Previously on DM Run Blog (I’ve always wanted to say that)…
In the first of a two-part series on my trip to run the 2016 New York Marathon, I went through the background and build-up to the race, as a number of people have asked me how I entered and arranged it all. Here’s what you missed:
- Running the New York Marathon was something I’d been planning for years.
- I decided life is for living, you have to make things happen (this doesn’t just apply to running). So I did.
- I don’t travel much, I’d never been to America before, and it would be the trip of a lifetime
- I got a guaranteed place (bypassing the ballot) by going with an official marathon travel partner, 2:09 Events.
- Six weeks before the marathon I injured my hamstring and piriformis pretty badly, and was out of running for nearly a month.
- The great physios at Harborne Physio & Acupuncture got me running again.
- My goal changed from running NYC fast to just getting round and enjoying it.
- A couple of hashtags that were tweeted to me summed up the theme of the trip: #makingmemories and #runwithasmile.
- I was incredibly excited to be in New York, did lots of sightseeing, and loved the place.
- I was fundraising for Bloodwise, and the great folk of UKRunChat helped me hit my fundraising target.
And that’s what you missed.
run the opening credits get going with part two…
Part II: The Main Event
I slept well the night before the marathon. This was helped by the fact that the clocks went back in America that day, a week later than they had in the UK. So I had an extra hour’s sleep but was still able to wake early, with plenty of time to get myself ready.
2:09 Events had arranged their own buses from the hotel to the Staten Island Ferry, which would take us to the race start. We left the hotel at 06:15 with the sky still dark, and I was reminded of the similar coach journey I took to the start of the London Marathon.
A runner who sat beside me on the coach turned to be from Holland, and he asked me (in perfect English) where I was from. When I told him I’m from England he said, “So you are not from Europe – any more,” with a wry smile. I rolled my eyes at the reference. And this was how I encountered the Brexit debacle in America.
By the time we were on the ferry the morning was bright and clear, with spectacular views of Manhattan behind us, an NYPD police boat escort, and yet another beautiful day ahead. And another treat for over-excited tourists like myself: a trip past the Statue of Liberty en route to the race start.
Except when we got off the ferry we weren’t quite at the race start. Fort Wadsworth, where the start was, was another two or three miles away. Which meant another bus. Which meant more queues. And here was where it all started to go wrong.
The ferry delivered us to the terminal with an hour and twenty minutes to spare until the corrals closed for the first wave, which was my wave. But, of course, there were tens of thousands of other runners (the New York Marathon has something like fifty-five thousand runners) all doing the same thing.
There was an unbelievable crush of people queueing to get up a single small staircase to a concrete concourse to queue for the buses to the start. And then all the buses sat in an enormous traffic jam going nowhere.
My calm equilibrium gradually evaporated. I became tense. The allotted time for the corrals to close for the first wave came and went. I’d missed my start. Finally the bus began to move, starting and stopping its way through the more residential areas of Staten Island, which looked just like American suburbs in the movies – wide tree-lined streets and painted clapboard houses.
When we finally arrived, all runners were security checked as they got off the buses. I had to speed-walk through the start village, ignoring everything other than the signs to the green corral. I had four, maybe five minutes to spare before they closed the corrals for wave 2.
Luckily I was surprised to find this was the first race I have ever attended where there were actually enough portaloos. There were no queues whatsoever. I made a very quick emergency pit-stop and hurried to the green start – finally making it into the corral with my heart pounding and roughly a minute to spare.
I’d expected to be hanging around for hours at Fort Wadsworth in the freezing cold – this was New York in November after all. But once again the sun was blazing down. I’d brought with me a cheap hoodie to discard at the start (they’re collected by charities and distributed to the New York homeless) and I pulled up the hood and shrugged it round me – not to protect myself from the cold but to protect myself from sunburn.
And then we were all shuffling round a hairpin turn, filing onto the Verrazano Bridge for the start. It all seemed very sudden.
As we did so, I offered up a little nod to the sky for Paul and for Chris (read my fundraising story). Hitting my fundraising target meant a lot.
The Verrazano famously has two decks and when you enter the New York Marathon you inevitably hear all the stories about what happens to runners on the lower deck – that’s not rain falling down on you from the upper deck, that’s from runners up there peeling off to the sides and… well, you get the picture. Luckily I wasn’t stood in the line of fire (and I didn’t see anyone doing this anyway).
There was a commentator announcing proceedings over the PA, and to the strains of Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York we were very quickly away.
I set off running in forefoot strike, as has become my natural way of running over the last six months. I knew I couldn’t keep this up for a whole marathon, but I’d run the Great Birmingham Run entirely on forefoot so I’d be able to go until around halfway before dropping back down off the balls of my feet. This was also the first marathon I would run in zero-drop shoes. Despite having been wearing them for nearly a year, I’d run all my other marathons in traditional built-up heel, blocky running shoes.
The Verrazano Bridge is absolutely immense, stretching out in a huge span across the water. Being that far out from land made it freezing cold in the shade of the lower deck, and gusting with extremely strong winds. I was wearing my trademark green cap but I had to temporarily take it off for fear of it being blown away. However, the views of New York in the distance, crouching over the water, were simply incredible. And it was nowhere near as steep or as challenging as people say it is.
Being on the lower deck meant my Garmin couldn’t get a consistent signal. Right from the start it was out of sync with what I was actually running. When we hit the first mile marker and it reported that I’d only done 0.75 of a mile, I knew I wouldn’t be able to rely on it.
That first mile was also very, very congested. I was wary of doing too much weaving around, though I did push from time to time. Mostly I was happy to stay at a slower pace, knowing I’d reap the benefits later. This would have been different if I’d been PB-chasing.
Once in Brooklyn we left the windswept bridge behind and broke out into blazing sunshine and a wide open six-lane highway underpass. There were grass incline verges on either side, and trees that afforded some privacy, and male runners were peeling off to the side again. Here I made a split-second decision to join them, necessary because of the lack of prep time in the rush to the start – the first time I have ever made a pit-stop like this in a race.
It all made for a very slow first 5k. As I passed over the timing mat I was aware I’d just registered an unimpressive time for the people back home tracking me. But all the hindrances were now past, the congestion was clearing a little, and it gave me a shot at running a decent negative split.
Here in Brooklyn, in the wide open streets and low-lying buildings (a lot less money here than Manhattan) I began to get the first idea of why people rave about the New York Marathon. The support was utterly amazing. The crowds were hanging off the bridges over the underpass (yelling “Welcome to Brooklyn!” as I went under it) and rows and rows deep on the sidewalk, cheering and shouting. The volume and energy reminded me of the London Marathon but if anything, there were even more supporters, and even louder.
The only thing I missed was personal support. The injury doubt about whether I’d actually make it here meant I hadn’t had my Bloodwise tee personalised, so there was nobody yelling my name.
Not that it mattered, because the noise was overwhelming. The crowds didn’t stop, didn’t thin out, and neither did the cheering. And Americans – particularly New Yorkers – don’t hold back when they have support to offer (I’ve had the pleasure of sitting with lots of them for the NFL at Wembley). All the way round the support went on, just all the way round.
Where cheering itself wasn’t enough, people had megaphones, or had brought their stereos out onto the sidewalk, or there were live bands. In a couple of places there were even bhangra drumming bands, just like at races in the UK, which I love. All at a scale and volume I’d not experienced before, and which put a huge grin on my face.
And the signs! Jeff had warned me to expect some classics: “No time for Walken” (next to a picture of Christopher Walken); “Welcome to the Bronx – run for your life!”). The best I saw were:
- “There’s bacon at the finish”
- “Keep swimming”
- “Mike: this is a sign” (some guy had obviously been pestering his mates to make him a sign)
At one point there were two student-looking guys hanging out of their apartment window basically just making farting sounds on a trombone and cheering everyone on.
Plus, in at least three places as the course went on there were people – on their own or in pairs – in inflatable T-Rex costumes. One pair of these hilariously dubious dinosaurs held a sign saying “You look delicious awesome!” and I high-fived another as I ran past. As you do. Obviously.
There was one last nod I wanted to offer, and this one was for me. I started running in 2004, huffing and puffing my way through widths of a football pitch sized area in my local park because I wasn’t fit enough to run the lengths. I took a stopwatch, found myself getting faster, and was hooked. I would never have dreamt of myself doing this. “Look where it’s taken you,” I said to myself. “You’re three thousand miles from home, running through New York.” It was an emotional moment. And I thought of my late father, my dear old Dad, and wondered what he made of it all, looking down from heaven. We just never did things like this as a family. But I’d made it happen. Life is for living.
There was still some congestion in those early miles but by mile five most people were running at my pace. I worried about whether everything would bog down once the runners from the blue and orange starts joined us, which had been my experience at London, but the streets were so wide and we kept running separately on different sides for so long that I didn’t even notice when it all finally merged together.
There were drinks stations with Gatorade and water before every mile marker, a handy way of measuring progress given the inaccuracies my Garmin had suffered. It’s a controversial point with which many people disagree, but thank goodness for marathons which distribute water in paper cups, not plastic bottles. Apart from the waste generated by throwing bottles away, the amount of discards rolling around make each drinks station a game of runner’s Russian roulette, with the risk of treading on a bottle and turning an ankle at every step. Not so with paper cups. They’re just trodden underfoot. I wish all races used them.
I kept to my own tried and tested marathon nutrition. I ate a small energy bar and swallowed a salt cap (which had been stuffed into my FlipBelt) at miles six, twelve and eighteen; drank to thirst but only ever a few sips each time; and stuck to water, avoiding the Gatorade.
Around mile eight or nine the road narrowed to the first real hill of the race, through narrower tree-lined streets and more traditional New York brownstone townhouses. The pace dropped as lots of people seemed to struggle but it really wasn’t that bad, and the sidewalk was packed with supporters. Incredible noise.
As we reached the top of this hill and turned right, there was a guy with a box of tissues, a sign and a megaphone yelling “Who needs to blow their nose?” which made me laugh. (I did need to blow my nose but I didn’t stop.)
By the time we hit mile ten, into double-digit miles, I’d had so much fun I couldn’t believe we’d already run that far. I was on the lookout for signs of fatigue, especially in the burning sunlight and having missed so much training, but I was in that happy territory where the first ten miles of a marathon shouldn’t really be noticed, and should really only be a warm-up for the rest of the race.
The course progressed into the third of the five boroughs, Queens, which was a special place for me because it was where Paul Simon, one of my musical heroes, grew up. The mind-boggling support continued. There were more bands, DJs, kids wanting high-fives, and sidewalks densely packed with cheering, screaming people. Impossible not to draw energy from them and be carried onwards by the noise.
The halfway point occurred as the route took us up the Pulaski Bridge – again only an incline but the sun was beating down and bouncing back on us from the concrete, and some people were starting to walk.
Mile fourteen had us running through a wholesale retail and industrial area. The sun continued beating down and I thought I detected the first signs of fatigue in myself. But having decided to worry about it a little, it turned out to have been just another incline. As soon as we levelled out I was back at pace and feeling fine.
Around here I dropped down from running on my forefoot to a more midfoot strike.
The next major point was the Queensboro bridge; the one everybody dreads. But like the Verrazano, it’s not as bad as people say. Coming at sixteen miles, this one did slow me down though, which concerned me a little. However, it’s nothing like the hills I train on in Birmingham, and even though I’d dropped pace I still passed a large number of people.
The descent on the way off the bridge helped, and I emerged into one of the most iconic points of the course. There are no supporters allowed on the bridge, so they cluster at the exit onto 1st Avenue where the course loops back round on itself. Running into the wall of noise they generate is the stuff of running legend, although it took a female runner ahead of me raising her arms to the crowd to really get them going. When they did though – oh my! There were people screaming – I mean, actually screaming, literally screaming – support at us. Just incredible.
I ran this section with a huge grin on my face, and the relaxed non-PB pace allowed me to whip my phone out of my FlipBelt and take a few more photos. As Claire and Kimberley had said, making memories and running with a smile.
Something else that made me feel great were the text messages coming in from home. One of the benefits of having a Garmin Forerunner 630 is that it connects with my phone and works as a smartwatch, so I was able to read the texts of encouragement my wife was sending. She said that one of my cousins had even rung home to ask how I was getting on, which gave me a huge boost. Having that much support from all those thousands of miles away was incredible.
Then we were back out into the spectacular concrete canyons of Manhattan, which I considered home territory and which made me feel great. There was a slight descent for about a mile, which was lovely and I felt like I was flying.
The route then took us up into the Bronx. I hit the Willis Bridge at twenty miles still feeling good, and made a conscious decision to up the pace. By now I was passing lots of walkers. The support here was so immense that one of the cheer stations, with a local rapper with a microphone and sound system, was actually cheering the supporters as well as the runners.
The route didn’t stay in the Bronx for long before taking us out via the Madison Avenue bridge back into Manhattan. Even here, there were people stood on the bridge chanting support and encouragement.
Around mile twenty-two I passed a woman running in sandals that looked like flip-flops. Of course, I knew they weren’t flip-flops, they were huaraches, as described by Chris McDougall (a past guest on UKRunChat hour) in the book Born to Run. I slowed to chat to her a little because, as I said to her, I’m running in zero-drops but that’s how I want to do it in future. I already have some Luna sandals – watch this space.
Having said the bridges were easier than I’d expected, the last few miles south down the east side of Central Park were really tough. This was part of the route I’d run on my lap of the park on Friday, but that had been in the park, rather than on the avenue outside it. And the avenue was a seemingly never-ending steep incline for a mile and a half from mile twenty-three until we finally cut off into the park itself. Really tough going.
Back into the familiar home territory of Central Park, and freed of the incline, I was flying again. With only a couple of miles to go, no longer a huge distance for the piriformis to have to hold up, I pushed hard and put in my two fastest miles of the race. I passed lots more people and it felt great.
And before I knew it we broke out of the park briefly onto 59th Street, where I’d walked so many times during this trip, then rounded Columbus Circle and I was onto the famous finishing straight. People talk about the uphill finish at New York but I went back up on my forefeet and was feeling so good, and had enjoyed myself so much, that I didn’t notice. I crossed the finish line in 03:41:19 with a big smile on my face.
I’d loved that run.
As soon as I crossed the line my phone began buzzing with notifications. There were texts from home to check I was okay and Twitter went into overdrive.
Because I’d run it nice and easy I’d never felt better after a marathon. There was elation, obviously, but it had just been such a fun run and I felt so comfortable, unlike a lot of people around me who’d clearly busted themselves, that I felt I could happily do it all again. So that was what I tweeted.
And, oh my, Twitter responded! It was quite comical really, my phone started buzzing and basically never stopped. It was constant. It had something like 67% battery but thirty minutes later I cleared off over two-hundred notifications and the little motor on the buzzer had taken the battery down to 23%.
I was presented with my medal, did my stretches happily and comfortably under the trees in the autumn sunshine, while around me people groaned and staggered, and then exited the finish area. I’d selected the no-baggage option when entering the race, which meant I would be given a poncho to keep me warm. Volunteers wrapped one around me on Central Park West, and it was quite a garment – thick like a jacket and fleece-lined; definitely worth taking home and keeping.
There were no spectators allowed in this area, which meant it was quiet and cool – the sun and the heat had gone out of the day – as an army of blue poncho zombies shuffled back down towards Columbus Circle. Here we re-joined the spectators, and in the distance through the trees I could see the course, and a stream of runners coming through to the finish.
Getting back to the hotel, which was just a few blocks to walk, took about ninety minutes. A very friendly ninety minutes though, shuffling through the crowd with my medal and poncho, being congratulated and stopping to talk with spectators or other runners.
By chance I passed Steve Seaton of 2:09 Events on the way back, and he took the below photo for their Facebook page.
I made it back to my hotel room at 15:50, with the light going out of the day. This made the time 20:50 in the UK. I was just in time for the end of UKRunChat hour, so I tweeted a picture of my medal to check in.
And Twitter went into overdrive again. I love the running community. I spent a couple of amazing hours going through all the messages and congratulations that flooded in.
As I had been with the fundraising the previous night, I was overwhelmed by people’s kindness. Jeff and Charly had been live-tweeting my progress, and there were some unbelievably lovely comments.
The next morning I had over three-hundred notifications to clear off my phone, and they just kept on coming in. I flew home that day – the day before the US Election. 2:09 Events had laid on the bus (coach) to the airport, and I said goodbye to New York feeling extremely happy and fulfilled. We left JFK at 19:00 and lost all the hours we’d gained, landing at Heathrow at 06:35 UK time, which was 01:35 to us. Being served breakfast on the plane at what was to us midnight was very strange.
While I’d been gone winter had arrived in the UK. This was a shock! I’d been out in Central Park in t-shirts and summer weather. I came back to freezing temperatures and thick, icy frost.
The drive home to Birmingham was long and taxing, and I was so tired I had to stop at the services along the way. Two days later I found myself back at work, contemplating being back to quotidian daily life, the real world, and The Terrible Reality of How Much Money I’d Spent.
Even though I’ll be paying this off for years, I wouldn’t change a thing. I had the best time. It was worth every single penny.
My piriformis held up. I got round. (And under the circumstances, I ran a fairly decent marathon time.)
I ran with a smile.
I made memories that will last a lifetime.
It really was the trip of a lifetime, and I loved it.
Absolutely loved it.
I made it happen.
Life is for living.
A day after I flew home, America – which has had some dangerous buffoon presidents in the past – trumped them all and incomprehensibly elected probably the worst prospect of the lot as its next president. There were protests in Manhattan and across America. I was glad I missed it all.
News footage of Hillary Clinton’s election night rally said that it was held at the Javits Center, where the Expo had been. I hadn’t seen any sign of it being prepared.
A week after I returned to the UK, I popped into Harborne Physio & Acupuncture at Barefoot Birmingham, to thank Gemma and Becky for everything they’d done to get my piriformis to get me round New York, and to Gerard Greene, who owns and runs the practice, and who scrambled me that same-day appointment when I first needed it. I’d bought them each an NYC Marathon cap at the Expo as a thank you. If you’re in Birmingham and you need physio, you need these guys (all three of them; Becky wasn’t around that night so isn’t in the photo below). They’re awesome, and without them there would have been no New York for me.
Finally, at the time of writing (05 December 2016), I’ve now raised £635 for Bloodwise, smashing my target. I’m very happy with this. Thank you to everyone (and if you’d like to donate there’s still time, just head to my fundraising page).