In less than three weeks, I will have run my 9th marathon and probably one of the greatest road races on planet Earth. As I write this, I have completed over 350 miles of training just in the last 16 weeks. I have spent over $3,000 in physical therapy insurance claims to fix some funky hip issue that refuses to quit. I have earned a 10K personal record, ran with 11 other women from the timberline of Mount Hood to Seaside, Oregon, and I ran two half-marathons within 24 hours of each other. I’ve missed out on social events in the name of sleeping and training. I’ve weathered heartache and the stress of trying to be a responsible adult, choosing to run when I don’t think I can or even want to do it. I continue to doubt and overcome, dream and disbelieve, rest and grow weary, try and try again. I’m ready for this race to move me, inspire me, and be something I look back on as a great day to have been alive.
But I’m also totally nervous about how to prepare for this race. Logistically speaking.
I’m the kind of person who researches things quite thoroughly. I enjoy getting as much information as possible to make as informed a decision as I can. While I know how to take a leap of faith, I hate being under-prepared. Sometimes having so much information makes me indecisive, but I would rather have the confidence of knowing with total certainty and being prepared for any outcome because I don’t like being blind-sided.
So, unusual plot twist on my end: I have decided to let things happen naturally and to just enjoy being there. I don’t feel like I have a whole lot riding on this race. I’ve been to NYC tons of times, I don’t “really” have a time goal, I have few to no expectations, and I’ve decided that all I want is a great experience. I fully advocate taking that same approach so you can enjoy yourself and, if you’re new to the Big Apple, experience the awesomeness of New York City and wrap all that excitement into having an amazing race (because there’s something surreal about the moment you’re running with the skyline in view hearing U2’s “Walk On” in your earbuds that even words can’t describe). However, there are a few things that you should know about the NYC Marathon that you should know before you go— things I didn’t necessarily take the time to research that I sort of wish I had.
I realize that this post is kind of premature. I will probably have three times as much to say when I get back, so I am writing this in hopes it appears in someone’s Google search when they research how to prepare for this race in 2016 or future years. I’ll come back and write a follow-up later, but hopefully the things I learned in the lead-up to this experience will give some context for how to plan for the race of a lifetime.
Transportation to the Start Line
At some point, in mid- to late spring, you’ll get an email from New York Road Runners (NYRR) that instructs you to choose a method of transportation to the start line in Staten Island: either a bus that leaves from Midtown or the Staten Island ferry. Somewhere somehow, and I’m not sure when or how since social media rumors can be little monsters, I got the advice to take the Staten Island ferry option even though my hotel is in Midtown. Perhaps it’s because the ferry offers a pretty majestic view of New York City that I wanted in my mind while I ran or because it’s an iconic part of New York that I wanted as part of this whole experience.
Or because 50,000 nervous, excited, stressed-out runners with super high expectations migrating via bus from Manhattan to Staten Island in the span of about 4 or 5 hours seems like an insanely difficult task in which anything can go wrong that causes a delay. The folks at NYRR are incredibly capable, but it happened to the Marines at the 2015 Marine Corps Marathon: the security checkpoints broke down and left all of us stranded behind the metal detectors. And I live one mile from the start village and I left home 2 hours before the race began. One mile, two hours, disaster not averted. I can only imagine how insane it would be for twice as many people. Rule of thumb: You just never know what will happen on race day, so prepare to get there early. At least I can chill out before I started running.
I ended up choosing the 5:30AM Staten Island Ferry option.
Besides wanting to get there early, I also thought that I would be in one of the earlier waves and faster corrals. Why did I think this? Because I had run a NYRR race before, and my “best pace” in my NYRR account is 8:47. I assumed that this would be how I was assigned my corral. I swear, I searched everywhere for “NYC Marathon start time” and I never found it until way after the fact. The race actually begins around 10AM. Plan for that.
My start time is 10:40AM, in the Blue Wave 3, Corral F.
So, I have just over 5 hours of waiting at the start line before I begin running. Put another way, it will actually take longer to get to the start of the race than it will likely take me to run the actual marathon. Yikes.
I literally laughed out loud when I saw how my race morning would look. If I had known what time I was scheduled to start, I would have chosen something at least an hour later. The race does not tell you your corral assignments before you choose a method of transportation: it’s a gamble. I don’t want to criticize the staff at a race I have not yet run when I don’t know how this decision will pan out, but it would seem to make more sense to assign transportation based on corral assignments and then just leave it up to the runner to decide bus or ferry. In a recent Facebook post, the race directors had to remind runners to stick with their selected transportation options, but many runners voiced concern and displeasure with how their transportation selection lines up with their start time and will likely not follow these instructions. Fortunately, I’m on the upside of that gamble with time to spare while I know other runners will be struggling to make it to the start village on time. I’m not expecting a civilized ferry ride to Staten Island because I expect a lot of people will ditch their originally-selected later transportation times because their window is so narrow.
On the plus side, I will be there early in case something goes wrong. I will also probably get more free coffee and food as well as (hopefully) one of those iconic Dunkin Donuts hats. I’m excited to meet people and to have a lot of time to mentally prepare and calm down from the stress of getting where I need to go and to get a brief rest before I start running. The downside is that I will need to dress as absolutely as warm as I possibly can because, not only do I loathe being cold but it burns up a lot of energy to stay warm. And that’s just if it’s not raining. Right now, I am praying that the unseasonable warmth trend of 2016 will carry into the next 3 weeks and that we will have no rain.
Which brings me to my next point…
I learned my lesson about the importance of staying warm before running a race when I ran the 2016 NYC Half-Marathon in March. I woke up to a forecasted high of 45 for the day and around 35 at race start with winds around 8 mph. I’ve certainly run in colder weather so I thought I was okay enough to run for 2 hours. Boy, was I wrong. Walking from my hotel in Times Square to the start line in Central Park was positively brutal. The wind was not a breezy 8 mph; it was sharp-edged with a wind chill of 25-30 and it certainly felt like it was blowing at 25-30. I was cold instantly and I did not warm up at all, even standing in the crowds waiting to go and wearing two layers of winter running clothes as I ran. I ended up in the medical tent behind the finish line with the worst tension headache of my life and mild hypothermia.
I do not want to repeat that experience at this race, and so I plan to dress like I am headed to the ends of the earth. If the weather is pleasant, I can always take off layers but I can’t add layers if I get too cold. I don’t want to get sweaty under all of my throw-away’s, for fear of dehydrating and because I don’t want that sweat to evaporate when I start running and make me chilled, but I will still be as prepared as I possibly can be. Besides, you can sit on anything you remove while you wait. Also, the race donates all the runners’ throw-away clothing to those in need, so it’s not going to waste. You will be helping someone stay warm for a lot longer than a few hours behind the starting line of a marathon.
I also plan to bring a thick rain poncho for additional warmth and because it will be long enough to sit on wet grass. I also have a clear pool float on hand so that sitting on the ground won’t be as hard on my joints before I head off. I’m also going to buy some emergency ponchos if it looks like there will be rain for later in the race. These are perfect for carrying literally on the go.
Also, just in case anyone didn’t get the memo, there will be hot coffee at the Start Line village. That’s literally all I needed to know.
Baggage Check or Race Poncho
At the same time that you are instructed to select a transportation option, you also have to let the race know if you will be either checking a bag to pick up at the end of the race or forgoing a baggage check option to receive a poncho at the end of the race. You can’t do either (unless you run for a charity, so I have heard). This option, for me, was a no-brainer: I chose the poncho. They are iconic. Like Superman has earned his cape. I’m not at all concerned about walking back to my hotel in cold, wet running clothes because I know I am going to love wearing one of these bad boys. I may actually be looking forward to getting a poncho after the race more than I am the medal.
Where To Stay
Unfortunately for me, I am on a rather limited budget so I can only be in New York City on Saturday morning through Monday afternoon: 3 days, 2 nights. To score the best deal I could, I started looking for hotels the day I learned that I was accepted into the race, and I have been casually browsing other options in the months since. I advise to book something early if you can.
Generally speaking, if you are planning to stay in Manhattan, you’ll be spending at least $250 per night after local taxes and fees. Of course, there’s always the cheaper option of AirBnB, but I personally don’t want this race to be the first time I try it. You can also find some really low hotel prices, but there are some things you have to be willing to put up with, like closet-sized rooms or twin beds. Even that wouldn’t be so bad if that twin bed was in its own room: be careful that you are not just renting a bed in a room with 10 other strangers. And double-check that the bathroom is not a shared bathroom down the hall. Rule of thumb: If the price is low, it’s probably for a reason. For a marathon, however, maybe consider that you’ll probably be in your hotel room resting for a good part of the weekend and loosen the purse strings.
There is one guiding policy that led me to find a reasonably-priced hotel in Midtown (55th and 7th– how lucky am I??). A colleague of mine, whose husband has run the marathon, advised me, based on her husband’s experience, to stay as close to the finish line as possible. You’ve probably seen those hilarious videos of the post-marathon zombie apocalypse, but she and her husband stayed with family in New Jersey and she said that, while getting to the start line was easy for them, getting home after the race took almost twice as long as it took for him to run the race. I heeded that advice closely, not only because it’s absolutely miserable to be on your feet after running 26.2 miles when you’re cold with sweat, exhausted, and in pain, but because hailing a cab after the NYC Half-Marathon from Wall Street back to Times Square was like buying bread and milk the night before a hurricane. So I believe her. Though I feel that a 20-block walk will hurt like hell, at least my wallet won’t.
Going back to my point on transportation and start time, the downside here is that I will need to find a way to get to the Staten Island Ferry from essentially Grand Central Station by 5:30AM. Hopefully, the city that never sleeps will take a night off from its claim to fame and I’ll be able to find a cab without having to fight anyone for it. Social media rumors have said that race organizers and volunteers don’t “check” whether you are following your selected transportation option, so theoretically, I could switch to the Midtown bus option knowing now that I have a looootttt of time that morning. However, race organizers recently posted on Facebook that sticking to your selected transportation method is important so I will still take the ferry and live to tell you the tale.
Some people prioritize swag; others brush it off as just “stuff.” Usually, if I am running one of the most well-known races, I like to buy at least the “official” race jacket. If you’re the same way, I definitely recommend buying the official race gear before your trip for a few reasons.
First, it helps you budget for your trip when the costs don’t all come at once. I usually set a budget for what I think I will spend on race gear, but I somehow always either spend more or less because I don’t know how much to budget (race jackets are expensive!) This time, you can see how much things are and decide what you want. And somehow saving for everything else doesn’t seem so scary when one part is taken care of months in advance.
Second, it sells out fast, or at least it did in 2016. NYRR released the official gear in mid-September, and it was mostly sold out by mid-October. But then again, I don’t know if they stock it again for the expo and, since this is the last year that Asics is the official outfitter for the marathon, they may be trying to offload their merchandise. So I have heard anyway. At any rate, if you are looking for merchandise before the race, be sure to also check out Asics’s website. I’ve seen a few things that were either sold out on the NYRR website or not even available through NYRR. Hint: you can save $12.50 on shipping charges through Asics.
Third, you save money on an extra day of travel and lodging. When I learned that NYRR sells its official gear before the expo, I decided to cut back on a day in the city which probably saved me a few hundred bucks plus a vacation day from work. The downside to consider is that you’ll miss a lot of the pre-marathon festivities. I admit I am bummed about that part, but hey— less time on my feet.
Fourth, you’ll save yourself the headache of a mad rush at the expo. I’m only basing this on my experience with the NYC Half-Marathon expo, which is frankly so crowded that it makes me want to never run that race again. Hopefully the NYC Marathon expo will not be like its younger sibling.
Also, here’s a tip: if anyone is looking to buy one of Tiffany’s TCS New York City Marathon pieces of jewelry or crystal, you may want to call before you head to the Big Apple. After shuffling my budget around when deciding that I would rather have this iconic charm to celebrate my marathon, I called the store to learn that these items usually sell out fast and now I have an apple charm on reserve for me to have engraved after the race. I’m really glad that I called first.
How to Visit the Big Apple for a Race and Not Lose Your Mind
I remember the first time I visited New York City, over Thanksgiving break in 2006. I was interning in DC and my roommate, being from Westchester, invited me to spend time with her family and she took me around Manhattan. It was overwhelming. There was just a lot in my face– all the city noise, the crowds, so much to look at and take in all at once. Even now, a decade and about 20 trips later, New York still overwhelms me.
When you’re about to run a marathon and or you’re in the city for the first time ever, that feeling is probably doubled, but the same rules apply: you need rest, you need to be off your feet, and you need to be making sure you have everything you need, including hydration and food. Here are my tips for taking in the city while making sure your race is not sabotaged by all the excitement.
- Schedule everything. Depending on what day you get in, you may have some sights you want to see. While I don’t mean schedule everything down to the minute, write out a list of the things you want to see on a certain day and try to plan for things that are in the same area. You may need to prioritize what is most important because there is a whole lot to see. Or look into a bus tour! Conversely, just wander around and see what you stumble upon. NYC is a wonderful city; there’s always something to see or do.
- Also, consider making dinner reservations ahead of time, especially if you are looking for more than NYC-style pizza and Magnolia Cupcakes for your pre-race dinner (my likely menu of choice). Nothing worse than going to a famous restaurant for pasta and realizing there’s a wait time that’ll put you way past your bed time.
- Carry snacks. You might be walking a lot more than you expect before the race, so you’ll burn more calories and use up energy stores. Keep an eye on what you are eating and drinking throughout the day to keep those reserves intact for race day. And remember that you are, after all, in the city that is well-know for its pizza and bagels! The time to indulge is now.
- Wear comfortable shoes. Literally no one will judge you for wearing shoes you can walk in all day, but they will judge you for wearing shoes you can’t walk in all day.
- Practice sleeping. Though most hotels are relatively quiet and drown out some noise, you can still hear the city outside. Or even if you don’t, your mind might be racing. In the weeks ahead, practice falling asleep with soothing activities or listening to white noise in headphones if you plan to have others in your hotel room. Fall asleep with ear plugs or an eye mask so it doesn’t feel totally foreign on race night. Don’t interrupt your normal sleep patterns too much— it’s better to get quality sleep in the days leading up to the race than it is the night before the race— but try a few things if you know your sleep might be impacted during your stay in NYC.
- Also, if you are like me and suffer insomnia due to a restless mind, consider setting a curfew for your phone the night before the race. I personally enjoy checking out everyone’s race experience using the official hashtags, but it can add to the overload and cause your mind to stay awake. So can text messages from friends or family in earlier time zones. On race night, I post the pictures I want, text who I want, and then set my phone down an hour before bedtime. Besides, you’ll have tons of time to check out what your fellow runners did the night before when you’re on the bus or ferry to the start line.
- Get familiar with the subway. Okay, this one is pretty impossible. I still can’t use the subway without getting on the wrong platform once or twice or mistaking a local train for an express. But cab fares add up, so download an app that will help you plan your routes and take a little stress out of getting where you want to go.
In my quest to find the answers to some of my questions, I’ve been able to find a pretty few decent reviews of the race experience in general as well as tips for training to run. I’ve also found the answers to some of my questions buried in corners of the Internet that I somehow missed when scouring for them. Most of the information about the actual race logistics is on the official marathon website, so make sure you look more than I did and if you want to be as prepared as you can, check out some of my other recommended reads below.
- Race Reviews
- Jason Saltmarsh: 2015 NYC Marathon Start: What You Need to Know and Running the New York City Marathon
- Runner’s World: Ten Tips for Running Your Best New York City Marathon
- Running and the City: New York City Marathon Tips, Course Strategy, and Info! (Lord, bless her— this is a fantastic review from a tried and true NYC Marathon veteran!)
- Dirty Old Sneakers: TCS NYC Marathon Course Description
- The Restless Runner: New York Marathon Race Review
- TCS NYC Marathon Race and Course Information
And hey, if you don’t take my advice, you can always heed the wise lessons of Barney Stinson and “just run it!” Though I need to find out if free subway rides are true…
See you in New York!