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Spotlight: I Ran the NYC Marathon

June 21st, 2021

Article originally appeared in Narcolepsy Network’s newsletter.

By: James Messina, 2019 Member of #TeamNarcolepsy

I finished the TCS New York City Marathon. I’m not a runner; I never have been. Truth be told, I had only ever finished one 5K and never trained to run more than a mile at a time. Seriously – how did I finish the biggest race in the world?

I guess I should start with why I even tried this in the first place. You see, I didn’t set out to complete the New York City Marathon for myself. I was doing it in honor of my cousin, Nino Sagona, who in 2004 while training for the Palermo Marathon in Sicily, passed away on a training run. Luckily, like so many other times in my life, I knew the right person to go to make this dream a reality. My friend, Emily Jillette, had run the marathon in 2018 and one day I asked her about it. She told me that she never ran more than six miles before in all of her training, and she did the whole marathon without stopping. That seemed to make it pretty doable and so I asked her if she was doing it again and if she could help me get in. Turns out she ran for Narcolepsy Network, and, if I was serious, they could extend an invite to me. Some three weeks later, and without telling anyone else, I committed to the race.

While searching for some direction, I found a training guide online with a plan to go from couch to marathon in 18 weeks. It was pretty straightforward with runs, stretching, and breaks. Now all I had to do was tell my family. [One night] during dinner, I was telling my kids that we should…do something different that would get us out of our comfort levels and surprise ourselves. To prove that point I told them that I had decided to run the NYC Marathon and the disbelief was palpable. I took my first steps at five-something in the morning and slowly plotted along on my way to my first three-mile run. I was able to do it (ok, barely) and, as far as I could tell, was on my way. I vividly remember running my first five-mile distance in disbelief, only to be even more shocked when I cleared eight miles one day without any planning. I was just cruising along, felt good enough, and decided to keep going. As much as those good times encouraged me, it was as devastating when on my attempt for 12 miles, I pulled my right calf muscle and had to hobble to my car halfway in. It was an injury that would curtail a lot of the training I had planned and something that I never really recovered from. [The night before the race,] I went to the pre-race dinner at Tavern on the Green with the narcolepsy team to finally meet the other runners and take part in the dinner tradition of fueling up. While I didn’t tell anyone about my concerns on being able to pull this off, I certainly wasn’t lying to myself, and it appeared that even the runners who had one or more races under their belt, were nervous too. What I didn’t expect was that by the end of the day, I racked up nearly 26,000 steps around NYC. The day before my first marathon, I somehow managed to walk about ten miles and went to bed late. On top of that, when I checked in to my room, they said the only king rooms they had were on low floors, which are normally never an issue for me, but this was New York City on a Saturday night. I ended up getting about 3.5 hours of restless sleep before my eyes shot open at 5:30 AM, anxious that I would miss my alarm. Having planned out everything I would need for the next day, getting ready didn’t take long. By 6:15, I was walking out the door to catch a quick subway ride on the 4 train to Bowling Green. Then I was on the Staten Island Ferry.

From the ferry, came the walk to the buses where we poured into a waiting line of coaches from all over the NY Metro area to shuttle us to the start of the race. Everywhere you looked were people grabbing a seat on the cold ground, grabbing a free Dunk’n hat, dropping off their bags, quint up on the port-a-johns, stretching their legs, petting a comfort dog, or taking photos with the Veranzano bridge in the background, all the while laughing with friends or engaging with strangers. In what seemed like far less time than it was, the professional racers were lining up, military skydivers were landing on the bridge, and cannons were launching wave after wave of runners. The site of the crowds taking off across the bridge’s two decks was really something, almost like the bridge was really made for them and not the countless number of cars that pass over it day after day. By 10:30, I was at the head of the last wave with some 200 people in front of me and some 10,000 people behind me. It was the best-case scenario for someone who was terrified that they would finish last. In a blink of an eye, it was go-time.

I had no intention of running for speed, and so, I was in it to complete it mode, using the run-walk-run method of one-minute runs followed by 30 seconds of walking. It didn’t take long to figure out that I was going to have to put my ego aside to finish the race as thousands of people passed me in the first mile. The first mile is all uphill, and it’s easy to kill yourself on that stretch if your adrenalin gets the best of you, but at mile marker 1, there you are on the top of the bridge. To your left is Manhattan. It’s there, like a beacon saying, “Here I am, come get me” and in front of you is the downslope of the Veranzano Bridge into Brooklyn. Crossing into Brooklyn at mile marker 2 is when the real fun begins. Since there are no spectators on the bridge, coming off it introduces runners to the sounds of cowbells, the sites of encouraging signs, and cheers from strangers.

You see filling stations at every mile once you get past mile 3, and, like so many of the pros say, it’s better to have small drinks throughout than to try and drink a lot later. At mile 11, I felt ok. I mean, it still felt insurmountable, but my body didn’t hurt – not even that nagging calf injury seemed to be acting up. I just had to keep going. Everything you read will tell you that mile 20 is the halfway point in a marathon. People will say that those last six miles are as bad as the first 20. All I knew was that I had run further than I had ever run before and mile 13 sure felt like halfway to me.

As the route headed to Manhattan, it meant that we had to cross the lower level of the Queensboro Bridge. I am sure countless people ran or jogged across the bridge during the day, but by the time I got there with the people in my pack, no one could. At mile 18, something special happened. My brain broke. I don’t know if it was a runner’s high or endorphins, but I was in a state of pure, unadulterated joy. I had the best time for that mile, all while heading to what I was told was the second half of the marathon. As we went over the bridge into the Bronx, and crossed into mile 20, it happened – my legs hurt. From mid-thigh to heel, I was in pain. At this point, all I had to do was get through the last five miles and get to the finish line and it was getting late. Everyone asked me what my goal was for the race. That morning my wife asked me and I told her, “Realistically, I’d say six hours. More realistically, I’d love to get five and a half. If I’m being honest, I just want to finish.” I was already running for 5:21 at mile 21, which meant there was no way I was hitting either of the first two goals. So, with one last goal to go, and legs that were seemingly turning to concrete, it was off to Harlem to finish.

At mile 24 with a 3K to go, we lumbered up and down the park hills. I came up the last hill, back towards Tavern on the Green and I could see the time. If I just pushed a little bit, I could finish under seven hours. Seven hours! I had been consistently moving for seven hours and I was about to finish. As I came up the last hill, I reached into my shorts pocket for a picture that I had been carrying with me since early in the morning. It was a picture of my cousin, Nino.

We crossed that line, arms raised, and were greeted by a metal sheet that read “MARATHON FINISHER” and a shiny apple-shaped medal that means, for the rest of my life, I am a NYC Marathoner.

If you want to be a part of #TeamNarcolepsy, spread awareness, and have the opportunity to raise money for Narcolepsy Network, click here to learn more.

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Date Created: June 21st, 2021
Last Updated: June 21st, 2021