Running over the Willis Avenue Bridge is not the end of the race. In fact, that’s where the real grind started for me—as it does for many in the marathon.
The New York City Marathon course is a bit cruel at this point. After the crowds of 1st Avenue and the downhill drop into Harlem—right when you’re getting to the place where the race starts to get long, where many hit the dreaded “Wall”—the course throws in a quiet, lonely, slightly uphill bridge into the Bronx.
The Willis Avenue Bridge is the gateway to the second half of the marathon, the miles where you discover how well you prepared and how smartly you executed the race. It can be a gate to hell—as you fall apart, cramp, and drag your body haltingly through the final miles—or to heaven—as the miles go by and you keep hitting your splits and getting ever closer to a PR. But always, it marks the beginning of the miles where you have to dig deep and find out who you are.
For me, in the 2013 New York City Marathon—after rolling hills, long bridges, a head wind the entire race, and a freezing rain/sleet for the last 45 minutes—I knew my time didn’t matter anymore, and my new focus was to catch more runners by the end of the race.
Around 15 miles I had been left behind by the leading group as they made a huge surge and the whole pack broke apart. Some stayed stronger, some felt trapped like me…alone in the wind and maybe disappointed. I always go into a race with high hopes and dreaming of a podium finish (and why not? Everything is possible at that level). That long avenue felt forever…never ending.
As we crossed the bridge, my legs were heavy at 20 miles. I didn’t want to give up and step out—instead, I started focusing on my form and regrouping mentally as there was still a ways to go. My mind was running in a million directions, but when it was getting hard I kept telling myself, “They are in the same pain as I am…so let’s go because at this point there is nothing to lose.”
Running back into Manhattan, I got my second gear, because of all the people who came out to cheer for us. I started to relax, thought of all the training I put in to line up for this marathon, and used that positive energy from all the support to get me to the finish line. The bright part of the race was finishing first American, and that made up for all the things went wrong during the race.
Some people say coming into the Central Park is the hardest. I tell you what, it is the most exciting part of the race. No matter how tired you are, put a smile on your face and be proud of yourself. If it was an easy task, anyone would do it. People are there just for you and you are there for them.
When things go wrong, find all the positive thoughts that will carry you on. I usually think of those who are waiting for me at the finish line…and how much I want a hug from my husband who supported me through the entire preparation, and who I know is praying for me every minute and watching every split as I get closer to the finish line.
However you are feeling at the Willis Avenue Bridge, it is a chance to evaluate your goals, regroup and press on, renewed with the conviction that you can succeed. Dig deep, because you worked for it and you definitely can do it.
At the end of the day we choose to do what we love to do and we do this for us. Doing something good for yourself, you inspire those around you. Keep charging forward.
Adriana Nelson was the top American finisher in the 2013 New York City Marathon in 2:35:05. In 2007 she finished second in her marathon debut in Chicago. She ran her PR of 2:28:52 at the 2008 London Marathon. Nelson lives in Boulder, Colorado and is training at an elite level again after the birth of her daughter in November 2017. She’s a full-time Mom, helps her husband Jeremy at ROLL Recovery, and is an Olympic hopeful after running a 2:35:45 at this September’s Berlin Marathon.