The New York marathon: an Englishman’s view from across the pond and across the years

My first encounter with the New York marathon was in the period of my life I call ‘before the rebirth’ (I don’t actually call it that, but it sounds dramatic!) which was back when I smoked, did no exercise, drank too much and ate too much. I went to New York with my family for my Dad’s 60th birthday (he is 70 at the end of this month – Happy Birthday, Dad!)

I had friends who lived in New York and who were running the marathon and it is hard to be in that city on marathon weekend and not get caught up in the race, so me and my family went down to watch the thousands of runner take on the challenge. My overwhelming memory, though, was of getting tired (of watching, not running!) and sitting on the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette and looking up to see Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn walking along the street towards me.

My first time running New York

Fast forward to November 2006 and I was back in New York for the marathon weekend, but this time I was with my two best friends, Rob and Dave, to run the race myself.

What had happened? Well, I had had my ‘road to Damascus’ moment and given up smoking. I’d started running, got addicted to training and racing, run a couple of marathons and a handful of half marathons and decided, with my friends, to take on one of the greatest races in the world: the New York City Marathon.

To be honest that race was such an amazing experience, that I sometimes worry that my recollection is now part personal myth, part collective euphoria, part truth. But there are enough details that are verifiable that I would like to take a moment to give you my top tips if you are running the New York City Marathon for the first time.

  1. The start is early: the roads to Staten Island, where the race begins, close hours before the gun goes, so you have to take a ferry very early to get there. Don’t panic. You weren’t going to sleep much more anyway and if you try to game the system you’ll have more stress than you need. This is an incredibly well organised race so just get to the start early and enjoy the buzz at the start.
  2. If it is raining, take a bin bag to sit on and one to wear for the hours before the race kicks off plus some clothes that you are happy to abandon at the start (charity shops are good for that).
  3. Eat a good breakfast and take a snack for the hours between your breakfast and the start, but don’t over-eat… it is not that long a wait!
  4. Start nice and easy: the deafening rendition of Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ at the start and the boom of the cannon that starts the race will give you a buzz like nothing else, but the first mile is uphill over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and you’ll have plenty of time to make up for a slow start (and even long to regret an over-fast one)
  5. Don’t wear headphones: the atmosphere in New York is utterly incredible. If there is one thing our cousins in the ‘States do well, it is shout and yell and give encouragement. Drink it in – it will be the best Performance Enhancing Drug you could ever take!
  6. Concentrate on the bridges: there are a few bridges to cross as you run from Queens to Manhattan to the Bronx, etc and I did see people stumble in those sections, so take it easy and watch your footing. As with point 4 above, you’ll have plenty of time to regain time / regret your haste
  7. Take in the sights: New York is a great city and the marathon is a great way to see it, so if you can, look up for a while and take some of it in
  8. Dig deep in the section along 5th Avenue between leaving the Bronx and re-entering Manhattan and when you enter Central Park – it is uphill and you need to dig deep. Do it: you only have three and a bit miles to go
  9. Don’t fear Central Park: people say this is the sting in the tail of the race with some hilly bits. That might be topographically true, but it is also the section of the course with the most support and by the time you hit the park you only have a couple of miles to go. Think back to Paula Radcliffe’s amazing win there and just go for it, carried along by a wave of noise
  10. Wear your medal for days: New Yorkers don’t have the same reserve that us Brits do – they love a hero and you will get all sorts of comments and congratulations when people know you have raced. You must wear your medal all day Sunday and probably should wear it on Monday. If you still have it on by Friday, that might be a bit much though.

So there are my tips for the New York marathon.

A race full of great memories

It is a race that has many happy memories for me. In 2006 I raced to a PB of 3:14:37 there and enjoyed a great time with my friends in the city that really knows how to celebrate.

Me and the future Mrs. Freeman just after the New York Marathon 2009
Me and the future Mrs. Freeman just after the New York Marathon 2009

And then in 2009 I went back with the woman that would become my wife and we ran together, for her first marathon. Julie’s target for the race was to try to break 4 hours in her debut over 26.2 miles and we crossed the finish line – hand in hand – in 3:59:26. I will always treasure that run, including the look of shock, pain and delight on her face as we crossed the finish line in Central Park – and the days we spent in New York after the victory.

So if you are running this November, I hope you have an amazing time. The race has all the right ingredients and if you accept that it is a huge event and there are 36,000 other people all trying to do their thing, than you will have a life-changing experience. I hope that one day I will get to go back and experience that all over again. Apart from anything else, I still have unfinished business with a pastrami sandwich at Katz Deli…!

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