After 18 sweaty, heart-pounding miles into the grueling 26.2 of the TCS 2022 New York Marathon, I felt a pop. Putting weight on my already injured left ankle was suddenly impossible, and for a brief second my mind went into panic mode. But, luckily, there’s an emphasis on that word brief. I was going to finish what I started. I don’t care if I had to crawl on my hands and knees all night—I was going to finish the marathon.
I knew I started too fast coming out of the gate. After suffering a tendon injury in my ankle mid-marathon training that required me to sport a less-than-stylish boot (goddamn you, clear office coffee table), I was fully aware that the distance ahead wasn’t going to be a cake walk. I didn’t give it the proper time to heal, and the environment’s natural elements—unseasonably high temperatures and sticky humidity—had clearly become an obstacle that all 50,000 runners that day (myself included!) didn’t exactly wish for.
But despite all of that, when the starting gun went off, it was still my very first marathon; I couldn’t help but give in to the immediate rush of adrenaline. By mile four, I was in the thick of it, keeping a decent 8:45 pace (I was aiming to stay around 9:15, but I was trying to impress a crowd of strangers) while taking in my surroundings. I’d initially planned to keep my AirPod Pros out until mile six to conserve battery, but the roars from the overflowing New York City sidewalks were better than any song’s beat. My name was written in neon pink tape across my tank top, and random person after person didn’t hesitate to scream it aloud as if they knew me on a deeply personal level. The camaraderie went on for hours, juicing me up when I started to feel as though my energy chews weren’t doing their job. But with each corner turned and avenue passed, over all the noise, I kept repeating the same thing over and over: You can do this. You have people out here waiting for you. Get it done. But to be honest, I wasn’t sure if I would.
Like many people, my running journey began in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Athletics was never something I had the desire to pursue—I was a theater kid who attempted to be a semi-professional dancer for a few years after college, but it’s not like that required me to master the art of a perfect spiral or a 3 -point. I’d never run more than a casual five or so miles, but some friends decided the 2020 RBC Brooklyn Half Marathon would be a fun outing as a group. As you can guess, said half marathon was postponed indefinitely when the pandemic hit. My training, however, continued on.
Consistently training—jogging through the streets of Astoria, Queens masked, sometimes over the Queensboro Bridge to Central Park—allowed me to increase my mileage every week as if gearing up for the race I’d initially registered for. When that day came, I followed through, running from Queens to Brooklyn and into Manhattan, not stopping until my Strava app told me I’d hit my very own unofficial 13.1 finish line. After that, running just felt like second nature. I completed race after race, breaking personal records and turning my average half marathon pace from a 10:30 to a 7:25. I might not have been able to bench press 200 pounds, but I felt like I was good at this whole running thing. I could run, and probably outrun a lot of people. And no one could take that away from me.
The 50th TCS New York City Marathon returned to action on November 7, 2021 (albeit with a smaller pool of runners than usual). I’ve described this day to friends as “straight Pride,” just without the display of rainbow, glitter, and tasteful nudity. I’d made it a point to block off the marathon date in my calendar, understanding how much cheering as a spectator acts as fuel for a runner when the tank is running on empty. Pressed against the metal barrier, my friend Ana and I screamed as loudly as we could, shedding more than a few tears over the course of our time out there. I’d already qualified for the 2023 New York City Marathon through their 9+1 program, but something about this one lit a scalding hot fire in me. I didn’t know if I could wait a full year to get on those streets. I needed to run the marathon now.
And a year later, I was doing exactly that. Except my goal of under four hours was slowly slipping away, and I didn’t know what to do about it. My Apple Watch Ultra kept alerting me to a dangerously high heart rate, and despite stopping at every fluid station, my body just refused cool down. Beginning an insufferably long uphill bridge climb that came about around mile 15, my body suddenly began to tingle from head to toe. Battling the feeling of needles, as an ambulance drove back and forth to see if anyone needed emergency assistance, I began to wonder if asking for medical would be the right call. I didn’t want to collapse on this run; death wasn’t exactly my plan when I signed up. Then again, neither was failure.
But what truly kept me going despite the fear of falling over was my friends. My support system. I knew they were spread all across 1st Avenue the second I rounded the sharp corner off that bridge. They were there for me, and as much as I was running this marathon for myself, the last thing I wanted to do was let them down.
They let out deafening roars as I passed, holding up handmade signs with the most outrageous sayings (“You’re the biggest bully in Hollywood,” a reference to a line thrown out by icon Kathy Hilton during the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills Season 12 reunion, was my personal favorite). I grinned and beared it, refusing to let them know that, quite frankly, this was the fucking hardest thing I’d ever done in my life. As I continued the trek, leaving them behind with no knowledge of anyone other support system along the remainder of the route, it was almost as if my body knew that was the moment to give out.
My weak ankle just couldn’t take it, and I lost my balance as the pain became unbearable. On top of that, cramps began to creep up my thigh, and there was a moment where I thought “This is it. You tried your hardest, but you’re done here.” But that thought came and went faster than I could have ever expected. Instead, I kept going. People on the streets quickly tossed bottles of water and bananas my way for a quick potassium boost. I’ll never be able to thank them for being so generous, but I just knew that they wanted me to get to the end almost as much as I did. And with a new mindset, I hobbled my way for 3 miles, popping some Advil I happened to bring along the way. Some quick calculations on my phone’s calculator (doing math was not part of my plan either, especially since I failed it in high school) said if I kept this pace, I’d finish much later than I’d wanted—but that didn’ don’t matter anymore.
Crossing over into the Bronx, my trusty OTC anti-inflammatory started working its magic. Taking that stroll to manage my pain levels allowed me to surpass the infamous mile 20 “wall” that runners inevitably hit head first. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the moment when a light drizzle began, the universe serendipitously cooling down anyone (again, myself included) who might have needed it. This was when I began to run again, albeit at a slower, 10:30 pace. I was moving and grooving block by block, to where I needed to be. And after entering Central Park, I just knew. That finish line was closed.
AAt 4 hours, 37 minutes, and 55 seconds, I finished the 51st TCS New York City Marathon. I tried my best to look up at the cameramen perched above, set to capture this incredible feat in real time, but I was busy blacking out in complete utter disbelief. I was now 1 of the 0.01% who’ve completed this distance, and I just couldn’t believe it. When I do something, I’m committed. Sure, I may procrastinate and find excuses that’ll delay my progress, but I know how to get shit done. And I just completed something I truly never in my wildest dreams imagined I’d be able to check off my unraveled scroll-length bucket list.
I kept rubbing the medal around my neck, reading its text over and over again as I made the unfortunately ridiculous walk up and out of Central Park. My legs wobbled, but felt sturdy enough to reach my parents, who were waiting at the family reunion area. I stopped for a photo along the way at one of the many step-and-repeats available, wiping my forehead and cheesing for the cameraman as he snapped away. “Congratulations man, you ran a marathon!” he said after I thanked him for the photo.
That’s when it really hits me. Like a slap across the face, I perked up and realized that I just ran a marathon. And ya know what?
I think I’ll do another one.
Sean Abrams is the Senior Editor, Growth and Engagement at Men’s Health. He’s a former hip hop dancer who likes long walks on the beach and large glasses of tequila. You can find his previous work at Maxim, Elite Daily, and AskMen.