Saturday, November 7, 2015

New York City Marathon

While I was still stewing in the sands of Kuwait, Alita and I passed some of our phone conversation dreaming up a fun fall trip. We settled on trying for a week in New York, anchored on the New York City Marathon. While neither of us desire to live in a large city, we both love travel and doing touristy things that a city like New York has to offer.

Such as posing in front of the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan skyline
At over 50,000 finishers, the New York City Marathon is the largest marathon in the world. In spite of having more spots available than your average race, there are still more willing runners than spots. New York does a hybrid approach of a lottery and a qualifying standard. Sadly, my training for the Boise Marathon was so-so and my time was about 30 seconds above the qualifying time*; so, into the lottery it was. Fortune smiled on my hot and dusty circumstances and in a few weeks I got the email letting me know that I would get to be a part of it.


One of the first things that you are asked to choose fairly early in the process is a checked bag versus a space blanket. Most marathons that handle a mere thousand or so runners offer both, but in New York you get one or the other. In the numerous races and marathons that I have done I have had pretty good luck with getting my bag. I felt it would be nice to have my cell phone for linking up with fellow runners before the race and my wife after the race. I opted for the checked bag.

The other choice was what ferry you would take to Staten Island. There was a definite benefit to signing up for your transportation option early as the later ferries filled up first leaving the procrastinators to get a 5am or earlier ferry and have a little more time with their 50,000 closest friends at the starting area.

For our lodging, we went with Air Bnb. Hotels closed in on $200 a night pretty quickly so these were out for us. While there were some Air BnB places I saw in the $50 – 60 range they did not have the queen bed we were looking for or they did not respond**. We decided to stay in Brooklyn near prospect heights (partially because it was near a friend). It was a 30 minute train ride to the start and many good rooms were available for $100/night. Had we been able to snag a Manhattan room for around $100 that would have been better for post-race site-seeing though.

Training for this race started about when I got back from Kuwait. I was able to get in almost all of my long runs. My biggest deficiency was that my family took two separate week-long trips that cut into my overall mileage and speedworks. I ran one trial 10-k about three weeks out in 36:11. I was fairly happy with this race and my pace although my splits faded a little towards the end. I would have preferred to do a 10k and a half marathon as warm-up races but it was a busy summer and fall.

Expo and Packet Pick-up

By total luck, I ran into one of my good running friends from Maine on W 46th street on the way to the Expo. He mentioned that he was going to a Broadway play in the afternoon. If I do New York again I think a 2 p.m. matinee would be a great way to relax before the race. You can get half-priced tickets at the TKTS booth in Times Square on the way to the expo if you hit up the expo in the morning.

The packet pick-up was well organized and pretty easy. I went around 1 p.m. on Saturday and had my number and shirt in less than 10 minutes. The expo itself was unremarkable. There was 50 percent off Asics gear but the line was rather long and I did not need anything in particular at the moment. There were the usual plethora of energy gel, gummy and bar samples.

Entering the Expo

The one thing interesting for a first-timer like myself was the course strategy talk that they gave every hour on the hour near the entrance.

The worth-attending strategy session

One really neat discovery that I made just before the Expo was the TCS New York Marathon app. Among its coolest features, this app allowed you to track up to 10 runners. It would not only give you about 10 splits on the course but it would use this information to predict their finishing time and location on the course – both of which proved pretty accurate. It also had a neat course map that let you jump to various locations by touching the point on the elevation map.

Tracking friends in the marathon

Nice way to preview the course

Race Morning

The one drawback to using Air BnB (as opposed to a hotel) was that this year Halloween fell on the Saturday right before the marathon. There was a mild party (and I do actually mean mild – think normal music and talking, not keg stands) above the apartment that we stayed in. Fortunately, the hosts were nice and turned down the music when I talked to them in my running shorts and shirt at 1 a.m.

In spite of the festivities, I managed to get enough sleep (and had enough adrenaline anyway) that I felt pretty fine as I walked to catch the R train from Brooklyn to the Staten Island Ferry. While it would have been bad form to go at a time other than the one I signed up for, it was good to see that no one really checked us as we got on the ferry so were an unfortunate runner to miss the time he or she signed up for, they would still get to the start.

Pre dawn Manhattan skyline

The Statue of Liberty lit up with the morning sun
New York has three starting areas organized by color (corresponding to three slightly different but equidistant courses over the first three miles). I drew the blue village. This was especially fortunate as one of my friends who served with me in Kuwait also drew this corral and we were able to pass the time before the race together.

KRM reunion
He also showed me a rather underused set of latrines in the blue village that I was very grateful for. The ones right before entered the starting area were mobbed within an hour of the check-in time, but these ones (just a 5 minute walk away) had virtually no line.

Less used latrines shown on the right of the Blue Village
I stuck to my usual pre-race strategy of oatmeal when I got up at 4 a.m. and I stopped drinking water about two hours before the start (to ensure that I would not get caught in the long pre-race lines). I was well hydrated from the days leading up to the race and it was not overly hot for this November race so I figured this was reasonably safe. While I was far enough up to not worry, another good piece of advice from my friend Bret for this race (and Boston) was to carry your own water bottle for the first few miles so that you do not have to fight your way through the earliest water / Gatorade stations.

Just before the 9 a.m cut-off I dutifully went into the Blue A1 corral. There I truly randomly met up with a fellow Tuesday Tempo Runner, Brian MacPhearson, from the Boulder Trail Runners. Around 9:30 or so, we started moving towards the start.

The one thing that I would do differently if I do this race again is to take advantage of the one open area on the way to the start to jog as far to the front as possible. Instead I simply stayed ahead of the 3 hr pace sign, figuring that most of the runners around me would be running in the 2:45 range (or a close enough pace at the start). Instead I found the pace off the gun to be oddly slow for the A1 coral and I am pretty sure I lost about 90 seconds off my finishing time. While not a big deal in the grand scheme of my race, I would have been rather sad if I had been within 90 seconds of my PR.

Here the crowds open up on the way to the start and you have a brief chance to get further forward

A Course is a Course, of course, of course

NYC Marathon Course (courtesy of their site)
After the first half-kilometer things started to open up. My ambitious goal was to get close to a 2:40 which translated to a 3:47 kilometer. As I mentioned in a previous post, I have switched to using kilometer splits on my watch for races as I like the faster feedback and the feeling of seeing milestones (or kilometer-stones) go by faster. To keep on-pace I set up a watch screen with my split time, split pace and split distance. By glancing at the average split pace from time to time I was able to nail my kilometer splits right up until about kilometer 25 when the wind and the two missed weeks of training started to catch up with me.

The course through Brooklyn and Queens was fantastic. We had a light southwesterly tailwind and great crowds. My good friend who lives just west of Prospect Park got my attention and gave me a good boost at mile 7.

Unfortunately, I missed my wife at mile 8. She had a good course watching strategy though. She saw me at mile 8 and would have made the subway stop to see me at mile 16 but got caught up by some weekend subway route changes. Instead she went to mile 25 in Central Park (which I think she could have made even if she caught me at mile 16). She able to get up to the front (and thus get a kiss on the way by) and provide some much-needed support.

For me things started getting tough around kilometer 25 (mile 16). My splits started to inch up into the low 3:50’s. Then we crossed over the Queensboro Bridge and the nice tailwind became a headwind. Suddenly the overcast conditions which had been a blessing combined with the wind to make me feel a bit cold. My splits broke 4:00 where they stayed for most of the remaining 15 kilometers. While I had fallen off my goal pace, I was heartened to feel that I was not falling apart (I did fortunately get in all but one of my long runs). My legs were tired but my mind was still in the game.

At this point I must also confess that I goofed with my shoe management. The two pairs that I had trained up in were too old and I ordered my new pair too late. While I managed just fine in my Gel-Lyte 33’s with only 25 pre-marathon miles on them, I did suffer through some minor hot-spots. It was an embarrassingly rookie move.

The Gel-Lyte 33's have served me well, but they do need some seasoning. . .
The legendary crowds on First Avenue kept my splits near 4:00. Even the light hill at mile 21 did not throw things off more than 10 seconds a kilometer. When I saw Alita at mile 25 I made a beeline for her (the throngs of runners were not too bad) and gave her a quick kiss. Armed with the energy of seeing my favorite person in the world I pushed though the last two kilometers and apparently made the TV coverage. I was happy with my time of 2:47:42. Even though it was 6 minutes off my PR, I was happy that I kept mentally together and I still felt I ran a reasonably smart race.

Photo courtesy of Cathy Sibly

Post race

Stop twisting my arm, we'll go, we'll go!
The one disadvantage of using the bag-check is that I had about a mile walk ahead of me once I finished. On the other hand, I like to walk a lot on the afternoon following a marathon and so even this detail was actually a bit of a blessing.

Alita and I stuck to the advice from the expo and picked a link-up spot a couple of blocks west of Central Park. As a bag check runner I left the park around 85th Street. We linked up at Zabar’s at 4th and 72nd. After a spinach knish and cheese blintz we met up with Bret and his nephew.

From there Alita and I walked the Highline Park. This converted above-ground train track is a great example of urban renewal at its best.  We were treated to great sunset views as we lounged on some wooden lawn-style chairs near the southern end.

Our favorite post-race sites

If you can spare flying back on Tuesday, New York has more than you can do in a couple years’ worth of weekends. We took a week to explore, but if we only had Monday I would have done one or two of the following:

1.       Statue of Liberty / Ellis Island: Tickets to the crown disappear months out and even the pedestal tickets go a few weeks out. However, I think a pretty good tour can be done without either of these perks (after all, you can’t see the statue from her crown). I would go early as the statue and Ellis island can take you well into the afternoon. We skipped the audio-guide for one of the ranger tours and it was a good call.

2.       Broadway show: if you don’t do it on Saturday afternoon, an evening show would be fun. The TKTS gives out some pretty amazing seats. When they said we were in the orchestra section I did not realize we would be able to pat the conductor on the back.

3.       Tenement Museum: This museum is by guided tour only and most tours run around $25, but it’s worth it. We did both a walking tour and a building  tours (Hard Times).  We both  liked the building tour  better.

There were, of course, other places that I would recommend with more time and there were many more restaurants with yummy food than I feel like covering. While I remain convinced that the city is not for me, New York was definitely an amazing race and some of the best post-race fun that I have had.

15 states down, 35 to go.

* Someone told me later that the qualifying time does not necessarily guarantee you entry – it just greatly increases the odds.

** Had we been staying for just the weekend I think we could have nabbed a couch surfing room, but as we wanted to get a week of New York in we were not able to find any takers.

 [KAH1]Look into what my algorithms predicted for this race