NYC is a challenging course but the energy of the crowds will carry you all the way through to the finish line. Imagine a block party that is 26.2 miles long with millions of spectators cheering for you through all five boroughs of NYC. It is not hard to see why so many people come back for more.
I was really lucky to have run NYC as my debut marathon in 2017 and then again in 2019. The atmosphere, the cheers, the music and the entertainment is unmatched by any other marathon race. There are millions of people, young and old, sometimes even four or five layers deep, street after street, mile after mile, together with 50,000 other runners, you are never alone in this race.
My Six Marathon
This marathon was my sixth overall and my second in NYC. It was nice to be back in the city, which was an amazing home to me and my husband for over two years. Since leaving New York for Hong Kong in 2018, I have run four other marathons, which were Chicago 2018, Nara 2018, Hong Kong 2019 and Vietnam 2019. With these couple of races and training under my belt, I had really wanted to perform better in 2019 and at least to beat my debut marathon time of 4:16 at NYC in 2017.
Unfortunately exactly two months before the NYC marathon, I fell during a run and injured my elbow and knee. My injured elbow developed into a wound infection, which led to two operations under general anaesthetics and five nights in a hospital. I was completely off running for most of September, which was tough but I never thought about missing the NYC marathon. I resumed my training with five weeks to go, which was about enough to ramp up some mileage before two weeks of tapering. I did almost nothing in terms of strength training because I could not put any weight on my injured elbow and knee.
Coming Back from Injury
Anyway, I have done as much training as I could in that limited time and adjusted my expectations accordingly. It would still be great to complete another marathon. I was feeling nervous, excited and and fortunate to be finally here at NYC, ready to take on my sixth marathon!
Believe me, I didn't really have a time goal until I was about 30 minutes into the race. My feet had been hurting for about a week prior to the race. I didn't dare pushing myself too hard until I got to the 20 mile mark. The first half of the race went pretty well, I got to see my friends at Brooklyn and I felt strong enough to push a little more. Whilst I was enjoying the race, I told myself "Stay calm, go steady, don't do anything stupid, finish the race. Get it done, get that medal and post-race poncho."
It turned out to be a great race, a fantastic party and a two minutes course PR in a time of 4:14. It was a pleasant surprise and a nice come back from injury.
Race Recap and Some Tips
Since there must be thousands of NYC race recaps and mile by mile account of the marathon course. You won't find a detailed description of the course. Hopefully you will find a few practical tips, especially if you are from outside the US.
Now, the most practical tip is not even about running, it is so much about being organised and getting to the right places on time. Being the largest marathon in the world with over 50,000 finishers, the NYC marathon is certainly a logistical phenomenon/ challenge in itself. Running a marathon is hard, but as you and I will discover, the hardest thing about the NYC marathon is the organisation around your transport, your clothing, your meals and hydration. Once you manage to get to Staten Island and cross the start line, 26.2 miles of street party starts and NYC will make sure you have a fun and most memorable race.
#1 Prepare for The Cold 🥶
The best preparation for the marathon race is to stand sit in the freezing cold and gusty wind 💨 for hours before all your training runs.
Because it is November in New York and you will arrive at the start village early in the morning (between 7am and 8am). Unless you are an elite or VIP runner well deserved of the luxury of a heated tent, you will likely be waiting outside in the frigid morning cold for hours before your start wave (for normal runners the start time is staggered from 945am to 11am).
Well of course, if you live in Hong Kong or anywhere near the tropics where the cold (or cool) is not available to you. There are much better alternatives than standing or sitting in the freezing cold as part of your training. Just dress warm!
#2 Dress Warm and Keep Dry as You Wait to Start
Some fashion ideas are bathrobes, onesies, heat sheets, raincoats, blankets, old skiwear or that cute bunny (warm) or grizzly bear (very warm) costume you wore at the Halloween Party the previous night.
Bring a disposable raincoat and something to sit on too! Do not stand for hours. Keep your legs as fresh as possible. Forget about using your phones, there is no signal. You are unlikely to get GPS signal at the start on Verrazano Bridge either, so be prepared to use your watch as a stopwatch.
Make sure you are ready to part with these wonderful warm clothing that spark joy and serve you well at the start village. There are clothes donation bins at the village and all the way through to the corral at Verrazano Bridge. Remember, it is really windy up at the bridge, so keep your clothes on for as long as possible. Don’t worry about being wasteful, as NYRR is a major clothes donor to the homeless and NY and NJ. See What Happens to the Tons of Discarded Clothing at the NYC Marathon?
#3 Where To Get Warm Clothes
If for whatever reason you are unable to bring enough or the right kind of clothing to NYC. I would recommend you shop at discount stores such as TJ Maxx and Marshall’s in Manhattan. Check on Google map for their locations. Get the cheapest and warmest items you could find. They don’t need to match because frankly no one cares and these clothes will end up in the donation bins anyway.
I personally loved my poncho which I earned at my debut NYC marathon in 2017. I looked ridiculous in it but it kept me so warm before the race. Sure I had to toss it at the start, this also meant I had every motivation to complete the entire 26.2miles so I could earn a poncho back at the finish.
#4 How to Deal with All This Free Food
Depends on your start wave, you are likely to have a long wait at the start village and need to plan what you are going to eat during that time. Knowing the names of the event sponsors, you know there will be free coffee, water, donuts, bagels and waffles at the start village. Personally I brought my own food, I knew it was better if I stuck to what my body was used to during my training. If you are used to drinking coffee and eating lots of donuts before your long runs, time to knock yourself out at the village.
#5 Stay Off Your Feet
This tip applies to all marathon races but for some reason NYC is particularly difficult because everyone walks a lot in Manhattan. You can easily walk up ten to fifteen thousand steps without even trying. The list of attractions (or walking distractions?) is endless. Central Park, the High Line, Hudson Yards, the Vessel, Brooklyn Bridge, going up and down the subway, museums, art galleries, department stores, and of course, the NYCM Expo. You will likely walk for miles without noticing and by the time your feet are hurting, it is already too late.
Whatever you do, try to plan your day well and stay off your feet as much as possible.
#6 The Expo
The expo is a tough one. Your experience at the Expo could vary massively on the upside if you can avoid rush hours. Early afternoon may be a good idea as most people choose to go after breakfast or during lunch breaks.
The expo is huge, there are tonnes of stalls, promotions and NYCM limited editions merchandise from all major sports brands that you can imagine. This year I didn't buy anything at the expo, as I focused my energy on queueing for a few pictures at the NYC marathon themed photo backdrops. If this is your first time running the NYCM, I would recommend sitting in for one or two race strategy sessions at the Expo or the NYRR Run Centre. You can also speak to the coaches, pacers and volunteers for more info and race tips.
Due to the size and volume of people (especially at rush hours), the expo is an endurance exercise in its own right. Bring a bottle of water and some snacks with you, and keep off your feet as much as you can. As always, plan ahead and know how you get there and return from the expo, because the subway, road traffic and the volume of people can be overwhelming.
#7 The Start at Fort Wadsworth
From Manhattan, there are two main ways of getting to Staten Island, either the Midtown Manhattan Bus or the Staten Island Ferry. There is also a bus from New Jersey. You will have chosen the official transportation upon registration and it will be clearly stated in your confirmation email.
I took the Midtown bus option in 2017 and then the ferry option in 2019. If you take the bus from Midtown, you get to stay warmer for longer. If you take the ferry, you get to enjoy the beautiful views of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty but there is a long wait for the bus to the start village in Fort Wadsworth in Staten Island.
See the picture on the right where runners are waiting for a bus in the early morning. Imagine how cold it was. I took the 630am ferry from Manhattan, and had to wait for about 20-30 minutes for a bus at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. This was when I started feeling thankful for having a poncho from my last NYC marathon race.
Remember to keep as many layers on for as long as possible. If you still don't have enough warm clothing by the time you get to the start village. As a last resort, you could always go to the donation bins and dig out some freshly discarded clothing by fellow runners. There is no shame in surviving the cold. The key is to not let your body temperature drop too far.
You can keep most of your clothing on even as you enter your corral. Note there is at least about 30 minutes to wait after you enter the corral. There are more clothes donation bins and porter-potties after the corral. If you are unsure where the last bin is, ask any volunteers nearby.
#8 The Course
Instead of me repeating what everyone else says, take a look at this excellent guide to the NYC marathon.
If you want to hear my thoughts of the course. A marathon is always a respectable distance no matter how flat the road or how ideal the conditions are. NYC is a tough race because it is hilly, compared to Chicago, and maybe Berlin and London as well, but NYC is not as hilly as Hong Kong or Nara. I felt the key challenge with NYC is to reserve enough for when the going gets tough in the last 6 miles.
The start at Verrazano bridge is uphill, but you won’t feel much when you are still fresh and hyped. Most of Brooklyn (miles 3 to 11) is flat. You will start feeling some elevation at the Pulaski Bridge at mile 13, then the largest climb at Queensboro Bridge at mile 16 , and finally a gentle but long incline on the 5th Avenue after leaving The Bronx. Everyone feels a bit rough by Central Park, you will find many runners slowing down here but remember to push as there is only less than 3 miles or 5k to go.
One more thing, as of 2019, all the distance markers are in miles only, there are no kilometer markers.
#9 Coordinating with Your Family and Friends
If you have friends and families coming to watch you run, communicate exactly where you want them to stand and wait for you. Be VERY SPECIFIC, like on the left hand side of 92nd/ 1st Avenue or 102nd/ 5th Avenue. Don’t just say I will see you on mile 15, because one mile of people five men deep is a very long and thick mile to spot a face when you are running and fatigued. Before the race, decide whether you will be running on the left or right side because the avenues are WIDE and packed with runners.
If you want to see your friends and family during the race, avoid mile 16 after Queensboro Bridge, that’s where the crowds are the heaviest. Personally I like the late 80s/ early 90s on 1st Ave and 90s/100s on 5th Avenue.
#10 The Finish
Did you know that the last 300 yards of the NYCM are uphill? Don't worry, you won't feel it much because you will be in so much pain already. Remember to look as best as you can crossing the finish in front of so many spectators and plenty of cameras.
Just as you think you are done with 26.2 miles and beaming in front of the cameras with your shiny medal, please remember you have another mile to walk before exiting Central Park. As you registered for the race, you would have chosen either bag drop/ collection or post-race poncho. I would highly recommend the post race poncho which can keep you warm through this mile of walking.
A Super Nice Surprise
And guess what? I randomly ran into my NYRR Group Training friend Ahjin at the finish line! Just like that. It's totally insane as you can see from our body language! It was nice catching up with Ahjin as we walked this last mile in Central Park. This mile was probably the most pleasurable post-marathon walk for me.
#11 Post Race
Where to meet your friends and family post race? Ideally in a bar, restaurant or hotel. Don’t meet at upper west side, or anything within one or two avenues west of Central Park in the 60s to 90s, because it is really crowded. Unless you really want to see them right there at the park. Plan ahead where is a sensible place to meet, ideally somewhere warm with excellent food and drinks options.
Also, don't forget to have your medal engraved at the Marathon Pavilion in Central Park the following day. I remember long queues back in 2017 but they now have engraving services on Tuesday and Wednesday as well, so hopefully the queues are not as crazy going forward.
My 2019 Post-Race Thoughts
I felt I owed it to myself to run the NYC again because I never got to write up my debut marathon race in 2017. Also, NYC is such a special race and very difficult to get in. If I didn't run it now I honestly didn't know when I could earn another entry to this prestigious race.
Back in 2017, I was training with the New York Road Runners and had been running a lot of their races for nearly two years. I was so lucky to have benefited from the full advantage and insider knowledge of this home course. The first race was always tough but completing a marathon really changed me and continues to shape me as a runner.
By 2019, I didn't know what to expect from the NYC Marathon. On one hand, I have gained experience from four more marathons in the space of two years but I also suffered from a bad injury and hospitalization that robbed much of my training. I suppose it turned out to be a blessing because it took out the stress of going after a PR. I got to really enjoy the race atmosphere. Thinking back to race day, I don't remember if I really hit the wall. Of course, I really felt my knees hurting from the pavement pounding, it was a lot harder because I was under-trained. But hey, I survived and I am still feeling ok a week later.
It was so wonderful I got to see so many friends in NYC, running the same race as my uncle and seeing my cousin finishing her first marathon. I was super thrilled that I didn't miss my friends Steph and Dan and their baby twins in Brooklyn. Thanks to them I now have the most amazing running photo - it really speaks of how I feel from running marathons.