77. Running with Joy

77. Running with Joy

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

Running with Joy

It’s not your finishing time that’s important but the kind of time you have finishing.
 ~Art Castellano, Director New Jersey Marathon

While every marathon is 26.2 miles, New York’s is special because of its sold-out field of 38,000 international participants, the thunderous cheers for the runners throughout the five-borough course, and — well — because it’s New York City. The 2008 marathon was my second New York City Marathon and my fourteenth marathon overall. While it was my slowest marathon, it nevertheless would be one of my most memorable.

The day before the marathon, I had lunch with eighty-one-year-old Joy Johnson, who was about to run her twenty-first consecutive NYC Marathon — a streak that very few have accomplished. Joy still had the competitive juices flowing through her, as a younger rival, a champion runner the prior year, had entered the eighty to eighty-five age group to challenge her for first place. Joy was determined to better her 2007 winning time. She had stepped up her training regimen, including fifty miles of running each week plus speed work, hill-repeats, and running on stadium steps. Joy had been coached by former Olympian Jeff Galloway and at the Dick Beardsley running camps. Indeed, I first met Joy at Jeff’s annual summer camp where we bonded during breakfasts after the morning’s wake-up jog. Because we were again enjoying each other’s company at our lunch with family and friends, Joy asked me to “pace her,” to stay close to her subsix-hour goal for the marathon. I happily accepted the challenge.

On marathon Sunday, Joy was eager to run; I had to keep reminding her to slow down during the start and stay on the agreed pace. Our strategy was to run for 2 minutes and then to walk a stretch to conserve our legs and reduce the adrenaline rush. We had many bridges to cross before we would cross the finish line in Central Park near the Tavern on the Green. It was important that we conserve our energy. The start was across the two-mile-long Verrazano Bridge. We dashed through Brooklyn for the next eleven miles, followed by a quick hop over the Pulaski Bridge for a short visit to the borough of Queens. At mile 15 we pounded up the ramp of the 100-year-old 59th Street Bridge feeling groovy. We cantered this mile-long stretch leading back into Manhattan, our hearts pounding in anticipation of stepping onto First Avenue, where the largest and loudest bunch of fans waited for the runners and their final ten miles of the marathon. The sound of the cheers in many languages coalesced with the sight of all the colorful running outfits from France, Mexico, Japan, Spain, and other countries. We had huge smiles on our faces and goose-bumps on our arms that had nothing to do with the cold, windy day.

Family and friends lined the avenue. We made time for quick hugs and nourishment of energy gels, concentrated paste that we call “vanilla frosting,” washed down by water. As we made our way up the avenue, we knew the fastest runners had long gone by. It was now a people’s run and the folks on the sidelines did not disappoint, her admirers shouting “Go Joy,” and others cheering “Go CERT Will,” the “CERT” a reference to my proudly worn embossed shirt honoring my volunteer colleagues in the Community Emergency Response Team.

Joy was on target for her sub-six-hour time when she got leg cramps after mile 18 that almost caused her to fall. Joy leaned on my arm as she pressed her fingers into the cramp but worried aloud that she was now out of the race. At this moment, my role changed from pacing Joy to helping her regain mental focus. I kept us moving and reached out for help. From another runner who had salt packets, Joy spilled some on the back of her hand and licked the salt to recoup sodium into her blood stream. Then, luckily, we spotted a local coach who always sported the biggest smile, cheering everyone on the course. We were relieved to realize he was holding “the stick” that runners use to massage cramped limbs. We did a quick stick massage on Joy’s calf to break down the cramp. To my delight, Joy was receptive to my suggestions to change to a quick, short walking stride with head held high, back of neck elongated, eyes scanning ahead, shoulders relaxed, and arms swinging backwards as if hitting a bar with the elbows. Joy soldiered on and waited for her body to tell her when she could start to run again.

We finally trotted into the Bronx via the Willis Avenue Bridge, a tough spot as mile 20 is called the “runner’s wall” that separates those who ran smart from those who were hurting. Since we had run smart, we galloped over the Madison Avenue Bridge back into Manhattan. Looping back into Central Park, we felt a surge of energy knowing we had only two miles to go. We left the park one last time at East 59th Street and, jogging towards Columbus Circle, we could see ourselves on the JumboTron. We did a quick check to be sure we were smear-free — we wanted to look good for our finisher’s photo. We did it — and Joy was again first in her age group, shaving over 50 minutes from her 2007 win! When Joy jogged the final two miles, I had the biggest smile of all because I made a difference by being there for her, every step of the way.

With our finishers’ medals draped over us, I escorted Joy to her midtown hotel and then I floated home to the East 60s. What kind of time did we have? Priceless!

~William Sanchez

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