Chronology of Trip to 2001 New York City Marathon
I couldn’t believe it. Last night the FBI put the country under “high alert,” especially for the next 72 hours. The world sure has changed. I was flying to New York today. Natalie, my wife of just two months, was joining me in two days.
Posted Friday, 20 September, 2002
Tuesday evening, Oct 30
I couldn't believe it. Last night the FBI put the country under "high alert," especially for the next 72 hours. The world sure has changed. I was flying to New York today. Natalie, my wife of just two months, was joining me in two days.
I have to confess; my heart took a few skips on the jump rope when I heard the male flight attendant speak on the PA system with a heavy accent. My hyperactive imagination assumed the worst... "Good evening ladeez and gentlemen. Use of electronic devices eez not permitted because you've just been hijacked and eef you look out weendow to left you see uz slam into Statue of Liberty."
As it turned out my anxiety was unfounded... the attendant was very professional, the flight uneventful, and the touch down smooth on the LaGuardia runway. The taxi ride, well, it was rather thrilling. NASCAR sponsors need look no further than NY taxi drivers for the next Dale Earnhardt. The city seemed normal. Horns were in full abuse, tall buildings peered over us as we zoomed past, and Yankee fans were transfixed on a huge screen in Rockefeller Plaza watching the World Series.
I was really here... in the Big Apple!
I felt honored to have been invited to the New York City Marathon by David Monti, the elite athlete coordinator, to assist with elite athlete hospitality, and "anything else that came up." Even though the world, and especially New York, was still hung over from the tragic events of 9/11, I jumped at the chance. I shook off the travel fears because not only is the NYCM one of the most prestigious running events in the world, but this year was potentially very special with emotion and drama oozing out of every turn on every corner on every avenue in Manhattan. I couldn't wait to get started.
Wednesday, October 31 thru Saturday, November 3
My job in the days leading up to the race was pretty much undefined so I tried to make myself useful and help out whenever needed. The job ranged from glamorous (attending press conferences and receptions) to mundane (preparing elite athlete race packets, and carrying boxes of fruit from one hotel to another). I didn't care what I did. I was just thrilled to be part of the team.
The press conferences were held at the Tavern on the Green near the finish line in Central Park. I tried not to be too wide-eyed as I sat down with the nation's media. It was obvious the terrorist attacks were on everyone's mind. In his remarks, race director Allen Steinfeld said the 2001 NYCM was being dedicated to the victims of 9/11. The theme this year was "United We Run."
The athletes tried to be more stoic, but it was apparent their gas tanks would be partially fueled by emotion. In his remarks, American Keith Dowling said it was tough, but he was here to race. "With all respect to the families of 9/11, but I have to put a lot of this out of my head. I'm a professional, and I'm here to run a race."
At another press conference, the head table included 1984 gold medallist and former world record-holder Joan Benoit Samuelson, heir apparent to the thrown Deena Drossin, and multi-U.S. champ Milena Glusac. Drossin and Glusac were making their marathon debut. I could tell the excitement thermostat within the room had been raised a few degrees! All were very thankful the marathon was not cancelled and agreed that this was a very special year for the marathon. Samuelson said that running had always been a very big part of her life, and by running the marathon she could show her support for the city and victims of the terrorist attack.
The security for this year's race was monumental, something that had been thrown on David late in the game. I helped him prepare a security list for all elite athletes, their families, guests, agents, coaches, and volunteers. I could tell he was a little overwhelmed. Who wouldn't be? This year's marathon boasted over 200 elite athletes! Superstars from around the world were on the invitation list, as well as many of the best Americans for the USA National Championship, a first for New York.
Transportation for this elite assault on New York was certainly an immense project. Hundreds of athletes, agents, family, and officials were flying in from all over the world, arriving in either LaGuardia, Kennedy, or Newark airports at all times of the day. It was enough to send even the most systematic person into disarray. The NY crew of van drivers didn't miss anybody all week, including one VIP (at least to me)... Natalie!
Morning runs naturally took place in Central Park as it was only a few blocks away from our hotel. The park was alive with runners, bikers, walkers, rollerbladers, and dogs, but runners were the dominant life form. There didn't seem to be much order to this fitness revolution, as people came from all directions. It looked like a haphazard road race with swarms of runners wearing various forms of international attire parading through the famous park. The "homies" probably hate it when out-of-towners come in and destroy an otherwise tidy process. We ended up running along the marathon course and noticed the traditional blue line had been joined in paint with two other colors - red and white. Patriotism was abundant in this city!
On Saturday morning, David asked me to escort Kellie Cordell, one of the top Americans, to a TV interview at the finish line in Central Park. We got a late start, so David was a little nervous, this being a live interview. We grabbed a "yellow" but within minutes we were strangled in traffic jammed by the International Friendship Run, a 5k staged the day before the marathon for international runners. There just happened to be 14,000 runners in this "race!" So we hopped out of the cab and started hoofing it to the finish line, in the rain. We arrived at the finish line, with a few minutes to spare, to the welcome, yet worried arms of the NYCM PR coordinator.
Natalie and I took in the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall Saturday afternoon. Security was even tight at the show as they inspected Natalie's purse before we were allowed to enter. That evening we attended a very nice reception for the marathon, and then went out to dinner for our last night in the city. After dinner we had to get back to the hospitality room for a staff meeting to go over race day assignments. It was time to get serious!
David's team was very competent and experienced. We had several jobs on race day - make sure the athletes board the buses, travel with the athletes to the staging area, escort the athletes to the starting line, and then hustle back to the finish to help with the elite athlete reunion area, and media interviews. I couldn't wait until tomorrow!
Sunday, November 4 - The Marathon
We awoke to clear skies and a near perfect weather report... 50's and maybe low 60's by race time (10:50 am) and light winds. We dressed in our official NYCM gear, draped the heap of race credentials around our neck, and grabbed a quick breakfast with the elite athletes before boarding the buses. We had five buses, and each athlete was assigned to a specific bus. Our job was to check each athlete off our list, and double-check to assure each athlete had his or her bib number and computer chip.
We arrived at the staging area, which consisted of a small restaurant/bar for the top athletes, and a large tent for the rest of the elites. The athletes found a spot on the floor or a bench and contemplated on the task ahead.
It was awe-inspiring to me to be in the midst of such talent. At least thirteen men owned PR's under 2:10, with several under 2:08. Twelve women under 2:30, with most under 2:26. I found myself constantly whispering to Natalie, "that's so and so, she/he ran...". They were all very serious, all very focused, and all very talented athletes.
The buzz among our team was that Rudy Guliani was flying back from Phoenix where he attended Game 6 of the World Series the night before. When we saw several very large, very intimidating, very black cars pull into a vacant baseball field just below our staging area, the anticipation mounted. Secret Service, someone said. Moments later, a helicopter flew in over the bridge and landed on the baseball field. Sure enough, Rudy emerged, waved to our small group of athletes who had gathered outside to watch, and jumped in one of the black cars and sped away toward the starting line.
The time finally came to escort the runners to the start. My group escorted the elite American women to their starting position on the Verazzano-Narrows Bridge. We walked through a field, climbed through a small hole cut out of the fence, and popped out onto the bridge. We then walked about a quarter mile up the bridge past the throng of runners already in position, and finally to the front of the "red start" for elite women. Chills ran up and down me as the 25,000 or so runners cheered for these running professionals much the way a stadium full of adoring fans would give a standing ovation to the New York Yankees.
The scene on the bridge was like being at the 8th Wonder of the World... awesome, unbelievable, amazing, spectacular, breathtaking... these words don't come close to describing the splendor that is the start of the New York City Marathon. Imagine a literal sea of 25,000 running fanatics gathered on multiple spans of the bridge, all with a single mission. When Gordon Bakoulis, a native New Yorker and one of the elite women, arrived at the start, she wept openly. When asked if she was okay, she said, "I'm fine, just very emotional." This was truly a special day.
The cannon sounded and 25,000 people were on their 26.2-mile journey through the five Burroughs of New York City. Our team scurried to the median on the bridge and "skinnied up" as the runners stormed by. I stood up on the barrier to get a better look, thinking all the time, "I better not fall, I'll be trampled to death!" We waited until the runners cleared and took off running in the other direction on the bridge to our "escape vans." It seemed like a stampede of cattle had just passed with spare shirts, warm-ups, socks, and gloves strewn about. Someone told me these extra clothes would be gathered and taken to local shelters. Good idea...
Our team packed into two vans and took off with a police escort on a pre-determined route to the finish line. Within minutes we had lost the police escort, so we were on our own in the NYC traffic, paying tolls, stopping at lights, and waiting impatiently for slower drivers. David had a portable TV so he was giving us race updates. I was sitting next to a young gentleman from Ethiopia, an elite runner himself who wasn't running. His friend was one of the race favorites so he was very interested in his progress. He was happy to learn he was still in the lead pack.
At one red light, we looked up, and there it was, right in front of us... Ground Zero. The chatter silenced as the van went solemn for the moment. It was a chilling sight... an "in-your-face" reminder of the horror that was 9/11.
The light changed, and we were on our way once again. We eventually entered Manhattan and neared Central Park. Someone suddenly screamed, "There's Jerry Seinfeld!" Sure enough, there he was, sitting on a stoop outside an apartment with a baseball cap, looking just like anybody else hanging out on a nice day, catching the excitement of the marathon. We got close to the finish line, so everyone jumped out and hurried to the finish.
Our team had two assignments at the finish and we split into two groups. One large group was to identify the elite athletes as they finished and help them to the family reunion area. Natalie and I were with the other group. Our job was to grab the top runners (top 3 men and women, top 3 U.S. men and women) as they finished and escort them to the media tent for interviews. Security was extremely tight and we needed almost every security badge we had to make it anywhere near the finish line. Police officers were everywhere and they were intent on doing their job! We were thankful.
David transformed from mild-mannered elite athlete coordinator to rough and tough drill sergeant as the top runners began streaming into the finish area. He barked orders and waved his arms, and we responded. Natalie was sent in all directions gathering gear for the elites and hurrying it to the athlete, wherever he/she may be. I escorted several athletes to the media tent or to the family reunion area. I felt like an emergency room warden as I literally carried these exhausted soldiers to a welcome seat or first aid table.
We carried out our assignments for as long as we could at the marathon, but Natalie and I had to make an early exit due to an afternoon flight departure. We waved good-bye to Sergeant David and the team, and jogged back to the hotel from Central Park. We gathered our bags and hailed a cab. No problem. We jumped in the back seat and noticed that our driver was wearing a turban and spoke a form of English we couldn't understand. It sure wasn't East Tennessee! Natalie and I looked at each other and our first instinct was to bolt, but we didn't, and thus began an uptight, out-of-sight journey to LaGuardia airport that rivaled anything Sega could mastermind into a video game.
First, we got caught in traffic. And I mean caught. Trapped. Hopelessly knotted. I'm not so naïve to think that road races don't cause traffic problems, but I guess I've never experienced it first hand from the "other side." Watching streams and streams of runners go by my car window was like Disney World in peak season, Knoxville after a Tennessee football game, and Myrtle Beach on July 4th, all rolled together into one event.
We waited. We inched along. We waited longer. Our driver (who turned out to be a great guy by the way) tried side roads. No luck. He asked other cabbies where to go. They would give him suggestions but when we got there, all we could see were runners. Seas of runners. I think a mad scientist cloned millions of people in shorts and Nikes and marched them down 5th Avenue in Manhattan at one time. It was a nightmare. Suddenly I hated runners.
Our problem was that we couldn't get "across" the marathon course since the race ran north and south and we had to go east. We kept going north, peaking around blocks and corners, looking for an opening in the never-ending stampede of two-legged creatures. We finally ended up in what looked like a neighborhood and I looked at a sign atop a grocery... Harlem!
Ok, so maybe I went into panic mode. I guess I watch too much TV. I imagined gangs and drugs and murders right in front of my eyes. I did see old, run-down buildings and plenty of graffiti, but no murders, especially mine. Thank goodness!
Our driver was now on a personal mission to get us to the airport. He darted down a side street and stopped to ask some guys, who were washing a car on the side of the road, which way to go. I slumped down low in the seat. I again imagined a worst-case scenario - Harlem, turban-headed cab driver, and two wide-eyed bumpkins from the hills of Tennessee in the back seat. The Boyz from the Hood probably decided this was just too easy. I was planning my escape. I figured I might be able to outrun them; the heck with my luggage, they can have it. No, I had to stay and protect Natalie. I would be brave.
They waved their arms around and pointed. Hey, they were actually giving us directions! Maybe we would get out of this alive. We began to move and our driver continued his undertaking. We finally found an opening and successfully crossed beyond the runners. We made it! Now, on to the airport!
Turban Man turned into Turbo Taxi Man as soon as we hit an open stretch of road. Our tires were screeching, when they touched the road, and I was afraid to look at the speedometer. We were surely going triple digits. We hit an expressway and he went even faster. We took curves on two wheels. I clenched Natalie's hand, closed my eyes, and said my last rights. At least we would go together.
When I opened my eyes I was amazed to see us storming into Laguardia with all auto parts still intact. I was never so happy to put two feet on the ground in my life. Two+ hours from the time we climbed into the back seat of the taxi to the time we touched down at the taxi stand at the airport. But we made it. I tipped Turbo Man graciously and we lumbered into the terminal and to our gate.
I suddenly realized that our marathon trip was now over. We had stayed so busy and occupied that the days passed like minutes on the clock. We boarded the plane, and knew it was time to say farewell to New York City.
The city may have been brought to its knees by 9/11, but it was back up again. It was driving. It was breathing. It was running. It was living. It was fantastic!