On Sunday, Nov. 5, Team Asim spent the day running through Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan during the iconic TCS NYC Marathon.
Although I’m about one week removed from the race, the experience still seems surreal. Did our Achilles group really log 26.2 miles in the Big Apple—with more than 50,000 fellow runners?
Sunday’s journey through the five boroughs marked several second times for me: guiding the marathon distance for Achilles; covering the distance ever; and tackling 26.2 miles this year. In March, I guided the same athlete for the Queens Marathon, but even with this outing, I still felt anxious. Leading a disabled athlete through a race is a huge responsibility, and my biggest fear was that something would happen to me—or to one of our three additional guides—that would impact our athlete’s race. The marathon is an equalizer in the sense that it challenges everyone who toes the start line. Although I trusted my Corona Park experience, I did not discount the inevitable tough patches our team would face. But that’s the marathon: when you’ve been out there for a while, and your legs feel like logs and every step takes all your energy, how do you respond? I had faith in our team to remain positive, hang tough, and cross the finish line.
Marathon weekend unofficially began on Thursday when I ventured to the Javits Center to pick up my guide bib and race materials, and on Friday evening, there was an Achilles International dinner at the Hotel Pennsylvania. That’s when reality of the race started to sink in: athletes from around the world (Denmark, Mexico, and even South Africa just to name a few) were running, and I felt honored for the opportunity to be part of my athlete’s race. On Saturday night, Team Asim—our namesake, four guides, plus family members and friends—went out to dinner, and then we got down to business of reviewing the game plan. Asim tabbed me as the lead guide and pacesetter, meaning I was responsible for locking in to our goal speed, communicating our formation, observations, and needs, and ensuring we functioned as a team. We decided to break up the race into six-mile segments, and though all four of us would be tackling the complete distance, we would take turns using the race belt to guide Asim. (The first guide would do miles one through six, the second six through 12, etc.) Asim asked me to guide him for the final stretch—miles 18 through the end—I was honored. Those later miles are the toughest of the day, so the fact that I got the guide “anchor leg” was a huge responsibility. Mentally, that’s when I told myself the race would start. My goal was to be a sparkplug, to create sustainable, contagious energy that would carry us to the finish line.
My alarm sounded at 4:30am on Sunday morning, and Asim and I inhaled some oatmeal before catching a cab to the Athletes With Disabilities (AWD) buses on 38th Street and Fifth Avenue. It was really neat to see a sea of runners descending on Midtown so early in the morning! The ride to Staten Island took about an hour, and upon our arrival, we hung out in the AWD Village until our 9:50 a.m. wave. During this time, we talked to fellow runners and reviewed the pace plan. Our goal was to break five hours, but we were prepared to make adjustments as necessary. We would check in with each other every mile, of course, but I wanted us averaging 10:45-11:00 min./mi. My main checkpoints were miles 13 and 18; we needed to hit those miles feeling decent and in control of the effort. From there, the grind would begin—staying strong mentally and continuing to move forward.
Running down our marathon dreams in Brooklyn
Although it was a little chilly at the start line on the Verrazano Bridge, the temperature hovered around 45-50 degrees throughout the day, and there was a continuous light misting of rain. These were perfect conditions for me, but the weather posed an added challenge for a visually impaired athlete: the precipitation led to slick pavement, and the road itself was littered with cups, nutrition wrappers, and other debris that we had to navigate.
Another factor that tested Team Asim was the 50,000-plus other runners. We started the race at the back of the first wave, so the opening miles weren’t crowded, but as we logged miles 8-13 in Brooklyn, the on-course traffic was unrelenting. Most athletes were courteous and moved to the side when we announced there was a blind running approaching. Some racers infiltrated our formation and cut directly in from of Asim, and there were two instances specifically where I “gently guided” these folks out of the way. During our Brooklyn stint, I did a lot of diagonal running with my arms totally extended (think a basketball defensive stance) to create a human shield around Asim with the goal of ensuring no one would obstruct his space.
When you see one of your friends at mile 24 …
Brooklyn was by far the toughest area to guide, but it was also the most fun. I literally ran into one of my friends who was racing, and I saw two more buds spectating. The narrow streets made it easy to read signs—throughout the day, we read aloud signs to Asim—and it also creating a wall of sound: cheering, clapping, horns, cowbells. The weather was not conducive to watching a marathon so it meant a lot to see so many people braving the elements and urging us on. Our team was super grateful for the energy and the cheers, and lots of fellow runners gave us a thumbs up or a “Go Achilles” on the course. Those moments were magic.
The going got tough for Team Asim around mile 18 when cramps arrived, forcing us to take our first walk break. (That was also when race officials announced Shalane Flanagan won the women’s race!) Prior to the race and even during the event itself, the magnitude of running 26.2 miles didn’t phase me—mostly because I didn’t give it the headspace. But it was impossible to dismiss those feelings in the Bronx. My arms felt like bricks from playing zone defense in Brooklyn. My left hip was also noticeable, but thankfully not debilitating. Finally, I acknowledged everything: I was running a marathon; it’s not supposed to be easy, but I am fine; and I have one job, and that’s to get Team Asim to the finish line in Central Park. But it’s in these moments of discomfort where change, growth, and magic happen—a fact I relayed to Asim. We were all going through our own tough spells, and I told him we were all in this together.
They say if the hurt comes, then so will the happiness. We powered through the final miles in the Bronx and in Central Park, running when we could and walking when necessary. The fans were absolutely phenomenal, giving us all a much needed boost. (And I saw another one of my friends!) As we exited the park, headed along Central Park West, and reentered for the final time, we began to cheer and throw up our hands to get the crowd to cheer for Asim. We picked it up during that half-mile uphill and finished in 5:28.
We look gooooood
Volunteering for Achilles has redefined my outlook on sport, and I encourage all runners, endurance athletes, and fitness enthusiasts to give guiding a try.