NYC Marathon 2017 Race Report – 4 down 2 to go!

Thanks for visiting my race report for the 2017 New York City Marathon.  This was my fourth of the six World Marathon Majors  made up of the Berlin/Boston/Chicago/London/New York City and Tokyo events.  I should point out that these reports also serve as a form of diary for me, so may contain preamble and ramblings in equal measure.

I’d be delighted to try to answer any questions about the race not covered in this blog.  Drop me a line at the bottom of this page.

A bit of background about me is that in 2015 I signed up to run the Chicago marathon (see race report here), inadvertently doing my first ‘major’ and in the process finding out about the set of six majors and the awesome medal you receive when completing them, becoming a ‘six-star finisher‘.  Lacking any other tangible purpose in life, that’s been my goal since Chicago 2015 and I’ve now completed four of the six races – Berlin/Chicago/New York City and Tokyo.

4 x bling!

I’ve managed to get into the previous 3 marathon majors via their ballots, but decreasing odds, a second consecutive rejection and a lack of patience meant that I decided to buy a tour package for NYC, from 209 Events run by the lovely and modest Mike Gratton (who, amongst other amazing feats, ran and won the London marathon in a time of 2:09 back in 1983).  That got me a place in the race and 3 nights in a hotel conveniently placed for the marathon Expo.  Flights were as always courtesy of my wife Lisa’s long stint at British Airways, which means continued access to cheap tickets!

We arrived late evening on the Friday with a plan to head straight to the Expo when it opened on the Saturday.  The NYC marathon is the biggest in the world and plenty of the 50,000+ runners had already been able to go to the expo on the Thursday or Friday, so I went with reduced expectations about how much stuff there would be remaining for latecomers like me.  I’d been whinging for a couple of weeks about a leg injury (which I genuinely expected to cause me problems during the race) and had reduced my running to almost zero (unheard of for me – I usually run through injuries…).  Unfortunately the flight over had aggravated the injury and I felt like the benefit of the rest period was disappearing fast.  The main mission at the expo was therefore to find something to take my mind off the injury by removing the pain.

Our jet-lag assisted early Expo arrival meant that bib pickup was really quick and there was plenty of space to look around.  A nice bonus was the ability to try on the finishers’ shirts to ensure I got one which was more or less the correct size.  Some magic cream was also purchased and applied, and I could tell it was already taking away some of the pain.

The New Balance event gear was a little uninspiring but I got a decent jacket which will probably see more action dog-walking than running.  Plus some gloves with one of the five boroughs the race goes through on each finger.

Later on Saturday evening we met up with the others from our 209 Events group and picked Mike’s brains on tactics and tips – get the early bus to the start being the most emphasised one.  I was sceptical because we were due to leave at 5:45AM for a 9:50AM start time and I didn’t want to be sitting around for hours on a damp piece of grass or concrete.

Our late Friday arrival meant that Sunday morning came around really quickly compared with the other overseas races I’ve done, but I got a better night’s sleep than a typical pre-race night so I was feeling quite well rested by the time the alarm went off at 5:00AM.  Three small cereal bars and some energy drinks were consumed and I readied myself to catch the bus at the allocated time.  I tend to be antisocial before marathons doing everything I can to conserve energy ahead of the race.  I’m always amazed at the amount of nervous energy and general whooping that goes on before the start…they’ll need that energy in about 20 miles, if not before!

The coach took us to the iconic Staten Island Ferry where the size of the race became clear.  The ticket hall was packed! Runners didn’t need a ticket and the ferry was huge so my focused period (sounds better than antisocial) could continue whilst we sailed past the even more iconic Statue of Liberty in the rather grey but quite cool dawn.

I follow the weather obsessively in the run up to most races, but particularly for marathons where it can have a massive impact on race performance.  We’d been forecast highs of around 18C with 90% humidity and an easterly wind.  Not awful, but likely to feel quite muggy.  Happily the forecasters were wrong and the temperatures stayed around 14C all day, with some light drizzle.  Much better running conditions than expected 🙂  Less good for spectators though – sorry Lisa!

Another bus trip from the ferry took us a across a small section of Staten Island and we were finally dropped off at the start at about 8:00AM. Best described by imagining several thousand homeless people intermingled with a handful of smart people in last year’s race ponchos and foil wraps (more about those to come).

My fashion statement was an old, reasonably warm running jacket and, to sit on, a recently stolen bright yellow marshalling ‘bin bag’ worn as a jacket whilst helping out at the Herepath Half organised by my running club (Running Forever Running Club).  I wouldn’t say the time flew by but I amused myself by munching on some of the freebies handed out including a plain bagel and some very nice Powerbar vanilla energy bar thingies.  I was making sure I was fully stocked with calories given I was anticipating a longer than usual race due to my expected leg issues.  I also took and emptied a small water bottle which I refilled with Lime Gatorade Endurance, the energy drink which would be available on the course, to carry with me the first few miles.

This is the first race where I’ve joined a Facebook group (New York City Marathon 2017) specifically for participants and I got some useful info from it (e.g. $8 on the subway versus $80 for a taxi from JFK), as well as general encouragement and training tips.  I’m also a member of the Facebook World Marathon Majors group, which provides more general information about all six races.

By the time I’d finished munching and ‘focusing’ it was now 9:20AM, just 30 minutes to go until my wave started.  I applied the last coat of magic cream and kept my fingers crossed that I’d get around without having to crawl or roll my way to the finish line.  My last race of similar distance was the 32 mile Dartmoor Discovery back in June, and since then I’d had an ongoing problem with plantar fasciitis which had migrated into problems elsewhere, as injuries tend to, ending up with a pain just above my ankle on the inside of my right shin.

We starting to move out of our corrals at about 9:25 and I jettisoned my coat and plastic bag only to find that we were just being moved along a bit and the ones who knew what they were doing had kept their hobo-wear for the next phase of standing around.  A howitzer boom for the elite ladies made everyone look around nervously after the events earlier in the week, but security was reassuringly tight.

The vast numbers of runners means that a somewhat complicated starting location is in place.  There are four start waves setting off at 20 minute intervals, beginning at 9:50.  Within each wave are three start colours – Blue, Orange and Green, and within each you can be allocated to corral A-F.  Blue and Orange run over the upper tier of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and Green runs along the lower tier of it – the views are less good but the climb to the centre of the bridge is lower.  Your start line allocation is dependent on your projected finish time.  I was on good form when I booked my place on the race and didn’t know the course so I’d very optimistically estimated 3:19 as my time.  That put me in Wave 1 (9:50 start), Blue (upper tier of the bridge – yay) and corral F (the slowest of Wave 1). All of that suited me just fine.

I’d better get on to talking about the race – mile-by-mile progress can be seen here on my Strava link.  The course starts in Staten Island but immediately heads across the Verrazano Narrows bridge towards Brooklyn, then through Queens, into and out of Manhattan to The Bronx (the other poor relation in mileage terms along with Staten Island) before re-entering Manhattan at about mile 21 The different coloured starts don’t fully merge until mile 8, when there was a noticeable but manageable increase in the runner density.  Squeezing 50,000 runners through one street is always going to be busy!

Like most runners I have a tendency to start off too fast but the uphill bridge section taking up most of mile 1 was ideal to keep me from going too hard, as did the crowds of runners. I was about 1 minute off pace for the first mile which helped me relax and not force the pace.  My dodgy leg was holding out well and we then descended the other half of the bridge into Brooklyn. As expected this was a quicker mile at around 7:20/mile pace but still quite restrained for a decent downhill .

The crowds started after we left the bridge and as with both of the US marathons I’ve done so far (Chicago and Marine Corps) the cheering was loud and enthusiastic. It gave me a good lift a few times during the race.  The crowd support and the frequency of drinks stations, every mile or so, really helped me enjoy the race more than I expected.  Most of the course itself is a bit nondescript – the bridges being the literal and metaphorical high points for me.

After about 8 miles my leg was behaving itself and I was keeping up a decent pace, averaging around 7:30, giving me a flattering projected time of 3:21.  It wasn’t going to last, but I was really enjoying the run after having had a couple of weeks off as a precaution prior to the race.  I got chatting to an Eastern European man at this stage and kept wondering why people were shouting ‘go Tanya’ at him – then noticed his Kenyan top and realised my hearing was playing up.  We both agreed we were going too fast but decided to carry on anyway as we were enjoying ourselves – knowing we’d pay for it later (after he initially moved ahead I passed him going over the bridge to the Bronx at mile 19.5 and he was definitely paying for the pace by then!).

I started deliberately walking part of the drinks stations by mile 10, not wanting to push my luck and also to make sure I drank the Gatorade, rather than washed in it.  This was my strategy for the rest of the race, with gradually more walking as I also took on water as well, and then towards the end just walking a tiny little bit beyond the end of the drinks station because it was a nice excuse for a short rest from the running.

Some parts of the race were more memorable than others.  One was at mile 11 where a large Hasidic Jew community lives who really just wanted to get on with their day – Sunday being a normal working day to them.  I was expecting better crossing technique from the pedestrians given the race happens every year – run diagonally with the runners, not straight across – but I witnessed a few near misses and even one non-miss where both runner and local ended up on the ground.

Miles 15 to 16 were also memorable – a long climb up the Queensborough Bridge seemed never to end.  It wasn’t steep, indeed my Somerset running heritage meant I overtook people on the hills, but the level bit in the middle of the bridge took forever to arrive.  Then, exiting the bridge, runners do a sharp left and you are hit by a wall of sound after the relative silence of the bridge.  Definitely one of those ‘rock star’ moments when the crowd seem to be cheering just for you!

Just before mile 17 I managed a quick rendezvous with my other half, Lisa which always lifts the spirits.  I would see her again at mile 25 and started the 8-mile countdown, which felt like a long way at the time.

Most of the course is undulating and that was the case for the very long straight section up 1st Avenue to The Bronx.  I convinced myself that the longer this section was the less distance I’d have to go when finally turning south and heading back towards Manhattan.  That worked quite well and I continued to feel quite strong.  I did something new at mile 18 at this point and decided to grab a couple of the free Power Bar Vanilla gels being handed out.  I’ve not really been a big user of gels, but I didn’t fade as much in the final miles as my previous marathons so am likely to make more use of them.  You may need one just to be able to reach the end of this blog!

Miles 20 to 26 are always painful and the NYC marathon keeps back a few hills especially for this section, so it’s quite hard work overall.  Even after entering Central Park at about mile 24 there are a few little hills left, but with drinks stations to look forward to each mile I managed to keep on trucking, eventually crossing the line in 3:30:39 and listed in the Monday edition of the New York Times as 4969th place out of just under 51,000 runners.

The NYC marathon should be re categorised as an an ultra-marathon – I did at least 2 miles of walking afterwards, and that’s choosing the shorter route where you have agreed not to check-in a bag to the baggage trucks and instead get a rather fancy, lined poncho.

Sorry for those that had to share in my injury worry, which in the end didn’t really impact the race at all, aside from meaning I started steadily and didn’t push for a PB time.  I’ll only get my excuses in early in the future if I’ve actually lost a limb!

Overall – one of the most enjoyable races I’ve done.  The support and logistics are excellent.  It’s much too expensive at over $300 for international runners, but the ballot is still massively over-subscribed so it’s clearly not a price to put everyone off.  I’d definitely considering doing it again once I’ve finished the other majors.