What It’s Like Running in the NYC Marathon
Today I ran my first marathon. The TCS NYC Marathon snakes its way through all 5 boroughs of the most diverse City in the world. So what’s it like? Let me start from the beginning…
Professional runners from around the world come to New York City for this race. You can qualify for a coveted spot by running a super fast time, about 3 hours for the younger age divisions. This was not me.
You can donate and/or fundraise for charity and earn a spot through them. Usually this costs about $2,500 on average, so if you can generate or raise that much cash, you can probably get in. This was not me.
You can run 9 qualifying NYRR races and volunteer for one in the preceding year. This was not me.
You can apply for a random lottery, where only about 1 in 5 are lucky enough to get an entry. This was me!
Before even starting I felt very lucky to be there, like I was part of some special club and would be running with the best of the best. This drove me to push harder during training and during the race as I did not want my lucky entry to be filled up by some slacker… I wanted to fill the entry with a cold hard running machine.!
To train, I used the virtual “Coach” in the Nike+ Running App and it was incredibly helpful. Based on a few input variables, it set a 6 month training schedule for me filled with runs, cross training, rests and more. It mapped my runs, allowed for variance, and gave tips on improvement. Highly recommended.
When I started training, the longest I had ever done was a half-marathon of 13.1 miles. At the time, this was a huge deal for me, working my way up from 5k to 10k, 10k to 10mi, 10mi to 13.1mi. Looking back now, I eat 1/2 marathons for breakfast! The Nike app really helped me get in shape, but I suspect there are many like it.
My training consisted of 4 or 5 runs a week. Usually a Monday warmup of 4 or 5 miles, a slightly longer workout run on Tuesday of about 7 to 9, cross-train on Wednesday, a shorter 4 or 5 Thursday, and a longer run on the weekend which increased as I got closer to raceday. I rarely skipped a day of running… until I injured myself.
Once I started to regularly run 14 and 15 mile training runs on the weekend, I started getting this soreness in my upper quad, hip area. At first, I thought it was simply the soreness that comes with running long distances and I ignored it, pushing on and running farther and faster through training.
When the pain got worse, I used some naproxen sodium to help. I stopped walking on my treadmill desk as much to try and give it some rest, and I pounded my way through the pain on the longer runs.
Eventually, with about 6 weeks left before raceday, and while on an 18mi run, I got to the point where I could not lift my leg an inch without pain. I tried massaging, heat, ice… nothing worked. The reason why nothing alleviated the pain was that the muscle I had injured was my iliopsoas, a group of muscles which connect from the base of your spine, over/around your hip and to the top of your femur. They are the primary lifting mechanism in your leg.
The iliopsoas run under the quads and surface muscles so can’t be remedied by icing your leg and groin. The only recourse was total rest, a runner’s worst nightmare.
I was sidelined. Wanting to ensure I made it for the big race, I sat myself out with no running and no treadmill desk walking 6 weeks. I figured, my training thus far would have to suffice, and if I was in a little pain in the Marathon, then so be it.
In reality, it only took me about 4 weeks to get to a place where I could run again. 2 weeks out, I went on a 4 mile run and it was a little tight. I followed it with some two-hand touch football in Prospect Park the day after for cross training, and decided to take another week.
With only one week before the marathon, I set out to run a 13.1mi litmus test. If I was in too much pain to run, I would sideline myself and defer to next year. Lo and behold, that extra week gave my leg all it needed to heal and I was feeling great! I would say about 95% back to normal. I decided to run.
In this last week of training, I ran a few more times, a 5 miler on Monday, a 9 on Tuesday, a 5 on Wednesday, and a 2 mile warmup on Saturday, the day before the race.
Race Week Preparation
I made sure I got a TON of sleep for the 7 days preceding the Marathon. I took 2 5g melatonin every night at 9pm, went to bed around 10 each night, then work at 7am every morning. 9 hours a sleep for a week really makes you feel like you can conquer the world.
Each day I made sure I drank at least 2 canteens full of water. I avoided salty and dehydrating foods the best I could, I limited my portion sizes and got into routines of small, energy boosting snack bites, emulating what I would have during race day.
Most importantly, I quit drinking for the month of October. Living in NYC and being the social butterfly that I am, this was quite tough, but necessary for both my healing and ensuring my body was tuned up before the race. This meant skipping birthday celebrations, avoiding parties, and not going out on Halloween – the day before the run.
Race Day Preparation
The stars aligned and Daylight Saving Time ended the night before the race, giving all runners an extra hour of sleep! For me, I still only slept 9 hours though, as nerves and habit roused me from my bed around 6:00 am.
I immediately drank a cup of coffee and a canteen of water. Ate a banana, a hard-boiled egg and a Clif bar as per my routine, went to see a man about a horse, waled on my treadmill for 2 miles to warm up, then set out downtown to catch the Staten Island Ferry.
At 7:40, I took the 4 Express from Union Square where about 50 other runners were on the platform with me. When the subway car pulled up, the entire train was jam packed with runners, and the scope of what I was about to do finally hit me.
I started to get nervous, worrying about my injury and whether I would be ok, wondering if I had eaten enough, wondering if I overexerted myself on the 2 mile warmup walk that morning, wondering if I would freeze with all the waiting around before the race and my start time at 10:40.
This feeling intensified as I got to the Ferry Terminal, where the room was packed shoulder to shoulder with runners, all pushing and crowding towards the door. Once on the boat though, I was able to get a seat, calm myself, and get into a proper mental state.
Off the ferry, thousands of runners were corralled into lines and buses, wehere we drove to the Staten Island base of the Verrazano bridge. The bus ride took FOREVER, or at least it felt like it. By the time we got there, got off the bus, walked through security and get into the starting village, it had been 2.5 hours since I left Union Square, 10:10am.
My race time was at 10:40 so there wasn’t much time for anything other than a quick pee, a quick stretch, then a walk into the final corral. There was no turning back now, I was going to run this Marathon.
Miles 1 - 2 (Staten Island)
There isn’t much race on Staten Island at all, only the Verrazano Bridge. The starting cannon went off and all runners bolted up the incline of the bridge.
After the loudspeakers at the starting line were out of earshot, the bridge was eerily quiet. You would expect thousands of runners to make more sound, but all I could hear was the wind, the helicopters and the occasional passing police car on the other side of the bridge traffic divider. I started my audiobook and started to get in my groove.
Remembering the wise words of past runners, I decided to try and take it slow here, conservative in my pace for the beginning of the race while adrenaline was high. Unfortunately I failed.
I took off with about a 7 min pace, correcting myself to a 7:15, then a 7:30 near the apex of the bridge, then the downhill brought my avg pace back up to to about 7:30 by the end of the bridge. So much for starting off slow. I forcefully slowed myself down to my goal 8:00 pace.
Miles 3 - 13.1 (Brooklyn)
Traditionally the fastest part of the race for marathon runners, fresh legs combined with a mostly flat topography led me to a good time throughout the 11 miles or so through this borough.
After getting off the Verrazano Bridge onto the maze of on-ramps and off-ramps, the crowd here was pretty sparse. I had no idea at the time what was up ahead, but I remember thinking “shouldn’t there be more people watching the race…?”
Winding through Fort Hamilton and Bay Ridge, the crowds started getting a little more dense, passing out paper towels, water, candy, bananas… I had no idea this would happen. I was pumped! I high-fived about 100 kids around this part of BK, thanked people for kindness, ate, drank, and yelled and cheered us all on collectively.
It was here where I started to notice a problem with the crowd though… more on this below.
I met up with my lovely supportive wife around mile 7, gave her a big kiss and told her I loved her, then moved on throughout the rest of BK.
By the time I went through Sunset park, Gowanus and Boerum Hill I was slowing down a tad from my 8:00 pace, but still feeling good in legs, feeling the crowd, and thinking all looked good for my goal of a 3:30 finish.
Somewhere around Barclays Center I slowed down a bit more, which was fine and expected, but the slight hills in Clinton Hill gave me a bit of a challenge. I started drinking more gatorade and water at each stop, which helped me get efficiently to the half-way point on the Pulaski Bridge between Brooklyn and Queens with good time, finishing the 1/2 marathon at 1:48.
Miles 13.1 - 15 (Queens)
While not “the wall”, passing the halfway point is a bit tough for marathoners because you realize that you have to run the entire distance you just covered one more time. I was prepared for this from my training, so it didn’t affect me that bad, but here I started noticing several more walkers throughout.
My fellow runners seemed a bit tired, water breaks became walking breaks, and there was more congestion on the road. More poeple were drinking more gatorade and using more Gu packets, so the ground was perpetually sticky near the mile markers and water stations.
I was able to run through most of this stretch, but I did stop and take my fist walking break for a minute or so in Queens.
As I ran through LIC and got closer and closer to the massive Queensboro Bridge, I began to dread the thought of climbing its incline, but I pushed onward and upward.
I was able to run up the bridge almost the entire way, but did stop and walk for about 30 seconds near the top. It was so serene, so quiet up there, with the wind cooling me off, the views spectacular and the downhill portion a godsend for my legs.
Miles 16 - 19 (Manhattan, Stretch 1)
Immediately off the bridge I hit the porta-potty, relieving myself of all the extra gatorade and water I had earlier. The UES stretch of Manhattan along 1st Avenue had the biggest crowd thus far, with their roar giving a much needed boost around miles 16 and 17.
It was around here where I hit “the wall”, with my legs starting to cramp up and randomly seize, with an endless 1st Avenue ahead of me, with the knowledge that I was running farther away from the finish line only a few blocks west. I ended up stopping several times in this section to stretch my legs, hoping to stop the cramping and seizing, and hoping to find my motivation to continue.
I think I spent most of my time in this stretch focusing on my body, my pain and my mental state that I don’t really remember much of it at all. All I can remember is that 1st Avenue seemed like the widest, longest road I have ever seen.
Miles 19 - 21 (The Bronx)
The crowd died down a bit in the Bronx for some reason, and our course path took us along a ton of concrete and brick. There didn’t seem to be any trees, any landmarks, anything to take my mind of the pain in my legs here. Just a concrete reminder of my legs hitting the pavement on every step. Of course, a review of the video above shows this is not true, it’s only what I remember.
Around mile 20 I noticed my GoPro camera had exhausted its battery, and I could relate. I had passed “the wall” and kept telling myself that I was so close to finishing, but these miles felt so long to me.
I stopped worrying about my pace around here and started worrying that I might not finish.
Miles 21 - 23 (Manhattan)
Alas, we had turned the corner and were finally headed back towards the finish line, back South through Harlem and into the park. This was enough to get me going in the beginning of this stretch, but after hitting 125th street and heading south down 5th Avenue, the seemingly endless hill in front of me was quite mentally defeating.
It was also physically defeating as around here my muscles seized up all over, with one cramping up after another, after another. I had muscles seize up that I wan’t even using! Like the back of my neck and my forearms, and of course, every muscle in my legs.
I would run a couple hundred steps then one of my calfs would decide it was gonna stop working, so I hobbled for a second until I could loosen it up. Then I would run another couple hundred steps and the same thing would happen with one of my quads.
This pattern continued over and over until I altered my running style to be more reminiscent of a zombie than a runner! This meant less leg lift, more of a sideways ice-skating-like rhythm, and letting my arms hang down to prevent arm cramps. Once I realized that I could run this way, working my muscles a little differently than before, it let me run without stopping as much and helped me get through this tough uphill section of 5th Avenue.
Miles 23.2 - 26.2 (Central Park)
Finally reaching the top of the hill, we turned off of 5th Avenue and into Central Park. The crowd here was huge, though I couldn’t hear them at all. My entire mental focus was on finishing this race. Luckily, the mental game wasn’t as tough as I had expected.
Central Park is familiar territory for me as I have ran the Central Park loop dozens of time this past year for races and practice runs. It gave me the mental strength to carry on knowing that I have ran this pavement before, that there were no surprises, and that I was close to the finish line.
Even though I was mentally set to finish this race, my legs had different ideas. Zombie running no longer helped so I jumped back into my normal stride, albeit at a snail’s pace. I alternated between walking 50 steps and running 500, with my muscles cramping and seizing perpetually. I had come too far to quit, so I forced my body through the pain, probably doing some damage to my legs in the process.
My “running” was so slow that it took me about 35 minutes to finish the last 3 miles. I started yelling randomly, cursing the tiny Central Park hills, picturing my obligatory post-run pizza… anything to get me through the leg pain. It’s all a bit of a blur, but the crowds were so massive here, photographers and camera crews every few feet, hundreds of runners all around me not stopping for that final stretch, so I just went for it, not stopping my hobble at all over the last 1/2 mile.
The Finish Line
Then I turned north up the West side of the park and I could see the finish line. I started to tear up from both pain and emotion. The crowd was roaring, the music was bumping and the end was in sight. There was one tiny hill before the finish – an anthill sized one I would never normally call a hill – but it was enough to prompt a loud “FUCK YOU HILL” out at the top of my lungs.
All the runners within earshot started laughing and we each turned it up one notch to pass the finish line with slightly less of a hobble than before.
Then it was over. That was it. The medal, the post run-bag, the pain… it’s all I can remember, and it’s a feeling I won’t soon forget. The pride of my accomplishment, the support from my family and friends pouring in over text messages and facebook, the push notification from NYRR congratulating me on my finish.
After 4 hours and 2 minutes of running throughout the city I love, my joy and pain combined into tears of both as I limped my way through the long post-run corrals.
The NYRR has the course setup such that post-run you have to walk about a mile and half just to get out, and I was cursing them for it. In hindsight, it’s probably the best way to prevent muscle injury, but all I wanted was to get home and eat a pizza or three.
I didn’t check a bag so I was able to exit around 77th street, then make my way to the exit – all the way down on Columbus Circle. Somehow I walked down there, then the extra few blocks to the Q and made my way home on the Subway. Naturally, I was worried about this happening:
…but it didn’t. I got home to a sleeping Wife (night shift in the ER sucks) who made me an amazing celebratory banner and gift basket full of all my favorite edible goodies.
I took a blistering hot bath, drank a ton of fluid, ate a bunch of carbs and napped. It was an amazing day. There is only one thing I would change for next year, as I alluded to earlier…
The crowd was amazing. So supportive, so energizing and so kind throughout the entire marathon. There were volunteer musicians, bands, drummers, and people playing loud music off their stoops. There was the roaring of the cheers, coming in swells as I passed major intersections and landmarks.
In the beginning, this really fueled me along. I wore a headband with my name on it so people would call me out by name, looking me in the eye and cheering just for me! It really got me through the first 10 miles or so, but then stopped being as effective. I think it was sensory overload or something.
The crowd already raised the bar for me, fueling me on and keeping me going in the beginning, so much so that I could not grab any further motivation from them down the line. In the future, I may do my best to ignore the crowd in the beginning so I can really draw on it later in the race.
The biggest problem I had with the crowd was no fault of theirs, but rather a training limitation of my own. When I run, I listen to audiobooks and podcasts to take my mind off of running, and immerse myself in another world. It helps me run longer and faster because I am not focusing on every single step.
The amazing, supportive crowd was so loud throughout the whole race, and the bands were playing at such a high volume that I could not hear my headphones at all. Maybe it’s a poor headphone design, or my funky ears, but I could not hear to my books, thus I could not transport myself out of body and get into my mental groove like I wanted.
Because I couldn’t hear them, I had to turn of my books completely. I thought about every step, every block, every mile. I over-analyzed my body, my legs, my hydration, my pain. Throughout Brooklyn I was already getting mentally exhausted, a dozen miles or so before it normally happens.
All in all, the crowd was amazing, but my books are also amazing so I want to be able to use both methods in future marathons.
I think there are two ways around this for next year’s race: I can either train myself to run without headphones, allowing me to get into a groove without over-analyzing everything… or I can get headphones which have a better seal to block out external noise. I will have to experiment a bit on this one.
See You November 2016
Assuming I stay healthy, I will be running again in 2016 as I fulfilled my 9+1 for guaranteed entry in next year’s race. I hope to improve upon my 4:02:53 time and break 3:30:00, and I have a full year to plan for it. For now, I am going to take a few weeks off to fully recover before getting back at it.
“You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can’t know what’s coming.”
— Rob de Castella, winner 1983 World Marathon Championships