Friday, May 17, 2019

Running the NYC Marathon 2018

Last year, as I pondered what races to run in 2018, I started thinking more about the New York City Marathon. One of the six World Major Marathons, NYC is the world's largest marathon by number of entrants. The race is described as:
Held annually on the first Sunday of November, the race features over 50,000 runners including the world’s top professional athletes and a vast range of competitive, recreational, and charity runners. Participants from approximately 125 countries tour the city, starting on Staten Island at the foot of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and running through the neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx before ending in Manhattan.
Everyone I spoke with who had run the race had great things to say, so I decided to give it a shot.

There are three ways to enter: by running a qualifying time, by lottery, or by running for a charity team. I am nowhere near a qualifying time, which would be 2:55 for my division.  I tried the lottery but did not get in, so that left a charity team.

I decided to run for the American Heart Association / American Stroke Association as both my parents have been affected by strokes. The team had 40 entries, and asked us each to raise at least $3500 for a total of $140,000. We were granted a spot in the race but still had to pay the entry fee separately. Additionally, the team provided both email and in-person coaching as well as a racing singlet.

As daunting as any marathon is, the fundraising seemed a greater challenge. I had never attempted anything like this before. My last fundraising attempts were in high school, selling candy bars (pretty easy to a captive audience of hungry teenagers) and selling one ad for $50. I decided to make broad and personal appeals to friends and family, who were very generous. Together, we raised nearly $6000 for stroke prevention and research!

Alongside the fundraising, I decided to take a more systematic approach to training. I was disappointed with my marathon finish in Houston in January (4:43). Despite being a course known for producing fast times, I was nearly 30 minutes slower than my PR of 4:14, mostly due to a lack of training, specifically long runs.

For this race, I used the Intermediate 1 Training Program from running coach Hal Higdon. I made myself schedule the runs into my calendar, creating a greater commitment mechanism than my old app-based approach. While I can't say I hit every run, I definitely increased my mileage, average 30-40 miles a week during the peak weeks.

As I came to the final week of tapering, I felt confident that I could finish the race well. Friends had cautioned me that the race is more challenging than one might expect, with hills present in the later miles as well as several bridges to cross. The question in my mind was, how will I do relative to prior races? I came up with three goals: my stretch goal was to finish under 4 hours, my mid-range goal was to have a personal best, and my low-bar goal was to finish better than my last race.

On Saturday November 3, I went to the race expo to pick up my bib. The expo was held at the Javits Convention Center, a large exhibition space on the west side of Manhattan along the Hudson river. The expo was well run, and it was very quick to pick up my bib and race shirt. Surprisingly though, the convention center was nowhere near the race course at all, which was more of an issue for the immediate post-race time and Marathon Monday the following day.

Arriving At The Race

On Sunday morning, I awoke at about 6 AM to get a ride to the ferry terminal at the very southern tip of Manhattan. The race offered three transportation options to the start: ferry, bus from midtown Manhattan, and bus from New Jersey. My friend advised the ferry as it was the most scenic route.

To get to the ferry though was still a twenty minute ride. Waiting for the Uber in the hotel lobby, another runner noticed we were headed the same way and offered to split the ride. We did, and struck up a conversation about her running background. Turned out, she was from Chicago and had run their well known marathon several times, but was doing NYC for the first time. We ended up riding over on the ferry together, but lost each other in the starting line crowd later on.

Boarding the ferry and the ride over were both quick and scenic. The ferry passes right by the Statue of Liberty, with scenic views of Manhattan as it recedes in the distance.

Statue of Liberty, as seen from the Staten Island Ferry

The Staten Island side was less impressive. We stood for a long time in a line at the arrival terminal, perhaps 30-45 minutes, to board buses to get to the starting area. The bus ride itself was about 30 minutes.

After a security check, there were several waiting areas before heading to the starting line, separate by color and wave. The elite runners start first at the top of Wave 1. I was in Wave 3 out of 4. In all, it was around 4 hours between waking up and the race start!

Waiting beneath the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge
Luckily, the weather was nice and not too cold. Finally, after a third playing of the national anthem, we were off!

The Race

By random chance, some runners were slated to run on the bridge's upper level, while others ran on the lower deck. I was bummed a bit to find out I was on the lower deck, but turned out to be pretty decent. The views off the sides were still pretty fantastic.

Running the first mile across the bridge, Manhattan in the distance
The race is well known for touching all five boroughs of New York (Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, Bronx), but the Staten Island part is only the starting line. Once we crossed the bridge, we were in Brooklyn, essentially running the first half of the race on the east side of the East River. 

The first half is pretty flat for the most part. As with any race, one important key is to your pace yourself. While I did a pretty good job of staying consistent around 9 minutes / mile, I wish I had gone slower in retrospect, as the second half of the race was more challenging, with more bridges and hills. 

The crowds are great, in particular my high school friend and his wife who came out to cheer me and all the other runners on around mile 8 in the Park Slope area. A few miles past this, you start to see the Manhattan skyline more to your left than in front of you. 

Mile 15 is the first real test: the Queensboro Bridge. From near sea level at mile 14 (which is our brief point of contact with Queens), the bridge ascends to a peak height around 150 ft, before returning to near sea level by mile 18. As you turn from the bridge north to run up First Ave, the course is likely fairly flat but it *feels* like you are still climbing. 

More support came from seeing my parents at mile 18! We had chosen a hotel near the race course, so it was easy for them to watch from their room until they knew I was almost there. Despite the thousands of spectators, they were easy to spot and we quickly chatted for a few seconds before I ran (fine, shuffled) forward. 

At mile 20, you cross the Willis Ave. Bridge to spend a few uneventful miles running in the Bronx, before again turning south to head back to Manhattan and Central Park. 

The last few miles along Fifth Ave. and into Central Park are beautiful but quite challenging. My legs were already dead, but there was still one climb from ~0 ft to 100 ft above sea level around miles 23-25. I wasn't sure what would carry me through, but just as we were about to turn into the park, I saw my mom's bright green jacket again! They had managed to walk the few blocks west from the hotel on 1st Ave. to Fifth Ave., something we had not planned. I was lucky to spot her in my semi-delirious state. The crowd was more packed here, so I only saw her. Later, my dad showed me photos -- he had been standing a few rows back, snapping away. 

Knowing there are only 2 miles to go inside the park makes it seem like you just have to give one more little push. This is wrong. The finish line is in the far southwest corner of the park, and the course takes many turns inside the park to get there. I probably stopped as many times in the park from cramps as I did in the five miles before entering. The finish itself though was quite glorious!

Some 4 hours and 26 minutes or so after I left Staten Island, I was done! I deliriously took a few photos near the finish line (including the one above, which I was photobombed by a flying Dutchman haha). The volunteers hand you a medal and a bag with post race food / water.

I wish I could say I rushed into the crowd to find my family. Sadly, the post race setup is a let down. Because the race is so large (approximately 50,000 runners), the race organizers line everyone up to exit the park on the west side. Part of the race signup asks whether you wanted a race poncho jacket to pick up at the end. I had said yes, so I waited.

This queue takes FOR. EV. ER. I actually got lightheaded, and for the first time ever, tried to enter a medical tent. The volunteers, who couldn't have been more than 17, said no! Who tells a guy who's just run a marathon that he's not "sick enough" to enter a medical tent in front of him? After arguing my case a bit, I just sat down for a while til I felt some will to move. I eventually got out of the park, grabbing my poncho, and walked a few more blocks to hail an Uber to the hotel I was sharing with my parents.

While I would definitely consider running the NYC Marathon again, I would encourage anyone interested in it to closely study the race logistics and course as it will have a significant impact on your overall experience. Looking forward to trying it again some day!


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