Bloody Nipples and Tears of Joy

Starting line of the NYC Marathon
In this Nov. 5, 2017, photo, runners wait patiently at the start of the NYC Marathon. (Photo by: Christina Dabney)

Confessions from Hardcore Athletes

Their bodies are scarred from severe chafing, they cry in front of hundreds of people and their blackened toenails detach from tortured feet.

Who are these sweat-stained masochists? Marathoners.

Every year around 50,000 runners rise before dawn to compete in the New York City Marathon. By the end, many said they felt they were dying. In rare instance some actually do. Despite the intense physical strain, participants say they are drawn back year after year by an unrivaled rush of accomplishment and a strong sense of camaraderie.

“I have a permanent scar on my chest where my sports bra hits,” said four-time marathon runner Monica Merlis. “You have to douse your body in Vaseline.”

Emily Lew, who was a teenager when she ran the New York City Marathon for the first time in 1999, recalled that her feet burned with pain when she finished the race. In the following days, several toenails slid out of their bruised beds.

Yet, Lew returned the following year to face more physical torment. After the race, blood had pooled beneath her toenails. She went to the first aid tent, where a medic stabbed a needle under each nail to relieve the pressure. Her toenails slowly tore off again, never to grow back normally. “I didn’t know that your shoes should be half a size larger, so I just learned that the hard way,” she said.

Runner Gary McLaughlan also recalled a gruesome trip to the medical tent during the marathon. He had only gone in for some ice. Inside he saw an exhausted runner rocking back and forth, another helplessly quivering, and a third who had placed ice cubes all over his body to combat overheating. “It was serious in there,” he said.

One main concern for marathon runners is strategizing how to deal with bodily functions. “It’s always your goal and dream that you can go number two before the race,” said Merlis. She recalls feeling slightly guilty last year at the Brooklyn Half Marathon when The Star-Spangled Banner was playing while she was in the port-a-potty.

And then there are the tears. Michael Neuman, who will be travelling from Berlin for the marathon, said he’s surprised to see runners who don’t shed a few tears. “Every time I finish a marathon I cry out of exhaustion, happiness or disappointment,” he said.

But runners will tell you they go through all the bodily horror and emotional turmoil because of how uplifting it is. Diverse groups and neighborhoods come together under a common purpose, and to them that is powerful.

Mary Arnold, leader of the November Project, a fitness group that empowers participants to stay in shape during the winter, described how running through all five boroughs “gives you a cultural profile of the city that no other map, photograph or video could possibly convey.”

On marathon day “everyone is proud of their city, their neighborhood, their block,” said Arnold.

She remembered seeing a young mom in the Bronx enthusiastically waving a “Welcome to the South Bronx” sign, “It was a like a huge middle finger to all the city developers who were calling the neighborhood a slum at the time.”

McLaughlan said, “It’s going to sound cliché, but it’s the best day in New York City. People are nicer, random people cheer for you. It does feel like a proper community.”

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