YES! I completed the marathon- one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I did better than I expected and exceeded all my goals: physical, emotional, psychological and philanthropic. Many of you were there to cheer me along the route and dozens of others called, emailed and texted me in support. Thank you. I feel fantastic about my accomplishment: re-invented, overjoyed, inspired, cleansed and humbled. Yes, humbled; some of the sights I saw on the streets on New York City during the race were lessons in humanity.
On the corner ahead a group of bagpipers are rapturously blowing a forgotten tune, and on the other side of the road a band fronted by someone who looks like an Ayatollah is shrieking out a punk rock anthem. Runners from Fred’s Team fly by loudly cheered by fans, and then I hear someone, in fact a chorus of voices, shouting “RUN NUSRAT!!! Looking good, Nusrat!!!” Startled, I look behind to see who they might be rooting for, and then I realize my name is on my TFK vest and strangers are screaming out their lungs for me. This is the magic of New York City. Then I am on Lafayette Street and see my friends Howard, Carolina and Sumeet applauding me, and further on, Michael with his newborn son, and people I haven’t met for years, waving, blowing kisses, offering water, singing songs.
STILL STRONG. The school band on the corner is playing the theme from Rocky. The road is narrow and jammed with sweating bodies about to combust, and girls are waving from windows of brownstones on either side as if to say goodbye to soldiers who will never return from war. I somehow miss my family in the crowd. We are in Williamsburg and I’ve run 10 miles. There’s no pain in my knees or back, or maybe I’ve ignored it.
Miles 10 to 20. Hasidic kids with apple cheeks are handing out brightly colored candy. This traditionally reserved community has opened its hearts to the runners today. Its men and women, in their long black coats and serene hats, are clapping and cheering, displaying an unexpected passion that is beautiful to see. Run Nusrat Run. Men being pushed in wheelchairs, deaf runners, Kate’s grandma and grandpa running together for the first time (it says on their t-shirts), a Chinese monk in a robe and sneakers, barefoot hippies and Kenyan athletes, Larry the Lighthouse, a giant banana sprinting past a wobbly pineapple and several members of the Achilles Team. Blind runners with their guides, I see them all running for a reason, maybe reasons beyond themselves.
Thousands of participants are raising money or awareness for causes they believe in. Human beings rising and becoming gigantic, beautiful in their superhuman effort, invincible and without limits for a few hours and perhaps forever, and immortal for 26.2 miles. I see faces changing along the way- fear disappearing, uncertainty morphing into confidence. I can do this. I can do anything. The world cannot stop me. And I see my own struggles, my tiny effort at doing good, my apprehensions, small victories and big defeats in context of life’s great pageant. Life is bigger than me. And it’s so much richer than we allow it to be, stuck inside our little worlds. I need to realize this everyday.
HALF WAY THERE. We are climbing Pulaski Bridge, running past the half-marathon mark. It’s a different race now. I feel strong but a little patch of pain starts to stain my lower back. I might have imagined it. I glance to my left at small boats painted on the river. The Manhattan skyline is slanted and blurry. Sweat in my eyes. It’s probably midnight in India. My mom would not have slept. She must be up worrying if I’ll make it, outwardly afraid, secretly proud. Long Island City seems desolate somehow, like a scene from Steven Soderberg’s movie Traffic, despite the women holding out plates with cut oranges, the crowds, and local musicians.
Fatigue is beginning to creep up my legs. My goal is to complete the race, I tell myself. A blind runner crosses me, then a man pushing a wheelchair, and several TFK runners. The Queensboro Bridge dissolves into view. I’ve run on it before. An elderly woman trips and falls ahead of me, onlookers rush to carry her off the road. Will she get up and continue, I wonder. The ache in my back is real now. In fact it’s a red hot band gripping me from behind. We are turning into the bridge, around 15 miles in. I reach into my shorts and pop 2 capsules of Aleve into my mouth while grabbing a cup of Gatorade from the hydration station. It’s gonna disappear, I tell myself.
PAIN. We are on the lower level of the bridge. It is dark and the river is a panoramic strip of film on my left side. The blind runners cannot tell the difference, I think to myself. Or can they? Suddenly alarms and flashing lights behind us, as an emergency response team speeds up the ramp. Can the deaf folks hear this? They have guides with them, I realize. Many runners have collapsed or gotten injured on the bridge. The pain is now a shark biting off the right side of my torso. I slow down. Always with the pain comes the memory of people who have deserted me, run me over, deceived and demolished me. Always, as I kill the pain I banish their ghosts and emerge victorious. I put my headphones back on. Dylan’s Can You Please Crawl Out Of Your Window, sung by The Hold Steady.
“Can you please crawl out your window?
The bridge ends and the exit ramp curves into bright light, into Manhattan, and a sea of faces smiling, shouting. I forget the pain again and run up First Avenue. I see my family near 67th street, waving wildly. A pause and a kiss and the adrenalin takes me again. There are others I am supposed to look out for: Trish, Richard and Rachel. The road is broad and gently sloping up at this point. Many runners are beginning to falter, slow down. Some are walking. The crowds are louder though, they know this is the toughest part. “Maria, You Are A Star”, a poster proclaims. “You can do it, Nusrat!” a stranger shouts. Can I? The pain returns and my energy level is plummeting. A woman offers me a banana and I take it. I wonder if I will finish in 6-7 hours and forever be embarrassed.
SECOND WIND. Miles 20 to 26.2. We’re in the Bronx, in the middle of “the wall” and a giant TV screen catches runners fighting pain and exhaustion. A silver endorphin rush is melting into my bloodstream like heroin. I glance at my watch. It’s a little over 4 hours since I started. At this rate I will finish in 5.10. I still have a chance to come in under 5 hours. Can I do it? I am not tired. I test my back with my hands. It hurts like hell but my mind is fighting it, and winning. I start to sprint. The road is crowded and slippery with water, Gatorade and plastic cups. I have to be careful not to skid. My legs are holding up and my arms begin to pump air. Sweat burns my eyes.
On Fifth Avenue the crowd is pressed together closely, intensely focused on the human spectacle, still shouting encouragement but also marveling at the sight of us idiotically defying nature. I zig zag in and out of the crowd. My biggest challenge is how to get through the people. I am running like the wind and everything else is in slow motion. Led Zep’s Kashmir comes on but I pull my headphones off. Nothing can get in the way now; I need to focus every thought, every breath on reaching the end as fast as I can. Central Park, my dear friend, I have traversed your hills many times, so carry me gently now. Faces are blurring, the trees swaying to a music I cannot hear.
FINISH LINE. Streamers in the wind. Mile 25. Central Park West. We used to crash here somewhere on the benches, exhausted. An army of bodies wildly beseeching the runners to complete. I can’t hear anything. Pain is gripping my body like a fire, “Nusrat!!!” I hear a voice as if in a dream, I turn around and Sujit is waving from the crowd. I am going away in a space shuttle I think I hear myself say. I can hear my footsteps on the road fall like drumbeats, thump, thump, thump. I have a few minutes left. I will do it, I can do it. 200 yards left. I see the finish line; I pull forward on the incline. Waves crashing relentlessly on a rock. Nothing can stop me. Serenity descends on the park. The road is on fire. It’s surreal. I am nearly there, my arms in the air, about to be lifted into the blue sky. I cross the line.
AFTER. Then later, silver heat sheets and medal. The wet embraces of team mates. A medal and a re-union. The warm, painful glow of a significant journey just completed. And later, a rose and Godiva chocolates as a reward from Laila, clutching my medal, not wanting to let go of her hero. And the post race party at home.
The marathon has just begun.