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 they 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 become 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 run 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 about 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.

 

 

 

Race Report – Tokyo Marathon 2017

Why I chose to run Tokyo…

Back in 2015 on my 45th birthday I completed my first half marathon – the Bath Half. I finished in 1:44, which was pretty much on target and for some reason it made me think I should do a full marathon. I didn’t want to approach a marathon as a one-off bucket list entry though, I wanted to take the distance seriously and do a corresponding amount of training to get what I would feel was a respectable time versus my existing performances at other distances, preferably below 4 hours and maybe a bit quicker if the training went well.

I knew I’d need a really big event to get me fired up enough to do those lonely long training runs and discovered that there are a set of marathon majors in the world called the ‘Abbott six’, named after the main sponsor. The cities hosting them are London, Chicago, Berlin, New York, Tokyo and Boston.  I decided trying to do them all would be a really interesting goal for the next few years.

I’m not a celebrity or a professional runner so some avenues for getting a place in the big 6 are closed to me, but there are a few methods available.  They are: by meeting a challenging qualifying time (in 2015 I didn’t have a marathon finishing time, and couldn’t hope to meet the requirement anyway), by fulfilling a substantial charity fund raising target (which I wanted to save for later races, rather than annoying everyone by constantly tapping them up for money. Yes – look out, the tapping up is still to come!), by paying for an all-in organised tour (many $$$$s) or by entering a lottery ballot with varying odds. The latter was the only real choice open to me but clearly wouldn’t guarantee entry to any of them if I was unlucky in the ballots.

Back in early 2015 the next lottery up was Chicago, so I gave that a go and happily was lucky enough to get a spot. The journey could begin – with my first event the Chicago Marathon in October 2015.

Blliiing!

Winding the clock forward to February 2017 I have now also managed to get into and complete Berlin (September 2016) and Tokyo (February 2017) – 3 down and 3 to go. I didn’t know until Berlin that there was some uber-bling associated with doing all 6 majors – a large medal comprising 6 mini medals, one for each of the events. I am now even more determined to complete the set.

That’s quite a lengthy intro so here’s the TL:DR for the Tokyo marathon, which is what this blog post is really about –

Strava link – Tokyo Marathon 2017 Race

Date – 26/02/17
Weather – lovely. Cool and sunny with only a light breeze.
Course – not memorable. Boring switchbacks up and down some long dual carriageways.
Support – polite and enthusiastic. If only I knew what they were saying!
Race strategy – up tempo first 20 miles, cling on for the last 6.2.
Result – new PB of 3:20:23, beating my previous best at Berlin by just under 13 minutes and taking me under the time of 3:25 needed to apply to run the Boston Marathon at my age, known as a Boston Qualifier (BQ) time.
Bling – girly looking t-shirt, useful towel and a rather splendid gold medal.

And now back to more wordy sections…

Training:

My training for Tokyo started in November 2016, giving me about 16 weeks minus a bit of a break over Christmas. My plan was to try to squeeze in several 20 mile long runs to improve my stamina and to spend an increased proportion of my other running at a faster pace than I had done for previous training regimes. I decided mainly to skip high intensity track sessions due to the risk of injury and likewise didn’t do any all-out parkruns for the same reason.

Three changes seemed to have really helped me improve the quality of my training this time around. 1. Moving up to Group 1 for my Wednesday night club runs (Taunton Running Forever Running Club), meaning I spent more time running at around 7 minute mile pace and also more time at the edge of my running ability. 2. Joining the RFRC Sunday All Stars for a weekly long run, often supplemented by a few bonus miles before or after the main event. The great company makes turning out for a long run easier than I could have imagined. 3. A magic handheld roller bought for me by my wife Lisa (thank you Lisa) as a random present from a shopping trip (Magic roller). It has been nothing short of miraculous in enabling me to do more consistent mileage including a section of about 6 weeks where I averaged over 50 miles. Previously my Achilles’ tendons would have been shot to pieces after only a couple of similar weeks. I even managed a few double-days with a morning and afternoon run, which I enjoyed but splitting up a long run feels like cheating.

So the basic idea was more long runs and faster medium runs, but no crazily paced short ones.

Race Strategy:

The idea behind the training was to enable me to perform well for 20 miles. That would allow me to mentally break the marathon in two and apply myself fully over the first section without worrying too much about the final 6.2. I’m not mentally or physically the type of runner who can run a faster second half of such a long race – considered by many as the optimal race strategy, so front-loading the good miles is my best option. That does mean a painful finish is in store but I think that’s heading my way whichever strategy I go with.

I double-checked this strategy with the experienced marathon runners in my running club and the general consensus was indeed to go for a ‘fast’ first 20 and then cling-on!

Race Goals:

As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, most runners have several goals going into a race usually starting with ‘just finishing’ and working up in increments to a target time which hasn’t been neared in training. Somewhere in the set of goals is the ‘real’ one but it’s better to keep even yourself guessing which it might be! Not wanting to miss out on a good tradition here is my set in ascending order:

‘A’ goal – just finish (I was carrying a couple of calf niggles)
‘B’ goal – faster than 3:42 (my slowest time so far, Chicago 2015)
‘C’ goal – beat my PB of 3:33:18 from Berlin
‘D’ goal – break 3:30, the big round number
‘E’ goal – break 3:25 so I can apply for the Boston marathon (but wouldn’t get in due to competition from faster runners)
‘F’ goal – break 3:22 so I would more than likely actually get a Boston place (this may have been my ‘real’ goal but I’m not saying…)
‘G’ goal – break 3:15. Optional fantasy goal which would get me into London as a ‘Good For Age’ entrant. As per the above, nothing in training indicated this was remotely plausible.

Race recap:

9:10AM February 26th 2017 and I’m standing shivering at the start line in the cold shade cast by the 45 floors of the immense Tokyo Metropolitan Government buildings, 9 hours ahead of the UK and with very little sleep from the night before. We are talking about 10 minutes sleep here, it was almost none at all.

Holding his nose in anticipation?

On the plus side the queues for some tucked away little loos I had found earlier were amazingly short at only 1 person ahead of me – unheard of at a large marathon.

 

 

Possibly because of the somewhat basic design? 

 

 

 

Yum!

I’d also been given a free pouch of Pocari Sweat liquid gel. In terms of texture it’s a bit like drinking frogspawn but quite tasty once the initial shock has subsided.

 

After a fairly average amount of ticker tape and some loud fireworks we were off. I was in starting corral C (from A to L) so quite far forward. There wasn’t a staggered start, we all just shuffled forward and after about 2 minutes I crossed the line and the race I’d anticipated for several months was underway.

I should say at this point that this is the marathon course I remember the least of any I have done. I think it’s partly due to my focus on achieving my goal time but more because once you’d seen one part of the course you’d seen it all. I like to watch YouTube videos of the courses ahead of my races and with the Tokyo ones you could skip to any point in each video and it would look pretty much the same – try it for yourself here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMO_kxhApLY.

As well as the videos, I’d also read about the Tokyo marathon on a number of blogs and was expecting quite a crowded first few miles, which usually means a hefty dose of swerving around other runners. Added to this, the course is notorious for running a bit long due to the number of corners – most people I checked on Strava.com did around 26.7 miles or more, an extra half mile or ~4 minutes. I was expecting these factors to make hitting my goals even more challenging. This year the course route had been significantly altered to finish at the Imperial Palace in central Tokyo rather than at a conference centre out on Tokyo Bay, so it was hard to know whether that would be good or bad for distance. The finishing location was certainly much more convenient for us as we’d managed to find a hotel quite near the finish area and actually on the course itself just near the 29km point.

Speaking of kilometres, this route was exclusively marked in kms – no mile markers to be seen anywhere. I’ve decided I prefer them to miles. Yes, there are 42 versus 26, but they come around so much sooner. I found this particularly lovely at 35km+.

Back to the race…miles 1 to 4 included a bit of downhill but also some congestion. This sort of balanced out and I managed to just about hit my 20-mile goal pace of 7:30/mile during the first section.

By mile 5 my Group 1 training was paying off and I was able to sustain around 7:15/mile for the next 11 miles without feeling too puffed. I even had three 5km sections completed within 1 second of each other. I was a machine! I also managed to see Lisa at the 10km point – we don’t have a great track record of spotting each other, although her blonde hair stood out pretty well here as you can imagine.

So 11 more nondescript but successful miles go by and I’m up to 16 miles now and counting how many minutes I have in the bank versus each goal. ‘Just’ 10 miles to go, plus whatever additional distance I need to do to cover the swerving and the corners. Things were going well on that front too – I was only about 0.15 miles over the course measurement. No sign of my iffy right calf playing up either.

The next section was all about holding on to my goal pace. I didn’t need to exceed it, just not start cashing in precious seconds yet. I got another lift at 18 miles when Lisa and I spotted each other again. To be fair, she was standing outside our hotel so managing to miss each other at this point would have been appalling.

The grind continued and I got through miles 19 and 20 just ahead of goal pace. Unrealistic Goal G (3:15) was gone by this stage but my calculations put me a good 5 mins ahead of Goal F (3:22) and the possible achievement of a really solid BQ time. All of my marathon training has been geared towards achieving a BQ. Partly because of a sense of accomplishment but also out of practical necessity. I need to do Boston to complete the big 6 and you either qualify through a good performance or have to try to raise $5000 dollars in charity funding, arguably more challenging than the race itself.

Now for the tough miles – 21 through 26. It doesn’t sound far but the idea of running for another 50 or so minutes by this stage is quite daunting. I really didn’t want to waste all of my effort so far by slowing down so much that my goals began to unravel, so I made a bargain with myself that I could walk for no more than 30 seconds at each aid station. I was expecting 5 of them so, assuming walking speed is roughly half running speed, the total time lost would be about 15s x 5. I could afford to lose a minute. In the end there was quite a gap between some of the aid stations and I think only 4 in total, not great at this stage of the race but it had the bonus effect of keeping me running for longer.

Lisa was a great pick me up again at 41kms – that made 3 for 3 in terms of spotting each other, a definite spectating PB!  I did crumple a bit during mile 26 but by then I knew I’d done enough and walked for I would guess over a minute. On reflection it’s a shame because I could probably have got a sub 3:20 time and have all 26 miles completed at below 9:00/mile pace.  Maybe next time!

The final km was through a street we’d checked out the day before so I knew I was close. I didn’t really speed up any though, this was pure grind. I turned the final corner and the finish line gantries were less than 100 meters away. As I got closer I could see that the actual finish line was a bit nondescript and was about 30 yards my side of the gantries (which were actually for shepherding finishers through), so only 70 yards to go! I mustered a last bit of strength and held off some random person trying to take my rightful finishing position and in the process managed to steal someone else’s as well.

Final time 3:20:23 for a distance according to my Garmin of exactly 26.40 miles. I was as close to ecstatic as I get – I couldn’t really believe I’d done enough to get into Boston. That was definitely something I felt I was inching towards with each marathon rather than expecting to complete it in this one race.

Post-race trudge:

The huge number of volunteers (~10,000 I believe) were excellent throughout the race, cheering runners on through the drink stations etc. They were even better in the finishing area, forming a sort of guard of honour and giving high fives to everyone which helped to keep energy levels high for what turned out to be a very long walk.  I think I walked about 2.5 miles by the time I got back to Lisa.

First off I was presented with a nice towel (immediately doubling up as a blanket) then a short walk later a foil sheet for more warmth, then another short walk and a bag containing a bottle of water, then more walking and more Pocari Sweat, then more walking and finally the medal (yay!), then more walking and some weird dumpling thing, more walking and a banana and finally more walking and an energy bar, which I was tempted to eat as I was now well into my 27th mile!  That was it for official goodies but there was plenty more walking to come.  After another half a mile we’d moved from the Imperial Palace Gardens to Hibuya Park for the baggage vehicles (didn’t have anything to collect), free non-alcoholic beer, free massage and acupuncture and then finally changing tents.

Bonus miles

At this stage I was then able to escape and try to find Lisa, needing to cross the marathon route to do so.  Thankfully Tokyo has huge subway stations with multiple exits so I headed down into one and tried to guess where to pop back up.  I got it wrong slightly and ended up directly opposite Lisa but on the wrong side of the runners.  At least I could wave to her so she knew I was alive.  Crossing the course was NOT an option – the Japanese are quite strict about such matters.  e.g. everyone waits for the green man at zebra crossings even where it’s clear there is no traffic coming.  Down I went again and this time got the correct escape route and was finally re-united with Lisa, approximately an hour after finishing!

I’d happily race Tokyo again, but a 1 in 10 chance of getting in through the lottery and the high cost of getting there probably means this is a one-off.

Tired & cold but happy!