There are a lot of things that seem impossible to even the healthiest and active people in the world. The 26.2-mile distance of a full marathon is something that many people shy away from. In many ways, it’s unhealthy for the body to complete this many miles in such in such a short period without the aid of a bike or car. But the feeling a runner gets when crossing the finish line is one that can only be duplicated by a few race distances.
Years ago I would have told you that I had no interest in ever doing a marathon. I would have told you it’s crazy and there is no reason to ever run that many miles in a day. Then after completing my first 13.1 half-marathon, followed by getting healthier with my Crohn’s, I decided to get into triathlons. Slowly I warmed up to the idea, but more importantly, I realized that so much can still be done despite my irritable bowel disease (IBD) and ostomy.
_So why did I sign up for the New York City Marathon? _ I actually did it as a spur-of-the-moment decision to benefit the V Foundation for Cancer Research for my fiancée. Her family has already been touched by cancer multiple times, with her mother passing due to colon cancer when my fiancée was 9. Her father won his battle with prostate cancer, but it took a toll on him as well. When the last connection to her mother, her aunt, passed in April, I signed up two days later to run.
I could tell you about the training and running the marathon mile by mile, and I will tell you how the 26.2 miles went. I’ll share the highs and the lows of the day, but I really want to tell you about the amazing time I had, how I overcame my IBD and ostomy to cross the finish line, and most of all the AMAZING people I met during the day who have also been impacted by IBD.
The day started at 5 a.m.
Getting up, packing all my gear, preparing my nutrition for the day, and getting a cab down to the ferry with two of my friends. Thankfully I had people whom I was very close with join me because I’m not sure what it would have been like waiting without having people to laugh with. After finally getting to the ferry and pretty much spending two hours in packed crowds, luckily there were bathrooms. We got to the village area before the start of the marathon in Staten Island.
This is where I met a lovely woman named Julie who came over, touched my shoulder, and asked, “What is the Intense Intestines Foundation?” since I was wearing my IIF running singlet. Julie and I started to talk about her battle with ulcerative colitis (UC) and how she was running for her son Mike, who has Crohn’s disease.
Mike is a runner and was supposed to run the marathon with his mom but had been sidelined by anal fistulas and couldn’t make the trip. Julie told me all about her story and her son’s story with IBD. It was inspiring to hear how they dealt with their diseases together and how she was running with him in her heart. It was a very similar feeling to the way I was running with the IBD community in my heart. We hung out for about 10 minutes, but most of all it made me feel great that other IBDers were out here running the marathon.
After waiting for about 90 minutes it was time to head to my corral with my friends and get ready to approach the start line.
My heart started beating with anxiety and my friend, Louis, knew it. He looked back and said, “You got this” many times. He was a big motivation for me to get into endurance racing and had never pointed me in the wrong direction or got me into something I couldn’t complete. I took deep breaths and got ready to run over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the biggest hill on the course right at the start.
BOOM! The cannon went off…
I started to jog with about 10,000 other people in my wave. At this point I think the excitement hit and my legs actually felt great. Just like that, I crossed the Verrazano, and Staten Island was done. Entering Brooklyn, the borough that we spend the most time in, the signs of all the people cheering and music that was being played by live bands was incredible. I don’t want to bother you with mile-by-mile details, but I was running at about a 9:30 pace for the first 9 miles.
At this point, I saw my first friend, Kristen on the sidelines, who yelled, “You are right behind them!” I looked at her, confused, and yelled back, “NO WAY”. My pace picked up, but I really knew there was no chance of catching my other friends who were running, Louis and Teresa. They were not only both healthy but have done many races of this distance already. I began running at my own pace very quickly again and before I knew it crossed the 13.1-mile mark. I was halfway done.
All of a sudden again I heard “Yeah! Let’s beat IBD!” as another IBDer ran up alongside of me. John, the runner, began telling me about his story and was excited to see the “We Will Beat IBD” on the back of my jersey. John told me that he just had a surgery a year ago to remove a small portion of his colon but he wasn’t going to let it stop him from showing up and running the marathon. We spent about a mile together before going our separate ways because he needed to take a break.
Before I knew it I was getting texts from my fiancee saying “You’re doing great. We are at mile 16 right after the bridge,” which gave me a boost. Couldn’t wait to see her face and her sister’s as well. Entering one of the bridges at mile 15-ish was very weird. No crowds, no people, the only thing you could hear were the footsteps of other runners and breaths they were taking. Finally I crossed the midpoint of the bridge and started heading downhill.
With every step, I heard the crowds start to pick up.
In a few moments I would be able to hug my fiancee and her sister.
I wrapped around the bridge exit and headed to find her. No luck! Where was she? It was almost impossible to pick people out of the crowds since there was an estimated one million people who came out to cheer runners like me. Finally, I saw her. I ran over, said hi, and told her I loved her. She asked how I was doing and was able to tell her that I was actually feeling pretty good but didn’t want to stop too long or I’d stiffen up.
Now running up 1st Avenue in Manhattan was very exciting. So many people on both sides of the road, but my mind wasn’t on that at all. My ostomy was filling up and I started to get nervous. I passed an aid station but no bathroom. They told me there were bathrooms about a mile up. I picked up the pace and got going. It wasn’t close to being dangerously full, but I would definitely have liked to empty it. I ran to the next aid station and asked where the bathrooms were, and they pointed about 50 feet ahead. Pheww. I was going to make it. This was hard because I did feel my legs get tight but tried to keep moving. I was around mile 18 now. Only 8 more miles to go, basically. Now I was able to enjoy seeing more friends on 1st Avenue. About six people in total were waiting for me there.
All of a sudden I got to around mile 19.5. I couldn’t keep the pace I wanted. I had to scale it back. I took a 0.1-mile break and said it was what my body needed. From here on the plan was to walk 0.1 and then jog 04. I’d just switch on and off till I crossed the finish line; at least that was the plan. A friend of mine came up from behind and told me he was going to push me to the finish line. One part of me was excited, another part was nervous I didn’t have it in me.
After about 1.5 miles of pushing it a little more from mile 21.5 to 23, I had to stop. I couldn’t keep up and needed a break. Unfortunately for me, 5th Avenue was in the shade, the sun was going down, and the temperature was dropping very quickly. My 0.1-mile walk turned into a 0.2-mile walk, then my body stiffened up, my arms were locked, and my legs, well, my legs felt like wooden boards. I kept trying to get myself moving again but I couldn’t. My body had had enough.
Something I learned during my 70.3 half-Ironman in October was that very cool things can still happen while you walk. I saw Jerry Seinfeld on that day while I was walking around mile 12 of the run back in October. I joked about how he was looking good in his Ferrari convertible and Jerry waved back, then told me to go cross that finish line.
This time I didn’t see Jerry in NYC, but I did have another amazing IBD family member come up and tap me on the shoulder. This time it was Carol, running her second NYC marathon at 57 years old and having had Crohn’s for over 20 years. WOW! Carol was walking too, so we spent the next mile talking about our stories, the IBD community, and more. It was so inspiring for me to see her out here and made me feel great about how strong Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis patients are.
At about the 24-mile mark Carol started running again, but my body wasn’t ready quite yet. I decided to wait and just not push it too much. Since my body felt like a rock and my hands were starting to swell, I figured I should take it easy.
Got to the 25 mile mark and decided to finish strong.
Mind over matter, right? My legs slowly started to work again, and I was going to cross the finish line. I saw my good friend Dennis, gave him a hug, and told him to keep me warm. Then about 25 paces later, I saw my fiancee. You guessed it, I said and did the same thing to her. I was cold.
Now I knew that I was about 0.5 miles from the finish. I started to look around, take in the sights, and get ready to cross the finish line of the New York City marathon. Emotions started to come to the surface; I began to think of all the other IBDers I know that this would be impossible for right now. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are such roller coaster rides, and this would be extremely difficult for others to complete. I was not only running for them, I was running with them. Feeling that fellow IBD family members were right there with me.
The finish line was right in front of me, I could not believe that I was about to complete the NYC marathon. I walked across, looked back at the grandstands that surrounded the finish line, and then had my medal placed around my neck. The race was over and I WAS IN PAIN! My entire body hurt, not only because of the running but because of an inflammatory response to accompany the cold. It was a slow long walk back to my fiancée. Every step hurt, but it was all worth it, not only the physical pain but also the mental pain as well.
The emotions that came over me then were overwhelming. People have told me I do too much with my IBD, that I make the disease look too easy, or that it’s not as serious as it should be. Those who know me or my story know that I have battled a tremendous amount. That my body has been torn apart from Crohn’s disease. I have countless scars, live without a colon, have had my rectum removed, and live with an ostomy. I like to show the people who tell me that I do too much that they are wrong, I like to keep going, I like to defy the odds, and show them that telling me that something is too much or impossible, isn’t going to make me sit down on my couch. It’s going to make me get up and complete the task at hand that I was told I couldn’t do.
So my question to you after reading this is simpler. WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?
Brian Greenberg was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 11. His freshman year of college, he began a roller coaster ride of flares, hospitals stays, major surgeries, and more, with brief breaks of good health. After having an ostomy surgery 6 years ago, making it permanent 3 years ago, he is happy with his quality of life and enjoys helping others with their health journeys. When his health cooperates, he enjoys triathlons, hiking, climbing, skiing, and more. Find Brian on Twitter @BrianIIF.