New York Marathon 2016: Background, Build-Up and Sightseeing

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Right, an epic couple of posts to follow. I’m posting a two-parter about the 2016 New York Marathon. It was a trip of a lifetime for me, so as well as writing about the race itself I ought to give a picture of how excited I was to be in New York.

Also, a number of people have asked me about the background to it all – how I entered the race, how I travelled, and about my injury – so I’ve tried to think back to what would be useful in considering and planning something similar (the trip, not the injury).

So in this first part go through the background, build-up and sightseeing; and then in part two I’ll get into the race itself…

Part I: Englishman in New York

The story of running the 2016 New York Marathon goes back a little way for me…

Background

In 2014 I ran the London Marathon. It was intended to be my one and only marathon, but it didn’t go as well as I’d expected and afterwards all I could think about was scheming up ways to get back to London to redeem myself. I even considered taking a charity place and paying off however much of the £2000 pledge I couldn’t raise – probably most of it – out of my own pocket. Not that I can afford it (I can’t). And then it occurred to me…

If I was crazy enough to consider spending that much money, and overseas entrants to World Marathon Majors can get guaranteed entries, could I do one of the two marathons sat atop my wishlist – New York or Chicago? I’d always wanted to visit America. It always sounded like dreamland thinking; something that would never happen. Of course, I’ve since run other marathons, but New York was always in the background as The One I Wanted To Do.

That was how it got started.

After lots of internet searching I decided to go with 2:09 Events, run by former elite runner Mike Gratton and wife Yolanda. They offered various options of flight only, hotel only, or the complete package of flights and hotel, which was what I went for. They also offer a choice of hotels, and a wide choice of days to fly out and fly back. I could customise the trip as I needed.

The other advantage of 2:09 Events was the extras they offered. A major reason I signed up with them was because they hold two training/prep days throughout the year.

My good friend Dean, fellow Bournville Harrier and fellow NFL fan, had run New York in 2013, which gave me the original idea. Tweeting with the fantastic folk of UKRunChat confirmed I’d made a good decision. In particular I talked with Jeff, a.k.a. UKRunCat, who’d run NYC in 2013 (with 2:09 Events too, as it happened). Darren, a.k.a. RunnersKnees, who lived in New York for a few years, gave me a comprehensive list of must-see places to go and where to eat; and my good running buddy David (together we are #thedavids in the UKRunChat community) sent a list and map of places to see.

School half-term dates presented an obstacle, since they didn’t coincide with the marathon. Because my wife works in a school (she’s a SENCO) and because we didn’t want to take our little girl out of school, we decided I would be best to travel on my own. Which is how Dean did it in 2013 too.

So I was all pencilled in and ready to get myself to New York in 2015. But a lack of finances meant I hadn’t saved as much as I’d wanted to (for which read I hadn’t saved a penny) so reluctantly I put it back a year to 2016.

(In truth, there was never going to come a time where I could afford this trip. But it goes back to something I realised around the time I turned forty, that life is for living. You have to make things happen. “If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve always got” – a favourite maxim.)

Finally, in February 2016, I completed the form on the 2:09 Events website to sign myself up for New York.

Over the summer 2:09 Events sorted out all the logistics for me – race entry, flights, hotels, airport transfers – all I had to do was check I had the right (biometric) passport for the US, apply for an ESTA online, and complete a couple of online forms for New York Road Runners (NYRR) who organise the marathon. Yolanda provided weekly updates from sixteen weeks out, and I watched the weeks count down with a growing sense of excitement (and possibly disbelief).

Also, in the summer and early autumn I travelled down to London for the training/prep days. There were talks and presentations, and it’s not often I get the chance to run with a London Marathon winner, as we all did with Mike Gratton in Regents Park in July and at the track at St. Mary’s University in Twickenham in September. It also offered the chance to get to know other people in the group.

There was another reason I wanted to do another major marathon. We’d lost a very good friend aged just 42 to leukaemia, a couple of years after a work colleague had passed away from the same thing, so I was very keen to raise money for the charity Bloodwise. This cause ran very deep for me.

Injury

My build-up to the marathon hit a major snag in the form of injury. A torn hamstring and highly aggravated piriformis (a stabilising muscle underlying the glutes which connects from the spine to the hip, and which when tight, presses on the sciatic nerve – ouch) meant I was unable to run for nearly a month. My hamstring and piriformis were so weak that every run came out as a painful, lop-sided shuffle.

Things began to look as though I wouldn’t make it to New York, but with the help of Gemma, Becky and Gerard at Harborne Physio & Acupuncture, I finally got back to running about three weeks before I was due to leave.

The plan was to get me to a point where I could get round New York, not to get me back to, say, 10k PB shape. Becky made the initial hamstring and piriformis diagnosis, and gave me lots of advice, stretches and sports massages. She then referred me to Gemma, who found the root cause: gluteus medius weakness – a problem I’ve had before, though this time on my left side.

Gemma gave me a plan of glute med strengthening exercises and I did this rehab work every day at first, then every other day when I began to work some running back into the schedule.

It changed the objective. Originally I’d been looking to run somewhere around 03:30-ish. Now the plan was to run a slow, steady, and above all sensible and safe race; to just get round and enjoy it.

Three weeks before NYC I plodded my way round the Great Birmingham Run (half-marathon distance). This was only my third run back after injury, and I was absolutely over the moon to get round the whole thing. As was Gemma at my next physio appointment. Plus, running it as a member of Bournville Harriers for the first time was quite an experience – the support all the way round was fantastic.

2016-12-04-nyc-6
Great Birmingham Run. That’s me in the middle in the green cap, running with Rebekah, both of Bournville Harriers

The following two weeks I continued with my rehab work, and at the weekends I ran twenty miles fasted (to try to recondition my body back to burning fat for fuel) each Saturday morning. Twenty miles is something I would usually do comfortably at eight-minute miling, but these runs came in around 08:20-08:30 per mile. This seemed to be the marathon pace my body was naturally settling at, and I was happy to go with this. It was nice and easy so I’d be able to continue it at marathon distance despite all my missed training, and the piriformis didn’t give any issues at this easy pace. And even though it was much slower than normal it would still bring me in easily under sub-4 hours.

NYC Marathon 2016
Autumn in leafy Bournville, twenty miles in my Bloodwise tee

On the Monday before I left for New York, after weeks of going along but not being able to run, I was finally able to re-join my Bournville Harriers clubmates on a Monday run. Mike, Dave B, Ian and Paul graciously tolerated my lack of conditioning and gave lots of encouragement for the race. I couldn’t push the pace because of the piriformis and I couldn’t keep up with them, and the whole group even had to stop and wait for me twice, but being able to run with club before I left was important to me.

Just before I left, Claire and Kimberley from UKRunChat tweeted me, both with hashtags that summed up the trip perfectly: #makingmemories and #runwithasmile.

On the Wednesday morning before the marathon I had a small scare on a six-mile training run when my piriformis felt weak again. But there was nothing more I could do, and I drove down to Heathrow after work, excited and grinning, ready for the flight the next morning.

Before the Marathon: Manhattan and Sightseeing

NYC Marathon 2016

Judging by all the running tops and gear I could see at the departure gate for the flight, there were a lot of runners heading out for the marathon. We flew out of Heathrow at 11:30 in the morning, but New York was four hours behind GMT, so although the flight took a little over seven hours we landed at JFK airport in the middle of the afternoon. For someone like me who seems to be perpetually behind in life, I have to tell you that twenty-eight hour days are the future. Let’s have more of those.

After a long wait to get through immigration (I used this time productively to enter another race, direct messaging with Charly on Twitter to join #teamhalfpints for Endure 24 in June next year), 2:09 Events met us all in the arrivals area. We headed outside for the bus transfer to the hotel.

(Note: I say “bus transfer” – it was actually a small coach, but after five days in New York I’m now basically an American, so I’m allowed to call it a ‘bus’. Similarly, although my room number when we got to the hotel was 1003, that’s no longer “ten-thousand-and-three” in my head; it’s the more American “ten-oh-three”. Just so you know.)

Anyway, having never been to America before, my eyes were a-goggled on that coach – sorry, bus – journey. American cars! American traffic lights and road signs! ACTUAL YELLOW CABS! We passed a couple local parks (I’m allowed to say this instead of “a couple of local parks” – I’m basically an American, remember) and instead of soccer (*ducks for cover*) goalposts there were baseball diamonds and people throwing pitches, JUST LIKE IN THE MOVIES.

I was so excited I felt like a big kid. Which was part of the deal – I was supposed to, this was the trip of a lifetime after all. And for the next couple of days this feeling never left me.

Which was both a blessing and a curse, to be honest. There was so much to see and do that my head felt a bit overloaded. I’m adamant the jet lag wasn’t a problem, and getting to sleep at night was fine, but when I woke during the night I’d be unable to get back to sleep for thinking about all the things lined up the next day. I was getting about four hours’ sleep each night. Over the course of the days we were there, a number of other people in the 2:09 Events group reported the same thing. We were all shattered. But in a good way.

Also, sleeping in Manhattan isn’t necessarily easy at the best of times. The place is noisy. I was staying on the tenth floor but I spoke to people on the forty-ninth who were still having problems with the noise that far above the streets. In Manhattan, accelerator pedals in cars are connected directly to the horn, so as soon as they start driving they start beeping – this is pure fact*. Also, if at any point drivers feel just a little bit bored, well, it’s perfectly acceptable to relieve the boredom by beeping the horn just a bit more – also a fact*. And when Paul Simon, who is from New York, wrote Simon & Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence, it’s absolutely entirely true* that the original title was actually The Sound of Sirens.

(* I just made this up)

By the way, drivers in Manhattan are crazy. The only people more kamikaze than them are the pedestrians – but I quickly grew accustomed to this. By the time I’d been there a couple of days I was happily stepping off the sidewalk (yes, I know) directly into the path of oncoming traffic without batting an eyelid or thinking OHMYGODWE’REALLGOINGTODIE like I did when I first arrived.

NYC Marathon 2016

And, yes, I really did start thinking in terms of ‘blocks’. Not just one of my adopted Americanisms; it’s just so much more logical than here. You want to go somewhere? You find the address – say, 53rd and 7th (where my hotel, the Sheraton, was) – and you know instantly where that is and how to get there.

NYC Marathon 2016

Manhattan itself is a very vertical place. Both in terms of the buildings and also the incomes and aspirations of its residents, not to mention the cost of its real estate. Despite the logical street grid system, at ground level it seems somehow chaotic and almost quite shabby. There are a lot of old buildings and a lot of small shop frontages crowded in on one another, almost bursting out of their allotted space. I didn’t see many large chain stores – not in midtown Manhattan, at least. And the roads are in a terrible state, pitted with potholes.

But I could tell the money is there because it’s the tallest place I’ve ever been. Skyscrapers tower over everything, reaching up and competing for height and space like trees in a forest straining ever upward for the light. Everything’s concrete, everywhere is man-made – but somehow it’s really quite beautiful; the smoked glass and massive corporate sheen of the buildings so tall and distant above that they seem hazy in the day, with distant glints and gleams of reflected sunlight.

Walking through the streets is like walking through an angular version of the Grand Canyon, especially when looking south down the avenues, with the sidewalks splitting the concrete cliffs. It’s mightily impressive. The tacky, gaudy lights of Broadway and bright billboards of Times Square give colourful illumination and chaotic animation to a unique scene already buzzing and thrumming with activity and intent. And sat in the middle of all this is the quiet calm and natural beauty of Central Park, my new favourite place in the world.

One of the things I’d most looked forward to – as well as daft basic things like American plug sockets, American light switches, American TV and adverts, American cars and trucks – was being surrounded by American voices all around. Yet actually, only about half the accents I heard were American. The rest were Indian, Asian, Hispanic, European – a real cultural mix, very like London, which made me feel instantly happy and at home.

NYC Marathon 2016
Man in hat running in Manhattan

We started Friday with a 2:09 Events group run to Central Park, stopping at various points of interest and information for the marathon. This included running the last mile or two of the marathon up to the finish line.

When everyone headed back to the hotels I stayed out and ran a lap of Central Park on my own. As you can see, the weather was gorgeous – twenty degrees (Celsius); like summer. I was still worried about my piriformis but it held up, which made me feel a lot happier.

Over the course of Friday and Saturday I went to the Expo twice, where I managed to squeeze Bournville Harriers and UKRunChat onto the wall of names, and visited Broadway, 42nd Street, Times Square, Radio City, the Rockefeller Center and the 9/11 memorial (my goodness, that’s a deeply moving place – you can feel what happened there).

In fact, I was enjoying myself so much that I kept forgetting I had a marathon to run. Except when people asked whether I had any other sightseeing planned, I could answer “Just a quick 26.2 mile tour of the city.”

Even on the eve of the marathon there was no time to rest, as I fired up Twitter for a last push for my fundraising. There then ensued something of a charity tweet frenzy, with the amazing Jonathan Scahill and Charly taking up the fundraising cause on my behalf, exhorting the UKRunChat community to get me to my £500 target.

I was absolutely blown away by this, it was such an amazing thing for them to do. Watching it all and trying to keep up with thanking everyone online was as exhilarating as running the race itself.

Close to midnight UK time, with me sitting £5 short of my target, Jonathan logged himself back into JustGiving and made a second donation to get me to £500. Just incredible.

I cannot thank them both enough, and I’m so incredibly grateful to every single person who made a donation. Thank you.

With Twitter going quiet because it was after midnight in the UK, I laid my kit out and all the build-up was done. All that remained was the marathon itself.

NYC Marathon 2016
Ready to go

~ ~ ~

So that was part one of this trip. I’d got to New York – in part two, all I had to do was run go and run a marathon…

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