Thinking back on the Suffolk County Marathon Sunday morning, it all just seems like a dream, like those trips your parents took you on when you were too small to know where you were going and your job was just to sit in the back seat and watch the scenery go by.
I was up before dawn, scarfing down oatmeal, walking the dog, filling a cooler with water, Cliff Bars and Gatorade, a nervous wreck but a happy one. I’d planned on a good night’s sleep, but I had known all along that a good night’s sleep had been a pipe dream.
That’s just the way things are.
So, just after 7 a.m., I made it to Heckscher State Park just in time to stretch my legs and smile a little at the starting line of the first-ever Suffolk County Marathon, where I was planning to run the half-marathon.
I was having fun eavesdropping on everyone around me bragging about the workouts they’d crammed in in the past week.
My strategy had been to do nothing all week but write, stretch and jog to the end of the block with the dog. I was pretty confident in this strategy. If six months of trying to squeeze in a run here and there wasn’t enough, I figured, there was nothing I could do in the final week that would make me any more prepared to run 13.1 miles. Except, perhaps, to relax.
The most heartening thing at the starting line was a banner along the side of it that read “Just Finish.” And that’s what I did.
But, I’ve gotta say, this run had its own built-in magic. It was a magic created by a bunch of awesome volunteers, soldiers and veterans who shouted words of encouragement at the runners at every hill, at every mile marker, at every turn, and, especially, in the last two tired miles.
I was near the back of the pack, and we were pacing ourselves pretty well. Everyone around me was just hoping to finish.
There was a crew of social-media loving girls who were thrilled to be making history while running the first-ever Suffolk County half marathon.
There was 18-year-old Thomas and his mom, who just kept plugging away, mile after mile.
There were three soldiers in boots and fatigues with rucksacks on their backs. They mostly walked and sweated. Sometimes they hiked their thumbs under their rucksacks and set off at a jog. They made me want to cry. I never had a chance to serve, and now I’m too old. I was lost in young motherhood while an entire generation grew up in the wake of September 11 and headed out to try to do the right thing by a world that doesn’t really know what a right thing is.
At the top of the first big hill, a volunteer with a floppy fishing hat and a drill sergeant’s bark promised water around the corner. Everyone who thanked him, even if they could barely speak due to the exertion of running and thanking, received a booming “You’re Welcome” in return.
By the time we rounded that curve, we saw the front-runner already heading back toward the park. His name was Anthony Famiglietti and he finished the race in an hour, seven minutes and 31 seconds. It took me nearly three hours. But we were all so excited to see him racing his heart out that we whooped and cheered and you could hear the sound of our celebration as he passed for half a mile down the road. If someone was going to finish soon, it seemed, we stood a chance.
We ran through Oakdale and the staff from the 7-Eleven handed us water. There really wasn’t much else they could do with the road in front of their store closed down to traffic all day.
The antique store’s staff handed us water. Students from Dowling College gave us high fives and Gatorade. Allstate handed out bottles of water. Someone (it’s a blur now) set up a misting tent outside her shop for us to run through and cool off. We ran through St. John’s University and then we ran back into town.
The loop included a neat little detour through the Bayard Cutting Arboretum, which is a very cool place to rest and relax and look at trees, have tea, and all those sorts of things.
But the best thing about the Bayard Cutting Arboretum on Sunday was a volunteer from the Babylon Bike Shop with a sweet-looking ultra-fat-tired bike. Volunteers from the bike shop had led the race from the start.
We were beginning to walk but he encouraged us to run.
“I got you,” he urged us on. “I got you. You can do this! I’ve got your back.”
The couple walking behind me broke into a “Hooah!” and he Hooahed back and suddenly we were all grinning from ear to ear and running and it was all ok.
We headed up a heartbreaking hill. At the top, the water stop was out of cups but the volunteers were handing out full gallons of water and big bottles of Powerade. We didn’t know what to do with these jugs. Most of us just kept running. Some of us held on to them for a while. We were in no condition to guzzle full bottles of Powerade, and we left them, reluctantly, along the side of the road.
There were three more miles to go. A nice woman handed out slices of bananas. A little further along, the medical tent staff were handing out little cups of Swedish Fish. I walked the 11th mile, munching on Swedish Fish. Most of the half-marathon runners I could still see were limping along the road at a snail’s page, just hoping to make it back to their cars.
Then, my legs woke up again. The Army was standing at mile 12 with water for us and I couldn’t let them down. I began to jog. The Babylon bicyclists were back alongside us, shouting encouragement.
“If it hurts to walk and it hurts to run, you might as well run,” they shouted. Fast people began sprinting by me on my right, seeming fresh and fit. They were the top full marathon finishers, just coming in toward home.
I trotted on. Cheerleaders were everywhere here, in bright yellow volunteer shirts, a human countdown to the finish line. The moment I saw that line ahead of me, my legs lept out from under me. I must have passed 20 runners in the last 500 feet, under some power that didn’t even seem to belong to me. It was all I could to to keep from falling into the crowd of photographers at the end.
I sat down in the grass and began laughing. After six months of fear and trepidation, I hadn’t just finished, I’d finished strong. What a day. What a race. Thank you, Suffolk County.