16 November 2023

“What actually drives happiness are simple routines and daily rituals in our lives that create community and connectedness, finding pleasure and fulfillment in connecting with others, showing gratitude and using positive thinking to create positive outcomes is scientifically proven to make you happier.” This statement from the Harvard Leadership and Happiness Lab really sums up what I derived from running the New York Marathon in November 2023.

My “achievement” of this not insignificant feat and reaching this goal, has also helped me reflect on the fact that running in a marathon isn’t simply a personal challenge and achievement. Of course it’s a solo run, but it’s a huge team effort. Ultimately, as anyone who has done one will attest, it’s something that cannot be done alone.

The love and support shown by my friends and family has been humbling. They’re there from beginning to end, cheering me on, motivating me and keeping my dream alive.

My extended family have been brilliant with their help with the kids and with messages of support and love. Their interest and support has been instrumental in achieving this goal.

Additionally my long departed Grandfather Max, who imparted a lifelong love of running onto me, has been by my side in spirit throughout the training and the race.

My friends have sent messages of support and congratulations, many with tips and traps from their own experiences, they have also made the experience so rewarding. So many messages and so much care and love, it’s overwhelming.

My boys, Charlie and Max have been fantastic too. Intrigued, excited, proud. I hope they are motivated by this to set their sights high, do the hard work and achieve their goals.

Having said all of that, it’s important to note that during the darkest times of the run, it wasn’t the electric crowd, it wasn’t my own grit or determination, it was thinking of all of my supporters that gave me the strength to finish.

Further to this was the decision to raise funds for the Jodi Lee Bowel Cancer Foundation. I’ve got a history with JLF Founder Nick Lee and when I approached Nick and asked him how I could secure entry he went out of his way to organise the pathway for me. Nick has completed the Marathon and had plenty of advice for me too.

My Marathon

The Lead Up

I arrived in New York a week before the run. In my mind was a strategy to minimise jet lag and travel tiredness in order to ensure peak physical prowess during the run.

Naturally what transpired was different.

I became an avid tourist, racking up my “steps” daily as I explored Central Park, MOMA, the Guggenheim, Empire State Building, The Rock, The Statue of Liberty etc etc.  – tired legs were a result. I had my first run immediately after I had set up in the hotel. Down Broadway and around Central Park. Glorious track and magical surroundings. They were already setting up the finishing line, which naturally began an exciting build up. I had “tweaked” my ankle in a run just prior to leaving Adelaide but I was pleased at this point with my running. The ankle ache was very apparent though and a little nerve wracking.

As the days continued to tick past my sense anticipation and excitement grew. I had a couple of last tune up runs in the Taper period which went well and the ankle, albeit heavily strapped, was coming up better each day.

I had some great conversations in this period with mates who had run the marathon in previous years. They provided excellent advice and one of my closest mates was very clear about the dark places I would go to and why the course was so challenging. His advice was to continue to run through the pain to the very end, an end that would be “golden”. He was right.

Even with the time difference my wife Aims was on speed dial for all sorts of thoughts (positive and negative), ideas, motivation and comfort. She was a rock, never wavering in her positivity and encouragement. She has been a huge supporter of this dream from start to finish.

Two days prior to the race I ran the last 3 miles to familiarise myself with the finish of the event. This was done on advice from a previous participant. 5th Ave is a slight incline and as you’re running towards Central Park at that last stage of the race you could be tricked into thinking you’re closer to the finish line than you are. That was a fabulous run and by this stage the Central Park Marathon Finish Line structure was built and the flags and grandstands were up. There was a real carnival feel and this was a hugely rewarding run.

The next day I went to the Race Expo and collected my bib and looked through the exhibition. Lots of interesting things there, including an Aussie playing AFL in a US team who wore the Crows gear as their strip. Weird coincidence.

By this point nutrition and tapering were in the front of my mind, along with visualising the race start and finish. I had done a trip out to Staten Island on the Subway and Ferry to get on top of that aspect for the morning of the race.

The joy of carb loading cannot be overstated after a very careful diet!! Lots of delicious pizza and pasta. At this point I was also advised to hit the electrolyte drinks and up the hydration. I was in blissful ignorance of the enormity of the challenge that lay ahead.

With 24 hours to race time I was forced to reflect on all the training and I used the “perfect preparation” internal conversation to get my mind straight. With so much targeted training I was as prepared as I could be. I remember thinking that I was really ready to run. Ready and raring to go!!

I was a crammer at University and so this concept of following the plan, doing small (and large) increments regularly to achieve the desired outcome was not my natural state. Having done all the work and not missed a single training event of the plan, I had done everything I could. From this moment onwards I was clear minded and ready to go.

Race Day

The start is structured in waves and my start time was scheduled to take off from Staten Island at 11am.

I had an early night, but with jet lag and time zone differences, plus the anticipation and excitement I only had a light sleep but with pretty good duration. I was up and about early at 6am. Ankle felt the best it had for the week – which was a great relief. I strapped up my ankles, feet and toes and got into my race gear.

Again on advice from previous participants I had a shirt printed with my name emblazoned all over it, I had some special socks that helped with a slight numbing I get in my toes and my favourite pair of shorts with 2KU compression pants. I had to suck in some deep breaths when I was attaching my race bib, but other than that I was particularly calm. Interesting given the hype and excitement of the lead up.

I headed for the buffet at the hotel and had some fruit, bagels and peanut butter and milk. Apparently all good for pre-race breakfast. This had to be consumed at least 3hrs before the race to ensure proper digestion and hopefully a stable stomach through the race. This was the last “real food” I would eat until past race. Gels, Gatorade and water being the only things on offer for the next 12hrs.

With breakfast done and out of the way, I checked the weather and the forecast was 18C and fine – perfect for the event.  I headed off to the Subway at 50th Street and caught the number 1 train bound for Staten Island. There were loads of people in the Subway Station waiting for the train and a real collegiate atmosphere. The anticipation, excitement and fear was building. It was palpable and when the the train arrived full of people it was more exciting again.  I sat next to a guy who had had an interrupted training programme because he had hurt his knee a month prior and hadn’t run on it in the preceding 4 weeks. I wonder now how he went. A fleeting exchange, it was just what I needed to stay calm and keep focused.  The train was packed with so many different cultures, many different languages and all different shapes and sizes of human beings. It was a real cross section of the world all who had come together for the NY Marathon.

I arrived at the Ferry Terminal. The volume of people participating began to become clearer to me.  Hoards were in the terminal building waiting to board one of many of the massive vessels to take us all over to the starting village.

The ferry ride was quick, with highly revved up people and smooth. Everyone in a really vibrant and happy place all looking to realise their individual goal. The collective energy was electric.

On arrival at Staten Island we were corralled into buses and bussed to the starting village. I was on bus #12 which was an extremely comfortable coach. It took about another 30mins to get to the starting village.

The starting village was massive and divided into colours. I was Blue and in E Corral 5. I had about an hour of down time and spent that time relaxing and stretching. A table of New York locals were next to me and they were in a particularly relaxed and jovial mood. They were thrilled that I had come in from Australia to run and were kind, welcoming and interested in my “game plan”.

We were then called over the loud speaker to our corrals. I was Blue E and I was ready. I had a finishing goal duration time and I found my pace keeper amongst the crowd and drew in some deep breaths and waited. The runners were all cheering and egging each other on. It was an extraordinarily encouraging and uplifting environment. Lots of cheering and clapping. There was a brilliant vibe.

Surprisingly resigned to my fate at this point, I was calm and relaxed and really ready to roll out.  No butterflies or anything just ready to for the starting cannon. The enormity of the occasion was masked as I was standing in my “corral” waiting to move onto the Staten Island Bridge officially the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, or “the Narrows”. The Staten Island edge of the bridge is the starting line and the bridge connects Staten Island and Brooklyn. The double-deck bridge carries 13 lanes: The structure is named for Giovanni da Verrazzano, who in 1524 was the first European explorer to enter New York Harbor and the Hudson River.

As we exited the corral and made our way onto the bridge the sheer enormity of the occasion was immediately apparent. I was in Wave 5 meaning 40,000 plus people had already departed on their run, and the bridge was still absolutely rammed with people. My wave consisted effectively of 10,000 runners. We made our way out onto the bridge. Really great tunes were being blasted out from a massive sound system and DJ set up at the starting line.

A few butterflies crept in at this point as well as a euphoric wave that swept over me. “This is it, this is the New York Marathon and I’m about to get started, bloody hell there’s a massive crowd and this is a massive thing!!”

We gathered closer to the start and began to get revved for the beginning. The weather was pretty warm and humid at this stage. Much more so than the forecast 18 degrees. No breeze and midday heat.

Race Start

All of a sudden the countdown was over and a massive cannon boom sounded (from an actual cannon operated by the US Army) and we were off and running NYRR Marathon 2023. Go time baby!!

I was in my “Big Nick” printed t-shirt and so as I ran past the DJ booth the MC called “Go Big Nick” this was the first of many, many times I would hear that call during the race. I had my time keeper in my sights and resonating in my head was “don’t go too hard too early”. So many people had shared this common error and I was intent on making sure I didn’t fall into that trap.

The first 2km was 1km up the Narrows and 1km down it. Relatively straight forward but a slightly mean start and definitely the start of a feature of the race I wasn’t fully aware of “the hills”. Felt fantastic, it was a great start for me, and physically I was in great shape.

On a side note there was a tragedy on the up track 500m from the start line. An older participant collapsed and died at the scene. At the risk of stating the obvious, it would have been utterly devastating for his family and friends. This caused a few issues with the medical teams trying to get an ambulance through the crowd and for the first responding participants who immediately rendered cardiac massage and mouth to mouth. It was a grim scene a stark reminder to get all the relevant health checks prior to my next run.

I held myself back and stuck with my pace makers. We were a relatively large contingent of runners all in a great head space. We hit Brooklyn at 97th Street running along 4th Ave. There were literally runners as far as the eye could see. I couldn’t see the end of the pack. It was extraordinary. This was also the first of the spectators we encountered along the route. Cheering, music, words of encouragement and general banter were all features along this part of the course.

Such high spirits at this point and really travelling on air. It seemed like the first 8km just evaporated and I tricked myself into believing it was going to be like this the whole way.

“You got this Big Nick”, “Keep going Nick”, “Looking strong Nick” was the chorus of encouragement. Estimates of over 1 million spectators and they’re all vocal, fun and engaged. Truly remarkable.

When we turned off 4th and onto Lafayette Street, a sense of the scale, duration and difficulty began to set in. I was conscious of the Mile Markers, other people in the race, encouraging and uplifting each other, and of course the much vaunted crowd. Constantly calling out my name and clapping and bringing me extra energy.

By the half way marker I was feeling great. I had completed multiple half marathon races and 20, 25, 30 and 35km in my training, so was pretty sure I was on track for a good time, without much incident. Perfect preparation being my mantra. Hard work in training has been done, no corners cut, so I’ve got this!!!

However the future was significantly different for me.

At the 25km mark I began to feel a degree of lethargy in my legs and my stomach began cramping. Again the crowd, thoughts of my family and friends and other competitors lifted my spirits to continue.

By 30km my pace had slowed and I began a new mantra of “what the hell is this you’re doing to your body”. Aching legs, hips, stomach, the crowd is key and my mental state had to be addressed. “Only 12km left, that’s just down the Anzac Highway, City to Bay length – you got this!”

By this point we are in close quarters with the crowd, high fives, eye contact, use of my name and encouragement was immensely helpful. Other participants are checking in “how are you?” and “do you need anything?” These encouraging remarks are going on between participants non-stop – as we all begin to hit the wall. Nothing can prepare me properly for what the next 2hrs would do to me.

35km and I am wrecked. My longest training run distance was 35km – it was a breeze by comparison. My whole body is aching now, my stomach cramp has become a serious problem and I’m counselling myself to continue. My best mate had messaged me in the lead up and advised “not to walk because you won’t be able to start running again” and in the state I was in that was 100% correct. My legs, my hips, my shoulders, arms and stomach are all aching or cramping now.  No matter how slow my jog became, I maintained my form and used a positive mindset plus visualisation of the finish line to keep going.

Up 5th Avenue and into Central Park I could feel the race and course coming to an end. Dead silence from the participants now, everyone is shattered, but the crowd continuing to support us and uplift us. There’s a man, a stranger, a fellow participant, he’s in good spirits, giving us all huge levels of encouragement to dig to the deepest parts of our bodies and give it everything.

Kilometre by kilometre, it seems to take forever to mow down the last of the course. Then, all of a sudden, we pop out of Central Park again, I can see the Plaza Hotel where I turn and I’m into the home stretch towards the Columbus Circle. 2km, 1500m, 1000m, 800m and back into Central Park into the home straight. 400m to go the road is lined with flags from all the nations competing, the music is pounding, the crowd is in grandstands and I can see the line. A burst of adrenaline drives me to lift my speed “This has to be your best effort now mate – for myself, for everyone.”

I pick up my pace, all the pain subsides momentarily as I run hard to the finish. Crossing the line with my arms raised. I can’t believe I have finished.

Post Race

From deep within me a groan erupts, like a seal barking, and I begin cry uncontrollably. Trying to get breath back into my lungs, my cramping abdominals are preventing deep breathing and instead it’s coming in short breaths. Cramps and pain come back with a vengeance and through my tears I look for the medal distributor – the medal. Where is my medal?

Wandering from side to side, wailing and disoriented I see the medals and recovery packs, offered by race organisers and sponsors, I walk towards them, I’m offered Medical Assistance, I refuse knowing I’m just competent and utterly spent. The medal is placed around my neck, I burst into tears again and I begin to laugh too. It’s a roller coaster of emotion. I can see the blankets being wrapped around participants up ahead. My immediate thoughts were “one and done” and I’ll never do that again. Then my thoughts moved to home and loved ones. Messages began to come in from home, from people tracking me throughout the race, some watching live in the broadcast as I cross the line. My wife rang to congratulate me and I’m told I was delirious and I made very little sense through my tears and laughter.

Video calls, messages, Facebook and Instagram connect us and congratulations came from far and wide. Old and new friends immediately connected. Marathon club members welcoming me “to the club”. Disbelief from some quarters.

Back to the hotel to recover, shower, have a proper phone call to my family, and for a race analysis. I unstrapped, showered and began to feel vaguely normal but my body was seizing up. I had my recovery proteins, electrolytes and water.

I went next door to the restaurant and had a stunning meal of protein and carbs. Alcohol still the furtherest thing from my mind. The “celebration” aspect being feeding the body something nutritious.

Over the following days my recovery walks became easier and my body bounced back well. I got on the road and travelled back to Australia. Coincidentally sitting next to marathon veteran Anna Liptak on the plane home.

In my own analysis I began to realise I want to do this again but better. I listed all the improvements I want to make to myself and my training and I’ve booked in for London 2024.

On reflection nothing could have prepared me for the difficulty, the pain, the bleak outlook and the mid-race dread.  Then the hope and extreme emotion that came with finishing. The post-race experience was unmatched in my life.

It’s also apparent to me now why JLF promote this experience and seek events such as these gruelling personal challenges to raise funds. My fight was over in a year, its discomfort peaked for 5hrs. My life returned to normal over the course of a week. Many, many people are not as lucky as me.

The final emotional release was truely profound and extraordinarily I’m still brought to tears when I go back to that moment.

We would like to congratulate Nick on his incredible achievement, and sincerely grateful for the funds he has raised for the Jodi Lee Bowel Cancer Foundation, totalling $3,580!