Each presents a different challenge - often to even just get to the start line. Boston you obviously need to qualify for, or raise an awful lot of money as a charity runner. London and New York are both heavily oversubscribed and use a lottery system that means it's very hard for most people to get an entry (Chicago and Berlin are a lot easier).
Fortunately I had a qualifying time and with a big group of running friends going, I decided 2011 was the year for me to check it off the world major list.
New York is not renowned as a fast course - with several large bridges to run up, as well as a hilly finish leading in to, and around Central Park - so I decided to make it more of a training run, with my goal race being Tucson in December.
That turned out to be one of the best decisions I made. This would be the first marathon I really enjoyed.
Race day - we were up at the crack of chickens. Literally. Despite a 9:40am start time for the first wave, because of the logistics of the start in Staten Island, we were scheduled on a 6am ferry out of lower Manhattan.
6am for the ferry. Work backwards. Leave the hotel at 5:30am. Need to get up, change, 'take care of business' and get some breakfast in too. So 4am ET. Fortunately the clocks had gone back an hour that night which led to some concerns for me as I went to bed. Would my iPad adjust it's clock during the night ? If so - should I set the alarm an hour later ? I ended up going for the 'old fashioned' hotel wake up call. It didn't matter anyway - I was awake long before the phone rang.
A group of us from the Runners World forums took taxis together and hung out on the ferry.
It was still dark, but you could easily make out the Statue of Liberty as we sailed past.
and looking back at the New York skyline as the sun started to come up
Once on Staten Island, we waited briefly for buses which gave another opportunity to look back at the city skyline.
At the Athlete Village we basically sat around. And waited. A lot. It was chilly - mid 30s, and we had nothing to do but wait. For 3 hours. I was once again thankful to have met a large group of running friends through Runners World. The time passed a little quicker.
In New York they have 3 coloured starts. I was in the green which started on the bottom deck of the Verrazano Bridge. The other 2 starts are on the top deck. 90 minutes before the gun - we got into our wave holding areas, and then 45 minutes later they walked us up to the start line. I was in the first wave of the green, so maybe 10 yards behind the start. The green start is a short way back from the bridge - so we had a small grassy area along the side of the road. For the 45 minutes we were penned in - that area was given a lot of nitrogen fertilizing.
And then we were off. It wasn't bad running on the bottom of the bridge. To the left hand side was a spectacular view of Manhattan. I kept pointing it out to people, but most were concentrating on the matter at hand.
Until you run the course - you don't realize how 'hilly' the bridges are. Here's an elevation profile of the race - notice the first mile with the Verrazano Bridge.
Pre-race, I had decided to make this a 26 mile training run. The plan was to go out at 8 min/mile pace for the first 16 miles to get a bit of heaviness in the legs, and then to bring home the last 10.2 miles at what I hoped would be my marathon pace in Tucson - 6 min 50 second miles.
Starting at the front, with all the excitement - try as I might - I couldn't run slowly enough. I tried to stick to the very left hand side of the bridge so I didn't slow people down and with the wider road it never seemed to be an issue. The first miles ticked by and I was struggling to run under 7:30 pace.
Each mile as I saw the split I'd make a conscious effort to slow down, but it wasn't working.
First 5K @ 7:23 pace.
Through mile 4 @ 7.25
Mile 5 @ 7.26
So much for 8 min / mile pace.
I decided to adjust my training run on the fly. Instead of running slower the first 16 and fast the last 10, I decided I could just keep up the 7:30 min/mile pace for the first 20 - and then hammer home the last 10K.
I was still running well within myself. I was able to enjoy the scenery, high five kids, thank the cops in the middle of the road, and try and talk with runners on the course. I was also able to observe the runners too - something I don't typically have time for.
During the race - I noticed 3 phases. The first phase - where everyone streamed past me. Not really surprising given me starting at the front but holding back. This lasted for the first 4 or 5 miles. Then things started to even out. I was running level for the next 8 or so miles. Then probably from mile 13 onwards - even though I was keeping a constant pace, I started to be the one doing the overtaking. It amazed me how poorly most people pace a marathon. But then I can hardly speak myself - I haven't got it right yet myself when racing for that sub 3 house elusive goal.
Enjoying the race for once, I was able to take in the differences as we moved through the 5 Burroughs. From Staten Island, through Brooklyn, to Queens, briefly into the Bronx, before finishing in Manhattan. We were running through areas that most New Yorkers wouldn't dare to set foot in - but with 50,000 running friends and great crowd support, it was a party the whole way. I danced the YMCA, and 'held my hands up in the air' whenever the music called for it.
One song I heard many times had become a sort of official anthem for the race for me. Jay-Z and Alicia Keys - Empire State of Mind. (click the video for some background music for the rest of the blog)
Around mile 10 I finally found someone who was taking things relatively easy too. He lived about 2 hours out of the city and had run the race several times. He agreed with the 7:30 min/pace approach, although a couple of times we had to remind each other to slow down. It was tough too - the bridges really played a number on my garmin, so I couldn't trust the overall average pace that was being shown.
I hit the half in 1:39:05. A 7.34 pace.
Onto the Queensborough Bridge - once again running on the bottom deck as we crossed into Manhattan
The bridge is quiet - just the sound of fellow runners, many suffering on the uphill portion. Once you're over the bridge, you turn onto 1st Avenue and hit the wall of noise from the large crowd support.
I was having fun. 16 miles in - it felt like the Sunday training run that it was, just with 2 million people out to support. I was biding my time - waiting to hit the 20 mile mark. As we approached that point I saw later that my average pace had dropped to 7:36 min / miles. My running partner had started to drag. He wished me well, and I wondered what I had left in my legs. It turned out to be quite a lot.
It felt great to stretch out. I literally just hit the switch and went from 7:40 pace to 6:40 pace in a few seconds. I felt as if I was flying past people - a porsche going past tractors. From mile 20 to the end, no one over took me, and I must have overtaken literally thousands of runners. I had to weave and take corners on the outside to avoid getting trapped. This was fun !
Mile 21. 6:34 pace. Hmmm. Maybe a little too enthusiastic there Richard. Still - it felt great. Just 5 to go, this was a training run after all - and this was the part of the training I was most interested in. How I could handle faster miles towards the end of the race on fatigued legs. We made the turn at the top of the course and headed towards the finishing stretch.
Mile 23 is basically a long steady uphill along 5th Avenue as you approach Central Park. Most runners were dragging. I know that feeling well - just willing those last few miles to be done, living in your own personal hell. Not this time - I was screaming. I tried to encourage the crowd to yell louder. Wearing my Colorado shirt I heard a lot of 'Go Colorado' shouts. This was the way to run every marathon !
6.53 mile up the hill. Then into Central Park.
The road got narrower and the crowds were drawn in closer. I was surprised by the constant ups and downs in the park and was once again glad I wasn't racing the marathon. On tired legs at the end of the race could be miserable, and I saw plenty of people suffering. I suddenly realized checking the splits that I might be able to make 3:15 - way faster than I'd expected, and my Boston Qualifier time for 2013. Hmmm. Purely symbolic because I'd already run a 3:04 the month before, but I figured I'd give it a go.
Out of the park, along W 59th and up another slight incline, around Columbus Circle, back into the park, I was still overtaking all the way but my legs weren't turning quite so fast now. 6:56 for mile 26. Up the final incline and we were done.
Official time, 3:15:13. A 3 minute negative split, all of that (and more) from the last 10K. Despite missing the 3:15, I was in a great mood. The last 10K I'd averaged right around 6:50 pace which I hoped was a good sign for future races. Never had running a marathon felt so much fun. I was amazed that just backing off a little bit, how much easier everything felt, and how much I had in the tank at the end.
Which was fortunate to some extent, because after you finish New York - you have to walk for what seems to be halfway through Central Park to get to the exits and your checked bags. I met a group of friends from the RWOL forums again and we hung out for a while, before reconvening at a bar on the upper east side (walking the 2 miles to get there in my case).
Later that night a larger group of us got together to eat the hottest curry in the world. Good times, good friends. The perfect way to cap off an incredible day.
Reflecting later on how much more enjoyable this marathon had been, it made me realize this was the way to run marathons. I've got some unfinished business trying to get that sub 3 hour time, but once I do, I really believe this is the way to go for future races.