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New York City Marathon: The Queensboro Bridge, Gatsby, and My Green Lamp

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'GENERAL VIEW OF UPSTREAM SIDE OF BRIDGE LOOKING TOWARDS MANHATTAN'. Photo courtesy <a href="http://lcweb2.loc.gov/pnp/habshaer/ny/ny0300/ny0326/photos/119021pv.jpg">Library of Congress</a>
'GENERAL VIEW OF UPSTREAM SIDE OF BRIDGE LOOKING TOWARDS MANHATTAN'. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

"The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world." -- The Great Gatsby

The fifteenth mile of the New York City Marathon takes place almost entirely on the Queensboro Bridge. The first half of the mile (a few thousand footfalls depending on one's stride) rises up along the bridge's lower level. The Queensboro is the third bridge of five crossed by runners along the race's Five-Borough course. It is also constructed with the hardest concrete ever formulated by man.[1]

The view of the East River from the lower deck of the bridge is partially obscured by the bridge's steel skeleton, the cityscape hidden by its dark metal ceiling. F. Scott Fitzgerald clearly didn't have running the lower level of the Queensboro Bridge in mind when he penned his line about entering Manhattan.

I ran the NYC Marathon in 2009. My race comprised a horrible mix of over-caffeination, impatience, and a foolishly optimistic goal time.[2] My initial few miles were run recklessly fast (Mile 2 was something like a 6:35) and by the time Mile 8 rolled by I knew that I would not be able to hit my goal time. At Mile 10 my stomach was so trashed from all of my pre-race caffeine intake that I couldn't handle any more energy gels.[3] Upon crossing the Pulaski Bridge into Queens at the halfway point, I was coming rather close to unraveling.

A few miles later I came to the Queensboro Bridge.

The bridge itself is not particularly intimidating -- it rises for about 2/3 of a mile before its crest, the remaining 1/3 of a mile coming down rather quickly by way of an exit ramp onto First Avenue. That day, the reinforced concrete of the bridge fell heavy under foot. My pace slowed due to a combination of lowering blood sugar, the bridge's steady incline, and my rapidly dropping spirits. It's one thing to break down on a lonely training run -- it's another thing altogether to break down in a dank, grey, ever-closing space with isolation and claustrophobia adding to a nearly-panicked frustration that's built up over the course of the previous hour.

A third of the way up the incline I began to walk, the thin crowd around me bounding by with ease. I chatted briefly with a woman who stopped and checked to see if I was fine (a truly kind act on her part). Once she was determined I was OK, she proceeded to tell me her story -- at length -- that she's poached the run every year for the past fifteen years.[4] Eventually she resumed her free run around the Boroughs, leaving me behind to sulk. I was happy to see her go; misery is more bearable in the absence of prattling strangers.

The ten minutes I spent walking up the incline of the Queensboro was one spent entirely inside my own head -- a painful amalgamation of disappointment, anger, and embarrassment. I questioned why I was bothering to continue a failed attempt at a goal. I questioned why the hell I run in the first place.

I kept walking up that goddamned bridge, towards the finish line one grim step at a time.

As I neared the crest of the bridge I heard faint sounds hinting of a crowd and convinced my legs to start running again. Upon reaching the apex the sounds became far more audible, the sound waves bouncing off the metal ceiling and concrete floor of the bridge, welcoming the oncoming thousands of runners into Manhattan.

For the next few minutes I forgot all about my failed attempts at race-day nutrition and the previous mile spent on that god-forsaken bridge. As I turned onto First Avenue, screaming crowds twenty-deep cheered for me; a manic joyous rush came over me. For the next few miles I had gotten the shot in the arm that I needed to continue onward -- a mere few minutes after I was stuck in my own personal hell. Years later that particular mile on the Queensboro stands out in my mind, the single most memorable mile of nearly 1,400 that I ran in 2009. As miserable as that mile was I came through it in one piece, a bit worse for wear but still moving.[5]

Perhaps Nick Carraway was right, then -- that there is something magical about crossing that bridge. In the hours following the race I swore to myself that I would never run New York again. I now find myself romanticizing the idea of crossing the very bridge that broke me, hoping that chance will allow me to return and run over it into that bright future, wide-eyed and full of hope. It's not fixation or obsession that grips me, rather the thought of revisiting a place that matters to me -- a place where I can finally lay to rest the lingering memories of that bridge. Maybe, like James Gatz, I'll return to the bridge and find that my green lamp's shine has been shining nothing but a naive hope -- or perhaps I'll finally find closure.

Until I get that chance, I can never know.

--

1) Probably not true.

2) After running my second marathon in May 2009 (3:26) and cutting 19 minutes off of my first marathon's time I hoped to cut 16 minutes off my time and qualify for Boston.

3) Two Red Bulls pre-ferry, one cup of coffee at the base of the Verzanno-Narrows. Even with the aforementioned difficulties, running through Brooklyn was truly delightful.

4) "It's so much cheaper this way, you see!" was her final argument for the validity of race-poaching.

5) I do have a number of other stories about this particular race, and will likely share them at some point.