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On the run in New York

11 November 1996
The Times

While pounding Hampstead Heath, Oliver August set his sights on breaking a marathon barrier.

Three hours; 180 minutes; 10,800 seconds. That is the sound-barrier for marathon runners. The sub-three hour club isn't exclusive, world-class runners jog the 26 miles in a little over two hours. But for an amateur, a two-hour something marathon is quite an achievement.

At least that is what I have been telling myself over the past few months as I have ploughed around Hampstead Heath in the dark. My chosen location for an attempt at joining the sub-three hour club was New York, home of the hyperactive. Now I was facing the Verrazano Narrows bridge, the world's second largest suspension bridge and starting point of the New York City Marathon.

How much of an uphill struggle this would be was easy to grasp. Unlike the London Marathon, there were no easy-to-overtake runners dressed up as Mr Blobby or Mystic Meg. I was sandwiched between 30,000 lean Americans (I didn't know there were that many), and it seemed that getting across the starting line, let alone reaching Manhattan, was going to take more than three hours. I was cold, I was claustrophobic and I had missed the last chance to go to the toilets - they still called them "bath rooms" even though they were stinking portable lavatories. Opposite, the world's longest urinal - 380 feet - had been erected. Unfortunately, it collapsed at one end as runners were leaving the various pre-race religious ceremonies in the warm-up area.

The start gun went off. Five minutes later I was still standing in the same spot. I overheard a conversation between two marathon veterans, almost Clinton and Dole lookalikes, one tall and talkative, the other thinner and more sceptical. Bill said: "A marathon shouldn't hurt till the very end." Bob said: "You just push through, I guess."

How I wanted to agree with them. But my first marathon, in Leeds last spring, had taught me a different lesson. Until mile 20 I had been moving at a somewhat over-optimistic pace as it turned out. What happened after mile 20 I find difficult to recall because I was only just conscious enough to stay upright. The running community has coined two terms that describe what happens when your body runs out of fuel: "hitting the wall" or simply "blowing up".

In the last six miles of the Leeds marathon I was passed by the most humiliating range of runners. One-legged pensioners still seemed to have enough breath to mutter something patronising as they hobbled past. I eventually finished in three hours 38 minutes. My second and so far only other marathon saw a decent enough improvement in my finishing time but was equally painful. I bumbled along the Thames from Windsor to Chiswick in 3 hours 14 minutes. Getting under three hours now seemed to be within my grasp.

It took 15 minutes to get over and off the Verrazano Narrows bridge. We were heading north through Brooklyn and the weather and atmosphere were warming up. Runners took off jumpers and woolly hats and tossed them into the crowd. Many runners had T-shirts with their names printed on and the crowds readily cheered "Go Ollie, Go Ollie, Go".

Thousands had come out. This was a street party as typically American as the chocolate chip cookie. Children had lined up with their hands held out, waiting to slap a runner's hand. Their mothers looked on with baskets of food and slices of fruit for us. Meanwhile, a different band was playing on every street corner, urging the runners onwards with anything from jazz to the theme tune from the Rocky films.

More than once I felt like asking "why aren't you running?" But I was still feeling fit and well. I was logging seven minutes per mile which put me on course for my sub-three hour goal.

Running the New York marathon must be one of the safest and most comprehensive sightseeing tours of the city. Protected by a wall of well-meaning spectators we ran through some of the poorest and most crime-ridden neighbourhoods. No tourist would dare to come here at any other time. Yet these areas reveal a surprising picture. To judge from the segregation among the crowds, the idea of America as a melting-pot seems preposterous. Cubans, Mexicans, Jews, Afro-Americans, Koreans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Italians, Russians - they all occupy their own separate blocks, offering their own food and playing their own music.

The marathon as a sightseeing tour became even more attractive as we left Brooklyn at the halfway point, dipped into Queens for two miles and then crossed the East River into Manhattan. There is little that hasn't been said about the Manhattan skyline, and the view from the 59th Street Bridge, made famous in a Simon and Garfunkel song, made all the effort of getting there on foot worthwhile.

In Manhattan along First Avenue, the crowds were even denser than in Brooklyn but some runners were already fading and starting to walk. At mile 20 a medical tent was waiting for them, with more than 50 nurses kneeling by their haggard and blistered patients. I had just passed the tent and entered Fifth Avenue in Harlem for the final stretch when my body started to rebel. I had reached "the wall"; my club membership wasn't going to be cheap.

Asymphony of marathon noises is all that my brain registered in the last five miles. A subway train rushing below. The never-ending it's-not-much-further shouts from the crowds. Dogs barking in the adjoining Central Park. At the water stations, the sounds of the half-full cups splashing onto the road, the squashing noise when the following runners stepped on them, and then the gentle rustling as the wind swept the empty and flattened cups across the Manhattan canyons.

The finish line announced its proximity with a deafening roar. Runners grunted, barely audible, as they crossed it. Then, silence, for the first time in 3 hours, 3 minutes and 24 seconds.

(c) Times Newspapers Ltd, 1996.

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