It has been more than a week since the marathon. I wrote the following recap a few days after the race. I'm not sure why I sat on it, waiting to post it. I guess I wasn't ready to really be "done" with this chapter. I will hold the memories of the past few years very close to my aorta and heart. For two years, I was Team Ritter. I focused on the marathon for so many months...training, planning, fundraising. Even for the few months last year after the marathon was cancelled, I felt connected to the team because there was unfinished business. I am so thankful for the opportunity. It pushed me physically and emotionally. And the best part was connecting with amazing, caring people who have been impacted by aortic aneurysm and dissection, including many dealing with the profound loss of a loved one. These passionate people are putting their stories out there, raising awareness and saving lives. I deeply admire and love them.
Nobody wants to have open chest surgery. But I am so grateful for that experience. My life was saved by diagnosis and surgery. I wouldn't really change the last four years for anything. Do I wish that I never had an aneurysm? Hmmm...I don't think I would wish for that. Even though there were very dark times, there is now light. Because of my aneurysm, I have a peaceful appreciation for life and new, important friendships. I am thankful I get to see my kids grow up and have new adventures with them and my husband. I hope to live life to its fullest, not taking it for granted, even as I settle back into the routine of day to day. I will draw on the my memories of the marathon, the inspiring members of Team Ritter, the hope and possibility of the future, and the fact that I was saved to remind me of this. This sounds all perfect, but I do know that I will have to continually work on this. I will try to lighten up and relax. I have been told that I tend to focus on negative things, be too stressed, worry too much about what other people think. My new focus is to, on a daily basis, express gratitude for all the blessings in my life and truly be present with my family and the people I interact with.
And I will continue to spread awareness of thoracic aortic aneurysms and dissection. I have a family connection as my niece, Allyssa, was diagnosed with bicuspid aortic valve, soon after my surgery. Individuals with this condition are at risk of developing aneurysms. Now she can be monitored throughout her life. My kids may have inherited a bicuspid aortic valve from me, so now I am aware that they need to be screened as well. And according to my cardiologist, there is a good chance that I will need to have my bicuspid aortic valve replaced at some point in my life.
I didn't sleep very well the night before the marathon. I got up at 3 a.m. and then again at 4:45. I stayed awake after getting up at 4:45. I was very worried that I would sleep in and miss my 7:15 a.m. bus. I could feel the cold air seeping in around the windows of the hotel, so I knew I was in for a very cold morning. I ate some yogurt and a few crackers, and carried my bagel and banana in my bag. I wore my running capris, regular running socks, and my Asics Gel Kayano 19 shoes. On top I put my favorite old running bra and my Team Ritter shirt. On top of all that, I put an old long sleeve tshirt, Kmart clearance size large yoga pants, and an old Gap hoodie. My hair was pulled back into a ponytail. I had my fuel belt packed with three gels, some Tylenol, and lip balm. I will admit to putting on waterproof mascara that morning as well.
My niece, Allyssa, was staying with us at the hotel. She was on a roll-away bed in the living room with the kids on the pull-out sofa. I could hear stirring out there and checked on my family. We all decided to walk together to the bus. Marlo and I got the kids bundled up and we headed out the door. Generally, I think I'm pretty good with directions, but that morning, I wasn't. I relied on Marlo to get me to the NY Public Library to catch my bus. I was meeting a Team Ritter teammate, Cathy Pool at the bus. Half way up 7th Avenue, I saw a caravan of buses, with a police escort, rolling past. I got very nervous, because they were coming from a different direction than where I was heading. I started to panic because I thought that maybe I got the location of the buses wrong. Marlo tried to calm me down. I quickly texted Cathy to make sure I was heading in the right direction. When we finally got near the library, there were buses stretched down 42nd St as far as I could see. A big crowd was waiting and mingling outside and runners were climbing into the buses. A policeman directed us across the street to cut over to the buses. He smiled and said "Have a great race!" and I felt emotional. We waited on the corner for Cathy to arrive. I took a few pictures with the kids and gave hugs and kisses to them and Marlo. We saw Cathy, all bundled up, and we took another picture. Lily was emotional and wanted to stay with me, but finally she let me go. We flashed our bibs at the security person and then walked into the line waiting for a bus.
The bus ride to Staten Island took about one hour. Cathy and I talked a bit and I checked Facebook and emails for any last minute encouragement. I decided that I should memorize Marlo's St Thomas cell phone number just in case my phone died during the marathon and I needed to reach him. Cathy and I practiced memorizing his number. This will come up again. I read to Cathy something that was posted online that, in a nutshell, said "You will cross the start line one person, but you will be an entirely different person when you cross the finish line." We were among the last buses to cross into Staten Island via the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. This is the bridge we would soon be running over for the first two miles of the marathon. The views were great. There were many police helicopters in the air and lots of police on the bridge and at the point where we got off the bus. The cops were friendly and welcoming. We stood in a large group of runners, all bundled up in their "throw away" clothing, waiting to get into the start village. We had to go through security in order to enter. Bags were searched and I was stopped and scanned by a stern lady cop with a hand-held metal detector. I must have looked shady.
They tell you to wear "throw away" clothing to the start villages. We all had on cheap sweats, hoodies, hats, earmuffs and gloves. There were GIANT piles of clothing everywhere. Several volunteers were walking around collecting clothing from people to donate to charities like Goodwill. I can't get over the amount of clothing, blankets, gloves. I even saw several pairs of running shoes in the piles. I guess people wore old ones to the start village and then put on their "good" shoes for the race. I would continue to see clothing on the side of the streets for several miles, and hats and gloves all the way to the finish line.
Cathy's husband, Jock, and best friend, Jacqui, were assigned to the Staten Island ferry. They arrived rather late to the village. Cathy received notice that they arrived and were in the Blue village. We abandoned our post under the tree and walked over to the Blue area. Finally we found Jock and Jacqui. The four of us hung out as we moved into the start corrals. We never did see anyone else from Team Ritter at the Start Village.
We were in the Fourth Wave, Blue. We started in Corral 60!! So basically we were at the very end of the entire race. We had a great time in the corral, joking and laughing. Jacqui started a round of "Happy Birthday" to me and got a few other runners in on it. We slowly moved our way to the start line at the base of the bridge. We could hear a woman singing "God Bless America" on the loudspeaker. Soon, like everyone else, we started chucking our "throw away" clothes to the sides. I kept on my gloves and my hoodie. The wind was howling and it was very cold. My plan was to wear the hoodie for the first two miles across the bridge. Our wave ran on the top side of the bridge. We heard the cannon for our wave and I started my Endomondo tracking on my iPhone. It took us about 5 or 6 minutes to get to the actual start line after the cannon. Frank Sinatra's "New York" was blaring. People were cheering. There was a DJ and a bunch of people standing on the top of a trailer wishing us well. The cops, fire department, etc...lots of people at the start were cheering for us. Finally I realized I had crossed the start line and my race of a lifetime began.
Miles 1,2 The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, connecting Staten Island with Brooklyn.
This is the largest suspension bridge in North America. It is about one mile up, then one mile down. Within a few steps, I felt my calves start to tighten up. I've never had any calf issues, so I was a bit concerned. I started worrying that I should have stretched or moved more to warm up my body while in the start village. My calves didn't hurt to any degree where I thought I'd be in big trouble, so I kept going. Slow and steady. I kept telling myself that throughout the day. My three team mates seemed to keep a faster pace than I and I soon lost them. Every now and then, I'd catch up, but I didn't want to go out too fast. Even down the bridge, I felt like I should hold back a bit. Police helicopters flew by us, very close to the bridge. I felt thankful that they were there, keeping us safe. The energy on the bridge was exciting and electric. People were in such great moods and energetic! The views were spectacular, with the NY skyline, a coast guard boat blowing water like a fountain underneath, and thousands of runners in front of me. I couldn't believe it was finally happening. I was thrilled!
Miles 3-16 Brooklyn
At the bottom of the bridge, a bunch of dudes decided they couldn't wait for the porta potties and started peeing on the side of the road. Some went down into the grassy area next to the road, others just peed wherever they were. I took off my hoodie and placed it on a barricade. I hoped someone would pick it up for Goodwill. Then I noticed all the "Welcome to Brooklyn" signs. The run through Brooklyn was fun. I was still feeling good, although I realized on the bridge, that I had a small pebble in my right shoe. I tried to shake my foot around as I ran to move the rock to a different spot. No luck. I thought I should stop and get it out, but I kept running. Physically, besides some annoying tightness in my calves, I felt really good. The crowds were loud and fun. There were a few bands playing. People reached out to slap my hand as I went by. I purposely ran on the right side of the street so I could be part of that. I heard my name many, many times during this long stretch in Brooklyn. It was also great to hear "Go Team Ritter" from strangers on the side of the street. I stayed close to Cathy, Jacqui and Jock for a bit on Brooklyn. When Cathy decided to walk a bit, I kept running and I didn't see her or Jacqui again until dinner that night. I ran with Jock for a while, but then lost him as well. It was just me...and the thousands of people on the course and on the sides of the road. It was really fun through Brooklyn. I finally gave in and had to get that damn pebble out of my shoe. I ran to the side of the street and sat on the curb. I had to take both my shoe and sock off. I didn't find the pebble, but I didn't feel it again. I felt a bit panicked watching everyone run past me while I sat on the curb. I saw a Team Ritter runner, Katelynn, run by and look down at me. I got excited and waved and yelled, "I have a pebble in my shoe!!" She waved and kept on running. After I got my shoe and sock back on, I began running and then I felt like a thread from my sock was pulling tightly from my toes to my heel. I spent a few miles trying to break that thread or move it. Finally, I just didn't feel it anymore. My favorite socks kind of let me down! One thing I remember about that stretch was the road at the water stations being so sticky with Gatorade. Each step kind of peeled off the ground.
On the Pulaski Bridge, taking me out of Brooklyn and into Queens, I hit the halfway mark. I was kind of hurting. I had a slight panic that I was only half way there. My legs felt kind of frozen and heavy. There was no moisture or heat in the air to loosen me up. I didn't take this into account and I should have been stretching more in the Start Village. Everyone told me, though, to conserve my energy there. Regardless, I felt some discomfort in my legs. But I soldiered on and still felt optimistic.
Then came the Queensboro Bridge. The bridge spans across the East River into Manhattan. The seemingly never ending incline wiped out a bunch of runners. They were pulling off like crazy to stretch, walk, stop, sit down. I contemplated doing that as well. I didn't. Maybe I should have. I don't know. There are no spectators on the bridge. You run on a lower level with cars above you, I think. I thought at one point I could hear cars driving above us. Maybe not? Regardless, you are underneath. You have no sky above you. It kind of felt like a prison. Hardly anyone talked. You could hear huffing and puffing, shoes hitting pavement, groans and moans from the runners. At one point, an over-enthusiastic dude was trying to cheer us up and root us on as he wove in and out of the crowd of runners. His booming, loud voice was not what I needed at that point. And I don't think I was the only one. Nobody was having it. Everyone around me was serious and cranky looking! On that bridge, I saw a man and woman sitting on the side. The woman looked like she had been crying, had her eyes closed and her head rested into the chest of the man. He had his arm around her tightly, comforting her. It was sad. She looked like she was sleeping...done. I wondered if the woman injured herself and couldn't go any further. How sad! I think her race was over on that horrible bridge. It really hit me that I still have a long way to go. When I finally felt like I was running slightly down hill, I felt a small bit of hope. I just kept running. Just keep running, running. Like Dory in Finding Nemo..."just keep swimming, swimming." I kept saying that to myself and it became my mantra for the rest of the race. Eventually I could hear a crowd cheering. I was getting close to the end of the bridge. Finally, we made a sharp turn to the left and we were in Manhattan. The crowds were great. It's like they knew how bad and lonely the bridge was so they were extra boisterous. After that sharp curve, I noticed a bank of porta potties. I'd been holding it for a while, so when I realized there were very short lines, I stopped. After a brief wait, I went in. Ugh...as you can imagine. The squatting burned my thighs. I wasn't sure I could straighten up after that. But I did. And suddenly I felt a huge "second wind" sweep over me. Energized from crazy crowds and my potty break, I started to run at a slightly faster pace. I knew my family and the Team Ritter cheering crew were waiting for us around Mile 18. I started up First Avenue with a smile and energy. I purposely ran on the left side of the street, close to the crowds, so I could hear the shout outs and encouragement. I was so excited that I would see my family soon!
Miles 17-20 First Avenue
With my second wind, I felt optimism about the rest of the race. My legs were hurting, though. But, I still had confidence that I would make it. I really don't remember much about those first few miles on First Avenue. The crowds were great, although, I imagined them bigger and louder. I think there is something about starting in the last corral in the last wave...the crowds start to thin a bit. But there were people out cheering. After I passed mile 18, I saw some familiar white and purple Team Ritter shirts and posters. I then saw my tall husband and kids and I started waving like crazy. I felt tears well up in my eyes as I made my way to the left side of the street. When the Team Ritter supporters saw me, they erupted in cheers! I started slapping hands with everyone. I grabbed my kids and hugged them tightly. I quickly looked around and smiled at everyone. My husband gave me a big kiss and told me that I was doing great and that I was getting close.
My goal in the race was to try to run the entire thing. No walking, except around the water stations and the bathrooms. I tried my best to continue this for the rest of the race.
Miles 20-23, The Bronx, Harlem and Manhattan
The longest I had ever run up until that point was 20 miles. Everyone tells you that at that point, you hit the dreaded WALL. I remember thinking that if I can just get through that 20th mile and see the 21st mile sign, I would be ok. I had tunnel vision as I jogged through the Bronx. There were a few people out cheering, although, some of the bands were packing it in. I felt sad about that! We, the slow pokes in the last corral, needed the support the most. But those who did stick around were very encouraging. I heard my name many times and felt so thankful for the call-outs. Finally after I hit mile 21, I felt a more optimism. Just keep running, running. Around Mile 22, we were in Harlem. There was a beautiful, loud gospel choir on the steps of a church, singing and lifting us up. I felt tears again. I wanted to hug everyone. I slapped hands with many kids on the sides of the street. People yelled out my name with conviction, almost scolding me to not give up. "AMY, Don't you dare start to walk! You run, girl!" I yelled "thank you" many times during this mile. At the water stations, the volunteers were so kind and encouraging. Even as my shoes started sticking again to the Gatorade on the ground, I kept running. It was starting to get so hard. My hands and arms were numb. I tried to put on lip balm at one point and could barely get the cap off. I think for several miles, I had been clenching my fists and hunching my shoulders. I don't remember doing this, but I must have been. There was hardly any feeling left in them. I spent several steps swirling my arms over my head, stretching them out, and opening and closing my hands. I did have one more potty break during this stretch, although it was like a blur. Probably a good thing.
I didn't expect to see my family again until after the race. I exploded with emotion when I saw Marlo, Gabe, Lily and my niece Allyssa on the left side of the street as I neared the park. It was around Mile 23 and I was in a huge amount of pain. As I ran to the side of the street to see my family, I almost, JUST ALMOST said "I'm done, I can't do this anymore." Marlo looked me in the eye, as if he knew what I was thinking, and he said "don't you dare stop, you keep running, you are almost done, I'm so proud of you." I hugged everyone and limped back into the stream of weary runners and walkers on Fifth Avenue. I just kept running. I know my niece captured a picture of me at this point looking rather energetic and happy. (see below!) I think I was just delirious. In the weeks leading up to the marathon, I had read about all the historical and scenic things to look at in this area...museums, statues, etc. Didn't see anything. Just the backs of people in front of me and the grey road.
The drama of the family reunion
I continued walking for what felt like a half of mile until I got to the family reunion meeting area. We had decided the day before, that this would be too crowded. That's why he picked a place away from the finish. What we didn't know is that Columbus Circle was completely barricaded off. I could see it, and the golden statue, but we were directed away from it, a few blocks around. I felt very weepy watching all the runners reuniting with their loved ones. I just wanted that hug from my husband and kids. I followed the crowd down one street, and then turned left down another. The streets were completely packed and we moved very slowly. I was trying to circle back to the statue. Finally I broke free of the crowd to see that the entire area, all sides, were barricaded off. I would have to walk several blocks to even get near the statue. I didn't have it in me. It was so crowded. It was getting dark now and I felt so completely alone. I tried to remember the name and location of my hotel, but I couldn't remember it. Weird how my brain turned to mush. All this time, I could see the statue and imagined my family waiting there for me. I was hoping I'd catch a glimpse of Marlo, but then he would never recognize me among hundreds of orange poncho clad zombies walking in the street. Finally I lost it. I started to cry a bit. Not sobbing or out of control, but crying.
Then a sweet, angelic woman with a heavy Russian accent approached me and asked me if I would take a picture with her teenage cousin who was visiting from Russia. The young girl looked about 15 and didn't speak any English. She smiled and nodded at me. The older woman who spoke some English asked to make sure that I had run the marathon and thought it would make a fun picture for the teenager to take back to Russia. I was a mess and had no interest in taking a picture, but then I agreed, thinking I could ask her to use her phone. After taking the picture she agreed to let me use her phone. I just stood there holding it, staring at it. I couldn't remember Marlo's number, even after practicing it so much that morning. Mush brain. I was on the verge of tears again and told her that I can't remember my husband's new cell phone. It was programmed into my now-dead phone. I asked if I could make a phone call to someone else and she agreed. The only number my foggy, emotional brain could think of was my sister Jen's, in Michigan. I dialed and my nephew, Luke, answered. In a panicked, rushed voice, I told them to call Marlo. But they didn't have his new cell phone number. So I asked them to call Allyssa, my niece, to find out where they are. I told Luke to have Allyssa call back on the number that came up on their caller ID. I asked the kind lady to wait for a few minutes until my niece called. She agreed and put her arm around me, trying to comfort me. In a minute, my niece called. I asked her where she was.
The nice lady then directed me to the area where they were. I thanked and hugged them, and then I was off. When I turned a corner, I saw Lissy and my kids...and a horse drawn carriage that was supposed to be my surprise from Marlo. But Marlo wasn't there. He decided that since the last text said to go to the statue in Columbus Circle, he would look for me there. Allyssa didn't have Marlo's number. The carriage driver, who had been waiting in that spot for 45 minutes, didn't have Marlo's number. He offered his iPad and asked if Marlo was on FB. Marlo is not on FB, but I am and I remember messaging his number to someone the day before. So I tried to log on to my FB, but of course....I couldn't remember my password. Finally I went into a coffee shop and asked if anyone had a charger for an iPhone. Nobody did. Then I, still in my orange poncho with the hood up, I walked a block to another tea/coffee shop and saw a girl with a charger in her iPhone. I took a deep breath and tried to hold back my panic and emotions and then I asked the girl if I could please use her charger so I could call Marlo. A guy was sitting across from her smiled and told me that he was doing the same thing. His phone died during the marathon and he couldn't find his people. I plugged in my phone and waited for it to turn on. It would turn on, then off. There was nothing left at all in the battery. It would take a few minutes. I was feeling very impatient. The girl told me to wait a few minutes and that it would be ok. Finally I saw Gabe, my little boy, run into the coffee shop, followed by Marlo. Marlo decided to come back to the carriage to see if I made it there. He looked as panicked as I did. We hugged and thanked everyone and then we left. All I could do was apologize for the drama. I felt bad about the whole thing, all because I couldn't remember his phone number. It was dark out, and we all climbed into the carriage for the ride back to the hotel. I snuggled under a blanket with Marlo, still apologizing for the entire mess. The kids enjoyed the carriage and asked if I had won the race. I think I did!
Sitting here now typing this, I realized that Marlo's number was written on the back of my race bib...in case of emergencies. Ugh!
That night, Marlo and I met up with Cathy, Jock and Jacqui and her husband and son. We went to dinner and celebrated our success, sharing stories of the road to the finish line. I think we were all too tired to finish eating our huge meals. We stared at our half eaten food, and glasses of wine, half full. Finally we threw in the towel and left. I hugged Cathy tightly. She is a special person to me and I love her like my sister. She and Jock spent the weekend with Marlo and I last year in NYC, for the marathon that never happened! I feel a special connection with her and hope we stay in touch.
I spent the next day completely exhausted. We had great intentions about taking the kids to see Phantom of the Opera. My favorite. We bought half price tickets at the TKTS booth. The show started at 8 p.m. and the kids fell asleep half way through the Second Act. I fell asleep during "All I Ask of You"...in the First Act. I kind of rallied for the Second Act, but I think I dozed off a bit. I was so, so tired.
It took me a few days to really appreciate what I did. I have to be honest, the first few days after the marathon, I focused on negative things like, "I didn't reach my goal of under 5 hours" or "I was in so much pain, that sucked" and "My family reunion was stressed and sucky." I swore up and down that I would never run again. Finally, I accepted the race as it was. It was awesome. I had fun. Yes, it hurt, but I did something not many people do. I completed a marathon. And I ran the entire thing. That is great! And, the best feeling is that I did it for myself, my family and for those affected by aortic disease. I was able to bring awareness to and raise money for the JRF. Four years ago, I had open chest surgery. It's pretty incredible that I ran the marathon. I have some feelings of sadness that this journey is over. The members of Team Ritter, Amy Yasbeck, the Ritter family and Tracy Bensend are wonderful people, committed to making a difference. It was such an honor to spend time with them all.
I'm going to run again. Probably not a marathon, though. Unless I can run the NYC Marathon again with Team Ritter. Then I would do it! I can't imagine any ol' marathon measuring up to the NYC Marathon. I am going to stick to half marathons. I smile about how people on Team Ritter are already planning their next marathon and can't wait to get out there and run again. I'm so not like that. I really, really wish I was. I am not. Honestly, I feel like sleeping, eating and drinking my way to the new year. But, motivated by my Team, I won't. I am signed up to do the Miami Half Marathon in February with Charlotte. That should be fun. And it will keep me running, so I don't get too lazy. I'll find another half marathon to do later next year.
So my marathon was spectacular. It was a very special time in my life and the lives of my family and friends. I do feel like I crossed the finish line a different person. I believe in myself a little more, and I appreciate what the human body can do. I am thankful that I was diagnosed and saved. I feel like I shouldn't be afraid to try anything that initially seems too hard, or unrealistic. I have no idea what the next "thing" is going to be in my life. But I'm excited that I get to find out.