On November 4th, I ran the New York City Marathon. I’ve done this race twice before. In 1989, Deb and I traveled to New York with a local running club that was going there as a group. Back then, it wasn’t as difficult to get into the race. About half of the race bibs were first-come-first-served. If you knew the entry procedure, and you were prompt about mailing in your application, you had a good chance of getting in.
I returned in 2011 as a time qualifier. At the time, the qualifying time men aged 50-59 was 3:30, and I could do that consistently. They had the same qualifying standards for 2012, but changed the standards for 2013. They went to five year age groups, and the qualifying times were much tougher. For men aged 50-54, the time to beat was 3:06. Not knowing if I could break 3:06, I decided to return again in 2012, figuring it might be my last chance to get in as a time qualifier.
The 2012 race was canceled because of Hurricane Sandy. People who had signed up for that race could either get a refund of our entry fee, or we could get guaranteed entry in 2013, 2014, or 2015. I wanted to come back, but I had a lot of other plans for the next few years, so I wasn’t ready to commit to which year I would return. I opted to take the refund. I told myself if I wanted to do New York again, I needed to get faster, so I could meet the new qualifying standards.
In the next few years, I had injuries and other disruptions to my training. Instead of getting faster, I got slower. I assumed my time to run in New York had passed.
A year and a half ago, I went to Las Vegas to run the Revel Mt. Charleston Marathon. It has a steep downhill course, and I was hoping it would enable me to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Aided by a fast course and a tailwind, I ran much faster than I expected. My goal was 3:35, and I finished in 3:21:57. After the race, I bumped into my friend Chavet in the finish area. She set a new PR, but was a little bit disappointed that she didn’t run fast enough to get guaranteed entry into New York. That made me wonder. I was in the 55-59 age group now, and didn’t even know what the qualifying standard was for my new age group. When I got back to my hotel, I looked it up. It was 3:23. I qualified with a minute to spare.
My time from Mt. Charleston got me into Boston, Chicago, and New York this year. When I started to register for these races, I wasn’t even able to run. I could only finish marathons by walking. Not knowing if I would qualify for any of these races again, I viewed this as a farewell tour of World Marathon Majors.
Deb and I flew to La Guardia on Thursday and took a Lyft to mid-town Manhattan, where we stayed at the Hilton Times Square. We were in the heart of the city. We were close to subway lines. We were within walking distance of the main branch of the library, where I would need to catch a bus to the start of the race. Finally, we were less than a mile from the Javits Convention Center, where the expo was held.
After checking in and doing a little bit of unpacking, we went to the expo. Deb likes shopping at expos, and this one is the biggest. We took our time and visited every booth.
After stopping at the hotel to drop off my race packet, we had dinner at a nearby pizzeria that was recommended by the hotel staff.
We did a lot of sightseeing when we were here in 1989, but you can’t see the whole city in one trip. This year, we went to places that we didn’t see on our first trip. We started with the Statue of Liberty.
Friday morning, we took the subway down to Battery Park so we could take the ferry to Liberty Island. Our best view of the statue was from the ferry, just before landing.
We went to the top of the pedestal, but not all the way to the crown. Inside the building, they still have the original torch.
From the pedestal, we had a good view of lower Manhattan.
Next, the ferry took us to Ellis Island. This is where immigrants arriving in New York were processed for several decades.
When we got back to Manhattan, we walked over to Bowling Green to see the Charging Bull and Fearless Girl statues.
We had lunch at Eataly. This is an Italian market with multiple restaurants, including a pizza bar, a pasta bar, and a gelato bar.
After lunch, we visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. In 1989, Deb and I went to the observation deck of the World Trade Center. On 2001, I was home on 9/11. I turned on the news as soon as I heard about the first plane. I was watching the TV coverage when the second plane hit. I was also watching when the towers fell. This is the first time I’ve been to ground zero since then.
Later, we went over to the Seaport District. From there, we had a good view of the Brooklyn Bridge, but I couldn’t get the whole bridge in one picture.
We had dinner at another Italian restaurant in the theater district. Are you noticing a trend?
On Saturday, we took a hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus that went all the way around Central Park and also through the Upper East Side and Harlem. We got the tickets for free from a nice couple from Seattle who couldn’t use them. We also explored Central Park on our own.
While we were in the park, we walked through the finish line area. As usual, the statue of Fred Lebow was temporarily moved to be right next to the finish line. Fred was the race director who had the vision to create a marathon course through all five boroughs of New York. It was a logistical nightmare, but it’s what makes this race one of the best in the world. You get to experience the whole city. Before that, the race was simply multiple laps around Central Park.
Later, we had an early dinner at a pizzeria in the garment district. I was conflicted on whether to have pizza or pasta for me pre-race meal, so I had a lasagna pizza.
We were staying in the middle of the theater district, but we never saw a play. We saw a Broadway musical when we were here in 1989, so it wasn’t a priority this year. Until we arrived, we didn’t even know what shows were here. Every day, we were walking past various theaters and seeing ads for the shows. The one I would have been most interested in seeing was Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. This is a two-part play, so you need to attend on consecutive days. We would have needed to plan that into our schedule before we got here. It’s a shame we didn’t do that, because it was a rare opportunity. It’s only showing in New York and London.
Sunday was race day. The race starts on Staten Island. To get there, you can either take a bus or ride the Staten Island Ferry. I opted for the bus. You get to the start village awfully early, but it’s simpler. If you take the ferry, you still have to wait in line to take a bus the rest of the way.
Buses left from the New York Public Library in Manhattan. I had to walk about half a mile. I signed up for a 6:00 departure. I got there a few minutes early, but the line to board a bus went halfway around the block. I was on a bus by 6:15, which still gave me plenty of time.
It was a 90 minute bus ride, but I didn’t mind. The longer I was on the bus, the less time I had to spend waiting outside in the start village. It was about 45 degrees. It actually felt nicer than I expected. We had unusually strong winds on Saturday, but there was only a slight breeze on Sunday.
The start village is in Fort Wadsworth, which is right next to the ramps for the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The start village is divided into three color-coded areas, corresponding to which lanes of the bridge we would run across. The blue start crosses the bridge on the eastbound lanes of the upper deck. The orange start crosses the bridge on the westbound lanes of the upper deck. The green start uses the westbound lanes of the lower deck. In 1989, I was in the blue start. In 2011, I was in the green start. This year, I was in the orange start.
I arrived at Fort Wadsworth about two hours before the race started and immediately got into one of the long port-o-potty lines. Next, I found a place to sit on the grass in the orange start village until it was time to move to my start corral. I knew it would be cold, so I wore extra layers. I also brought a space blanket to sit on, in case the ground was muddy. We had an option to check a gear bag, but I opted not to have a gear bag, so my extra clothes had to get left behind. They have donation boxes, so nothing gets thrown away.
In addition to the three start groups, the race is also divided into three waves. I was in the first wave, which started at 9:50. At 8:50, they opened up the start corrals for the first wave. Each wave had five corrals. The “corrals” were staging areas within the start village. Later, we would have to move again to get onto the roadway. This race is huge, but everything is organized. They had port-o-potties in the corrals, so I was able to make one last bathroom stop before the race started. The last thing I did before lining up for the race was to drop my extra layers into a donation box.
While I was waiting, I occasionally heard a cannon blast. Those were for the starts of the wheelchairs, elite women, and disabled athletes.
About 20 minutes before wave one started, we starting walking out onto the ramp to the bridge. They gave us quite a send-off. In addition to speeches by the race organizers and the singing of the National Anthem, we had a flyover by three NYPD helicopters. Then we heard the cannon blast and they started playing Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” as we begin running.
The weather was excellent. The temperature started in the upper 40s and gradually warmed into the low 50s. It was a sunny day without a cloud in the sky. I was worried I might be dressed too warm, but when I got onto the roadway, there was a cold breeze. I took my gloves off so it would be easier to handle my camera. Before we started running, my hands were cold, but I knew they would warm up when I started running.
The course goes through all five of New York’s boroughs, but we didn’t actually see much of Staten Island other than Fort Wadsworth. Then we started running across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
The bridge is two miles long, and the road deck has an arch to it. For the first mile of the race, we were running uphill. Large races like this have crowded starts, but it didn’t feel like the first mile was overly congested. Perhaps that’s because it wasn’t worried about getting off to a fast start.
I didn’t have ambitious goals for this race. There are a lot of sights along this course, so I decided to carry a camera and stop to take pictures. My camera is slow to focus, and it won’t take a clear picture if I’m moving. I have to come to a complete stop for each picture. In a crowded field, that meant I also had to move over to the side of the road so people wouldn’t bump into me. My hope was that I could do all that and still break four hours.
This was my third time here, but it was the first time I was in the right start group to get the views from the bridge.
In the first mile, I didn’t try too hard to keep up with the runners around me. Even still, it felt a little bit tiring on the uphill half of the bridge. On the downhill side, I felt myself speeding up. That was my fastest mile of the race, but it felt easy.
It wasn’t until the third mile that I could tell I was running too fast. My corral assignment was based on my qualifying time, so I was in a corral for runners who were expected to finish between 3:20 and 3:30. I tried to run at my own pace, but it’s easy get swept along with the dense pack of runners around you. Stopping occasionally to take pictures helped. Each time I stopped, hundreds of runners went by, so I gradually drifted back in the pack. My hope was that I would eventually be surrounded by runners who weren’t going too fast. Even still, I averaged about 8:30 per mile all through Brooklyn.
There isn’t any room for spectators on the bridge. As we left the bridge, we were greeted by spectators in Brooklyn. Most of the spectators in Brooklyn are local residents, and they have pride not just in their city, but in their neighborhood.
Each start group has a different route as we leave the bridge. Because we were using different sides and levels of the bridge, each group followed a different ramp off the bridge. Now that I’ve been in all three start groups, I’ve run every possible route.
Midway through the third mile, we merged with the runners from the blue start group. I never noticed when we were joined by the runners from the green start.
Running through Brooklyn, you go through several different neighborhoods, and they each have their own character.
The first time I did this race, there were high school bands performing for us in Brooklyn. Now, the race sponsors entertainment zones, where there are local rock bands performing.
Running through Brooklyn, I bumped into my friend Karl. This is Karl’s favorite race, and he frequently runs it in costume. This year, he was dressed as the Joker. (Excuse the blurry photo. We were both running.)
The halfway point is on the Pulaski Bridge, which is also where we left Brooklyn and entered Queens. I reached the halfway point in 1:51:28, which easily put me on pace to break four hours, even if I slowed down in the second half.
Running through Queens, I could see the top of the Queensboro Bridge over the trees. There were a few sharp turns, and for the first time in the race, it got congested enough to make me slow down. That was just as well. I needed to conserve energy for the bridge.
The course is only in Queens for a couple of miles before turning onto the ramp to the Queensboro Bridge. When I did this race in 1989, we ran on the outside of the bridge, and they put carpet over the steel grate to make it more comfortable for running. Now we run in the traffic lanes.
The bridge is a long gradual hill. I was mostly keeping pace with the runners around me, but everyone slowed down on the bridge. I stopped twice to take pictures of the Manhattan skyline.
Running on the bridge, I felt hot for the first time. Fortunately, it was only while I was climbing.
As I began descending, I crossed over First Avenue. The bridge continues for another block before a quick U-turn onto the ramp to 59th Street. Then I turned left onto First Avenue and ran under the bridge. As I crossed 60h Street, I saw the huge crowds on both sides of the street.
Most runners who travel to New York for this race stay in Manhattan. It’s pretty easy for family members to get over to First Avenue to cheer for their runners. Then they have a short walk over to Fifth Avenue or Central Park to see them again later in the race. That makes this the most popular viewing area for spectators. People were lined up at least five rows deep behind the barricades. The first time I did this race, I found the crowd noise here to be overwhelming.
Running north on First Avenue, the course is relatively flat. After two slow miles on the bridge, I picked up my pace again. With 10 miles to go and the largest bridges behind me, I wasn’t as worried about conserving energy.
As I continued north on First Avenue, I started looking up at all the high-rise apartment buildings on either side of the street. The crowds eventually thinned out, but there was lots of music. In addition to the bands at the entertainment zones, there were also at least two high school bands.
We ran up First Avenue all the way to 125th Street. Then we crossed the Willis Avenue Bridge into the Bronx. The bridge is a small hill, and I had to slow down. I could no longer sustain the fast pace I had on First Avenue.
The crowds here weren’t as thick, because they were mostly local residents. These spectators always seem to have a sense of humor. I’ll always remember a story from another runner who was part of our group in 1989. He had a bad knee, so he was walking at this point in the race. A spectator yelled, “You can walk here, but you better run when you get to Harlem.” Harlem and the south Bronx each have reputations as rough neighborhoods, but there are no bad neighborhoods on race day. Another friend who used to live in New York has described this race as the world’s largest block party.
At the 20 mile mark, I saw that I slowed down again. So far, I had only four miles that were slower than nine minutes. Each one included a bridge. New York doesn’t have hills; it has bridges. Those are the only big hills.
As I was almost out of The Bronx, a spectator yelled, “Cross the bridge. Get out of the Bronx.” I turned a corner and saw signs for the Madison Avenue Bridge, which would take us back into Manhattan.
It was a relief to be done with the bridges, but I felt like I was running out of gas. When I got to the 35K sign, I realized I missed the 21 mile sign. After a couple turns, I saw the sign for 22 miles. A quick look at my watch confirmed I was now taking just over nine minutes per mile. I suspected that would be my pace for the rest of the race. That’s OK. I was easily going to break four hours, and that was my only time goal.
As we turned onto Fifth Avenue, the next street I crossed was 119th. I knew the south end of Central Park is at 59th Street, so I had to run south for another 60 blocks.
Manhattan is laid out in a grid, but the streets running from east to west have long blocks, and the streets running from north to south have short blocks. The 60 blocks to Central Park South were short blocks. They went by surprisingly fast.
For now, we were still in South Harlem, but we were getting closer to Central Park.
Fifth Avenue was flatter than I remembered. In past years, it always seemed like it was all uphill. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t blowing up this year. I was going a little slower, but I still felt good.
Just past the 23 mile mark, we entered Central Park. The first time I did this race, the course was different. We used to enter the park farther north, and there was a big hill. As we ran through the southeast corner of the park, the terrain was slightly rolling, but there weren’t any big hills. Running through the park, I was no longer able to count down the streets, but I was surrounded by beautiful scenery.
I eventually emerged from the park and turned onto 59th Street. I had to run three blocks along the southern edge of the park. These were long blocks. I was tired now, but kept up with the runners around me.
When I got to Columbus Circle, I made the last turn to re-enter the park. Deb and I had walked this section on Saturday, so it was fresh in my mind. I had about 600 meters to go, but there was still a small hill.
With about 500 meters to go, I started to pass the flags. I think they had the flags of every nation that was represented by at least one runner.
With 200 meters to go, I could finally see the finish line. I ran to the line and finished in 3:48:44. That’s not bad when you consider I stopped about 20 times to take pictures.
You have to walk a long way to exit the park. The finish line announcer reminded us to keep moving, because there were still 40,000 runners behind us, and they don’t want to have a traffic jam at the finish line.
Because I opted not to check a gear bag, I was able to take the shortest route out of Central Park. Even still, I had to walk about a mile before I got to the nearest subway station. Runners without gear bags all received fleece-lined ponchos to help us stay warm as we walked home.
Because of the relatively late start time, it was already mid-afternoon when I got back to the hotel. While I was running, Deb went out to see what street vendors near the hotel were selling. She also found a gelato shop.
For my post-race dinner, I went to B Side Pizza Bar. There are more than 900 pizzerias in New York. I’m not sure if that includes all the Italian restaurants that serve pizza. In four days, I had pizza four times. If I want to try them all, I’ll have to spend a few years in this city. Sadly, this was my last night in New York.
After dinner, I stopped by an Irish pub for a post-race celebration by runners who are running all the World Marathon Majors.
This was my fourth marathon in five weeks, and they were all faster than four hours. During the summer, I wasn’t doing enough long training runs. Now I feel like I’m doing enough races to get more consistent.
Distance: 26.2 miles
Average Pace: 8:43
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras: 361
World Marathon Majors: 17