Saturday, January 07, 2006

Happy New Year, from Pasadena

The 2006 Rose Bowl

Part I: Pre-Game

Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel summed it up well:
If college football had any soul left, it would play every national championship game right here at this majestic stadium where the history and heritage of the sport are handled with the same delicate care by which the little old ladies from Pasadena nurture their hybrid tea roses.

Well, ok, so maybe that’s laying it on a little thick. But the point is valid. If you only get to see one college Bowl Game in your life, bite/kick/scratch/claw your way to Pasadena. The Rose Bowl, built in the Arroyo Seco in 1922 and home to numerous Super Bowls, two World Cup finals, and the world’s greatest Flea Market (true story) does not disappoint. In 1902 the record shows there were actual chariot races held in the stadium.

On ‘non-game days’ it is also home to a great park, a golf course in the shadow of the stadium (two courses, actually, which become prime parking spots for the big games), and hosts numerous other events. But we don’t care about that, at least not today. Today we’re all about USC and Texas.

Since I’m with a group of five who don’t overlook the details, I find myself in a limo crawling off the 210 Freeway and into the canyon at about 12:30. Note: “If and when you go”, however you choose to arrive at the stadium, do it plenty early. When the stadium was built, the forefathers of Pasadena really didn’t foresee 50,000 automobiles descending into the canyon at once. Public Transportation in L.A. is and always will be a running gag. And the fact that the stadium lies in a vast bowl with a flood channel precludes any tearing down of old buildings or other under-utilized real estate for parking garages, because there are none. Mind you, there are worse places in America to be stuck.

We find ourselves in a sea of limos and tour buses known as Lot K. And after a few libations, its on to the park, to “R.V. Row”…where we’ve got some friends to find. R.V. Row is what you’d suspect it is…a park chock full of motor homes filled with people who make an entire week out of the game: students, alumni, hangers-on, and party hounds who probably don’t care a wit if they have game tickets. Its all about the booze, food, various states of dress and undress. It’s not for the faint of heart, although I do spot a few kids playing touch-football amongst the trees which I interpret as a sign of sanity. There are two guys in full USC football uniforms, doing their best Leinart/Bush impression. There are men and women in chaps. There are people covered in orange paint. There are people covered in not much at all. You get the picture.

We find our friends, and after some grilling out, the hard alcohol arrives. Its time to remember the mantra: Be in your seat…and alert… at kickoff. Be in your seat…and alert… at kickoff. Be in your seat… Padron Silver tequila? Why thank you.

Eventually its time to hike back up the hill to the Tournament of Roses party, a circus tent the size of a football field filled with food, televisions and more booze (detecting a theme here?). After lunch, our group performs forms a phalanx near a beer stand and the drinks cycle through effortlessly. Life is good.

The sun is beginning to set behind the San Gabriel Mountains and it’s our clue that game time is near. The human queues into the stadium are formidable, to say the least. Your three basic entry strategies are 1.) get in line, be patient, bring an empty bladder, and figure out how to occupy yourself for 45 minutes 2.) cause a commotion near a trash dumpster by your entry gate and see if you can cut in line 3.) get authorization to have a helicopter drop you on a towline into the stadium. I’ve done option 1, and it sucks. Tonight, we go for option 2. Bing, Bang, Bong. Five minutes and we’re in, despite a lot of people giving us the one-finger salute.

Part II: Game Time

I’m not going to recap the game per se…you either saw it, or you didn’t. I can’t capture the intensity, the speed, the crazy decisions or the drama nearly as eloquently as some of the thousands of column inches already written. But there are some bits of information I can relay…

First, you would never believe this stadium is 100+ years old. There are signs that the stadium is old, certainly—the lack of advertising space, cup holders, booming music and jumbotrons. (Hey wait, can we go back to the old days, please?) However, the unspectacular concessions and outer bowl are spacious, fairly organized, and un-intimidating. The lone video board at the north end of the stadium is of a human scale; it doesn’t disrupt the stadium sightlines and distract the fans. The stadium itself is fairly nestled into its surroundings… it doesn’t cry for attention like the steel and glass monsters which mangle the skylines of most modern cities. To enter into the seating bowl, you have to traverse a tunnel nearly 30 yards in length and stadium expanse opens up like a shot of cool air to the lungs as you arrive inside. There are no ‘gates, loges or field boxes’. Tonight I’m residing tonight in Tunnel 21, Row 59, Seat 101.

You might be thinking “damn, that looks like a nose bleed seat”. It ain’t. There are no bad seats in the house, as the saying goes. The rise of the seating bowl was done perfectly, and even from Row 59 I feel pretty close to the action. I was lower and closer to mid-field for a Rose Bowl game four years ago, and the visual sense was exactly the same. The sherbet colored sunset and the mountains in the background don’t hurt either.

Second, the unmistakable aesthetic of the Rose Bowl game. The field markings of the Rose Bowl game – the thick blocks of color representing each team – are as cool as they look on TV. The rose painted in midfield probably raises the hair on the arms of the Big 10 and Pac 10 faithful year in and year out. I can’t oversell the serenity of the setting sun and the mountains. In short, you know where you are. There is no question. Contrast that with, say, the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl which could be in any stadium in America (how would you know, seriously? It’s an electric attack of gaudy hues, spastic signage, and cartoonish staging).

Finally, the pageantry, or lack thereof. Look… there have been parties, a masterful parade, contests, star-studded events and assorted game related crap all week long. Tonight is about football. Sure, we’re going to be subjected to celebrity rendition of the National Anthem and a flyover by an amazing Air Force fighter. But this is America- you have to expect that. There is not, thank God, an hour long Latino- dance-inflected-half-time show. There is not any wacky million-dollar pass throwing contest at midfield between quarters. There are no time-outs sponsored by global telecoms. There are no “fan-o-meters” urging us to “pump up the volume”. It’s 22 college kids, busting their ass for a national championship on a cool California night in front of 93,000 of their best friends. Pure. Bliss.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Gina and Bobby

She was puking that milky, filmy bile of the soon-to-be-dead. He was clearly stressed, yelling her name, which I struggle to recall. They were to stop at Monroe, which had come and gone, and most of the riders had fled to the back of the car or gotten off altogether. I never bought into that—you sit where you sit and you get on with it. The large black man who got on at Clinton sat at our end felt the same, or at least he refused to leave.

Gina, that was her name. Now I remember the frantic pushing, the Gina, Gina, Wake-Up Gina. Gina was slumped against the car wall, waking at random intervals with the wretch and stumble of those who fade between consciousness and sickness.

He asked for a phone and I complied. He was going nowhere, she was dying, and what kind of stain on my karma would that leave? The white man withholds the phone while the black woman struggles? It wasn’t even an issue.

He talked to her mama for seven minutes. Mama didn’t want her home. She was a user and the kids shouldn’t see it. She might die, but the kids shouldn’t see it. He handed the phone back, exasperated, reaching for his gin, calling the large black man names.

White man can help a black man, but a black man won’t help a black man. Why is that? Why is that? Answer me, you fat bitch.

You’re a user and that phone isn’t going to help at all. He shouldn’t even let you use the phone. You need help. You need to check yourself into a clinic. You need to get Jesus. The doors were open and he was leaving, the large man, Christmas presents in hand.

Fuck you, motherfucking fat bitch. Won’t help a black man. Mister High and Mighty.

I offered to call the police, call anyone who might help. They refused. Its not surprising…they might still be carrying, they would likely be locked up and beaten, they would certainly be separated. And that part that was unacceptable. I came to learn that Gina was fifty, had been in rehab, and fallen out. She was smacked up and ready to flatline. Bobby had been with her ten days ago and wedged the spoon in her mouth to keep her from choking on her tongue, god at her doorstep or at least a bit of piece. Isn’t that what Lou taught us, to try for the kingdom? When the mainer hits the vein?

I got off at Oak Park, like I always do. Before I left we gave each other high-fives and I prayed for them in that way that people who are skeptical of Jesus pray. I look at that seven minute call, that number on my log, and sometimes I think about dialing and asking Mama if Gina made it.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Mamma Mia, Mamma Mia...

The two men entered the train at Western, bundled like men who work in the cold do- the one with a back pack held together by bungee cords and pure luck. Inside you could see a black plastic bag attempting to break free and move on into the world. But it wasn’t the black bag that was the source of annoyance. It was the radio inside the bag, blaring away and intermittently cutting out, telling us about a sale at the Jewel or the quality of the high def TVs at Circuit City.

Under normal conditions I’d have shut it out- closed my eyes or read a book and made it go away. But last night was another “marketing event” that I’d attended, and the sting of free whiskeys too numerous to mention made me blurry even 24 hours later. Not that I’m complaining, mind, I’ve probably drunk more complimentary 15 year old Single Malt in the last year than I’ve purchased in the last five combined, but the point stands. Couple that with sloppy December weather and the general, stinky film that washes over a wintery Friday and it was looking grim.

So the men, they sat across from each other, as men would, by the far door. Only when the car began to empty out at Cicero did they seize the chance to sit together in a forward-facing ‘pair’ seat across from me. The radio-playing-man was buried deep in a green hooded parka, a cartoonish scarf and a White sox baseball cap covering the bulk of his face-- sad eyes peering out from behind. Eastern European. The other man was practically bathing in large, tan coveralls- his generic ‘Chicago’ baseball cap in the familiar red and blue befitting the North Side team.

The radio is beginning to grate- the familiar ending of Let’s Spend The Night Together is gurgling out of the speakers and I’m trying to sleep through it. Its not going to happen, so I count the stops left until Oak Park.

Then, it gets interesting.

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide No escape from reality.

Bohemian Rhapsody. The Queen classic. The point man in the coveralls is leaning forward slightly, like a dog on a leash, peering out the window eagerly into the darkness. Why, I’m unsure. There is nothing to see, even in daylight, of this bleak west side stretch. His thick mustache doesn’t settle properly and he has the air of an animated character—bug eyed and two dimensional. It might not usually be funny. But coupled with…

Mama, just killed a man…put a gun against his head…pulled my trigger, now he's dead…

Well, its surreal. Know that the two men haven’t uttered a word since they got on, and its not going to change anytime soon, I wouldn’t guess. They probably mutter eight words to each other all day as it is and that counts as friendship enough. The train lurches to a stop, for no reason, between the long stretch of the Cicero and Austin stations. Its cold, its dark, the world has taken on the effect of grainy film, and I can’t escape…

I see a little silhouette-o of a man
Scaramouch, scaramouch will you do the fandango?

Only now the radio-playing-man has decided it would be best to play invisible drums. His arms are flailing, his scarf flopping around like a kite tail. Never mind that this part of the song is dominated by Brian May’s guitar work. Have I mentioned, right about now the African-Americans on the train are getting a little annoyed? I get a sick chuckle out of this. (Some damn poor white fool blares his radio and nobody say a damn thing, but if the brothers do it we’d be run off this train in no time).

I stare at the pockets of sand and grit that litter the floor, listen to the uncomfortable scuffle of feet.

(Let me go.) Will not let you go
(Let me go.) Will not let you go. (Let me go.)
Ah No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

The point man continues to lurch and stare into the distance. The train is moving again, and the inhabitants of the car are beginning to circle in on our radio playing friends, metaphorically speaking. This might not end so well. Alas, we pull into Austin and the two men gear up to depart…a tussle of winter clothing, wiping the hand across the nose, hitching up the backpack.

Nothing really matters, Anyone can see
Nothing really matters
Nothing really matters to me

Indeed, Freddy. Indeed. Just get me home.

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Horror Show...

...or "How I Learned To Hate Business Travel"

5:50 a.m.
“You want to call him? He’s five minutes late.” Here we are pacing that turgid-hotel-lobby pace in all its uncomfortableness in this electric bog of the Los Angeles landscape. It ‘s like a bar at closing time when the people who haven’t found dates refuse to go home. Only they don’t have to deal with muzak. We’re not so lucky. The ‘He’ who is late is our company president, and he is the one who scheduled the 7 a.m. flight out of to Oakland. We are me and ElizabethBennett, a co-worker also currently trapped in the ever popular reality show “Mad Dash To The Gate In Concourse Z”.

“He’s not answering in his room. It’s 708, right? I’d feel stupid if I had the wrong room.” Nodding head…right room. Although secretly I’m grinning at the thought of some rube from Ohio being awoken erroneously by the garishly unique and universal sound of the “Hotel Phone”. Or maybe it wouldn’t be anyone from Ohio. Maybe it would be that flight attendant from Tahiti Air, bolting upright and whipping off her eye pillow, fumbling in the darkness. Even better.

I’m staring out the door at the courtesy van to the airport—doing the math- in case we make a break for it on our own. I snap the clamshell of the phone shut. “He hasn’t called the office to check voicemail either, according to Holly. Now I’m a little worried. Just a little.”

We play a game of paper/scissors/rock and I lose (who needs rock anyway, always unreliable), so I trudged into the elevator and upstairs to check on him. Actually, we didn't play paper/scissors/rock, I made it up. Elizabeth was freaked out by the prospect of walking in on him if there was a "special lady friend". sigh.

6:06“OK, breathe easy, he answered his door. He’s fine. I think. He doesn’t sound really good. He had that whole frog-voice thing going on. Maybe he’s just under the weather.” More pacing ensues, but there is a sense of relief.

“He’s still not here. This is weird. This isn’t like him at all.” Come ON. Of all the hotels in LA, this one happens to be without a restaurant. Check that, it has a restaurant, but its closed. We’re out of time, we’re out of patience, but mostly…we’re out of coffee.

He bursts through the elevator door, swipe-key in one hand and portfolio in the other, skating across the lobby floor. “Sorry Guys! Tossing the key ten feet across the marble counter-top to check out, and gallumping out the main entrance. “ I did the math wrong, I thought we had more time, I…”

“We’ve got no bags to carry on, it will be close”. The car roars up to the kiosk, he hands the cashier the ticket. “What do you MEAN he didn’t put the parking on the room bill?” Sir, he didn’t put- “ah COME ON” – he fumbles for the Amex. She ploddingly reprimands the front desk boys who aren’t here to defend themselves and swipes the card…the low mumbling and irritated voice that assures me, yes, this will take a while. Finally our morning parking hostess hands him the black clipboard to sign, the pen arcing and tumbling to the floormats; he twists and turns to retrieve it, stuck in the belt like a novice high-wire act gone wrong. I put the car into park for fear that he’ll tap the gas and send us careening into a pylon, or worse, through the gate itself like you’d see in a Steve McQueen movie. He miraculously snatches the pen without smashing his head on the upswing and scrawls violently on the thermal paper receipt, throwing pen, paper and clipboard out the window, “Lift the gate, please!”

“The gate IS already open, sir!” And indeed, it is.

The car is parked, somewhat unbelievably, after running a red light and crossing four lanes of traffic. I’m starting to like our chances.

“What do you MEAN she’s not in the computer?” We stare at the electronic boarding kiosk, incredulous and confused, as if it had told us some kind of vile joke. Apparently its okay to pay for your traveling partners’ tickets, but don’t expect to get a boarding pass for yourself. No ma’am- that just isn’t going to happen.

We frighten an large, aging black man at the Customer Service desk, our pleas to cut in line apparently so convincing that he has either taken pity on us or afraid he’s about to be roped into some sort of scam, so his body goes into lockdown…staring and nodding, his mouth forming words with no audible counterpart. Another tedious couple of minutes hearing the mysterious ‘tap, tap, tapping’ of the service keyboard (what can they really be typing anyway? Comments about our hygiene? Warnings to other airline personnel? Its not an SAT question for God’s sake, just get us a SEAT NUMBER.) And finally, the magic words, “Here is your boarding pass.”

We’re in the queue. A very special queue, upstairs from the other traveling rabble. This has to be a good sign. They knew we were under duress.

Still. In. The. Queue. Apparently this special queue is for misfits and the generally untrustworthy, as every bag gets scanned, rescanned and peered at through the X-Ray machine by three sets of eyes. Perhaps it’s a practice security entrance, sort of like Driver’s Ed for the security set.

“Hey, TSA! We need More gray tubs! C’mon!” Oh, this isn’t good at all. Now he’s badgering security. As if it wasn’t odd enough to stand in stocking feet with four tubs of personal belongings, now we’re drawing attention to ourselves.

We’re through! Its like we’ve crossed the Maginot Line. They’re paging us overhead, as if we even had time to stop at a courtesy phone it would make a difference in this day and age. (Riiiiing! Hello Sir? No, we just wanted to inform you that you’re now going to miss your flight….) It’s a race through a series of up and down ramps and other man-made obstacles. He is huffing and puffing behind us now, please Lord don’t let him die, its just a flight to Oakland Lord, and – whoa! – just dodged that old lady with a cane. I’m going to start sweating. I know I am. I’m going to be sweating and hit that cold plane air and have to bathe in the muck for a solid hour while he snores behind me.

They are reaching for the door, they’re going to close the door. But we push on through into the plane, a three-clown act dressed in business attire, Oakland bound.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The NYC Marathon

Is it really that big? Yes, it is.
38,000 entrants (over 88,000 applicants)
100 Live Bands on the race route
2 Million spectators
25,000 gallons of Gatorade
42,000 packets of Power Gel
25 Medical Aid stations
78 UPS trucks transporting runners’ gear from the Start to the Finish

It’s the ING New York Freakin’ City Marathon, and its all that its cracked up to be.

5:30 a.m.
New York Public Library
I’ve just walked a little over a mile down Third Avenue in the darkness, passing drunks and fellow runners while the familiar light of the Empire State Building looms above. Its a good walk to remove the jitters, and since I’m not running for another 4 hours it won’t make a wit of difference to how I feel come Starting Time. As races go, this one starts really late, but logistically it probably can’t go down any other way.

I come up over the ridge beyond Grand Central at Sixth avenue and its like I’m in a different country…there are charter buses humming loudly, three wide and a mile deep, all separated by pink road flares. How can we organize a marathon like this but the people of New Orleans can’t get out of the path of a hurricane? It’s perplexing. We are herded down the block into makeshift chutes of police tape and orange traffic barrels, showing our race numbers while volunteers push up forward and (finally) onto our bus. I usually travel light—my race gear and some outerwear, but others look like they’re going to be camping out for a few days. Sleeping bags? Is that really necessary? I am sitting next to a man from Germany and behind me a woman from Houston chats with a man from Puerto Rico. I try to close my eyes and relax but the bus lurches into action and we’re off through the fog and darkness. The bus is quiet until we pass the Brooklyn Bridge; its lights ominous and majestic. Suddenly the International contingent starts to chatter and come alive. It feels like I’m the only American on board, and with good reason: over 1/3 of the participants in today’s race will be from another country. Some estimate this year that figure could be close to ½.

6:00 a.m.
Staten Island, Fort Wadsworth
We’re shuttled into three ‘camps’ – green, orange and blue. I’m in blue, the Alberto Salazar Village. We’re a good half-mile from the starting point and makeshift fencing and army barracks make us feel like it’s really the Alberto Salazar Refugee Camp, but so be it. I couldn’t find a paper to read before boarding the bus and there’s only so much breakfast (bagels, coffee, smoothies, Power Bars) you can eat before it becomes counter-productive. I find a nice spot of curb and suddenly those sleeping bags don’t seem like such a bad idea now.

As luck would have it, I start up a conversation with a cynical Manhattan native and a hard-core runner named Brian from San Diego who’s hoping to finish in about 2 hrs 30 mins. Paul (from Manhattan) and I discuss strategy with Brian like he’s some kind of exotic. He wears two watches…one to monitor his heart rate, and the other to monitor his split times. If you’re gonna wear two watches, you better ‘walk the walk’. Brian is # 727, so apparently, yeah, he walks the walk. Paul and I make fun of people wandering by for a good hour or more, just passing the time. (Hey, we’re poking fun at ourselves as well. There’s precious little else to do.) I learn that this is one of the largest party days of the year on Manhattan and that the bars on First Avenue are already open, filling up with people who will be sipping a Bloody Mary or, more likely, slamming beer and cheering us on as the race pushes into Manhattan later this morning. I spend a few minutes lurking by the First Aid booth, popping a couple pre-race Tylenol in the vain hope that it will help later on and steal some salt packets. I don’t eat the packets now, which will turn out to be a mistake later on. Several men are dabbing themselves in key regions with tongue depressors covered in Vaseline. The truth is, running can be a pretty damn ugly sport. And the last thing you want to see on a Sunday morning is some guy swabbing himself with petroleum products. Ahh, the glory of the long distance runner.

10:00 AM
The Start, Mile 1 & 2:
A huge cannon blast signals the start of the race…but I’m so far back I won’t reach The Verrazano Narrows bridge for another five minutes. The Verrazano is one of the great bridges in America…almost two miles in length, broken by two spans that dominate the skyline. The fog is lifting and we can see the fireboats out in the bay, spraying long arcs of water. In the distance you can sort of make out Manhattan, and there is electricity in the air as we start the grind. The bridges are actually some of the steepest elevations. The Verrazano is the highest point of the course, and we’re at about a 4% grade for the first mile. We’re all so excited nobody really notices, but let me tell you, it all adds up. And anybody who tells you New York is flat can go screw themselves, this is going to be one hilly course. Around me, again, I’m taken aback by the number of international participants … I’ve seen Ecuadorians, Germans, Italians, Swedes, Norwegians, English, Scots running in kilts and apparently half of Holland is here.

Mile 3:
Yo! Welcome To Brooklyn! At least, that’s what the sign says… as we exit the bridge and begin the long crawl through Beastie Boys country. I’m running by a guy from Liverpool England who has ‘Vinny’ scrawled across his shirt, much to the delight of the locals who will gladly belt out “Run, Vinny, Run!” Its hilarious. And if his name is Vinny, my name is Raul.

Mile 4:
I’m starting to sweat and its getting hot. (This is called foreshadowing, for those keeping score at home.) I could use some more of that cloud cover but its not gonna happen today- we’ll be out baking in the sun. I was hoping for much cooler weather, but this is still better than freezing rain.

Miles 5-8:
We’re trekking down Fourth Avenue, one of the longest thoroughfares in Brooklyn, passing through Latino neighborhoods, strange ‘transitional’ blocks and African-American outposts. People are three and four deep on the sidewalks. Choirs are out signing on church steps (it is Sunday after all) and there is a live band literally every other block. I spot my favorite billboard of the day: A giant Asics billboard that says “It’s the last 0.2 that gets you.” Finally the giant bank that signals downtown Brooklyn comes into view and I know we’ll be turning up into Williamsburg soon. The miles are starting to peel off fairly comfortably, but only a sucker would think about anything too far down the road. I’ve just seen the best t-shirt of the day so far, a young woman who wrote “I Hope I Don’t Sh*t Myself” on the back. I’m thinking “Lady, I hope you don’t either…” and wondering how many times she’ll hear THAT line today.

Miles 9-13:
The Hasidic men are out on curbs and corners and, I can’t make this up, I just passed a gas station with a thrash-rock band playing and two Hasidic Jews were perched atop the gas pump ‘island’ bobbing their heads. Only in New York. We’re rolling through Bedford Avenue, the heart of Williamsburg and it reminds me a lot of Bucktown / Wicker Park in Chicago before it became super gentrified. We pass McCarren Park that signals the start of the Polish neighborhood at Brooklyn’s northern tip. Soon we’ll pass over the Pulaski Bridge, which will provide another little uphill test and a beautiful view of Manhattan

Miles 14 -15:
There is no two ways about it, this part of the course stinks. Queens is never very pretty, but we’re slogging through some industrial looking areas and I’m using the Queensboro Bridge as a magnet to pull me forward. We’ve been out here almost two hours by now and the heat and pounding are starting to take their toll. My body usually starts to revolt at this point but I’m happy so far. Still, the Queensborough Bridge will be the second highest point of the marathon and the real drama will start when we hit Manhattan.

Mile 16-17
We come off the bridge and the roar is ‘everything and then some’. People are five or six deep, yelling and cheering. It’s a plunge straight up First Avenue through the throngs. Its not an exaggeration, the noise is so loud you can’t hear anything but your pulse, pounding through your head. Its really warm out now, and the 2+ hours on the pavement is taking its toll. I think the only comparable ‘sporting’ correlary would be the Tour De France ending on the Champs Elysees. There are people everywhere, you’re on a famous boulevard, and the spectacle is off the charts.

Mile 18
I never thought I’d be excited to see someone waiting for me with saturated Sponge Bob Square Pants sponges, but they feel really good. Running through the ‘sponge zone’ is bizarre, all these little foamy Bobs lying tramped on the ground. I remember Paul lamenting that if they were going to have sponges, the least they could do for us is have pretty girls. Ahem. I remember the salt packets now! Too late. Fishing through my pocket, I pick out some soggy bits of paper and no salt. The only way I’m getting that salt now is by taking off my shorts and sucking on the pocket (maybe not an uncommon sight on First Avenue, but I’m not going there today). Ugh.

Mile 19
My legs are starting to cramp, but I’m running through it as we plod north. I keep hoping the Gatorade and gels will replace the missing glycogen, but we’ll see. Harlem will give way to the Wills Avenue Bridge and the Bronx in just a few minutes.

Mile 20
The Bronx! We’re here. Although, I was promised a shot of Yankee Stadium. There is no Yankee Stadium. And I’m pissed. You come this far, you would THINK you wouldn’t miss it. Anyway…I’m taking inventory of how I feel (it is Mile 20 after all, aka The Wall)…and aside from these cramps, I feel pretty good. That is a sure sign Hell is right around the corner. Ahead of me, the most preposterous thing I’ve witnessed today is unfolding. Two guys are starting to scuffle- one is accusing another of trying to trip him on purpose! I can hardly believe it, and as I run by they start shoving each other… f*ck you, you owe me an apology! The f*ck I do pal, you’re wrong. And suddenly, from the third floor of an apartment building, a voice bellows “Stick and move! Stick and move!” This keeps me laughing for an entire block. A classic New York moment.

Someone offers me a banana from the roadside, and 50 yards down another group is giving out pretzels. I’m flat-out hungry and in need of salt, so this is a godsend. I know you’re not supposed to take gifts from strangers, especially if you’re a white guy in the Bronx, but on this particular Sunday I’m gonna bend the rules a little.

Mile 21
Oh. Dear. Remember what I said about a mile back? I just took my last gel packet to get me to the end, but those cramps have now turned to spasms and I’m getting a little edgy. I pull over by a tree and look down to see my quad muscle knotting itself like a fist underneath my skin… pulsing, winding and unwinding. This is not helpful. So for a solid minute or two I stretch and stretch. This kills any inertia I had left. From now on in, its going to be a mammoth struggle.

Mile 22
We’re back in Harlem, heading south toward Central Park. If I can get to the Park, I know I’ll be in the last segment of the race and mentally that’s a bit of a lift, but right now its just that odd, soft afternoon light and several thousand people around me looking like death warmed over. Nobody is having fun now. We’re passing through some old three and four flats that look astonishing, and they sit right next to similar flats that look like they are rats’ dens. It’s a bit odd. On another day, it would interesting to stop and see what those suckers cost to rent. As you can tell, I’m thinking of anything to take my mind off my legs. But its not working, and its time to stretch again.

Mile 23
We’ve hit Central Park! We’re at 110th…and I’ve only got about 30 blocks to go before the race turns down into the actual park from Fifth Avenue and winds through the last couple miles. Its clear, however, that we’re heading uphill again. Brutal. The light is lower now, and we’re running past the Met and the Guggenheim. There are people EVERYWHERE watching this from the roadside. Its astonishing. In fact, there are too many people…there’s no place to stop and stretch.

Mile 24-25
We’re now winding through the park, up and down its labyrinth of paths, and its taking every bit of steam I have to keep going. The spasms are just going to stay with me now, like an unwanted house guest. Hitting that ‘Mile 25’ marker is a great feeling. Someone yells “one mile to go!” and I laugh, thinking of the Asics billboard back in Brooklyn. Never forget that 0.2 at the end.
Mile 26
We’re out of the park proper and running up the last big climb, Central Park South, just north of 59th Street. The Plaza hotel is being renovated so its dark and covered in scaffolding as I go by, which is really strange. How can the Plaza be closed? Uh, yes, I’m dying out here…and the stoplight at Columbus Circle that would indicate the final 500 yards just won’t come soon enough. It sits in the distance and teases me.

.02 and The Finish
We round Columbus Circle, past grandstands and television staging areas and enter the park again for one last haul uphill to the finish. Finally, I’m here. I don’t feel like vomiting, though some people around me are doing just that. My legs survived, and I feel like crying, the whole thing is such a relief to be done with…but if you come this far, the last thing you want to do is start crying. You want to cross that last yard with a grin or some steely determination. And that’s the way it ends. Its an out of body experience, that great final exhalation. Time for a medal, a heatsheet, and a shower, in that order. But first It will take almost 45 minutes to get through the photos, the feeding zone and the staging areas back out onto the streets. There isn’t any noise now…its just the sound of thousands of runners alone with their thoughts, utterly spent, in a zone that can’t be effectively described in words. Eventually we’re spit back out into Manhattan near Strawberry Fields, and the chaos comes alive… thousands of well-wishers, the phalanx of UPS gear trucks, police sirens and more. I’m standing the middle of Manhattan wearing a foil blanket and I look like I’ve been through a war. I wouldn’t want it any other way…