On the 2nd November 2018 I headed out from home, bound for New York City filled with the familiar sense of nervous excitement that I get before every big race. In a few days' time I'd be stood on the start line of the New York Marathon, and along with 53,000 lucky others I'd be taking in the sights and sounds of the Big Apple by racing around its five boroughs.
I'd read a number of reviews in the weeks leading up to the race to try and get an idea of what the course was like, and most had advised that this was a race to be enjoyed, but not one in which to attempt a PB.
Much of what I'd read had described the course as a tough one, with undulating hills and challenging bridge crossings as the route weaves its way through all 5 boroughs of the city; Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Manhattan.
After doing my research I knew that a PB would be tough ask, but my training block had gone really well, I'd recently set a big PB at Manchester Half Marathon, and most importantly I was healthy and injury free, so I arrived feeling confident. I felt in good shape so my plan was to set off at PB pace or thereabouts and see what happens – I could always re-adjust later in the race if it wasn't happening.
Number pickup at the Expo
To get runners from Manhattan to the start of the race on Staten Island, the organisers provide a choice of free ferry or bus transport to the start. However, to get so many people there in good time for the start, the transport leaves early... really early. I went for the bus option, and my allotted pickup time was 5.30am outside the magnificent New York Public Library. With my alarm set for 4.15am, I ate a quick breakfast, picked up my gear check bag and joined the throngs of other runners as we filed to meet the buses in the pitch dark of the brisk November morning. The organisation was really efficient; after only a short wait to get through a security checkpoint, the buses were lined up and ready to go so I joined my fellow runners as we embarked on the 45- minute ride to Staten Island.
During the bus journey, I could overhear runners exchanging stories, advice and snippets of information that they'd picked up about the course, whilst dawn was slowly breaking to our left in the skies above Brooklyn. Before too long we arrived at the start area in Fort Wadsworth, greeted by our first sight of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge which connects Staten Island and Brooklyn, and on which we would shortly be lining up to start the race. After another quick security check we arrived in the enormous pre-start area, underneath the clear blue skies of a beautiful but chilly autumn morning – perfect weather conditions for a run.
With the race not due to start until 9.50am, there was over 3 hours to kill; in the lead-up to the race I was dreading this period. With so many runners participating (this race would set a record for the highest ever number of runners in a marathon), I was concerned that 3 hours in the pre-start area would be claustrophobic and that there may not be enough facilities - however my fears were unfounded, and on the contrary the organisation was truly excellent. There were separate "villages" corresponding to the 3 separate start areas (Green, Blue and Orange) and there was more than enough room for everyone to sit and relax, a plentiful supply of portaloos with hardly any queues (essential), and free supply of coffee, water, pastries and even free beanies were handed out to help keep warm.
At 6.30am on a November morning I was expecting it to be cold, and those who know me won't be surprised to hear that I had taken plenty of layers to wear beforehand (I tend feel the cold more than most!). Most of my layers would get packed in a gear check bag to be transported to the finish area, but I also had an old hoodie that I could wear right up until the last moment, and then discard just before the start so as to stay warm for as long as possible.
Before too long it was 8.30 and time to start getting ready. The race was due to start at 9.50 but the start corrals opened at 8.50. There are 3 separate start areas at NYC which funnel the runners into slightly different routes for the first 5k to help ease congestion, which is similar to the start at the London Marathon.
After checking my gear bag and one last loo stop, I made my way to the green start holding area, underneath the intimidating sight of the Verrazano Bridge from where we'd shortly be starting the race.
Pre-start area and view of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge
After a short wait of approximately 15 minutes, Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" came blasting out over the PA which was the signal for my corral to start making our way up onto the bridge itself and towards the start line. As runners congregated on the start line in the final few moments, nervous glances were exchanged along with last words of encouragement. After a spine-tingling rendition of the Stars and Stripes, and a message from the race director, the starting cannon sounded and finally we were off, racing over the bridge towards Brooklyn!
After the steady first mile of ascent getting onto the bridge itself where I held back a bit, the next few miles consisted of steady but fast undulations and I hit 10k feeling good but just behind target pace.
The atmosphere and support out on the course through Brooklyn and Williamsburg (and throughout) was superb. The streets were absolutely lined with people yelling out messages of support and holding up funny banners which raised a smile and provided moments of welcome distraction as I went past (there seems to be far more of this in the USA than in the UK, everyone seemed to have one!), and there were live bands and DJs set up every few hundred yards it seemed, it was so much fun and hard to keep the pace steady and not to get carried away in the excitement of it all. And of course, the views of the Manhattan skyline from where we were in Brooklyn, especially on such a clear day were totally awe inspiring, I couldn't take my eyes off the view!
From miles 8 to 13 as the course moved north towards Queens, the undulations had gotten a little more challenging. My plan beforehand had been to ease off on the hills and run them steadily so as not to risk blowing up early – this meant I lost a little bit more time and hit half way a couple of minutes behind PB pace, which I knew would be difficult to make up given that the second half of the course is the tougher of the two. I also knew that I was running a fantastic race and if I could hold the pace steady in the second half there was a real chance of posting a time that would be the second-quickest I'd ever ran. This was my new target.
After the halfway mark, the next point I'd been focussing on was mile 16 which takes the runners over the Queensboro Bridge from Brooklyn into Manhattan. I'd been past the bridge during a taxi ride on the previous day and so I'd gotten a close-up look at it – and as my friend pointed out, it looked imposing!
Coming at mile 16, which I knew from past experience is usually the point that things start to get tough in the marathon, mentally I'd prepared myself that this would be the real start of the race. I also knew however that my cheering crew of friends and family would be stationed immediately on the other side of the bridge, so whilst I wasn't looking forward to the climb, I knew the welcome sight of my loved ones on the other side would provide a much-needed boost.
Just before the mile 15 marker the route turned 90-degrees left and started long gradual run up onto the lower level of the double-deck bridge. With no spectators allowed on the bridges it was a strange experience; almost total silence other than the sounds of runners' footsteps on the tarmac. The climb wasn't terribly steep, it just seemed to go on forever, and again I purposely took it easy until hitting the crest of the bridge after a mile or so then careered down the welcome (and pretty steep) downhill on the other side.
The crowd of people waiting to greet the runners' arrival into Manhattan was monumental, this must have been the spot where many people had picked to spot their runners, and my personal highlight of the race. It was amazing to go from the eerie calmness on the bridge to be hit with a wall of noise on the other side, it felt like running into a stadium! I was worried that I wouldn't be able to spot my group in amongst the tens of thousands of people that had gathered there, but I should have feared not; they knew I was coming, had already spotted me and were cheering louder than anyone else there. I was able to take a detour and give them a fist pump and big smile, before floating off on a cloud of their encouragement – I felt great (for a bit)!
After entering Manhattan, the route turns north onto 1st Avenue towards the Bronx, and there is a relatively flat and perfectly straight 3-4 mile section where I was able to settle back into a good pace, and I hit 30k feeling in good shape but I knew the hard work would start soon.
The route enters the Bronx at mile 20 when it crosses the Willis Avenue Bridge and it was at was this point when I noticed that I was working much harder than I had been previously to maintain pace. We crossed the final bridge of the day to enter Harlem at 21.5 and then back into Manhattan for one last time as we headed towards the finish. My legs were really starting to feel the strain by this point; my mile splits had dropped by approximately 20 seconds, and I could feel the tell-tale twinges from my calves that indicated cramp could set in at any moment. I decided it was better not to push too hard to make up time, and instead I aimed to keep a steady pace so as to push back the onset of cramp, which I've suffered with in the late stages of races before. I was still on for a fantastic performance and just needed to hold it together.
The final stages of the route heads south towards Central Park on the famous 5th Avenue, but before it reached the park there was one last hill to negotiate between mile 23 and 24. The crowd support again was fantastically encouraging, urging runners up the hill although I couldn't acknowledge them quite as much as I'd have liked to, other than the occasional wave and grimace by that point! At mile 24 the route finally sweeps quickly right and left as it enters Central Park which was a fantastic feeling. I knew the hard work was all done and now I could enjoy the amazing experience of those iconic last couple of miles through the park. At mile 25 I spotted my cheer crew for the last time as they shouted and waved me into the last mile and a wave of euphoria swept over me as I turned the final corner into the finishing straight. I felt amazing and gave it my all in an attempt at a sprint finish, but with the finish line in sight I was struck with a sudden cramp spasm in both calves and had to stop dead and stretch out until it passed! So frustrating but after a few seconds I got going again and made it across the line with a time of 2:47:13 – my second-fastest ever marathon, and my fastest on foreign soil. I was overjoyed and couldn't stop smiling as I collected my medal and made my way up to the exit areas, high-fiving everyone in sight. Within half an hour I was with my family and friends in a New York bar, and the real party could begin.
Thank you NYC - you put on a fantastic race!!!
— Craig Jones