The TCS New York City Marathon, the world’s largest marathon is not your average marathon. In fact the only thing it likely has in common with any other marathon you may do is that you need to cover 42.2km (26.2 miles) to complete it.
On November 1st, 2015, I became one of the 49 617 runners who crossed the finish line in Central Park. Aside from a gigantic medal and incredible experience, I gathered some intel into making the most out of this bucket list race.
Thinking of doing the New York City Marathon? You’ll want this advice…
1. Race Week
The New York Road Runners turn a 42.2km Sunday run into a weeklong celebration of running, New York and the people who come from around the world to participate. While you’re spending the money, get to New York early and make sure to take advantage of all the events on offer.
Poland Springs 5 mile marathon kick-off
The Sunday before the New York City Marathon events kick off with a 5 mile race around Central Park. I missed the race this year.
TCS New York City Marathon Pavilion
Make time to go and check it out. We headed over on the Friday for a quick talk on nutrition, got photos taken by the finish line photo booth and met Meb Keflezighi, (a previous winner and the first American Runner to finish this year’s race in 7th position ) who shared his race experience and insight into how the elites race (they hurt, they just hide it better).The Marathon Pavilion in the West Side of Central Park opens the Wednesday before the marathon. There’s a full schedule of events including talks, films and book signings.
TCS New York City Marathon Health and Wellness Expo
You will need to go to the Expo to pick up your race number and pack. There’s also an enormous Asics official gear shop (where you will want everything, so budget for that) and hundreds of other stalls and things to do and see.
TCS New York City Marathon Opening Ceremony
The Friday before is the opening ceremony in Central Park. There’s also the parade of nations in which runners from around the world, organised into their representative countries parade across the finish line. You are able to be a part of the parade and represent your country.
2. Race Day
The day begins hours before you even start running and involves a lot of sitting around and waiting. These are the things you need to know to make that wait easier.
Change Your Clock
Daylight Savings Time occurs on the first Sunday Morning of November – which normally coincides with the marathon date. So at 2am on race day the clocks go back an hour to 1am. Make sure your watch / clocks / phone (most smartphones automatically change) are adjusted before you go to bed to avoid any panic or getting up too early.
Take Official Transportation to the Start
We took a 5.30am bus from the NYC Public library in Midtown Manhattan and it was incredible to see hundreds of busses (a total of 915 are used) lined along 5th Ave and streets streaming with runners, volunteers and cops.Having taking both private and official transportation to the start, my experience is that official is better. You get to feel a part of the race day buzz long before getting to the start and you don’t have to worry about getting lost or being late (which happened to me in 2011 and was no fun).
Book transportation as soon as it is made available on the entry system as it is offered on a first come basis.
Be Prepared to Wait around for Hours
Don’t bring anything that is not in a clear bag (you get given one at the expo) if you don’t want it to be removed.We got to the start village just after 6am, and after going through heavy security, got settled into the Blue Race village to wait for our 10.15am start time.
Do bring enough layers to keep warm and dry. You will be sitting outside in the cold for hours. Most runners use old clothing they throw into the provided clothing bins in the starting corrals. November in New York is rainy, so try bringing something waterproof as well (it drizzled for a few moments prior to the start, but luckily stopped).
Do bring at least one throw-away warm top. If you select the bag check option you will need to hand in the bag about an hour before you start and you don’t want to be freezing during that hour. If you did not select bag check, you will end up discarding your layers in the bins which are given to a charity.
Do get a Dunkin Donuts Beanie – they look ridiculous, but are hysterical and so warm. You’ll find them near the Dunkin Donuts Truck and your head will thank you.Do bring along a pre-race meal. In each village there are food stations where you can get bagels, Powerbar energy bars, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, water and Gatorade; but if you are specific about what you eat before a race bring it with you – you will get hungry. We brought along peanut butter sandwiches, but other runners had entire picnics set up.
Do bring a plastic bag or old mat to sit on. The ground is damp and the resultant soggy and cold butt isn’t pleasant. We didn’t and were jealous of the organised runners who came prepared.
3. The Race
Eventually our start time arrived and after announcements, anthems and lots of cheers, a pistol sounded signalling the start of Wave 2.
The Route isn’t Scenic, it’s the real New York
You begin in Staten Island and make your way across the Verrazano Bridge. Depending on the colour of your race bib you are routed either on the upper deck or the lower level. As part of the blue village we were routed onto the upper deck of the bridge.
The Verrazano takes you into Brooklyn just before the 3km mark where eventually all the runners are merged onto the same street.
Brooklyn is the most vibrant
By far our favourite borough, Brooklyn is pumping with music and loud cheering – there was not one spot that wasn’t packed with spectators. You run through Brooklyn’s neighbourhoods until just past the halfway mark (21.1km).
The Pulanski bridge takes you into Queens
The Queensborro Bridge connects you from Queens into Manhattan. You’re in Queens for about 3km. While there are plenty of supporters, it is a lot quieter than Brooklyn.
The Bridge is over a kilometre long and one of the quietest places on the whole route. There are no spectators and no water tables, just the sound of runner’s feet tapping the tar and a small window containing a magical view of Manhattan surrounded by water if you’re paying attention.
The Willis Avenue Bridge takes you 2km into the Bronx
You enter Manhattan on 1st Ave and 59th Street and run all the way up 125th Street (about 31km into the race).
You then re-enter Manhattan via the Madison Ave Bridge. A quick run through Harlem takes you onto 5th Ave where you will make your way into Central Park, back out and onto the finish line by W66th Street and Central Park.
The route while not entirely scenic, allows you to see the real New York and how each borough connects. From the beautiful areas, amazing architecture and a few postcard worthy views, to the not so nice areas that remind you of Joburgs CBD and abandoned areas, it is the best tour of New York you can do.
If you want to take cool pictures
Our best spots were
–The Verazzano Bridge (especially on the top deck). The structure of the bridge, the water and boats on either side and the throngs of runners everywhere is breath-taking.
–The Queensborro bridge, after halfway. There’s a small ledge on the left side (you’ll see runners stopping to take pictures there) which gives you a beautiful backdrop of Manhattan across the East River.
–Just before you enter Manhattan, when you start hearing the crowds you can peak through the holes of the bridge and get a birds eye view of the runners and crowds along 1st Avenue. It’s a stunning contrast to the quiet of the bridge you’ve just been on.
Leave Your Headphones at home
While the use of headphones is not prohibited, you’ll miss a lot if you use them. With over 130 live bands and entertainers along the route and the most enthusiastic crowds you have likely ever seen – all the entertainment you need is on the side of the road. It’s like experiencing Comrades crowd support on steroids and a tour of America’s Got Talent – you don’t want to silence it.
Don’t Race to the Finish
For the majority, the New York Marathon is a once in a lifetime opportunity. The race entry, travel, accommodation and everything else you need is expensive and the experience is made to be savored not gulped.
There are so many other races that are better suited to getting a PB. New York is about the journey and not the finish line. Slow down, take pictures; and enjoy the bands, the crowds, the views and the little things that will be the memories you walk away with.
Pass water tables with Caution
In South Africa we are used to getting our water in sachets, making grabbing and going easy. There are no sachets (and no coke). Water and Gatorade (the official energy drink sponsor) is handed out in paper cups, which are a lot harder to grab and go.
If you are not used to Gatorade try it beforehand (they do give it out at the expo) or stick to water. At some spots bananas were handed out.We also didn’t spot bins near the water tables, which meant that empty cups were discarded all over the street. Slow down through the water table stops so you can drink without half of it spilling all over you and so that you don’t slip on discarded cups.
Use the Porta Loos
South African runners view porta loos as optional, and bushes as acceptable restrooms. Going anywhere but the Porta Loos (of which there are plenty) is actually prohibited in the New York City Marathon and can result in disqualification. You’re also not going to find bushes to hide behind.
You don’t Stop at the Finish
The race ends on W 66th Street, where you are handed a medal, heat blanket and post race recovery bag (filled with water, Gatorade, a protein drink, a PowerBar Energy Bar and Pretzels) and are ushered along fast. Stopping to take a picture is difficult yet doable if you’re fast and ask the right person.
We then had to walk back down to the Family Reunion Area at 62nd to meet our sister who greeted us with a bubble machine and awesome balloons.Runners who choose ponchos get routed out the park at around 72nd Street. We opted for bag check and had to continue until 80th Street to retrieve our bags and then further to 85th Street to exit the Park.
That’s a lot more walking than usual after a marathon (and that doesn’t even count the kilometres we walked afterwards to meet up with friends for a drink and get back home).
If you want to lessen the walk, choose the poncho and not bag check
Have family or friends meet you near the 72nd Street exit (West Park Central is closed but they will be able to be behind the barriers on the street side so may be able to slip out the barriers there).
Free Subway Rides
However, walking has its pros – completing the marathon in New York is a big deal and New Yorkers will let you know. It’s fun walking among crowds of runners clad in capes and having every other person stop you to congratulate you.
This may be an official thing. It may not. But an MTA employee did open up the gates for us so we got a free subway ride on the way back home. They did this also when I ran in 2011 and I know of other runners who got a free ride too.
Aim for Sub 5 Hours
Yes, I said don’t race, but try aim for under 5 hours. All runners who finish in less than 5 hours have their names printed in the New York Times the next day. It’s tiny and you need a magnifying glass to see it, but it is there and pretty darn cool.
New York City Marathon Monday
Don’t miss out on Marathon Monday. The Marathon Pavilion in Central Park is open and you can get your medal engraved, buy finishers gear or a chocolate medal, view and order your official race pictures and get in some stretching and foam rolling.
New York especially in the areas around Central Park and Times Square are streaming with runners wearing race shirts and their medals.
Have your medal with you, a few hours of seeing everyone around you with a medal will make you wish you had yours on you. We ended up putting our medals on – people automatically start talking to you.
The wait to get into the Pavilion is long.We arrived at around 11am and were greeted by a 2 hour waiting line all the way out the park and down the block. Either bring snacks and a drink with you or go explore the Upper West Side. We opted for the latter and came back a few hours later to a 30 minute wait.
For a small taste of the NYC marathon experience, watch this clip!
If you want to run NYC in 2016 click here to find out how you can get an entry!