Arrival & Expo
It's 4am on Saturday 3rd November. People are still staggering home from a big Friday night in Chicago and I'm in a taxi to Midway airport, on to Marathon Major number five in 2018 - New York! (you can read up on what happened in Boston Marathon, London Marathon, Berlin Marathon & Chicago Marathon if you missed them first time around...)
I knew from the outset that New York Marathon would be the biggest challenge when trying to complete all the Majors on a shoestring budget. I had been trying for a couple of months to find accommodation with friends, or friends of friends, or friends of friends of friends but had come up with nothing. With a week to remaining, I decided I would fly in the day before and spend a couple of nights in the Vanderhill YMCA in Manhattan. This was still a pricey option at $140 US a night for a single room with shared facilities but I had little choice.
I head to the YMCA directly from the airport, check in and as expected, it's hundreds of rooms in a tower with pretty much just an old single bed and enough floor space to store your bag. There are only a few hours left until the expo closes for registration so I check the map and figure it's close enough to walk. The thing is, New York is so massive that even somewhere that looks close is an hours walk away. After telling myself off for expending more energy than I should do, I adopt the tried and tested method of picking up my race pack & t-shirt (you could actually try them on for size which was a novel idea) before completing a ten minute scan for any free snacks/drinks and exiting. I head back toward the hostel, dropping into Grand Central station for a bite to eat and marvel at the beautiful old place.
I take a quick nap as I've missed a lot of sleep in the last couple of days (and will again tonight), before wandering out to locate one of many Italian restaurants which means New York marathoners shouldn't fall foul of the '# of runners > pasta restaurants' equation that ruin many race eves. I find a pizza place nearby on 3rd Ave and order pasta with meatballs - marvelling at the New York street scene before me: steaming vents, yellow cabs, car horns blaring, as 80's power ballads noisily ring out in the old diner ('Alone' by Heart, if you're interested). I retire early to try to take the sting out of the ridiculously early start, remembering my ear plugs to drown out the nocturnal activities inside and traffic noise outside.
Hoping for five down in 2018... At the Abbott World Marathon Majors stand in the expo
An extra variable for this marathon day was the clocks changing on Saturday night. Fortunately, they were falling back which meant a) an extra hour of 'sleep' and b) the worst that could happen was that you were an hour early for everything and felt like a bit of a pillock. I woke before 4am and discovered that the communal YMCA toilets had some classic graffiti from yesteryear. Some which I dare not repeat here (and should probably have been removed twenty years ago when it was written). The famous 'Here I sit broken hearted... (tried to shit, but only farted)' poem was scrawled carefully in three inch letters. Will future scholars look back at this rhyme like we do at ancient cave paintings? Probably not.
It's going to be a couple of hours journey to get to the start so I quickly make a cup of instant porridge in the kitchen, other runners from around the world have opted for the same budget accommodation approach and are busy taking an early breakfast, grabbing a coffee or filling water bottles.
The marathon starts out on Staten Island and you have to elect in advance how to get there. You can go under your own steam if you're fortunate enough to have someone to drive you, you can take a long bus ride or a ferry/bus combo. I share the lift down with a South African chap who, upon hearing that I had opted to take the ferry, informs me I should get ready for a nightmare journey. Always useful to have someone to help kick the anxiety in from the outset. Thanks fella.
I wander around the dark streets for 20 minutes trying to find the public bus to Whitehall Ferry Terminal then give up and booked a shared taxi. I jump in with Matt from Chicago and we have the standard pre-marathon chat (first New York? Hopes for the day?...). We're at the terminal in decent time so jump on the 05.45 ferry. It's busy but not too crowded. Some people are getting to know their fellow runners whilst others are keeping their own pre-race routine, listening to music or trying to catch some sleep. The remainder stand at the windows taking souvenir photos as we look back at Manhattan and pass the Statue of Liberty just as the sky starts to lighten.
Whitehall Ferry Terminal. Safe to say the only loons in here at 5.30am on a Sunday morning were runners and marathon volunteers
Disembarking the ferry and looking back to marathon day dawning over New York
After 45 mins we arrive on Staten Island and are directed to queue for a large fleet of buses. It's a cold morning but it only takes us around ten minutes to be herded onto our bus. Half an hour or so later we arrive at the race village at Fort Wadsworth. A lengthy but incident-free journey to the start. It's 7am and we're three hours from the starters gun.
I'm off with the first start wave at 09.50 (the other start waves are 10.15, 10.40 & 11am so if those guys came on the earlier, quieter ferries then they're in for a long wait! ). I'm located in the green village in shadow of the massive Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. It's a fresh morning and runners are wrapped up warm. Some seasoned pro's knew of the long wait and the potential of cold and have brought sleeping bags and inflatable mattresses. Others, like me, just make do with their extra layers, a coffee and a free warm pink hat provided by a well-known donut brand. I locate a spot on the grass and lie on a disposable poncho for a while, one of the cheery volunteers sees me and passes by with hand warmers which go down a treat.
Race Village at Ford Wadsworth, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge looming large
As the deadline for bag drop nears, I strip off the clothes that I'll need at the finish, keeping a couple of layers to toss before the start, and the free pink hat. I do a brief warm up with what limited space there is and join all those headed off in the first wave. It's certainly a unique location for the start of one of the biggest marathons in the World. Essentially there are a few thousand of you stood shivering on the up ramp of a highway in near silence. We stand on the road, the US national anthem is played before the final speeches and the starting cannon. Frank Sinatra begins to ring out and we begin the first of several climbs of the day, over the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.
There are two levels to the bridge and we're on the lower level, there's a cold breeze whistling through the sides and I, alongside many others, decide it's wise to leave my pink donut hat on until I've warmed up. Given that New York is arguably the most difficult of the Majors, I'd read up on the course more than I normally would and all the notes strongly suggested running the first mile or so very conservatively as you could potentially derail your whole race in the first few minutes. I heeded this advice and cruised up at a comfortable pace, keeping my heart rate low and not paying any attention to my watch. It was so strange to be running a massive marathon without any crowd participation and gave me time to think about what I was going to do. I decided that I was just going to run on feel and not push it, I knew with this being my third marathon in seven weeks and having done little to no speed or hill work, a PB or sub-3 was out of the question. I would just stay on a comfortable pace and see what happened.
The descent on the bridge was pretty steep and everyone's pace quickened again. Those looking for a decent time kicked on boldly and I think if I was confident in my condition I would have joined them. Instead I just sped up to a point where I could still breathe comfortably. As we come off the bridge, the crowds begin and then soon thicken. I'm warm enough to toss my pink donut hat in the direction of some kids who might like it. The noise and energy in Brooklyn is immense. I try to think back to a race where I've seen or heard support like this and I'm not sure I can. I don't know if it's because it was preceded by a lengthy silence but it's everywhere, I can hardly hear myself think. There are countless signs being held aloft and people are screaming encouragement. There's music, someone is playing 'I Wanna Dance with Somebody' by Whitney Houston and people are in the road dancing to it. It's absolute, brilliant bedlam. I sometimes read people online asking why on earth people would go to the hassle and expense of trying to get into one of the big marathons. For me, it's moments like this. When an entire city comes out and makes normal runners like you & I feel like rock stars for a day. I don't know if you can get that feeling in any other sport as an amateur.
I calculate that I'm around 3.05 pace as we hit halfway and cross the Pulaski Bridge into Queens but I'm starting to feel a little weary mentally and physically. I think the last year of travelling, training and racing is finally catching up with me and I don't feel as though I possess the reserves needed to push harder today. Negative thoughts start to creep in but each time they threaten to overpower me, the crowds or music drown them out. Jay-Z/Alicia Key's 'Empire State of Mind' rings out loudly and a shiver goes down my spine. We hit one of the biggest challenges of the course, Queensboro Bridge which means we're nearing 15 miles. A lot of runners have opted to walk the testing incline on this one and there is a line of zombie-like walkers either side as silence falls again and you can hear the trudging of hundreds of runners hauling themselves to the top of the slope, willing themselves to go again, wanting to get back to the noise and the crowds.
Then we're on 1st Avenue and it's bonkers once more. All of those negative thoughts that had surfaced minutes before are smashed away as thousands upon thousands shout and scream at the runners, kids putting their hands out for high-fives and adults offering food and drink. We're into another neighbourhood, I'm not sure where now. There is a group of ladies with rolls of kitchen towel, offering them to runners as they pass to wipe themselves down. When one runner tiredly misses grabbing one, the girl sprints after him shouting 'NOT TODAY HONEY, I GOT YOU', catching him fifty metres later.
We cross Willis Ave Bridge, just before 20 miles and I'm wondering how many more bridges this city has. I know I need to save some gas for the rolling hills in Central Park but I'm starting to get heavy-legged on the climbs and beginning to worry that I might have a wobbly legged incident. We approach Madison Ave Bridge just before 21 miles and the last person standing before the climb is a lady with a big sign that simply says 'LAST DAMN BRIDGE'. Just in case you missed her sign, she's also shouting it over and over, encouraging you to get it done. I wonder if she takes this position every year.
Mile 24 in Central Park: this photo does not accurately reflect my state of mind at the time. It's a keeper though. (photo by Richard Tilney-Bassett)
Five kilometres to go. One parkrun. We hit another climb alongside Central Park. I know if I get to the top of here then I've got enough in reserve to get home. We enter the park and I decide I'm close enough to up the pace, attacking the uphills a little harder and pushing it on the flats. I know if I stay on this pace I'll be nicely under 3.10 and I'm cool with that. If you've ever tried to run two or three marathons hard within a short space of time you'll know that you become seriously tuned in to your body and what it's capable of at any given time. I know this is the best I could manage.
The noise on the final straight is deafening. There's so much going through my head in those last couple of hundred metres, it's all just a blur. Five majors in seven months and three in seven weeks. I try to look around and savour all the sights and sounds but it's over in seconds.
I cross the line in 3.08.54. A total of 52,812 runners finish the race. This resulted in the 2018 NYC Marathon breaking the record for the most finishers of any marathon in the world (source:NYRR).
I collect my medal and prepare myself for the long walk from the finish back to the baggage reclaim. This walk is the stuff of legends, with some claiming you should receive a second medal for completing it. The support staff line the fenced walkway and shout encouragement as runners hobble their way to the exits, arranging medical care for those who had given everything to make it to the finish line and were not able to make this extra distance unaided.
New York City Marathon course elevation profile: that big old climb at the start before a long descent, a few bumps over the bridges and the monster bridge at ~15 miles before the rise toward Central Park and the rollercoaster within
Now I don't think I could have been particularly sound of mind at this point as once I finally managed to complete the epic post-marathon walk, I decided that I would walk back to the YMCA. This turned out to be around three miles away. During this additional, blurry hike, I discovered another great thing about marathon day in New York. It's not just the hundreds of thousands lining the streets that made you feel like a rock star - it's everyone. As I scuffed along the pavements (sidewalks) in my flip-flops, still dressed in my race kit, my medal hanging from my neck and wrapped in a space blanket, people were smiling, congratulating me, patting me on the back. At one point a guy jumped out of a bar across the street and shouted 'HEY BUDDY! GREAT JOB' at me.
Exhausted, I finally decided to abandon my walk five minutes from the hostel and do something much more sensible like sit in a pub for a while. As I walked in the door, approached the bar and slumped onto a stool, a local fellow congratulated me and insisted on buying my Guinness.
Thank you Brian, and thank you New York for such an incredible day.
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