For the past few months, I had been training for my third half marathon. Because I like to incorporate a trip with my half marathons, as a way to celebrate all the hard work, I choose different destinations to run. This year, I chose the More Fitness All Women’s Half Marathon in New York City’s Central Park on Sunday, April 14, 2013.
It was a beautiful morning. A perfect morning to run. The kind of morning I had hoped it would be while training on my treadmill. While Mother Nature delivered her best, my body didn’t cooperate. I had been suffering a terrible sinus infection the two weeks prior to the race, and had three setbacks with different antibiotics that prevented me from running during that time. So my legs were not at their best. And, unbeknownst to me, the effects from the third antibiotic manifested itself the night before my big run with a very painful inflammation of my stomach lining. The run I envisioned having…didn’t happen.
With two hours of sleep, fear that I had food poisoning and would heave or pass out at any moment, I almost didn’t run. Although I traveled to NYC by myself, I do have friends in the area, including my East Coast SB and Foodie SB, so I didn’t feel totally alone. Both SBs sent encouraging texts to me the morning of the run, saying, “Good luck!” and “You can do it!” I responded to both with the news I was up all night and didn’t think I could do it. My Foodie SB told me, “You can do it, Red!” My East Coast SB told me, “You need to go. Even if you end up walking and not finishing, you need to go. It is a beautiful day to enjoy the park. You will be mad at yourself if you don’t at least try.” And he was right. I would have been disappointed in myself if I didn’t try.
So I slowly got ready. I kept telling myself there would be people at the race to help if I needed it. I wasn’t alone. I asked my East Coast SB if it would be okay to call him if I needed him to come and get me. He said, “Of course.” Again, I wasn’t alone. I called my significant other (who was back home in Wisconsin) to let out a good cry and get some more encouragement. He told me he loved me, believed in me, and that I could do it. Still not alone. As I left my hotel to walk to the start line, I had two hopes: I could eat at least one bite of the banana I grabbed, and I could at least finish the race.
I made it to the start line. I scoured the landscape for medical aid…just in case. The energy of the other women injected just enough adrenaline for me to run the first five miles. The other eight went from a spirited walk to a dragging struggle. I was severely lightheaded and dizzy. I could no longer consume the offered Gatorade, lest I wanted an acidic, churning mess in my tummy. I finished, but barely. I cried when I crossed the finish line (more than an hour later than the pace I had been training); said thank you to the volunteer who put my medal around my neck; and collapsed on the grass after getting my banana and Mylar blanket. I starred at the sky for a bit. I needed to sit with gratitude and take in the fact that I actually finished. I sent a text to my significant other telling him I finished. He sent back a big, “I love you!”
After sitting with the fact that my condition was not improving simply because I stopped moving, I knew I had to get back to my hotel. But the two mile walk back seemed more daunting than the 13.1 I just finished. I ate two bites of my banana this time and headed back. I am sure I looked a sight. Running on less than fumes, I wreaked all the grace I could muster as I stood at each red light wrapped in my shiny, logo infused blanket, drenched in sweat and tears. Believe it or not, but I had more strangers talk to me on the streets of NYC, than I had on all of my previous trips combined. They wanted to know how I did. They told me, “Good job!” and “You should feel so proud of yourself!” An older gentleman walked with me for a block, telling me how he runs every morning since his doctor told him it would help him live longer. I thank each and every person who took the time to engage with me because they helped my spirit and gave me enough nergy to help me get back to my hotel.
I got through the rest of the day with the help of my Foodie SB, who stayed with me through a three-bite dinner and movie while my tummy continued to be uncooperative. Keep in mind: I still did not know what was wrong with me at this point. Was it food poisoning? Was it my appendix? Was it left over nervous energy? Regardless, I thank my Foodie SB for staying with me so I didn’t feel so afraid.
The next morning I felt better. I had that euphoric, normal feeling one has after being sick. I felt confident I could visit the museums as planned. But it was short lived. After half a cup of coffee and three bites of a blueberry muffin, I was right back to that ouchy place. Now I was scared. I called my East Coast SB for help. He was calm and encouraging as he provided the information to a walk-in clinic near my hotel. He didn’t judge me when I was obviously freaking out and scared. I called my significant other to let him know of my condition and actions. He also told me to do what I needed to do and to keep him posted. I got to the clinic and that’s when I found out I was suffering from a reaction to my recent medication. This was a relief, despite still feeling awful. They gave me some anti-nausea meds and time and space to have another good cry in their office. I was under strict orders to limit my diet to BRAT…bananas, rice, applesauce and toast. Their care was really wonderful and I send my gratitude.
When I got back to the hotel, I began to feel better. I got myself together to salvage some of the day and headed to MOMA. Because I hadn’t really eaten much in the past 24 hours, I didn’t have a ton of energy. I took in what I could, Starry Night, The Scream, and then headed back to my hotel. On the way back, I had a burst of energy and decided to visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I grew up Catholic, but haven’t been all that religious the past decade or so. I still feel spiritual, connected to something bigger than myself. I just have conflicting feelings about many Catholic doctrines that hinder my drive to be connected to the religion. But I went in. It was Monday at about 1:20 p.m. The cathedral is currently under a major renovation, so there is scaffolding everywhere. Despite this, the building was busy with many visitors walking and praying. It was calming for me. I took moments to let energy find me. I lit a candle. On the way out, I picked up a shamrock at their small gift shop. It was now after 2 p.m. At check out, one of the cashiers told the other there had been a bombing at the Boston Marathon.
I can’t tell you the level of shock that hit me at that moment. I was a runner in the middle of a spiritual moment -- buying a shamrock for crying out loud -- and my mind and heart were stupefied. I walked out of the cathedral in a daze. I made it back to my hotel and turned on the news. It was worse than I feared. I called my significant other to connect. I started getting messages from friends and family hoping I was okay in NYC. The counter terrorism plans were put into action. Police officers were now parked outside my hotel, as with all hotels in NYC. Police cars lined the streets in Times Square. I counted police dogs by the dozen as I took a mile-long walk to meet my East Coast SB for a toast-filled dinner.
I made it to the diner and watched President Obama’s press statement. When my East Coast SB arrived, we hugged and said, “This is ridiculous.” Being the prolific type-A planner that I am, I asked if I could stay with him should my plans to return home the next day be hindered. He said sure, but nothing is going to happen. Being a life-long New Yorker, he’s seen it all and exuded confidence in his statement. That made me feel better, but I was still facing a trip home on high alert.
On the walk back to the hotel, I was feeling well enough to try and eat a cookie. After a day of toast and bananas I needed some other, safe, comforting food. So we stopped at a grocery store to pick up a bag of sugar cookies. These cookies turned out to be magical.
The police officers were still outside my hotel as my East Coast SB and I said our hug-filled good-bye that night. And they were there when I left the next morning for La Guardia. Not knowing what to expect with higher security at the airport, I gave myself plenty of time…three hours’ worth. My East Coast SB told me that would be too much the night before, but I didn’t want to take any chances. On the ride to the airport, I texted both my East Coast and Foodie SBs to say thank you for helping me during my visit. My East Coast SB wished me safe travels. My tummy was still touch and go, so I took some meds to preempt any issues.
I got my bag, got through security with the rest of the weary travelers, bought a water and plain bagel (the closest thing to plain toast), took the long walk to my gate and sat down. I was there so early that the plane prior to mine was just starting to board. It was packed, but I found a seat. Through the flow of people, I had enough time and room to make room for a family of 7-year-old triplets who were rushing to finish their yogurt before boarding. I made it. I was safe.
And then the police officer took the microphone from the gate agent.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we need to evacuate this airport as quickly and orderly as possible. Please take your things and exit the airport.”
In a fog, I grabbed my bag and got in line to leave. People were moving as swiftly as possible as we looked like a lake hitting a dam as hallways constricted our flow to the doors. Police, TSA and airline personnel lined the path out. Because the group I was with was at the farthest gate to the exits, I was one of the last people to leave the airport. Because people kept giving us instructions, I didn’t want to be on the phone to miss any communication. But I was able to send a quick Facebook message, asking friends to call my significant other (who refuses to join Facebook). When we finally reached the exit, we were met by more and more army officers in fatigues. But what caught my attention even more, was the lack of people. No one was in the stores. No one was in the halls. No one was waiting in the security lines. No one was at the ticketing gates. No passengers. No gate agents. Just me, this last group of passengers and the army.
When I got outside the scene was surreal. Thousands of people lined the streets to the upper and lower terminals. I found what I thought was a safe enough place away from the doors and called my significant other. Got his voicemail. So I started taking photos. Photos of mothers trying to juggle small children and luggage without their strollers they already checked. Photos of passengers helping other passengers in wheelchairs or walkers make it outside. Photos of the bomb squad truck parked right in front of me.
In this surreal state, on the heels of the horrific events in Boston, we were mostly calm. No one was yelling. No one was panicking. But we all had questions. We assumed there was a large enough threat to warrant an evacuation, but no one told us what it was. People tried gathering information from their smartphones. No one seemed to be in charge. No one had a megaphone or other means to communicate to all of us. But somehow, we figured out we were supposed to move away from the airport. As thousands of us started walking down the hill towards the parking garage, I continued to take photos. Photos of the police cars. Photos of the pilots walking together. Photos of the sea of people under street signs. I posted them to Facebook so my friends could see what was happening.
It was at this point I decided I would follow the pilots. My thought was they had been on this evacuation rodeo before, and, more than likely, received training on this very scenario. Wherever they stopped, I would stop. You should know that pilots, and airline personnel, go to the farthest point away from the airport. Once I found a spot to sit, on a roadway guardrail just past more police cars and officers, I tried calling my significant other.
I told him I still wasn’t sure what was happening, but word on the street was that there was a bomb scare. I told him I was safe and waiting with thousands of my closest friends. He told me he loved me and to be safe. I texted my East Coast and Foodie SBs to let them know what was going on. Both told me to be safe. I started receiving lovely notes from friends on Facebook telling me the same. A friend who lives not more than 10 minutes from La Guardia told me to call if things change and to come to their house. Again, sitting there by myself, I wasn’t alone.
Not knowing how long we would be outside, I decided to stay off my phone. I started writing down phone numbers on scraps of paper, should my batteries die. I then struck a conversation with two women sitting next to me. They were from Dallas and on their way home. I found their southern drawl very soothing, even comforting. One woman told me they, too, arrived at the airport early…so early that they skipped breakfast. As they were about to check in, a police officer took their ticketing agent aside, whispered something in her ear, and then all terminals shut down. The officer then told everyone to evacuate. She felt lucky that they still had their luggage, because none of us at that point knew how long we would be affected by this evacuation. But more importantly, they didn’t get anything to eat.
I asked her if she wanted a cookie. I will never forget the look she gave me. It was as if I offered her a million dollars. She bit her lip and nodded yes. So I shared my sugar cookies. I told her I hoped it as least helped to take the hunger edge off until we knew something. She thanked me with her wonderful accent.
I didn’t know who he was at the time, but when I was sitting on that guardrail, there was a moment I looked up at found myself in the middle of someone’s camera lens. His mile-long canon lens stood out in a sea of iPhone photographers. It was a little off-putting, but I figured it was a news-worthy moment in a public space. About an hour after we were asked to leave the building, we found ourselves back on the move towards the airport. Again, I didn’t hear anyone make an announcement. I just noticed everyone moving back towards the building and no officers were stopping us from moving forward.
Now for all those folks with kids, and wheelchairs, and walkers, downhill was “easier.” But going uphill, well that made for some moments. I saw many people, strangers, helping one another. A mother with two bags and a sleepy toddler was helped by other mothers; young people offering their arms for steady support for the elderly; strong men helping push strangers in wheelchairs up the hill. That was extremely heartwarming. And again, there wasn’t any yelling. There wasn’t any panicking. I can’t explain it, but at that moment we were a team. And we continued to be a team as we slowly made it back inside; crowded together with again no communication. We worked together to find solutions. We worked together to figure out who needed more time, more help as we eventually made our way back into security lines. I wasn’t alone. I was part of a team.
I struck up conversations with those around me and met a lovely group of New Yorkers on their way to Myrtle Beach for a convention. Turned out they were the New York representatives for Remy Martin. Jim, their 59-year-old team leader, shared stories of his grown children (Kristen, you should call your dad more often, by the way), and photos of his beloved dogs. I was glad they took me under their wing. Our conversations comforted me. I wasn’t alone.
When I made it back to my gate, I was hoping I would finally get some news as to why we had to evacuate. But still, nothing. The plane that was boarding when we were asked to leave, left. My plane was now at the gate and starting to board. All the passengers that didn’t make it on that flight, including the family of 7-year-old triplets, had to find other ways home. The agents were professional. All of my weary teammates and I looked like we needed naps. But we made it on. We made it home.
When we landed, I called my significant other, shared my status on Facebook for all my friends, and texted both my East Coast and Foodie SB to let them know I was home and safe. I was happy to be home. It was that gratitude that allowed the decompression of what I had just experienced, and experienced on the whole trip, to hit. As I walked through General Mitchell to my car, my feet felt like lead; tears starting rolling down my face. Again, I must have looked a sight. But I didn’t care. I decided in that moment that although I told myself in my training this would be my last race…I would start my journey to running a full marathon. Never had I thought I could do a full marathon. But surely, after watching all the helpers in Boston, witnessing all the helpers at La Guardia, experiencing the overwhelming feeling of being on the human race’s team, all my self-doubts and fears could be squashed.
The next morning I saw myself sitting on that guardrail
. The owner of that mile-long canon lens was a photojournalist from the Wall Street Journal
. A tad in shock, I looked at the woman in sunglasses, sitting on that guardrail, and talking on her cell phone in the midst of chaos and had to take a double take. Was that me? Did I really make it through that? And then I saw the two women from Dallas. And then I recognized another person who I saw helping some elderly passengers. And then I was reminded I was on a team. So while others see this photo as part of a news story, it has greater meaning for me. I contacted the reporter and photographer to get a copy. I shared a bit of this same story I am sharing with you and told both that the photo will be a catalyst to propel me in my training for my marathon. For anytime I think I can’t; anytime I start having self-doubts; this photo will remind me that I am not alone. I am part of the human race team. I can do this.
Here’s hoping we all remember we are part of team no matter where we are, or where we go, or what we face. When we choose to jump in and offer a kind word, a sugar cookie, an arm to steady, we become helpers. We become a team. May we never forget this.
As always, stay comfy; be good to yourself, all your Sunday Boyfriends..and your teammates.
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