I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: the first Sunday in November is the single greatest day of the year in New York City. Period.
Marathon Week begins the prior Sunday, with the annual Poland Spring 5 miler held in Central Park. This is followed up with a week’s worth of events for kids, spectators and runners alike. Then the Expo opens up at the Javits Center the Thursday before the race…and there is no larger marathon expo in the world than the huge running party through on the west side of Manhattan over a four-day span. 50,000 runners swing by to pick up their bibs and swag.
The Friday before race day, the Parade of Nations is held along the west side drive near Tavern on the Green. Over 100 nations are represented in the awesome 5 borough black party, and the festivities are capped off with a pretty impressive fireworks display at the finish line. Once this parade is over, the New York Road Runners host their annual Night of Champions…and the guest list reads like a who’s who of runner. From last year’s new York City Marathon winners, to Bill Rodgers, Shalane Flanagan, the one and only Meb, and a whole host of other running elites – they all show up to help raise money for the New York Road Runners kids running programs. I was lucky enough to score a ticket to this shindig, and it did not disappoint.
Saturday morning, the annual Dash to the Finish is held, where runners can start a 5k in front of the United Nations, held down 42nd Street to 6th Avenue, hang a right and head north to Central Park, where the race finishes across the marathon finish line.
Sunday morning begins rather early, as some of the runners’ transportation from Manhattan to the runners village in Staten Island begins at 5am. So runners are up and out early, knowing that the first wave of the race goes off 4+ hours later. (A quick note to anyone thinking about running this race: the city of New York is basically shutting down for this 26.2 mile block party. So yes – you are asked to get up really early to start your trek to Staten Island. And yes – once you get to Staten Island there will be a rather vigorous security check before you are let in. And yes- once you are in, you’ll have to hunker down and wait a while before you get to run. And yes – it’s windy and usually cold in the village as you wait. So please – accept these things as part of the overall experience, because the juice is worth the squeeze.)
Race morning was a bit chilly and damp. I was worried about the rain, as I never really had to run this race while having to deal with more than the two usual elements: wind and cold. Those two are not a surprise – each year I show up to the starting line a bit more prepared for those challenges. Rain, on the other hand, would make this race a bit more challenging for me. I was running with Team for Kids, so the charity tent came in handy!
I started with Wave 4, at around 10:55am. The first mile is a 200 climb up the Varrazanno Bridge, and runners usually get to view the Manhattan skyline very clearly here. This morning, however, the fog kept that view from us. The first mile should be run easily and under complete control, as runners need to deal with the exposure to a pretty strong, cold cross-wind as they head to Brooklyn. However, I watched as runners around me took off like jackrabbits. As the saying goes: “Let the Kenyans go….we’ll meet again at mile 18….”.
Mile 2 rewards you for the climb with a nice downhill into Brooklyn. (A quick note hear: run in the middle lanes of the bridge, if you start on its lower deck. If you don’t know why, I’ve leave you a hint….it has something to do with full bladders and a lack of port-o-crappers on the span of the bridge, along with 35,000 runners directly above you…..I’ll wait for that to sink in a bit…….ok – you got it? Good. Moving on…) By mile 3, runners are thrown on to 4th Avenue in Brooklyn. Here is where the party starts. Even with the mist / drizzle coming down, people came out to scream their lungs out. Miles 3 through 13 are amazing. These miles are some of my favorites on he course, because it is a perfect display of what makes this city so damn awesome: every race, color and creed together, screaming as one for 50,000 strangers of all ability levels from over 100 countries. At one point, I just had to stop for a moment to soak in the general splendor before waddling on.
Greenpoint is the last neighborhood in Brooklyn before crossing the half way point and entering into Queens. Queens has a few loud spots – but it’s mostly subdued from miles 13.1 to 14.5. Then the noise picks up, as if the fans were trying to help you step on the gas to get over the 59th Street Bridge (otherwise known in my home as Mt. Sonofabitch).
The 59th Street Bridge rears its annoying head near mile 15. This is a tough climb, and it takes a lot out of the runners. I’ve seen the upward climb here turn into something resembling a zombie movie over the years. if you are running this race, train with this hill in mind – don’t let it beat you. If you aren’t prepared for it, it will kick you square in the teeth and set you up for a rough last 10 miles.
As you come down the span of the Bridge, you make the signature turn of the race: a 270 degree left hand turn that throws you onto First Avenue. The party rolls on here – loudly – for the next couple of miles. The noise bounces off the buildings and turns the course into a corridor of sound. It’s one of those spans of the course where you are given a jolt of energy. However, if you are running this race, do NOT let the fans motivate you to kick up your pace and release your inner Alberto Salazar. You still have work to do. Stay under control and just enjoy the experience as you work your way north to The Bronx (the only borough of the city so darn awesome that it’s very name contains a “The” in front of it).
Runners cross over into The Bronx via the Willis Avenue Bridge. The Bronx has a few small twists and turns, but they bring the noise when you enter my hometown. With the noise comes the attitude that makes this borough so special. For instance: The DJ playing music right near the mile 20 marker will call you out if he sees you struggling a bit. “…I see you, number 45867….in that red shirt… YOU GOT THIS! NOW LETS CRANK THIS UUUUUUPPPP!!!!!!” He would say versions of this over..and over…again. And trust me: I watched as that runner in that red shirt went from walking to jogging. Grab some water at the water stop just past Mile 20, and you’ll be greeted with messages like “man, you’ve got this. Kick this race’s ass.” Wall? What Wall. There may be a Wall on this course, but fans in The Bronx want you to knock that thing down. I left The Bronx feeling better than when I arrived.
When runners leave The Bronx, they cross the mile 22 marker and enter into Harlem. This section of the course is my absolute favorite. They take the attitude that just embraced you in The Bronx, and they turn that up another 3 notches. Runners have just four miles. Harlem’s fans do not let you forget why you are here. Time to go to work and get this job done. The crowds, at points, push onto the course and basically will you around Marcus Garvey Park. One highlight: the gospel choir. THAT is an emotional part of the course, and it helps crank you up a bit. Once the runners hit mile 22.5, a long steady climb begins up 5th Avenue to Engineer’s Gate: the entrance into Central Park. Rain or shine, cold or windy, the enthusiastic fans come out in droves from here to the finish line.
Rolling hills bring you from the entrance into Central Park to the right hand turn that carries the runners onto Central park South. Another brief incline at Mile 25.3 gets you to Columbus Circle. Here, runners re-enter Central Park and head up the west side drive to the finish. One last hill at mile 26.1 to conquer before you earn your medal.
The rain made this race a bit more difficult, because my gear (including my shoes and socks) were soaked about half way through the effort. I could feel the blisters starting by the time I entered The Bronx, which resulted in a slight change in my stride. That may not sound like a big deal, but a change in the way you run due to discomfort midway through a marathon makes the rest of the race much more challenging, and the added distraction messes with your head a bit.
I elected to receive a runner’s poncho instead of checking a bag this year – and this allowed me to exit the park and head home much quicker. I think I’ll elect not to check a bag every year from now on.
This was my 12th New York City Marathon in a row. I haven’t missed one since 2005 (knock on wood). Each year, the course is the same. The hills are in the exact same places. The wind is still there to smack you in the face at the start. The pain still shows up. At mile 15 I always zone out as I climb Mt. Sonofabitch. When it’s all over, I’m sore everywhere. All of these things occur annually, and they aren’t so warm & fuzzy. But you know what else hasn’t changed? The fans. New Yorkers spill out onto the streets, rain or shine, every year to the tune of 1-2 million just to yell for shlubs like me. Brooklyn is still….Brooklyn (and that’s a compliment). First Avenue is still loud. The Bronx gets better every single year. Harlem is still marathon holy ground to me. Spilling into the park is still glorious. The final 3/10 of a mile is still the greatest 3/10’s of a mile in the sport of running. And there is always that moment of two after the medal is hung around your neck where you stop and look around at the people that you ran alongside – complete strangers hours ago, now all carrying that glow that comes from not giving up, embracing the suck, seeing a goal through…and standing in the park, quiet and victorious.