As he roared through his high school career enjoying success in baseball and basketball at Hamilton High West, no one ever looked at Dan Garcia and said, “Ya know, that guy should do cross country.” He was a scrappy athlete but hardly a distance runner.
And yet, there he was on Nov. 3, trotting into Central Park and across the finish line to successfully complete his first attempt at running the New York Marathon. The race starts in Staten Island, moves to Brooklyn, comes into Manhattan, goes up through Queens and the Bronx and curves back down into Manhattan’s West Side. It encompasses 26.2 miles, which is a distance Garcia dislikes even in a car.
“I do not even necessarily enjoy driving 26 miles, so there are absolutely times throughout running 26 where you are asking yourself what the heck you signed up for,” Garcia said. “But the feeling at the finish line is without a doubt worth it.”
The 24-year-old finished in 3 hours, 56 minutes, 52 seconds, which is an average of 9:03 per mile. He was 14,323rd overall (out of over 53,000 competitors), 10,703rd among males, 300th in the 20-24 year old age group and 6,706th among American runners. He was satisfied with his time, which was just five minutes slower than when he ran the slightly less challenging Philadelphia Marathon in 2017.
When it comes to the NYM, however, finishing is its own reward.
“It is a feeling that is tough to put into words, said Garcia, who works for the New Jersey State Auditor’s office after graduating from Rowan University in 2018. “Finishing a marathon is more of a feeling of satisfaction from a competition against yourself, where everything from the start of training to the finish line on race day is in your own hands to get yourself ready for the task at hand. It is definitely a mental test.”
It is indeed, as much mental as physical. All the training in the world can have the runner in great shape, but with each passing step through the crowds and over the black-top terrain, the mind must keep convincing the body it can finish.
The fact Garcia made it was not a surprise to his Hamilton West coaches.
“He was always in fantastic cardiovascular shape as was his brother Tim and his father Mark,” former baseball coach Mark Pienciak said. “I remember the three of them when they competed in a 5K at Veterans Park that one of my health classes organized to raise money for the Make A Wish Foundation. The Garcia family has always emphasized the importance of physical fitness and a healthy well-being.
“Dan can do anything that he puts his mind to, not just athletically but in any life endeavor that he chooses. I would encourage any of my students and athletes to look up to a young man like Dan Garcia. I congratulate him on an amazing accomplishment.”
Former Hornet basketball coach Jay Malloy had similar feelings.
“I did not know that he was running it but if you told me that he signed up then I wouldn’t have expected anything less than for him to finish,” Malloy said. “From coaching him for four years on the court and getting to know him as a person throughout high school and even after he graduated, you knew Dan was the ultimate competitor and worked extremely hard to achieve whatever goals he had, both individually and team oriented.
“Dan was a feisty and hard-nosed player for me who would run through a wall for the team. I’m sure that same mentality was applied to finishing the marathon. Dan was a great athlete for our program and an even better person who has always represented himself, his family, his school and his community in the right way. I’m very proud of him for adding yet another impressive accomplishment to his already stellar resume.”
Signing up for New York was not just a crazy whim, as Garcia had run the Philadelphia Marathon (same distance, flatter course) and four half marathons. His dad had done numerous half marathons and wanted to try New York as his first full, and Dan thought it would be neat to run by his side. The two entered a lottery in which 10,510 runners were chosen out of 117,709 applicants.
“Him being into distance running is what first sparked my interest,” Garcia said.
As luck would have it, Dan hit the lottery but Mark did not, meaning he was on his own. Thus, Garcia began his training regimen three months prior to the race. He continued his usual routine of weight training at the gym at least six days a week while adding more time on the treadmill to conclude the workouts. He ran three to eight miles per day four weekdays each week and on weekends he started at 10 miles each day and gradually increased to 20 two weeks before the race before tapering off.
He was aided by his dad and good friend Vinnie Sorrentino, a former Hornet baseball standout who ran the Philadelphia Marathon in late November.
As prepared as Garcia was, that didn’t stop him from having an unsettling sleep on the eve of the marathon. He was tempted to watch his beloved 76ers play a late-night game in Portland but thought better of it. Nonetheless, “nerves and excitement did not do me any favors,” considering he had a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call. Dan and Mark departed from his Chesterfield home at 4:15 to catch a 5:30 shuttle bus from the Meadowlands to the starting area.
Once he arrived beneath the Verrazano Bridge, the adrenaline wiped out any sleep deprivation.
“That is when I really appreciated the significance of this event,” Garcia said. “With more than 50,000 runners all with one common goal, it really is a special feeling.”
Garcia started in Corral 2 with the second wave of runners who set a goal of finishing between 3-1/2 and 4 hours. He made one alteration in his usual distance run and did not listen to music, eBooks or podcasts.
“I was told by many people not to wear headphones for this race to allow myself to truly appreciate the whole experience, as the crowd is surreal from start to finish,” Garcia said.
It was a move that paid off, as Garcia described.
“Going over the Verrazano Bridge with amazing views and the NYPD helicopter flying above was amazing,” he said. “As you make your way through all five boroughs, there are spectators almost from start to finish, at times two and three people deep on each side. Around mile eight, there was an entire choir from a church outside singing live music as people passed by, along with several others performing live music, DJs, and countless spectators rooting runners on.
“There are spectators who seem to genuinely enjoy themselves giving any support or motivation they can to thousands of strangers that run by. The crowd was able to push me through mentally.”
Unfortunately for Dan, he was without some of his supporters as his mom, Mary, had to attend a bridal shower and several friends had to attend a wedding. But Mark set up camp in Brooklyn at the 8-mile mark and, once his son passed, high-tailed it to the finish area where he was joined by Tim and four of Garcia’s best friends.
“I received many motivational text messages along the way from my mom as she was able to follow me from start to finish on the app that updates runners’ statuses live throughout the race,” Garcia said. “Several other family and friends followed me briefly on the app and reached out along the way which was all so much appreciated.”
But like any runner doing such an epic race, there are bound to be times when it all comes down to whatever he has inside of him. Garcia hit that point two miles from the finish.
“Come mile 24 and change is when I was really being tested both mentally and physically, and hit a true runners wall,” he said. “At this point in the race, however, you are already in Central Park inching closer to that finish line, with thousands of spectators creating a surreal atmosphere that basically carries you to the finish line.”
Which carried him into an exclusive distance runner’s club.
Not bad for a baseball and basketball player.