You'll spend months training, completing all your long runs, figuring out whether you are a gel pack or energy bar person, discovering the magical properties of chocolate milk, losing at least a few toenails, and hopefully getting sufficiently prepared to ward off nipple burn. Before you know it, race day will arrive and you'll be running through the streets of New York with nearly 50,000 other inspired—and often weirdly dressed—people, with the entire city cheering you on.
But there's some stuff you need to know before you take your first stride. Even though there are countless sites devoted to providing advice on how to pace yourself, what to expect at each mile, and what to watch out for, there's also the stuff no one tells you. Here's the stuff I wish I’d known when I ran the marathon for the first time last year.
Bring as little as possible. The marathon officially begins at 9 a.m., but chances are, unless you are an Olympian and/or experienced marathon runner, you will have a much later start time (along with 20,000 other folks; and don't feel bad, all the fun of the NYC marathon happens in the later waves). This means that you will likely get to Staten Island a few hours before you line up for your start. November weather can be tricky, and even if the day turns into a beaut, as it did last year, it will still be cold in the morning and on the ferry, so bundle up.
The marathon has introduced new baggage options in 2012 that will basically allow you to (theoretically, anyway) skip the bottleneck at the finish line if you chose not to check a bag. DO NOT CHECK A BAG. Whatever you wear to the start area, make sure it's something that you are willing to ditch along the way. Your best bet is to go to the Salvation Army and pick up some cheap clothes that you can then dump into the recycling bins the marathon folks are setting up at the start gates. The very last thing you want to do after running 26 miles is stand in line in Central Park waiting to pick up the bag you checked six hours earlier because it has your favorite Nike running top in it.
Write Your Name on Your Shirt
Read the headline. Write your name on your shirt. Or, if you don't relish the idea of strangers yelling your name for five hours (for instance, say it's easily, ahem, mispronounced and you have a longstanding phobia rooted in childhood attendance roll-calls of people yelling out their weird, mangled interpretations of it) write something that's easy to read and that is meaningful to you. Right now you might not think this will matter. And for the first 16 miles or so, it may not. For the last eight miles, however, when you start thinking that someone is moving the mile markers on you because there is absolutely no way it can possibly take this long to get from mile 23 to mile 24, it's very likely the only thing that will propel you through those last three excruciating miles from the top of Central Park, all the way to the bottom, and back around again is a bunch of complete strangers telling you, YOU (weirdly-named person though you may be), that yes you can do it!
For those of you who don't live in New York, the Verrazano Bridge connects Staten Island to Brooklyn. The marathon begins at the bottom of the Staten Island end, and depending on what wave you are in, you will either run over the top deck or the bottom deck. If you are on the bottom deck, stick to the middle lanes as much as possible.
As mentioned, the wait before race can be a lengthy one, and once you enter your corral, there are no more porta-potties. You will be cold, you will be anxious, you will be drinking water, and there won’t be any bathrooms. Get where I'm going here? It is not unusual, once the race starts, for people to take a moment to heed Mother Nature’s call and, well, relieve themselves off the side of the bridge. So, stay away from the edges of the bridge and you won’t get pissed on, literally.
(Fear not! There are plenty of porta-potties along the way, just not on the bridge.) (Also: seeing people pee in public—something New Yorkers are rather immune to—will cease to be shocking around mile 12.) (Also also: This advice goes for the Queensboro bridge too, but you’ll probably be past the point of caring by then.)
There is a GPS widget imbedded in your bib that's connected to you registration number and allows your friends to track your position using the marathon app. However, don't count on this too much—not because it doesn't always work, but because, with so many people in the city using it, it has a tendency to crash. Where you want people, and what you'd like them to have for you, is up to you.
However, my general advice on this is twofold:
- Know, generally, where they plan to be: some parts of the route are more crowded than others, and this will make it easier to look for them.
- If it's a matter of choice, it's more important to have people near the end than the beginning. I had two (very loyal and dedicated) friends waiting for me at mile 22 in Marcus Garvey Park (also known as the official address of the dark night of the soul) and knowing they would be there was pretty much the only thing that kept me going from mile 18 onward. It sounds like a little thing now, especially if this is your first marathon, but in my hazy memory of that long, long run last year, what stands out most clearly is how utterly dependent I became on seeing those faces (and that carton of chocolate milk!) in Harlem.
Also, beware the finish line. Once the route turns off Central Park South and back into the park itself, it becomes difficult to spot people (and for people to find spots). Everyone has visions of their loved ones waiting for them at the finish line, but the reality is the closer you are to the end, the harder it is to spot anyone. Better to have them somewhere between miles 22 and 25 when utter, total exhaustion truly kicks in.
A note on the final stretch: Right now, mile 25 probably sounds like the end of the race. Hell, only 1.2 miles to go! Homestretch! No. Not at all. The home stretch is the last 100 feet. A better analogy: the Holland Tunnel is technically 1.6 miles long, except in rush hour when it is never-f***king-ending. That's what the last few miles of the marathon are like: New York in rush hour traffic. Actual distance ceases to have meaning. Just be prepared to be very tired. Don’t lose heart.
Bring some. Chances are you are already in the habit of keeping some cash on you for longs runs—especially if you live and train in the city. But it's a good idea to keep some cash on hand on race day as well. Here's why: Even though the marathon organizers are making a big deal this year of creating a friends and family area to facilitate a speedier exit from the park, there will likely still be a wait between when you finish the race and when you get out of the park. And by "wait," I mean "be stuck in a long cordoned off path you have to plod through with crowds of other exhausted runners that will eventually dump you onto Central Park West."
If you live here and you are under the impression you can cross the finish line and simply walk out of the park, think again. It's like trying to exit MetLife stadium after a Jets game. Slow. Except, instead of being drunk and full of pretzels and beer, you will have just run 26 miles and every muscle in your body will be in revolt. Once you are out of the park, and depending on where you have planned to meet people, you'll have to walk across Central Park West (closed to traffic, which means no cabs) all the way over to Columbus or Amsterdam. Last year, the MTA (with typical forethought) was not running any of the red lines to Brooklyn. Traffic was a mess due to marathon road closures. The sun was setting, and the energy bar I received with my finish bag was long gone. When I stumbled into a pizza joint on Columbus, I was never so grateful for anything as I was for the sweaty five dollar bill I had stuffed in my side pocket (though the cashier looked somewhat less so). On the upside, the silver capes they give you to keep you warm when you finish really do work.
A lot of people frown on the use of iPods during the official race. I didn't bring mine last year mostly because during my long runs I'd found it distracting during the tough spots when I needed to focus. However, by mile 18 or so I wished I'd had it with me. Not for any other reason than by that time I was getting tired of hearing people yell. Maybe this is a New Yorker thing, but by the time I reached the First Avenue stretch, I just wanted everyone to shut up for a while so I could refocus, something that could have been more easily achieved with my iPod. Unfortunately, unlike some other stretches (parts of Bedford Ave. and portions of the Bronx), First is packed with people. If you are in the later waves, it's likely many of these people will be drunk. So, something to think about. Even if you just use it to give yourself a break from the cacophony.
Related: Your iPhone. Even if you live here, you will want to take pictures, especially along the 4th Avenue stretch where the mighty Brooklyn roars loudest (and you are still relatively full of energy) and then along the 59th Street Bridge, which offers breathtaking views of the city.
This may be the most important thing I can tell you.
When people talk about training for the NYC marathon they often focus on the bridges. And for good reason. There are a number of bridges along the route, the two biggest obviously being the Verrazano and the Queensboro/59th Street Bridge, which both span nearly two miles. I can't count the amount of times people advised me to train on the bridges as practice. And I did! (I also commute into the city from Brooklyn on my bike, so the psychology of the bridge, for lack of a better word, has long been familiar to me.) What no one talks about are the long stretches. That's because they look easy on the map and don't contain any really notable hills. Don't be deceived by this.
As I mentioned, the four-mile straightaway that is the Fourth Avenue stretch through Brooklyn is pretty glorious: you are fresh, the crowds are exciting and fun, and you will be so excited and happy and grateful you decided to run this thing. The First Avenue stretch, however, was the hardest, longest, most soul-destroying stretch of running, or anything really, that I have ever done. It did me in.
The first Manhattan portion of the race runs up First Avenue to the Bronx and begins as you come off the long, tough trip over the 59th Street Bridge. You will be on First Avenue from miles 16 to 20, all at a slight incline so that when you come off the Bridge and turn the corner what greets you is the visual of all the thousands of runners shimmering ahead of you for miles and miles. Miles and miles that you also have to run. For those spectators waiting on First, it makes for a great picture. However, mile 16 to 17 also happens to be where the true, hellish exhaustion begins to set in. Depending on your training regime, it's likely you have only run, at the very most, 20 miles, so it's around this point that you will have to start digging deep inside to a place you've maybe never been before.
At that moment, being able to see how far you still have to run, especially if your long training routes decked in and out and overlapped themselves, is a mammoth head fuck that no one ever warns you about. Instead of being able to talk yourself into making it to the next corner (which, starting now, is maybe as far as you think you'll be able to make it), you are confronted with the reality, right there, staring you down like barrel of a very long shotgun, that you literally have to run as far as your eye can see. And then six more miles after that. All the while there will likely be hoards of drunk brunchers yelling their encouragement.
My advice: Before Sunday go stand at the corner of 62nd and First Avenue. Imagine you are more exhausted than you have ever been in your life. Then imagine you are more exhausted than that. Now stare up the length of First—all 67 blocks. Get used to that view. Own it. Finding the determination that it will take to cover this stretch is the reason you are running this marathon.
It’s OK Not to Love It
By now, I’m sure you’re over how many times you’ve been told running this marathon will be a life changer, or some such, and how it will probably turn you into a devoted marathon runner. If neither of these things end up being true, it's OK.
I will never run more than five consecutive miles again if I can help it. Ever. That said, the fact I did so once certainly makes for great party conversation should the chatter ever lag. And it goes without saying that if you are going to do one marathon in your life, this is it. New York is the greatest. You are the luckiest. Good luck.
Glynnis MacNicol is the former media editor at Business Insider, founding editor at Mediaite.com, co-founder of TheLi.st, longtime New Yorker, and one-time New York Marathon runner.