New York Marathon: Half Way

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After an incredible experience at the Brathay 10in10 last year, I wondered what my next challenge could be. Being a somewhat obsessive marathoner, and inspired by TAC legend Nicola Nuttall, my thoughts turned to the Abbott World Majors.

These are some of the biggest and best city marathons in the world and there are currently six in the series – London, Boston, Chicago, New York, Berlin and Tokyo – though there are plans to expand this to nine in the coming years. Those that complete the set gain a coveted Six Star Finisher’s medal.

Having already done London a few times (I’m very fortunate to regularly achieve a Good For Age time here), last autumn I tentatively threw my name in the general ballot for Tokyo, the only one not to have GFA qualification. I couldn’t believe it when I received an acceptance email for this at the first time of asking, roughly a 1-in-10 chance of success!

So the game was on. I had a spot in what (for me) was arguably the most difficult of the World Majors to get into. But could I enhance the challenge?

Netting a place in all of the Majors is a considerable effort in itself but one essentially based on good fortune and previous performances. But I could make doing them all a physical challenge too, something to train for and act as a focus. How about trying to run every one in less than the holy grail time of 3 hours? I ran my first London in 2:59:09 back in 2013 so I’d taken the first step. The gauntlet had been thrown!

In January I entered the New York City Marathon GFA ballot. Yes, having a Good For Age time (which I’d sneaked by one minute with a 2:57:00 at Manchester Marathon in 2018) is no guarantee for NYC, you still end up in a ballot albeit a smaller one. When the day of the announcement arrived I was on tenterhooks, but lo and behold I got in! I almost didn’t mind seeing the £275 entry fee evaporate from my account.

Tokyo soon came around in March. Despite arriving in Japan less than 48 hours before the marathon, having had a bit of a bug in the week leading up to it, drinking way too much the night I got there, walking miles sight-seeing and up and down countless subway stairs the day before, some atrocious cold and wet conditions during the race, and my GPS watch packing up on the start line, I somehow managed to run 2:58:46 there. Two down, two sub-3 finishes.

I packed the next seven months with several more marathons and plenty of miles week in, week out. There was also the small matter of my second Lakeland 100 to get out of the way – thankfully I emerged from this relatively unscathed. Still no structured training – I really need to build this kind of thing into my routine – just steady and consistent weeks of decent mileage.

Before I knew it the end of October was here and I jetted off to the Big Apple with my family. Staying on the outskirts of Brooklyn, we didn’t arrive till very late on the Monday before marathon weekend. But we had plenty of time to recover from any jetlag and see a lot of the city and its famous sights. New York is certainly an incredible, unique yet VERY expensive place to visit!

On Halloween we went over to the Javits Centre to collect my race pack. This is a sprawling metal and glass building that from the inside looks as though it is made of scaffolding. It was very similar to the London Marathon Expo set-up: collect your number, grab a photo by one of walls or murals, then wander aimlessly around the multitude of vendor stands picking up the odd sample or freebie. Joanne and the kids were soon weary of it all though, so off we went to grab a late lunch before I took the kids trick-or-treating in the good old US of A.

The night before the marathon we went up One World Observatory, the new World Trade Centre and tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. From this amazing vantage point we could see right over to the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge and Fort Wadsworth where the marathon starts, and pick out the general marathon route as it weaves its way through Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx. It literally put things into perspective!

Getting back to our apartment, I prepped my gear for the 4am wake up call, slightly paranoid about the alarm and time as the clocks went back for Daylight Saving Time the morning of the marathon. I set two alarms for 4am and 5am just in case my phone didn’t automatically adjust during the night.

As always seems to be the case when I have a big race though, I naturally woke up right on cue just before my alarm went off. I made the most of a couple of snoozes before getting up and dressed, wolfing down a banana as breakfast number one.

I was out the door at 4.30am for the half mile jog to the nearest subway station. Here I was again slightly paranoid that, even though trains ran all through the night, weekend maintenance work would interfere. A few other runners arrived on the platform in the 20 minutes I was waiting. The first train to pull in was the wrong one, the second also seemed like it was destined to skip the turn for the Staten Island Ferry, but as the other runners embarked I followed.

Thankfully this train did call at the ferry terminal, and exiting the station I merged with masses of other competitors as they climbed the stairs to catch the 5.30am ferry. On the way in I was routinely stopped by a couple of police officers whose sniffer dog had a good whiff of my bag before letting me past.

As we boarded the huge orange boat (which we’d been on a couple of days before as a dry run) there was little hanging around as it pulled away into the dark waters along with a police boat escort. The retrospective view of the glittering Manhattan skyline and glowing green Statue of Liberty as we sailed past were breath-taking – I doubt there’s a more awe-inspiring way to reach the start of a marathon!

An orange tinge formed on the eastern horizon as we drew closer to Staten Island and the lights of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge twinkled in the twilight. As we docked there was almost a stampede to get to the line of waiting buses that would chauffeur us on the last leg of the journey to the start area. It felt freezing in the open air under still and clear dark sky.

Uncharacteristically, I made it onto the first bus taking the last seat. During the half hour drive to Fort Wadsworth the sky grew increasingly brighter so it was pretty much properly daylight by the time we disembarked – I was the fourth person off the first bus, although many other people had already arrived either on foot or buses from Manhattan.

The security was pretty intense here with more sniffer dogs and a significant armed police presence. Everyone’s bags were being searched and people scanned with handheld detectors. Thankfully I passed through all this smoothly and was finally making my way to the Blue Start athletes’ village after two hours of travelling – it was still only 6.30am – insane!

As I entered I spotted the United Airlines runners’ “departure lounge” off to the right. Despite wearing an extra T-shirt and jacket I was starting to shiver. The crew in the departure lounge, essentially a huge gazebo in a field with seating, were giving out free hand-warming sachets and foam roll-mats – there was clearly quite a limited supply of these so I was thankful I’d got there early enough to grab some.

Next up was the free bagel stand, a very welcome sight! I bagged a couple to keep me going over the next three hours before the start. They were also giving out free Stinger honey waffle samples, so one of these went in my bag too. There weren’t all that many people about yet, so by the time I reached the corral entry area there wasn’t much of a queue for the free Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and – praise the Lord – complementary warm hats.

So with sustenance in hand, I made my way over to a fence and set out my roll-mat to offer a bit of comfort and warmth against the hard stone floor. I wrapped my legs the space blanket I’d brought and sipped coffee. More people were arriving and it was getting quite busy by the time I’d eaten a bagel and warmed my hands a little. Time check: 7.15am.

I tried dozing but it was just too cold and uncomfortable really, and eventually I needed the loo. Packing up my stuff I wandered into the adjacent car park lined with portaloos. The queues weren’t too bad and around here the sun was well above the horizon on a glorious morning, its welcome warmth was palpable. So after a toilet stop I went for another coffee then made my way to a grassy area in the sun. Laying out my roll-mat and stretching out, it was so much nicer here, it almost felt like sunbathing weather!

By now it was 8.40am, an hour before my start. Thankfully I was in Wave 1, Corral B, one behind the elites and championship athletes – the last wave didn’t go off till 11am! There had been continual announcements over the PA system, reminders about where to discard clothing, thanks to the sponsors, etc. Now it was informing us that the Wave 1 corral was open. I knew it was shady in there though and wanted to make the most of the sun, so left it till around 9.15am to head over.

I donated my T-shirt, stashed my jacket, had a last bite of the Stinger waffle then ventured past the point of no return into the corral. This was fairly solid with people and even had a line of loos. After a final pit-stop and some loosening up I was ready to go.

Ten minutes before race start we were ushered forward and jogged a few hundred metres onto highway 278. Under brilliant blue skies the imposing towers of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge loomed large. Hundreds of runners were massing on the road between a huge TCS NYC Marathon marque and some double decker buses.

Various messages of thanks and greeting were broadcast before a professional singer belted out a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. As Nic Nuttall had warned me beforehand, even if you aren’t American, this really raises the hairs on the back of your neck – it was a special moment. Then three NYPD helicopters flew by right overhead. Ticker tape was released over the start line and a huge cannon fired to signal the start of the marathon. As we crossed the line, adrenalin pumping, Sinatra’s “New York, New York” blasted out of the PA system.

Most of the initial mile was uphill as we climbed the first of five bridges. Despite me being only a couple of hundred people from the leading line, due to there being three separate starts I found myself well back from the front. There seemed to be loads of runners who really should have started further back as I was passing them for fun, even though I was running relatively conservatively. I guess this was because after leaving the confines of the corrals, with ten minutes still to go before the start people were free to push their way forward as far as they liked.

With over 100 marathons under my belt I’ve had some spine-tingling moments towards the end of a race: when I’ve had a good run, knew I was on for a PB or just because of the scale of an event. But this was the first time I’d felt like this at the start. As we crossed the bridge the whole of New York was before us in the sparkling sunshine. Police helicopters hovered over the middle of the bridge and literally flew alongside us at eye level as we ran along. I don’t mind admitting I was feeling emotional (Brathay, what have you done to me!).

We dropped off the relatively quiet bridge into a wall of noise as we entered Brooklyn. The support from here through to 13 miles in was absolutely top notch, even better than anywhere around London. There were so many people lining both sides of the street – young, old and everyone in between – I gave as many high-fives as I could. It was fantastic!

I knew Joanne, Daniel and Jessica would be waiting around five miles in along 4th Avenue, pretty close to where we were staying. From a hundred metres away I spotted Joanne in her yellow coat and started waving frantically. Eventually she saw me too and they all started waving back. By this point I was way too hot for my Dunkin’ Donuts hat and I’d also found another en route. As I reached them I high-fived and hugged them all and passed the hats on to the kids.

A long straight stretch brought us into downtown Brooklyn before we turned right and upwards, wending our way towards Queens over the Pulaski Bridge. We didn’t spend long at all in this famous borough before veering left onto the Queensboro Bridge.

I was now 15 miles in. Up to this point I’d been consistently running at a pace of 6:40 min/mile but I was starting to feel it. We ran on the lower level of Queensboro Bridge and I stuck to the right-hand side of the road as I had been doing for most of the course so far. Unfortunately, this was furthest from the sky so after a few hundred metres my watch lost GPS signal.

I knew I was slowing down but picked out someone in the crowd in front to focus on and keep pace with. By the time I exited the bridge into Manhattan my watch had probably lost something like half a mile, although because it had been consistently over-reading, it probably wasn’t too far out overall. Nevertheless, when I reached the 16 mile marker I reset the lap counter.

Then we turned onto 1st Avenue. Oh. My. Word. I have never seen a street so straight and long in my life. It wasn’t flat either, you could see it undulating into the far distance with runners scattered all along its length. I felt a bit demoralised at this point, yet I could still see my target runner the same distance in front so just kept on grinding it out.

Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, we ran over Willis Avenue Bridge and into the Bronx. Rather like Queens, we were only in this borough for a mile or so. As we approached Madison Avenue Bridge, two old gents at the side of the road were playfully shouting “Get the hell outta the Bronx!” to us all and a hand-made sign at the side of the road made my chuckle with its declaration of “The last damn bridge!”

By now, with four miles to go, I was seriously starting to flag. Thank goodness the final stretch mainly down 5th Avenue wasn’t just an endless straight road but was broken up with several twists and turns. My target runner still wasn’t pulling away, in fact I felt like I was catching her a little. Sure enough, around 23 miles I drew alongside her which gave me a mental boost.

Continually checking my watch, I knew my pace had been dropping for a while. Up to around 16 miles I was on for a 2:57 finish, but now it was slipping dangerously close to the three-hour mark. This was dramatically emphasized when the 3-hour pacer, who I hadn’t seen since the first mile, glided past me at the 24 mile mark.

I didn’t know what to think by this stage. Part of me wanted to throw in the towel, another part thought there must be three pacers, one for each start like at London, and that this guy was the front man so there was nothing to worry about.

In the space of a few hundred metres the course started dropping quite rapidly towards the southern boundary of Central Park. As the road narrowed through beautiful autumnal trees and the support stepped up another notch, my mind was racing and legs felt as though they couldn’t carry me any further. Yet somehow I managed to reel in the pacer by the 25 mile point. As I came alongside he said to a couple of guys nearby “I was running on pace but wanted to catch you, you’re looking strong and are on for 2:59 or less.”

This was all the motivation I needed to keep going. There was no way after all the organisation, stress, expense and effort to get to this point that I was going to let it go.

The path levelled off at the bottom of the park and we turned ninety degrees right to head north up Central Park West. This was another long straight road, nowhere near the scale of 1st Avenue but somewhat soul-destroying nonetheless. I pushed on not wanting to glance back.

Eventually we turned right into Central Park. My watch hit 2:58:00 and still no sign of the finish line. A slight uphill as the road curved left then the finishing arch finally came into view. The time was now 2:59 and I pushed as hard as I could. I crossed the line, stopping my watch, and felt nothing but exhaustion and light-headedness. I had to steady myself on a barrier for a moment before marshals ushered us relentlessly forward to claim our hard-earned medals.

I glanced down at my watch: 2:59:27 – I’d done it with a mere 33 seconds to spare!

My legs instantly filled with concrete. I desperately wanted to sit down but we had to keep shuffling onwards to get our ponchos. There were so many runners around, all ceasing up and barely able to move, but the awesome post-race volunteers were congratulating and high-fiving as many people as they could. After 26.2 miles running it took me 45 minutes to walk the next mile!

There was no rest for the wicked – apart from quickly seeing the Ghostbusters fire house and a swift beer stop, I went straight back to our apartment for a shower before we had to leave for JFK and the long flight home.

I didn’t discover until I got back to Blighty and downloaded my race data that the course has around 800 feet of ascent – mainly down to those “damned bridges” no doubt – that’s almost twice as much as any other course I’ve run a sub-3 over, so I’m doubly chuffed I managed to do it in New York!

So the dream is still alive…half of the World Majors done under three hours at the first time of asking. Here’s to Boston next April…

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