My watch lost touch with its GPS, and I could finally hear my breathing. It was getting heavier, as were my legs. I didn’t walk at any point during those moments, but the phrase “respect the distance” started to resonate a little stronger crossing that bridge. 

The final 10 kilometres made for the hardest hour of my life. I’ve never felt a pain that strong; my hips struggled to drive my knees forward, my quads screamed, and my feet felt like they had pine needles stabbing them.

When my hearing dwindled and brain dulled, I looked at my wrist. It read, “don’t stop,” all underlined. But it was time to burn the blueprint—I wasn’t ready to come home with the jacket I bought if it wasn’t accompanied with a finishers medal. I took a moment to catch my breath, then caught the eye of someone in the crowd. They looked at me and yelled to get going.

This process repeated once every kilometre until the final 1000 metres were in sight. I’m not sure I would’ve finished if it weren’t for those moments.

The finish line was a blur. I hobbled forward, trying to soak in the feeling of thousands of people pushing me across the line. I dropped to a knee as I stopped my watch and exited the finisher’s area.

The sweetest moment was seeing my dad and mom, after they finished the race. Running a marathon together had been our dream ever since I’d watched my mom run in the Boston Marathon four years earlier—we gave each other monstrous hugs and spent the next three hours breaking down every kilometre of the race.

While people often run for a reason, be it a cause or a special person, it’s a dreadfully lonely sport. A lot of marathon training is personal. You subscribe to a work ethic and hope the pieces come together on the right day. 

But when you’re trying to squeeze your way through a crowd of 50,000 strangers with not a single familiar face on the sidelines, there’s loneliness.

For me, this was a process of seeking limits. I wanted to know, with a sufficient amount of work put in, what I could do. I wanted to find out what my body—and what ultimately turned out to be my mind—could endure. It was a personal experiment to test my capabilities. In that sense, I think it was a success.

I wanted to know, with a sufficient amount of work put in, what I could do.

My dad told me I was smiling during the last 200 metres. I don’t remember it. Some small part of me thinks I wasn’t smiling through the pain, but at it.

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