Running the boroughs of New York City


Looks like in the context of running 2019 will be huge! I was drawn for the BMW BERLIN MARATHON 2019. It was my second attempt. I applied to start in 2018 without luck. This time over, I got in and on September 29th, 2019 with about 50000 other runners we will jam the streets of Berlin.

This means that upcoming nine months will be filled with a lot of training. Meanwhile though, I thought that it would be nice to walk down the memory lane and tell you about the most amazing running experience I had so far: The New York Marathon. This post is based on journal entries written on the next day after the marathon. So, it was cold and rainy Sunday, November 5th, 2017…

Before the start

The emotions were high and the adrenaline level was enormous. My plan was quite simple. I wanted to run at 4:30, I felt for 4:30 and, after the Wroclaw marathon two months earlier, I had a vague idea how to make it. What I did not take into account were the New York bridges and nasty uphill parts that devastated most amateur runners, including myself… but let’s start at the beginning. On Sunday, very early in the morning.

My runner’s set. Everything was ready and waiting in the evening the day before. Everything was possible thanks to the substantial support of my alma mater – the Wroclaw University of Science and Technology.

To get to the starting line on time I had to get up at 5:00. Just in time to bite something and jump on the subway at 6:00. Twenty minutes later I was at the ferry terminal from which the ferry to Staten Island was departing every couple of minutes, taking hundreds of runners right to place where the race shall began few hours later. The famous orange ferries were not only the most convenient way of getting to the starting line, but also very photo-attractive. They carried people next to the Statue of Liberty and we were all able to admire the morning panorama of lower Manhattan. At the other side, all runners were directed to the buses going to Fort Wadsworth, where all runners needed to wait for their turn. Logistics and flow management of 60,000-70,000 people takes time, so even though I was on the ferry at 7:00, I got off the bus quite late, at about 9:00. It didn’t really bother me much. My start was scheduled at 11:00 and the alternative to that long ferry/bus ride was just standing in cold rain for additional couple of hours. Not fun.

In the waiting zone spirits were high. People seemed excited, still the tension was leaking everywhere. Five, maybe six helicopters overhead shook the atmosphere (NYPD, media …). Free coffee, bagels, energy bars and hundreds of toi-tois were available on demand. If someone needed some help to relax before the start, there were therapeutic dog booths here and there. There was a lot of time to talk to other runners and meet some interesting people.

The runners were divided into three groups (Blue, Orange, Green), which started in successive waves (Wave 1-4) . For order, each Wave was placed in six separate corrals (A-F). I gave up my bag of clothes (stashed for picking up after the run). and found myself with a pack of other runners at the start of Blue Wave 4 in Corral D. At the right moment, the wave (all corrals) approached the starting line. The anthem, the cannon shot … and we went!

Excited crowd on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.

All the way to Manhattan

The run took off calmly. It takes time to get into proper rhythm and Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was perfect for such warming up. The first few miles were rather quiet, because there was no cheering on the bridge. The helicopters were flying overhead. People took pictures of themselves and vigorously pushed forward. The crowd was quite dense, so I used this first bridge establish my pace. For this I used the paper pace calculator on my wrist. It was just a strip of paper with printed times and distances necessary to follow in order to finish the run in 4:30. It was a nice idea, but it was calibrated in miles, so coming from Poland I was initially a bit confused. Fortunately,  before the bridge was over, I found myself another runner to follow. He was wearing a t-shirt from some club of blood donors and ran perfectly steady for 4:35. For the first hour we went head to head. Unfortunately, after the fifth mile, in the middle of Brooklyn, he decided to go for a technical break (pee) and that was the last time I saw him.

In the meantime it started to rain…

At this point, I have to mention the cheering, which was simply sensational in Brooklyn. Crowds, crowds, crowds. Screaming, chanting, giving high-fives, playing music. The support method changed gradually. Details varied depending on which part of Brooklyn we were in. At Greenpoint, of course, we were welcomed by Polish flags and Polish music. Throughout the route, people shouted, served on their own food, bananas or other sweets. In general, the media estimated the number of supporters to be above one million.

Green, narrow, and crowded streets of Brooklyn.

The idyll lasted until the Pulaski Bridge, which led us to Queens. Up to 25 km I was running steadily for 4:30. Well, maybe  a little faster, because I wanted to earn couple of  minutes to spare later. I expected to lose them anyway in the last kilometers of the race. After losing my first running partner (the blood donor), I found in the crowd a girl named Jessie. She ran for approx. 4:20, almost exactly as I needed. The plan was good and it worked until the Queensboro Bridge. At this point, I slowed significantly. Unfortunately, Jessie did not manage to keep up the pace as well. That was how I lost my second pacemaker. I managed not to stop running, but at the bridge hundreds of people gave up and started to walk. The slope was really challenging.

Suddenly, we found ourselves in Manhattan. Seventeen kilometers (and some) to the finish line. Time was around 2:11…

Hitting the wall…

It is different for different runners, but for most of amateur marathoners the real challenge starts at approx. 25-26th kilometer. It is the moment where the infamous wall hits. In New York my grit was tested right at the Queensboro Bridge and afterwards. Fortunately, the Queensboro Bridge took us to Manhattan giving the so desired motivation. The finish line seemed to be so close! You can see on the map that the bridge is next to the 60th street, so exactly on the same block on which the finish line is located. But it was not the end yet! Right after the bridge, the route took a sharp turn and took us north along the 1st Ave. The wall felt terrible, but the cheering of the crowds here was overwhelming. People were holding motivating signs or wearing big pictures of their favorites printed. You could hear cow bells. The signs saying “go on random stranger!” were really inspiring. It was really needed support, because right after the Queensboro, we had to run 75 blocks north (all the way to the 135th), through the next bridge, to Bronx!

On the 1st Ave I began gradually loosing my strength. My average rate decreased from 6:08 per kilometer to 6:30. It was still raining. At the 18th mile there was a little surprise in the form of a fire in the building adjacent to the marathon route. Although the situation was taken under control very quickly, part of the marathon route was occupied by a fire brigade and a very distinct stench of burning was hanging in the air. The organizers approached the matter very seriously and informed the runners well in advance about the situation on the route. I got a message and an e-mail when I was running through the Queensboro Bridge, that at about 18th mile there is “temporary obstruction” and that I should be ready for a break on the run! Fortunately, no one stopped us.

Towards Upper Manhattan and Bronx.

Willis Ave Bridge which led us to Bronx was not as murderous as Queensboro, but my legs felt it anyway. I entered the phase when running is no longer purely  physical challenge but also the mental one. “I can, I can, I can do it …”, “go, go, go …”. It got even darker because of dense clouds. Despite everything, I ran through Bronx fairly quickly. Someone handed me sweets, and someone else gave me a high-five with hand smeared with cold balm for muscle pain (brilliant idea!). Desired moment of relief.

We needed to return to Manhattan, yet one more bridge was waiting for us. Some guy stood next to it, holding a hand-written sign saying “the last damn bridge!”, to which everyone reacted with laughter and applause. The final fight began at the last five miles, when we ran into the famous 5th Avenue. Especially in one particular location, at about 38 km, where the Central Park begins. There is a small but long ascent. On the distance of about one and a half kilometers, the elevation raises over 20 meters! Normally it should not be a difficult challenge, but after four hours of running in the rain the conditions are no longer normal. It started at the height of 102nd street, and the ground slowly raised all the way until the 60th street. Along the Fifth Avenue, my pace has dropped to more than 7:00 per kilometer. I lost all extra minutes I had earned earlier, and then some. From 4:30, it pushed me to 4:45.

The finish line was about there. The rain was heavy, shoes were soaked, clothes were soaked, my glasses needed wiping every few minutes, and the finish was not there. We turned into the 60th street, then another turn and, finally, the finish line… but first, the last 400 meters were sharp uphill! But this was the last surprise hurdle, and then … success, joy, and a happy ending to this story!

The next day, the New York Times posted a list of finishers. Here I am!


What students and academics can learn from the greatest Polish athletes

Storm clouds gathering above the Olympischer Stadium in Berlin during evening session of the European Athletics Championships

What an unbelievable success! Polish athletes showed in the last few days truly inspiring and motivating performance.

They taught us important life lessons on grit, determination, and hard work. Something we all can use, whether we are students, academics, or just human beings looking for inspiration. They showed us what high performers in any discipline need to understand to reach the highest level of skill and grab the prize.

Hard training

One of Polish newspapers had this headline: “many of the winners might not be well known, but they were surely working very hard.” Well. They are known now! The way how Paulina Guba (shot put) bravely reached and grabbed the title of European Champion will make everyone to remember her name!

Such success would not be possible without hours and hours of focused deliberate training. No one can win without proper skill, and to gain this level of skill it is necessary to clock enough hours first. Some say it is 10000, some claim it is more. The lesson is clear, you can’t get to the top unless you roll up your sleeves and work harder. The result? Just look at Justyna Swiety-Ersetic. On Saturday, she won gold medal and European Championship running 400 m, at the same time setting up her new personal best time. If this was not spectacular enough, less than two hours later she beautifully finished 400 m relay and won for her team another gold medal.

Well-thought-out strategy

Success is not only about skill and speed. To become master you need a good strategy. It is impossible to win 800 m finals a without a clear plan when to attack, when to save energy, when to hide, and when to pass your opponents. Down to every second. This is how Adam Kszczot became European Master third time in a row. His friends, his opponents, media, everyone calls him “the Professor”. Also, now you know why this story belongs to an academic-themed blog.

A bit of luck is also important

In the end, this is a still a competition. Very fierce one. Sometimes pure luck, an opponent’s mistake, random push, or even a second of doubt can cost you your precious advantage and ultimately lead to your defeat. There are some factors during the execution of your plan that you just can’t control.

Failure is always an option. Sometimes, passing a baton during relay will not go smooth enough and precious seconds will be lost. Sometimes, opponent will elbow you, and you lose your rhythm. What matters is how you fight despite the obstacles, and our athletes were fighting hard.

Congratulations! Thank you for the inspiration! Thank you for the motivation! You made us all proud! Chapeau bas!