Having been unsuccessful in the ballot I had decided to splash out and enter the New York City Marathon via a sports tour company. It’s a race I had always fancied doing and having vowed in the past to visit NYC as often as possible it had been far too long since my last trip. Luckily my friend Nicola is a massive fan of New York too and agreed to come along with me. Although the thought of spending the day trying to follow me through the streets of Manhattan didn’t fill her with joy, one single word sealed the deal. Shopping. My training through the summer had gone well up until a trip to Hawaii 8 weeks before the race where a pesky chest infection bought my progress to a grinding halt. I started to feel a bit better after a couple of weeks and tentatively began running again but my chest was nowhere near normal and was causing a lot of problems. I was still coughing all the time and was finding it difficult to breath during any sort of exercise. Long runs were an impossibility and at a time when my training plan was telling me to cover 16, 18, 20 miles I was struggling to wheeze through a mere 8 miler. This was not good. So I just did what I could, getting as many miles in the legs as I could manage but I strongly suspected it was not going to be enough. We arrived in New York on the Friday and although we’d tried to plan the Saturday with as little walking as possible involved, after a visit to the Expo to collect my number, a trip on the Circle Line Tour, heading downtown in the evening for the famous Halloween parade then some time spent trying to find a pasta restaurant for dinner, we ended up covering about 8 miles which was not ideal. But in a break from the norm I actually managed to get an okay nights sleep before the big day which I was sure would help.
My alarm woke me pretty early and after quickly getting ready I was out the door by 5.40am. We were staying in Midtown as my 6am bus to the start was departing from the New York Public Library so I didn’t have far to go. Walking through Manhattan that early in the morning is a strange and amazing experience. The streets were almost completely deserted with only the odd runner heading towards the buses. It was just such a strange, serene atmosphere and so different from the buzzing New York we are all so used to seeing. I honestly felt like I was one of the few survivors in a zombie apocalypse. I kept expecting Will Smith to show up. On arrival at the library we were sent around the block where a constant stream of people were being funnelled towards a row of coaches parked at the front. As one was filled it left for the start and an empty coach arrived to join the back of the queue. I’d met a guy called Ollie who was from England while waiting to board the bus and we ended up traveling together and chatting the whole way. The journey to Staten Island took far less time than I expected but I found it very relaxing being driven through the empty New York streets as the sun came up. On arriving at the start my feeling of being in a zombie apocalypse was intensified. A lot. We had been dropped off at what I can only describe as a survivors refugee camp. Security was tight as we were herded through metal detectors and past men with guns to have the one tiny bag of belongings we were allowed searched for contraband. Which as far as I could tell was everything apart from bananas. Poor Ollie had to ditch most of his stuff. We finally made it in and said our goodbyes and good lucks as we had been assigned to different sections. I headed into the ‘Green’ area, picked up a free bagel and coffee then found a spot on the grass to sit. I checked my watch. 6:45am … I only had just under 4 hours to kill. Although it was fairly mild for November, after a couple of hours of just sitting there I was really cold. I started to shake, my lips turned purple and my hands were frozen. I kept going to the toilet just for something to do and to try to warm up. My start time slowly creeped closer and so I slowly creeped towards my starting pen (again, just for something to do). I joined a slow moving queue and slowly made my way into the pen. Once inside we were slowly led up onto the bridge towards the start line. Christ, this was painful. I felt like I’d been through a marathon already. I found myself pretty close to the front and spotted the 4.15 pacer just behind me. Was I being a bit ambitious? Nah, I’ll just run my own race, it’ll be fine. And so a mere 5 hours after leaving my hotel room it was almost time. We just had to survive the most god awful rendition of the American National Anthem I have ever had to experience, then through bleeding ears I heard the starting gun fire. We were off!
To enable its claim to cover ‘all 5 boroughs’ the New York City Marathon begins on Staten Island. But you don’t get to see much of the area as you start on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and head straight out of the borough. The bridge has two levels and my start was on the lower, enclosed level. I imagine the view isn’t quite as good as it is up top but I could still see the Manhattan skyline across the river. It certainly didn’t look 26.2 miles away so made the task ahead feel more manageable. I read a lot about the race before hand and people were saying not to start too fast as the first bit of the bridge is uphill and can be draining. But having done a fair amount of hill training I would definitely not consider it a hill. It was a very gradual incline for almost 1.5 miles then a lovely gradual decline for another 1.5 miles. There are spectators along the entire route of the marathon except for two bridges where they are not allowed, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and the Queensboro Bridge. And this fact made the start very enjoyable for me. It just felt really calm and relaxed and as you only ever really see the people around you in these big races it just felt like a bunch of runners out for a Sunday morning jog and not a race of 50,000 people. As we came off the bridge and entered the borough of Brooklyn someone had set up some speakers and were blaring out ‘No Sleep till Brooklyn’ by the Beastie Boys. It made me smile, I was feeling great. As we came off the freeway and into residential streets the support along the route began. It felt like the start of the race and yet I already had 3 miles under my belt. Things were going well. As we turned onto 4th Avenue my mood dipped a bit. It’s a dead straight road which appears to go up very slightly meaning there were thousands and thousands of runners in view the entire time. I’m not a fan of straight roads as I don’t like seeing how far I’ve got to go and I hate seeing people so far in front of me on the course. I’m also not a fan of roads that go up and after 4.5 miles of 4th Avenue I was not feeling great. We finally took a couple of turns at the 8 mile mark and I began to hope that I’d begin feeling better. Nope. I found myself at the bottom of what I would definitely describe as a hill and I’d started to get a pretty bad pain in my chest. The next few miles were a bit of a blur. I was starting to feel tired and was fairly worried about my chest pains. I guessed we had entered Williamsburg as I started to see some of the thousands of Hasidic Jews that inhabit the area dressed in their distinctive clothing. We stayed on Bedford Avenue for a couple of miles then turned Northwards for another mile. Just before the Pulaski Bridge is the half way point and this is where I had to take my first walking break. I had never had to walk so early in a marathon before. In London I made it to 23 miles before walking and in Brighton I had a terrible time and had to walk at 18 miles. But this was a new low. I felt like I didn’t have an ounce of energy left. I was filled with disappointment and a sense of failure, my head dropped and all the enjoyment of the race left me.
As we crossed the Pulaski Bridge we left Brooklyn and entered Queens, the third borough. You only get to spend less than three miles there before heading over the Queensboro Bridge and into borough number four, Manhattan. I was due to see Nicola for the first time on 1st Avenue at around the 16 mile point and the thought of seeing a familiar face was a massive lift and kept me going. Queensboro Bridge is pretty steep so most people were walking and I took the opportunity to get my phone out and text Nic. We’d arranged for her to have my second Lucozade and an energy bar, acting like a mini aid station but I texted to say I was feeling sick and didn’t need anything from her. My nausea wasn’t helped by the guy in front of me who was throwing up onto the side of the road as he walked along for almost a mile! Great skills and meant he’d get a finish time a few minutes faster than if he’d stopped to vomit. There was an eerie silence on the bridge which was such a contrast to the previous 13 miles of almost constant cheering and clapping. But there was also a sense of camaraderie with runners starting random chants to lift everyones spirits. This was the point when I shook off my feelings of disappointment and failure. It didn’t matter what time I finished, I could walk the entire remaining distance if I wanted to, I’ve never cared about finish times … although I really didn’t want to creep into the 5 hour zone. That would not be good. On leaving the bridge and entering Manhattan you are met by a wall of sound. 1st Avenue is rammed with supporters and the noise level is amazing. Nic had texted me pretty precise directions on where she was standing but I was still stressing about not spotting her. The thought of her traveling all the way to New York and standing about for hours waiting for me to go past and then not seeing me was not good. Although I’m sure not seeing me wouldn’t have been what bothered her, it would of been the fact that she’d wasted potential shopping time. I ran along as close to the crowds as possible and was really relieved when I saw her. She was holding out a range of food and drink items including a finger of fudge incase I needed a chocolate hit but I couldn’t face any of it. At that point the only thing I could consume was water. I stopped for about 20 seconds for a brief chat then started to head up 1st Avenue. It’s another long, straight road that goes slightly up and you already know how I feel about those. But my mood had lifted since the Queensboro Bridge and even more so now that I’d seen a familiar face. New York is great in that it has water stations every single mile starting from mile 3 and so I adopted a run walk system where I would grab a water, walk for a while then try to run to the next station. Those 4 miles up 1st felt more like 8 so it was nice to finally reach (whatcha talkin’ bout) Willis Avenue Bridge. As we crossed the bridge over the Harlem River and entered the Bronx that was it, all five boroughs visited. There was great support in the borough and as we’d first come off the bridge lots of people were holding up ‘welcome to the Bronx’ signs. But after a short 1.5 mile taster of the area we were approaching Madison Avenue Bridge, our route out of the Bronx and back into Manhattan. The people at this bridge didn’t hold up signs, they shouted their messages out to us instead. They mostly consisted of the chant ‘last damn bridge!’ which was music to my ears but one woman was loudly shouting ‘get the f**k out the Bronx!’ It made everybody laugh a lot and may just be my favourite memory from the whole race!
We crossed the bridge and joined 5th Avenue, heading around Marcus Garvey Park. Shortly after, at the 23 mile mark, all the bands on the route started playing Alicia Keys songs. I knew she was running the race and thought she may be nearby, hence the musical tribute, but I didn’t spot her. About a week late, once I’d returned home I checked Alicia’s time, cross referenced it against my time, did some super complicated, Stephen Hawking style maths and concluded that we did indeed cross paths at the 23 mile mark. I bloody knew it. We continued along 5th Avenue and it started to feel like we were creeping uphill. And when I say creeping uphill I mean climbing Everest. Half way up the hill (mountain) there was a guy who’d collapsed and was flat on his back. His legs were uphill and his head downhill and the gradient of the road was so steep I feared he would slide back down to the bottom. Things eventually flattened out and at 24 miles we finally entered Central Park. This was the moment I’d been looking forward to the most. Every time I pictured myself running the New York Marathon I was in Central Park. It was the point when you knew you’d made it, the end was so close. I knew Nicola was going to head to the park after she’d seen me on 1st Avenue and I knew the rough area she would be in. Again, just the thought of seeing a friend was a massive boost and gave me the energy to keep running. I spotted her a little before the 26 mile mark after a woman enthusiastically waving got the hell out of the way and she managed to get the only pictures of me in the whole race where I am actually smiling. All that remained was to dip out of the park, turn right along the bottom edge (West 59th Street), then head back into the park for the home straight along West Drive. As I crossed the line I was happy but glad to be finished. My legs were hurting more than in any run I’d ever done and I still felt so sick. I actually couldn’t decide what to do first, cry or throw up. In the end I decided, being British and all, I’d do neither. The amount of time it then took me to exit the park to meet up with Nic was nowhere near as long as my wait to start but it was still frustratingly slow. I guess it’s kind of expected seeing how many people are running the race and the epic walk they send you on is actually the best thing for you after a long run so I didn’t feel too bad about it … apart from the wanting to throw up bit. That sucked. I finally exited the park and exchanged my foil blanket for the infamous poncho (which is so awesome by the way) and met up with Nic shortly after. We headed straight for a bar and got stopped enroute by a couple of American tourists who asked if one of them could put my poncho on for a photo to pretend to their family back home that they had run the marathon. I gave them my poncho and medal to wear for the picture and they seemed chuffed to bits. We made it to the bar and quickly knocked back two pints. I’m always amazed by the fact that although I usually feel really sick after a long run and can face nothing but water, a beer goes down a treat. We decided to walk back to the hotel (which was in midtown and pretty far away) and it was really nice that lots of people, seeing the distinctive poncho, were saying well done to me. Back at the hotel I had a quick shower and we headed back out for a burger and more beers. After checking an app on my phone the next day it turns out I had coved a total of 34 miles on foot. My first (not quite official) ultra!
On reflection it was an amazing experience and I enjoyed the whole trip a huge amount but I really struggled with this race. It could of been the chest infection, it could of been the lack of training, I may have been slightly jet lagged, and the four hours of waiting around in the cold before the start was pretty draining, but I suspect it was a combination of them all. The organisation of this marathon was flawless and the support along the route was epic. If I lived in New York I’d try to do this race quite often. But the amount of faff involved before and after is just way too much for me. It’s a tough course and a brilliant challenge but I just can’t go through the hours and hours of waiting and fart arsing about before I’m actually allowed to run. This is a one and done sort of race for me … which is a shame as, although I finished (in a sub 5 I’m pleased to say) I feel like the NYC Marathon beat me. Maybe I’ll get my revenge one day.
DATE: 01 November 2015 DISTANCE: 26.2 miles TIME: 04:53:31 ELEV GAIN: 245m