Last month, I raced the New York City Marathon for the first time. This writeup is a slightly overdue report for that experience. In summary, I had a great experience running this race; it was my first time running the course, and I finished in 2:53:21. My finishing time was about four minutes off of my PR time (2:49:09), which I ran last year at the Philadelphia Marathon, but I was very pleased with my performance in this race, particularly given how difficult the course turned out to be.
Overall, I was very proud of my training, and my execution in this race. Looking at my pacing, if anything I perhaps went out just a tad too fast over the first half and I paid for that a bit in the second half. The weather was decent, but a bit of a challenge that day—about 60F and humid at the start (we narrowly avoided being rained on)—so I also adjusted my expectations a bit for that.
Pre-Race: The Bus to Staten Island. I signed up for the 5:30 a.m. bus from the New York Public Library, which turned out to be a fantastic option—one that I will repeat when I enter this race again. I left my hotel, The Gregory, at around or a little bit before 5 a.m., and I arrived at the bus loading area at Bryant Park about ten minutes later, which turned out to be just enough time to work my way through the long lines to get onto a bus. The crowd control to find the bus loading area was quite a scene; I probably walked 4–5 extra city blocks just to make my way through the bus corrals before I finally loaded onto a bus.
My bus set off right around 5:30 a.m., at which point we all shared a very dark ride to the southern tip of Manhattan, through the tunnel to Brooklyn, and finally over the Verrazano Narrows bridge, which we were due to run just a few hours later. I did my best to nap as much as I could on the bus, and I had a banana and some sports drink to keep nourished. One thing that I found a bit challenging about this race is the 9:50 a.m. start; now that I am so used to running at the crack of dawn (or earlier), I am fairly settled into the routine of eating breakfast and immediately heading out for a run. I wasn’t quite sure what to do as far as eating with a 9:50 a.m. start. In the future (and for Boston, which also has a late start), I might include a “nutrition dress rehearsal”, which includes starting one of my long training runs around the time of the actual race, just so that I can experiment with the meal and bathroom timing.
The bus arrived at the “athlete’s village” at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island at around 6:30 a.m. With the start more than three hours later, at least there was no rush! At this point, I had a singular goal of staying warm and getting as much rest and relaxation as I could before moving into the corrals several hours later. I took advantage of the free coffee, ate some more of the food I had packed (basically, several peanut butter sandwiches), and tried to find a place to lie down in what amounted to a parking lot. It was nonetheless comforting to see thousands of people from around the world basically trying to do exactly the same thing!
The Start. Aside from the Comrades Marathon, the start of the New York City Marathon is the most exhilarating start to any race I can remember. I was in the front of the Gold Corral, which put me on the north lanes of the upper level of the bridge, with a start line several hundred meters ahead of the elites, who started just a bit further back on the curve in the center lanes. This setup was awesome, as it allowed me to have a front-row view of the wheelchair and women’s starts. An additional bonus was that the men’s elite started at the same time as the main field, but were in their own corral just a little bit behind us in the center lanes of the bridge. For a brief moment, those of us in the Gold Corral had the privilege of running alongside the elites as we crossed the Verrazano Narrows bridge. It was an incredible feeling to be running across the bridge, looking left and seeing Manhattan and looking right to see the elites right next to us.
The views on the bridge counteracted the fact that the first mile of the marathon is one of the most difficult of the race. My pace was 6:54 through the first mile, which seemed about on target. My goal was to run a 2:50 marathon on a perfect day, which is about 6:30/mile; given the difficulty of the climb on the first mile, a slightly slow start was within expectations. Mile 2 is a descent off of the bridge, and I ran a 6:13 for that mile, which certainly put the time right back in the bank, but in hindsight I may have pushed that mile too hard. Next time, I will try to stay a bit more calm about clawing back time, given that I likely paid for this aggressive second mile during the last 10k of the race.
Miles 3–13.1: Brooklyn. Everyone talks about how First Avenue (starting at about Mile 16) is one of the most awesome experiences in marathoning. Actually, I found Brooklyn more exhilarating. The course through Brooklyn is more varied, taking you from the suburban-like neighborhood of Bay Ridge in the early miles, then through Sunset Park and Park Slope, before making a hard right turn near Atlantic Station and into Clinton Hill, on Lafayette Avenue.
Miles 4–8 of the race are basically a straightaway on Fourth Avenue through these neighborhoods. I made a right turn onto Fourth Avenue in Bay Ridge, the street numbers start in the nineties and start counting down, foreshadowing what is to come. Depending on the route (the marathon route bifurcates depending on corral on this part of the course), you may take any number of routes. I made a right turn at Fourth Avenue and 95th Street, foreboding a long “countdown” of streets. At this point, the route takes you down on Fourth Avenue all the way through the street numbers, and for about another mile before turning onto Lafayette.
Through Mile 8, I used the descending street numbers as a way to mark my progress; I also used the blue line on the asphalt that marks the official course as a way to guide my route and give me something to focus on. The only difficulty I had with tracking the blue line is that the course at this point remains somewhat crowded, and at the pace I was going, there were a lot of other serious runners who were trying to do the same thing. This meant either slotting in behind someone and perhaps going a little slow, or facing someone on my tail all the way down Fourth Avenue. I split the difference, zig-zagging off of the line anytime someone behind me started to throw off my focus.
At the start of Mile 9, there’s a right turn onto Lafayette Avenue, which takes you up Clinton Hill. Fourth Avenue undulates, but Lafayette is the first real climb since the first mile. It’s not particularly daunting, but it’s enough to feel. Fortunately, the crowds on this part of the course are awesome. Lafayette is a nice narrow little one-way street with walk-up brownstones flanking either side; the crowds were dense on this part of the course, and the cheering was boisterous. This part of the course reminded me a little bit of the Wellesley Mile at the Boston Marathon. At the nine-mile marker, we took a left turn onto Bedford Avenue, which is a nice consistent downhill. This is a part of the course that gives back a little bit, and I did my best to take some energy from the course and the crowds. Through Brooklyn, I’d been running about 6:25/mile; Mile 10 was a little faster (6:19).
Mile 11 to the halfway point takes you through two neighborhoods, Williamsburg and Greenpoint, which I hear are trendy, but from a runner’s perspective, they are pretty forgettable; I remember running through a bunch of seemingly non-descript neighborhoods with a lot of hipsters out for brunch. The miles were undulating (Mile 12 is a slight downhill, which again, is a nice place to take something back from the course), and at this point my main thought was clicking off miles and getting to the 59th Street Bridge with some steam in the tank.
For a race as heralded as the NYC Marathon, I was surprised to discover that the halfway mark of the marathon is surprisingly anti-climactic: it occurs on an uphill segment of the Pulaski Bridge that connects Brooklyn to Queens, in a rather industrial-looking neighborhood; the bridge itself is basically a concrete ramp that crosses a creek and apparently doesn’t accommodate or invite spectators. It was the quietest halfway point of any race I can remember. However, I have to say that this point in the race was really nice; after running for more than an hour with non-stop cheering, a little quiet is welcome, and I used this point in the race to train my focus on the upcoming bridge climb.
Halfway Point to Manhattan (and the 59th Street Bridge) (Miles 14–16). After entering Queens after the halfway point, basically the only thing on my mind was the 59th Street Bridge, which starts about halfway through Mile 15. Long Island City, a neighborhood in Queens, was also chock full of spectators, but the main thing on my mind was what was to come. This part of the course had several twists and turns, in contrast to much of the rest of the course, which involve long straight stretches of road. Right before the Mile 15 marker, the course makes a hard left turn and immediately the road turns up onto the bridge. We ran the lower-level of the bridge, which was an odd experience:
The low-hanging upper-level above us made me feel like I was running through a long tunnel, and the main sounds you hear on the bridge are the pitter-patter of other runners and the hum of cars and trucks driving on the upper-level above you. The view from the lower level is also not particularly great; focused on pacing, I was primarily looking straight ahead and did not have the time or inclination to look sideways at whatever cropped view there might have been. The whole bridge is just a little more than a mile; I am a pretty strong uphill runner, so I passed quite a few runners on the uphill, only to be overtaken by some of them on the downhill.
The descent off of the bridge is pretty stellar: Towards the end of the bridge, you hit the Mile 16 marker, and right before that, you can hear the roar of crowds below you on First Avenue. The descent off of the bridge makes a left U-Turn, and as you make the turn you see a giant crowd at the corner welcoming you to Manhattan and the long stretch of First Avenue.
First Avenue (Miles 17–20). Many people talk about the First Avenue stretch of the marathon as being spectacular, with throngs of crowds on either side of the course for miles, as you make your way through Manhattan. Some articles I had read in advance of the race also warned that this stretch of the course is a slight downhill, and that there’s temptation between the grade of the road and the roar of the crowds to kill this part of the course. I had no such problem: Actually, this stretch is a continual up-down undulation, and some parts of the road are distinctly uphill; I remember in particular a short monster right around 80th Street, which was a real mental and physical struggle, since I knew there was still quite a way to go on this supposed “easy” stretch of the course.
To make things more challenging, First Avenue is very wide, and the advertised throngs of spectators were really far off of the roadway: More spectators gravitated to the west side of the street, and hence, there was a natural inclination to run that side of the road. Unfortunately, police barriers had the crowds well off of the side of the road. The west side of the road has a protected bike lane, and the crowds were contained on the other side of the bike lane–separating them from the runners by at least 15 feet at the closest point. I’m sure this makes for great security, but from the perspective of a runner (and presumably spectators), the distance between the crowd and the course seemed to tap a fair bit of energy. In short, the undulating elevation profile and the crowd experience that didn’t quite live up to expectations actually made this stretch of the course one of the most difficult parts of the course. When I run the race again, I’ll remember this and prepare mentally for the First Avenue Slog.
The Bronx (Mile 21). Crossing over the Willis Avenue Bridge takes you on a short, mile-long tour of the South Bronx. By many accounts of past runners, this part of the course has been nothing to write home about and is really a “token visit” to the borough. To my pleasant surprise, I found this mile really fun. Unlike First Avenue, it’s a flat mile, and even the bridge approach is relatively tame. Entering The Bronx, runners were greeted by pumping music, enthusiastic spectators, and large flashing billboards (basically amounting to advertisements, but nonetheless I found them motivating at this point). The Bronx is also the start of the final 10k of the course, so I drew energy from the music and crowds here to prep for the final push back into Manhattan. One of my memories from this part of the course is the return to Manhattan over the Madison Avenue Bridge. First of all, this bridge is elegant; it’s small (it’s about as un-New York as you might think of as an entrance to Manhattan!), and it is nicely architected and painted. I remember one spectator who held a sign that read “Last %#$ Bridge!”; I think I laughed audibly at that sign, and it also gave me a bit of energy.
Fifth Avenue (Miles 22–24). I loved this part of the course. The roads are relatively flat, and the first stretch takes you through some pretty neighborhoods in Harlem, including a quick tour around the edge ofMarcus Garvey Park, which is lined by some gorgeous brownstone houses. I wasn’t really stopping to admire the architecture at this point, but the vibe of the route was fantastic. Clearly this part of Manhattan has gentrified quite a bit in the past decade, and you could kind of feel that vibe, too. After rounding the south edge of the park, right around the Mile 22 marker, the course makes a right turn onto Fifth Avenue. I felt a huge rush of adrenaline when I made this turn. First of all, knowing that there were only four miles remaining was a good feeling; second, this part of the course was filled with spectators; finally, a good part of this stretch of the course runs through a beautiful part of Manhattan, with Central Park on the right and milestones like the Guggenheim on the left.
There is one significant catch: Fifth Avenue is a brutal uphill climb. By the numbers, the climb isn’t so bad, rising only about 100 feet over a mile. However, at this point, as any marathoner knows, one’s legs are tired; it was all I could do to run 6:50/mile and not let the pace fall completely apart. Having run Central Park many times before, I knew that the mile through the park was going to be a fairly forgiving downhill, and I took some comfort in that, along with the fact that I was rolling up other runners for the entire climb. I make an effort to incorporate hills on many of my training runs, and I feel like that hill training plus my relatively small size gives me a distinct advantage on the hills; I turn that into mental energy, as well, and I draw energy from other runners that I pass on the hill. Hills like Fifth Avenue aren’t easy for anyone; by reminding myself of that, I was able to push through, and feel good throughout the climb into Central Park.
Central Park and Finish (Miles 25–26). The right turn at 86th Street into Central Park is another fantastic moment in the race; the crowds are massive, and the entrance into Central Park gave me a huge mental boost. I have run the Central Park loop countless times, including (in the Knickerbocker 60k) several times in reverse, as the Marathon course runs. I know this part of the park well and I was able to note landmarks to mark my progress. I won’t say that this part of the course was easy, but it was sure a lot easier than the preceding climb up Fifth Avenue. The only challenge I faced was the right turn onto Central Park South: As you exit the park, there are a number of traffic calming devices that can wreak havoc for runners who are all trying to make a tight turn. I distinctly remember giving another runner a slight tap to encourage him to move a hair to the right so that I would avoid having to navigate one of these large concrete curbs.
Turning onto Central Park South is another exhilarating experience. Like many other parts of the course, it is packed with spectators, and as a runner, you can mark your progress on the course by spotting the skyscrapers in Columbus Circle. Looking at my splits, this mile was not particularly fast (6:50), but I don’t really remember this part of the course feeling particularly effortful. It’s entirely possible that I was simply soaking up the last mile and just let my pace drive a bit.
At Columbus Circle, the course makes a right turn into the park for the final stretch. This stretch of the course has a little uphill segment, including a short little challenge in the last quarter mile up to the finish line. At this point, however, I was enjoying the moment. One aspect I found slightly disconcerting was that there was no clock visible over the finish line itself; usually I use the gun clock at the finish line as a trigger to start a final push with whatever I have left—to try to shave a few seconds off of my time, for example. At this finish line, I had to rely on my watch.
The Finish Line. The finish line is at about 66th Street, and the exit from the park is at 72nd Street; hence, there is a bit of a walk from the finish line, with no bathrooms at all along this part of the course. When I passed the medical tent, I briefly contemplating checking into the tent just so that I could use a bathroom. Ultimately, I pressed on. “Mile 27” of this marathon was pretty brutal, given that we’d just raced 26.2 miles and essentially had to walk nearly another mile to exit the race course. Thankfully, I had opted for the post-race poncho, which allows runners to exit at 72nd Street instead of 86th Street, and also provided me with a very welcome warm garment for my trek to the subway.
Summary. This race was not a PR for me, but it wasn’t far off of a PR on what turns to a very challenging course. It also marked an important milestone for me: I now have sub-3 hour marathon times on all three U.S. Marathon Majors (Chicago, Boston, and New York). Onto the emaining international majors!
Everyone I had spoken to and everything I had read in advance suggested that the course would be challenging. How hard could it be, I thought? Compared to Comrades, the course is flat! It’s a city, and I spend my weeks running hills; this will be a cakewalk, right? Nope! It turns out that everything is relative.
Fifth Avenue is definitely the Polly Shortts of the NYC Marathon; sure, it’s a shorter, tamer hill, and it’s at Mile 22 instead of Mile 50, but the marathon pacing is also faster than Comrades pacing. And, as I discovered, undulating roads can be just as taxing as long uphills—sometimes moreso.
In general, I executed my training and race plan very well for this race. Perhaps the one mistake I made was getting too anxious in the first two miles—pushing both the uphill and the downhill on the bridge too hard, for fear of losing too much time. In the end, I probably lost that time on First Avenue and Fifth Avenue anyway.
Leading up to this race, I had a difficult time maintaining pace on my tempo runs. By the book, I should have been running tempo at about 6:10/mile; I had a hard time pushing my tempo below 6:50/mile for very long, however, even though my track workouts at about 5:30/mile were fast enough to suggest that 6:10 should be doable. I think my issue with tempo pace was largely mental and is something I’ll be working on in training for my next marathon.
In summary, the New York City Marathon is a fantastic race—it’s a fun course, and a great overall experience, right here in my backyard. Entry isn’t guaranteed, but given how much fun I had with this challenge, I’ll certainly plan to enter again in the coming years.