The TCS New York City Marathon, which takes place this weekend, is among the biggest endurance-sports competitions in the world. The founder of GearJunkie ran the 26.2 last year to get a firsthand view.
A strange road brought me here, and there’s a stranger one stretching head. I’m at the start line on Staten Island, helicopters swirling above. In the grass at the side of the course, military men in fatigues are gripping guns and watching a crowd shuffling toward the start.
Security is no joke at the New York City Marathon. So when a cannon fires to kick off the event, my heart skips — no one told me there was a cannon!
I jump, my blood racing, and then feet all around begin to mobilize. A mass of runners takes off to traverse the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, a view of Manhattan uncompromised to the north. The finish line lies 26.2 miles beyond.
Race Report: New York City Marathon
The TCS New York City Marathon is a mass-participation endurance feat conjuring the equivalent population of a midsize town. Indeed, 52,812 humans ran last year, making it the biggest marathon in the world. I was invited by New Balance in 2018 to take it on.
Waves of racers are released from Staten Island in multiple heats. The bibbed participants come from across America and around the planet, each person pushing off from a start line to plod for hours toward a finisher’s medal if they make it to Central Park.
I have run a dozen marathons over the years, from Philadelphia to Grandma’s along Minnesota’s North Shore. I once completed a hilly 26.2 around Roanoke, Virginia, in what was dubbed the hardest distance road race in the USA.
But New York City is different. There’s nothing like the city, and the course lets you see a massive cross-section of it all. From Staten Island into Brooklyn, then Queens, the Bronx, on to Manhattan, and a finish line in Central Park, you get a one-of-a-kind look at a world capital. An estimated 1.5 million people come out to watch the action and cheer.
As noted, I’d been invited by New Balance. The company brought a handful of journalists to NYC for the marathon, which is something of a mecca for pro runners and footwear brands. Corporate sponsors, celebrities, dedicated locals, and bucket-listers who suit up to run for 3-5 hours complete the scene.
I managed 3 hours 44 minutes for a finish time and was 1,350th place for my age. It was satisfactory considering the strange road I’d come off of. I was compromised last year physically and had it in my head to just nab a NET (“non-embarrassing time”) for the November event.
In the past, my marathon training aimed at 2:59 for a finish time. I never quite broke the 3-hour barrier but was at one point just minutes shy of that goal.
Fast forward to 2019, and I’m battling a back issue. It’s an uninteresting midlife conundrum, but it’s uniquely mine. After years of ultrarunning and adventuring, my physiology screamed to a halt with a lower-back condition called sciatica and a disturbed spinal nerve that caused an alternating tease of numbness and electric pain.
No need for more details. But suffice to say, with the NYC Marathon looming last year, it was not encouraging to be hobbling 3 miles at a stretch while training under intense pain. It got very bad and was indeed the worst “injury” of my life, though I had a frustratingly difficult time pinpointing the cause.
One night, unable to lie down or even sit in a chair without piercing pain, I slumped against my living room wall. I drifted off at 3 a.m. stand-sleeping and half-consciously contemplating life in a debilitating state.
At last, I found some fixes. After trying a dozen methods — from weird YouTube tutorials to chiropractor appointments — a friend who does hybrid yoga/physical therapy discovered an alternative method that allowed me to heal.
And so I got on the airplane 2 days before the marathon date. I landed in New York and taxied to a hotel. At 4:30 a.m. on race day, I got up and stumbled down a few blocks of empty Manhattan streets to find the bus that would take me to the start.
Race day was brisk and windy, a perfect autumn setup for the masses ready to run. I stretched and hydrated in a tent with hundreds of runners chatty and raring to go.
My goal for an hour leading to race time was simple: Stretch, hydrate, and get into a headspace where I could zone out and run at a NET pace through the chaos to come.
Corrals and waves, numbers and heats, elites and average runners — the structure of the start of this event is a kaleidoscope. I was in one of the first releases, and as announcements blared, I wandered forward through the crowd.
Choppers hovered. Police and Army troops drifted by, directing crowds, moving the masses into place. The mayor of New York was headed to a podium to speak.
Race Start! NYC Marathon
My goal is to take off fast. My back is limber and stretched, and I’m hopping with anticipation waiting to move. Any marathon conjures butterflies. NYC adds layers of excitement, and the stadium-rock songs on repeat hardly help.
And so at the cannon blast, we’re off, feet pounding and a herd of runners hopping ahead. I’m near the front in my heat, and the crowd thins as we gain elevation on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge.
The road arcs hundreds of feet over water and boats below, the wide Hudson River an ocean-like mass in the view. Wind kicks across, cooling racers stripped down to minimal clothing anticipating sun and sweat for hours ahead.
My problem back feels numb, so I accelerate. My strategy is weird, and I’m not sure if it’ll work — I plan to run as fast as I can, for as long as I can, then hobble in the rest of the way.
And so following this unorthodox method I crank toward Brooklyn. My pace is sub-7-minutes on mile one, energy and adrenaline propelling every step.
By mile 5, I’m feeling good. The crowds of Brooklyn close in. People shout and high-five. Bands play on rooftops. Police lights dance at crossings along the course.
The road narrows and heads uphill. The crowds thicken, a deafening cheer at spots that somehow mutates from encouragement and sound into more energy for my limbs.
Mile 9 is near. I’ve hardly slowed down since the start as I plod a confident pace.
No water stops at aid stations, no distractions. In truth, I’m afraid to stop, even for a drink, and thus I run through the stations not even looking to the side. I’m in the zone. Myopic. Focused. One mile at a time.
Then the crowds disappear. We’re headed out of the pedestrian zone. The Queensboro Bridge arches ahead, a dreaded uphill over the river at the halfway point on the course.
Halfway to the End
Manhattan is ahead. After the bridge, the course swoops around two bends, narrow and downhill, and heads north again on First Avenue. These miles, 16 to 18, are a slog. It’s mid-race, and the perpetual motion of more than 2 hours on the move takes a toll.
But the crowds know as much. They see people flagging, limping, stopping for a breath. Energy is returned in encouragement and cheers from both sides of the street.
Mile 20 is close now. It’s a significant mental point to reach, though the race stretches on from there. Welcome to the Bronx, where the end is near.
My road gets even stranger. On the verge of a lower-back breakdown, I administer some self-massage. Muscles cramping, I knuckle and knead in growing desperation on the run. Will my muscles seize up now, so close to the line?
Then, at a turn, a sign is ahead. Yes, a literal one, and it reads, “BioFreeze.” The sign is hung on a set of poles, and beneath the banner, a lone worker stands in medical gloves with a welcoming gaze. A glistening ply of the advertised ointment is in her palm, free for the scooping from any runner passing by.
No knowledge of this salve, I reach and scoop as a hail Mary move. A four-finger portion of BioFreeze slicks my hand, and the mentholated solution applies easily across my back.
A clean swipe of topical medicine, it reacts quicker than imagined. Soon, my lumbar is numb. I smile and pick up some speed.
Finish Line Is Near
Back in Manhattan, the final stretch of this marathon is painful and long. I feel like I’m almost done, but the road goes on and on toward mile 24.
Crowds come back the nearer I get to the end. Now in the heart of the Big Apple, the finish line is not a concept anymore but something real and close a couple miles beyond.
For me, it’s still a matter of staying in the zone. I haven’t stopped a single step since the start. Afraid of my back seizing up, I keep moving, breathing slow, striding ahead as I have now for more than 3 hours in a row.
Ahead, ambulance lights glitter. A runner has collapsed. She’s wincing, cramped with pain on the pavement as the medical staff moves in to help.
People are shouting. It’s all encouragement and hope. I’m 20 minutes from the finish line, my body a stiff and failing machine.
A final turn. Columbus Circle. The finish area is in sight. Lights and music, the bombastic voice of an announcer. It’s all coming to a close, a 3-hour, 44-minute feat I was unsure I could complete.
But I make it in the end. A medal hangs around my neck, music blares, cheers seem to never stop. A wave of energy moved me — and my damn back — through it all. That and a bit of BioFreeze to help along the way.