50,000 people is a lot of people. Just so, so many. How many is it, really? It’s approximately the population of Monroe, Michigan. It’s how many days there are in 136.9 years. It’s how many M&Ms were used to make this. And it’s how many people ran the NYC Marathon this year, plus another 1,307 (but “only” 50,766 finished).
I ran the NYC Marathon way back in 2005, when it was the ING Marathon and had like 2,000 runners in it. Ok, there were a few more runners than that (about 34,000 more), but a lot has changed in 12 years besides the addition of 14,000 runners. The race has become even more commercialized and sponsored and bigger in every way. That’s led to some good things (lots of news coverage, fancy tracking technology with the app, and overall excitement in the city) and bad things (crowds, trash, crowds, lines, crowds).
Some things haven’t changed – you still get a tour of all 5 boroughs, you still get a lot of spectators, and you still hear “New York, New York” by Frank Sinatra at the start. Other things that haven’t changed include the terrible roads (filled with humped asphalt and potholes and lots of other fun obstacles that desperately want to break your ankle), the stupid sponge mile at mile 18, and the long wait on Staten Island (which might actually be longer now because of the logistics of getting 50,000+ runners onto the island before closing the roads).
But I’m getting ahead of myself. First up was getting to the NYC Public Library on 42nd to catch the 7:00 marathon shuttle bus to the start in Staten Island. I was on one of the latest bus options because I was in wave 4 which didn’t start until 11 am. When I arrived on the west side of the library at 6:20 am, the line for the buses stretched about 5 city blocks/avenues. And this was no single- or double-file line – this was the entire sidewalk packed with people. It took me about 35 minutes to get onto a bus. There were several spots where volunteers checked your bib but nobody seemed to concerned with precise bus times. I heard several people around me saying they were supposed to be in Wave 1, so there’s no way they took the appropriately timed bus (even though they’d still make it in plenty of time for Wave 1). I did speak with a woman in the starting village who missed the last bus and had to get down to South Ferry to take the boat across instead (which was exactly one of my concerns when signing up for transport!). She said they didn’t hassle her for using the shuttle buses down there even though her bib said “bus” not “ferry” (which was another big concern of mine). Regardless, sign up for the transport you want and don’t make a last minute decision, since they might tighten up the security on that and you never know.
The bus ride itself was comfortable and only took about an hour (despite getting stuck in a long line of buses), and the walk from the bus drop off to my corral area in the starting village wasn’t very long, although according to my watch I walked about 6,000 steps before the race even began. There was plenty of ground space in the village to stretch out and relax and wait (and wait and wait). I brought a Runner’s World magazine to read during my wait (to conserve phone battery) and I was glad I did. I was even more thankful that it didn’t start raining until just before our wave started, as there was only one small covered tent that would have sheltered the thousands of non-professional or non-charity runners from the rain.
The village had tons of porta potties everywhere you looked, and they even had lots of porta potties inside the corrals. However, along the course they only had 1 or 2 every mile, and I noticed the lines for those were very long.
After sitting and waiting for over 3 hours, listening to wave after wave start (the first time I heard the cannon I immediately thought “bomb,” but since the police right next to me didn’t react, I quickly realized it was just the starting cannon), wave 4 was announced and ushered into the corrals. Once you got into the corrals, it was like being in a real-life dystopian movie – there were high barricades on both sides of the chute, blocking the view, and everyone was crammed shoulder to shoulder, slowly shuffling forward to an unseen destination while loudspeakers played incessant messages directing us in multiple languages. It was honestly such a strange experience and one I’m pretty sure didn’t happen back in 2005. As I stood in the tightly packed crowd listening to the zombie warning in Japanese (at least I think that’s what they were saying), it did not feel like I was about to run 26 miles. Haha, joke was on me!
Once we got out of the corrals and crossed the highway, it opened up a bit. The first three miles flew by like a dream. The bridge was really neat, even though it was drizzling and gusting winds threatened to take off your hat. Tons of people were stopped on the bridge taking pictures. There was a surprisingly large group of spectators at the base of the bridge welcoming the runners into Brooklyn. And then the miles kept coming…
Most of the course had tons of cheering spectators, although there was a section in Brooklyn that was eerily quiet. Like bridge-quiet. Other runners even commented on how silent it was. Maybe it was because of the rain, because even 1st Avenue was more subdued than expected. At any rate, there was still enough cheering and bands and DJs that there was plenty to see and notice (and not once did I wish I had brought my headphones). Was it just a coincidence that all the songs I heard being played and performed along the course were from the 90s? Or was I hallucinating the Lisa Loeb, Oasis, Third Eye Blind, and Green Day that I heard?
It took a lot of mental energy to avoid all the other runners, the spectators who frequently crowded the course, the potholes, the garbage, etc. etc. – mentally, it was almost like trail running, but with people screaming and blowing air horns at you at the same time. In retrospect, that’s maybe why I got so frustrated at mile 16. I had spent the first half of the race running extremely conservatively. Even though I felt pretty good (despite some minor knee, calf, and ankle pain in the first mile), I really reined it in, obsessively slowing myself to earn that negative split. But when we hit the bridge at mile 16, I encountered a solid wall of walkers who had blown through the first half and were now suffering the consequences.
Now, you know I’m a slow runner, and I take my fair share of walk breaks. But when I do, I always raise my hand to indicate I’m stopping, and I try to be on the side or somewhere in the course where I’m not blocking people (which is usually pretty easy since I run solo). But the walkers on the bridge had no awareness – they were walking all over the course, forcing anyone who actually wanted to move faster than a snail’s pace to weave around and often stop completely when blocked by them. It was soooooo frustrating. Totally maddening. And I was tired, and hungry, and my knee hurt, and I was so sick of the crowds I had been stuck in all day, and I got pissed. And unfortunately that anger lasted pretty much the rest of the race, because the irritations kept coming (e.g. the hazardous course conditions because all the water cups turned to mush in the road from the rain and the 100,000 pounding feet, the idiots who grabbed a water-soaked sponge in the mother f’ing rain and then tossed it down in the middle of the course, the spectators who refused to stay behind the barricades and made bottlenecks for the runners, the lack of non-caffeinated Gu at mile 18, the relentless crowds, the incessant rain, and the increasing darkness – there was no irritation too small or large to not fuel my rage in the last 10 miles).
These irritations might not have mattered if I were not so focused on running a faster second half. Why did I want to negative split so badly? I think it’s because of this fun fact: Of the 47,000+ runners who completed the 2011 marathon, only 790 ran negative splits! (Source: NYRR Virtual Trainer email). As a back-of-the-packer who’s never run an ultra, I’m rarely in a “special accomplishment” group in any race. Could I even break 5 hours in this race? Sadly, no. But negative splits? That’s something I could do.
After coming down off the bridge, I pushed *hard* during the last 9 miles. I ran the second half of the race almost 7 minutes faster than the first half, despite a slow mile 13, 14, and that horrible mile 16.
I tried to hold it together until mile 21.5 where I knew My Cute PT was waiting for me. And there he was, with an amazing hand-drawn panda sign and a bag of food! I couldn’t stop long because I was still going for that negative split, so I grabbed the bag of food, expressed my irritation and pain, hopefully thanked him, and ran on. Unfortunately my mouth was too dry for the bagel (rookie mistake!) so I wasn’t able to assuage my hunger until I finally hit some water stops that hadn’t run out of bananas yet. They were a godsend. And less than a mile later I saw my other two friends with another sign! (Or rather, they spotted me, since I was so focused on the mushy hazards on the ground). It was definitely a nice pick-me-up to see all those friendly faces but made me feel more than a little bit guilty at being grumpy.
When I hit Central Park, I suddenly became very emotional – and I’m not an emotional runner! (At least not in that way – &$(%*#@ bridge walkers!) I actually tried to make myself angry again because if I got choked up I wouldn’t be able to breathe. So I shook it off and focused on getting down the east side hills, up the surprising hill along Central Park South, and through to the finish.
The fastest mile of my race was mile 25. At that point my feet were hurting along with my knee (and in the days after the race I’ve dealt with more black toenails and blisters than I’ve had in years). But I was thrilled I was about to finish. 18 months after breaking my ankle, one year after getting out of my boot, and six months since my return to running, I finally finished a full marathon. Huzzah!
Right after I crossed the finish, I hit a wall of stationary runners. Literally every runner had stopped just steps from the timing mat to take a selfie. Welcome to running a marathon in 2017! I had to duck and weave my way through the pack because I was desperate to keep my legs moving.
The marathon wasn’t over at the finish – all runners had a long, slow walk ahead of them to exit the park. I chose the poncho option instead of bag check, thinking I could make an “early exit,” but I was stymied by incredible crowds that would occasionally completely stop moving forward. It was truly awful. The finish line is at about 66th Street and the exit for the ponchos was at 77th Street, except you couldn’t actually get to the open city streets there because it was still barricaded off. You had to continue south until 73rd where you finally got your poncho and were allowed to exit. Fifteen blocks (about 3/4 of a mile) doesn’t sound like a lot, and even after running a marathon 15 blocks is a do-able amount of walking – the problem was the speed! The crowd moved so slowly it took me half an hour just to exit. Thirty minutes is a really long time to shuffle along clutching a plastic bag of gatorade and water (and a protein drink, an apple, a Powerbar, and some pretzels) in the almost dark rain, wet and covered in mush after waking up at 5 am and running a marathon. Unfortunately, this was my last memory of the NYC Marathon, and serves as a powerful reminder of why I should avoid large city marathons in the future (although maybe Tokyo would be different… and London… and Athens…).
The Monday after the marathon I met up in Central Park for a group photo of all the people who used the NYRR virtual training program. It was really nice to meet the trainers in person and chat with some of the other runners about their experiences running the race. While I haven’t used a real training program in many years, I really liked the this one and I’d recommend it if you want a program that’s a little more personalized than just following a chart from a book (I paid extra for the “virtual trainer plus” to get email access to the coaching staff). The daily emails and the online training log also helped keep me accountable (and often served as motivation to get out the door at all). It was also uncanny how accurately they predicted my race time – my time fell in the narrow range predicted and I hit the exact same time as the “previous runner most like me.”
Also as an FYI, the line to get into the Marathon Pavilion on Monday was bananas. I think most people were in line to get their medal engraved (which wasn’t even free), but I think you had to stand in line even just to enter. I skipped that line and visited the NYRR Run Center on Tuesday – there was a long line there, too, but not as bad as the Pavilion and at least you could wait indoors. Also FYI, almost all of the New Balance merch went on sale almost immediately after the marathon (I could have saved $7 on my shirt if I waited 5 days!) and many marathon shoes are now 50% (!!!) off at Jackrabbit with code STEPPINGNYC.
Overall, I’m thrilled to have such a successful return to marathoning. I’m grateful for all the help I’ve had in returning to running (I’m looking at you, My Cute PT), and I’m so excited to continue my 50 States quest with the Louisiana Marathon in Baton Rouge in January! It looks like the medal is a bottle opener! 😀
Thinking of running NYC?
If you want a big marathon experience, there is no bigger than NYC. It’s one of the World Marathon Majors, in case that matters to you, and it’s definitely a spectacle. If you want to feel special for running a marathon, this is a good one, because people who don’t run seem to take it more seriously than many other marathons (as if 26.2 miles is somehow shorter when not in NYC). Be prepared to have a lot of money and a lot of patience, and you might even enjoy it.
Scores on a 1-10 scale, 10 being the best.
- Getting There (Transportation & Walkability) – 9/10 – There are 3 major airports (JFK, LGA, and EWR) and no need to rent a car when here. 24 hour subway, plentiful taxis/Ubers, and marathon courtesy shuttles take you from Manhattan or NJ to the starting line. Not a 10/10 because it can be expensive or time consuming to get around town (sometimes both), and you have to get to Staten Island pretty early because they have to close the bridge you’ll be running on.
- Staying There (Hotels) – N/A – I don’t really know hotels because I live here and have never stayed in a hotel, but there are tons and tons of options. Pretty much every neighborhood in Manhattan and even the outer boroughs is pretty safe, but you might want to pick a hotel within walking distance from the finish line (like midtown or the UWS) or the starting transport options (midtown library or the downtown ferry), just for convenience. Also note that most AirBnBs here are illegal (despite AirBnB being a NYRR sponsor) so think twice before booking one of those.
- Cost & Registration – 5/10 – As of 2017, entry fees are $255 for NYRR members, $295 for non-members, or $358 for non-US residents. You only get the privilege to pay those prices if you actually get in to the race, which requires either getting lucky in the lottery (in 2017, only 17% of runners got in through the lottery), being really fast and time qualifying,
payingraising money through a charity, or doing the 9+1 program for local runners. Shuttle to the start, one shirt, finisher food bag, and one medal included. You can’t afford not to run!
- Organization – 9/10 – For such a huge marathon, they do have their ducks in a row. Lots of emails from NYRR before and after the race. The expo is huge and can get really crowded, but number pickup is straightforward. The shuttles to the start had incredibly long lines but they got us there in plenty of time. Lots of porta potties at the start and some along the course (although those ones had long lines). They ran out of Gu options at mile 18 (only caffeinated strawberry was left), but they still had bananas in the later miles for the slow people, and I’ve never heard them running out of finishing bags, medals, or ponchos. Overall, I thought it was well-organized.
- Course – 8.5/10 – Yes, the roads are bumpy and crowded, but it’s a pretty amazing tour of NYC considering how much of the city they have to shut down to hold this race and the logistics of moving all those thousands of people safely around the city. Kudos to them for still doing it.
- Crowd – 10/10 – Pretty much the entire course is lined with spectators (except on the bridges) and the crowd was still pretty big even though it was raining. I wish they wouldn’t have crowded onto the course (causing bottlenecks for the runners), and/or I wish police would have enforced the police tape, but oh well.
- Other Factors – 9/10 – As discussed above, it’s NYC, so just do it already.
- Overall Rating – 7/10 – It’s still not my favorite marathon… Out of the 25 marathons I’ve done, it would maybe make the top 10 only because it’s my hometown and such a spectacle, but …. yeah, I’m just not a big-city marathon fan. If you are, you’ll love it!
Do you ever get grumpy/irritated/angry during a race? How do you improve your mood? Do you love or hate big city marathons? Share in the comments!