It seems like a life time ago now but we booked our New York trip nearly a whole year ago, way back on New Years Eve 2018. I’d entered the ballot three times to run New York – it’s a race that has always been on my bucket list (along with London) ever since I’d taken up running. I’ve been lucky enough to get into Berlin and Chicago through the ballot but New York was proving to be tougher to gain entry into.
I have a rough time line for running the world marathon majors and 2019 needed to be my year to tackle the Big Apple, so I decided to get a guaranteed entry through Sports Tours International. They offer a range of packages (entry with flight, hotel or both) as well as a choice on how many days you travel for. We decided on the full package which meant I got entry, flight, airport transfers and hotel as well as a staff member on hand to answer any of my queries. With Sports Tours International doing all of the planning for us this time all I had to do was concentrate on training and, after 16 weeks of hard graft, we flew out on the Thursday before the race.
When we landed and got through passport control Sports Tours International were there waiting for us, ready to take us into the city. They wait for everyone as the transfer is a coach so it was a great opportunity to get chatting to fellow runners and their partners, as well as the staff. We arrived in the dark in 2016 when we travelled to New York for a holiday so it was nice to arrive when we could actually see the city on the way in.
We had chosen the Belvedere hotel in the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood when we signed up and I would definitely recommend it. It’s close to everything – the expo, the buses for race morning and the finish line on the evening of the race. The staff were lovely and we even got a runner’s welcome with a bottle of water and protein bar during check in! The room we were in had a lovely view (especially of the building that looked suspiciously like Avengers Tower) and the room continued the hotel’s gorgeous 1920’s art deco style. Sports Tours International also had a table set up in the lobby so you could easily find someone to ask any questions you might have.
As we arrived before the expo shut for the night we decided to head straight there to pick up my race number. It meant that I could enjoy the expo on one of it’s quieter days with no worry about rushing round to pick up my race pack. The atmosphere was incredible and definitely one of the best I’ve been to! I did spend a lot of money as I could actually get round to see everything properly but it was so worth it! I bought the race jacket, a bobble hat, the pint glass and a pair of the limited edition NYC Oofos. The cashiers made first time runners feel so welcome – when they found out you were a first time New York Marathon runner, they would ring a cow bell next to their till and shout about how awesome you were!
The New York Marathon expo is generally quite easy to get round. Before you pick up your finisher t-shirt they have an area where you can try them on to make sure you’re taking away the right size. They have great picture opportunities as well (like a giant version of the medal that you could have your picture taken with) and they also have a Wall Of Fame that was brilliant to see as a first time runner. They print every single name of the nearly 55,000 people entered into the race and seeing my name up there made everything so real. I felt all sorts of emotions knowing that this was finally happening!
The next day we did some sightseeing and shopping (this was the day I bought the infamous M&M haul) although trying to do these things in New York while resting and saving your legs for race day is virtually impossible! We had been to New York in 2016 on a 7 day holiday and so we had already been to a lot of the really ‘touristy’ places. It was a good thing this time that we didn’t feel like we had to try and squeeze everything in but we did head towards the Rockefeller Centre because that was one of our favourite places the last time we were there.
On the Saturday before the race we met up with my Team Project Run team mates for brunch at a lovely cafe called Lexington Brass. Team Project Run is an online coaching offer that has grown into so much more for me and many others who are part of the team. Some of us have never met but there is always an effort to arrange a meet up if a few of you are all going to be in the same place at the same time for a race. Meeting up with everyone reassured me that I wasn’t the only runner that was nervous about race day but the excitement for it was also contagious. We chatted about our training, race strategies, the other things we were planning on doing while in the city and how long we were there for. It felt, when we are parted ways, as if we had all known each other for ages which is just how it is with Team Project Run.
When we all left each other there was nothing to do but rest, attend the race briefing from Sports Tours International (this seriously put my nerves at ease!) and eat for the rest of the day. Just a few hours later it would be race day.
When it came to race day I had to be up at 4am which for me was the hardest part of the whole experience as I actually wouldn’t be starting until 11am. Most runners stay locally to the finish line so that means getting over 50,000 people across to the start line on Staten Island and that’s no mean feat. This is why it’s such an early start but thankfully the clocks went back on that Sunday so I had an extra hour in bed! I wasn’t sure if I would be able to eat that early but I tried anyway and I also took some food away with me to eat at the start line. If you run with Sports Tours International make sure you book onto breakfast when you get the chance … I didn’t do it and started to regret it but thankfully they squeezed me in!
As someone who was in one of the last waves of runners, it would be a long 7 hours from wake up until I would actually start the race but the time does pass quickly. New York Road Runners bring in hundreds of buses to transport the runners (there is also the option of the ferry) and I chose this option through Sports Tours international. They have staff on hand to walk you to the bus stops on the morning of the race so I didn’t have to think about how to get there or when to leave which was was a lovely change from planning these things myself (the lady who walked us to the buses even walked Dan back towards the hotel once we started to queue for a bus to make sure he didn’t get lost!). On the walk I got chatting to a fellow runner who I ended up staying with until we split up into our start pens.
The bus journey is quite long but it does go by quickly – some people were sleeping, others were chatting to their friends and some looked deep in concentration. On the way to Staten Island I got to see the Brooklyn Bridge among other things before heading across the very bridge we would be crossing on foot to start the race – The Verrazzano-Narrows. There was a build up of buses waiting to get into the start area but, as someone with a late start, I didn’t mind so much about this (although you could see some getting nervous about the fact that we weren’t moving. This is why you should travel across as early as possible!). Once we were off the bus we made our way towards security. For the first few metres it’s quite tightly packed but as soon as you get to the volunteers scanning people it opens out quickly. Security was so easy to get through despite the amount of people and the atmosphere is incredible!
The start is split into blue, green and orange depending on your time predictions and I was in green which is wave that runs across the second level of the bridge. I made my way over, queued for the toilet as soon as I got there and then laid down in the sun to eat more carbs. The start pen doesn’t open until shortly before your start time so it gave me time to chill out, but as soon as it opened I headed in and used the toilet again. There are extras in there so if you’re the first few in, you can use the toilet again without queuing. I discarded the rest of my warm clothes in the bins provided (I shopped in Primark for cheap, warm clothes for the start line as New York Road Runners collect it all in Goodwill charity bins) and waited.
Of all the start lines I’ve been on, this has to be the most crazy, emotional and surreal of them all. As we walked forward to start of the race we got a live rendition of the national anthem which, as someone who isn’t from the United States, was still really emotional. Then New York, New York by Frank Sinatra started playing and it really got me going. Just one last count down and we were off. I was in the wave that runs on the lower deck of the bridge but don’t be fooled into thinking that you won’t see anything if you start here. I stuck to the left hand side and still saw the same magical view across the water that the top deck runners saw. The view across the water of lower Manhattan is spectacular and I could see the One World Trade Centre glistening in the sun.
I’d had a few people say that you’re hit with a wall of noise as soon as you come off the bridge but I didn’t find this to be the case. The route I was taking (all three start areas take slightly different routes) ran through some quieter streets where the noise started to slowly build before we hit the crowds when we merged with the other runners just after mile three.
The first 10 miles absolutely whizzed by – a mixture of how much fun the spectators were and all the new things to look at – although there were some quieter areas in terms of spectators in Brooklyn which I wasn’t expecting. I had noticed a lot of people looking perplexed as well children in a school uniform. I heard one runner make mention of the fact that some areas were heavily Orthodox Jewish and that the community there find the race a bit odd but I’m not sure how true this is. The best part of running through Brooklyn was a mass YMCA karaoke at mile 8 … dance moves and all!
I hadn’t really felt the hills at this point but they would become more difficult for the rest of the race. At half way, when I came to the Pulaski Bridge, I realised that the hills were starting to take their toll and I also started to get the worst stitch known to man which refused to go away for the rest of the race. At the 13.1 mile mark you arrive in Queens and then it’s not long until you cross the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan. This was absolutely one of the highlights of my race because the views are once again spectacular. You can see the Chrysler Building amongst other things so there is plenty to look at, but be warned that you’ll suddenly be in a really quiet two miles as there was no spectators here (although there were people waving down from their apartments!). Once you cross, you loop down and around straight on to First Avenue and the support here is amazing!
First avenue is just lined with people and the noise was incredible. This is where I saw the most signs which kept me entertained over the next 4 mile which seemed to drag by. At this point I found that I was really hungry which doesn’t normally happen to me during races. I was holding out for the bananas which I knew were on course – I had thought that they were at mile 16 but it turns out that they were actually at mile 22! As you come to the end of First Avenue, you cross over the Willis Avenue Bridge into the Bronx. The route is only in the Bronx for a short time before you cross back to Harlem and 5th Avenue but this was definitely my favourite part of the race. The support here was the best for me and it was a like a party!
When you come into Harlem you only have 5 miles to go and it was here that I was starting to suffer. I knew I would soon be coming into Central Park so I held on for that moment even though it felt like I was constantly climbing at this point. As a slower runner, the sun was already starting to fade by the time I came to this point in the route but I was rewarded with a spectacular sun set. There was still plenty of spectators out cheering on runners though so I had a lot of support and people cheering my name. The finish in the park is an iconic part of the race so thinking of this distracted me from the pain in my feet.
The last mile was just the absolute best! You come out of the park on one corner, run along the bottom of the park (past the hotel in Home Alone 2) and back into the park on the opposite corner. Heading back into the park I had to remember that I was still on a hill. Yes, there’s still one more hill to climb! The road also winds round so it felt like forever until I actually saw the finish line. I can’t even describe how exciting, emotional, incredible it is to see that finish line and cross it knowing that I’d finally run the New York Marathon. I’ve never felt such a buzz and the support from the last spectators I would see was amazing and so loud! I actually had to take a moment to myself on the side before I went and collected my medal.
Once I had my medal round my neck and my goodie bag in my hand, I headed towards the collection of my poncho. I had seen that the walk out of the finish area after the race was long and that was certainly the case so be prepared at this point to go even further on tired legs! Both the poncho and the bag check are a long way from the finish line but the poncho is a little closer so I would recommend this (especially as the poncho is actually really good quality and something that can be used for other races). The poncho collection is also closer to the runner and family reunite area so all that was left to do was meet Dan, walk back to the hotel and celebrate!
Our flight home was the next day on the Monday evening so we still had plenty of time to see some sights and do shop more shopping. We went to zoo as this seems to have become a tradition after I’ve run a marathon – I would totally recommend it. It’s small but we saw some amazing animals up close. We headed back to the hotel in time for our transfer to the airport and saw a lit up New York on the way out. My New York Marathon adventure was over.
The tag line of the New York Marathon is, ‘It Will Move You’. It certainly lived up to that and I’m still pinching myself that I’ve been lucky enough to run the biggest marathon in the world. It was one of the hardest things I’ve done but also one of the most thrilling. All the words in this blog do not do it justice at all and you really have to experience it for yourself! The organisers have since confirmed that they had a record number of finishers on November the 3rd so, not only was it was day I will absolutely never forget, but I’m also part of history.
My running adventures will continue but I’m not sure anything else will live up to this race. Until next time New York.
Sports Tours International currently have packages for all of the World Marathon Majors plus many other running and cycling events. You can check them out here.