Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Punching the Unicorn: NYC Marathon Recap

If I'm being perfectly honest with myself (and the two people who might still actually follow this blog), my last post was pretty much crap. Yes, I kept telling myself that I was just approaching this marathon with nothing but gratitude and just go at it to have fun. But really, I had a goal in mind. I wanted to come in within a few minutes of my time last year, 3:50:27. Failing that, I wanted to come in under 4 hours.

If I'm going to continue being honest with myself, I knew going into this race that those things weren't going to happen. The only really good long training run I'd had prior to the marathon was the one that started my taper, two weeks earlier. But, still, ever the optimist, I hoped that the gods of speed, weather, health and legs (you know - Gams, the God of Legs) would be on my side and at my back pushing me forward, keeping me going, and propelling me towards the finish. It seems, instead, I was being watched over by the gods of high expectations and Meh... the God of MEH!

The day started beautifully enough, with only one middle of the night panic wake-up. I got up, ate my oatmeal with banana and honey, got dressed, kissed Jeremy goodbye and grabbed all my stuff as I went downstairs to meet Joe. We drove down the the Upper West Side, parked, and grabbed a cab down to catch the 6:15 ferry. As the ferry made it's way across to Staten Island, the sun was just beginning to rise. It was going to be a beautiful day.

At Ford Wadsworth in Staten Island, I met up with Josh, Matt, Steph, and a bunch of the Team Sasquatch and Team JDRF crew. It was nice to sit amongst friends, sharing last minute anxieties, strategies, gossip and nonsense as we sipped Gatorade, ate Honey Stinger waffles and just took in the amazing energy around us.

When it was time for Wave 2 of the race to start, Steph and I decided we would start together. I warned her, "I might get really quiet and serious. Don't take it personally." "No worries," she assured me. Steph and I sat in the corral, waiting (and peeing a few more times, bringing my pre-race pee total to 8), and chatting. Then, it was time for us to start. As we inched closer to the starting line, good Ol' Blue Eyes started blaring New York, New York over the speakers and my quiet, focused intensity manifested itself in a singing-at-the-top-of-my-lungs-dancing-with-a-chorus-line-kick sort of way. Steph cracked up as I danced and sang along, and I found myself thinking, "Yup, this is all about having fun!"

And then we were off! Over the starting line, on top of the Verrazzano bridge, feeling on top of the world. There is nothing quite as exhilarating as those first few steps over the starting line. Knowing that right now, this moment, getting here and taking these steps are the result of hundreds of hours of hard physical work, dedication, focus and training. The sweat and sacrifice have added up to this.

Before I'd even gotten over the bridge, I took off my arm sleeves and tied them at my waist. While the temperature was perfect, the sun was surprisingly oppressive. Steph called out to me, "I'm boiling. BOILING!" and I nodded, in already sweaty agreement. For the next several miles, Steph and I kept catching up to each other, running together for a bit, losing sight, and then catching up again. I was feeling alright, but early on I knew this was not going to be my day. In spite of the awe-inspiring crowds and incredible energy in Brooklyn, I remember thinking, as I ran up Lafayette Ave., "I don't remember Brooklyn taking this long last year!"

Steph and I found each other again and made our way over the Pulaski Bridge, marking the halfway point and bringing us into our 3rd of the five boroughs. Looking at my watch, I saw that I was pretty far behind my pace from last year. "Okay," I thought, "Let it go and let it just be an extra long training run!" But still, the specter of "What if...?" was floating around in my brain. What if I hadn't had the accident with the cyclist? What if those last few training runs had gone better? What if I'm not going to get any better than this? I started to beat myself up as I ran through Queens. Eyes down, just trying to focus on getting one foot in front of the other, I made my way through Queens. As I moved along, I heard Tavia calling out to me and managed to smile and wave as I went past. Seeing her kept a smile on my face for the next while, as I approached the Queensboro Bridge. As soon as I turned onto the bridge, and began to prepare myself for a tough part of the course, I saw my friend Allen, race bib on, camera in hand, standing on the side of the bridge snapping pictures of runners. "Sharon!" he cried out, and started running along side me. "How're you doing? What's your goal today?" "To finish!" I told him with a grunt. He snapped a picture of me as I ran, and told me that his goal was just to finish as well. Being that Allen is a super-speedy speed demon also recovering from an injury, it made me feel better that he was approaching the marathon with a more realistic approach than I had thus far been able to muster.

Once I got over the bridge, the legendary 1st avenue crowds lived up to their reputation. Screaming, waving signs, balloons, calling out the names of friends and strangers with equal measures of support and admiration. I knew that once I got to 90th and 1st, right around mile 18, I'd be seeing Jeremy, Bojana and Elyssa and that they had something very special for me.

You see, awhile back, some friends and I were engaged in a discussion about what makes some of the NYRR races so ridiculously expensive and what you should rightfully get for the price you pay to run 5 miles in a park you run in for free every other day of the week. "Easy," I replied, "At the end of the race, you get to punch a unicorn." Joe, in particular, ran with the idea of punching a unicorn as being the absolute rarest, most ridiculous thing you can do. At the starting line of the Manhattan half-marathon, back in January, as Joe and I stood in the crowd trying to stay warm in the 12 degree temperature before the start, I asked Joe, "Why are we here again?" "Because," Joe replied, "At the end of this race, we're get to punch a unicorn!" "Yeah! Right in it's smug, glittering mouth!"

Punching the Unicorn has sort of become my motto for the ultimate unattainable feat. And so, as I trudged along 1st Avenue, counting each street sign along the way, I was looking for Jeremy and the girls. And looking. And looking.
And then, there they were. I charged ahead, leapt into the air and punched the unicorn! RIGHT IN IT'S SMUG GLITTERING MOUTH!" Josh was there with them, and started running with me. While seeing them was an incredible boost, I was not feeling very strong at this point. Josh asked me how I was doing and I told him, "I'm not having a very good day." He stayed with me, helping me out at aid stations, telling me to run ahead as he grabbed me a cup of water. At some point between 1st Avenue and the Bronx, I told Josh, "Stay with me, okay? I'm having a real rough time." And he did. Through the Bronx and back into Manhattan I was fatigued and hurting and cranky and just having a bad time. As we ran up the 5th Avenue hill and made our way into Central Park, Josh yelled out "That was awesome! I'm so proud of you!"

"What was?" I muttered. "People were falling apart going up that hill, but you didn't quit! You were passing them left and right." I'm pretty sure I managed a smile. But really, I wanted to be one of those people limping off to the side and walking. I just wanted to phone it in the rest of the way. Except, of course, I didn't really wanted that. I wanted to punch that unicorn! Throughout the park, people were supportive, yelling out my name, cheering me on. I could barely hear them over the sound of Jeremy's voice in my head, telling me, "You're tougher than you think, baby." One voice broke through, suddenly, the lovely Erica Sara, calling my name. I looked up, out of the noise, beyond the pain and with a grimace on my face, managed a half-smile at Erica. The rest of the race is a blur. Jeremy's voice became distant in my head as my own inner voice just started screaming, "DON'T YOU DARE FRIGGIN' WALK! THERE IS NO WALKING!! NOOOOO WALKING!" About 100 yards before the finish, Josh grabbed my hand, snapping me out of my internal scream-alogue and told me, "You did it." He ran just a few feet ahead of me and I raised my hands in the air as I crossed the finish line.

Later that evening, as friends old and new gathered together in an Upper East Side bar to share war stories and whiskey, I think we each had a moment where we looked around and realized how grateful we were for each and every step, however triumphant, however painful, that we've run together. Each step gives us a better perspective with which to appreciate what it is we each put into these endeavors. And even if we're out there running without anyone else in sight, we're a team. And before that, we're a family.

My official time was 4:02:28. Yes, I'm disappointed. Yes, I'm aware that given the pretty serious injuries I've been dealing with I should just shut the hell up about that and be grateful that I ran the marathon. Kai put it very simply, when he said "You were fuc*ing brutally injured a few months ago, so shut up." I'm taking that advice. I'm allowing myself to realize that just because the best I had that day wasn't the best I could have done, the accomplishment is no less valid. If anything, I'm stronger today than I was when I crossed the starting line. And most of all, from this, I've learned that when life hands you lemons, punch a unicorn. IN IT'S SMUG, GLITTERY MOUTH.

(Race photos by Allen G. and Elyssa G.)


  1. This is why you're a hero of mine, what an amazing story. I'm proud to know you.

  2. Boom boom pow, take that unicorn face!

  3. Love your recap! You did awesome out there and I can't believe how far you've come since your accident.

  4. Yay! I'm so proud of you! What an amazing day!
    (It's Lindsay, I don't have any of the accounts listed.)

  5. All things considered that is a HELL of a race Sharon! Also, I may have to adopt "punch the unicorn" into my own training lexicon :) CONGRATS!

  6. "Each step gives us a better perspective with which to appreciate what it is we each put into these endeavors." yes! ...this!!

    You are a warrior and an inspiration, you were down but never let that stop you. There is no doubt that the future will continue to challenge and you will continue kicking unicorn nuts. Congratulations and recover well!!!

  7. This has got to be one of the best Marathon Recaps that I have read thus far. A big Congratulations! I read the previous post about the injury and all, and you are one tough runner. Thanks for sharing your experience. I am anonymous because I am at work, and work won't let me sign in, but I am a follower of your blog.

    Kenley essenceofrunning.blogspot.com


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