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Race Result

Racer: Steve Smith
Race: New York City Marathon
Date: Sunday, November 4, 2001
Location: New York, NY
Race Type: Run - Marathon
Age Group: Male 30 - 34
Time: 3:11:55
Comment: Definitely better the second time around



Race Report:



The crowds have thinned out for a moment, both the runners and the spectators. In its tour of each of the five boroughs, the ING New York City Marathon delivers me across five bridges. I do not know it yet, but what the soaring, picturesque Verrazano-Narrows Bridge delivers in scenery the rather squat, industrial Queensboro Bridge is about to deliver in emotion.

I climb the soft slope that will bring me to the Queensboro Bridge and then Manhattan and, in the rare moment of solitude, I take stock of my body. Things are going good. It's mile 16, and if things are going to be good at mile 26 they must be good here. After the all the hubbub of Brooklyn and the party/mayhem of a start on Staten Island, after all the merging of starting areas and packed streets of smiling kids spilling sports drink, after all that, the silence is refreshing.

I enter the shade of the bridge's lower level, and I take in the sights: the East Side lies ahead of me, the East River below me. I peer to the south to and I do not see the towers of the World Trade Center, wondering, yet again, if that's unusual from this vantage point.

I hear the first muffled roar, a sound that rises from below me, a sound that is filled with pure enthusiasm, with glee. It subsides for a few moments and then it rises again. As I take in the sound I am reminded of my college days, when I would wake up late Saturday morning, shake off Friday night, and wander over to the football game. I lived a mile from the stadium, and on most weekends the 50,000 fans could find something worth cheering about as I made my way to the stadium. From further away I would hear a dull cheer for a solid defensive tackle, or maybe rising roar for a particularly elegant third-down completion. That sound and all that excitement lay in my future, and I savored the quiet approach to the fun.

Running across the Queensboro Bridge, toward First Avenue, is like that. It is like running toward a stadium full of crazy college football fans. The cheers rise and fall as runners come off the bridge and into the mayhem of First Avenue. Fans are lined 6 and 10 people deep and they exude a deep, throaty cheer that bounces off the surrounding buildings. The difference here, of course, is that when I enter the "stadium" the cheers will be for me. As I'm 16 miles into my second-ever marathon, I haven't quite grasped this yet. I am getting ahead of myself, a full 16 miles ahead. But in order to make sense of the next comment I thought some background was necessary.

Don't stop running marathons until you've run the New York City Marathon.

***

Before I ever ran a marathon I had two friends tell me, unsolicited and independent of one another, to do the New York City Marathon before I stopped running marathons. If you ask me, this is a strange thing to tell someone training for his first marathon. When pushed for reasons both ladies fell back on a few common themes: the crowds, the majesty, having so much of New York dedicated to us runners. But perhaps it is best summarized with this thought: Any event that shuts down New York City for a day is worth checking out.

As I arrived in New York in November 2001, less than two months after the September 11th disaster the city was just beginning to exhale. The Yankees had come back from a 0-2 deficit, winning three straight games in New York. With the memory of 9-11 fresh in everyone's mind, the town seem to take comfort in those things in which it takes pride: its Yankees, its resilience, its rhythms. While this pride and this resilience are merely one piece of the New York character, on this weekend it was the most prominent piece visible to me. A gorgeous fall weekend greeted more than 35,000 runners to the city, and the air was filled with a bit of optimism in the face of so much recent confusion.

There are many good reasons to do this race and, but there are some things that I believe will make any NYCM experience better. Of course, I've only done the race once, so my opinion is just that, the opinion of someone without too much experience. Then again, I've done the race one more time than most people on the planet, so, for you folks, I'll make a few recommendations.

First, an observation: I think this race hits its potential when the weather is cooperative. There's nothing you can do about the weather, but two things that really make this race--the sights of the city and the throngs of spectators--would suffer in poor weather. More significantly, the logistics of the race requires all runners to be staged on Staten Island for several hours before the race's 10 a.m. start. On a pleasant fall day, this can be relaxing, but in a sleety, cold pre-winter day it could be miserable. Thus, my first recommendation: find other opinions about the race if you run into someone that had terrible weather. My second recommendation, which is true for many mass start marathons and nearly all point-to-point races, would be to bring some throw-away garments that can keep you dry and warm.

The NYCM is a good race to do with friends, especially if you want to take in some of the city's more traditional fares. New York offers just about everything to just about anyone, but that variety comes at a price: hotels can be pricey, getting around town can be pricey, and enjoying the best of New York can be pricey. All that pricey stuff is a little easier if you can go halfsies on the lodging and a few other things. Aside from cost-sharing, we've already discussed another reason to show up with a marathon buddy: the Staten Island staging time is more enjoyable with friends. Lastly, I've always found that training with friends and then traveling with friends to a "vacation" race is one of the most enjoyable experiences in racing.

However, as one of the more popular races in the world, getting your running buddy into the race is not guaranteed. The NYCM offers a variety of ways to gain entry. Most people enter via lottery (according to the official website your chances were nearly 1 in 2 in 2004). If you live in the New York area, or visit often, you can qualify by competing in a series of New York Road Runner races. If you're fleet of foot, you can qualify for the race outright by winning your age group in one of these races or with a qualifying marathon or half-marathon time. My advice is this: get four or five people interested in racing and lottery together. Chances are decent that at least two of you will make the cut.

The race website has the full guidelines to entering the lottery or claiming your guaranteed entry as well as updates on the qualifying times, deadlines for registration, and announcements of lottery winners. As for getting to New York City, there's very little I can add to the enormous store of knowledge dedicated to this subject. I would, however keep in mind that the shuttle buses leave from Midtown starting at 5 a.m. (FACT CHECK)--specifically the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street--so that may factor into your choice of lodging.

***

I arrive in New York City midday Saturday and to the view of an impossibly long line spilling into the sidewalk outside of the Javits Center. Despite my predictions otherwise, I'm out of the packet pickup a great deal faster than my predicted finish time. It isn't a fast operation, and midday Saturday is probably the worst time to arrive, but I escape in less than an hour.

After a quick dinner (pasta of course) I retire to my typically small-sized hotel room in Midtown. It's relatively early, about 7 p.m. and I wonder if I should get caught up in the World Series. My mild interest in baseball was always directed toward either the Orioles or the Red Sox, but given everything the city of New York has been through in the last few months the Yankees are a sentimental favorite, even for me. A win tonight will give them the series, and New Yorkers something to celebrate. I opt for an early bedtime instead of the local watering hole, and I'm glad--the Yanks are down 12-0 by the third inning and it doesn't look pretty as I fall in and out of sleep.

On the surface, the NYCM seems to have a civilized start time of 10 a.m. But in order to get onto Staten Island before they close all the roads I'm up at 5 a.m., just like any other 7:00 a.m. race start. I have a short walk from my hotel on Third Avenue to the shuttle buses on Fifth Avenue. I head directly cross-town to Fifth Avenue and I'm stunned to see a line of buses lined down Fifth Avenue. I'm on 51st Street so that makes nearly 11 blocks of buses, lined nose-to-tail all the way down to 42nd Street. In the otherwise quiet morning streets, it's an impressive sight.

It's a beautiful morning. The sun is shining and the city is quiet in the early morning hours except, of course, for the low hum of some 60 or so idling tour buses and a handful of loud-spoken race volunteers shouting directions to the wandering masses. Before I finally switched off the TV, I got the final score for Game 6 of the series: 15-2. Ouch. I find the vast majority of New Yorkers taking the drubbing in good stride. Some are optimistic but many are non-chalant. What will be, will be. Recent events have brought perspective to so many things that seemed terribly important only a year ago.

Once in the staging area we have about three hours to kill before the race begins. Of course, no trip to the NYCM would be complete without a visit the World's Longest Urinal. When you have friends like mine, you hear about these things in advance. I'm not sure what I had envisioned originally, but it was more of a shoe-string operation than I had anticipated. As the urinal uses gravity to move things along, I would recommend avoiding my rookie mistake and instead position yourself far upstream if you're going to put the thing to use. I pass the remainder of our idle time sitting atop a small hill, marveling at the still-continuous line of tour buses that pour across the Verrazano-Narrows bridge.

All the runners are corralled in one common area before we make our ways to the various start lines. The race start uses three different approaches to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and the first four miles can be quite different for each of the color-coded routes. After mile four the three routes come into much closer alignment until they finally converge at mile eight, but I am again getting ahead of myself.

As I approach the Blue start area, the security that surrounds this race becomes strikingly real. Many of the buses that delivered us here are parked nose-to-tail, so close that I couldn't stick my arm between two of them. Perhaps this is how they always cordon off the runners, but I doubt it. I also doubt the normalcy of the heavily armed men walking along the bus tops. As we come closer and closer to race time, more and more helicopters circle the bridge. The corals pack in tighter and tighter. The entire scene is building to a crescendo. I'm not a particularly worrisome individual; I'm of the belief that the Next Bad Thing will something completely different, that while the marathon is important to me, terrorists around the world are only vaguely aware of its existence. All this made perfect sense until a few minutes before the race start. But with all these thousands of people crammed into such a dense area, my rational side is a little less confident of itself.

As the entire scene compresses on itself, Mayor Giuliani appears. I cannot make out all the words, but there are some comforting words to the Yankee fans, some somber words about 9-11, and some encouraging words for the runners. Since I'm missing every third word I don't know exactly how it starts, but I suddenly find myself in a line of thousands of people singing, at the top of our lungs, "New York, New York." People actually start a can-can line. It's just what the tense scene needed and as the grin covers my face from ear-to-ear, the whole mass of people starts moving forward.

***

I know this is not an event for PRs. The race is so dense in the opening miles that weaving and bobbing through the first few miles can take their toll. My plan is to take it easy, to take in the scenery and then decide how the day will go. Deep down, I know I'm in pretty good running shape and I purposefully set my absolute best-case scenario at 3:15, outside a Boston qualifying time. I think I may be able to run a bit faster, but I don't want the pressure so I have seeded myself a good ways back from the start.

I'm glad I take the race easy from the start, because the view from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is just amazing. It is a perfectly clear day. No haze, few clouds, bright sun. I look to the west and I'm struck at how wrong the southern tip of Manhattan looks. For the briefest of moments I even doubt that I am looking at Wall Street; without the towers the skyline seems odd, unbalanced. If I feel this way, I wonder what all the New Yorkers are thinking. I've been in and out of the city maybe a dozen times in the last year, but many people around me have lived most of their lives with that skyline. Where I am confused, I wonder if they are lost.

I look down and we are impossibly high above the water; it's an awesome site and I quickly realize that I was lucky in drawing the top level of the bridge: not only do I get the full affect of the view, but also I don't have to worry about the dozens of idiots that pee off the side of the bridge. For a race so well marshaled by police I'm a little surprised at this and worry for some of the folks below us.

Once off the bridge we are in Brooklyn, our second borough of the day and where we will run at least 11 of our day's 26.2 miles. The running crowds, thick all morning long once you get in line for the shuttle bus, are joined by thousands of spectators as soon as we leave the bridge. This is my second marathon and I'm not prepared for the masses of people (either on or off the course), but it's immensely enjoyable. I will later discover there are nearly 2 million spectators. There are plenty of people out supporting their loved ones, but to me it seems like many of the people are just out to celebrate the day, to celebrate their particular neighborhood's participation in this grand event, and even to celebrate their hopes, both for the runners, for the Yankees (there are quite a few signs cheering runners and Yanks in the same breathe), and for so much more.

Once the three routes begin to converge at mile 4 we are running north on Fourth Avenue I find that I'm able to pick up the pace if I like. The aid stations are enormous affairs, stocked on both sides with mountains of cups and the road is sticky with their excess for a hundred meters. I enjoy the early parts of Brooklyn, with the kids in their own race, competing to get the most high-fives. Then there are the firemen, raised above the course in their cherry pickers. In an odd reversal of roles, the firemen consistently get cheers from the runners as we pass by. Runners with Yankee hats get some of the biggest grins. Everyone is glad to be alive on such a pretty day.

***

As I approach mile 8, I decide that I want to race this race, and I shift up a full gear. I had crossed the 10K mark in 50 minutes. Until then, I was there to enjoy myself; I didn't want to fret over the crowds or worry about my splits, but by mile 8 the runners have thinned out and I realize that the crowd support is not a fluke of southern Brooklyn. Now that the miles are going a little faster, the crowds thin here and there but they thicken again and again. I settle into a comfortable pace and make my way through the neighborhoods of Brooklyn. For the most part, the neighborhoods blend from one into the other until I reach the Hassidic Jewish district in Williamsburg. This is the first stretch of road that isn't packed with cheering fans. The sidewalks are occupied by quiet people dressed in traditional Jewish attire. Some watch quietly as we pass by. It was another interesting reversal of roles: many of these folks stared at us like, well they stared at us like I may stare at them when they appear in the local grocery store, with curiosity. I note, much unlike the earlier portions of the course, there are few smiles. This is neither good nor bad in my mind, but it is different from everything I've experienced until this point.

The next three miles pass quickly, and I clock in at roughly 1 hour 40 minutes for the half marathon, give or take a few minutes. Passing the half-marathon mark and then over the Pulaski Bridge, I am soon in Queens. This of course means I will soon be out of Queens because the race travels only a few miles through this borough. It is fairly quiet with only a handful of the more conscientious spectators who know the course, know its weak points, and are here to lend a helpful cheer in a quiet spot. The party in Brooklyn is behind me and the reality of the distance lay ahead of me.

***

The Queensboro Bridge delivers me into noise. Cheering crowds, 6 and 10 people deep, it's almost a shock after the quiet of Queens and the high bridge. All of First Avenue is closed for the runners and it's not until I am nearly alone on one of Manhattan's avenues that I realize just how wide they are. I almost expect a snowfall of confetti. Black and white images of astronauts cruising down New York's wide avenues fill my head. It's true, I think: Don't stop running marathons until you've experienced this.

We enter First Avenue around 59th street and the crowds are thick well into the 80s. In the 90s things are back to normal, which is to say thick with cheering spectators but not overwhelmingly so, but then things quickly quiet down again as I approach the 100s, Harlem River, and the Bronx. The crowds of First Avenue carried me through some of the harder miles but as I enter the Bronx I'm on my own. If my stint in Queens was short, the Bronx is the proverbial blink of an eye with just a mile or so of the course. When I finally make the turn south onto Fifth Avenue, around mile 21, I know that I'm in the final stretch. I begin to feel the fatigue, but I don't sense that I'm slowing down. Not yet at least. The kids in Harlem are really into the spirit of the race. Some run along the sidewalks, collecting high-fives, others shout encouragement. Where the other boroughs seemed to cheer for the crowd of runners, the Harlem residents would single out one runner and cheer them on specifically.

Running down Fifth Avenue the towering Empire State building takes control of the skyline. It's strange, when I am in Midtown the Empire State Building doesn't appear so enormous among all its neighbors, but out here, one hundred blocks away, it's the only building I can see. Again, this being my first time in Harlem, I wonder how things should be; I wonder if I should see the towers as well. As the miles wear into me, as I struggle to hold my pace, I am glad to be alive. Perhaps, I think, the towers wouldn't be visible from Harlem.

***

Central Park is the beginning of the end. I continue down Fifth Avenue; well, no, I continue toward Downtown, but I'm actually going up Fifth Avenue and its long, slow incline. My pace has slowed only slightly for the incline, but it requires substantially more mental effort. Since mile 15 or so, despite my best intentions, I have been eyeing 3:10. Not that my schedule will permit running Boston next year, but maybe, I think, the following year. Before I started the climb up Fifth Avenue I thought I had a good shot. Once I enter the park, I'm optimistic and I am struggling and I am not slowing down all at once. The crowds line Central Park much like they lined Brooklyn and First Avenue, deep and enthusiastic. When I reach the southern end of the park and make the final sweeping turn to head back uptown, toward the finish line, I am spent, ready to stop. The clock is in the neighborhood of 3:15, but I'm unsure what my net time will be, but I'm finished, exhausted, and glad. For me, the race is a complete success. I ran the entire race, posted a personal best, and didn't slow down appreciably in the final miles.

In one of the nicest touches in this race, there are greeters lining the finishing chute, each with a badge declaring a language of choice, and each offering the numerous international runners congratulations in their native tongue. I am fairly exhausted and dread the walk to gather my start-line bag of clean clothes and heel-less shoes. After a brief break to drink some water and ease into new clothes, I make my way out of the park to find one of the things I love best about New York City, pizza by the slice. As I walk along the streets numerous New Yorkers, mostly natives I think, see the finisher's medal and offer congratulations. They do so with a note of pride in their voice, but I don't think they are proud of me.