Is it really that big? Yes, it is.
38,000 entrants (over 88,000 applicants)
100 Live Bands on the race route
2 Million spectators
25,000 gallons of Gatorade
42,000 packets of Power Gel
25 Medical Aid stations
78 UPS trucks transporting runners’ gear from the Start to the Finish
It’s the ING New York Freakin’ City Marathon, and its all that its cracked up to be.
New York Public Library
I’ve just walked a little over a mile down Third Avenue in the darkness, passing drunks and fellow runners while the familiar light of the Empire State Building looms above. Its a good walk to remove the jitters, and since I’m not running for another 4 hours it won’t make a wit of difference to how I feel come Starting Time. As races go, this one starts really late, but logistically it probably can’t go down any other way.
I come up over the ridge beyond Grand Central at Sixth avenue and its like I’m in a different country…there are charter buses humming loudly, three wide and a mile deep, all separated by pink road flares. How can we organize a marathon like this but the people of New Orleans can’t get out of the path of a hurricane? It’s perplexing. We are herded down the block into makeshift chutes of police tape and orange traffic barrels, showing our race numbers while volunteers push up forward and (finally) onto our bus. I usually travel light—my race gear and some outerwear, but others look like they’re going to be camping out for a few days. Sleeping bags? Is that really necessary? I am sitting next to a man from Germany and behind me a woman from Houston chats with a man from Puerto Rico. I try to close my eyes and relax but the bus lurches into action and we’re off through the fog and darkness. The bus is quiet until we pass the Brooklyn Bridge; its lights ominous and majestic. Suddenly the International contingent starts to chatter and come alive. It feels like I’m the only American on board, and with good reason: over 1/3 of the participants in today’s race will be from another country. Some estimate this year that figure could be close to ½.
Staten Island, Fort Wadsworth
We’re shuttled into three ‘camps’ – green, orange and blue. I’m in blue, the Alberto Salazar Village. We’re a good half-mile from the starting point and makeshift fencing and army barracks make us feel like it’s really the Alberto Salazar Refugee Camp, but so be it. I couldn’t find a paper to read before boarding the bus and there’s only so much breakfast (bagels, coffee, smoothies, Power Bars) you can eat before it becomes counter-productive. I find a nice spot of curb and suddenly those sleeping bags don’t seem like such a bad idea now.
As luck would have it, I start up a conversation with a cynical Manhattan native and a hard-core runner named Brian from San Diego who’s hoping to finish in about 2 hrs 30 mins. Paul (from Manhattan) and I discuss strategy with Brian like he’s some kind of exotic. He wears two watches…one to monitor his heart rate, and the other to monitor his split times. If you’re gonna wear two watches, you better ‘walk the walk’. Brian is # 727, so apparently, yeah, he walks the walk. Paul and I make fun of people wandering by for a good hour or more, just passing the time. (Hey, we’re poking fun at ourselves as well. There’s precious little else to do.) I learn that this is one of the largest party days of the year on Manhattan and that the bars on First Avenue are already open, filling up with people who will be sipping a Bloody Mary or, more likely, slamming beer and cheering us on as the race pushes into Manhattan later this morning. I spend a few minutes lurking by the First Aid booth, popping a couple pre-race Tylenol in the vain hope that it will help later on and steal some salt packets. I don’t eat the packets now, which will turn out to be a mistake later on. Several men are dabbing themselves in key regions with tongue depressors covered in Vaseline. The truth is, running can be a pretty damn ugly sport. And the last thing you want to see on a Sunday morning is some guy swabbing himself with petroleum products. Ahh, the glory of the long distance runner.
The Start, Mile 1 & 2:
A huge cannon blast signals the start of the race…but I’m so far back I won’t reach The Verrazano Narrows bridge for another five minutes. The Verrazano is one of the great bridges in America…almost two miles in length, broken by two spans that dominate the skyline. The fog is lifting and we can see the fireboats out in the bay, spraying long arcs of water. In the distance you can sort of make out Manhattan, and there is electricity in the air as we start the grind. The bridges are actually some of the steepest elevations. The Verrazano is the highest point of the course, and we’re at about a 4% grade for the first mile. We’re all so excited nobody really notices, but let me tell you, it all adds up. And anybody who tells you New York is flat can go screw themselves, this is going to be one hilly course. Around me, again, I’m taken aback by the number of international participants … I’ve seen Ecuadorians, Germans, Italians, Swedes, Norwegians, English, Scots running in kilts and apparently half of Holland is here.
Yo! Welcome To Brooklyn! At least, that’s what the sign says… as we exit the bridge and begin the long crawl through Beastie Boys country. I’m running by a guy from Liverpool England who has ‘Vinny’ scrawled across his shirt, much to the delight of the locals who will gladly belt out “Run, Vinny, Run!” Its hilarious. And if his name is Vinny, my name is Raul.
I’m starting to sweat and its getting hot. (This is called foreshadowing, for those keeping score at home.) I could use some more of that cloud cover but its not gonna happen today- we’ll be out baking in the sun. I was hoping for much cooler weather, but this is still better than freezing rain.
We’re trekking down Fourth Avenue, one of the longest thoroughfares in Brooklyn, passing through Latino neighborhoods, strange ‘transitional’ blocks and African-American outposts. People are three and four deep on the sidewalks. Choirs are out signing on church steps (it is Sunday after all) and there is a live band literally every other block. I spot my favorite billboard of the day: A giant Asics billboard that says “It’s the last 0.2 that gets you.” Finally the giant bank that signals downtown Brooklyn comes into view and I know we’ll be turning up into Williamsburg soon. The miles are starting to peel off fairly comfortably, but only a sucker would think about anything too far down the road. I’ve just seen the best t-shirt of the day so far, a young woman who wrote “I Hope I Don’t Sh*t Myself” on the back. I’m thinking “Lady, I hope you don’t either…” and wondering how many times she’ll hear THAT line today.
The Hasidic men are out on curbs and corners and, I can’t make this up, I just passed a gas station with a thrash-rock band playing and two Hasidic Jews were perched atop the gas pump ‘island’ bobbing their heads. Only in New York. We’re rolling through Bedford Avenue, the heart of Williamsburg and it reminds me a lot of Bucktown / Wicker Park in Chicago before it became super gentrified. We pass McCarren Park that signals the start of the Polish neighborhood at Brooklyn’s northern tip. Soon we’ll pass over the Pulaski Bridge, which will provide another little uphill test and a beautiful view of Manhattan
Miles 14 -15:
There is no two ways about it, this part of the course stinks. Queens is never very pretty, but we’re slogging through some industrial looking areas and I’m using the Queensboro Bridge as a magnet to pull me forward. We’ve been out here almost two hours by now and the heat and pounding are starting to take their toll. My body usually starts to revolt at this point but I’m happy so far. Still, the Queensborough Bridge will be the second highest point of the marathon and the real drama will start when we hit Manhattan.
We come off the bridge and the roar is ‘everything and then some’. People are five or six deep, yelling and cheering. It’s a plunge straight up First Avenue through the throngs. Its not an exaggeration, the noise is so loud you can’t hear anything but your pulse, pounding through your head. Its really warm out now, and the 2+ hours on the pavement is taking its toll. I think the only comparable ‘sporting’ correlary would be the Tour De France ending on the Champs Elysees. There are people everywhere, you’re on a famous boulevard, and the spectacle is off the charts.
I never thought I’d be excited to see someone waiting for me with saturated Sponge Bob Square Pants sponges, but they feel really good. Running through the ‘sponge zone’ is bizarre, all these little foamy Bobs lying tramped on the ground. I remember Paul lamenting that if they were going to have sponges, the least they could do for us is have pretty girls. Ahem. I remember the salt packets now! Too late. Fishing through my pocket, I pick out some soggy bits of paper and no salt. The only way I’m getting that salt now is by taking off my shorts and sucking on the pocket (maybe not an uncommon sight on First Avenue, but I’m not going there today). Ugh.
My legs are starting to cramp, but I’m running through it as we plod north. I keep hoping the Gatorade and gels will replace the missing glycogen, but we’ll see. Harlem will give way to the Wills Avenue Bridge and the Bronx in just a few minutes.
The Bronx! We’re here. Although, I was promised a shot of Yankee Stadium. There is no Yankee Stadium. And I’m pissed. You come this far, you would THINK you wouldn’t miss it. Anyway…I’m taking inventory of how I feel (it is Mile 20 after all, aka The Wall)…and aside from these cramps, I feel pretty good. That is a sure sign Hell is right around the corner. Ahead of me, the most preposterous thing I’ve witnessed today is unfolding. Two guys are starting to scuffle- one is accusing another of trying to trip him on purpose! I can hardly believe it, and as I run by they start shoving each other… f*ck you, you owe me an apology! The f*ck I do pal, you’re wrong. And suddenly, from the third floor of an apartment building, a voice bellows “Stick and move! Stick and move!” This keeps me laughing for an entire block. A classic New York moment.
Someone offers me a banana from the roadside, and 50 yards down another group is giving out pretzels. I’m flat-out hungry and in need of salt, so this is a godsend. I know you’re not supposed to take gifts from strangers, especially if you’re a white guy in the Bronx, but on this particular Sunday I’m gonna bend the rules a little.
Oh. Dear. Remember what I said about a mile back? I just took my last gel packet to get me to the end, but those cramps have now turned to spasms and I’m getting a little edgy. I pull over by a tree and look down to see my quad muscle knotting itself like a fist underneath my skin… pulsing, winding and unwinding. This is not helpful. So for a solid minute or two I stretch and stretch. This kills any inertia I had left. From now on in, its going to be a mammoth struggle.
We’re back in Harlem, heading south toward Central Park. If I can get to the Park, I know I’ll be in the last segment of the race and mentally that’s a bit of a lift, but right now its just that odd, soft afternoon light and several thousand people around me looking like death warmed over. Nobody is having fun now. We’re passing through some old three and four flats that look astonishing, and they sit right next to similar flats that look like they are rats’ dens. It’s a bit odd. On another day, it would interesting to stop and see what those suckers cost to rent. As you can tell, I’m thinking of anything to take my mind off my legs. But its not working, and its time to stretch again.
We’ve hit Central Park! We’re at 110th…and I’ve only got about 30 blocks to go before the race turns down into the actual park from Fifth Avenue and winds through the last couple miles. Its clear, however, that we’re heading uphill again. Brutal. The light is lower now, and we’re running past the Met and the Guggenheim. There are people EVERYWHERE watching this from the roadside. Its astonishing. In fact, there are too many people…there’s no place to stop and stretch.
We’re now winding through the park, up and down its labyrinth of paths, and its taking every bit of steam I have to keep going. The spasms are just going to stay with me now, like an unwanted house guest. Hitting that ‘Mile 25’ marker is a great feeling. Someone yells “one mile to go!” and I laugh, thinking of the Asics billboard back in Brooklyn. Never forget that 0.2 at the end.
We’re out of the park proper and running up the last big climb, Central Park South, just north of 59th Street. The Plaza hotel is being renovated so its dark and covered in scaffolding as I go by, which is really strange. How can the Plaza be closed? Uh, yes, I’m dying out here…and the stoplight at Columbus Circle that would indicate the final 500 yards just won’t come soon enough. It sits in the distance and teases me.
.02 and The Finish
We round Columbus Circle, past grandstands and television staging areas and enter the park again for one last haul uphill to the finish. Finally, I’m here. I don’t feel like vomiting, though some people around me are doing just that. My legs survived, and I feel like crying, the whole thing is such a relief to be done with…but if you come this far, the last thing you want to do is start crying. You want to cross that last yard with a grin or some steely determination. And that’s the way it ends. Its an out of body experience, that great final exhalation. Time for a medal, a heatsheet, and a shower, in that order. But first It will take almost 45 minutes to get through the photos, the feeding zone and the staging areas back out onto the streets. There isn’t any noise now…its just the sound of thousands of runners alone with their thoughts, utterly spent, in a zone that can’t be effectively described in words. Eventually we’re spit back out into Manhattan near Strawberry Fields, and the chaos comes alive… thousands of well-wishers, the phalanx of UPS gear trucks, police sirens and more. I’m standing the middle of Manhattan wearing a foil blanket and I look like I’ve been through a war. I wouldn’t want it any other way…