Text : Katerina Alevizaki (Athens Journal.gr – Contributing Author) Personal reflection on the 2014 NYC Marathon
The NYC marathon is a big celebration of the running community and running lovers in general. After all, as the organizers claim, this is “the world’s biggest and most popular marathon.” People from all over the world swarm the city just to experience the event as participants, supporters, or mere spectators and to partake in this “celebration” of human will and strength.
The organization behind NYC Marathon, the New York Road Runners, plans a number of events prior to the race, geared to participants as well as their families and friends. There is a marathon opening ceremony, running events for school kids, bus tours of the marathon route, a smaller, 5- mile, Marathon opener race the day before, a pasta dinner party and of course a gargantuan, 3-day long Marathon Expo.
Overall the Expo is a successful attempt to enthuse and prepare participants and their families for the big day. You can find tips on what to expect on the course, explore tools to deal with the particularities of the course and the significant security measures, win giveaways, while friends and family, your support team, can find information for good places to view the race and how to get to the best viewing spots efficiently. The Expo boasts a large selection of sportswear, gear and other mementos created just for the NYC marathon, from long sleeved to short sleeved technical Ts, in a number of different prints and colors, sweatshirts, jackets, pants, shorts, socks, shoes, arm warmers, gloves, hats, coffee mugs, backpacks, and teddy bears. The line to check out takes more than 15 minutes and given the many choices (and my own excitement), I walk away with a significant “damage.” There are vendors from all the major sponsors of the NYC Marathon and of course vendors from most major athletic apparel companies, as well as sportswear stores in New York. There is also the opportunity to try out the Race Predictor and your friends and supporters can make signs for you.
Personally, the days prior to the race, I find it hard to feel enthusiastic about the race. Granted pre-race jitters about “performance” explain a big part for this lack of enthusiasm. But primarily I am concerned about the weather, as the forecast calls for a cold and windy day, and the very fact that I have to be on the starting line 4 hours prior to my starting time, and none of the other people I know running the marathon are assigned to the same starting village as I am, compound to wane my enthusiasm even further. As the race participants top the 50,000 mark, athletes are strictly organized in three different starting villages (orange, green and blue), four different waves, and several different corrals; I am Blue, wave 2, corral D and runners are assigned based on their predicted finish time. Runners were required to make their selections regarding their transportation back in the early summer, so needless to say, no research goes into this on my part. I have chosen to take the midtown bus at 5:30 in the morning and have opted to have no baggage transferred to the finish line; if you choose to have your baggage transported you are warned that it will take you significantly longer (70 to 80 minutes) to exit the park after the race and you will not receive the post-race poncho. In the summer it may have sounded like a fine idea to start the race that early, but now that I am seeing the weather forecast I am becoming less than enthusiastic for my choice. Coach warns to make sure to have enough layers of clothing while waiting at the starting line to make sure to stay warm; this proved impossible in practice, as no matter how much I layered, I was never as warm as I would have liked.
The day of the race, I wake up at 4:30 am and have a quick breakfast of carbohydrates. I was supposed to have pasta but of course at the wee hours of the morning, toast and jam sounds more appetizing, and coupled with a decaf coffee, I fool myself that this is a regular start to the day. I have prepared all my things for the race from the night before, cloths for warming up, racing, and several more to layer to keep warm, shoes, race belt and bib, gels and snacks for the long wait and at 5 am I am ready to go. Arriving at the midtown meeting point to take the bus to the starting line I am surprised to see buses triple parked, lining up for 10 blocks. Runners are quickly ushered into a bus and our 30 minute trip to the starting line begins. I take this opportunity to relax and unwind and listen to the comments the other runners are making. Apparently, the wind factor has prohibited the organizers from putting up any tents, so we are warned that we will be fully exposed to the elements.
Reaching the starting line villages, we go through metal detectors and police officers check our bags (you can only use the clear bag provided by the organizers for your personal items). We are then left to our own devices to figure out where to go. There are a number of volunteers trying to help us out, but not all of them are conversant on the location of the different villages. On my way to the Blue village I put on my layers of cloths as I am already feeling the cold (about 3 degrees, but with the wind factor making it seem much colder). Making my way to the blue village I am relieved to see there are several toilets (!) and a festive atmosphere. The spirits are quickly dampened though by the fact that the village is already packed with runners and most of the good waiting (meaning dry!) spots are gone. I do manage to find a rather dry spot and the long wait begins. I take this opportunity to relax and try to figure out where to warm up prior to the race. There is no apparent space for warm up and I am trying to gauge if it can be possibly done on the limited space of the starting village or if it will be better to wait to get to the corrals. At least, I can keep busy observing how people are trying to stay warm; the top item of choice is garbage bags, in cases worn over every inch of one’s body. Several foreign languages are spoken and announcements are made in English, Italian, French, Spanish, and German. All in all, it was interesting to observe how different people prepped for the race and their little quirks and rituals. Two examples stand out and will make my coach shudder. First, French runners were huddled in a corner trying to squeeze in a pre-marathon smoke; volunteers quickly rushed to warn them that smoking is not allowed in the promises, but the mere fact that an announcement was regularly made that smoking is not allowed in the starting villages, has me believing that smoking is a common “offense.” Then a bunch of Dutch marathoners were having a feast of a breakfast prior to the race. A group of eight runners in all, they had a large selection of sandwiches layered in different meats, cheeses and relished with pickles prior to the race. They topped off the feast with endless amounts of coffee; unfortunately I didn’t retain their bib numbers to check how they fared at the race.
All in all, waiting for the race to start was an experience I wouldn’t like to replicate. I felt cold all the time, limited the intake of water, as I had to constantly hit the toilet lines, which got progressively longer as the time passed, and had to “overeat” bananas and gels, as I felt hungry all the time, expending calories to keep warm. The first wave of runners hit the corrals at 8:30 and the village crowds didn’t thin out. I realized then that it would be impossible to warm up at the village and hoped that I will be able to do that at the corral. However, as we lined up to enter our corral 30 minutes prior to the start of the race, the prior wave hadn’t yet left, as there was a slight delay to the start of the race. Lining up for the corral you in fact realize the size of the crowds; hundreds of runners teeming the corrals waiting for the start, the crowds of runners lining up to enter the corral for the next wave, while glancing back to the village remaining full of runners, the participation in the NYC marathon is impressive. My wave was not allowed to enter the corral until 10 minutes prior to our starting time. There was absolutely no space or time for a warm up, save for a couple of minutes of slow jogging. The speakers constantly blared the same announcement over and over in different languages. I think I now know how to say “Only use the toilets at the corrals, you will be disqualified if you urinate on the bridge” in all major languages. At the corrals, I started shedding the layers of clothing, the two extra pairs of paints, the two thermal Ts and the warm fleece jacket; thankfully all this clothing is donated. I decided to start the race wearing a thermal T, layered with two short sleeve Ts, long running pants and compression socks. I also kept my hat and gloves. I felt really cold at this point and knew that only moving about could warm me up. Trying to make up for the slight delay in the prior wave, the organizers rushed my wave to the starting line. In fact, the start was so crowded that I didn’t even see the starting line, until the clock had gone off for 3 minutes. I realized that when I did make it to the starting line and was finally able to start running, 4 and a half minutes had already passed from the time my wave was off. All in all, the start felt un-ceremonial and anticlimactic, but fortunately my spirits lifted as soon as I able to start running.
The start of the NYC marathon is admittedly really special. You cross the Verrazano Narrows Bridge (and I was lucky to cross the upper deck) and you have magnificent views of the city, Ellis Island, and the statue of liberty on the one side and the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean on the other side. The wind factor at the bridge was significant, blowing most runners to the right side but the feeling of exhilaration I felt, having finally started works in my favor and my enthusiasm is not dampened by the wind and cold. I actually started the race much faster than I had expected, and considering that I had not had the chance to warm up, was a poor choice but I found myself unable to be disciplined about it. I was surprised to actually witness many runners stopping to snap their pictures on the bridge to keep as mementos (and many runners were stopping to snap pictures in several cases during the race to my surprise). I thoroughly enjoyed the first part of the race and the welcome to Brooklyn after the bridge from the crowds was warm and enthusiastic. Reaching Brooklyn the wind was also less intense but the cold was still a factor, so I kept my quicker pace, my extra layers and my hats and gloves. The course was rather flat and crowded with enthusiastic spectators, while music blasted every few blocks or so. I breezed through the first ten kilometers, enjoying the running and the experience; I started hydrating as soon as water stations were available, trying to approximate the instructions given to me in kilometers, in a race measured primarily in miles. I drank water at every mile, more or less, depending on how I felt, and grabbed a Gatorade on the kilometer markings of the race (starting at the 5K mark and every 5 kilometers). The crowds throughout Brooklyn didn’t thin out, with the exception of one small part of the neighborhood at Williamsburg, from which spectators were eerily absent. Overall the marathon crosses a significant part of Brooklyn and is fairly flat, with the exception of Clinton Hill. My body felt great at this first part of the race, and I had finally started to warm up, shedding the one T and the gloves by the time I reached Queens (my hat had already been blown off by a wind gust at the start of the race). At points I even quickened the pace, dropping to 4:55.
As soon as we left Brooklyn and reached Queens, and nearing the half-marathon part, my body started to get tired and my resolve slightly waned when I met the long uphill to the bridge at the half marathon mark. I slowed down substantially reaching the Queensboro Bridge, which would lead us into Manhattan. The wind was at our head, making the ascent to the bridge difficult. There are no spectators allowed on the bridge, so it makes for a very quiet long stretch, in which you hear the runners’ footsteps and the labored breathing. I read after the race, that this is the part where the average NY marathoner significantly slows down, and it makes absolute sense in retrospect; my pace slowed down to 6:59 at this stretch! To make matters worse, and after crossing the 25 km mark, the head wind slowed down what would have been an easy descent into Manhattan; despite the wind, my body was warm enough now to shed the second extra T. I concentrated on visualizing what to expect ahead, as I know the area that the marathon passes next intimately and my family was waiting to cheer for me, as soon as we exited the bridge. In fact the spirit and the pace quickened as we crossed into the street and the thick crowds enthusiastically cheered us on. Indeed, the spectators amassed made it impossible to spot my kids and was disappointed, a fact that was reflected with a mere drop to the pace, but I tried to garner resolve by shifting my concentration in trying to manage my remaining power gels, as I had already lost one during the race, one had burst open in my pants (and blessed me with a bleeding chafing sore that still aches) and I had consumed one too many at the starting village.
Going up First Avenue in Manhattan started to get painful, especially as we approached the crossing to the Bronx. For a minute I had thoughts of deserting the race, especially when a slight left would take me to my house, but I pushed away these thoughts quickly. My calves were extremely tight at this point and my only consolation was that I passed by the Energy gel station and was able to grab 4 gels, which meant that I wouldn’t run out before the race was over. I quickly stuffed the gels under my sleeves, lest I lose them again and tried to only think of my running technique, so that to take my mind away from the last 12 kilometers or so. The crowds were thinner at the Bronx and I was feeling the fatigue, but had not hit the “wall” per se. I knew that I could even walk to finish the race at this point, if that was the case, but I was determined to break the 4-hour mark and my spirits lifted, when at some point in the distance I glanced the 3:45 pacers in the distance, which meant I wasn’t far off my goal. We passed some stations offering Vaseline for chafing and rollers for the muscles, but I thought this would unnecessarily slow me down, even though my calves ached.
Descending again to Manhattan for the final stretch to the finish line and the realization that you are almost there, the spirits and the pace lifted again briefly; however the pace after the 25 km mark would remain slower than my pace at the beginning of the race, fluctuating between 5:29 and 5:46 (whereas for the first 25 km the pace fluctuated between 4:55 and 5:33). I kept my water, Gatorade and gel intake according to my coach’s instructions but I felt increasingly tired at this point and I had started feeling the pounding from the asphalt on my lower back. As we reached the final stretch of going down Fifth Avenue (or should I note UP as the slight uphill at this point is grueling) the wind, the cold and the fatigue all compounded in making me feel uncomfortable. The only consolation was that the finish line was within my reach. The crowds were enthusiastic as we reached the end of the Marathon, but interestingly, the throngs of runners never thinned out; throughout the marathon I was running along numerous people, essentially always having to pass someone and get passed by someone.
Overall, the end of the race was painful, physically and mentally. I knew the finish line was a few meters ahead of me, but it was not until I actually got glimpsed of it, that I was able to sprint to it and as the NYC marathon essentially finishes on an uphill, the sprint was towards the very end. The bleachers at the finish line were teeming with spectators (who need to have purchased a ticket in order to have the privilege to attend), so once again I didn’t manage to see the friends who were waiting for me. We crossed the finish line and had to line up to get our medals, our pictures and our recovery bags (stocked with water, an isotonic drink, a protein drink, an energy bar and a bag of pretzels) and mylar blankets. Following that, the most grueling wobble followed, as no runner is allowed to exit the park until we reach a certain exit point; this essentially meant that I walked what measured as 1.8 km after the race. Needless to say, it was an extremely painful walk that required more mental resolve than finishing the marathon did. Most people at this point were tired and nobody was talking or smiling, to the point that several volunteers commented that we all looked like zombies. The cold weather made matters worse, as at this point the combination of the wet cloths with the wind made my teeth rattle, so loudly that a volunteer rushed to me a poncho to warm me up, several blocks before the point I was supposed to get it. Painful as the walking at the end was, I feel that it did make a great difference post race, as I only experienced mild soreness the day after the marathon and recovered faster than I had last time around.
Overall, running the NYC marathon was a memorable experience and I would highly recommend it to devoted runners, if only for the experience of participating in a very big race. And as with any event that is so large, it felt impersonal at times, even though a lot of effort is put into making you feel part of a larger, international running community, but of course that can be a good or a bad thing depending on your personality. Admittedly, the NYC marathon is impeccably organized for an event that is so big and so ambitious and it delivers on its promise to “get your celebration on.”