New York City Marathon

Rated R

The iconic New York City Marathon visits all five Burroughs of the city. Runners begin in Staten Island, enter Brooklyn, continue through Queens, travel up Manhattan, ever so briefly visit the Bronx, and then finish in the romantic environs of the inimitable Central Park. Few marathon courses can match this visual and experiential smorgasbord.

This marathon is best understood as three distinct events: the pre-race staging area, the race itself, and the post-race walk.

You may be able to guess beforehand which of the three I preferred.

Pre-Race Staging Area
Shanty Town
Just a small fraction of the debris left behind by runners at the staging area of the New York city Marathon.

Organizing a race of the size of the New York City Marathon must be a monumental task. I can hardly imagine coordinating the countless details, recruiting and managing the army of volunteers, and arranging the transportation logistics of a point-to-point race in an infamously crowded city. It staggers my inner project manager.

Consider the massively complex staging area. Runners converged on Fort Wadsworth on the Staten Island side of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, arriving by bus, train, ferry, taxi, or private vehicles. As part of the ING race team, I arrived via chartered bus complete with police escort (really). The staging area featured multiple tents, church services, information centers, port-a-johns, and staggered corrals. All of it was multi-lingual.

Runners congregated there for hours and hours before the start, preparing for the race, eating, dropping-off baggage for transport to the finish, finding color-coded corrals, and generally staving off both pre-race boredom and anxiety.

So the place became an impromptu shanty town. If you enjoy attending Goodwill fashion shows (one must have disposable warm clothes), stepping over used gel packs, and standing in lines, you would have loved the place. It was like a low-rent rippling calf convention; an enormously physically fit Woodstock, only with more urinating.

And there was an Orwellian feel to the air. As runners milled about, a droning loudspeaker repeated directions over and over again, herding runners to corrals in several different languages. I felt like we were poorly clothed refugees in some dystopian future, compelled to line up by gender, ability, and color. Somehow, this all sounded more ominous in German.

Baggage Drop-Off
Baggage Drop Off
The infamous baggage drop-off area before it got really crowded. Note the fenced-off parking lot to the left.

Though somewhat overwhelming, everything would have been fine except for the dreaded baggage drop-off. This should have been a simple ritual. But nothing is easy when forty-thousand runners are involved.

We dropped off our personal effects at a fleet of UPS trucks (color-coded and numbered). The trucks were sequestered in a fenced-off area with limited space for foot traffic. The scene quickly devolved into the great human traffic jam of aught seven.

I’ve often wondered how many people could be squeezed into various small spaces. Baggage drop-off afforded me the chance to learn up close. Packed like avaricious shoppers at Filene’s Basement, we struggled to escape the fenced-in area. If only the adjacent parking were open. But we could only gaze longingly while we inched forward in a claustrophobe’s nightmare. I think my feet actually left the pavement while my body continued to creep forward.

Incidentally, with little room to maneuver in or out of trouble, I may have inadvertently fondled a Danish woman. If this was the case, I apologize.

Staten Island & The Starting Line
NYC Marathon: The final starting queue
This is as close as I got to the starting mat. Some folks had been in the staging area for over four hours by the time the race started at 10:10am.

By the time we escaped the baggage drop-off mob; most people had already joined their respective corrals. We found ours (blue) and tried to work our way to the appropriate pace level (between 3:30 and 3:40). Unfortunately, with so many runners, this became quite a task. We resorted to crawling over pipes outside the fenced line. By the time the line began to march to the start position, we had just only made it to the beginning of the 3:50 pace area. That would have to do.

At 10:10am, we finally started to the roaring sound of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” But we didn’t need the thunderous speakers. Tens of thousands of us were singing the lyrics at the top of our lungs. Amazingly, it only took us a bit more than five minutes to reach the starting mat.

Hoi Polloi on the Verrazano
New York city Marathon - Sea of Humanity Crosses the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge
The massive swell of runners covers the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Mile marker one was hit long before we crossed the harbor.

The race begins on the striking Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the steepest hill of the course. Commanding views of the New York Harbor and the Manhattan skyline presaged the journey to come. I joined the throng flowing up the bridge in a massive sea of humanity. I felt as if I were part of something truly grand.

This nirvanic moment was surpassed only by an archetypal rite of passage: relieving myself off the side of the bridge. Any other day, I would have been arrested for such an unseemly act. On race day however, it seemed almost noble.

Should you ever get the chance to do this, beware of the relatively low side railing. You’ll feel the bridge shake with the thunderous footfalls of the masses. You’ll feel quite unstable and there’s not much separating you from a watery demise. You’ll probably want a more dignified death.

New York city Marathon - Brooklyn crowd
We were in Brooklyn through mile thirteen. Yes, it was this crowded the whole way.
(Photo courtesy of Dacaplan via Flickr.)

We entered Brooklyn to shouts of the raucous Brooklynites. These folks were extremely proud of their Burrough.

Through thirteen glorious miles, we were regaled by energetic gospel music from the many churches, and Rock and Jazz from plentiful bands. It was easy to get carried away in such enthusiasm.

Blunt Inspiration
But perhaps better than the cheers were the signs. In other races, you see signs of the “You can do it” and “We love you” variety. New York spectators expanded upon this genre a bit.

As we rounded a corner onto a hearty, crowded Brooklyn street, a tall man leaned out from the crowd, yelled vociferously and held aloft a large, clearly printed sign that read,

“Finishing is your only fucking option!”

Anyone who puts the fully proper “ing” at the end of this expletive should be considered quite serious. I wondered if I’d be dragged off the street and beaten senseless if I dropped out of the race. Best to keep running.

My chief regret from the entire day was failing to get a photo of this man and his strikingly vulgar, perfectly hilarious sign. The street was absolutely thick with runners. Stopping or turning around was, well, not an option.

Brooklyn was not all profanity. The highly vocal and large Ron Paul contingent at mile six provided the only political diversion of the day. We also met a Czechoslovakian woman with rather exotic taste in running attire. It’s not often one sees the fishnet and thong combination in a marathon, at least not on women. For some reason, male runners do this quite a lot.

A shot from the upcoming “Women Marathoners of Czechoslovakia” Calendar.

We experienced gritty urban vistas, a variety of ethnic neighborhoods, and even genteel tree-lined streets, filled with international spectators waving flags of all sorts. Houses here seemed perfectly suited to the upscale inner-city sitcom genre. I half expected to see Heathcliff Huxtable emerging from a two-story tossing Jell-O Pudding Pops to us all.

I loved Brooklyn.

New York city Marathon - Urinating in Queens
There’s nothing odd about urinating runners. But note the utterly unflappable pedestrians. I get the feeling they’ve seen this sort of thing before.
(Photo courtesy of Paul Moeller via Flickr.)

In Queens, we saw our first downed runner. She was lying on the ground, guarded by a phalanx of perhaps a dozen police officers. They formed a sort of wedge around her, breaking the inexorable flow of the runners. There was some Romanesque quality to the scene, as if it were a modern Frieze. I marveled at the organization required to make this possible. I almost wanted to drop on the spot to see how the officers would react.

Other Side of the Tracks
Before crossing to Manhattan, Queens took on a distinctly industrial, low-rent flair. In the blink of an eye, we went from streets thick with well-wishers, to back roads with nary a soul in sight. Think about this for a minute. This had to be one of the safest mornings in New York. Police were everywhere. If locals won’t go to a particular place in town with thousands of like-minded people in broad daylight with police on hand, would you the tourist, ever, ever go there at any other time?

I thought not.

Metal Fatigue
Anyway, the lack of spectators was more than made up by an abundance of graffiti, and quite possibly the worst band on the route: a three piece, callow metal outfit that spewed incomprehensible lyrics set to balefully cacophonous power chords.

As the Doppler Effect mercifully quieted the din, I proclaimed to those still retaining intact eardrums that, for all we knew, the 15-something lead singer had just rasped out an expletive-laden tirade against physical fitness in general and runners in particular. We simply could not be sure.

Manhattan: Part One
New York City Marathon - 40 is the new 60
Not sure if this guy has retired early, or has really savaged his knees from too much running.

By mile fifteen, I settled into a relaxed 8:00 to 8:15 pace, still passing runners regularly. The swarm was still tightly packed and became more so as we crossed the Queensboro Bridge.

We ran across the lower level, initially in darkness. The increased congestion, made it difficult to keep pace without falling over runners. I felt like an emaciated Muhammad Ali, bobbing and weaving through the tired field. It was here that I saw a woman in Texas flag shorts and an “I Love Orgasms” shirt. Seriously.

At roughly mile sixteen we finally entered Manhattan. I had been looking forward to a large, high-spirited crowd, so often reported by runners. Spectators were plentiful, but they were not as loud or exuberant as the Brooklynites. They may have tired by the time I arrived, or perhaps they were saving their strength for Katie Holmes.

Self portrait
Self portrait at mile seventeen; still fresh as a Daisy.

When we turned onto the expansive 1st Avenue, the field finally opened up, and elbow knocking ceased. This was ideal Marathoning: A wide, flat course with plentiful, active spectators. And the view was magnificent. The towering skyscrapers brought it home to me. I was truly running in New York City.

Along this section of the course at mile seventeen, Tom Cruise greeted Katie. Had I been running two hours slower, I might have witnessed this historic encounter.

The Bronx
New York City Marathon - Coach Potatoes
Spectating in Style.
(Photo courtesy of TrespassersWill via flickr.)

At mile twenty we crossed the Willis Avenue Bridge and entered the Bronx. I know this because a large fellow (right out of central casting) stood in the middle of the bridge and boomed “Welcome to da Bronx!” with excessive gusto.

Our visit was lamentably short-lived. I’m sure The Bronx was included to ensure that all five Burroughs were represented. The brevity probably had something to do with the Bronx’s less than refined reputation.

That’s a shame because the Bronx got it right. In just a short span of 1.5 miles there were no fewer than three New York-quality DJs scratching for skilled, extemporaneous rappers. Interspersed among these, street corner rappers beat out simple cadence for runners. “to the left foot; to the right foot; Hit the left foot; Hit the right foot.” For those of us who enjoy hip-hop, it was off-the-hook fly wacktacular.

The Bronx also featured a huge jumbotron (“Look Mom! I’m actually running in the Bronx!”) and the first controversial poster I’d seen in miles. Nothing encourages quite like “Yo Bitch, Run!”

Thank goodness for the Bronx. I was sad to leave.

Back to Manhattan
New York city Marathon - Coatman!
The infamous Coatman. This guy has run over one hundred marathons in wingtip shoes, not to mention the denim coat (regardless of the weather). I know because he passed me in mile 23 of my first marathon, Disney.
(Photo courtesy of ultraclay via Flickr.)

Before you could say, “Bob’s your Uncle” we were running through Harlem (No sign of Bill Clinton). I was enjoying the race, but not truly racing. I loosely estimated a 3:37 finish.

At mile twenty-three, Central Park appeared on our right and the crowd support intensified. Imagine running in such a storied place amidst the raging tumult of umpteen thousand New Yorkers. The rush was just shy of surreal. I’d never truly understood the impact of crowd psychology, but the palpable energy literally propelled you. I became the hero of my very own action movie, lacking only Michael Bay’s peripatetic direction and several dramatic explosions.

By mile 24, pockets of runners began to accelerate. A group of young men adorned in grey (like the Chariots of Fire beach contingent, only dingy) blasted through the field. I also continued to pass runners, but blitzed no one. I hadn’t hit anything near a “wall,” which was unusual for me at this stage. Okay, unprecedented.

I picked up the pace a bit. Just prior to Mile 26, I threw my gloves and bandanna to the crowd, which played well in the third act of my internal film.

Around 400 meters out, I took off my shirt and positively bolted. I weaved through the crowd, propelled by a euphoria that masked fatigue. I’m sure I was smiling. Cue credits and Aerosmith anthem.

I finished with a chip time of 3:38:23, running the second half of the course roughly 2 minutes faster than the first half. More remarkably, I felt neither unreasonable soreness nor serious discomfort. It was my first ever pain-free negative split. I stood near Tavern on the Green, at the finish of the one and only New York City Marathon.

If only I could end the story there.

New York City Marathon - Finish
Obligatory shirtless finish-line photo (sorry ladies, I’m taken). Little did I know how much walking lay ahead.

I’d like to call the New York City Marathon a perfect experience. The race certainly lived up to the hype. But unfortunately all good things must come to an end. In this case, right after the finish line.

The post-race experience was rather like sitting through a pathetic sequel to a film you truly loved. It diminishes the greatness of the original and leaves you angry and hurt. You feel used.

Tired, Huddled Masses
New York city Marathon - Tired, huddled Masses
The long, slow walk begins.

Basically, my race was far from over. I had to get out of the finish area. This required additional, interminable walking. A fence lining the narrow road kept pilgrims funneled properly and off the sacred Central Park lawn. Yeah, another fence.

I was given a foil space blanket; walked a bit, and was given a medal; walked further and was given a meager bag of food, which I inspected while, you guessed it, on the move. One hundred-thirty dollars entry fee, 26.2 miles (and counting) and all I got was a granola bar, mini bagel, sour apple, small Gatorade and bottled water. Like Oliver Twist, I really just wanted more.

The next step in the assembly-line was the post-race photo, which was actually like running a photo gauntlet. There were three rows of photographers taking as many photos as possible without impeding progress of the crowd.

On the way to chip removal, I wondered aloud to the increasingly jam-packed refugees why we didn’t see the official Mile Twenty-Seven marker. I mockingly proclaimed my current split as “the slowest of the day.” I got smiles, but little laughter. Folks quietly moved along, having spent their energy reserves somewhere after mile twenty. I felt surrounded by foil-encased zombies on an agonizing quest for relaxation.

Baggage Pick Up
Baggage Pick Up
The foiled masses at UPS truck three. Again, this shot was taken before things got seriously crowded.

Finally, I approached the first of seventy-two UPS baggage trucks, parked in single file and arranged in alphabetical order. This means that Joe Aardvark’s stuff was in truck one, my personal effects were in truck fifty-eight. Let’s do the math. The trucks were about twenty feet long, and the space between them (for package organization) about fifteen feet. So Jane Zoroaster faced about a half-mile walk to her baggage truck.

I fared better than Jane, but unfortunately, I had to go back through the crowd to meet a friend who was injured and could not handle the additional distance. Going back was like swimming upstream to spawn. As more finishers flooded the area, progress became difficult. Walking with the flow of traffic had been slow going. Working against the flow was nearly impossible.

I stuck to the side of the fence, stepping over those who sat to wait out the crowd, unable to stay on their feet. I also had to dodge the occasional lunging vomitter. The pace was glacial. I found my friend, and we finally found our way out of the park along a different route from the maddening crowd. The whole process took forever, nearly souring the race experience.

I can appreciate the complexities of post-race logistics for forty thousand people. But surely there was a better way to get runners to their possessions and out of the park. Walking through dense crowds on a narrow lane in full view of acres of empty grass was maddening.

Further, race literature extolled the virtues of post-marathon walking, as if by adding ~3k to our tired feet, race organizers were doing us a favor. Please. I would have preferred the blunt truth: “There’s no way to get you out of this park easily, and your walk will be inconvenient, boring, and possibly exhausting.”

Would that have been so hard to say?

The Verdict
Despite the post-race annoyances, I enjoyed this marathon like no other. It was simply too amazing to be ruined by crowded conditions. If you prepare mentally for the crowds and inconvenient finish beforehand, you’ll do just fine.

Here’s the official run-down:
Rating NYC

A Stellar Event
Everything about this race was grand. No matter how you traveled to the city, you met runners. I had excellent conversations in Charlotte with a variety of folks headed to New York to run. The Expo was nothing short of Runapollooza. The SWAG was excellent (The NYC shirt is currently my favorite) and the race itself couldn’t have been better.

Some people call the course hilly. All due respect to Rocket City, hills are overstated here. Inclines were restricted to the bridges. The rest of the course was quite flat. You may have to ascend bridges, but you descend as well. As for running through dense crowds, it wasn’t as difficult as advertised. Once you got into a rhythm, it was not difficult to keep pace. In my next marathon, I found myself missing the lively hordes.

The police were helpful and courteous. Volunteers excelled in every regard. I especially appreciated the positioning of health care professionals at regular intervals of the post race walkathon.

The best part: As a runner you felt as though the city itself opened its arms to welcome and embrace you. After the race, all New York recognized and interacted with marathon participants. People of all sorts enjoyed talking with runners on the street, in the subway, and at dinner. If you run New York, it will be the friendliest time you’ll ever enjoy in the city.

Of course, you’ll pay handsomely for lodging and transportation, but I encourage you to make an event of it; a running vacation. After all, there’s only one New York. You should visit at least once in your life. You may as well take the running tour.

– Dean

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