Monday, November 4, 2013

ING New York City Marathon 2013 - Race Report

Before I get stuck in, I think it's worth a few words to put this in context. I have been waiting for 5 years for this moment, to run the mythical New York Marathon, of which so much is said. Of course, in the meantime, I have done other things - not least of which an Ironman in Brazil - but, as I was to find out for myself, nothing compares to the New York Marathon.

Just like last year, when the Sandy Super Storm hit, I was staying with my friends Eli and David on Upper West Side but they were going to be away most of the weekend, so I could be "anti-social" and stay indoors on European time. I had packed so lightly that I had only taken one credit card. It turned out not to work in most places (the chip is fine but the magnetic strip is unreadable) and I only had $150 cash which would have to include my emergency money in case something went awry during the Marathon. Remember, I had a flight to catch at 5 pm for which check-in time was two hours prior at JFK, which is about an hour and a half from Manhattan, and the Marathon was starting at 9:40 am...

After dinner and breakfast with Eli and David, we went our separate ways and I did my 20 minute run on Saturday morning down to the Expo on 38th street. It felt so easy and I realized I was clocking up 4 minute kilometres - i.e., Marathon Pace - and this was supposed to be a limbering up run the day before. I hoped I hadn't overdone it at the last minute due to impatience and excitement.

The Expo, much like the Marathon itself, was huge, very well organized and expensive. Last year the clothes had been at a 50% discount but, at these prices (and with my limited funds), I didn't buy anything for myself. I got Eli a sovenir t-shirt which I was able to pay for by card, using the old machine which sort of does a brass rubbing of your card details. I got to see Elaine, who was running as a pacer for the 5:15 group (next week she has a 24 hour run, so this is just a taper for her). Last year, we met up with a large group of international runners and ran the last 10 miles of the Marathon.

I went back to the flat and cooked myself a huge portion of spaghetti with garlic, olive oil and chilli which would do me for lunch as well as dinner and then settled down into a nice hot bath and watched a movie. I was alseep by 7:30 in the evening.

On Marathon day I managed to stay in bed until 4:30 am (the clocks had gone back, so this was 10 hours sleep!) but couldn't wait any longer. I got kitted up, put Body Glide vaseline in all the places I knew from past experience would get rubbed raw (except you always miss one, don't you?) and had a light breakfast. I took a packed breakfast to have a bit nearer to the start time.

I made my way down to the South Ferry terminal on the Subway. There was already a great atmosphere with runners of all sorts of abilities nervously exchanging information. There were a couple of girls with wings and high heels who looked like they would struggle to walk 42 m let alone 42 km but then it dawned on me that they were on the way back home after a night out.

I met a guy called Stian who had done the race a number of times before and so I just latched onto him. He also turned out to be a lot of fun and that helped me to keep relaxed. That, and the beautiful views of the sun rising over Manhattan from the ferry. Once on Staten Island, we went on a hunt for a free Dunkin' Donuts hat and, after a few bum-steers, we found the right place but there were none left. After all the terryfingly complicated pre-race instructions, things are much more laid back and practical than you would expect: nobody checks if you registered for the ferry when you get on board, there's plenty of food and drink at the start and there are places where you can take cover from the elements while you are waiting. There was, however, a very conspicious increase in security following the dreadful terrorist attack in Boston: for example, our ferry was escorted by a coast guard with a manned machine gun.

Two hours before the start I dug into my standard breakfast of (now cold and dry) toast with olive oil and salt, as well as a couple of cereal bars for good measure. Another point of business was to do a number 2. There seemed to be almost as many porta-potties as there were runners, each, amazingly, bountifully stocked with ultra thin toilet paper. I always take it as a good omen if I am able to "go" just before a race and this was no exception: I bade my goodbye and goodluck to Stian and went off to my corral in Blue Wave #1. Now, with only an hour to go, I downed a couple of Ibuprofen, some Omeprazol (to protect my stomach from the Ibuprofen) and a caffeine pill (whoohoo!) with a swig of Red Bull. I had managed to stay off caffeine for two weeks prior to the event (not counting the cereal bar I accidently ate the day before which rather unexepectedly turned out to contain caffeine).

Finally, we were ushered into the pen from which we would start. I had the best tickets in the house where I happened to be standing. I could see Michael Bloomberg giving what was likely his last public address before leaving office as well as the elite male athletes (the women had started half an hour earlier) as they were introduced as if it were a 100 metre final. As Chema Martínez jogged passed I yelled "Vamos Chema!". There was no chance to do any kind of warm up, so a bit of bouncing up and down on the spot would have to do as I threw off my cheapo tracksuit (it was entertaining just seeing what kind of random clobber people turned up in - I saw one guy in a suit which he later chucked away).

I had three goals in mind for the race. The easiest goal that I'd be happy with would be to break three hours. I thought it was important to have an acheivable goal to avoid not having anything to say to the "hammer man" when he came asking for reasons 35 kilometres later. The realistic goal was to run a 2:55 Marathon, based on how my training had gone and how much tougher the course was relative to Seville, where I had run 2:47. But the unrealistic but very "chuffing" goal was to beat my best time of 2:47:53. My kids are now old enough to have stopped asking me if I have won a race or not but I sometimes think that the chances of me actually winning a major Marathon are somewhere in between winning the lottery having bought a ticket (slightly more likely) and winning the lottery without having bought a ticket (slightly less likely).

Boom! and we're off. Everyone says to disregard the first couple of miles which are spent crossing the Verrazano bridge. The views were spectacular. Carried off by the emotion, I ran the first two miles (one up and one down) a full minute faster than the splits a spreadsheet taking hills into account had advised. Oops. Instead, I used the splits (printed on a wrist band) as a guide to know whether the upcoming mile was going to be relatively hard (slow) or relatively easy (fast). I got to the 5K mark in around 19 minutes and realized I was running at least 2:48 Marathon pace, not 2:55 pace. But I felt good and my heart rate was steady, so I pressed on.

As the roads were so wide and well maintained, as well as the runners around me being reasonably sparse, I didn't need to look where I was going most of the time. So I watched the crowds instead. It was fascinating seeing all the different folks and different strokes. Sometimes there would be clusters of similar types, like hipsters in Brooklyn, Hispanos in Harlem, and sometimes they'd just be all mixed up. About 2 million people turn up to support the Marathon and support it they do. I enjoyed reading the banners with motivaitonal and/or funny messages like "Celebrate Yourself" and "Pain is temporary, Pride is permanent" although I particularly remember one which said "Slow down and ask me for a date" which didn't help by allowing the thought of slowing down to enter my head (and not because I wanted a date). Neither did the all-too-common "You're nearly there!" (with 10 miles to go) - in fact, the spectators guide (yes, there is such a thing) specifically warns spectators against saying this.

By the same token, the bands were fantastic. If there weren't bands, there were deejays. If there weren't deejays, there were ghetto blasters. And failing that, there were people playing percussion with spoons on old pots and pans. There was only one band which was a real downer, a kind of folksy group in Brooklyn playing a really slow number with the words "Keep on going..." when it sounded like they would have problems keeping going themselves.

The downside of so many spectators is that it is impossible to see your friends, even if you have fairly specific indications of where they are going to be: the crowds were 5 deep in many parts. I didn't see or hear anyone I know but it didn't matter: it is true what they say about the crowds compensating for the hills. It was a very cool day which was perfect temperature-wise but it was quite windy (to the extent that the eventual winner finished in a rather "pedestrian" 2:08).

The part of the course that I think I enjoyed most was Brooklyn - best diversity, best music, mostly straight and still on fresh legs. Leaving Brooklyn by the Pulaski bridge, I passed the Half Marathon point in 1:23:25 (net). I changed over to my second little bottle of gels which were orange flavour (yippee!) - what a nice change from the berry flavour (which I switched to originally after getting sick of orange gels in the Ironman). For some reason, although I wasn't particularly aware of it at the time, the next 5 kilometres through Queens were the slowest of the race (nothing to do with the residents of Queens, who gave their Brooklyn neighbours a run for their money). It helped to think that my splits were automatically being "tweeted" to at least my family who were at that time driving back from Asturias. (It later turned out that the Twitter / Facebook setup didn't work - bastards, I want my $2.99 back.)

Everyone talks about the silence of the Queensboro bridge that crosses from Queens into Manhattan and the deafening noise of the crowds the other side on 1st and 59th street. Even so, I was unprepared. I was so overcome by emotion at this point that I literally nearly choked. All along 1st Avenue were the densest crowds of the whole course and, to shelter from the wind, we ran as close to them as the policemen placed every 50 metres or so would allow us.

I couldn't help feeling that the incursion into the Bronx was a bit token - just so that it could be called the five-borough Marathon - or worse, patronizing. There was practically nobody around to cheer. The way back down on the West side took us through Spanish Harlem where we were treated to Gospel Choirs, High School Bands and Salsa music: I expected to hear the Bobby Womack song as we went Across a 110th Street.

Exactly as I was passing the 20 mile marker - the only place along the course where there was a huge screen showing the live coverage of the race - it just so happened that the winner, Geoffrey Muttai, was crossing the line 6.2 miles away. 21, 22 miles. Hills schmills. Now it was time to concentrate: I stopped watching the crowd and fixed my gaze on the middle distance. Less than half an hour to go at this pace and still no sign of the hammer man. I started to increase the pressure to make sure I was keeping up the pace and started to overtake people who were fading. I heard someone say "Enjoy it, it's nearly over". Now this might seem a weird thing to say when the pain was clearly outweighing any enjoyment at this point but he made me remember that I had been waiting 5 years to run this Marathon and, here I was - actually running it right now - and in less than half an hour it would be over, finished, and there was something bittersweet about that.

It felt easy, really. Maybe I am culturally programmed to find it easier to run 26.2 miles than 42.2 kilometres. This time I only had to grit my teeth for the last 2 miles now in Central Park and this was only because I knew that there was a slim chance that I could actually beat my best time! I also knew that the last mile was uphill but I didn't care. I was pumping my arms furiously and sometimes running with my eyes closed. Someone shouted out "Looking good" and I naturally assumed he was talking to me: I replied out loud but more to myself than to anyone else "Of course I'm looking good!". It was great to be passing so many people - "Oh, I remember you - I lost sight of you back in mile X" I was thinking to myself.

I crossed the line in 2:47:38 and was overwhelmed with emotion. (I didn't hit the sign this time.) After a minute or so to recover, I just kept on jogging right out of the park and back to the flat, some 2 more miles in total. People were saying "Congratulations", "Good job!" or "Hey, the finish line was back there" etc. The volunteers were all fantastic and a big part of what made the day so special. They were so cheery without being cheesey, as well as very helpful and patient.

I had plenty of time in the end to shower back at the flat and make my way on public transport to the airport. When a Marathon goes to plan I don't feel muscle pain afterwards and I remember feeling much more tired (and grumpy) after my long training runs. When it goes badly, then it is a struggle to walk for days, especially downstairs. I was so excited that I didn't manage to sleep on the plane so I find myself now in a similar state to that in a Marathon when I feel fine but know that, at some point, I am going to suddenly feel very very tired.

It has definitely been worth the wait, the cost and the hassle. I have never been involved in anything of this scale with such a good atmosphere. I learned from the boredom I experienced in the Ironman that I thrive off crowds. Unlike in Seville where I couldn't remember anything about the course afterwards, so much was I "in the zone", this time, I was in the zone but also in the moment. Like I did in Seville, I pretended as I ran that I was watching a film of myself running the Marathon but this film was much more interesting and I was the star - everyone was cheering for me.

I didn't just run a "sub-3" Marathon, I ran another sub-4 (minute per kilometer  Marathon. This puts an end to the silly "post summer Marathon curse" I was convinced I was suffering from. I think the keys have been consistent training, continuing to run throughout the summer, a good taper, being well fueled before the race and, above all, being relaxed.

For now you'll have to take my word on my result as I don't (yet) appear in the official results (although I estimate that I'd be in about position 225 / 50,700 runners) and my splits mysteriously vanish into thin air after 35 kilometres. On top of this there are currently no photos of me crossing the line and the track I recorded on my Garmin watch seems to be corrupted. I'm so zonked that the whole thing could just have been a dream but I do have this finishers medal in my pocket so...

My last $9 wisely spent
UPDATE: I managed to fix the track on my Garmin ( The guys at NYRR still haven't fixed my results but I did find some video evidence of me crossing the line for the doubters among you:

You can catch me just after 16 minutes into the video. It also explains why there were no photos of me crossing the line: the photographers were too busy having a natter.


  1. Congrats on a fantastic result! Nice to meet you and a very enjoyable read! Stian

  2. Guau, me has dejado sin palabras ... ese tiempo en NY son palabras mayores.

    En el próximo que coincidamos, te saludaré en la salida ... y mucho después en la meta :-)