Friday, November 10, 2017

New York Marathon 2017: Kind of a Big Deal

Foreground: The New York skyline on the TCS NYC marathon finisher's medal.
Background: The New York skyline as seen from my brother's apartment in Brooklyn

The New York Marathon is the biggest marathon in the world, and it's the biggest thing I've ever been a part of, period.  Working with my elementary school's student run club, which associated with the New York Road Runners (NYRR) to offer swag and other incentives to encourage running and healthy lifestyles to children, I was offered an entry into the marathon.  Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity. 
Fast forward nearly a year, and I was toeing the line at one of my bucket list races. 
I put at least as much planning and hard work into training and preparing for this marathon as I had for any previous marathon or ultra.  Having had success designing marathon training plans for myself and a few other trusting friends, I started from the ground up and composed what I thought to be a 16-week magnum opus of a training plan.  John, my training partner who ran with me for the first half of Boston 2016, said he would train with me on this plan from start to finish.  A few other DART friends jumped in on pieces of the plan as well.  Now, the pressure was double; it was no longer just my success hinged on the preparations, but also that of some of my closest running friends.
There were a few successful tune-up races in the following months, and several notable indicator workouts, but it seemed as if every time John and I were in the same place, we were looking eagerly toward some symbolic horizon outlined with the skyscape of the five boroughs.  As the sweltering summer gave way to September, October, and the much anticipated November 5th race date, we felt pumped and ready to turn what was supposed to be a nice, big, fun race into an all-out assault on our respective PRs.
After dealing with the expo two days before the race, and enjoying a relaxing Saturday on the eve of the marathon, all I wanted to do was start the damn thing and start laying down some miles.  I met fellow DARTers Travis and Mike in the Runners' Village in Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island nearly three hours before the start, and after waiting another 90 minutes or so on John, we finally made our way to the Southern base of the Verrazano Bridge amidst a throng of anxious racers from all over the world.  10 feet behind us in the crowd, John spotted Dean Karnazes, the famous Ultramarathon Man known for--among other feats--running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days.  I reached back and fist-bumped Dean, wishing him a good race, but then he decided to shuffle forward in the crowd and talk to us for 10-15 minutes.  That was a cool and unexpected icing to the proverbial cake of a weekend!

NOTE: Many NY marathoners think of the race in segments separated by borough, or similarly from bridge to bridge.  Since each borough (and each bridge) is unique, I found this is an apt way to lay out this recap.

Staten Island & the Verrazano Bridge
After the national anthem and a welcome from the president of the NYRR, we were off to much fanfare.  It took a little over a full minute for John, Mike, and I--oh and Dean too--to reach the official start line.  We settled into the closest thing we could get to a run.  It was so crowded that we couldn't get around anyone or pick up any speed.  Two minutes in, John said almost laughingly, "We're doing a nine minute pace!"  I assured him that it was just the first quarter mile. 
We reached our first mile marker at the apex of the Verrazano Bridge with a chip split of 7:45, which was a full minute slower than our goal race pace.  However, John and I spent that first mile talking each other down and reminding each other that there was no point in wasting energy trying to zigzag or elbow around hundreds or thousands of people.  We were at the highest point along the marathon course, and we enjoyed a fantastic view of New York Harbor, the Manhattan skyline, the whole of Brooklyn laid out before us, and the fabulous water cannon boat in the Lower Bay.  We also had a panoramic view of the ominous, low-hanging clouds rolling in from the North and East.
As we descended the Verrazano, our pace picked up to a gliding, downhill-assisted 6:40.  There was still a thick crowd of runners, but we had spaced out enough to pick our way through them and maintain race pace without slaloming too much.  Now we just needed to "find our smooth," which was one of the many mantras John and I shared in training.
I'll say right here that Brooklyn is my favorite borough of New York City, from both a runner's and general NY visitor's standpoint.  Hence, I was pleased that nearly all of the first half of the marathon traversed Brooklyn alone.  The crowds were loud and diverse, and the avenues of the course were gently rolling, just enough to keep your legs from getting stale and not fatiguing them early.  Internally, John and kept a constant pace with one another, trading mile splits verbally, and repeating little one-word mantras like "smooth," "glide," and "[equal] effort" to keep our heads cool and sharp.  I looked for my wife, brother, and some Brooklyn friends around mile seven, but alas, I missed them.  They later claimed to have spotted me from the other side of Fourth Avenue.  At that point in the race, John and I had made up all of our lost time from the slow start and were still running a little hot on pace.  It took a conscious effort to rein back the pace and go from make-up-time mode to stick-to-race-pace mode.
As we left Park Slope and 4th Ave, turning from Flatbush Ave to Lafayette Ave, we entered downtown Brooklyn, where the buildings were taller and the crowds were louder.  At one point, we passed a 50+ piece marching band that starting blaring out a full-brass rendition of Rocky's "Gonna Fly Now," and I recall feeling so pumped that I said to John something to the effect of "If you don't feel like running a 2:56 after that, then your f***ing dead!"
John and me running through Brooklyn.

The Pulaski Bridge & Queens
Any NY veteran will tell you that while the Verrazano is the tallest bridge on the course, no one feels it because it's the first mile.  This is accurate.  Hence, the Pulaski Bridge at the halfway point is the first time I really felt as if I was running up a bridge.  John and I hit the half marathon split at 1:29:27, which was right where I wanted to be.  As we ran down the back end of the Pulaski and into Queens, we were greeted by another great crowd.  Even though the Queens part of the course was only a couple miles long, the people of that borough would not be outdone by the droves of Brooklyn cheerers.  On Lexington Ave, a loud PA system was pumping Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," to which John and I sang along at the top of our lungs.  "So good, so good, SO GOOD!"  Queens truly was fun, but the urge to use the toilet, which had made its way into my thoughts back in Williamsburg, had become something I no longer could ignore.  I informed John that I was going to make a stop, and that I would NOT try to catch up to him as I did stupidly in Boston.  A block or two before the Queensboro Bridge, I spotted a toilet on the right...and watched another runner fly into it before me.  I cursed aloud and then saw a trio of portable facilities 50 yards ahead on the other side of the road.  I played a mid-marathon game of Frogger to get to my salvation.  Less than a minute later (although it seemed longer in my head), I was back on the course and racing towards the Queensboro Bridge feeling light on my feet.
The Queensboro Bridge and Manhattan; First Avenue
If you watch the NY marathon on television, you notice that the Queensboro Bridge is covered, and there are no spectators.  I went from the raucous cheering of the crowds in Queens to the pattering of runners' footfalls and the ragged rhythm of runners' breathing.  My necessary stop had caused me to lose ground on my goal, but I was determined to make it up gradually and smartly.  Runners were slowing down all around me on the bridge climb, with many stopping to walk.  After the 25k timing mat, the bridge began to trend downward, and I was able to find my smooth again.  Only this time, I had to talk myself into smoothness; John was far ahead, not to be seen again during my race.
There is a well-known contrast between the eerie quiet of the Queensboro Bridge and the block party of cheering spectators waiting to welcome NY marathoners to Manhattan, but something else from that point in the race remains more firmly etched in my memory.  As I rounded the descending ramp on the First Ave, there was a huge LED screen showing the leaders of the elite women's race.  I saw Shalane Flanagan running in Central Park.  On the side of the screen was a bracket showing her in the lead with over 40 seconds on runner-up Mary Keitany.  Glancing back at the image of Shalane, I saw the fire in her eyes and knew that she was not only going to win, but she was going to destroy the women's field!  I pumped my fist in the air and cheered at the top of my lungs, "Go Shalane!"  Reinvigorated, I was ready to take back my race pace and lay down a hard last 10 miles! 
At this time, the mist began to fall more densely, and I was wet from precipitation more than perspiration.  This was not unwelcome, but it did come with a mild headwind and some slick road surfaces on First Ave.  My racing flats didn't lose purchase, but I did not get the sense that I could dig in all that strongly. 
I ran from Midtown to Spanish Harlem, and a few runners around me who were decked decked out in the emblems and colors of their Mexican heritage were garnering a lot of cheers from the local spectators.  "Vamos, Mexico!"  While I was just the gringo along for the ride, any cheers for my fellow racers seemed to get me going as well. 
First Ave continued for a long while, and I was well past 19 miles before I caught sight of the Willis Avenue Bridge, my road to The Bronx.
Me heading into The Bronx via the Willis Avenue Bridge.  Circa mile 19.5.

The Willis Avenue Bridge & The Bronx
For all the infamy of the Queensboro and the Verrazano, I found the Willis Bridge to be the most challenging bridge of the race.  It's not long, and it's not terribly steep, but it is exposed, there's not much downhill on the back end, and it comes with 19+ miles of running on the legs.  The Bronx comes at a challenging part of the the race.  Runners reach the 20-mile mark in the middle of this all-too-short borough.  I was not bonking at this point, but I was having a hard time shaving my overall pace down to my goal of 6:50/mile.  After my break in Queens, I was one minute behind.  Every mile after that, I had chopped 5-10 seconds off that gap.  Now, at mile 20, I was 20 seconds (aggregate) behind pace and not getting any closer to it.  That left me almost precisely on pace for a 3:00 marathon.  This was too close for comfort, and I knew that the most challenging parts of the race were yet to come.  Still, at least The Bronx part of the course turned me around so I was finally running toward Central Park and the finish line instead of away from it.  The fifth and last bridge--the Madison Avenue Bridge--was so short and gentle that it was almost an afterthought.  I was on my way back downtown, and I knew it.
Manhattan: Fifth Avenue & Central Park
Fifth Avenue was exciting.  Once I reached the 22nd mile marker, I began to look for the tall trees of Central Park.  There was still plenty of race to run, but any telling landmark at this point would be a boon.  My pace had stagnated.  I couldn't run any faster than 6:50 on the flat sections, and the gentle uphills were taking too much effort.  The sub-3 goal was looking more and more out of reach.  Then there was the Fifth Avenue hill in the 23rd mile...the whole 23rd mile.  Fifth Ave wasn't steep; it was just long and grinding.  I found it harder than Heartbreak Hill in Newton on the Boston course.  Heartbreak was a little steeper, but it was shorter than half the length of the Fifth Ave hill.  I hemorrhaged pace on that hill, laying down something between a 7:20 and 7:30 mile.  I also used a lot of energy to get to the top.  At this point, sub-3 was gone, but I was still going to have a respectably fast marathon time. 
Me trying to maintain a decent race effort in Central Park.

Turning into Central Park made for some nice, arboreal scenery.  The rolling hills through the park weren't awful, but they did continue to break up my already broken pace.  I managed to keep a low-7s pace for most of these last couple of miles, but I was ready to be done.  The thicker crowds picked up one last time as I ran along Central Park South, and I picked up the pace a little as I saw the 800-meter-from-the-finish mark, but I remember thinking it would take a PR 800 race effort to get me anywhere near a sub-3 at that point.  I turned North for the final quarter mile, during which the finish line remained hidden until the last 100 meters. 
The finish line.  Notice the wet conditions evidenced by the reflective surface underfoot.

I strode through the finish to an official 3:01:16 race time and found John there waiting for me in the chute.  I signed "three-oh-one" with my fingers and he beckoned me over to peak at his watch.  John's race time: 2:55:55!  He had slashed nearly two minutes off his PR!  While I was suffering up Fifth Ave and gritting my teeth through Central Park, John was posting a sub-19 minute 5k on a mad charge to the finish.  Even though my legs were gelatin, I nearly jumped up and down for him and bear-hugged him!  I had a good race, even though I didn't hit my goal, but John's PR seriously made my day!
John and me glowing after a great marathon!

New York really is a big deal.  Out of the 15 or so road marathons I've done, this one was my third fastest, and on a humid day too.  Not only that, but the course and the city as a whole has so much to offer the runner.  Boston was cool, and I'm glad to have done it, but I honestly prefer New York as a race.  Marine Corps might be the only city marathon that I like as much as this one.  I'd like to come back to New York and challenge those last few miles to a rematch, but for now, as I'm typing this, I'm still getting goosebumps thinking about some of the highlights.  That's always a good sign.

Here is my Strava data for the marathon.

No comments:

Post a Comment