The New York City Marathon. Even today, having run it twice now, it still gives me chills. While there will always be people who will tell you Boston is better, to me, it’s not even close - New York hosts the best marathon on the planet. Granted, that’s based on a small sample size, and a strong New York bias, but I’m standing by my statement.
I honestly wasn’t planning on running it this year. No, I mean it. But when the last day of the lottery was announced, I couldn’t resist the draw, and threw my name in the hat, not at all expecting to be chosen. It was truly a “why the hell not”. And then I got that wonderful email stating I’d been selected! And, as an added bonus, my dear friend Susan decided she really wanted to do New York! She got in via a tour group, and joined me for the adventure.
So away I go to New York.
I’m a firm believer that your performance at the marathon is a direct reflection of your training. While there are certainly good days and bad days, good weather and bad weather (see Grandma’s 2016), the number one indicator of your chances of success on Marathon Sunday (I’m hereby declaring that an official holiday) is how well your training went.
And my training was decidedly a mixed bag. On the plus side, while my speed didn’t come back quite as fast (pun intended) as I’d have liked, my hill training was super strong. One great advantage, although it doesn’t always feel that way on Saturday mornings, to running with Seattle Green Lake Running Group is you’re guaranteed hills, and lots of them. As a result, I was stronger on hills on Marathon Sunday than I’ve ever been, and that includes the days when I’d do the hill at Torrey Pines (those who’ve lived in San Diego know the one I’m talking about) on a regular basis.
I’d also had an amazing tuneup experience with my great running bud Karen at the Tacoma Narrows Half Marathon, which was hillier than either of us expected. While I missed my target time, I learned quite a bit about myself, and about running races, which I was able to put to good use on Marathon Sunday.
On the bad side, though, was the last 3 weeks of my training. Due to illness, I missed my 20 miler. And, due to my asthma kicking in, I missed the last week or so of runs. Someone once told me it’s better to go into a marathon slightly under trained. I was certainly going to be testing this theory.
I met up with Susan on Friday morning to go roam the expo, spend way too much money, and generally explore. We succeeded in all goals. As with any major marathon, the expo is crowded. But, this being the Javits Convention Center, which is huge, it doesn’t feel cramped, save for a few spots. Jackets were secured, recovery sandles from Oofos tracked down (they really are that comfortable), and general swag purchased.
I’m a huge fan of doing the last couple of miles of any marathon. While I don’t want to do the bus tour, because I don’t want to see how damned far I’ll be going, I do want to see where I’ll be finishing so I have a good mental image of it. I find doing that makes it go by that much faster. Because we obviously didn’t want to walk that far, Susan and I, after catching the subway to Columbus Circle we grabbed a couple of Citi Bikes and pedaled counter clockwise back to the marathon’s entry point to Central Park. We then wanted to pedal back to the finish. The moment we turned around, it dawned on me that there’s only one acceptable way to bike around Central Park, and that’s counterclockwise. We sheepishly, and doing our best to avoid traffic, went the wrong way back to the start. We managed to only get yelled at twice by locals.
We made our way to the finish line, which was still in the process of being assembled. Sadly, the 26 mile sign wasn’t up yet, which meant Susan and I couldn’t get our standard picture. there. But, we did manage a selfie at the finish.
You can’t do New York without the food. While Susan and I were on our best behavior, avoiding alcohol save for one for lunch and dinner (because you have to have a little fun), we did find a couple of nice spots.
If you’re a first timer, I am convinced that the only way to arrive at Staten Island on Marathon Sunday is via the ferry. Because, where else are you going to get to cruise by Lady Liberty on your way to the start line of a marathon? Unfortunately, the ride wasn’t quite as smooth as we’d have hoped. While we got the views, and comments on our robes, the ride took much longer than we expected, as we bobbed in the water for an extra 15 minutes or so. That, unfortunately made for a couple of challenges once we got to the start area.
In addition, the NYRR made some changes to the boat to bus area, where everyone was dumped into a funnel rather than into any form of an orderly queue. This led to a fair bit of confusion and jockeying for position in the line. This seemed to me to take longer than last year.
Becaues of the delays, and Susan’s need to hit bag check by 8:40, we needed to boogie to find the 2017 Dunkin Donuts hat. If you’re going to run New York, you need the hat. It’s a requirement. Rather than trusting my instincts and memory, since we’d already experienced one change from last year, I decided to ask information where the hats were. They pointed us towards the Orange area, which was on the opposite end from where Susan’s bag check. We trecked over there, only to discover that particular truck had run out. Dejected, we walked back to the bag check for Susan, and she dumped her bag. Not to give up, though, Susan and I ventured to an area where I’d seen the hats last year - success! (Of course, I managed to lose mine somewhere along the way. Susan, however, managed to keep hers.)
Both Susan and I had people we knew running, in particular a runner from Susan’s running group in Ottawa, and my cousin (who was running her first marathon). Fortunately, we managed to track them down.
All of this running around finding hats and people ate up a fair bit of time. Tip: Always arrive earlier than you think you need to, so you have time to take care of everything, including (especially?) bathroom breaks. Between that and the delays getting there, Susan was a bit rushed to make her corral. She did, but she also didn’t have time to truly just relax. I bid Susan farewell, hung out with Marian for a litle bit, and hopped in my corral. There, in the most bizarre small world experience, I happened to meet the mother of a running friend from Seattle who was doing the race. I’m sure someone can calculate the odds of that.
As anyone who knows me knows, I obsess over the weather on race day. My perfect conditions would be about 45 degrees with sun, or about 55 with clouds (or some such combination there of). Marathon Sunday was showing mid-50s (perfect), and some form of rain. And when it came to rain, there was a chance of rain, at some point, of some amount, during the race. That was about as descriptive as any of the forecasts were; it just seemed difficult for them to pin down. Fortunately, as a Seattlite, I’m used to that type of weather.
I’d already decided to not chase after 3:59. I knew it wasn’t going to be there, and there wasn’t any sense in even trying. I knew if I did I’d have the same experience I had last year, where I walked the vast majority of the second half. I channeled my friend Christine, and focused on staying strong throughout the race. I wanted to eke out whatever my body had to offer on Marathon Sunday, and I figured that was a 4:15, with a “catch time” of 4:30 if I fell off my pace.
I’d also broken the course down into segments.
- Up and over the Verrazano SLOW!!
- Through Brooklyn to mile 8, again nice and easy, with a focus on seeing my brother Abram and his girlfriend Julia
- Enjoy the brownstones of Williamsburg and navigate the Pulaski Bridge at the halfway point
- Spend Queens prepping for the Queensboro Bridge (affectionately named the Queensboro Fucking Bridge, or QFB, as it punished me last year)
- Conquer the QFB, exacting my revenge
- Enjoy Manhattan part one, and seeing Abram and Julia
- Take in the energy of the Bronx
- Experience Harlem
- Tackle the hill at Mile 23, again seeing my personal cheering station
- Central Park and tears
I’d spotted the 4:15 pacers in my corral. Perfect. In theory, they’re trained and ready to do this. Unfortunately, they were a little disorganized, as one decided to head out to the bathroom without telling the first one. As a result, she was panicked (rightly so), and I made the decision to just focus on myself, heading out without them, figuring they’d catch me a bit later in the race.
Just as the gun went off it started to spritz just a little bit. No rain, just spritz. My only concern was that it would tamp down the crowds if it started to come down harder. I remained focused.
Slow and steady wins the race, and up the bridge I went nice and easy, and just enjoyed the longest downhill of the race on the other side. Everything went perfectly according to my plan, as I found myself about 20 seconds behind pace, which I could easily make up along the way. A couple of quick turns through Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, and up 4th I went, enjoying the crowd and experience, and still staying within myself.
The run up 4th is a fantastic stretch, with plenty of crowds to cheer you along. The mist wasn’t impacting the crowds, and I was just soaking it all in. I was taking back the little bit of lost time I had from the bridge bit by bit, and around mile 6 the 4:15 pacer caught me, which I was expecting. She was solo, her partner nowhere to be seen. I tracked her, but didn’t fall in behind the group directly, as weaving through the crowds was an issue - I just didn’t want to burn energy doing that.
Into the heart of Brooklyn, left turn, right onto Lafayette, and there were Abram and Julia, signs in hand, to cheer me on. At this point I was relatively close to the 4:15 time I was hoping for, felt full of energy, and was excited for the brownstones and Williamsburg.
Sadly, the mist was tamping down the usual general life of Williamsburg, which is one of the best features of the New York Marathon course. So while I didn’t have that, I did have the brownstones to enjoy, which I did. Also, since I was feeling strong, I wasn’t focused on how I was going to maintain pace.
Then, around mile 9, the other 4:15 pacer caught up! As suspected, he did stop by the restroom, and had worked to catch up to his teammate. Now, maybe he did a good job of slowly doing this, but I couldn’t help but think that anyone who followed him, as he started further back than the 4:15 pacer I was tracking, was now a good bit ahead of where they should be. Either that, or the original pacer was behind where she needed to be.
He caught up to her, and they had a little bit of an argument, as she needed to find a restroom. She handed him her sign, ran off to take care of business, and then caught back up. Once she did, the two of them got to chatting and running way too fast. As I kept seeing a 9:20 pace on my watch, I decided I was just going to fall back and let them go.
Approaching the Pulaski bridge, I realized it was a bit more of a hill than I remembered. Not to worry, I told myself - I eat hills for breakfast, and bridges for lunch. I’d trained for this. And I settled in, worked my way up it, hitting the 13.1 mark, and found myself in Queens. Still, feeling strong.
Of all of the boroughs, Queens is my least favorite. I’m sorry, Queens, but there’s just not much that the course covers there. The fans are nice, though.
Anyway, it was time to focus on getting ready for the bridge. There’s a song called Gimme Chocolate by Baby Metal, a J-pop metal band, that has probably the catchiest hook ever. For whatever reason, this is a song that just sticks in my brain, and it’s what helped me conquer hills at night during Ragnar. It was going to help me conquer the QFB. The night before I’d queued up the song, tested my bluetooth headphones, and made sure that when I clicked play it would start properly. Mind you, I basically never run with music. But I knew I wanted something for the QFB.
Setup time. Pulled the headphones out of my Flipbelt, put them on, clicked play, and I heard the strains of the song in my ears. Perfect. Hit pause, and enjoyed what Queens had to offer, started to get excited for my chance to get revenge on the bridge.
As for the weather at this point, the mist continued.
Here we go. This is it. I started out on the bridge, hit play, turned up the volume, and began my attack. Literally 20 meters in I knew I had it. My legs were super strong. My spirits were high. My music was giving me that extra energy that I needed. And, with the knowledge I wouldn’t be able to see the top of the climb due to the upper deck of the bridge, I focused instead on listening to the song twice.
About 200 meters in I felt a rush that everything I’d focused on was coming to fruition. 200 meters later, I fought back tears. As I passed people, as I saw people pulling off to the side, knowing I was there last year, I gained even more energy. When I reached the crest, I had my “Fuck Yeah!“ moment. Certainly, not on the same level as Shalane, but like my hero it was something I’d been defeated by in the past, had worked towards, and conquered.
Down the other side, and I was the guy that yelled at the top of his lungs, “WELCOME TO MANHATTAN!”
A little bit of hindsight here. I feel like in the end I expended too much energy, physically and emotionally, here. This was what I had built up in my head as my arch-nemesis, and I took it down. While I was right around the 4:15 time I wanted at this point, maybe about 2 minutes back, the energy I spent here cost me later in the race.
There are truly no words to describe how amazing the fans are after you come off the QFB, and for the next 3 miles thereafter. It’s electric. Add to that the fact that it’s generally flat, and even downhill at times, and it’s easy to take off. I maintained my focus, and my pace. I kept within myself. I got lucky and saw the friend who’s mother I met at the start area. Life was amazing.
Now, when it comes to having someone cheer you at the New York Marathon, you need to plan well ahead, knowing exactly where they are. I’d worked out with Abram and Julia that we’d see each other at 90th St. Try as I might, I could not spot them in the crowd. However, they’d made friends with a couple of teenagers next to them, who spotted me and screamed “JERSEY!!!!”. I pointed in the direction of them, and Julia captured this picture. They insist I saw them. All I have to say is this - #fakenews.
Shortly after seeing them, my energy deflated. I hadn’t hit a wall, per se, but I had slowed down. I found myself doing 11 minute miles. I walked water stations. I wasn’t defeated by any stretch, but I just had less gumption.
Around mile 19, the 4:30 pacers went past me, which is around a 10:45/mile pace. I looked at my watch, which said I was currently at a 10:15 overall pace. I guess there’s a pack of 4:30 marathonners who set an amazing PR.
And, the drizzle continued.
To get into The Bronx, you need to go across the Willis Avenue Bridge. This bridge is short, cambered, and a steep incline - the stuff that runner nightmares are made of. I walked part of that bridge, but managed to run the bulk of it. Upon entering the Bronx, I was greeted by the good people who call that borough their home, and who truly take pride in it. Sadly, there were fewer of them, as the drizzle was still a thing. But those who were there embraced us warmly. A couple of rights, a couple of lefts, a turn towards the west, and I found myself, much quicker than I expected, heading back into Manhattan.
Let’s talk a little bit about fueling. I use PowerBar Gels, and they generally do me rather well. I pop one every 4 miles, starting at mile 3. The one at mile 19 did not go well. It nearly came right back up. Uh-oh. I still have 7 miles left to go, and I can’t do this sans fuel. But I also knew there wasn’t any chance I’d be able to do another gel. So, I made the absolulte worst decision any marathoner can make - I tried something new on race day. When I hit The Bronx, I started drinking the Gatorade they were handing out, and I ate a piece of a banana. I have never eaten on a run. Amazingly, it didn’t come back to haunt me. Don’t try this at home, kids.
I’ve yet to explore Harlem, save for running through it, and it’s something I truly want to fix. Until that time, though, I’ll have yet another wonderful memory of the streets being lined with fans, a wonderful band and dance crew, and a jog around Marcus Garvey Memorial Park, and there’s Central Park ahead on the right. A glorious sight.
The odd sight? That would be the 4:10 pacer cruising by me. Where he was going I’ll never know.
Mile 23 is infamous for being the one last big climb, and now famous for being the spot where Shalane threw in one last surge that her competitors just wilted under. As I said before, I had focused quite a bit on hills during my training, and it paid off for the entire race. Mile 23 was no exception - left, right, left, right, and HEY! - there’s Abram and Julia! High-5s all around. A little bit more climb, a right into Engineer’s Gate and Central Park, and there’s only one thing left to do: Finish the 2017 New York City Marathon!
I’m honestly tearing up just typing this. There are truly no words that can describe the rush of emotions of entering Central Park. You’re down to under 5K left. Less than 30 minutes to go. And, for me, Central Park is my absolute favorite place to run in the world, my happy place.
Between the rush of hitting The Park, and seeing Abram and Julia, I knew I had everything in me to finish without having to walk through the water stations. Granted, these were 12 minute miles, but I was in fact running.
Saw the Cougar. Enjoyed the trees. Took in the cheers from fans lining the streets. Found our way out of Central Park, along Central Park South, and then the right turn back into the park to finish the New York City Marathon. That little spike they throw at you for the .2 of 26.2? Yeah, that had nothing on me this time. This race was mine.
I finished the New York City Marathon.
A few minutes past my “catch time”, but I’m very proud of where I wound up regardless. I know I got almost everything out of my body that day, and only made a couple of strategic mistakes (besides the eating).
And, most importantly, the rain stopped.
I had my medal hung on me, and gave it a big kiss. Grabbed the foil. Got the recovery bag, and ate my apple - the best apple ever.
It’s a long walk to get out of Central Park, and uphill. One could argue that is truly the worst hill of the course, and they’d be right.
Exit onto Central Park West, and a volunteer put on my poncho, as my hands were full holding my bag, phone, and second foil. As I walked away I was still a bit cold, which another volunteer noticed. She asked if she wanted her to put my hood up. I said yes, and she did. I walked away thinking that was the absolute sweetest thing anyone had ever done for me, and absolutely broke down crying. Sobbing. Thus is the power of the marathon.
I greeted Susan, who PR’ed, Abram and Julia each with a huge hug. Abram handed me my first post race beer, which is always the best beer in the world.
Nearly two weeks separated from the race, and the emotions are all still fresh, as are the memories. This is truly the greatest marathon on the planet, and one I will absolutely run again in the future. If you ever have the opportunity, take it. Absolutely take it.
As for my race, I made two key mistakes that cost me time. The first was keeping pace for a couple of miles with the way too fast 4:15 pacers, which sapped some energy out of me, between the speed itself and the weaving. The second was my singular focus on the QFB. By the time I was over the bridge, I’d burned so much energy, energy that I really needed for the last 10 miles. I should have been able to eke out a few more 10 minute miles before slowing to the 12 minute pace I had towards the end, which would have given me the 4:30 I was hoping to achieve.
BUT, I finished feeling strong, probably stronger than I’ve felt finishing any marathon, including my PR. I was able to apply the lessons learned from the Tacoma Narrows Race, embracing the suck, and not giving in, even when I wanted to (which, oddly, wasn’t that often). While my speed certainly isn’t back, I’m stronger emotionally than I’ve ever been, and better on hills than I ever thought I could be.
I read the other day that often the marathon beats you. Marathon Sunday saw me battling it to a solid draw.
Next stop - Vancouver Marathon and #breaking4.