The New York City Marathon is easily one of the best marathons in the world. Boston has the history, but New York has so much to offer. The weather is usually excellent, the fall colors are spectacular and the crowds are energizing.
It is an international race, in an international city. You are more likely to hear German, French, Spanish, Italian, Chinese or Dutch on the streets as you are English. That’s even more true in the runners villages at Fort Wadsworth on race morning.
2011 seemed better than ever: by the start, we had crisp 50 degree weather, the colors were vibrant in Brooklyn and in Central Park, the winds were light, and there seemed to be music on almost every corner and cheering crowds almost the entire way.
This race was sort of an experiment for me. I wanted to test my marathon fitness to tailor a training plan for good hard marathons in Houston in January and Boston in April. I also wanted to test my GI system, after troubles in Beijing and on the lava fields of Kailua-Kona. Most importantly, I didn’t want an injury. I’d be a month out from Kona, and the year had already started off with a fractured sacrum and a herniated disc. I’m feeling fairly healthy and want to stay that way.
The race was also an experiment because I didn’t have much time to train for it. I knew I would have to rely on my Kona conditioning. After Kona, I took a week’s recovery but then quickly built my weekly mileage to 55, with an 18-mile moderate pace run. This would have to be my longest run, other than the marathon at Kona. I had time to squeeze in one 16-mile progressive run (on the treadmill due to child care issues) and then I had to start a two-week taper. Rest was key. I cut the mileage back to 36 in the first week of the taper, and 14 in the week before the race, adding some intensity but low volume.
Work had been stressful, I was tired, and the boys' hockey season is underway, so I cut out the last short four-mile run and took four full days off from running before the race. Easy swims and a few easy bike rides commuting to work filled race week. I did my best to maximize sleep and protein, and I also got a full body massage at Sport and Spinal with emphasis on the legs and lower back. My piriformis was starting to be a pain in the butt again, because I’d been neglecting my core work. I spent a few mornings sitting on a tennis ball, which can bring enormous relief as it releases the muscles.
My son Ben and I took the train to New York on Friday night, arriving at about 9 p.m. at the Holiday Inn Express on Water Street. I wanted to stay in the Financial District because my race-day transportation assignment was via the Staten Island Ferry. Our hotel, just off Wall Street, was a ten minute walk to the ferry terminal. The hotel was fine, but in the future I’ll request a high floor, and off the main street if possible. It was a little noisy, but (like Kona) I turned the fan on to create “white noise” and then wore ear plugs. Friday night (two nights out from the race) was the important sleep night, and I slept great.
After a late breakfast at the hotel, Ben and I left the hotel, turned the corner onto Wall Street and were greeted by about a hundred SWAT guys and barricades everywhere. Zuccotti Park, where the Occupy Wall Street protestors were camped, was around the corner. Apparently with violence breaking out in Oakland, NYPD was taking no chances and had tightened down. I’d later learn that there were a number of arrests that afternoon.
We eventually took the subway to Penn Station and caught a cab to the expo at the Javits Center. (Note: check out subway construction before you go to New York for the marathon; all sorts of stations were closed and certain trains weren’t running; this information can better inform your hotel selection).
The expo was a mob scene, but that’s to be expected the day before the race. The NYRR does a great job organizing the expo and the race itself. We got in and out quickly, minimizing financial damage in the expo. Had lunch with some friends in Chinatown (just rice and tea for me, because I’ve been watching the stomach carefully.)
On the way back to the hotel, I bought cheap throwaways for race morning ($3 for a long sleeve shirt, $7 for sweatpants). My son Daniel, who is in his third year of law school in New York, joined us for an Italian dinner near South Seaport. Daniel would hang out with Ben while I ran.
I got up at 3 a.m. race morning (enjoying the extra hour due to the changing of the clocks). I skipped my usual bagel to go lighter on the stomach, and had only an Odwalla bar, a banana and 20 ounces of sports drink. I stretched, worked the digestive process and dressed for a cold morning: three layers of clothing, plus gloves and a stocking cap. It had been cold and windy on Saturday, and I expected high 30s or low 40s until the sun came up.
I caught the 5:30 a.m. ferry with about 1000 of my new best friends, and we were shuttled by bus from the Staten Island terminal to the start at Fort Wadsworth, arriving about 6:30 a.m. My wave was scheduled to go off at 9:40 a.m.
The runners villages are more like small cities. You are assigned to a village based on your bib color (Orange, Blue or Green). Each village had what seemed to be hundreds of portapotties, as well as hot coffee, tea, water, bagels, sports drink and tents. By 8 a.m., there were about 15,000 runners in each village, but the portapotty lines were never longer than 4-5 deep. (Take a lesson, WTC). It was cold, but manageable with three layers (and nothing like the MCM cold). When the sun appeared over the Verranzano Bridge, it immediately began to warm up.
In addition to being assigned to a village, you are assigned to one of three waves and one of many corrals. The corrals have gatekeepers to enforce assignments. Each corral had portapotties as well. I drew a good corral assignment: the second corral in the first wave. I’d get out ahead of the masses this year.
At 8:40 a.m., I dropped off my bag (with two layers of my clothes) at the UPS trucks that would meet us in Central Park and entered the corral just after 8:50. The corral closed at 8:55 and by 9:10, they’d moved us a couple of hundred yards up to the start line. The pro women started, and we waited for the 9:40 start, which became 9:45 by the time the gun sounded.
The long waits in the corrals for the big marathons can be a pain, particularly for runners who have been hydrating early and often. There were no portapotties at the start line; we left them behind in the corrals. Early in my marathon career, I was taught to wear a garbage bag to break the wind, cut the chill and serve as a portable portapotty. It’s easy for guys, we carry an empty Gatorade bottle, fill it up under the garbage bag, and then, if possible, dump it by the side of the road. So I did. So did the guys around me. And, so did one chick. I was impressed. Several of us turned our backs to her to give her an extra privacy shield, and she did the garbage bag trick as well.
Finally, they announced the pro men and a NY firefighter sang the national anthem. It is at this point that the throwaways are thrown. Hundreds of shirts and sweats go flying to the sides, the gun goes off and Frank Sinatra’s voice starts singing “New York, New York” as two waves head to the upper bridge and one wave goes the lower route.
You don’t have any choice on whether you go upper or lower bridge, but if you ever do, go for the upper bridge. Why you may ask? Because those guys who don’t do the garbage bag trick, often decide to do it off the bridge. If the wind is blowing, the runners on the windward side of lower bridge can get a shower. (So, if you do get the lower bridge, check the wind direction and stay on the leeward side. At least stay in the middle of the road.)
The race course itself is spectacular, particularly for those of us lucky enough to be on the upper bridge. You have a great view of Manhattan as you cross, then 11 of the most delightful miles of your life as you run through Brooklyn. The enthusiasm of the crowds are rivaled only by the brilliant fall colors and music. At mile 13, you climb the Kosciuscko Bridge and pass into Queens for about 3 miles. You turn onto, and then climb, the Queensborough Bridge into Manhattan, which drops you onto First Avenue at mile 16 where the crowd roars. From there it is five miles up First Avenue, crossing the Willard Avenue Bridge into the Bronx, swinging west near Yankee Stadium, and then south past McGarvey Park and onto Fifth Avenue, leading you into Central Park at about mile 24. The last two miles are up and down in Central Park, until you exit on the south side, turning west to mile 26, and finally north and back into the park for an uphill finish.
My race went fairly well. My goal was to finish under 3:10, running fairly even splits at 7:15 pace and managing the stomach. My stomach was talking to me early in the morning and early in the race, but now I’m convinced it was just nerves over whether my stomach would be OK.
The first mile is uphill on the bridge. When I’ve run this in the past, I got side stitch during that first uphill mile; I felt it coming on again this year, but controlled it with my breathing and by slowing down. People were flying by me, but I kept my head (for a change) and just concentrated on relaxing. By the time I cleared the top, it never materialized and I was able to make up whatever time I lost on the downhill.
I was averaging 7 min pace at the two-mile mark, but as I warmed up the pace started creeping towards 6:40 then 6:30. People are still flying by me, but I pulled back. 7 felt easy, so at about mile 4, I gave up and compromised with my race plan. I considered 6:45, for a few moments, thinking that maybe I should make a run at sub 3 hours. But, reasoning with myself, I knew I didn’t have the training for a hard marathon. My new goal pace would be 7 min, knowing that I would accept 7:15 as possibly necessary in the later stages of the race.
The first eight miles were delightful, but tense for me stomach-wise. This GI thing started plaguing me in Boston 2010. I thought contributing my appendix to science in October 2010 solved it, but the stomach created more problems at Placid 2011, in Beijing and then at Kona. Even post-Kona, during a ten miler I had to disappear into the woods. My coach has been urging me to see a doc and get a blood test. (I will. Eventually.)
About two hours before the gun, I downed an ounce or two of immodium, but didn’t know what would happen. I spent much of the first eight miles looking for escape routes. There weren’t many. Few gas stations were open and there were people EVERYWHERE. In the event of an emergency, it was looking like the lava fields offered more privacy than Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn. To deal with the potential issues, I was a mobile pharmacy: in my running shorts pockets, I carried not only gels and 2 salt tabs, but an immodium tab, pepto bismol tabs, a Gas-X tab with simethicone and Tums. Semper Paratus (always ready) was my motto. The good news: I never needed anything but salt and gels.
While it never became an issue, thankfully, I am grateful for Mary Wittenberg (NYRR President and Race Director) and her organizers. Every mile there was a water stop, and every mile there were 6-12 portapotties. God bless her and her planners. Making a short story long, the stomach held fine. By mile 10 and clock time 69:50 (just under 7 minute pace), I was feeling fairly confident. By mile 13.1 (and clock time 1:30:38), I was still holding 7 minute pace and, more importantly, the GI was holding firm.
Thanks largely to my Garmin, my pace remained very consistent until I let it down in the Bronx. I felt the quads start to twitch around mile 14, but a salt tab seemed to alleviate the hint of cramping. I had taken gels at 6 and 12 miles, but they didn’t seem to be enough. I took a gel at 18, as planned, and then a course-provided power gel at about mile 20, saving my 100mg caffeinated gel for mile 23. Despite all this, and despite another salt tab at mile 22, I could feel the quads going and the left hamstring starting to twitch. My pace was slowing and the last two miles were fugly.
I didn’t hit the wall, but I knew it was not far away. It was here that I think I lost the mental game. I was on pace for 3:05 or better until mile 21-22. From miles 10-20, I’d done a fairly good job of relaxing and recruiting different muscles on the up and down course that is New York. I was planning for a good, fast finish: just like a progressive run. It didn’t happen, a result that I think was as much mental as physical.
I suffered some glycogen depletion based on the jerkiness of my quads and stride, but I also lost focus and listened to that voice saying: “you’ve made your goal, you’ll be under 3:10, don’t kill yourself now….” Then there was that other voice saying “you can do it, 3:05 easy, run strong, run smooth,” but I guess I wasn’t persuaded. My pace sagged. (The solution: more mental training through hard, long progressive runs before Houston).
The splits tell the tale of consistency to 30K and the sag thereafter:
25K 21:58 (including climbs up the bridges)
2K 10:33 (about a 25 min 5K pace)
Despite the finish, I’m very satisfied with the race. I came in under 3:10 with 7:09 average pace, and it is a NYC marathon PR by over a minute. Most importantly, I didn’t injure myself and the race shows me where I have work to do.
Special thanks to Mike Barone, who steered me to a place for post-race shower. It was good to see Mike, particularly in his native habitat of New York. His accent really fits in there.
I love this race. It’s like the Boston experience, but the weather is more predictable. You can get guaranteed entry with a marathon time under 3:10 (or a half under 1:30), but you don’t have to qualify to get here. The lottery is huge (over 50,000 registrants) and the odds are good you’ll get in if you try.
Do it. If you don’t believe me when I say how great it is, ask Bob and Sadj. They’ve done it many times. And, it just seems to keep on getting better.