Dexter Webb: running addiction

When Trinidadian Dexter Webb decided to run the New York Marathon as a fortieth-birthday challenge, he knew it would be tough — but he didn’t guess it would also be addictive

The New York Marathon — the world’s largest, by number of competitors — has a course that passes through the city’s five boroughs. Photo by Mitchell Funk/PC/Getty Images

I remember riding the ferry with other runners to Staten Island, one person saying, “Man, starting a marathon with a ferry ride — how cool is that?” Living in New York, you take a lot for granted, so it was refreshing to see the city through other peoples’ eyes. Runners from more than a hundred countries had descended on the city in the days leading up to the marathon. In my start corral, two European runners had come over as part of a tour group. They were veterans who spoke casually about their race strategy.

“Have you run New York before?” one asked me.

“Nah, this is my first time, my first marathon,” I replied.

“Just try and enjoy it. Don’t worry about your time or anything — just enjoy the experience.”

This was advice I had heard before, but I was grateful for the banter to calm my nerves. How do you enjoy your first marathon? Eighteen weeks of training hadn’t erased all my self-doubt. Standing at the foot of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, with its muscular bluish-grey beams, I wondered if I had bitten off more than I could run.

My strategy was to try and run a steady pace. I had completed my training dutifully, running weekly mileages I didn’t even know I was capable of. I told myself I was ready. It couldn’t be that hard, right?

The start cannon boomed, and soon I was making my way over the bridge, caught up in the surge of runners invading Brooklyn, the wind howling as police helicopters hovered on either side. “This is epic!” someone yelled, his declaration perfectly capturing the moment.

The early miles went pretty much to plan. I kept on pace through Brooklyn, where family and friends staked out spots to cheer. In past years, I’d come out on Marathon Sunday and watched the runners go by. I would vow to do the marathon the next year. Then I’d go home and forget all about it. Now I was among the mass of runners people were urging on with witty signs, cowbells, horns, whistles, and outstretched palms.

I left Brooklyn and got to Queens, passing the halfway point — thirteen miles down, thirteen to go. I got to the dreaded Queensboro Bridge with its long, steep incline. My legs started to burn, but I ignored the pain and kept pushing. After three quarters of a mile, the bridge began to descend into Manhattan, and my legs were thankful for the respite.

We came off the bridge to deafening cheers from a thick crowd on First Avenue. Up ahead, all I could see was a sea of bobbing heads and lots of ground to cover before reaching the Bronx. Sixteen miles, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen — I welcomed each mile marker like a distant lover.

I had read and heard that the marathon really starts at twenty miles. That if you run a disciplined race, your training should take you to that point fairly comfortably. I would become the latest case study for this theory. Because, as if on cue, my right hamstring started to twitch ominously at about the twenty-mile mark. Shortly after, just as I was coming up on the twenty-one-mile marker in the Bronx, I pulled up.

As I came to a halt in pain and runners streamed past, I panicked. Could I make it to the finish? Was this the end of my race? At some point during my confusion I must have gone past a mental point of no return, when I said to myself, “You’re going to finish this race, even if you have to crawl to the finish line.”

As I was limping along, just about to leave the Bronx and get on to Fifth Avenue, I thought about heroic athletic performances I had seen over the years, about football players I admired, players who competed as if they would rather die of exhaustion than let the team down.

 

My team were tuned in on Facebook and the marathon app, tracking my movements through the five boroughs. A month before the race, my graduating class from Woodbrook Secondary School back in Trinidad had rallied around the run as a twenty-fifth anniversary school fundraiser. More than TT$10,000 in pledges had been made. A classmate had even pledged a $500 bonus if I finished under four hours, stoking the competitor in me.

Now a sub-four-hour finish was in doubt. But that was the least of my worries. I wanted, needed to finish. Pride was at stake. Nobody wants to be the person who doesn’t finish, and I wasn’t going to be that guy.

Then things went from bad to worse. With my hamstring cramp subsiding to the point where I could get into a slow jog, my quads started to tighten and my legs got heavy. As I started to mount a long incline on Fifth Avenue leading up to Central Park, I simply stalled and was forced to walk.

“You’re almost there, Trini! Finish strong!” people shouted, acknowledging the name I had printed on the front of my t-shirt.

At first I welcomed these words of encouragement. But after a while they sounded like taunts. Almost there? Finish strong? Do these people have any idea the amount of pain I’m in? Every mile felt like ten. I kept looking for the finish line, but all I could see were bobbing heads and more ground to cover.

The course turned into Central Park, where I had done some training runs. The familiar terrain helped temper my anxiety. But I was hurting badly. Now, it wasn’t about getting to the next mile marker, just the next hundred metres. I would pick an object — a tree, a sign up ahead — and make getting to it my next goal. Struggling, I passed the twenty-five-mile marker.

“One more mile to go, Trini!” the crowd yelled.

Earlier in the race, I would have turned and flashed a peace sign or given a thumbs-up. Now I didn’t have the energy to acknowledge anyone. All my strength was focused on getting to the finish.

“You got this, Trini!”

Suddenly, I could hear the announcer saying people’s names as they crossed the finish. The sign for the finish line came into view. Struggling to maintain a half-decent pace, I eased across the line barely feeling my legs.

I stopped my watch and within seconds my phone, which I had run with to document the occasion, started vibrating. Congratulatory texts were coming in. I barely had time to read any of them before someone placed a medal around my neck, another handed me a warming blanket, someone else handed me a recovery bag with energy bars, water, a sports drink. It was all a blur.

Sitting at home that evening, with the adrenaline in retreat, it started to sink in. The ordeal of the last five miles a few hours earlier was a distant memory. I was happy and at peace. I had surprised myself by running sub-eight-minute miles for twenty of the twenty-six miles, and finishing in three hours, forty-four minutes. If you had told me two years earlier that that was possible, I would’ve laughed.

I had run the marathon as a fortieth birthday challenge. One and done — that’s what I’d told myself, family, and friends. Now I was sizing up other courses: Chicago, London, Berlin. Why not Boston? All of a sudden, everything seemed possible. I had heard that running a marathon could be addictive. I would become the latest case study for this theory, too.