Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Race Report: New York City Marathon

The past two days have been such a blur with work, I’ve already sort of forgotten I ran the New York City Marathon on Sunday. When I woke up this morning, my first thought was that I was sore from Monday night’s gala, where I stood in heels until after midnight (not the best post-marathon recovery plan, for the record). The only reminder of Sunday’s endeavor came when I was getting into the shower this morning and I saw in the mirror a gash on my lower back from chafing. It looks like someone tried to steal my left kidney to sell on the black market. But before we get into battle scars, let’s start at the beginning.

The Expo: After demonstrating a complete inability to concentrate on Friday afternoon, I finally left my office early to make my way over to the Marathon Expo at the Javits Center. The Javits Center is near absolutely nothing (except New Jersey) and transportation options to get there are… none. But it was a sunny afternoon and I had flats on, so I set out to make the trek to 11th Avenue on foot. I left my office on 24th Street and turned right onto Seventh Ave, where I promptly dropped my phone and shattered the screen. Because this has been the least stressful marathon season ever!

I’ve been to a great many marathon expos, including both Chicago and Boston, and I assure you, this was the biggest expo I’ve ever seen. The Javits Center is gargantuan space, and even filled with 45,000 runners and their loved ones, it was cavernous. Despite that, the bib and packet pick up was fast and efficient, and within minutes of my arrival, I was equipped with number 18-796 and a race bag that easily weighed 10 pounds. Gatorade and water?! No wonder this cost nearly $200.

After a quick spin through the expo, I headed home to engage in my usual pre-race preparations: packing, unpacking, and repacking, along with printing, cutting, and taping my pace bracelet (3:45). At Leslie’s suggestion, I also did a test run of taping my name to my shirt.

No, that’s not a banana in my sweatpants; I’m just happy to run this marathon

Marathon Eve: After an easy 3.5 miler on Saturday morning, I made my way back to the city for an epic and awesome brunch with tons of running friends. Tossed back two mimosas and a breakfast burrito – extra beans. Fun run for me, maybe, but best of luck to those running nearby...

I spent a restful afternoon spent keeping up with the Kardashians at Liza’s apartment, before we met up with the girls for a pasta feast – and was surprised and delighted to find Leslie, who had made a special trip up from Philly for dinner! As always, we had lots of laughs at the table and were generally offensive to everyone else in the restaurant. I resisted the urge to have a glass of wine with everyone else. It was exceedingly difficult.

This is everyone pretending to run. Naturally, Kelly is competing to be best pretend-runner

After dinner, Liza and I bid adieu and headed back to her place for a pre-race slumber party. There was much clock-setting and Seinfeld-referencing before I finally settled in on the couch for a couple hours of sleep. “It’s a marathon, you know!"

Getting to the Start: I was slotted for the 6am bus from the Library on Sunday morning, and assigned to the first start wave at 9:40, so I woke up at 4:30 to make some coffee and get ready for the day ahead. Liza was an amazingly patient friend and didn’t execute me while I proceeded to smash and bang everything in her kitchen and bathroom. After two cups of coffee, and the sad realization that athletic tape doesn’t stick well to fabric and I’d have to wear a name-less singlet to race, I suited up and headed out the door. 4 hours and 20 minutes ahead of my scheduled start time.

I arrived at the Library around 5:45 and was shocked to see that the line for the buses already stretched the entire block between 5th and 6th Avenues. I was even more shocked, however, at how quickly and efficiently the boarding process was. Buses were lined up in two lanes as far uptown as 49th Street, and it took me less than ten minutes to hop aboard one, peel off my layers, and get comfortable for my ride to Staten Island. It’s worth noting, for anyone interested in cheating the system, that there was no check to ensure we were using our assigned transportation. While you did have to show your race bib in order to board, no one checked to make sure you were assigned to a bus and not the ferry, nor what time your transportation was scheduled.

The energy on the bus was awesome, even at such an early hour. I heard dozens of languages and how-do-you-dos as everyone got to talking with their neighbors on the ride. I sat next to a lovely woman from London by way of Australia who was in New York with her family and running her first marathon. She asked about running in New York and I excitedly pointed out my East River bridges. As soon as we got out of Manhattan, however, I was completely useless and offered her absolutely no insights as to what we were seeing out the windows.

All told, the trip took about an hour. Once Fort Wadsworth was within view, the traffic slowed a bit; between the buses and the cars racing over the bridge before it closed, there was a lot of dropping off going on around 6:30. I felt like I should have been anxious to get off the bus and into the start village, but given that I wasn’t starting for more than 3 hours, I was happy to sit in a warm and comfortable seat.

Soon enough, though, it was time to get off, and the moment I stepped onto Staten Island and saw the Verrazano, it hit me: today was the day of my victory lap!

In The Athlete Village (Whose Name Made Me Feel Like an Olympian): Having never seen the Verrazano Narrows Bridge from any angle except as a passenger in a bus that had just gone over it, the view from the Athlete Village was pretty incredible. As such, I took a ton of pictures, each of which is essentially the same thing.

I had a lot of time to kill...

And speaking of killing time, I was impressed with how resourceful people were while waiting for their waves' corrals to open. Some played cards:
Some played games:

And some took advantage of the amenities offered in the Village - by far the most comprehensive I've ever experienced:

In addition to coffee and hot water for tea, there were also bagels, bars, gels, water, and Gatorade, as well as Dunkin Donuts reps handing out complimentary fleece hats. I took full advantage of this extra layer:

One of the smartest things I did all day was to bring a blanket to sit on in the village. Not only did it keep me warm and dry while I was camped out sitting in the parking lot, but when the time came to check my gear (8:20, still an hour and 20 minutes before the Wave 1 start), I gave up my sweats but was able to wrap the blanket around my legs like a skirt to stay warm.

One thing I didn’t give up when I checked my gear was my digital camera. I decided that, if ever there were a race to really take in, complete with photographic evidence, this was going to be it. Not only was it the biggest marathon in the world, but it was going to be my first opportunity to run without keeping my eye on the clock the whole time. I might as well enjoy that to the fullest.

As I sat in my start corral (Green 18, baby!), not at all nervous for the 26.2 miles that stretched between me and Central Park, I started wondering if perhaps I was disrespecting the distance; I had run a 17 miler a few weekends earlier, but otherwise hadn’t trained for this race nearly as diligently as I had for Wineglass. Was I even prepared to run this race?

But Green 18 moved toward the start, so I hardly had the option of backing out now. I exchanged war stories with the folks around me, all of whom were friendly and chatty, and we positioned ourselves just in front of a Jumbotron screen that displayed the start. The crowd went CRAZY as first Geb and then Meb were beamed onto the monitor in front of us, which was a weird sensation since they were standing in the flesh just a few hundred yards ahead.

The National Anthem was sung, but I only knew that because I could see people with microphones singing onscreen. There were no loud speakers at all, and the only reason I knew the race had officially started was because a cannon went off. Well, either the race was starting, or we were under attack. Either way, it was time to run.

The Race (Sorry It's Taken So Long to Get to the Part About Running):
Staten Island
The first two miles are across the Verrazano, taking runners from Staten Island into Brooklyn. Obviously, going over a bridge means going uphill - not the easiest of terrains to start on. Runners were channeled into either the upper or lower level, depending on your bib color. As a green runner, I was on the lower level. I had heard at brunch on Saturday that the lower level is not preferred, on account of the dudes on the upper level who didn't make it to the porta potties at the start and therefore pee over the sides. At the start, we heard many announcements discouraging this behavior, and I tried to stay away from the edges of the bridge to be spared from any rogue drops.

Even on the lower level, the wind was fierce coming across the bridge, and though I still had on a throw away wind breaker, I was really cold. But I was too excited to care. I even risked a golden shower to snap a picture of the Manhattan skyline as we crossed the bridge.

After feeding off the energy of our fellow runners in our first borough of the day, Brooklyn brought the first spectators. Almost as soon as we entered, supporters lining the overpasses above us shouted down "Welcome to Brooklyn!" The new energy, combined with getting out of the shade on the bridge, warmed me right up and I tossed my jacket early on.

The further into the borough we got, the more cheering fans we encountered. I couldn't believe how many people came out to watch, especially given how early in the race we were. I remember watching Boston last year around mile 21, and even there I was able to get right up to the road and even jump in to run for a few dozen yards. By the time we got to Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, the crowds were several people deep, and I'd already collected about a dozen high fives.

The miles flew by faster than I ever remember in a marathon, and I couldn't believe it when we hit mile 7. I also couldn't believe that, for the second consecutive marathon, I had to stop to pee in between miles 7 and 8. Thankfully the porta potty I picked had no line, so I was able to make my only pit stop of the race quickly.

As we turned the corner at BAM, I knew I should start keeping my eyes peeled for my colleague Krishna. The sidewalks on both sides of the street were absolutely packed along this stretch, but up ahead, I spied a sign with my name on it. Just after 8 miles, I stopped for a hug and a photo opp.

Of course, Brooklyn is also where I saw my previously pictured, like-minded new best friend with her Beer Run sign.

Around this point, I noticed that the sole of my left foot was getting hot and sore. I first had this issue come towards the end of the Nashville Half Marathon this year, when I basically had to be dragged to the finish line (in my defense, I was also epically hungover). It also reared its ugly head in Corning last month, where I was able to black it out with the most singular focus I've ever had on anything ever ever (sweet life balance, Claire...). But with nothing and no one to convince me to push through, the foot pain was front of mind for the next several miles.

Crossing into Queens, we had to make our way over another bridge, which further eroded my mental state. I was still in this for fun. I just hadn't envisioned "fun" being so painful. But the continued onslaught of cheers in Queens kept me moving forward; I was particularly encouraged by some enthusiastic cops just across the bridge.

I took my first Gu between miles 13 and 14, hoping that it would kick in just in time for the push across the Queensborough bridge into Manhattan, where I could mentally refuel with the cheers on First Avenue. I focused on taking it easy over the next few miles and just getting myself across that bridge.

My favorite picture from the day, and perhaps my favorite moment came as I made my way across (and up. And up. And up...) that bridge. Quite a few men stopped to pee into the East River, which only served to reinforce my belief than anyone who fishes out of that river has a death wish.

Despite the torturous climb going over the Queensborough, there was something special about struggling across in silence, the only sounds coming from the other runners struggling across with you. This was the only spot in the entire course without spectators, and my fellow runners and I took the opportunity to savor that moment and brace ourselves for the wall of sound we were about to hit on First Avenue.

As the bridge met 59th Street, I prepared to be deafened. Maybe because turning this corner is the hallmark of the New York City Marathon, and the part everyone talks about, but I was surprised it wasn't even more intense. The crowds were huge, but the noise level was on par with Brooklyn. That said, First Avenue certainly didn't disappoint, and I ran this entire stretch with a huge grin on my face. I deliberately ran in the parking spots on the west side of the street to be close to the crowd, and was thrilled to see so many familiar faces.

Around 78th Street, I spied my dad and stopped for another hug and photo opp.

And then, another dozen blocks, another hug and photo opp with Kelly and Juan.

I would have stayed to chat even longer, but Juan told me I should probably get going. I made it another block before I heard Brennan screaming. I looked to my left and saw her racing up the sidewalk, pushing past grannies and chasing after me. It was one of the best sights of the day.

Seeing so many people I love gave me renewed strength and my foot problems were all but forgotten. But because I'd been so eager to spot familiar faces, I'd skipped the last 2 water stations and at this point I was thirsty. I took a Gu at mile 18 and snagged a cold bottle of water from an awesome spectator doling them out from a case. He was a life saver.

After the adrenaline rush from First avenue subsided, I realized I still had another 2 boroughs to cover: the Bronx, and Manhattan round 2. And the Willis Avenue Bridge was looming.

The Bronx
By this point in the race (mile 19.5), the course undulations were just cruel. First Avenue was full of ups and downs, and the prospect of crossing yet another bridge was not appealing at all. I put my head down and just focused on getting to mile 20. As I made my way up the bridge, a lone spectator stood on the side of the road with a jug of water and a sleeve of cups, shouting "Good job" to everyone who passed. Thank you, sir, for getting me into the Bronx.

We passed under the Mile 20 Jumbotron, which I had remembered from escorting Leslie through this stretch in 2008, and made a series of turns to yet another bridge. You've got to be kidding. One last push to Manhattan.

The northern most stretch of Fifth Avenue was tough for me, and seeing the runners ahead of me climbing yet another hill was discouraging. The crowds (and runners) dancing in Harlem, however, was not. I tried to read the street signs and count down the blocks left until the Park entrance.

At mile 23.5, I saw the girls again, and this time was joined for a few hundred yards. It could not have come at a better time. I wish I had snapped another few pictures, but I was really low on energy and thought better than to risk it. We chatted for a few blocks, they told me I looked good ("hot," actually, which in my book is even better than "good," especially 24 miles into a marathon), and that I was headed for the best part. "The entire park is lined with crowds, it's going to be awesome," Kelly told me. Here we go.

She was right. The place was packed, and I broke out into another huge grin. Feeling comfortable on my own turf, I even tried to pick up the pace a little. I saw and heard my family just after 24, which gave me another burst of energy. The downhills were brutal at this point, as my quads were toasted from all the climbing earlier in the race, so I did everything I could to keep moving forward and not fall.

As we left the Park, I was nervous; I wasn't all that familiar with the course, and without the visual cues I know in the Park, I wasn't sure how far from the finish I was or what to expect. As we cut across Central Park South, I spied the "800 meters to go" sign. "This is for you, Bart!" I said out loud. We headed back in at Columbus Circle and, of course, finished uphill. With a final push, I crossed my ninth marathon finish line in 3:48:18.

The New York City Marathon course is among the hardest I've run. But I can say with certainty that it's also the best race I've ever run. Certainly not from a competitive perspective, but in terms of overall experience, nothing comes close. I've never run a race where so many different kinds of people have been among the faces in the crowd. This wasn't just a chance for twenty-somethings to day drink (not that I don't support any excuse for that). This was about the entire city coming out to help 45,000 strangers overcome physical and mental obstacles to get across the finish line, no matter how long it took. The energy and excitement, the atmosphere in the days leading up to the race, the distinct neighborhoods you run through and the specific ways those communities lend their support, the spirit of generosity among those watching, the spirit of camaraderie among those participating... it should be illegal to enjoy oneself during a marathon as much as I did on Sunday. If you consider yourself a marathoner, run this race as soon as you can. If you don't, become one. This 26.2 mile party is absolutely worth it.


  1. Wow, it sounds absolutely amazing!! I felt like I was there running with you and got chills at a few parts! Congratulations!! :)

  2. Congrats - what a great day and a great time! I agree on your comment about 1st Ave croud. Yes, there are a lot of people, but I don't find them to be particularly loud. Much 'better' crowds in Brooklyn and in Central Park.

  3. AWESOME recap! This is a race I would love to do...in a few yrs me thinks..I am going to see if I get in for 2012..that gives me time to gear up.

  4. You rock Claire! I love your race recap and I can't wait to experience this for myself. Congrats!!!

  5. Sounds like a fantastic race! Can't wait to run it some day.

  6. Most exciting race recap ever! I am planning to run NY as soon as I can. They should hire you as a their PR person!

  7. great work claire! I like our juxtaposing views on the Queensboro Bridge too! We have the same arm sleeves too! wooo! I really like them, it was my first time w them. you?

  8. What a great race report! All the details and personal insights were great. Thanks for sharing. (p.s. I think one of my favorite photos is the East River shot, as well!)

  9. I ran past your friend in Brooklyn, saw her sign, and wondered if you'd passed yet. Great job and soooo nice meeting you on Saturday! Recover (read: drink more beers) well!

  10. Out-Freaking-Standing HI C!!!!

    What else can I say except congrats on an awesome and fun NYCM. Can't wait for my turn next year. Love your photos.

    Also, Lets drink some beers!!!!! :O)

  11. Rock on, girl! Way to kill it on the victory lap :)

  12. Claire - Tremendous accomplishment running the race, taking pictures, going to the bathroom, and storytelling, all while dropping a cool 26.2miles - great job! A few questions I have is:
    1) If Leslie told you to practice taping your name to your bib, why the snafu on Sunday morning?
    2) Who are the older people in the photo with Kelly & Juan and did Juan fall over leaning backwards after the pic?
    3)Can you run again next year so that Cate and I can participate (by participate I mean drink and cheer for you and live tweet the race)

    That is all - see ya in 2011!