Saturday, November 9, 2013

No Drama

About to cross the finish line
After twenty miles, I slowly crossed the Willis Avenue Bridge and entered the Bronx.  Despite the deep thumping base and encouraging words from DJ Leon Martin on the corner of 135th Street, I was questioning why I was doing this.  My knees ached, my left foot felt like a nail was being hammered through the bottom of my Saucony running shoes into my heel on every step, and my right calf was cramping so bad I would repeatedly screamed out, “FUCK!” every 400 feet, it was like I had Tourette's. What was I trying to prove? 
By mile twenty-four, I was struggling up 5th avenue, running like one of the mummies in Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I passed around 86th street.  The crowds were intense, cheering and yelling words of encouragement, “Push it - You can Make it!”  It was like that the entire race, and while it was it something I had heard about, I never understood what people meant until I stepped off the Verrazano Bridge and entered Brooklyn four hours earlier.  I now know why people believe the New York Marathon is one of the greatest sporting events in the world.  The fans are out of this world and I felt like I was in the US Open and the World Series combined.  But I’m no Serena Williams or Derek Jeter; I’m just Gia.

Last Friday I drove myself to the Portland Jetport to fly to New York City for the marathon.  I decided a few weeks earlier not to take the five-hour bus ride, and pay the extra fifty or so dollars for the luxury of an hour long flight to New York instead.  But on the short drive to Portland, as I switched stations on the radio, I learned of a shooting taking place in Los Angeles at LAX.   I was already anxious about my trip, just ask my roommate.  The airport was quiet and tense.  You knew everyone working there; especially the TSA agents were on edge.  I sat next to a charming and chatty slightly older gentleman.  We talked about Maine, traveling, birds, and other common interests.  I helped him take a few photos out the plane window as we traveled at four hundred miles hour and twenty-five thousand feet above New England and watched the sun disappear on the distant horizon.  He was meeting with his son for their annual fishing trip and showed me the flies he was going to use to catch stripers off Montauk. We wished each other good luck as we parted ways at baggage claim.

I got a call from the car service I had scheduled the day before, Merriam couldn’t make it, so she sent a colleague to pick me up instead.  I should be looking out for a black Toyota Camry. 
Waiting for my Ride at JFK
After thirty minutes a wondered if there was a problem, everyone else was being picked up, except me.  I did notice a black Camry drive by several times, but they never drove close or stopped to see if I was their passenger.  Just as I was about to call, a car pulled up.  I asked “who are you here for?”  “Gia,” he replied?  I could tell he was expecting someone else, a different kind of woman perhaps.  “I’m Gia!” He got out of the car and put my bags into the truck and off we went.  For the next hour, we traversed across Queens and Brooklyn on a Friday night. I learned a lot about Raphael.  He has survived numerous truck and car accidents, and is looking forward to returning back in the Dominican where there is no winter and to spend time with his aging mother who is 92 and has cancer, but doesn’t know.  He has three daughters, but has to help one out, who recently lost her job, so he has to keep driving twelve hour shifts with a severe back pain until he can retire. 

We arrived at my destination for the weekend, an Airbnb in the West Village.  I had never used this service before, but it seemed like the best option.  I was slightly nervous.  I wondered if my host, who was planning on staying on her couch in the living room while I was there, knew I was a trans woman, and if that mattered.  I pressed the doorbell and announced myself, “it’s Gia, your guest for the weekend” buzzzzz  “do you need help?” buzzzz  “I’m fine” Standing at her door and now out of breath, I realized why she asked to help. Navigating three narrow flights of stairs with luggage was a challenge, but I was here to run a marathon, I could manage a few extra steps, right?

A smiling woman, about my age, met me at the door holding a fluffy black and white cat, “this is Harry,” she said.  Inside, I put down my heavy bags in the living/dinning/kitchen room and reached out my hand to introduce myself, “hi, I’m Gia…” I don’t think she was expecting that. We politely talked, feeling each other out. She’s been renting her space for a few years, so this wasn’t new, but it was for me. I was her first marathoner, though, that’s cool I thought.  She had done some scanning of my Facebook page, who wouldn’t, and after I mentioned my transition, she asked, “so you’re…” and waited for me to finish, which I did.  Apparently I was her first transgender guest as well. 

I was hungry, and needed to get groceries and take-out, pronto.  I placed my bags in the bedroom, and after a brief orientation, that included key instructions; I was walking up familiar 7th avenue in search of Chinese noodles.  Along the way, I made plans to meet up with a dear friend who I try to visit when in New York.  We’re both from the same town; both queer, and enjoy each other’s company, especially lip-synching and dancing to our favorite divas.  I probably should have stayed in and rested for my big race, but I didn’t.  And while I didn’t stay out late, I did go out two nights in a row, had a few drinks and more fabulous noodles.  Instead of the usual Italian pasta before a marathon, I had Thai noodles instead, so yummy.  

The day before the race I still had to pick up my bib at the marathon expo.  Expos are not very thrilling, except for getting your number.  You stand in a long line to get your number, pick up a shirt, and walk through a maze of vendors, that’s about it. 
Picking up my Number at Expo
I did have time to meet with another friend for lunch, and fortunately I was already up on the upper West Side.  We ate at small diner off Amsterdam.  My western omelet with fries was another excuse to carbo load.  We talked mostly of movement work, (LGBT social/political activism).  We had meet last spring at during a leadership academy and have quickly become good friends.  Before parting, we took her dog Memphis for a walk.  These side adventures were the perfect diversion from the looming marathon, now less than a day away. 

I did manage to lie down for a short nap and rest my legs later that afternoon.  With the night arriving and dinner plans also on my horizon, I needed to arrange my items for marathon morning.  My alarm will be set to 5am, and I plan on taking the subway to the Staten Island Ferry for a 6am departure to the camp at the base of the Verrazano Bridge.  I was planning on a cool morning, that included sitting on the grass for 2 or so hours until my scheduled wave start time of 10:05am.  I had chose not to have my bags checked and delivered to the finish, so I could exit Central Park expeditiously after my run.  So any items and clothes I wore in the morning that I wasn’t going to run with would be left behind as a donation to Goodwill.  It’s one of their best clothing drives of the year. Lying on the floor was everything I was wearing and taking
Items for Marathon Morning
with me; black and red-orange running shorts with an inside pocket for my asthma inhaler, plus one extra pocket safety pinned on the inside for gels and cash for the subway, sports bra, red-orange tank top, two pairs of socks, sweat pants, long sleeve top, warm jacket, arm warmers, gloves, hat, black bandana with red roses, two pairs of sneakers, energy bars, water, iPod & earphones, and Vaseline.  I didn’t bring my phone. 

After a delicious dinner, I returned to the apartment to unwind and talked with my roommate. Daylight savings was ending shortly, and the gift of an extra hour was a welcome thought at 11pm as I tried to go to bed. Three days earlier, my pulmonologist prescribed Prednisone to help with my asthma and breathing, trouble was, one of the most common side effects of steroids is restlessness and insomnia.  So there I lay, less than 12 hours to the start of the biggest sporting event in my life, and I had barely slept in days. My only hope came in the form of a melatonin pill my friendly host suggested I take.  I’d try anything to catch a few zzzz’s before morning.  With Elton John’s voice drowning out the noises of the city, I floated in space like a Rocket Man, and briefly fell asleep. 

Dawn came quickly. Anxious and nervous, I awoke before my alarm.  I did have time for a quick cup of coffee, water, and a banana before exiting into the morning twilight on West 15th street.  The A train arrived soon after walking onto the platform, and a group of other runners and a few police officers boarded the train like zombies, for the short ride to South Ferry Station.  I choose to sit, rather than stand.  The car was full with mostly runners, dressed with their giveaway clothes, winter jackets, and sneakers.  Next to me, sat a man, with dirty clothes and the smell of urine, he was probably homeless and was riding the train to stay warm. After a few minutes, we stopped unexpectedly, yet I couldn’t see a station. People started to head to the front of the train anyway.  I recalled reading that to exit at South Ferry, you have to be seated in the first five cars, it’s a short station.  I guess people were headed to the front to exit.  Suddenly we started going again, and our train continued onto its next stop.  One station further was no big deal, but people were concerned.  At the next station, the remaining runners and police offices exited the train. As I headed toward the doors further up the car, I noticed several other homeless people, sleeping on the benches, unaware of what these foolish people, myself included, were about to do. 

After walking around a section of Battery Park, our misguided group of train riders joined another steady stream of runners headed towards the ferry station.  Inside, event staff voiced directions at the arriving runners.  I pass through the first of several security checkpoints, and joined the others on the soon to be departing yellow ferry.  It was 6:30am.  On one of the upper decks, I found a seat facing west.  Soon we were underway and Manhattan stood motionless waiting for our return.  While it was mostly cloudy, the sun found it’s way though a few breaks and a warm orange glow, reflected off buildings in the distance, "is that New Jersey?" I heard someone ask.  Riding alongside our ferry was police boat, armed with officers and a large gun mounted on the bow. We were escorted the entire way, passing Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, to our destination.  As the ferry crossed the harbor, I sat quietly and starred off into the distance, thinking of what lay ahead, but also the journey that brought me there.  I closed my eyes, and tried to catch my breath as the wind chilled my cheeks. I was overcome with tears. I think they were tears of joy.  Either way, the ferry ride was emotional.  Was I starting a new chapter in my life, or was I ending one?  Like so many who arrive into New York, I felt like this was my trip to a new world.

The ferry to Staten Island takes only 30 minutes.  After disembarking, we were herded onto a fleet of waiting buses to bring us to the staging area.  I sat next to a charming woman visiting from New Mexico.  We talk about races, the Southwest and qualifying times for distinguished women like ourselves.   We part ways as we leave the bus and walk to the state park, but not before wishing each other well and a good run.  Through another security check, and I miraculously end up in the right staging area, which is the blue zone.  We’re all given bright orange hats from Dunkin Donuts, and I immediately look like everyone in the camp.  I find the free bagels, coffee, water, and Gatorade, then settle in for the next hour and half, leading against a chain link fence across from my entry point, for #’s 23-000- 24,000.   Our small group of 3-4 people passed the time by sharing stories about other races, lack of sleep, traveling, and food. Suddenly a large explosion rocks the camp.  The first wave is off!  It reminded me of an earlier race this year in Portland, Maine.  The usual cannon used at the start the Maine Marathon, was silenced in respect for the Boston Marathon Bombings.  Things are different in New York. 

With 30 minutes to go, we were moved to a holding pen.  I used the Porta-Potty, and then sat on the asphalt for 20 minutes, trying to rest my legs and feet. But I was too nervous, and I stood and listened to music instead.  My warm-up play list included Madonna's Lucky Star, Katy Perry's Teenage Dream, Kate Bush's Running Up that Hill, Lady Gaga's Applause, and Kylie Minogue's Get out of My Way.  We walked towards the bridge, passing the empty tolls booths, and waited our turn to go.  A stirring rendition of America the Beautiful, sung by Miss New York Amanda Mason,
Amanda Mason Sings America the Beautiful
brought us closer together, and I’m reminded of the devastation brought by Hurricane Sandy a year ago, especially there on Staten Island.  As we’re applauding, the cannon fires, Boom! the ground shakes and we’re off.  I start my stopwatch and tap another runner, Larisa I think was her name, on the shoulder and wish her good luck, “you too Gia!”  I was but one, in a sea of 50,000 runners that crossed the Verrazano bridge towards Brooklyn that morning, singing along to Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York, as Manhattan appeared to our west, helicopters buzzed all around like seagulls, and the Atlantic Ocean dissolved at the curve of the earth in the east.

The next four hours and thirty minutes were staggering.  At 2:33pm I was welcomed into Central Park to the sound of Salt-N-Pepa’s Push-It.  Smiling the last half-mile, I raised my arms triumphantly as I crossed the finish line, then nearly collapsed from exhaustion, pain, and an overwhelming wave of emotions.  While it wasn’t my first marathon, I ran the Las Vegas Marathon three years ago, New York was my first openly as a transgender woman.  I hope it’s not my last either, I still haven’t run Boston yet, but I think it will have to wait a little while, or at least until I can forget some of the pain and find a reason why.