I was grumpy in the weeks leading up to NYC. Sarah Lamb and I had decided to run it years ago, but it’s not easy to get in because so many people want to run. We entered the lottery for three years ($11 each year) and received an automatic entry for the fourth year ($266 – the actual race fee is an astonishing$255). Hurricane Sandy pre-empted the 2012 race, and we were given the option of a full refund or guaranteed entry for 2013, 2014 or 2015. With a full refund on the table, I expected to run in 2013 for the price of the $11 registration fee. Nope – they hit us for another $255, explaining that “We already spent all the money last year.” Right.
I was undertrained for a variety of reasons (they boil down to one thing – I hadn’t run a lot), but I’d had a good outing on September 1 at the 18.12 Challenge from Watertown to Sacket’s Harbor. 26.2 isn’t that much farther; after all, I’m a veteran marathoner (that’s what Bill Rodgers wrote on the Philadelphia Marathon poster hanging next to my desk. I’ll take his word for it.) Sarah had invited Sue Kolb and Meg Sterling to crew for us. It was a great decision – the weekend would have been far more arduous without their unquestioning, tireless and cheerful support.
The NYC Marathon has a mythology that surrounds it, much of which is hyperbole. For example, it’s been written and repeated that every foot of the course is filled with spectators three deep on both sides of the road. It’s not true. There are many, many spectators, but there are a lot of bald spots. (I liked those, because there wasn’t the constant pressure to KEEP IT UP. You feel indebted to the crowd.) The marathon is often described as a five-borough tour of the city, which is also exaggerated. You see the tiniest bit of Staten Island and the Bronx, nothing impressive in Queens, a decent stretch of Brooklyn and two sections of Manhattan. There are certainly nice vistas every once in a while, but Philly and even Buffalo offer more scenic variety in their marathons (and they don’t smell as bad.)
I loved hearing dozens of languages and being close to runners from around the world – an intimate international experience.
Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn (miles 2-8) was magical. I was genuinely moved by the enthusiasm of the crowds, especially children, who made their cheering very, very personal. This was early in the race, when the runners were still fresh. We’d just come off the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, complete with helicopters above and hovering beside (awesome and disconcerting). The smiling faces made me feel very welcome, and when people shouted, “Welcome to Brooklyn” and “We’re proud of you,” I believed them. Children held out their hands for high (low) fives and danced when they got one. I lost count of the hands I slapped around 300 – it was wonderful.
The Queensboro Bridge (miles 15-16) from Queens into Manhattan was comparatively quiet and dark. We were on the lower level and there were no spectators. As we approached the other side, a noise like a giant waterfall became louder and louder. It was incredible to descend into the largest crowd yet, bigger than the finish line at most races.
Entering Central Park at mile 24 was definitely a highlight. The autumn colors, with sun dappling through the leaves, in the best city park for running anywhere (I’ve run 5-mile laps there on various occasions.)
Large marathons are really three separate events. There’s the marathon to get to the start, the race itself, and finally the marathon that begins at the finish line. We’d gotten up at 4:30 am, taken a cab to the Staten Island Ferry, crossed the water and then rode a bus to Fort Wadsworth. All of this came with security checkpoints (well run) and long lines. We arrived near the start at 7:00 am and wouldn’t run until 10:05. So we hunkered down under blankets (thank you Sue!) which would be left for Goodwill to pick up later. Once we crossed the finish line, we walked in a queue that trudged north and then back south – another 45 minutes. When we finally emerged into the city it seemed that every cab, bus and subway was full – after an aborted attempt at the underground we ended up walking back to Grand Central to catch the train north. Important point: still no shower. Finally arrived at a friend’s house around 8:00 pm to freshen up. Home at 12:30 am.
The Hasidic Williamsburg section of the race course (mile 10) is often mentioned as surreal, and it lives up to the description. Crossing into the Jewish Orthodox Satmar community is like entering a different country, where the natives are at best indifferent and sometimes passively hostile. Bearded men would lift the police barrier tape and cross the street as if nobody was running toward them, forcing runners to swerve (not always easy in the crowded raceway.) It reminded me of the worst thing about religion – a group of people who have decided that God favors them above all others, and so have dispensation to treat the rest of us poorly. What God condones that? The single voice of support came from a giant NYC cop who seemed determined to make up for the lack of crowd noise entirely on his own (charming and appreciated). Grace note: I’ve seen pictures of children in this neighborhood passing out candy to runners, so maybe there is hope.
There’s no way around this: runners are slobs, especially in large groups. At the start, we were instructed to leave our clothing and blankets in labeled bins. Instead, people dropped their stuff wherever they were, including all along the race course. Food wrappers, banana peels (slippery!), cups – all strewn everywhere for someone else to retrieve. Often runners will down half a cup of Gatorade and toss the rest; many thought it was fine to toss their leftover from the middle of the street toward the side, without care for who got splashed on the way. I prefer the Can Lake 50, where my family has run an aid station for years. The runners say “thank you” and they use the garbage bins.
For those who are considering the NYC Marathon, here are two pieces of advice I haven’t seen elsewhere: 1) Carry a small roll of toilet paper with you, because it’s likely your port-a-john will be out; 2) Don’t try to leave town after the race. Stay on the Upper West Side so you can get back to your room. (And of course, see if Sue Kolb and Meg Sterling will crew for you.)
The bottom line is that NYC is the marathon most people have heard of. It’s the one people ask you about when they find out you’re a runner. It’s the one other runners invariably say you MUST run: “You don’t know what you’re missing.” Well, I’m glad I did it. And I will be glad to never do it again.