The 2009 ING New York City Marathon was truly an amazing experience. I raced NYC this year as part of Ethan Zohn’s charitable organization Grassroot Soccer (GRS) which raises funds for AIDS and HIV education and awareness. Our team raised a combined $150,000 for the cause. My race weekend was yet another great adventurous chapter in a book that just seems to get better and better every year. I knew I really wasn’t in great marathon shape. But knew I had enough base mileage to get through it without issue or injury.
My wife MG and I pulled into the NYC on Saturday afternoon and headed straight the to the race expo to grab my number and goodies. The expo was my first indication that the New York City marathon is much more than a race. This was a multi cultural, multinational event. A happening. We needed a few minutes to just get our bearings and understand the lay of the land at the expo and which cattle shoot I needed to be in to be “processed”. We made it through and then it was off to the Hudson Hotel to meet Ethan and a few other Grassroot Soccer folks.
After a quick text message from Ethan we found ourselves on the 18th floor of the Hudson Hotel where we connected with Ethan and Becky Hooper who is the right hand administrative genius of GRS. Ethan seemed excited and pumped for race weekend and was proud of his team and of the wide array of GRS / Nike logo clothing that was available for the runners and spread out all over the tables of the room. We picked out all of my “shtuff” and then hung out for a little while taking some pictures and just taking in the excitement. Although Ethan and I have been emailing and talking for much of the year, this was our first chance to actually meet face to face. It took me all of about 5 seconds to realize that Ethan Zohn is gifted in a very special way. He is in the middle of a very tough treatment protocol for his lymphoma, yet he has this aura about him that exudes strength, peace, hope, and happiness. The man doesn’t know how to speak without smiling. And it is obvious that his smile has very deep roots.
We left the Hudson to head up to West Harrison NY where we would spend the night with my wife’s sister Donna, her husband Bill, and their kids. After hanging out with everyone for a bit and enjoying a great dinner I settled in front of the TV to catch a couple innings of the Phillies vs. Yankees World Series game before hitting the hay. A rain delay foiled that plan and I headed off to bed around 9 PM in anticipation of my 3:30 AM wake up. BUT…. While lying in bed, I received a text message from my buddy John Anderson saying that the Phillies game was on! So, I just had to go back downstairs to watch a couple of innings. But a couple of innings was all that I could handle. I needed to put my nervous energy to rest for a few hours.
3:30 AM came early on race morning. But with the clock change, I felt more rested than I expected I would. I downed a Power Bar and a bottle of Hammer Perpetuem and MG, Donna, and I headed back into the city to meet Ethan and some teammates for a prerace breakfast at 5 AM. Keep in mind, the race was the day after Halloween. The day after Halloween at 5 AM is still the night OF Halloween for many New Yorkers. And this was proven by the many characters and costumes that we saw at the diner who had yet to make it home from the night before. We enjoyed a bite of breakfast and met yet more teammates and members of Ethan’s vast support crew, including longtime girlfriend Jenna Morasca. Jenna has been very public in her support of Ethan’s fight against cancer. Also joining us for breakfast was a film crew from the Discovery Channel who was documenting the journey.
After breakfast it was time to take a few team pictures and then board the chartered bus which would take us to the start of the race on Staten Island. The Discovery crew made the bus trip as well. Ethan also had fun with his camcorder to capture some of the memories. At one point “E” and his camera landed next to me and he said “Brown, you always have something good to say….. what advice to you have?” My advice was to try not to focus too much on today’s finish line. It was going to be a very long and tough day filled with a lot of magic and plenty to see and enjoy. I suggested that people open their eyes to what is right in front of them and not stress out about when they will be done. And then I offered that same advice as a metaphor for life as well.
By about 7:30 AM the bus had reached it’s destination and we all piled out and began what felt like a 5 mile trek to our actual starting area. I enjoyed the walk and the time spent though as I walked and hung out with teammate Ryan Sutter and got to know a little more about him and his passion for multisport racing and in particular XTERRA racing. We talked a lot about the significance of racing for charitable organizations and “reasons” above and beyond the challenge of the event itself. We also talked about racing the long stuff like ironman and came to the conclusion that it’s so much better to be slow because you get a better value for your race entry fee.
My wave wasn’t scheduled to start until 10:20 but I hung out and took in all of the sights and sounds that have made this race such a world wide attraction. Finally it was our turn to make our way into the start corrals and onto the Verrazano bridge. By this time, the GRS team was all spread out pretty thin. We all had different starting points and waves so I wasn’t sure who I would see, if anyone, once that race actually started. I was quite pleasantly surprised when I ran into teammate Ben Quigley on the bridge and we ran the first several miles together chatting about – everything.
I ran a decent first half of the race and then pulled out the camera I was carrying and took lots of pics. I met some amazing people along the way. I saw one girl in a Team In Training shirt eating a banana while running. I looked over at her and gave her a thumbs up for the TNT shirt. She thought I wanted some banana and offered me half. When I shook her off and told her about my affiliation with TNT, and that I was a survivor, she told me that she had just lost her father to leukemia and then started to cry. So we walked and chatted for a little bit…. And then plodded on.
I was also wearing my Philadelphia Phillies visor and would from time to time run over near the spectator lined curbs and point to my hat to try to rally some cheers. Ironically, the New Yorkers didn’t seem to care and I even got a handful of Phillies cheers. I wasn’t quite as vocal when I ran through the Bronx. Along the way I was exchanging high fives with countless people. Kids, adults, cops, fire fighters, you name it.
I had a number of emotional moments of my own simply due to the enormity of the event and the insanity of the crowd support. Music played everywhere throughout all five boroughs. First Ave was unbelievable as was Central Park. I passed two more women also wearing Team In Training shirts. On the back of their shirts were the words “For our DAD”. That hit me and I vowed to myself that no daughter of mine will EVER run in any kind of an event needing to do it in memory of their father. I passed the women and high fived them both as my sunglasses hid the wells forming in my eyes.
Although this was career marathon number 18 for me, I had never done a race this massive so I didn’t know what the finish line would be like or how difficult it might be to be reunited with family. For that reason, I carried my cell phone with me in a small fanny pack (with my camera and Power Bar). The plan was that I would call or text MG at mile 20 to give her a good idea of when I should be finishing. I pulled out my phone and saw a text from her that she and Bill were at mile 25 on the right hand side of the road. I plodded onward. When I hit mile 25, my eyes sifted through the sea of faces and waving arms. I wondered if I would even see MG and Bill through all of the people. But, there they were … both yelling and screaming for me. I cruised over closer to say hi and then made my way to finish the last 1 mile, 385 yards of my journey.
As I neared the finish line the crowd noise became even louder and more intense. I started to pick up signs that the finish was 800 meters away, and then 400, and then 200, ….100. And then the finish line was in sight. I managed to pick up the pace a little as I made it across the finish with a smile. Next to me was a young girl who also just finished and was sobbing. I looked at her and asked her if she was okay and she just said “I’m great, this is just so emotional”. I just smiled and congratulated her as we walked arm in arm for a minute as finisher medals were placed around our necks.
All in all, I just cannot say enough about the weekend. I had the opportunity to race in one of the world’s most well known marathons. I was lucky enough to have met and connected with a number of new friends. Our team raised $150k for AIDS/HIV education and awareness. And I was able to share it all with family. A family that continues to be so amazingly supportive of my efforts.
So, I ask the question again, does this fairy tale life get any better?