What It’s Like Running the New York City Marathon
The New York City Marathon is the undisputed largest marathon in the world. For some, running it is on their bucket list; for others it is simply a magical event viewed from afar through either print or video coverage. For me, it fell somewhere in between – it was something I was certainly aware of (and had even watched in the past), but not necessarily something I was completely convinced that I had to do. Faster runners can get in by way of a BQ-style qualifying time, and runners local to the region may gain entry through a combination of other races and volunteer opportunities offered by the NYRR, but I had neither. I knew that I wanted a fall marathon on my racing schedule, and would have other options if I didn’t get into NYC, so I figured that I would have nothing to lose by putting in my $11 to enter the lottery.
Once I found out that I was one of the lucky 18% of lottery entrants who had gotten their “golden ticket”, it was time to get over the initial shock and get down to the business of planning.
Getting There – Transportation and Lodging
After you have registered and are accepted, there are just a few more choices to make – you must pick a start line transportation option (more on that in a bit), and you must choose between checking a bag at the start or receiving a poncho. For me, the decision was easy once I realized that the latter was estimated at being at least 30 minutes shorter between when you cross the finish line and when you actually leave the secure area to meet up with friends and family/hop on transportation out of the area. As an added bonus, the “poncho option” ended up being a relatively heavy duty nylon hooded poncho with fleece lining and a Velcro closure to hold it together!
While there is certainly no shortage of hotels in a place like New York City, there are also other housing options – including one of the official hospitality partners of the marathon, AirBNB. I managed to find a pretty reasonable apartment on the south side of Manhattan (walking distance from my chosen start line transportation option), and was also able to get a pretty reasonable flight. Add in car service from the airport to my rented apartment, and it was all done but the packing.
Getting Around (expo, meals, etc)
Just about any discussion of running a marathon would not be complete with advice about at least being cognizant of time on your feet (don’t spend too much wandering around the expo, don’t go sightseeing the day before a destination race, etc.). While this was the first race I had flown to, it was not my first race expo… although (with all due respect to organizations like Twin CIties in Motion and the fine folks who put on Grandma’s Marathon) everything I had previously experienced paled in comparison to opening the doors to the Javits Convention Center.
Thankfully, my chosen home base was literally around the corner from a subway stop, and the mass of people adorned in all sorts of running attire made it pretty easy to figure out which stop to take to get to the Expo. Once I got the uptown/downtown nomenclature down, it was relatively easy to make the subway my transportation mode of choice for my visit, and most of my pre-race walking was reserved for subway station stairs (no small feat post-marathon!) and the expo itself.
New York City also has no shortage of restaurants – and thankfully there was a “mom and pop”-style Italian eatery a few shorts blocks from my housing. A very reasonably priced heaping plate of spaghetti was my go-to meal the night before the marathon, and that same spot was the location for my celebratory slice post-race. Sprinkle in a few more trips to the Dunkin Donuts on “my” block than I should likely admit to (this East Coast boy is about a dozen or so years removed my my last Bavarian Cream fresh out of the oven, so of course I had to take full advantage every time I walked by…), and some exploring the neighborhood for other food options during my stay, and I certainly left New York City very well fed!
I have a confession to make – I typically don’t run the day before a race (even a 5K, for whatever reason). Maybe it is a little bit of fear about the task at hand, maybe it is saving myself to focus on the race, maybe it is just a silly superstition…but this time around, my training plan had a four mile easy run on the schedule for the day before the marathon, and the craziness of traveling halfway across the country had me thinking that it was finally time to break one of my cardinal rules.
Given everything else that I was trying to figure out logistically, I was not looking forward to trying to figure out the nearest four mile loop to where I was staying – luckily, the NYRR had me covered. Approximately 24 hours before the big day, the Dash to the Finish Line 5K is staged near the marathon finish line (even reusing portions of the last couple of miles from the marathon course, allowing you a bit of a preview). This is still no small race (and judging by the number of 2015 NYC Marathon shirts I saw, others were onto my trick), but was definitely perfect for my needs – a chance to shake my legs out at a somewhat easy pace, a bit of a dress rehearsal for the next day, and a chance to practice my finish line crossing face.
Plenty of races have transportation options (which selfishly helps them with starting line logistics as much as it helps you), and the NYC Marathon is no exception. There are buses from various location (both provided by the race itself, and also provided by some of the larger hotels). For me, staying in Manhattan meant that I would need to cross some water to get to the start village. Given that most of the bridges off of the island are in various stages of being closed down for the race, and I didn’t want to mess too much with the subway on the way to the race, it seemed to make the most sense to choose the free option closest to where I was staying – a ferry with a view! After a short walk from the apartment, I hopped in line at the terminal and waited for the next available boat. A brief trip across the water later, and it was on to a charter bus for the ride to Fort Wadsworth and the start line village.
It really is equal parts overwhelming and awe-inspiring to see the crowds increasing in numbers as we got closer and closer to our destination. As we finally arrived, we had one more security checkpoint to clear before entering the fort. Each race bib also provides your assigned wave, start village color, and corral – which means that once you get settled (including gatorade, coffee, water, and other assorted snacks all around the village), it is time to find your assigned color, and then within each color section to find your start corral gate. I was in wave 2, so I got to wait a bit before being invited into my specific corral, which then funneled me around the perimeter of the village and towards the start line. A few quick announcements, the national anthem, a cannon blast…and we were off!
The Marathon Course – Touring all 5 boroughs
From the start of the race, I had a plan in mind. I had a rough time goal, I knew the pace that I wanted to hit – and then I encountered the swarm of people trying to get across the Verrazano Bridge, each of them also trying to stick to their plan for the next 26.2 miles. I have a bad habit of pushing the first mile a little too hard in just about every race I have ever run, so the feeling of being a couple of minutes per mile behind at the moment was completely foreign to me. As I got about halfway up the first half of the bridge (picture an upside down “U” spanning the river, although not quite as steep), I realized that to my right was an elevated sidewalk of sorts. Trying not to panic too much about the pace being reported from my wrist, I patiently worked my way to over and finally found a bit of an opening to stretch my legs. Aside from the occasional discarded sweatshirt, the path was relatively clear, and I was able to slowly push back towards my intended pace for mile 1.
As the next ten miles continued to unfold, I continued to weave and shift more than I had planned, suddenly singularly focused on the pace I thought I should be at instead of staying relaxed and waiting for natural seams. Sometimes this took me out to the right (where the signs and the extended hands of smiling children kept me smiling as well), sometimes back towards (and even onto) the concrete median at the middle of the road. This certainly isn’t the recommended way to run a race, let alone a marathon, but I had a plan in mind – and at least I was sticking close to my planned splits.
I was just starting to settle into the familiarity of the noise and the crowds when I crossed into mile 11, described by Liz Robbins as “The Modest Mile”. The NYC marathon covers all five boroughs, with a patchwork of people and places, but I remember this one in particular for the unexpected combination of people and silence. At other points in the race, there seemed to either be people and noise, or the silence of the bridges – but in the Williamsburg neighborhood, the Hasidic population mostly went about their daily activities like the race wasn’t even going on (the Sabbath was the day before, so Sunday is just another day of work).
One other thing which stood out was the music. While I have run other races with everything from old school boom boxes in people’s yards to trumpet serenades, there really was a little bit of everything in New York. People camping out on their front step playing music from the living room window, barbershop quartets, brass and strings, DJs spinning records, even a live set oddly reminiscent of a late 90s Fugees concert. I moved away from using my headphones on the run at about the same time that my phone got too big to want to carry along, and it’s experiences like this which really make me appreciate that decision – while I could likely go the rest of my life without hearing “Eye of the Tiger” at a race, the rest of the 26.2 mile party was well worth a listen!
Somewhere towards the end of mile 19, I could start to feel my legs getting heavy. As I passed the marker for mile 20, I knew that I was at a bit of a crossroads. I had hit my splits right about where I wanted to be, but those miles were anything but consistent – slowing down for traffic, speeding up when an opening came, zig-zagging left and right to try and maintain that pace for as long as possible – and the accumulated fatigue was starting to catch up with me. Ultimately, I had a decision to make: dig even deeper and continue to race the clock, or back off the throttle a bit and really take in the sights and sounds of the last 10K. A little bit of hurried mental math (I felt like I was still in PR territory), and I chose the latter option. I never walked, but I did catch myself jogging a bit, and I think that I can even say that I actually really enjoyed the last few miles.
After crossing the finish line, be prepared for more walking. If there was any downside to my experience, it was that the water and snacks felt a bit far past the finish line itself – but there are certainly plenty of volunteers around to take care of you, and it wasn’t long before I had refreshments in hand and a mylar blanket wrapped around me. A bit further down the road, the progression splits into those heading towards bag pickup and those heading towards the ponchos. One of the nicest people I met all day wrapped me up in my poncho, secured the velcro, and made sure that I had what I needed before sending me on my way to the exit. Thankfully a subway stop is not far from the exit of the secure area, and before I knew it I was back in my room and on my way to a much-needed shower before heading back out for a meal (intentional on my part, I certainly could have ordered in or stocked the fridge – but I wanted to get a little walking in that evening).
If you can rearrange your travel to spend an extra day or two in the area, it is definitely worth checking out “Marathon Monday”. While you can order some (most?) of the official finisher-labeled gear online, Tavern on the Green (next to the marathon finish line in Central Park) is your finisher gear headquarters the day after the race. Expect a bit of line to get in (entrance is made in small groups as people exit the other end), but worth the stop if you want to do a little finisher gear shopping.
Beyond that, Marathon Monday is also your spot to pick up the day’s New York Times, which at this location includes the special Marathon section (including finisher names and times under a reasonable finish time, this year was advertised as being 4:30 and under, but ended up getting into the 5 hour mark based on available page space), and your spot for free medal engraving (adding your finishing time to the back of your finisher medal). It’s also a really nice excuse to stretch your legs a bit, and so my Marathon Monday experience included some walking around Central Park, and a sightseeing trip to Ground Zero before packing up and hopping on a train to head south to visit some family.
A Few Parting Thoughts
First of all, a huge thank you to my personal cheering squad – my girlfriend, my sister, and my brother-in-law who all made the trip east with me from Minnesota, and my cousin who came into the city to meet them and join in the fun (and my apologies to her for dumping a sweaty pile of arm warmers, gloves, and stocking cap in the later stages of the race!) They made a great plan, finding ways to see me just enough to keep my head in the game without cutting their own time table too close, and then we all got to celebrate together afterwards. My mom also made the trip east as well, avoiding the craziness of the city in favor of being there in spirit and helping keep us all fed post-race. If you can find a way to drag friends and family along for a destination race like this, I highly recommend it!
Is the New York City Marathon on your bucket list? Or have you run it before? Sound off in the comments below with your questions or stories!