The Marathon

(November 4th, 2014)

It was all hustle and rush to get to the start line. We huddled up and waved as our names were called. Lots of pictures were taken. They started counting down. In the last second the cameraman jumped away. We were off.

Pretending not to be cold at the start!
The race starts climbing immediately. Usually runners wade through each other in a continuous mass over the entire Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. We left the start line and entered into emptiness. It was surreal. We weren’t completely alone. A car with a camera trained on us led for a little while and was replaced by a cameraman precariously perched on the back of a moped. We ran in close to each other as instructed. I pulled up my shorts again. And he snapped his picture.

On the Verrazano.
 Me, Luis, Judith, Michael, John, and Michele (John's Guide)
On the bridge we also had a couple of cops on motorcycles escorting us, but they quickly dropped out and were replaced by two escorts on bicycles. They kept us up-to-date on the elite men and women. They stayed with us till the halfway point.

Once we were off the bridge I started to warm up. In the first few miles the crowds were sparse, but the energy of my teammates was so strong that they cheered for the random spectators. With each block more and more people watched. It was fun when it was small. We were going so slowly that we could actually talk back and forth. I saw S first. I have her a hug. I saw C on 19th Street. She and her husband held a sign. I ran up and gave them a big hug before running on. Who doesn’t love a sweaty hug?

C's sign with the infamous "chicostick." 
The elite women caught us just before mile 6. We moved to one side as the cars and escorts came by. We yelled as loudly as we could for the moment they were next to us. And then we were all alone again. The men caught us just before mile 10. It was similar except that I was almost run over by a motorcycle. And then we were alone again. Slowly one or two more runners would catch us – and then small groups. As I climbed the Queensboro bridge I was still being past by clumps. And by the time I came down into First Avenue I was caught in the stream.

But I get ahead of myself. We spent a long time in Brooklyn. The crowds got thicker and the cheering better. I saw A and C: more sweaty hugs. I couldn’t help but smile as people took pictures, screamed at us, and cheered us on. I kept laughing at how much fun I was having. Our group split into two. I held back and ran with Judith while the boys ran ahead. We didn’t drift too far behind save a few times. Usually the three others would stop and let us catch them at the next checkpoint. Once or twice they ran back to us. So when I say the crowds were cheering for us it really was true. Most of the time it was just the two of us surrounded by hundreds of cheering people. It was a blast.

I’m not sure why so many wanted to take pictures of us.

At the halfway point the other teammates ran back to us and then took off. I finished with Judith and said goodbye. As I plodded on one of our escorts came to say goodbye. He was startled to see me smiling so much – and said so. I guess he thought I was having a harder time. And in a way I was. I was very happy, but I had no energy to accelerate. So I just kept going. And from there on the race became much more a solo effort.

As I entered First Avenue I saw John and Andrews with their signs. More sweaty hugs were in order. But seeing as both are terrified of bathing too often I didn’t think they’d mind. I had told them that I would break them if they said anything of the sort like, “You are almost done!” So instead they made a sign saying, “You have so so so much more to do!” It was great.

The crowds were thick on First Avenue. I actually missed a few friends in the mix. Everyone says that the crowds cheer so well that you get huge boosts of adrenaline. I was warned against going too fast here. Perhaps it was because I was already so tired, or maybe because I had amazing crowd support through the entire race, but I didn’t feel any bump. I did however catch a delightful surprise, and perhaps the best sight, save the finish line. I saw my newly met neighbors.

After the marathon opening ceremonies on Friday night, John, Andrews, and I decided to go watch some of the Village Halloween parade. As we stepped out of the apartment we saw the nuns that live next door. They were out celebrating “All Saints Eve” by passing out hot apple cider and candy. As they were in front of my house, and since I can’t say no to cider we took some. We chatted. I mentioned the race. They were very excited and asked all about my training. They wanted to know when I’d pass by. They said they should make a sign. I said, “Well, my name is Andrew!” And we went on our way.

Andrews was the first to say it. “Did you see that? Some of those nuns were beautiful! And young!” John agreed. I had in fact noticed this some time before. As they are always in their habits, they stand out in the street. “Movies would have you believe that all nuns are old, sad women,” I said. “But some women choose to be nuns.”

I had migrated to the middle of First Avenue so I could visit the Fred’s Team cheerers outside the hospital. But right at 66th Street I heard my name being yelled. And there in the thick sea of people stood 8-9 nuns at the front, in full habit, cheering and waving, and carrying a sign: “Go Andrew!” I was so surprised. I waved and yelled, and blew a kiss. I didn’t know what to do exactly. Is it even appropriate to blow a kiss to a line of brides-of-Christ? But they blew kisses back. I really wish I had a picture of them lined up on the side. I can’t wait to pass them on the street and thank them.

I saw a few more friends and I high fived all the Fred’s Team cheerers. And then I kept slogging on. It was getting rather rough for me. Somewhere in the 80s or 90s I started wondering how much farther till I reached the Bronx. This was the first time that I thought about distance. I grabbed water at every water stop and here on First Avenue I ran into D volunteering and passing out water! He cheered and yelled at me. I thought I had smiled back and done something, but yesterday he texted and said he wasn’t sure I had recognized him. I must have been more out of it than I expected.

Not much happened in the Bronx. I saw the 20-mile mark and started to ask myself if I felt any “wall.” I couldn’t tell a change. Sadly, the Bronx, much like Queens and Staten Island, gets short changed on mileage. In a moment we were back into Manhattan. On the 5th Avenue bridge I ran into J and T and their dog. I hugged and they ran alongside, as there was no crowd.

And then things get a bit fuzzy. I noticed each water stop was covered with littered paper cups. More and more people were passing me. And everyone passing was running really fast. I did pass a few people. But these were the injured runners. It was a bit sad to realize that their day had ended so badly. But most were racing all around me. Some even pumped up the crowd as we went up the hill of 5th avenue. Here, for the second time, I wondered how much farther I had to go.

I positioned myself to receive any boost from the Fred’s Team group at the park entrance. But I didn’t recognize any of them. I pumped my arm and yelled Fred’s Team, but I don’t think they knew I was one of them. My Fred’s Team tattoos were a bit small. And then I entered the park.

I thought back to all of our training runs. I remembered sprinting this last distance over and over. I hoped that some deep level of mental training would help me pick up the pace even a little bit. Nothing came. I lost all sense of my surroundings. Somewhere on Cat Hill I passed Luis. I didn’t even see him. I heard the crowd yell out “Queens” and I looked back and saw him just behind me.

I don’t remember leaving the park. At Columbus circle I started to worry that I was going to collapse, or faint. My mind wasn’t coherent and I could keep my eyes open. Everything felt really weird. I felt drunk. I couldn’t focus my eyes. And then I realized I wasn’t breathing. It was as if my subconscious mind was shutting off basic functions. I had to mentally think of breathing in and out. I took two or so breaths and stopped again. I breathed a few more times and I guess the fit passed. I heard the loud speaker announce that “Andrew Lawton, representing Manhattan in the Foot Locker Five Borough Challenge is finishing.” I threw my hands and smiled as much as possible. There were cameras all around after all. And then I crossed the finish line and was done.

Yesterday I found some footage of runners finishing. I went to the time that I crossed the line. I heard the announcer say my name. And I was shocked to see that I didn’t raise my hands until five or six seconds had passed! My mind was clearly not working at full pace.

Our Foot Locker leader extraordinaire, Gabi, met me at the finish and helped me off the course and draped me in the warm blanket and found me food and Gatorade. There were many people from NYRR and Foot Locker who helped me as well. Unfortunately I couldn’t keep who was who straight. I met a lot of lovely people who worked on the marathon. And everyone that I met was ridiculously nice to me. I wish I was better with names. I saw some of them multiple times at the expo, the parade, and the race. And now I have no way to express my gratitude.

Gabi, holding me upright
And just like that my whirlwind adventure with mild fame was over. Gabi had gone off in search of Judith. Michael was with his family celebrating, and Luis, John and I sat over a bit of food. I was too tired to eat more and I was too cold to sit around. We said goodbye and I started my adventure of walking home.

President and CEO of Foot Locker, Jake Jacobs,
and Olympian Carrie Tollefson award Michael the Trophy.
I would love to say that I thought of all of you supporting me as I crossed the finish line. But I didn’t. I didn’t think much of anything at that point. But I have thought much about you since then. I keep realizing what all of this running has meant to me. The doctors healed my body, but I think this cancer had taken a toll on my mind as well. In a very real way this running has helped me feel like me again. I feel so much more whole.

The marathon was hard. It was really hard. I never reached a point where I felt sure I’d finish. But then, last year was hard too. Last year I stood on the other side of the metal barrier. I was alone and sad and starting a long, hard, and uncertain journey. I do not know why I lived, why my life was spared, and why others were not. And I guess I will continue to work through my survivor guilt with my support group. But here I am. Here I am having finished a marathon. What a year.

I would ask one more thing from all of you who have so lovingly supported me through this run and through his year. Soon after starting treatment I decided I wouldn’t freak out. I wanted to still live my life in the way I had felt called to live. I wanted to love God, love others, and to enjoy this life given to me. So I ask that you will pray that I remember and live in this way long after this year has faded into fabled memory.

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