New York City marathon 2017 – running the race of a lifetime

New York City marathon start

I remember watching the New York City marathon on TV when I was a kid. I didn’t really know what it was back then, but the helicopter view of the start and the Verrazano-Narrows bridge alone blew my mind. The view was unreal as it seemed to almost float over the water.

After getting goosebumps and all I continued to watch and get inspired by runners, spectators and the city to the point when I wanted to be there.

So yeah, this is a story of a dream. With lots of extra practical details.

Fast forward 15 years to Sunday, November 5, 2017 there I was. Living the dream and running the New York City marathon.

New York City marathon 2017

Back in 1970 New York City marathon was a boring four-lap race in Central Park. Struggling for attention, it was re-planned in 1976 to cover all five boroughs of the city – Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx and Manhattan.

It made it more exciting, for sure, but not any easier. In fact, all the bridges and hills make it even tougher, as it seems to go up and down the entire time. The total race elevation is whopping 290m.

That’s like climbing to the 90th floor while running a marathon. Or, you know, the top of Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Staten Island – start

My day started early, as I left the apartment in Manhattan at around 5:15am. I was concerned about having breakfast almost 5 hours before the race, so took some snacks with me. But luckily, there were bagels and energy bars at the start village in Staten Island, so I needn’t have to worry.

Unless you have a private helicopter, the New York City marathon starts waaay before the cannon fires. Getting to the start line alone takes a while.

Verazzano Narrows bridge
There is a lot of waiting before the start at the New York City marathon

The start of the New York City marathon is supposed to take your breath away. The cannon fire, Frank Sinatra’s song “New York, New York” in the background and the view of the city’s skyline – all that.

Instead, starting just meters behind professional men I only heard the cannon and some 5 seconds of the song. I also didn’t see any skyline, as it was quite foggy in the morning.

I still enjoyed the start experience very much. Probably because I was tired of waiting in line the whole morning. But mostly because I was very excited to finally do something I dreamed of since I was a kid.

I had a mental time travel to 15 years ago when I saw the race for the first time and almost thought it was on another planet.

I’ve read a couple of blogs on the New York City marathon pacing strategy and took the advice to slow down for the first 2 kilometers. The Verrazano-Narrows bridge at the start is the biggest ascent of the race. With all of the excitement and nostalgia I wouldn’t even notice running up an equivalent of a 12-story building.

Brooklyn and Queens – 3K to 25K

Coming down the bridge into Brooklyn I was thrown into different reality. Suddenly there were crowds of people, cheering despite the rain. It seemed that whole New York is out on the streets.

Incredible.

From that point onward (except for bridges to Manhattan and Bronx) it was as load as a football match.

Running further into Brooklyn I saw places turned into party spots. People opened doors and windows to their houses and had fun with, probably, total strangers.

At one point I even saw massive speakers put outside the church and people dancing.

Some shopkeepers would even hand out bananas and water from their shops to runners. For free, of course.

It was hard to resist the temptation to go faster with all the adrenaline, but I promised myself to stay around the same effort level throughout the marathon. That one rule helped me to stay focused and avoid getting carried away.

Brooklyn and Queens
Running through Brooklyn was exciting and I didn’t notice how I got into Queens

Around halfway I felt first signs of fatigue, though.

I was running up, what I thought was the beginning of the Queensboro bridge (second largest climb of the race). It felt hard, but as I turned my head to the left I saw another bridge 3-4K away. And it was at least double the height.

To say I was demotivated at that point would be an understatement. That part of the race was mentally the most challenging for me. It’s like a time bomb.

You understand that for the next 1.5 hour there’s gonna be a lot of suffering. And that’s about to start in just 15 minutes.

That bridge to Manhattan turned out to be my 2 slowest kilometers of the race. It literally felt as if I was walking uphill. 

Manhattan and the Bronx – 25K to 37K

My legs did recover on the downhill a bit and I regained my motivation back.

And just in time for the best bit.

As promised by organizers, First Avenue was very loud and jam-packed with spectators. It was so touching to see people stopping due to cramps and everybody around screaming “don’t stop, you got this!”.

That was the 30K mark, probably just over 2 hours into the race. At that point the body starts to run out of glycogen and the runner hits “the wall”.

To make things worse, the whole First Avenue stretch was just like Brooklyn – long, straight and up & down the entire time.

In the middle of this action I also started to feel low on energy. I had only 2 gels with me (both were gone before the Queensboro bridge) and I was really looking forward to the fueling station.

At this point I’ve consumed around 20g of carbs per hour which was not enough for my effort.

I already mentioned how everyone seemed to try to participate in the marathon, right? Well, in Manhattan it got to a new level.

I picked 2 gels from a police officer and some bananas from a child trying to get as much energy as I could. 

In the Bronx I continued my sugar rush, looking for bananas at every turn like a crazy monkey.

It felt very quiet at first, compared to what was happening just a couple of minutes ago in Manhattan. But as I made the turn deeper into the Bronx the party was there. It was not the most packed one, but definitely the loudest.

Bronx was short, though. So after waving to a nice lady carrying a poster “Last damn bridge” I was back to Manhattan for the final push.

Central Park – finish

After all the gels and my banana quest through Bronx I was focused on finishing strong.

I was actually running fast until the last 4K of the race when I got to the 3rd largest climb of the race. At that time you’d think it’s almost over and the finish line is almost there. Trust me, when you’re running uphill for 1.5 kilometers after you’ve already covered 40 it feels it will never come.

It kind of felt like that time when I was climbing a volcano. You can see the summit, but it doesn’t get any closer.

That climb was brutal and took all power I had left in my legs. As I turned into the Central Park there were basically just 2K left. Most of it was downhill, but not enough to recover because of smaller hills along the way. And nobody had the energy for that – it was the point when I saw lots of people starting to walk.

Last miles of the New York City marathon
I can’t quite recall the last kilometer. All I remember was thinking how much I want to stop

As I made the second to last turn, I was surprised I was still running. I didn’t feel my legs, nor did I really see what was happening around.

Those were pure emotions and willpower that carried me through that last mile. I had absolutely nothing left in the tank.

Not that it was painful. Thanks to my training there was no pain compared to my previous marathon. Instead, I felt my legs going numb, as those hills took their toll. Once I crossed the finish line I could barely stand.

After 15 years of waiting my expectations were quite high for this race. Crossing the finish line of the New York City marathon was exactly as amazeballs as I imagined.

I’m so glad I stuck with that dream for so long and finally made it a reality.

Finishing the New York City marathon
Finishing the New York City marathon

My training & results

My training was similar to last year’s when I trained for my first marathon. The only difference was that I excluded short intervals until exhaustion to avoid muscle fatigue and added longer efforts.

I wrote a series of posts last year how I prepared for the first marathon using my experience from kayaking. 

This time I also paid more attention to nutrition and especially timing of it. The biggest change for me was that I stopped eating late at night and never worked out on empty tank.

In the 2-3 months leading to the marathon I had 2 main workouts throughout the week:

  • Long runs at an easy pace with some 2-3 km segments at marathon effort
  • Hour-long steady runs at marathon effort

The rest of my runs were at an easy effort with short sprints (up to 5sec) and occasional 3 to 6 minute intervals. The only thing I would add to this are long hilly runs to prepare for the NYC course. I really lacked that extra strength in the second half.

Pacing the race

I finished in 3:10:40. It’s a 9-minute improvement since last year’s Munich marathon and NYC is a very hilly course. I’m quite happy with the result.

This time I used the average heart rate from my previous marathon and tried to keep the effort just 1-2 beats under that. I ran through the half marathon mark in 1:32:44, so the second half was whole 8 minutes longer. In NYC most of the challenging hills are in the second half and I was not quite prepared for that. I still think on a flat course my pacing would work out to almost even splits.

Still, it’s better than last year when I ran second half 15 minutes slower.

This time I really understood the saying – marathon is a test of pure strength and the New York City marathon proves that. In such long race it’s not about the endurance you have, but rather how strong is your body to continue running for so long.

Another thing I didn’t quite get right was fueling. By the time I reached 30K I was consuming carbs at the rate of around 20g per hour, so I was pretty down on energy throughout the middle part of the race. Next time I need to plan my intake around 50g per hour which would total to around 5 gels for 3 hours.

Practical information and race organization

New York City marathon is one of the most popular marathons in the world and there are thousands of people applying for a spot every year. As in all major marathons you can get in either by being fast or through a lottery.

Qualifying time for my age group is 2:53:00 which was too fast for me, so I applied for a lottery through the official website that ran for several weeks in April. I was lucky enough to get drawn from the first attempt.

Before applying though it’s worth considering that NYC is a very expensive city. So apart from the entrance fee that bites the wallet, food and accommodation are going to bite even more.

I stayed in airbnb, so managed to save some money on food by cooking myself instead of going out.

The weather

The whole week before the marathon the weather was around 20 degrees Celsius and I was not sure what to wear until the last moment. I read it could get windy, so back at home I packed 3 different options. I tried all of them before the race during my training runs.

This time I stayed in Chinatown and ran on the East River promenade. Honestly, this is not the best place for running in NYC.

In the end, the weather was perfect on race day. Exactly 12 degrees, light drizzle and not a strong wind (mostly at the start). I learned my lesson the last time and didn’t dress like a scuba diver.

Fueling, pacers and spectator spots

The fueling was great – once every mile there was a Gatorade (sports drink) station followed by a water station. I tried to sip some at every one, sometimes skipping the Gatorade to avoid stomach issues. Compared to other races, gels are handed out only at 30K mark when it can be too late. So take yours with you.

Pacers are hard to notice on the course. They are carrying a small stick with pace on one side and time on another written in tiny letters. Also, they are running a slightly faster pace with an idea that as long as you have the pacer in sight you are on target to run your goal time.

Spectator sports are all around the course. Some are formally organized with music, announcements, stage and performances. Some are just house parties, like in Brooklyn. And in some cases it’s just lots of people along the course screaming and cheering.

The course is very tough, so it takes careful planning to put your “crew” in spots where you need support the most. In my case it was in 3 places – Brooklyn around the 10K mark and then in Manhattan on 1 and 5 Avenues (30K and 37K respectively). I can’t thank my wife enough for being there for me – it really helped me to split the course into several pieces and focus only on the next smaller bit until I see her again.

We agreed beforehand where my wife will stand and I even wrote exact spots on my hand (like 1 Ave, between 96 and 97 St, etc.). She also used the The New York City marathon mobile app to track where I was and when to expect me.

Post-race

If you decided not to check in your bag at the start line (use the poncho option), you will get out of the park quite fast (around 500m after the finish). But you will also need to go to the start with the clothes you are planning to throw out.

I like to come to the start in warm clothes and then get those after the finish. I had a low number due to my predicted time, so had to walk almost 1.5 kilometers to get my bag back.

By the time I reached the pick up point I already ate half of what was in the “recovery bag” I was given.

As soon as I got dressed and out of the park with the medal around my neck, something I didn’t experience before started to happen. Every stranger started congratulating me. That was so weird, as I’m not used to that in Europe. Even the next day walking around the city I noticed people wearing their medals and total strangers would congratulate them as well.

It seems such an easy thing to do and means so much to other person, yet I never seen it done until now. Amazing.

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