I thought this marathon was great last year and that it couldn't get any better. I was wrong. The NYC Marathon 2007 was absolutely unbelievable.
Beautiful weather, fall colors were at their peak, incredible crowds on a great course through all five boroughs on Sunday, and the Olympic Trials in Central Park on Saturday. It would have been perfect but for the tragic and so-far inexplicable death of Ryan Shays during the Trials.
My two youngest boys (5 and 7) and I took the train up Friday and caught the free marathon shuttle from Penn Station directly to the Javits Center to pick up my race packet. The Expo was a mob scene, but number pick-up was extremely well organized and efficient. We got in and out quickly – spent a quiet evening (i.e., early bed times) on the Upper West Side.
On Saturday morning, we made it to Central Park in time to see four of the five laps of the Olympic Trials. None of us knew about Ryan Shays even though it happened on the other side of the course shortly before we settled in next to the barrier about 200 meters from the finish. In our position, we watched the looped race at miles 11, 16, 21 and 26. Central Park was an incredible venue. Elite marathoners, which we mid-packers usually only see from behind (for a brief moment), or on an out-and-back course (headed the other way) or on TV, are simply amazing. Their strides are effortless. The lead pack of Hall, Ritz, Meb and others went by us twice (miles 11 and 16), but Hall broke away at mile 17 and was leading by about minute next time we saw him (mile 21). Culpepper, Sells, Dan Brown and Kanouchi were trailing – but the leaders were running consistent sub-5 minute miles. (Culpepper dropped out at mile 12, I think -- too bad). On the final lap – finishing uphill -- Hall looked as fresh at mile 26 as most of us feel at mile 2. He finished easily in 2:09:02, about two minutes ahead of Ritz and maybe three ahead of Sells who took 3rd. Hall may be the guy to go under two hours in the marathon. With the exception of Hall, who knew he blew everyone away, the runners kept looking over their shoulders as they finished – they’d learned something from Hadare’s come-from-behind win at Chicago in October. The Trials were inspiring – we didn’t hear about Shays until early afternoon.
The weather was absolutely perfect Sunday: started in the low 40s, finished in the mid-50s. Light wind out of the north. This is truly an international race – you are just as likely to hear Japanese, Italian, German, French or Spanish as you are English. And, as you cruise through the five boroughs, the multi-ethnic crowds really respond to the runners from the many different countries.
The course starts at Staten Isld -- goes across the Verranzano Narrows bridge into Brooklyn and Queens for about 14 miles -- then across the Queensborough bridge into Manhattan. You drop from silence on the bridge to a screaming throng on 1st Ave, running north into the Bronx. Someone said we run near Yankee Stadium, but I've never noticed it. (Other things on my mind I guess, or he was wrong). In the Bronx, you turn left and then south across the Bronx (?) river into Harlem, then follow 5th Ave. South along Central Park. Near the Metropolitan Museum you turn into the Park, then go south to the far southside of the Park, looping back in on the west side to an uphill finish. A great course.
I got up at 3 a.m. for the morning routine, then took the subway to Times Square, catching the 4:30 a.m. shuttle bus to Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island. I go early to avoid long lines and get a good spot. This year, I brought a sleeping bag. Found a spot in a tent not too far from some port-a-potties, spread out the New York Times (it’s not just for reading), and rolled out the sleeping bag on top of the newspaper for insulation. Thanks to some earplugs, I spent the next 2.5 hours on prime real estate, warm and cozy, and almost sleeping while hundreds of runners poured in. My sleeping bag was the envy of the tent. (It packed up fine for baggage check.)
There are three staging areas at Fort Wadsworth based on bib color: Green, Blue or Orange. I was one of about 13,000 green bib numbers this year. The staging areas are crowded but very well organized – so many port-a-potties the lines are always short – there are bagels, coffee, water, Gatorade, etc. – and live music. (The ear plugs saved me.)
It was a 10:10 a.m. start for most of us – so they started moving us to the corrals around 9 a.m. This was the first major improvement over last year. Last year, staging was not enforced – no corrals, just signs suggesting where you should stand. It was a mob scene--kind of like boarding Amtrak at Penn Station X 10. This year, they had not only fenced corrals enforced based on bib numbers (1000 per corral like Boston), but they had port-a-potties inside each corral! Major improvements – and the port-a-potty lines moved.
This was a day for throw-aways due to the welcome chill at the start that lets you know that it won’t be a day for heatstroke. About five minutes before the gun (and the fun), the clothes started flying up in the air. It’s a funny sight.
There is always a lot of energy at a marathon start, but there is nothing quite like the start of the New York City Marathon. After the national anthem and the gun, Frank Sinatra’s voice booms out “New York, New York” as you start uphill onto the Verranzano Narrows Bridge. The green bibs had the lower bridge this year (I was upper bridge last year) – it wasn’t as scenic on the lower bridge and we had a wave start due to construction issues, but we still had incredible views of Manhattan to the left. The wave start delay was barely a minute for my corral – so no worries. More importantly, the rumors of the dreaded “yellow rain” from the upper bridge appeared to be overblown. I was careful, however, to stay to the inside.
Once more I developed a side stitch in the first mile – I think it’s caused by the uphill start – hard to get a good warm-up standing in the corral for an hour. After a mile, you start descending from the bridge and by mile 2 or so, you’re clear of the bridge. Last year, the sideache caught me by surprise and plagued me for 10 miles; this year, I was expecting it and due to some breathing techniques I tried, it was gone by mile 3.
Once we cleared the bridge, we were immersed in the crowds and in a course that seemed more crowded than last year. The Blue and Green bibs merge at mile 3 and the Orange joins us at mile 8. Through most of the race, except for the bridges, there were immense crowds – lots of music, including about 80 live bands according to one report. In parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan, the crowds were 6-8 people deep. In Harlem, the crowds close in and you run through a Tour de France-like tunnel at times. (I liked that – it helped me forget about the pain for a little while). On 5th Ave and on into Central Park, the massive crowds seemed to grow larger. And, they aren’t quiet – New Yorkers truly welcome the marathoners. Anyone wearing an IPOD is not only a safety threat to all of us, but missing a significant part of what makes New York special.
Although the fall colors and race conditions were perfect, my race wasn’t. This was one of the hardest marathons I’ve run even though it was comparatively slow at 3:12:22. My training plan was sidetracked by an Achilles strain that struck in August and followed me through September – mileage had been way down, no speed work, and the only long run I’d had since a 26-miler in early August was a 20 mile run in mid-October. I was in unknown training territory…but decided to take a risk and run even 1:30:00 splits, hoping to get down somewhere near 3 hours.
The first half marathon went like clockwork. I seemed to float, often pulling back to keep it around 6:50 pace. The first half marathon split was 1:30:03 and I was still feeling strong. About a mile or so later, just before we crossed the Queensborough bridge into Manhattan, the right Achilles twitched and I felt a new hamstring tingle. I pulled back to about 7:15-20 pace and shortened my stride to avoid landing on my heel and trigger cramps or pulling that damn Achilles again. The next five miles were not so easy, but everything held together. My 30K split (about 19 miles) was 2:11:44. (In 2006, my 30K split was 2:11:43 - how bizarre is that?).
It was about this point that my lack of training caught up with me – it took me almost an hour to cover the next 7 or so miles. My quads ached like they never have at Boston and my stride became very jerky. I think this is the closest I’ve been to the wall – maybe that was the wall -- I couldn’t get fast or slow twitch muscles to fire it seemed – and I must not have been thinking straight because although I continued to hydrate I didn’t take my final Expresso Love GU.
There is, however, no better place to be in excruciating pain than 5th Avenue or Central Park on a bright fall day surrounded by all these screaming people – you just don’t want to stop and let them down. (I also kept thinking about the story of the marathoner who started walking and heard someone snarl: “Get going, pal. I didn’t come out here to watch you walk.”).
Eventually – going from sub-7 pace early to 8:00+ pace late – I made it to Central Park West and the finish – a finish that seemed to be getting farther away the further I ran. It’s an uphill finish – the same one used in the Trials – and not an easy one. But it’s an incredible finish all the same – my boys were at the same 200m mark with my older son, who lives in the City. My second half marathon split was 1:42:29 – about 12.5 minutes slower than the first half.
I’m not surprised with my time – my training was off this fall. Yet, I don’t regret taking the risk of trying 1:30:00 splits in taking another shot at sub-3. Two days later, the quads continue to hurt – but pain is purifying. We’re lucky to be able to run. Ryan Shays isn’t so lucky.
My splits were good or at least acceptable (until the end), with an overall pace of 7:20:
The NY Road Runners Club does it all well. After the finish, you get your blanket, medal and water immediately, but walk about ½ mile into Central Park to get your chip and baggage check. The walking is therapeutic and intentional. They hand you a pre-packed bag of food with a bagel, apple, water, power bar and Gatorade – none of this handing it to you piecemeal and overloading you.
New Yorkers treat you like gold – as I limped from Central Park to Broadway –3 long blocks – I cannot count the number of people that stopped to congratulate me or ask me my time. Even a panhandler asked me my time and how I was feeling after I explained I didn’t have any money for him.
This is absolutely one of the greatest marathons. It is not fair to compare it to Boston, which is a pilgrimage of sorts, but it has better weather, bigger crowds, fantastic views and great organization. I’ll be back. Maybe I’ll even run it smarter.
I'm done for 2007. Thanks to the Club members for all the support to this tri-newbie and frustrated marathoner. November is my off season; IMLP training cycle starts in December.