I tend to write lengthy race recaps. This is due to my inability to discern important details from unimportant ones – every single event that happens in my life seems to hold equal weight, and I want to mention it all. For this recap, I will try my best to summarize lest I write a post that makes War and Peace look like a set of Cliffs Notes by comparison. I won’t break down every single mile because, honestly, I don’t remember every single mile. That said, I want to give a good overview of what the lead-up to the race was like, what the race was like, how I felt afterwards, and what newcomers to the NYC Marathon can expect in following years.
Let’s face it, this is going to be long.
Before I begin, I’d like to remind everyone that this race began in 1970 with 127 runners doing a little over four laps around the Central Park loop. Spectators thought they were crazy. Only 55 finished (all men – the lone woman runner did not finish). Race founder Fred Lebow spent his own money on prizes.
The 2018 race, boasting 52,808 runners, was my first marathon. I’ve been running for over 20 years but spent most of those years thinking I wasn’t capable of running longer than an hour. I was, I just didn’t know it because I didn’t understand how to train. Or, I was too uninspired to train correctly, if we’re being honest. That all changed last year.
I decided to sign up for the race in late 2017, opting to run for a charity. This would guarantee me entry. I signed up with Fred’s Team, a cancer fundraising organization named for Fred Lebow after he succumbed to cancer in 1994. I chose to do this after my mom passed away from cancer in November 2017. After seeing what my mom endured in her final months, running 26.2 miles suddenly didn’t seem like such an ordeal.
Fundraising with Fred’s Team was such a rewarding experience that I’m considering doing it again next year, even though I’m already guaranteed entry to the 2019 race through the 9+1 program. (That and a few other ways to guarantee entry are laid out here. Otherwise, runners enter a lottery in which only about 15% are selected.)
I ran through the winter and spring as usual, about 25-35 miles a week, 5 days a week, plus a couple days a week of strength training. I wasn’t following a training program yet, just running mostly comfortable paces and doing the occasional 5K, 10K, and half marathon. My race times steadily improved (my best 10K pace has gone from 8:48 to 7:43 in the past year). I trained on hills as I was living on Long Island in a town that had plenty. In May I moved to NYC where I did most of my runs in Central Park or along the Hudson River Path.
In July, when most runners begin training for fall marathons, I signed up for NYRR’s Marathon Virtual Training Program. This was a 16-week, customizable plan that would give me a specific breakdown of what to run: how long, how fast, what effort, with daily tips and advice as well as optional feedback from coaches. Given my lifelong, raging case of Good Student Syndrome, I followed the plan to a T, running 5-6 days a week, anywhere from 30-55 miles a week. You can read my weekly training recaps on this blog. I’ll write a whole separate post about the training program itself because I have more thoughts on it than I care to write here (mostly good ones).
I took Friday off from work just to have plenty of time to attend the expo. I’ve been to the Jacob Javits Center before (once as a photographer for a textile event and once as an extra in an episode of Law & Order where the venue was a stand-in for an airport) and I knew how big it was, but I was not prepared for just how many people would be there this morning. It was the second of three days of expo events and it opened at 10 am. I arrived at 10:11 and it was already a madhouse.
Luckily, there was no line for my bib. The shirt pick-up, which had the “try-on” section tucked claustrophobically into a corner, went quickly. I had about an hour to walk around before my physical therapy appointment (just a pre-race “check-up”) so I took my time. The expo was enormous – runners speaking all different languages and vendors everywhere, selling everything from running apparel to running belts to energy gel to energy drinks to energy cookies.
I was excited to see Paragon Sports, my go-to running apparel store in NYC. I needed a belt for the race, as I’d decided that the New Balance one I bought at the NYRR store a couple weeks ago wasn’t going to cut it. I bought a smaller one that I hoped would work – I had exactly one run left in training to test it out. I also bought some compression arm sleeves for winter running.
I found my name on the giant wall – proof that I was actually going to go through with this.
I stopped by the Fred’s Team table to get my checked items bag and so they could put a “Fred’s Team” sticker on my bib (this would allow me perks such as a bus to the start and a food-stocked tent near the finish). I bought a bunch of protein-packed cookies, promptly ate one quarter of them, walked around some more, then asked a few strangers to take my pic with my bib. I actually had to ask three different people to take it because they kept coming out blurry and I’m annoying.
On Saturday, I ran two slow miles (my new running belt got a thumbs up), ate more pasta than I normally do without overdoing it, and continued drinking more water than I thought I needed. I stopped eating at 6 pm because I was full and also I’d rather run on a less empty stomach than a fuller one. I went to bed at about 11:30 and set my alarm for 4. The end of Daylight Saving Time overnight would mean five and a half hours of sleep. Not ideal but normal for me.
I gave myself an hour to get ready, which included making and eating oat bran, taking a shower, walking my dog, and getting last minute shit together. I killed two birds with one stone as I walked my dog and ate at the same time. I probably looked like a crazy woman with my wet hair and huge thrift store sweats as I walked a dog while eating out of a mug at 4:45 in the morning. Usually I eat breakfast about two hours before a run (as opposed to six like today), but it was just easier this way. I’d bring a banana and a fig bar to eat later.
If I may “keep it 100” on this here blog, I did not poop as much as I had wanted to. I hoped this would not affect me later. (Narrator: “It would.”)
I cabbed it down to Times Square (too short on time to risk the subway) where I met with the other hundreds of Fred’s Team runners. We all took selfies and posed for a group pic, then boarded the slew of buses waiting a few blocks up.
On the bus I sat next to a gentleman who works as a social worker on Riker’s Island. We made small talk about running and grad school and island prisons. I took a pic when I spotted the Verrazano. It was tiny. And far. Very, very far.
THE START VILLAGE
We arrived at Fort Wadsworth in only a little over an hour, thanks in part to our police escorts. In the following days I’d hear some nightmare stories of runners who took the Staten Island ferry only to have to wait on insanely long bus lines from the ferry to the start. The early buses seemed to run smoothly, but the later ones apparently had some crazy wait and transport times, some runners spending four hours en route and just barely making their starts. Remind me never to take the ferry if it’s after 6 am.
We had to show our bibs in order to get into various sections so to save energy I just hoisted up my sweatshirt while walking around. As soon as I crossed security, a photog snapped a pic of me. This and all shots of me on the course are courtesy of MarathonFoto.
The “start village” – an adorable moniker that makes it feel like people built a small town for us, which they kind of did – was a little different than I had pictured it. More cordoned off, with fences and barriers and tarps everywhere to designate the sections (blue, orange, green) and multitude of corrals within each. There were plenty of amenities: free bagels, bananas, water, Gatorade, energy gels, Dunkin Donuts coffee (“NO DECAF!” the Dunkin Donuts woman announced more than once). We were blessed with good weather (as I’m sure was God’s highest priority on this Sunday morn) and they had put down hay over the muddy parts, which I thought was a nice touch. They even had therapy dogs.
By 8 am I was settled in the blue section, sitting on the old dog sheet I’d brought and would leave there. Most runners were sitting or lying on the ground. Some brought pool toys to keep their butts comfy.
I was in wave 2 and our line-up was at 9:30, so I had a nice amount of time to relax and get ready. I put Vaseline on my toes and sunscreen on my face (I brought globs of both in baggies). I put a little braid in my hair, something I often like to do for races and is admittedly not easy when you use your phone camera as a mirror held between your knees.
I eventually got restless and stood up. I wanted to move my legs. I did my usual warm-up routine. Once in the corral, I used the porta potties TWICE as a precaution. I was hoping to do more than pee. But I could only pee. Hmm. Not good. (Narrator: “Not good at all.”)
A little after 10, wave 2 began its descent down to the foot of the Verrazano. I peeled off my throwaway clothes, rubbed the last of my sunscreen all over myself, and took some deep breaths. This is just a long run, I told myself. Only with a few thousand strangers and a lot of people watching.
Ever since I’d started the training program, I’d been informed that my marathon pace was somewhere between 8:39 and 8:50 min/mile. Although I had no problem with those paces for shorter distances (I ran the Brooklyn Half last spring at 8:08), I’d always had doubts about holding it for 26.2 miles. I didn’t think it was realistic. Looking back, I’m not sure if my instincts were right or if I was just afraid. Also looking back, I should have told the coaches how I felt as their answers may have put my mind at ease.
Part of why I had doubts is that in training, I hadn’t held those paces for more than a few miles at a time. I think I realized this too late, but I just hadn’t practiced with them enough.
On top of it, in the weeks before the race, I heard from the coaches and other experts about the risks of going out too fast, the chances of blowing it in the first half, hitting the dreaded “wall,” the incredible lack of negative splitting that takes place on this course, runners hobbling to the finish because they were over ambitious at the start, and all the “go slow, go slow, go slow” advice. It was not bad advice, but I admit, it put me in a mild state of fear.
I decided to not aim for the training plan’s suggestion but instead just try to run it in under 4 hours. Which meant a 9:09 pace or faster. I wanted to play it safe and go out at 9:00 for the first half and then see what I had left in the tank for the second half (or at least, once I got over the Queensboro). If I had even more left at the 20 mile mark, then I’d run as brisk a 10K as I could. If I had room for a surge at mile 23, I’d go all out.
At least, that was the plan.
The Verrazano is two miles long. It’s an insanely long bridge. The first half is the steepest uphill mile of the entire course. The second is the steepest downhill. I didn’t worry too much about pace in the first mile (running a 9:46), allowing a bunch of people to pass me. And honestly, I didn’t even notice the incline. It was fine. This is the big hill everyone warns about? I was suddenly feeling a little better.
I also held back on the way down still managing an 8:49. I don’t like blowing down hills anyway. And I had time.
The third mile found us on solid ground in south Brooklyn. Writing this five days later, miles 3 through 7 all kind of blend together in my mind. I was trying to stay between an 8:55 and 9:05 pace. If my watch said 8:40, I slowed down. If it said 9:15, I sped up. My Garmin shows that I was actually hovering between 8:45 and 9:02 for these miles. Right on track.
The crowds in Brooklyn were incredible. Although I was a bit in my head about pace, I tried my best to pay attention to my surroundings and take it all in. I couldn’t believe how many people had come out of their apartments to see a bunch of strangers running. It was amazing. Lots of kids lined the course, many with arms outstretched, hoping for a high-five. (I only high-fived one kid in the whole race and he was wearing gloves. Sorry kids, but I’ve seen where you stick your fingers.)
I was almost surprised at how good I felt. Granted, I was going slower than I had in any race of the past year. I was comfortable – almost too comfortable, I thought more than once, yet I continued to hold back. I felt great. At one point I thought, “So I just have to keep this up for the rest of it? Okay.”
After a long, flat stretch on 4th Avenue, we made a turn onto Lafayette in mile 8, a slight uphill. It was around here where the wheels started to come off.
I should stress that I am an unsponsored, non-professional hobbyjogger, and I didn’t do anything “wrong” in this race. I’ll eventually get to how I think I ran a strong, smart debut marathon. But it was around this incline on Lafayette that I began to slow – not drastically, and not even because I was tired. But because I was enjoying myself.
For the next several miles through northern Brooklyn, the crowds on the sidelines seemed to get even more massive (the exception being the mostly Hasidic part of Williamsburg). At one point, we passed an honest-to-goodness gospel choir singing on the steps of a church. The signs people were holding were great (my fave was probably SMILE IF YOU HAVE TO POOP). Spectators were handing out candy, cookies, tissues – the latter a generous gesture I didn’t even realize I needed until I blew my nose with one. The excitement of it all was almost overwhelming. I couldn’t believe I was doing this.
Unfortunately, once we turned left onto Bedford, the course grew more narrow and felt more crowded. The excitement of realizing Holy shit, I am running the New York City Marathon, the distraction of the enthusiastic spectators, and the crowding of the course all contributed to some slower miles: 9:15, 9:17. Very close to my easy pace. In fact, a couple of miles were at easy pace: I somehow ran a 9:39 in mile 12. I knew I wasn’t running competitively here, but in the moment, I kind of didn’t mind. I also thought I might still have time to make it up. I wasn’t even halfway there yet. Don’t blow it in the first half.
As far as taking on liquids, there were water and Gatorade stops at every mile. I normally don’t drink anything during races, but seeing as this race was, to me, an unknown beast of a distance, I erred on the safe side and slowed down to drink almost every mile, alternating water and Gatorade, only a couple of sips each stop. I’d had a Gu at mile 4, a fig bar at mile 8 and another Gu at 12, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t dehydrated. I think I only stopped to walk for a few seconds on one of the stops, the rest I jogged through. I’ve gotten better at pinching cups.
The Pulaski Bridge, which connects Brooklyn to Queens, comes right after the halfway point in the race. I knew from running it a few weeks back that it wasn’t a long bridge, so I wasn’t worried about it. As I crossed the 13.1 mile marker, I checked my watch: 2:01:02. Oh boy. If I wanted to run a sub 4, I was a little behind. Not by a ton, but I had some catching up to do.
Once over the bridge into Queens, I was feeling a bit… how should I put this? (Narrator: “Gassy.”) It wasn’t terrible. I wasn’t desperate. But it was just enough that my eyes started scanning the side of the road for an open porta potty. I saw some runners waiting in lines. No way in hell I was about to do that. But if I saw a green “open” sign? Maybe I should go. Just to be safe.
At the 13:67 mark, I saw one. Green. I made a beeline for it, ducking under the ribbon on the side of the road with the help of a spectator. Make way, Her Majesty has to poop! I don’t know how long I was in there. Maybe a minute, maybe two. Maybe seven decades. Suddenly, I was in a quiet, enclosed space and still. It felt like another dimension, like when Jodie Foster instantaneously falls through the giant wormhole machine in Contact while simultaneously spending like an hour on a reverse waves beach with her dead dad. I kept repeating, “I’ll make it up. I’ll make it up. I’ll make it up.” There was no hand sanitizer. I didn’t care. I burst back out onto the course like water breaking a dam.
The stretch of the course in Queens is relatively short. There were a few more turns in the road. The crowds were still strong. I didn’t know it at the time, but I ran my slowest two miles of the race in 14 (10:27, because of the potty stop) and 15 (9:52). If I had been fully aware of this, I would have pushed myself harder.
The Queensboro Bridge came up quickly. The first half of the bridge is the second-steepest incline of the course, and famously one of the most difficult sections. The Verrazano is steeper, but we run up it with fresh legs. Once on the Queensboro, we’ve already been running for 15 miles.
Another thing they tell you about this section: it’s quiet – eerily so after the bombardment of screams for the last (in my case) two hours. All you hear are footsteps. And breathing. A few people used the privacy of the space for a walking break. Some had jumped over a partition to take selfies or just rest – I saw one runner on the side literally lying on their back. But I kept running. Since we were on the lower level with massive GPS interference, I had absolutely no idea what my pace was. I kept checking: 13:45, 17:10, 14:55. All wrong. No matter. I just ran, strongly but not too fast. I was passing people. A good sign.
Another good sign: at one point on the bridge, a bird pooped on my arm. That’s supposed to be good luck, right? I wiped it off with my finger and wiped my finger on a steel beam, making a mental note never to touch my face ever again.
Down the second half of the bridge, I started to hear a faint hum. It was very quiet at first, but slowly grew. We were getting closer and closer to the roar of the crowds on 1st Avenue.
MANHATTAN, PART I
The immensity of the 1st Avenue crowds was immediate. After a few sharp turns to the left, we started making out way up 1st. I had two missions here: to pick up the pace and to keep an eye out for my family members, due to be stationed on the west side of the street somewhere in the 60s or 70s. 1st Avenue is really straight and pretty flat, and although my hips were starting to feel sore, I was confident I could make up some time here.
Luckily, my sister and her family made signs for me, and I knew one was a big bright green sign that read WAY TO GO ARI so I scanned the crowd for that. And then I saw them! I waved but didn’t have room to pull over – just as well seeing at how much time I needed to make up.
After that, I mentally regrouped and just ran. 1st is a much wider avenue than anything we had been on so far, so I actually didn’t pay too much attention to the crowds here, instead sticking to the middle of the road, focusing on my form and pace. It wasn’t until 95th Street that I remembered that my other sister’s family was waiting for me around there. I scanned the sidelines but didn’t see them. I’d find out later I had missed them by a block.
I had forgotten how high the street numbers went until we hit the Bronx, so instead of anticipating, I kept focusing on running. My paces were picking up: mile 18 in 8:49, mile 19 in 9:03. Maybe there was still a chance to run a sub 4.
The Willis Avenue Bridge came up before I knew it and suddenly I was in the Bronx. I can’t even remember how steep this bridge was. It didn’t matter. I didn’t notice. This is not to say I wasn’t hurting, because the front of my hips were pretty sore by this point. Thankfully, the rest of my legs were okay. With all of the calf problems I’d had throughout training, they were surprisingly quiet. No cramping, no injuries, no wall. I was okay, despite how I look in these photos.
There were some spectators in the Bronx but the crowds were a bit lighter up here. I can’t remember much. There were some turns. I realized later they had handed out bananas but I missed them. Which was fine. I still had half a fig bar and a Gu on me and I didn’t even want them. I didn’t realize this at the time, but I hadn’t even had anything to drink since Brooklyn. I hadn’t thought about it.
At mile 20, I was aware that I had 6.2 miles to go. This is a 10K. I am familiar with the 10K. I love the 10K. I had raced this distance four times in the past six months. I looked at my time: 3:06. I had just under 54 minutes to reach the finish in under 4 hours. I had run the Cow Harbor 10K in 54 minutes a whole year ago and I was faster now. I told myself, This is just a slightly slower 10K. Maybe I could actually do this. I silently cursed myself for not trying harder in the middle of the race, but there was nothing I could do about it now other than run.
The course is in the Bronx for only one mile, so I was on the 138th Street Bridge back to Manhattan in no time. One of my favorite signs of the entire course was on this bridge. Apparently, the sign-holder shows up every year with the same sign: LAST DAMN BRIDGE.
MANHATTAN, PART II
The sun was relatively low in the sky – we were just a couple of hours away from sundown – so I put my sunglasses back on for most of the run back down 5th Avenue. I’d been alternating wearing them and keeping them hooked on the back of my belt, where luckily they didn’t fall off. I was in the home stretch now, running faster than I had on any part of the course. Physically, I could not run any faster given the distance I still had left. I didn’t notice the crowds at this point. I just ran. One foot in front of the next. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Apparently, at one point I smiled for a photographer. I honestly don’t even remember doing this.
Once we reached 110th and the northeast corner of Central Park, I started scanning the crowds once again: once for my physical therapy office who were stationed at 105th (I not only saw them but high-fived my physical therapist, Jason, which was a thrill), and once for my sister Kyla and her family – the ones I had missed on 1st Avenue. I knew they’d be somewhere in the 90s, and thankfully I saw them at the last minute. They made signs for me too.
The stretch from 110th to 90th is a section I had run a few times in the last weeks of training. I had been so worried about it. Everyone worries about it. It’s a mile-long, slight incline – nothing terrible, but not exactly what you want to come face to face with 23 miles into a marathon.
I never even noticed the incline. I ran mile 23 in 8:40.
The turn into Central Park felt triumphant. I knew I wasn’t done yet, but it felt like a victory. I held up my fists, in part because I was feeling like I had conquered a beast, in part to get the crowd to cheer for me, and in part to get a photographer’s attention. (I used to photograph stuff like this. I know what works.)
I glanced at my watch, trying to guess if I could make it in under 4. I still wasn’t sure. It was going to be close.
The spectator crowds inside Central Park were massive. The sound was deafening. I ran faster than I had at any point in the past three hours and a half hours. The bottoms of my feet were sore. Slap, slap, slap. Hm, a new ache for me. But I couldn’t stop or even slow down. I was the human embodiment of the law of inertia: an object in motion stays in motion. Like one of those metallic pendulums on office desks in 80s movies, my body was moving and moving and for all I knew would stay moving for all of eternity. My corporeal form was running now, forever, and nothing could stop it. Not even death.
At the foot of Central Park, we made a right onto 59th Street. This is where I was delighted to see my sister Shana and her family cheering for me. I made some gesture like “What the hell am I doing?” and kept going. There was an incline here. Once again, I did not notice it. Go, go, go.
My fastest two miles of the entire race were the last two: mile 25 in 8:34 and mile 26 in 8:24. I ran the last 385 yards at a 7:29. I’m not kidding, I was passing everyone. I guess I had more left in the tank after all.
And then I was done.
I suddenly found myself unable to walk. I was moving, but I couldn’t really bend at the hips so I probably looked like Frankenstein’s monster, only sweatier. I was in a daze. In slow motion, someone put a medal in my hands and congratulated me. I grunted something inaudible back. I felt like I was underwater. Water. I needed water. Runners were holding post-race bags of food and drink. Me want. I ambled over to the side and was handed one. I tore open the Gatorade and downed it. I cannot remember what color or flavor it was.
I saw photographer stations and assumed I needed to take a pic. I held up my medal and smiled as best I could.
A Fred’s Team member from Heaven came up to me, offered to carry my bag, and guided me to the Fred’s Team tent. If she hadn’t shown up, I don’t think I would have known where to go. Once in the tent, I was offered food and water and a place to sit. Someone even opened a bag of pretzels for me. They really took care of us. It was so nice. It seriously took me about a minute to sit in a chair. Other exhausted runners sat around me. We all compared races. I was so thankful to have a warm place to sit and eat.
But I couldn’t stay for long, as I had a dog to get back to. He was just a 10-minute subway ride away, but there was the complicated matter of getting my body to the subway. I left the tent, realized I hadn’t taken a good selfie, and sat my phone on the ground to try to do it. I could barely bend over. A very nice man offered to take it for me. His name was George and he had beautiful blue eyes and I will never see him again.
I exited the tent area and realized I had no idea where in Central Park I was. The place I run several days a week. Completely lost. Someone finally pointed me the way out, requiring me to cross over a temporary pedestrian bridge, which meant going up and down and bunch of stairs – a hilarious prank if there ever was one.
The only thing I had put in bag check was a single hoodie. And I was thankful I had, because I was suddenly freezing.
I did not opt to get a poncho because when the hell else am I going to wear that thing? It’s just as well, because apparently runners had to walk like a mile north to get one. Here they are making their way back down Central Park West looking like a scene out of a Walking Dead spinoff.
I managed to hobble to Broadway and caught an uptown train. I got home, sat around for a bit, took a shower, and got back on the subway to where my sister and her family were staying for the weekend. They had ordered Mexican food. I think I ate all of it.
At the time, I was disappointed in my race. I didn’t show it, but if I’m being honest, I was pretty down on myself. I had told myself and others this whole time that I wanted to comfortably break 4 hours, and I hadn’t been able to. The cruel part, though, is that I know I could have. I just hadn’t. I had made many micro decisions throughout the race that all added up to me not meeting my goal.
I hadn’t even come close to the goal the virtual training program had in mind for me, which was a 3:47-3:52 finish. Yes, I was proud of finishing strong. That last 10K I ran was pretty solid given that I had already been running for over three hours. But that feeling of euphoria I had imagined while crossing the finish? It never happened. Instead, I felt like I had screwed up.
I spent about 48 hours in this state, which I knew wasn’t healthy or productive (or perhaps even true). At some point Tuesday afternoon, I was suddenly overcome with a feeling of relief as I realized that not only was 4:00:07 a decent time for a 40-something lady first-time marathoner, but… it was also kind of funny. Seriously. Eight seconds off from a time I would have found acceptable? It’s something that would happen to a sitcom character. It’s almost silly.
I also knew something else about my race: I negative split. I ran the first half in 2:01:02 and the second half in 1:59:05.
The NY marathon course is famously difficult to negative split: the second half has more bridges (hills) and it’s just tougher to start running faster when you’ve already run a half marathon. At some point during training I learned that in last year’s race, out of over 50,000 runners, only a little over 700 ran a negative split. This year, I had done it. I felt pretty damn good about that.
Finally, I realized one very important thing: there will be many more marathons in my life. This was only the first. And I’m proud of the race I ran. I can’t wait to run NY again next year.
I already have my eyes on a spring marathon. More on that soon.
Thank you for reading this novel. I hope it was at least more fun than War and Peace.
– Time: 4:00:07 (PR)
– Pace: 9:10/m
– Age Group: 568/3379
– Women: 3666/22122
– Overall: 14483/52701