The NYC Marathon is the biggest of the big boys. Even among the mega marathons, it’s the largest on Earth with a whopping registration of 55,000 runners, and a new world record 51,388 finishers this year, followed by Chicago, Paris, London, Tokyo, and Boston. That’s a staggering number to manage considering it’s nearly twice the size of Boston but the host New York Road Runners are no dummies, and they do an impressive job breaking down the masses into manageable groups.
If you’ve ever spoken to a NYCM runner, they’ll tell you the biggest downside of the event is the early rise and a lot of waiting around before you actually start running, which stems from the logistics of the route and sheer numbers. Similar to Boston running point-to-point through towns from Hopkinton to Beantown, the tagline of NYC is that it runs all five boroughs of the City, which complicates things a little compared to running laps around Central Park. The course begins in Staten Island on the west side of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and crosses to Brooklyn, then runs north entering Queens at the halfway point, west over the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan, and north all the way to the Bronx for a brief turnaround before returning to Manhattan towards Central Park for the finish line.
The large staging area in Staten Island at Fort Wadsworth is where you’ll spend several hours before the waves begin at 9:50AM… but not until a potential hour plus wait in line at the NY Public Library for a bus there, and a slow ride south as the sun rises over the Hudson River. The Fort can be windy and feel bitterly cold at times, but we were lucky this year and had minimal wind on a generally warm sunny day. Come prepared with lots of layers but be aware of the restrictions on certain items like sleeping bags.
Tip: Try finding an Airbnb in Staten Island the night before the race. Ana found this to be an inexpensive and convenient way to sleep comfortably until 7:15 instead of 5AM. From her place, Ana took a two minute Uber ride and arrived in her corral just ten minutes later. She highly recommends this option for those who want the extra rest and less stress in the hours before the start.
The genius of the logistics is that there are four waves (one going off every 25 minutes), each with three distinctive paths (orange, blue, and green), further broken down into six corrals per path. Those three paths are physically separated on the Verrazano- one on each side of the upper deck, with the third on the lower deck, and don’t actually merge completely until eight miles in. So yeah, it’s a lot of runners, but it’s manageable and I didn’t find it overwhelming.
The crowds are amazing. Coming off the silent Verrazano (no spectators allowed) you’ll encounter a massive group of spectators, which remains strong through most of the 11 mile Brooklyn stretch. Each neighborhood will greet you in a different way, and perhaps the most odd thing about the fans will come when passing through the Hasidic Jewish section, when it’s suddenly eerily quiet and there are only a handful of people on the side of the street observing the endless stream of running fools. Entering Manhattan off the Queensboro will welcome you with a much-needed roar around the 16 mile mark, where crowds are 7-deep and it’s almost deafening, and then the trek up First Avenue is a nice long straight run. The Bronx leaves much to be desired since the crowds are sparse and the scenery is dull, but that’s an easy place to spot a family member and even try to have them jump in to join you for a couple miles. At mile 21 you’ll enter Harlem which has gentrified in some sections and offers a few pockets of strong cheering, before things really pick up along Central Park for the final four miles.
Much like the screams surrounding the infamous right onto Hereford and left onto Boylston, Central Park captures the essence of NYC people while edging the fine line between skyscrapers and greenery. A word of caution: it ain’t over yet when you take the right turn onto Central Park South… it feels like a half mile of eternity, and then there’s another half mile after that before you spot the blue asphalt approaching the finish line.
Post finish, expect to walk… a lot. To herd the cattle, the entire post-finish area of Central Park is a “frozen zone” that’s off limits to spectators and requires runners to walk many blocks before they can join the public. It’s frustrating but serves a purpose, and as long as you know it’s coming, it’s not so bad. You can exit a little early if you opted for the race poncho (which you better do early because they only have a limited number), but the rest of the walking dead go past the bag drop pick up and then dump out on the west side of the Park around 85th street.
Bottom line: if you don’t mind a lot of people, this is a must-do marathon. It’s not flat (there are a few small hills and the bridges are the biggest climbs), but if you feed off the crowds’ energy, then it certainly has PR potential. Plus, it’s always the first Sunday in November so it’s generally cool. If you want in, you can qualify by running a fast full OR HALF marathon (but the standards are significantly tougher than Boston), enter through the lottery as most people do, participate in their 9+1 program by running 9 other NYRR races and volunteering at one (a little tough for non-New Yorkers), or by running/fundraising with a charity. They’ve done away with automatic entry after three consecutive lottery fails. No matter the avenue for entry be prepared to drop a painful $295 entry fee for 2017, not to mention the cost of travel and lodging for the weekend. It’s worth it, but not something I’ll be doing on a routine basis.
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Stay speedy my friends.