OK, now my 2016 season is really over. I promise. No kidding!
Going to school in NYC, I find that I'm always interested in doing all the unique things that the city has to offer. And it doesn't get more epic than the NYC Marathon. I'd never bothered with the lottery, just a function of laziness and not living in the city, but when I found out you could use a qualifying time to gain entry, I knew it was kismet. And luckily for me, my 2015 Boston time put me in that group. So when the NYC Marathon registration opened up at the beginning of the year, I put in for a slot, and got one. And it was on my calendar, and I proceeded not to think about it much for much of the year.
Fast forward to September, and the conclusion of the triathlon portion of my season. After that, I took a little time off, then started to get ramped back up for running the marathon with the help of my coach, John Heuisler of BTL coaching. We talked, and from the start NYC was meant to be a fun race, not chasing anything in particular, but really making sure to enjoy the experience. I had great fitness from the season, but not PR fitness, and NYC is not really a PR course, or at least not for me. But I thought I could run it in 3 hours flat, so John helped me really gear my training around that pace. The run-up to the race was smooth, with the only big hurdle coming when I got a bit hurt just before I was to do my last long run. So I postponed for a week or so, and instead did two back-to-back runs of 7 and 12 to simulate my final long run. Thankfully by then, it proved to be good timing, and I learned that doing a split long run like that is definitely as hard as doing the distance completely in one shot. I came off of that workout feeling pretty good about myself for going into the race.
Fast forward to race weekend. This weekend was definitely made by the amazing support of our hosts, James and Adriana Cunningham (James and I are teammates on the Every Man Jack triathlon team). They opened up their home to Kara and I, and made us comfortable and welcome. And it didn't hurt after the race that they live mere blocks from the finish line. That would be crucial! I'm definitely in the debt of the Cunninghams for their hospitality.
My parents were kind enough to watch the kids from Friday night to Sunday night, which allowed Kara and I to leave early for the drive up to NYC on Saturday morning. We made good time and were able to get to the expo pretty early for number pick up. Given that it isn't my first time at the rodeo, we made quick work of the expo, and only stopped for a few photo ops and minimal extraneous shopping. I used to get lost in the expo for hours at a time. After going in and out quickly we were able to make it up to the Upper West Side by noon, and meet the Cunninghams for lunch and a walk around the finish area in Central Park. After that we were able to relax a bit, then went out for a nice, health, tasty dinner at a spot nearby. We were all asleep by 10, which worked well because Sunday would be an early start!
Fast forward to Sunday, race day. Two of the coolest things about the marathon are the sheer number of runners (the largest in the world, see below links for more stats) and the fact that you run through all 5 boroughs of the city as you go from start to finish. But those also prove to be some of the biggest downsides as well when it comes to logistics and the schlep factor of the race. Just like the Boston Marathon, you have to be up at 5am for a 10am race start! And to get from the Upper West Side was a tour-de-force of mass transit for me. Subway to South Ferry. Staten Island Ferry to Staten Island, then buses from the Ferry terminal to the start area. And all with 50,000 of my closest friends! But even though the schlep was high, the energy and awesome people were there to balance it out. I met a ton of great new people, and even ran into my college rowing teammate, Zar Toolan, before the race. Had no idea he was running!
On to the start. I was lucky to have a pretty low bib number, and to start in one of the very first waves to go off, given my qualification time. So when you see the picture of more people than you can fathom on the bridge at once, I was in the front of that, at least. It also meant than at the gun, I was able to get into my running pace pretty quickly, not like some who have to walk for a mile or so before they even get room to start running!
The weather was perfect, cool, a little windy, but sunny and nice. I dropped my last layers just before the starting time and was able to run in short sleeves and shorts right from the gun. The race starts up with a mile uphill, followed by a mile downhill. Ideally, you go slow on the uphill and pick up on the downhill, but don't overdo it. Ideally. I tried to do that, but ended up running my a little fast on the uphill, and dropping a 5:35 on the downhill, oops. But once off the bridge I settled into a steady 6:45-6:50 pace for the more or less flat, straight first half of the race.
My mantra for the race was to make sure that I was smiling the whole way, and that I took the time to look around and truly enjoy what I was able to be a part of. Knowing from the start that there was nothing to qualify for, no PR to set, but that being able to run was the reward for the day was really liberating. I really embraced that as I settled into a good groove for the first half marathon. And it really paid off. I felt good, and came through the half in 1:29.
But the New York Marathon is unforgiving with the rolling hills in the 2nd half in particular. Right after the halfway mark you go up the Pulaski bridge, which is a quick punch. It also opened up to the wind. But it was over soon enough, and I was still feeling good, and really enjoying myself. And I knew that the Queensboro bridge at mile 15.5 was coming, and according to many runners the hardest part of the race. I kept on my pace and steeled myself. Going over that bridge was the first time in the race I really started to feel uncomfortable. But I kept steady, ate some, and tried to remind myself how cool what I was doing was. And it worked. I came off the bridge, around the corner and was instantly hit by the massive Manhattan crowds. As I turned up First Ave I was greeted by a non-stop crowd, 5-6 people deep or more, both sides of the road, all the way up to the Bronx. It was amazing. And inspiring, and like nothing else I've ever seen. From 16 to 19.5 I kept my pace rock solid on the crowd energy alone. It was amazing.
But as I crossed the Willis Ave Bridge into the Bronx at mile 19.5, I really started to hurt. Luckily I caught up with one of my EMJ teammates, Colin Martin. He and I ran together for about a mile, and he helped me get through this tough spot and get back into my pace. We parted ways around mile 20.5 and each kept running our own races. After the 138th St. Bridge I was back in Manhattan, running south on Fifth Ave. The crowds stayed big and consistent, and the energy high, and man did I need it, because I was hurting, but still had the Fifth Ave. uphill ahead. And it was brutal. You basically run uphill all the way up Fifth until you turn into Central Park at the top of the hill, at about mile 24. Even though I was hurting, and the wind was picking up in my face, the spirit of New York kept me going strong, up the hill, holding my pace.
From there it was time to go on autopilot and just get the job done. I ran south in the park, along a loop I've done so many times before as a triathlete, enjoying the crowds and familiar scenery. When you get to the south end of the park you pop out onto 59th Street, and have less than a mile to go. But 59th is all UPHILL! Damn you, NYC Marathon! But by that point, I was jazzed to be that close to the finish, and fought my way uphill, around the corner and into the finishing stretch. By the time I crossed the line, I had put together a 1:29:38 2nd half! Not bad, if I do say so myself. Almost dead on an even split for 26.2 miles, with a far tougher 2nd half than 1st half, as well. Total time was 2:58:38, just under my 3 hour target.
I was elated and completely spent, exhausted, to the point that I was fighting back tears as I walked the additional mile or so to actually get out of the park. And thank god for the Cunninghams! I was able to walk straight from the finish to their apartment, and pretty much collapse on the floor. After a little rest, food, and a shower, I felt like a new man. Just in time for the drive back to DC. No rest for the weary!
Will I run NYC again. Yes, absolutely, but I'm gonna give myself a few years... What an epic race. It is physically challenging, and logistically tough. If you are a runner, and that is a big part of how you identify yourself, you need to do this course at some point in your life. You will always remember it. But be prepared to give everything you have on so many levels. But know that the people, the energy, the fact that it is the NYC Marathon will carry you through. Proof of that is the fact that 98.8% of the almost 52,000 people that started the marathon on that Sunday finished the race. That is astounding. And a testament to what I experienced when I ran.