Wissot: The first hundred marathons are the hardest
I ran the New York City Marathon last month along with 50,000 other runners, most of whom finished hours ahead of me. It was my 100th marathon and one of the happiest days of my life — which covers a fair amount of time since I turn 78 next month.
Friends on social media congratulating me asked, “What’s next on your bucket list?” Which surprised me, because running 100 marathons wasn’t on my bucket list. I’ve never had a bucket list. “Just do it“ is good, and “Just did it” is better. These have been my running mantras. My goal each year was simply to run a fast-enough qualifying time on a certified race course to earn entry into the Boston Marathon. Over a 30-year period between 1986 and 2016, I qualified and ran in that fabled race 12 times.
When I turned 70, I ran a 4-hour, 35-minute marathon in Boston, which is what I would need to qualify today. Aging, however, has taken its greedy toll and I’m no longer able to run that fast. I’ve become slower faster in the last seven years. If I ran any slower, I’d be mistaken for a stop sign. I needed a replacement goal while waiting to take up residence in elderland.
I ran my 80th marathon in Jerusalem in 2018 and that’s when the idea of completing 100 marathons emerged. 2020 was a lost year because COVID-19 caused the cancellation of most races. I hit the 90 marathon mark in Coeur D’ Alene, Idaho, in May of 2021 and dedicated myself to reaching 100 before my declining body said no mas. In the last 12 months, I completed 10 marathons — twice the number of marathons I’ve ever run in a year.
My wife, Alyn, is an elite runner, something I’ve never been. In a span of eight days in 2005, at age 54, she won the Antarctica Marathon and then the Tierra del Fuego Marathon in Argentina. For winning two marathons eight days apart on two continents in her mid-50s, the now-shuttered Rocky Mountain News dubbed her “The Queen of the Penguins.” Alyn and I have run marathons together for the past 30 years. We’ve run them on all seven continents. I never could have accomplished what little I’ve achieved as a runner without her by my side.
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It was hot in New York City on the day of the marathon. When I began running at 11:30 a.m. in the last race wave designated for the slowest runners, the temperature was 75 degrees, as was the humidity. When I finished 6 1/2 hours later at 6 p.m., it had cooled way down to 72 degrees. I didn’t mind the heat, having run in hotter and more humid conditions before. During the first New York City Marathon I ran in 1979, the temperatures were in the 80s. When I finished the Boston Marathon in 2012 the temperature was 89 degrees.
When running a marathon on a hot and humid day, it’s important to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. I did. I not only drank water and electrolyte replacement drinks at every aid station, but I asked the volunteers to pour water from a bottle over my head in order to regulate my body temperature.
To say I had fun running that day would be like remarking that kids enjoy amusement parks. I was over the moon giddy. I ran some and danced some to the beat of the Latin music coming from the numerous bands playing along the race route, gave high fives to kids and fist bumps to adults who were among the million-plus spectators lining the streets to support strangers, friends and family members from dawn to dusk.
A close friend from Denver of both Alyn and mine had assembled a cheering section at mile 17 on First Avenue. I stopped to thank them and posed for a group video. A few blocks later, I met up with a young friends of ours from Colorado who had moved to the city years ago. They handed me their adorable infant daughter and once again I gladly participated in a photo shoot.
I was in no hurry to finish. I was enjoying myself too much. I savored every memorable moment. I wanted to freeze the fleeting seconds. I recalled the answer I gave people who asked me why I still ran marathons. I told them because I can, and that I fully realize what I’m able to do today is not an indication of what I’ll be able to do tomorrow.
When I reached 106th Street and Fifth Avenue, 3 miles from the finish line, I stopped to stare at a building and began crying. It’s now a nursing home owned by the Archdiocese of New York. Back in 1945, it was Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital. It’s where I was born. I accosted two bystanders cheering on runners and held them hostage for several minutes while I explained why this particular nursing home site meant so much to me.
I resumed running and then for no discernible reason began laughing like a loon and doing my best imitation of an escapee from lower Manhattan’s Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital. It had taken me almost 50 years to run 100 marathons and I didn’t care if I looked bat-crap crazy.
I’ve never felt as relaxed and confident running the final miles of a marathon. It was pitch dark in a crowd-packed Central Park when I saw the finish line lit up in bright white lights. They didn’t look like ordinary lights. They looked like beacons illuminating the gates of heaven and I was anxious to reach them so I could throw my arms around the angels waiting there to embrace me.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.