Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Growing up, my parents used to tell me I was a “kotonk,” because I was born in New York City. My brother and I were both born in Manhattan because my dad was working there at the time. We all moved back to Hawai‘i when I was 6 months old, so I’ve essentially lived here all my life. My first photos of my mom cradling me in her arms as a newborn were taken at Mount Sinai Hospital, under the blue canopy of the hospital entrance that fronts snowy Central Park. This past November, 38 years later, I ran past that exact same spot on my way to the finish line of the New York City Marathon.
It took me over a year to get to that race. The NYC Marathon is the world’s largest. Most of the 50,000 runners gain entry through a lottery or by raising money for charities. Another way of qualifying is by running a recognized marathon or half-marathon under a specified time. Historically, the Boston Marathon is the race that many avid runners include on their bucket list because the only way one can qualify to run it is by completing a recognized marathon under a certain time.
Qualifying for the NYC Marathon is much more difficult because the required time is 20 minutes faster than the Boston Marathon. Realistically, I knew that running a marathon under 3 hours and 15 minutes was out of reach for me, but qualifying for the NYC with a half-marathon time of under 1 hour and 34 minutes was a possibility. So, I started a regimented training plan in April 2015, just a month after I qualified for the 2016 Boston Marathon by completing the Big Island International Marathon in Hilo. Although I was tired from the four months of training I had put in for that race, I was riding a wave of good running and confidence, so I pushed myself harder.
In August 2015, I ran a half-marathon in Vancouver in 1 hour, 32 minutes, which qualified me for the 2016 New York City Marathon by two minutes!
My entire 2016 year was filled with training and running. In April, I ran my first Boston Marathon, which was an incredibly memorable experience, although a disappointing finish time motivated my seeking redemption at the NYC Marathon. There were many early bedtimes and predawn alarms during the 18 weeks of training, which started in July. I ran six days a week and, except for a couple weeks when I was sidelined with a foot injury, did not miss a day of training.
After logging over 700 miles of training, I was ready for New York! My boyfriend Frans Juola and I arrived the Friday before the Sunday marathon and met up with my training buddy and dentist, Duane Tamashiro. Like me, Duane was running his first NYC Marathon, and Frans was there to support both of us. After checking into our Airbnb apartment, which was just 10 minutes from Times Square, we walked over to the expo at the Jacob Javits Convention Center to pick up our race numbers. We took lots of pictures with our numbers and basked in the glory of having qualified after all the months of hard training we had put in to get there, and because we didn’t know when we would run it again. The expo was packed with tons of vendors selling all kinds of running gear, nutrition products and souvenirs. As we made our way through the aisles, it was great to see the diversity of participants who had come from over 130 countries.
Early Saturday morning, Duane and I braved the 40-degree cold and completed our last training run of three miles along the Hudson River to get acclimated to the weather and to keep our bodies loose. It’s normally best to rest your legs the day before a marathon and watch some Netflix, but we were in New York City! The last time I was there was in 2000, so I didn’t want to just sit around. We headed out and took the subway to the Union Square Greenmarket, an outdoor farmers market selling beautiful, fresh, local produce; meats; cheeses and scrumptious baked goods. The weather was perfect — sunny, clear blue skies and a brisk breeze. After strolling among the various produce stands, I picked up some candy cane beets and sweet potato for my prerace fuel the next morning.
We then walked over to the Flatiron District and had lunch at Eataly, which is a huge Italian marketplace featuring various restaurants, bakeries, sweets and groceries. The district is named after the Flatiron Building, which was built in 1902. At the time, it was New York City’s tallest building with 20 stories. The building’s unique shape used up every square inch of real estate and got its name because of its resemblance to a clothes iron. We did a little bit of shopping and although I wanted to explore the city more, we needed to rest our legs.
We had dinner at Sakagura, a Japanese restaurant — we local folks needed our rice to carbo-load for the marathon. It was an izakaya-style restaurant, so we shared many dishes. The salmon marinated in miso sauce and topped with ikura (salmon roe) was one of the best dishes I’ve ever had at a Japanese restaurant.
On marathon Sunday, I woke up at 4:30 after not sleeping much. It isn’t unusual to have prerace jitters. After fueling up with a carbohydrate-rich breakfast, we bundled up in old clothing and blankets that we would discard at the starting line and walked to the New York City Public Library. There was no vehicular traffic on what would normally be bustling streets; instead, thousands of runners snaked in a line, shuffling along as we were herded onto shuttle buses to Staten Island, the first of the five boroughs of NYC that we would traverse during the race. After an hour-long ride, we arrived at Fort Wads-worth, where 50,000 anxious runners were waiting for the marathon to start. It was a sea of buses and people, and more waiting and feet-shuffling, as we slowly made our way through security to the outdoor staging area. There were specific waiting areas for the race’s different starting waves — orange, blue and green — to manage all the runners. In each area, volunteers passed out water, coffee, tea, sports drink, bagels and energy bars. There were also long lines for the 1,700 port-a-potties. We sat on flattened cardboard boxes that we had “borrowed” from the post office and tried to stay warm in the sun. Fortunately, Dunkin’ Donuts was passing out bright pink and orange fleece beanies, which kept me warm as we waited for the race to start, still two hours away.
Duane was in the orange corral and I was in the green — we wished each other good luck and then headed off to our respective starting areas. Each color had four different “wave” starts, and within each wave, there were corrals lettered “A-F” to manage the thousands of runners. I entered the area for green runners in Wave 1 and Corral D and decided to plop down on my cardboard flat since there was still an hour left before the start of the race.
I happened to glance over at the woman sitting next to me and realized that she was one of my mom’s friends from back home! What a small world! She had raised money for a charity in order to run in this marathon, which she considered a “training run” for the HURT 100 — the Hawaiian Ultra Racing Team trail endurance run — which will be held Jan. 14 and 15 on O‘ahu.
As we neared the starting time, the officials allowed the runners to make their way to the start line. More waiting and feet-shuffling. The wind chilled me to the bone as we listened to the national anthem and the introduction of the professional runners. Duane was on the upper part of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and saw the pros lead off. And then it was our turn!
The cannon went off with a “BOOM!” and off we ran to Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” All the hard work and training were in the bank with just 26.2 miles of road left in front of my jersey race number.
The wind whipped as we ran across the Verrazano Bridge from Staten Island. I tried to get into a comfortable pace, but my feet were like numb-frozen blocks of ice and I couldn’t stop shivering from the biting wind. Fortunately, after crossing the two-mile-long bridge, we reached Brooklyn, the second borough. I was no longer in the shade of the bridge and quickly warmed up in the sun. The weather was perfect for running — beautiful blue skies and a crisp, cool air. Spectators lined the course, creating a block-party atmosphere and cheering on all the runners. At Mile 8, the three-colored wave starts — orange, blue and green — merged into one wide lane. Hearing “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars blasting from the speakers made me smile and gave my stride an extra bounce. The hip atmosphere with DJs or live bands seemingly every half-mile kept both spectators and runners energized.
At the halfway point, the Pulaski Bridge welcomed us to Queens. The run through this third borough was short and soon we were crossing another bridge that took us into Manhattan, the fourth borough. The bridges were the only “quiet” sections along the course, as spectators were not allowed on the spans. Coming off the Queensboro Bridge at Mile 16 was First Avenue, aka “Thunder Alley,” because crowds of people lined the wide street, cheering on family, friends and complete strangers.
For the next four miles, we were running into the wind, so I found a tall guy who was running at about the same pace that I was and trailed close behind him, saving me from having to use all of my own energy in battling the winds. We ran near my first apartment home on 86th Street.
The Willis Avenue Bridge took us to the Bronx, the fifth borough, for a short one-mile jaunt. Taiko drummers greeted us at the start of the Madison Avenue Bridge, and then we were back in Manhattan. We ran through Harlem and, finally, were on Fifth Avenue and the difficult stretch along Central Park. The boisterous crowd buoyed me on the gradual uphill slope from Mile 22 to Mile 24. As I ran past Mount Sinai Hospital, I waved at my birthplace. We then turned into Central Park. With one more mile to the finish line, we ran along the southern end of the park, where Frans was waiting, although I missed seeing him among the throngs of spectators. The last half-mile was a little bit uphill as we rounded Columbus Circle and re-entered Central Park. Arms raised, flashing shakas, I crossed the finish line in 3 hours and 29 minutes. I was ecstatic to have made my sub-3:30 goal!
I posed proudly with my finisher’s medal and received a goody bag filled with drinks and snacks. Even though we had just finished running the marathon, we had to walk another half-mile to claim our postrace poncho. The cozy, fleece-lined poncho kept me warm for another half-mile walk to the meeting area, where Duane and Frans were waiting for me.
The 10,000 volunteers and estimated 1 million spectators made this race such an amazing experience. Training for a marathon is like taking on a second full-time job. Each runner has a different goal — setting a personal record, raising money for worthy charities, running for a cause or just the satisfaction of finishing.
The 1976 New York City Marathon was the first to go through all five boroughs of New York City. It started off with a few thousand runners weaving their way through the closed-down city streets. Forty years later, it has grown into the world’s largest marathon with over 50,000 participants. As we hobbled our way back to our apartment, many strangers congratulated us on our marathon finish.
Healthy eating and abstaining from alcohol had been part of my training regimen, so I was ready for my postrace meal! I knew exactly what I wanted: the Shake Stack Burger from Shake Shack. It’s a cheeseburger with a crisp-fried Portobello mushroom filled with melted cheese. The burger with fries and cold beer hit the spot! We then wandered over to Times Square, which was packed with people.
And what would a trip to NYC be without a Broadway show? So, we got half-off tickets for the evening performance of “School of Rock” at Winter Garden Theatre. Twenty-six years ago, I saw my very first Broadway show with my mom, the musical “Cats,“ at that same Winter Garden Theatre. “School of Rock” was a fabulously entertaining musical with an incredible cast of young musicians who actually played their own instruments. That show happened to be the lead actor’s last night on Broadway, so we were treated to a great show.
The next day we headed to Lower Manhattan. We took the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. After a lunch of Korean fried chicken from Bonchon, we spent the afternoon at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. For dinner, we had a quintessential New York City meal at the famous Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side — a hot pastrami sandwich with mustard on both sides. Next door, we got a bagel with lox and cream cheese to-go from the landmark Russ and Daughters.
With less than an hour of rest, Frans and I headed out again to attend a live taping of “The Late Show” with Stephen Colbert at the historic Ed Sullivan Theater. Actor Don Cheadle, star of “Hotel Rwanda,” “Miles Ahead” and several action films, talked about the next day’s presidential election. Also on the show that night was Stevie Wonder, who performed some great songs with the “The Late Show” band.
On Tuesday, we visited the iconic Empire State Building. It was a picture-perfect day to take in the spectacular 360-degree view from the observation deck. It is said that if you stand on your tiptoes and look westward, you can see Hawai‘i. I tried it. Not true. A guided audio tour provided an interesting history of the surrounding buildings and how the race to build the tallest skyscrapers was fueled by the egos of financiers and architects.
On our way back uptown, we stopped at Rockefeller Center, where the famous plaza had been converted into “Democracy Plaza” in preparation for the next day’s election. It dressed up in red, white and blue, with a huge map of the United States on its iconic skating rink. When we walked past the Hilton Midtown, where then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was staying, media were already on-site preparing for their election coverage. Supporters of Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton were headed to the Convention Center, where just four days earlier we had picked up our race numbers and perused the marathon expo.
We decided to walk along the High Line, the 1.5-mile-long park built on an old, elevated railroad track. It provided some respite from the hustle and bustle of the streets. We then wandered through Chelsea Market and over to SoHo, where we had dinner at a great Cuban restaurant called Café Habana.
On Wednesday, we checked out of our apartment. I was ready to leave the island of Manhattan and return to the island of O‘ahu. The marathon, highlighted by great food, art, shopping, history and culture, was one of my best race experiences to date. And, my finishing time for the New York City Marathon qualified me for the Boston Marathon, which I plan to run again in 2018 and, hopefully, better my initial race time. Gambarimasu!
Meredith Kuba teaches honors and advanced placement chemistry at Kamehameha Schools. Kuba, who holds a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa, was previously the fuels specialist for the state Energy Office’s Renewable Energy Program. She is also an avid swimmer and marathon runner. Kuba shared the experience of running her first Boston Marathon in the May 20, 2016, edition of The Hawai‘i Herald. And if her name sounds familiar to you . . . yes, Kuba was Cherry Blossom Queen in 2004.