The crazier New York City marathon

The New York marathon is an impossible, or at the very least an improbable race. Here’s why I write that…

Crazy place to start a race

The race start is on Staten Island, only accessible by ferry or over bridges that close hours before the race starts. That means that most people set their alarm for 3am or 4am on race morning and stagger out into the cold, dark pre-dawn to try to get on packed buses or down to the tip of Manhattan to get on a ferry.

Some years the race is the morning after Halloween, in the epicenter of the nation that invented Halloween and invests a huge amount of time and energy in dressing up and having a huge street party to celebrate. Try getting a bowl of pasta and an early night when the whole city is in a frenzied state of excitement: me and Mrs. F. did one year and it was an impossible task.

The start of the race itself (after you have sat around for 4 or 5 or more hours on the grass in a military base, probably in the rain) involves running over a huge road bridge connecting Staten Island to the ‘mainland’ of Queens. From there the course insists that each of the five Boroughs of New York city are visited – in the case of Bronx for only one mile – forcing the planners to weave the route over seemingly endless bridges.

Sting in the tail

Then the end of the race contains the most undulating and wiggliest part of the whole course, through Central Park, where the crowds are 20 or more deep and it is impossible to see or hear anyone out to support you, just at the point that you need support!

Finally there is the impossibility of closing the roads in the defacto capital of the most motor-obsessed country in the world, inhabited by some of the least tolerant drivers in the world.

Oh and there is the cost – currently US $347 for anyone living outside the US.

A triumph despite the challenges

But despite all these ‘issues’, the New York City marathon really does work. I have run it three times and it is impossible for me to choose between London and New York as the best of the big-city races I have run.

The crowds are magnificent. The views are spectacular. The Route is not as hilly as one fears. The organization is actually pretty good. The New York City Marathon actually pulls off being one of the greatest races in the world, despite being inconvenient, expensive and illogical.

New craziness

UPS vans - no longer a familiar sight at the New York Marathon

And now they have banned bags! Yep, that is right – you may no longer take a bag to the start of the race and load it on to a truck to be taken to the finish. Crazy I know.

The reason they have given for this is “to ease finish-line congestion” but I think that is baloney (to borrow a New York phrase). Having run one of my New York marathons in 3hrs 59mins with Mrs. F., thereby finishing with the masses, I can tell you that the so-called congestion was not so bad. We shuffled, certainly. But immediately on finishing the marathon, I’m not usually too worried about moving too fast. So there must be another reason – cost probably – behind the move. But that is not what interests me.

Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag…

If you take a moment to look around you at the start of a big marathon you will see runners who look as though they are moving home, huge stuffed bags over the shoulder of most of them. I am guilty of that too. Just thinking about the London marathon this year, I travelled to the race in a pair of cushioned trainers, my race shoes in my bag, wearing running tights, a t-shirt, a long sleeved top, a jacket and tracksuit trousers. I had a book, my iPod, my phone, my wallet and a load of tape and Vaseline and Bodyglide and goodness knows what else. Once I had changed into my racing flats, shorts and vest and put everything eles into my drop-bag, there was a couple of kilos of stuff in there and the large bag was really quite full.

But from now on at the New York City marathon, anything you take to the start will either have to be dumped at the start or carried – by you – to the finish. People are really going to struggle with that.

There are concessions – a fleece-lined poncho at the end. “Call Home” stations at the start and finish (like there won’t be congestion at them). And an extra wave at the start to further reduce congestion on the roads and at the end. But it will be a big wrench for people. I know I would struggle.

The truth is, that the New York Marathon can and will get away with this audacious move. There is only one New York Marathon and if you want to run it, you’ll have to deal with this policy. Don’t like the policy? Then go and run the Minnesota marathon or the Denver marathon. There will be enough people who will want to run this iconic race to still fill the 35,000+ places many times over.

I just wonder whether other races will see this as a way to save money and hassle and try to implement the same policy. And will they get away with it? What do you think? Could you manage without taking all your stuff to a race start? You might have to work that out sooner than you think if, like with so many other things, America leads and the rest of the world follows.




  1. When I ran the New York Marathon, November 2006, it was a frosty wait on the lawns of the military base. I sat on a plastic bag on frozen grass for around 3 hours. Fortunately I had many layers of clothing, including my Marmite sweatshirt to discard at the start, but it was still very, very cold. I vowed if I ever ran it again, I would take a sleeping bag for the wait.

    I guess from New York’s point of view, it’s a good way of providing clothing for the poor of the city with thousands of warm outfits discarded at the start!

    I wonder, however, if the change has more to do with security than cost as I’m sure UPS paid mega bucks for the privilege of driving our stuff around. The only problem I had with retrieving my bag was that my surname begins with ‘S’ and my truck was miles away from the finish!

    Would I do it again? If I was running marathons, yes!

  2. I am completely dumbfounded by this decision. Sure, you may not need baggage if you life in Manhattan–but only so many participants live there. For most folks, there’s a trip upwards of 45 minutes to two hours for suburbanites. They’re now being told to sit on the train in their soggy race clothes?

    What about those who don’t have friends/family waiting for them? They deserve to have the creature comforts of a dry pair of clothes after running 26.2 grueling miles.

    I think this decision is unfathomable, and had no choice but to email Mary Wittenberg and Peter Ciaccia. The contents of the letter can be found here:

    If you really care about this issue, a quick email to Wittenberg or Ciaccia seem to be the only way to make a true difference. Their email addresses are:

  3. Having done it, for the first time, last year I would say to anyone that even if they insist on Borat style mankinis for runners – do it! It was quite simply the most uplifting and spectacular run I’ve done and I’d put up with quite a bit of chafing and a cold wait at the start to do it again!

Leave a Reply