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…!

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.

 

 

…..Now you’re in New York. Catherine Wilding’s race

Ed: in a follow-up to the piece Catherine wrote before heading off to the New York City marathon (which you can read here), she tells us about how the day unfolded and whether she attained her goals.

The day of the race

I was in the city that never sleeps and as I ventured out in the dark, shortly before 6am there was evidence that this was a city on the move.  47,000 people were making their way to Staten Island and far from being a lone runner on the streets of New York, I was met by others  in old track pants, gloves and hats, all clutching their clear plastic bags packed with supplies. It was Sunday 6th November 2011:  The New York City Marathon.

The perfect day for a marathon

It was going to be an incredible day with clear blue skies, glorious sunshine, cool temperatures and virtually no wind. It was a day of “no excuses” for marathon running.

I headed across Central Park on foot towards 6th Avenue and 54th Street to pick up the “Elite Runners” bus. I was privileged to have an elite starting place which included transport to the start with the professional athletes.  The flashing lights of our Police Escort down 5th Avenue were the start of the excitement and the nerves.

Arriving on Staten Island, we were ushered into our heated tent to warm up and relax before the start. The girls shared tips on the course; discussed projected pace and split times and made frequent bathroom stops before being lead up to the start with just 20 minutes to go.

Standing on the start line of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge with the iconic backdrop of the Manhattan skyline in the distance on a clear, cold day, one becomes acutely aware of how far 26.2 miles is.  Manhattan, in all it’s breathtaking glory looks a long way away and if you’re running the marathon, it isn’t a straight route to get there. Once the canon fires the only means of transport to the finish is on foot.

The start

It was 9.40am and the streets of New York were about to be electrified by the energy and excitement of thousands of runners all heading to Central Park. The enthusiasm of the residents of the five boroughs from Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Manhattan, cannot be contained in once sentence.  From mile 2 when runners take the turn off the bridge and into Brooklyn, the party starts and it doesn’t stop for the next 24 miles.  Bells, whistles, shouts, cheers, music and dancing from all ages and ethnicities, from the Italians in the Bay Ridge district of Brooklyn to the Orthodox Jews in Williamsburg – they  all join in, and this is what makes New York, New York. And it’s what makes the New York Marathon with it’s bridges, hills, and concrete, pot-holed roads the greatest marathon in the world.

As I set off up the bridge for the first mile (one of the hardest on the course) the sound of footsteps, the cross-winds around my ears and the buzz of the helicopters over-head, focused my mind on what I was here to do.  This year, I was running the New York City Marathon and my goal was to enjoy it; soak up the atmosphere; to listen to the shouts and the cheers; to notice the changing neighbourhoods; the signs, the sounds and the smells of New York City.

Whether to run

For weeks beforehand I had deliberated the wisdom of running a marathon despite many set-backs and a lack of training. I knew that I wasn’t fit enough to run a good time and that lead to much soul-searching and philosophical debate.  Why do I run?  It was a tough one to answer and threw out many interesting responses and further questions. The subject of the NYC Marathon provoked an emotional response.  It wasn’t just about running, achieving and setting a new PB.  The experience of running in New York – up 1st Avenue, down 5th Avenue and the undulations of Central Park, was something that I felt resonate in my heart.  It was something I didn’t want to miss. I wasn’t injured and I reasoned that a marathon is as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one.  So with just two weeks to go, I gave myself the challenge to get mentally strong enough to take on one of the biggest races.

This is Catherine flying along in the 2010 New York marathon

I arrived in New York believing I could run a great time and shatter all previously held beliefs about marathon training.  I was going to be the girl that believed so strongly that I made it happen. Being an experienced marathon runner, however, I knew that I was unlikely to be doing myself any favours by setting off at world record pace. So, I decided to run on how I felt and I quickly established a comfortable and conservative pace.

At the half way mark, I was able to make conversation with a guy I overheard proclaiming we were entering the Bronx.  “You’re optimistic” I said, “we don’t hit the Bronx until mile 20….we’re only just entering Queens.” I was still running comfortably and was able to focus externally but I was starting to feel like I was working. I was sensible enough to know that being under-trained meant pacing myself for the last half which invariably is harder.

Around mile 14 in Queens someone held up a handmade sign which read “Caution, Kenyan Runners Ahead.” By this stage in the race, they were well ahead. So far ahead that Geoffrey Mutai was probably just about entering the park and well on his way to breaking the course record. He was to cross the finish line in 2.05.06. Exactly 1 hour and 2 minutes later, I was to follow him.

Results

My official time: 3.07.06. It was going to be my slowest ever marathon but unlike the Mutai’s (Geoffery and Emmanuel) I wasn’t here to set a new course record or collect a prize. My prize was the sheer thrill, joy and exhilaration of running. No excuses.

I knew that the 20 mile marker would be the point at which I would know whether I had made the right decision to run a marathon. This is the point at which the mind takes over from the body and my mind told my body that it had been here before. As the 20 mile mark came in to view, I felt a wave of emotion, this was it: I was running the New York City Marathon and I only had another 10k to go.

As I ran through Marcus Garvey Park, I was able to admire the Brownstones in a way I hadn’t done before. My mind was focused but my eyes were open. I tried to ignore the fatigue setting in on the long climb up 5th Avenue between miles 22 and 23. I was nearing the turn into Central Park. The golden light streaming through the trees and the undeniable energy that is Central Park is what carries the runners those last few cruel and undulating miles. By mile 24 my quads were screaming at me to stop but my mind and my heart were not giving up. Not even on the climb up Central Park South towards Columbus Circle. With 800m to go and a final turn into the park, the crowds were deafening. I felt a surge of energy and I was still running strong, I wasn’t going to let go. I knew it was my slowest time recorded for the marathon and almost 20 minutes slower than my best, but it was still worth a sprint for the line with my arms in the air.

I had crossed the finish line of the New York City marathon. For myself and the other 47,000 runners who finished that day, we all know how that feels. It is a privilege to run in the greatest race on earth and it is something to be proud of.

Did I achieve my goal?  I certainly did.  My enthusiasm for running is unabated and I will be back next year with a new goal: to achieve my true potential.