The first Sunday of November is the single best day of the year to be in New York City. Why? Because it is Marathon Sunday, and this race is quite simply a showcase to all that makes the five boroughs special. This year marked my tenth waddle through the streets alongside more than 50,000 fellow runners – my first marathon was NYC in 2005, and I’ve run it annually ever since. I’ll be the first one to admit: bigger is NOT always better. Quality over quantity is always a great concept to follow. But this race truly illustrates just how unique and wondrous New York City with a combination of quality AND quantity. Don’t believe me? Let me describe the day through the eyes of a guy that was born and raised in the Bronx, and currently resides on the Upper West Side…..
Marathon Sunday usually begins for me at around 4:45am. I pour myself a big bowl of Rice Chex and down some water after first getting changed into my running gear laid out the prior evening. I’m usually heading out the door to catch my transportation to the start at around 5:10am. I make a pit stop at the bodega around the corner, where I order the same thing each year: 1 plain bagel toasted with butter and a large coffee – milk & two sugars. The guys behind the counter wish me luck, and I trek toward the subway station. This year, my pre-schedueld transport to Staten Island was the 6am ferry. In prior years, I’ve taken buses from midtown Manhattan.
It takes around 30-35 minutes to make it to South Ferry by train down the west side. Then a little wait for the ferry with hundreds of other runners from all over the world. Finally we board the ferry, and the weight of the runners flocking to the starboard side of the craft actually make the ferry lean a bit, as everyone wants to take pictures of lower Manhattan, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. It’s a fantastic way to begin the long day.
Within 30 minutes, we are docked at Staten Island, and ready to take the next step in the journey: a bus to Fort Wadsworth. This is the wild card in the trip, as it is possible to get from the ferry to the runners village within 20-30 minutes…but the incredible number of buses coming in from Manhattan along with other buses shuttling runners to and from the ferry make this trip about an hour in duration. This is all part of the experience. I know that spending 2 hours commuting to any race does not sound like fun, especially when the pilgrimage begins at 5am – so if you are planning to run this race, understand that the long commute is simply a requirement as the act of assembling over 50,000 runners and thousands of volunteers from all over the place in order to run through a city of more than eight million people is…to put it lightly….tricky.
I normally pass the commuting time by talking to people that just seem to be a little overwhelmed by endeavor. They have that “deer caught in the headlights” look on their faces as they await the ferry or bus. I remember the feeling of being dropped off ten years ago at South Ferry, beginning my first excursion from Staten Island to Central Park – I had trained for the race alone, I had no prior experience, and I was nervous. It would have been cool to have someone talk to me a bit and provide a fun distraction. This year, while on the bus heading from the ferry to the runners village, I got to chatting with an older gentleman from Japan named Hiro.
Hiro is a father of two, and a grandfather of three. He took up running after he retired, worried about the relaxed lifestyle of a retiree turning him “soft in the middle”. One quick glace at Hiro would tell most people that he had nothing to worry about in that department – he was a wiry man in his mid sixties who was fit…not just “skinny”. His English was fantastic (thank Zues, since my Japanese is more than a bit rusty – I probably would have caused an international incident if I tried even the most most basic phrases), so the conversation was fluid. After I introduced myself, I asked him if this was his first NYC marathon, to which he quickly confirmed my suspicion. Not only was it his first NYC marathon, but it was his first time in new York City AND his first marathon. He flew his entire family to New York from Tokyo in order to experience this weekend as a family. I elected against giving the “New York City Marathon 101” speech. Instead, seeing how truly nervous he appeared (he kept his fingers interlocked together, as if he was praying, and his knuckles were as white as a newly bleached sheet), I tried to distract him by talking about the wonders of Tokyo. I told him about my time is his incredible city, including experiencing sushi for the first time at a restaurant right on the docks. It turned out that he knew the exact place I described, and he loved it as well. We talked about the various districts, the subway system, and how taxis in Tokyo are so much different than in NYC. This went on for a solid 15 minutes while our bus stood motionless less than a mile away from our drop off point. At this point, he decided to change the topic…
“I am a bit uneasy about this run. I am worried. Truly worried.”
I nodded in agreement. “I can understand that. I am too – and I’ve run a number of marathons. This is my tenth year in a row doing this, and every year I am scared. But that’s OK – you should be scared. I think that if you are a little nervous, then you aren’t being arrogant. Instead, you are showing respect for the distance. And that’s important.”
“Well I know I have trained hard. My family put up with my early morning running, my evening running, my running all the time! I believe I did what I needed to do.”
Again, I just simply nodded. “Well then think about it this way: did you work hard to prepare?”
“Did you eat well the last couple of days? Did you drink enough water?”
“Yes I did.”
I just kept nodding slightly…”well then you did everything in your power to get here the right way. You trained. You ate right. You drank enough water. And you are nervous just enough to show respect for the distance. You’ve done everything that you could to succeed. Now – one final question.”
He looked at me quizzically. “…yes?”
I broke a crooked smile. “…are you mentally ready? Today will hurt. It is supposed to. Just understand that this course will do its best to make you quit today. But you did not travel 6,500 miles to let this course beat you. Just remember to stay positive. And when the course tries to make you quit, think about why you are doing what you are doing. Think about your family, and how proud they will be to see you in action. They’ll get you through the rough spots.”
“…but what if I feel weak when I see them?”
“That’s impossible. You are running the New York city Marathon. There are no weaklings here.”
Then he asked about the course. That was my cue to give the New York City Marathon 101 lecture. After we got off the bus, we were almost immediately stopped by security for the required search. I was in the blue corrals, and Hiro was in the orange corrals. As we parted ways, I provided him with one last tip.
“Hiro-san, remember one thing: keep today between you and the course. Forget what the other runners are doing. Run YOUR race – not someone else’s. Don’t pace yourself alongside someone you’ve never met before, because they may be going too fast too early. Trust your training and only trust YOUR pace. Let the faster people go – you’ll see them later. Trust me.”
This is the only race I have ever run where experiences like that are possible.
I was nervous, just like Hiro. I was not kidding about that. I always get nervous before any race, regardless of the distance. If I am running a 5k, I get nervous that I’ll just take it easy and cruise without pushing myself and seeing how fast I can go. Same rules apply for any 10k I run. Half marathons are a challenge as well; depending on the day and the conditions, they can really do a number on me. And full marathons? It doesn’t matter how many I have completed in the past – each race is its own dragon to slay. Today was different, however: I began the day physically sick.
That bagel and coffee I had before beginning my morning commute was quickly refunded into a garbage can within 15 minutes of chowing down. I was now hungry, and it was not even eight in the morning. NOT GOOD. I tried eating a bagel that was provided in the runners village…and it met the same demise. Hot chocolate was next. Same result. NOT GOOD. I felt like I was about to embark on a long trip in my car, with the gas light already on when I turned the key.
I was in wave 3, corral A. What I failed to realize was that this the blue corrals were where the elites tow the line for this race. So as my corral headed up to the starting line at around 10:15am, I had no idea what the road ahead would look like. In my ten years of running this race, I never had this view at the start. It gave me goosebumps.
The howitzer was right in front of me. Incredible. And then…just like that….BOOM. Off we went.
Since I was in the front of the pack, I was all charged up. Of course, I broke the cardinal rule: I went out too fast. The first mile up the bridge was a gradual incline. Mile two dropped us into Brooklyn. By mile three, I was on 4th Avenue where the crowds were loud (as always), energetic and positive (as always), and full of attitude (which is the best part). I tried getting myself to calm down, but my legs were not listening. They had minds of their own and were clipping off distance at a pace that basically guaranteed a high level of screwed later on. Brooklyn is a fast part of the course, long, flat stretches, tons of music and fans – it begs the marathoner to crank up the pace and run fast. A little tip here, folks: NEVER EVER set a personal best in the 5k during the first three miles of THIS race. If you know you went out too fast over the bridge, reign yourself in by time you hear your first “forgetaboutit!”.
I got myself under control by mile four, but damage was already done. Going out too fast, when added to an empty stomach, forced me to do a level of internal triage way too early in this effort. As mile five was left in my rear view mirror, I made the decision to role the dice and take in some Gatorade instead of just sticking to water along the course (as was the original game plan). I knew that this yellowish liquid usually gets me nauseous when I run – but I was already feeling the desperation to do something about my hunger before things got out of hand. So, I took a cup the next chance I got, and I downed it. That lasted about five minutes. And then…heave ho. My abdominal muscles (I had no idea I actually HAD those) were hurting from the active rejection of whatever I took in.
By the time I hit Greenpoint and crossed over into Queens, I knew I was half way to the promised land…but I had already considered dropping out at least five times. I knew I had family and friends waiting for me on First Avenue – but I seriously did not think I would make it that far. I became extremely light headed. Dizziness set in just before I hit the 59th Street Bridge. By the time I hit First Avenue, I had stumbled a few times because I simply stopped thinking about what I was doing. I needed to get my head back into this thing. Like I told Hiro – the course will make try to make you quit. You have to be better than the course.
Some quick notes here: if you decide to run this marathon, understand that there will be spots in Queens that get a little quiet. These spots only last for a minute or two…then the fans get loud once more. Once you cross into Queens, mentally prep yourself for Mt. Sonofabitch (the 59th Street Bridge). Take the bridge nice and steady. Ignore what’s going on around you – this is a spot on the course to simply work through. The crowds on First Avenue are as loud as the stories proclaim. A big key here: stay under control. This is NOT a flat part of the course. There is a half mile incline along this avenue that will take more out of you than you realize. First Avenue gets quiet just past 96th Street – so if you have a gang of amigos planning to watch the race and cheer you on, have them head up past 96th. Also: just past mile 18, watch your footing, as all runners are given little green sponges with cold water. So for a tenth of a mile, you’ll be running on tiny patches of wet foam.
I met up with my crew of amigos and scored an espresso brownie, which I gobbled down in short order. I assumed that it would come right back up…but it didn’t. Of all things to stay down, how the name of all that’s holy did a brownie gain favor over the gastrointestinal gods? By the time I hit the Willis Avenue Bridge, I was able to find a little rhythm and keeping waddling forward.
By the time I entered back into Manhattan into Harlem, I was really feeling better. Although my stomach still hurt, I no longer felt dizzy and I was able to actually think about what I was doing: left…right…repeat. Harlem is another special place in this race. The bands, the enthusiasm, the attitude – it is wonderful. These enthusiastic fans carried me through to another tough stretch that I simply call The Climb.
More notes about this area of the course: When you enter the Bronx, you are greeted WELL. It used to be a quiet area of the course. Nowadays, the Wall at mile 20 is greeted with a strong contingent of representatives from Robin Hood and a ton of music. You wind around a supermarket and a warehouse, but are then greeted by Japanese drummers that even the lost causes find a pace with their consistent beat. When you enter into Harlem, you get a real dose of New York attitude. Welcome it, because it’s given out in heavy measure due to the fact that they know that you that you need it in order to keep moving forward. Harlem fans want to see you push through these tough miles, and they really do all they can to keep you rolling right along. The gospel choir between miles 22 and 23 always gets me a bit emotional.
As you leave Harlem, you are greeted with what I call “the climb”. It’s not a horrible hill. It’s really more of a a long incline, actually. However, its placement on the course between miles 22.7 and 23.4 really come so late that it can crush a runner’s resolve. The fact that it is more than a half mile in length always makes me say internally (and sometimes even externally) “OH COME ON! HAVEN’T I DONE ENOUGH TO EARN THIS YET?” Since this incline is around mile 23…the answer is always an emphatic “NO.” There is a reward, however: at the top of the hill is Engineer’s Gate and entry into Central Park.
The Park is not flat – so don’t think that you catch a break after the long incline that got you to this point. Rolling hills for the next two miles are the order of the day. Right after you hit the mile 25 marker, you know that it’s only 1.2 to go. A slight decline as you exit the park brings you to Central Park South, where you are greeted by thousands of LOUD fans. A slight incline with a half a mile to go, and then you turn back into the Park at Columbus Circle. From there, it’s only three tenths of a mile to the finish, and a moment that you will never forget.
I did not perform well this year, based on my time. I’ve run this course much faster. However, each year this race is different. There are so many variables that go into a race for a marathoner – you never know the day will bring. As a marathoner, you need to be able to accept what the course gives you and play the cards you are dealt. It could rain. It could snow. Winds could gust to 40 miles per hour. It could be 70 degrees and sunny, or 25 degrees and frigid. You can feel awesome….until you start running, and then FUBAR. You could feel lousy…until you start running, and then you PR. Or: you can feel awesome and then RUN AWESOME. Oh, that is the feeling that brings us all back for more. Sure it will hurt. Sure, you’ll probably want to quit along the way. The pain that accompanies this race is part of the reason I toe the line each year. I want to see how much I can take then keep moving forward. I win as long as I don’t quit.
364 more days. Next year, I will RUN AWESOME.