Right Where It Belongs: 2021 TCS NYC Marathon Race Recap

I still can’t believe this happened. Not the race itself, just the fact that I ran it.

Not that I haven’t run marathons (this was my fourth), but I’ve struggled through two years of frustrating foot issues. I even told a friend last spring that I didn’t think a 2021 marathon was in the cards for me.

And now here we are.

This marathon was not my fastest, slowest, best, or worst. But, based on events leading up to it, the 2021 New York City Marathon might be my most miraculous. So many things had to fall perfectly into place to make it happen.

Friendly warning: I write annoyingly long race recaps. Here we go!

THE PREP

GAINING ENTRY

It’s worth mentioning how I got a bib. In June 2021, well after most runners had registered for the race, I learned my running club the New York Harriers would receive four marathon bibs. I believe this is typical for all NYC clubs, at least the ones recognized by New York Road Runners, and it’s up to each team to determine the lucky recipients.

I almost didn’t put in my name for the bib. My feet were not doing great at the time and I was feeling discouraged. My friend and teammate Mirjam, also battling her own foot issues and still planning to run both Boston and New York (which she did!), encouraged me to go for it. I figured if Mirjam could do it, so could I.

Mirjam and me.
Mirjam and me after the Harriers’ “Last 10” run on Halloween

The Harriers award points to each runner throughout the year based on number of races, speed, and age group. My relatively high team “rank” (honestly credited more to my age group than my speed) got me one of the bibs. Thanks, middle age!

NYRR wound up having more bibs available, so our team received a few more after the initial four.

To be clear, we each still had to pay the $255 registration fee. NYRR isn’t that generous.

TRAINING

I covered my training on this blog with weekly posts featuring stories about my dad, as I dedicated this race to his memory. The first several weeks of training were inconsistent and filled with foot problems, missed training days, and low mileage.

It wasn’t until mid-August, after a swollen ankle, a missed Harlem 5K, and a lot of frustrated tears that I contacted Jessica from #Runpainfree after seeing another runner recommend her online. Jessica is an expert in body mechanics who’s helped countless injured runners, and she was able to determine my dysfunctional movement patterns and how I could fix them. Not only have I not had any foot/ankle/calf soreness since mid-August, I am running much faster and stronger than I was earlier in the year.

It’s worth noting that for the second half of my training block, since I was in “correction” mode, I did zero speed work. I focused on easy runs, tempo runs at roughly marathon pace (not much faster than easy), and lots of hill training.

THE EXPO

I always love the expo. Bib pickup! Shirt pickup! Gels and waffles! One of which I’ll eat on the walk back to the 7 train!

This year, runners had to be vaccinated to enter the Jacob Javits Center. The unvaxxed (who had to show a negative COVID test the day before the race) had to pick up their bibs outside Javits. I don’t know the numbers, but from what I’ve gathered, the vast majority of marathoners were vaccinated.

I scheduled my bib pickup for Friday at 9 am. This was either not a popular time or there were so few runners this year (ultimately about 25K instead of the usual 50K) that there was no line to enter, no line for the bibs, no line for the shirts. There were people milling around the expo but lots of room to do so.

I was super excited this year to be placed in the local competitive corral. This is a wave 1 corral reserved for about 400 NYC running club members with half or full marathon times based on their age groups. (I explained how I did this in my week 14 post, so read that if you’re interested.)

As cool as this was, there was a part of me that felt I didn’t fully deserve to be in the local competitive corral. It was a weird combination of pride and imposter syndrome. I’ll write more about this when I get to the start of the race, because I felt it then, too.

Sadly, there was no name wall this year. Not sure why, although one staffer guessed was it due to COVID and not wanting lots of people congregating together… even though there were plenty of spots within the expo where people were doing just that.

I never buy apparel at the expo. This year, seeing as it was the 50th anniversary, I shrugged my shoulders and bought a black sweatshirt and black mesh running tank, both of which say “50” on them. I also bought a few gels and waffles. As always, I ate a waffle on my way back to the train. I did not buy the socks that said COVID on them, because… why.

Why.

After the expo, I headed to my thrift store of choice on West 96th Street and snagged two perfect articles of clothing for the start village. Thank you to whoever donated these beauties to the St. Francis Thrift Store.

Me in a Bud Light sweatshirt and sweatpants.

RACE EVE

The only thing I like about Daylight Saving Time is that it usually coincides with the marathon, and when it does, as it did this year, we get an extra hour of sleep the night before the race. Other than that, DST is an outdated nuisance that should be abolished, but that’s a topic for another post.

I had been keeping my diet pretty simple for a few days: sweet potatoes, white rice, oats, eggs, tofu, water with Nuun. The night before the race my dinner was lightly fried tofu with tamari sauce on top of a baked sweet potato. Lots of salt.

I managed to get myself into bed at 9 pm – the earliest I’ve gotten to bed the night before a marathon –and set my alarm for 3:15 am. I realize this sounds terrible, but I typically wake up at 4:45 am every day. With the time change, 3:15 felt like 4:15 and got me over 7 hours in bed. So, not a big deal.

RACE MORNING

I foam rolled for 20 minutes, ate oats and chia seeds soaked in oat milk with honey, and made one cup of coffee. I drank water with Nuun. I walked my dog, thankful he would have a nice walker coming by in a few hours to take him out in the daylight.

I’d packed my start village bag the night before, and with only the essentials:

  • unopened 12 oz. water bottle
  • one Nuun tablet
  • 2 waffles (the thin “runner” kind, not the IHOP® kind)
  • 1 Kind peanut butter breakfast bar
  • 4 Gu gels
  • 1 package Clif Bloks
  • 1 package Sport Beans
  • Vaseline smeared into a small plastic bag
  • my bib & safety pins

I brought more fuel than I thought I might need but wound up eating way less than I planned to, and I think this might have been my biggest miscalculation of the race. More on that later.

Normally, my running club has a van to the start but, this year, no private vehicles were allowed on the Verrazzano. So the subway and ferry it was. There are buses that go from Manhattan directly to the start, but I wanted to experience the ferry: room to move around, fresh air, nice views. Also, boats are better than buses and everyone knows that.

I left my apartment at 4:25 am and headed to the 1 train where I saw one other guy on the platform with a start village bag. Naturally, we did not make eye contact.

As we made our way south, more and more people wearing thrift store sweats and carrying start village bags boarded the train. We all got off at South Ferry for the next leg of the journey.

It was genuinely exciting to walk onto the ferry in the dark with hundreds of other runners and NYRR staff cheering and applauding us. This was mostly wave 1 – only a portion of the field, so it didn’t feel congested. There was a good energy in the crowd. We were excited.

At 6:11, the doors opened for the 6:15 ferry. I’d signed up for the 6 am ferry but got there a little too late. No matter – there are ferries every 15 minutes. (For anyone wondering: nobody checks to see which ferry you signed up for. Anyone can get on any ferry.)

People waiting to board the 6:11 ferry.

The ferry had lots of room to sit, either inside or outside. I sat outside for a bit so I could take off my mask, eat a breakfast bar, and take pictures of the Statue of Liberty like a tourist. After that, I went inside to pin my bib to my Bud Light® top so I didn’t have to keep lifting it up in the start village.

I took what I thought was a nice picture and uploaded it to Instagram – the ONE social media post I planned on making before the race. I planned to use Spotify during the race and didn’t want to use up my battery.

Lower Manhattan from the Staten Island ferry.

After we departed the ferry, we exited the terminal (which looks surprisingly like an airport terminal) and walked around the block to a long row of buses that would take us to Ford Wadsworth. I’ve never gotten to the start this way; I’d heard past horror stories of throngs of runners waiting hours for a bus. I’m happy to report that my experience was incredibly efficient, likely a combination of starting early and with a much less crowded field than normal.

I stared out the window the entire 23-minute trip, taking in the one NYC borough I never visit, trying to figure out the physiological reason for the waves of anxiety I felt in my chest. How does this happen? How do thoughts in the brain manifest in the body’s midsection, creating feelings of tension and mild panic? And why did I feel this way? I’m not a professional athlete. Nobody was expecting anything of me. All I had to do was run.

THE START VILLAGE

After going through security, including a full wand scan, I followed signs to the green start waiting area. My two other NYC Marathons were in blue, so this was a new thing for me.

On my way, I bumped into my teammate Sunny and we chatted for a bit. She was in a different start so we wouldn’t get to hang out like we had before the 2019 race. Other than Sunny, I did not see another Harrier during my entire time at the start village. I could have texted someone, but I was a little worried about using up phone battery. Looking back, I kind of wish I had.

I needed to warm up, so after saying goodbye to Sunny, I set out for a spot to do that.

I took advantage of the free Dunkin coffee. I ate a waffle and had a few sips of Nuun water but wanted to save most of that for the early miles. I looked around for anyone I might know, but it was hard to see who was who – almost everyone wore a mask and was still in their sweats.

I went around a corner and found a quiet spot to warm up. There was one other runner there, lying on the ground face up, presumably sleeping, wrapped up like a mummy.

After firing up my glutes, I dumped out my remaining coffee and set off for my corral, which opened at about 8:40. I also needed to pee and re-pin my bib.

After a last ditch effort to locate any other Harriers, I entered my corral, which was – and I still couldn’t believe this – corral A. I was in wave 1, corral A. The closest to the start line you can get without being a professional athlete. What the hell was I doing here?

There were a lot of Marathon Foto photographers around. I’d already paid for the digital download package so I figured I’d get my money’s worth.

It was early, so the corral was nearly empty. I used the time to pee, generously slather my hands with sanitizer, slowly peel off my outer layers, do some more warming up, and figure out where the hell to pin my bib as my race outfit did not consist of a lot of material.

It was in the upper 40s, which may sound cold, but for a race, at least for me, meant I would wear as little clothing as I could legally get away with.

Before I knew it, it was almost time to walk to the start line. The ropes between the corrals were dropped, and a flood of runners from corrals B to whatever the last letter was rushed forward. I stepped to the side, still trying to figure out how to pin my bib.

I was wearing a crop top with my club name on it and didn’t want to cover that, so I was going to pin it to my shorts. It was figuring out exactly where (on a single leg? the middle?) that was taking up time, and I started to feel anxious. I kept repinning it so it wouldn’t grate against my torso skin or crinkle too much, and finally settled on middle. If it crinkled, it crinkled.

Anyway, this is just one thing I wish I had done earlier, like maybe even before I left my apartment.

As I headed to the start with the rest of the green wave 1 crew, I felt self-consciously out of place. These were the city’s fastest runners. I saw pacers with signs for 3:05, 3:20 – times I can only dream of running. I knew I was here because I ran a fast marathon for my age group, and I knew that technically I belonged here according to the people at NYRR behind the decision, but I still couldn’t shake this very out-of-place feeling.

Rationally, it was silly to think this way. This corral was filled based on times that were based on age groups, which meant there were plenty of 50-somethings, 60-somethings, and older folks who were just as fast, or slower, than I was. It’s not like I was the slowest runner here. Still. Good old imposter syndrome is strong.

I remembered that I was grateful to even be here. I remembered all the frustration I’d felt over the spring and summer, all the times I wasn’t able to run because my feet hurt, all the weeks I spent training and writing about my dad and hoping I could even make it to the start. This race was for my dad, in a way, and once I started focusing on that, my anxiety began to melt away.

I still didn’t see any Harriers, which kind of blew my mind because I knew for a fact a lot of them were in this wave. I purposely hung back a bit because I didn’t want to be all the way up front. I’d get run over if I dared that.

Since there were no friends around, I asked a guy to take my photo. Now you can see why I had such trouble figuring out where to pin my bib.

Me standing at the start of the NYC Marathon.

I discarded the mask before I crossed the start line.

THE PLAN

I’d run three marathons before this: 2018 NYC, 2019 NJ, and 2019 NYC.

For my first, I was in pretty good shape but completely lost as far as how to pace. I followed NYRR’s plan, which indicated I could run about 3:50, and I thought this was nuts. So I held back out of fear, ran too easy until the final 10K, and finished in 4:00:07.

For 2019 NJ, I was in even better shape, had an almost flawless build-up, and this time knew what I was in for. I predicted between 3:45 and 3:50, finished in 3:48:05, and negative split by three seconds.

2019 NYC was an aberration not worth mentioning.

I had a feeling this year I was in between, fitness-wise, where I was for 2018 NYC and 2019 NJ. I didn’t base this on hard data, just a gut feeling. So I figured I might be able to finish in the 3:50s. Sub-3:50 seemed unlikely, yet I was fairly confident I could run a sub-4.

This would mean an average pace of somewhere between 8:45 and 9:09. Slightly ambitious given my rocky season, but within the realm of possibility.

My plan was to start out at paces hovering between 8:45 and 9:00, and if possible make my way up to the 8:30s by the end. If I could manage to negative split like I had in 2018, even better.

I admit, I had fantasies of running a sub-3:50 but knew it would take absolute perfection on the course.

As far as a fueling plan… I had been lax about this. I had a rough idea to take some form of gel or blok or beans every few miles. I had what was left of my Nuun water, which I would carry until it ran out, and then I would take the water offered on the course. No water bottles weighing me down this year.

I would toss my gloves when my hands got hot.

I would do my best and see what happened.

I would enjoy myself.

THE RACE

I also had a music plan.

Runners like to argue over the pros and cons of listening to music during races. I could easily take up an entire post with this topic, but I won’t. I’ll just say that every brain works differently and, with the type of brain I have, music helps me focus. Plus, using my bone conduction headphones (thanks Aftershokz!) meant I could hear both the music and the crowd.

My specific plan was to listen to my “chill run” playlist until the Queensboro Bridge. These were songs I liked that weren’t necessarily upbeat. I would do this to help me not run too fast. Once on the Queensboro, I’d switch over to my more upbeat playlist.

Before the firing of the cannon, I started my playlist, put my phone in my back pocket, and took a deep breath.

Start line of the NYC Marathon under the Verrazzano Bridge.

STATEN ISLAND

I didn’t mind at all being on the lower level of the bridge – another thing I’ve seen runners get weirdly obsessive over, as if they won’t have another 25 miles after the bridge to worry about. It was actually kind of cool: the level above our heads created a bit of an echo chamber. The sounds of footsteps, breathing, and occasional laughter forged somewhat of a kinship with fellow runners. We were all in this together. Yes, I was slower than a lot of them. I stayed to the right and didn’t have any issues. Nobody yelled at me or told me I didn’t belong.

For the record, I saw zero evidence of a pee shower.

The only downside to the lower level is you have absolutely no clue how fast you’re running. Much like on the Queensboro, there’s no wifi signal, so your watch pace is all over the place. Usually, I have a good idea of how fast I’m running. Here, on an uphill in the first mile of a marathon alongside NYC’s fastest club members? Not a clue.

My bib crinkled loudly. Oh well.

As we approached the mile 1 marker on the bridge’s middle flat section, there were whoops and cheers in the crowd. One guy ran past me, yelling “Almost there!” and I laughed out loud.

I know I picked up the pace on the bridge’s downhill but wasn’t sure how fast I was going until we got out from under the upper level. It was probably too fast.

MILE 1: 9:00
MILE 2: 8:01

Yep, too fast.

BROOKLYN

If you run on the Verrazzano’s upper level, you’ll see crowds immediately following the bridge, and the course goes up Fourth Avenue from there. The green start takes a right turn onto the BQE (I-278) until we meet up with the rest of the field in mile 4. So instead of crowds on the sides of the road here, there were people cheering us from overpasses, which was fun.

At this point, I could see my pace. Faster than planned. In the moment, I decided to risk it. I didn’t want to play it too safe. In 2018, I held back out of fear. In 2019 NJ, I executed the paces perfectly, but that was easy to do on a super flat course. It probably would have been smart to stay in that 8:45-9:00 range here, but I felt really good. I felt like I was jogging. I was cool with a little risk today.

In mile 4, we joined the rest of the field for the long trek up Fourth.

MILE 3: 8:25
MILE 4: 8:25

The next 4+ miles were spent on the long, wide, and very fun Fourth Avenue. The crowds were, as usual, insane. So much cheering. The course was surprisingly sparse. I wouldn’t say it was empty, but it didn’t feel as crowded as it had in past years – again, a combination of me starting earlier this year and the fact that the usual field size was halved due to both COVID and travel restrictions.

As I have in my other NYC Marathons, at some point along this section of the course, I thought, “Wow. I am running the New York City Marathon.” I almost couldn’t believe I was here. I felt so happy.

After another faster-than-planned mile, I decided that maybe this was enough risk for now, and I retreated to slightly slower paces.

MILE 5: 8:32

Marathon Foto got one photo of me before Manhattan. I still had my gloves and water bottle, so this was somewhere in Brooklyn, as I tossed both before mile 10.

Me running in the NYC Marathon.

For the record, I wasn’t aware of any photographer here. I just couldn’t stop grinning like an idiot for most of Brooklyn.

I finally took a gel in mile 5 or 6, sipping my Nuun water every so often. When that was empty, I grabbed a cup of water at just about every mile, trying my best not to slow down too much. I never drank the whole thing. I’d take a couple sips and throw the rest away.

Miles 6, 7, and 8 flew by. My feet and legs and lungs still felt great. At one point, my teammate Steve ran up to me. I gave him a fist bump and told him to get the hell out of here (in a nice way, of course – he’s much faster than I am).

MILE 6: 8:42
MILE 7: 8:45
MILE 8: 8:50

After mile 8, runners turn on Lafayette, a slight incline. The road narrows here and sometimes the crowds spilled onto the course, but it never felt out of control. Despite the incline, I made more of an effort here to keep my pace consistent. At this point, most of the wave 1 runners had passed me so I was running with people who were about my pace.

I think I had a few Sport Beans in mile 9. I was trying to eat something every 3 miles or so but mostly only ate when I felt like it, as opposed to having a firm system in place. Oops.

Miles 10, 11, and 12 run through the northern part of Brooklyn, where the streets are narrower and the crowds, especially in the mostly Hasidic section of Brooklyn where it seems like everyone on the sidewalk is somewhere between ambivalent and annoyed at the marathon, are more sparse.

I focused on keeping the pace and waving at the occasional kid, sometimes making a silly face for a photographer. It was hard to know which photog was from which organizaton and I figured I might as well have fun with it. One woman held a sign that read “YOU LOOK SO SEXY” and I mouthed a very genuine “THANK YOU” to her.

I had a Clif Blok at some point, holding it between my teeth and cheek until it got soft. My other three gels remained in my pockets, untouched.

MILE 9: 8:51
MILE 10: 8:47
MILE 11: 8:54

Miles 12 and 13 are exciting because the Pulaski Bridge is approaching, which means the halfway point is approaching. I stayed within my original planned pace range. Maybe I could take more risks later.

As I hit the halfway point, I checked my watch: 1:54. On course to break four hours. I still felt good. Maybe not as great as I did in mile 2… but good.

MILE 12: 8:46
MILE 13: 8:49

Bye, Brooklyn.

QUEENS

The next four miles were weird.

I wasn’t injured, I wasn’t in pain, I didn’t feel nauseous, I wasn’t sick, I didn’t have to use the bathroom. I just slowed down.

The crowds in Queens were densely packed and fun. One guy held a “WELCOME TO QUEENS” sign and I pumped the air with my first, recalling the many years I spent living and running in Astoria. Good old Queens.

Extra conscious of tangents, I ran them pretty well here through all of the turns. As soon as we turned onto a street, I’d look ahead to the next turn and run as straight a line as possible to it. I might have taken more Sport Beans here.

After mile 14, runners take a right, and then a left, and then another left to get to the foot of the Queensboro. We were approaching my most feared section of the race. While the bridge is not as steep as the Verrazzano’s first half, it also does not come in mile 1.

I knew I might have slowed down a bit here, but even now, I’m still surprised to see my mile 15 pace.

MILE 14: 8:58
MILE 15: 9:45

I made an executive decision on the bridge: take it easy here. Not walk. No. Just slow down a bit. Run easy. Not only could I not see my pace due to a lack of wifi, this was a chance for a break, which I realized I needed right now. I took out my phone to change my playlist to the more upbeat one, hoping that could kick my ass into gear once I entered Manhattan.

I almost never do this in races, but with my phone already out, I snapped a photo.

Runners on the Queensboro Bridge.

A handful of people stopped to walk, but for the most part we all trudged as well as we could up that damn hill. I had no idea how fast I was going but knew it was basically a jog. I was okay with it.

Despite the sudden quiet of the Queensboro, it’s one of the most exciting parts of the course – not because of where we are but because of what’s about to come. The calm before the storm.

As we ran down the second, and much more comfortable, half of the bridge, we could hear the sounds of cheering coming from First Avenue. Things were about to get exciting again.

MILE 16: 10:12

Oof, that was a jog.

MANHATTAN, PART I

Woo-hoo! We made it! Not at the finish just yet, but making it to Manhattan is huge. I always feel a sense of accomplishment at this point, even with 10 miles to go.

The crowd was out in full force as always. People cheered as we made the lefthand turn onto First and I pumped the air with my fist, again, stupid grin on my face, still. I was here. I ran to Manhattan from Staten Island. Holy crap.

This is where I was supposed to pick up the pace. You know, my whole plan and all. My legs had other ideas. Trust me, I wanted to go. It took me about a mile to find a groove, but for now, I had to settle for another slow mile.

MILE 17: 9:43

Crowds of people with signs lined the course. There was a band, or two, maybe three. It’s a blur. I scanned the crowd for a couple of friends I thought would be at 86th but couldn’t find them.

I managed to speed up in mile 18, in part due to the excitement I felt knowing the Harriers cheer section was coming up.

Harriers not running the race always cheer at 103rd, in front of White Castle. I counted the street numbers as I headed north, growing more and more excited. I knew seeing them would give my adrenaline a boost.

The course still wasn’t crowded at all, so I had a great view of the team when I got to 103rd. I raised my hands in the air and I think I said something but I can’t remember what. Maybe just “AHHHHH!”

My teammate Dan snapped this great pic of me. Thanks Dan!

Thanks to my club, mile 18 was much faster. Maybe even too fast, but I felt good. Mentally.

Physically, I was getting tired.

MILE 18: 8:25

For the first time today, I thought about how many miles there were to go. I looked at my watch. Seven. Could I do 7? I run 7 miles all the time. It’s my normal run. It’s the Central Park loop, plus there and back from my apartment. Yes, I thought. I could do 7.

Did I take another gel? Nope. Still had three in my pockets. And I know this for a fact, because these same three gels are currently sitting in my fridge at the time of this writing. I’d had another Clif Blok at some point along the course, plus a few more Sport Beans. I considered another gel but was worried it would make me sick.

Honestly, I don’t know why this is a fear of mine. I have never in my life gotten sick from a gel or any other running fuel. I have a strong stomach. Literally, there is no food on Earth that makes my stomach hurt or makes me sick. Nothing. So I don’t know why I have this silly fear.

It’s something I need to work on.

Also, I do not remember taking water in Manhattan. Maybe I did? Was there water in Manhattan?

Mile 19 is a lot like 18, only less exciting – still a flat, straight path along First Avenue, but the crowd thins out up here. Fortunately, the Willis Avenue Bridge to the Bronx always seems to come sooner than I think it will, and I started to be able to see it up ahead.

MILE 19: 8:35

THE BRONX

When I ran this bridge in my abysmal 2019 race, my legs were shot. I actually had to walk it. This year was infinitely better than 2019, but the slight incline was harder than I would have liked.

I also knew that photogs usually hang out here, so I tried to look as relaxed as I could.

The vast majority of photos of me were taken in the final six miles. I wish there were more photographers along First, especially at the southern end where everyone is excited to be in Manhattan and not totally exhausted yet.

Me running on Willis Avenue Bridge.

The Bronx went quickly. There were some vocal spectators and musicians, which was fun. It was a blur of quick turns, fresh in my mind as I had covered this route on October 31 with my club in our “Last 10” run the week before the marathon.

I was conscious of turns, taking the innermost corners and trying my best to run in as straight a line as possible between streets.

I grabbed my only spectator-provided food in this borough, from a man holding out a bowl of orange slices. Yes. I had never wanted an orange slice more. I grabbed one, screamed “THANK YOU!” and crammed it into my mouth. It tasted like liquid gold.

My remaining fuel stayed in my back pockets. I don’t recall having any more of it in the race.

This is a good place to mention Race Screen, an app I’ve used in previous marathons that I find incredibly helpful. You install it on a Garmin, access the app on a computer, and input your race distance. As you run, the screen shows not only your average pace, but your predicted finish time.

It’s normal to run more than 26.2 miles in a marathon, as it’s difficult to take the shortest route possible. My three previous marathons were 26.46, 26.51, and 26.35 miles.

So, to be safe, I input a distance of 26.5 miles into Race Screen. As long as my predicted finish time was a few minutes under 4:00, I was confident that even if I crossed the finish in 26.6 or 26.7, I would run a sub-4.

My estimated finish time had gotten slower and slower since Brooklyn, and was now hovering around 3:56 and 3:57. I was okay with this, but didn’t want to slow down much more than I already had.

Mile 21 ends just into Manhattan, right after crossing the final bridge, or, as Emily Litman (who I sort of know from a Facebook group) likes to say on her perennial sign, the Last Damn Bridge.

What the hell, I thought, as I took out my phone to snap another pic.

I had slowed in the Bronx, but at least I was consistent.

MILE 20: 9:06
MILE 21: 9:06

MANHATTAN, PART II

This race was kind of the opposite of my 2018 NYC Marathon, where I’d played it safe for the first 20 miles, getting a surge of energy coming out of the Bronx, and saving my fastest 6 miles for the end.

This year, I’d taken some risks early on that weren’t exactly paying off now, not to mention my poor fueling strategy, which I failed to recognize at the time. It truly didn’t hit me until I got home and took three gels and half a package of Clif Bloks out of my pockets and was like, “Huh. I guess I didn’t eat this.” (I ate the remaining Sport Beans after I crossed the finish.)

I was not in a position to speed up this year. It was all I could do to stay between 9:00 and 9:30. My legs could not move any faster than that. I really wanted that sub-4 and just had to hold on as best as I could.

We took a couple of turns around Marcus Garvey Park and then a right onto Fifth Avenue. I was a little worried about the incline in miles 23 and 24. This mile-long gradual uphill was nothing to me in 2018, and it’s barely noticeable if I run it in training.

Today, this stretch was so, so, so, hard. My form was crap at this point. I felt hunched over and weak. I kept alternating between looking miserable and remembering “oh right, there are photographers around here” and trying my best to not look like I was dying.

Fortunately, I did see my friends Cody and Lydia along this stretch, cheering me on from the east side of Fifth Avenue. I hoped I didn’t look like death.

Toward the end of mile 24, the road finally leveled out and runners turned into Central Park. Almost there.

MILE 22: 9:16
MILE 23: 9:05
MILE 24: 9:14

If the last two miles of the NYC Marathon were flat or downhill, it wouldn’t be so bad. The one saving grace is that Cat Hill, which I usually run up in training, was a nice downhill today.

Although, you’d think I would have looked more relaxed going down it than I did. Lot of jaw tension here. Good job, jaw.

I looked a little happier elsewhere in the park. I can’t remember if this was before or after Cat Hill, but I was clearly aware of the photographers for this one.

There’s a slight uphill at the 72nd Street transverse which felt like Hell today, and then we exited the park to turn onto 59th. Apparently, there were photographers right before the exit, although I have no memory of them.

I know where this was taken because the guy in orange, Jamie, is right behind me at the finish just a mile later. I don’t know Jamie, I just know I ran past him in the final mile.

That final mile was hard. 59th Street is another gradual uphill. While I didn’t walk it this year like I had in 2019, I most definitely slowed down. I could handle flat, but any uphill was just… rough. My legs were toast.

At the end of mile 26, we turned into Central Park one more time.

MILE 25: 8:59
MILE 26: 9:14

There is one last uphill right before the finish. My legs were absolutely fried. This last hill was a trudge and a half. At this point, I knew I was going to break 4, so I kind of didn’t care.

As the finish came into view – that beautiful, glorious finish – I raised my hands in the air and, apparently, applauded. I don’t really remember doing this, but let the record show that, in fact, I did.

There’s Jamie!

FINAL 0.2: 9:55

THE AFTERMATH

After I crossed the finish, I stopped running. Then I got dizzy and had to lean over. A staff member came over and asked if I needed a wheelchair.

I didn’t need a wheelchair, I just couldn’t open my eyes for a few seconds. My head was spinning.

After a moment, I stood up, thanked the man, and hobbled off to find any kind of nourishment.

But first, I couldn’t believe it: I had run a 3:54. Turns out I’d run a much shorter marathon than I thought I would. I would later learn I ran 26.22 miles – my shortest marathon yet! Being conscious of all of those turns and tangents had really paid off.

I was almost prouder of my total distance than my time.

I saw a bunch of shiny things gleaming in the sun. Oh right, we get a medal for this!

I got my recovery bag and immediately downed the full bottle of Gatorade.

I knew I wanted a photo before I left (it’s a tradition at this point), so I asked a woman to take one. We had to do it quickly because staff were trying to usher everyone out as much as possible.

I got a poncho and posed for a few more Marathon Foto pics, which I won’t bother posting because I think at this point everyone knows what I look like.

The only downside to the trek out of the park, which was thankfully much shorter this year than in years past, was my futile attempt at removing the foil top off of the chocolate milk bottle that came in the recovery bag. This was a task so impossible that it resulted in me collapsing on the ground next to a garbage can, nearly in tears until a kind volunteer came over to help. He had to use his keys to remove it.

I walked slowly to the 1 train and made my way home.

Well, I did it. I ran a marathon in 2021. On top of that, I ran a sub-4. This was my third NYC and my first sub-4 NYC. My fastest of the three. I was, and still am, really proud of that.

Could I have fueled better? Yep. Every marathon has a lesson, and this was mine for this one.

Two hours after getting home and eating some supermarket pumpkin pie, I took my dog for a walk, thinking about how crazy it was that 12 hours earlier I’d headed out for Staten Island, only to run back home.

What a trip.

MY OFFICIAL RESULTS
Time: 3:54:38
Pace: 8:57/m
Age Group: 147/1336
Women: 1697/11349
Overall: 6244/24949

Photos of me courtesy of Marathon Foto.

2 thoughts on “Right Where It Belongs: 2021 TCS NYC Marathon Race Recap

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