NYC Part 1 – A New York State of Mind

New York, New York – it’s a hell of a town!

I’d completely forgotten how much I like New York. I’d been once before about 12 years ago and loved it then, and there was loads more I wanted to see this time as well as the minor business of running the marathon…

We arrived on Thursday lunchtime, perfectly timed to head to our hotel to check in and dump the bags before going over to the expo. Taking the subway from the airport we came in to Grand Central Station, and the first thing I saw when we got out to street level was the Chrysler Building gleaming away above us. Talk about excited! The Chrysler Building is my favourite New York high rise and it was so close to where we were staying it just really made it sink in where we were.

One of the main reasons I like New York is because it’s the one place in the world where I feel as if I’m in a movie about the place where I am, if that makes any sense. It’s so completely itself, what you see is what you get. There really are yellow cabs everywhere and horns hooting at all hours. There really is steam rising from the street and a distant clickety-clacking from the subway beneath your feet. There are hotel doormen whistling for cabs right down your ear, people selling pretzels and hot dogs on every corner, NYPD all over the place. It’s brash and vibrant and loud and excitable and cool. It’s just a very cool place.

The expo was easy to find over in the Javits Centre on the Hudson and really well organised; as this marathon is a New York Road Runners event it felt right from the outset that it had been put together by runners, for runners. That was how it felt the whole weekend actually, and it was refreshing now that so many of the larger events are so generic (looking at you, Great Run). In fact NYRR is a non-profit organisation, so perhaps that had a lot to do with it.

As it was Thursday afternoon, the expo wasn’t too crowded and we got in and picked up our numbers with no queue at all. A really nice touch before you collected your finishers top was the chance to try on blank versions of the tops to make sure you got the right size. Great idea, and I loved that they were blank. Loads of people were wearing theirs at the expo and in the streets over the next few days before race day which I found a little strange. It’s a finisher’s top – why tempt fate by wearing it before you’ve actually finished?! I clearly needed an injection of good old American confidence, but I would be simply too afraid of the hubristic implications to risk wearing it and turning an ankle off a sidewalk or something.

Past the finisher’s tops and into the expo itself which was, let’s be honest, mainly about the merch. So much merch! A huge area for finishers gear, training gear, gear that was neither but who cares because it had a marathon logo on it! I had earmarked a couple of tops I wanted which I managed to find without much fuss, but I also ended up with a bobble hat, a visor, a pair of gloves, and a cowbell. The significance of why there were loads of cowbells was slightly lost on me but became clear during the race…

The rest of the expo had everything you would expect; other races plying for your running custom, gear, nutrition, a good race info area with videos of different stages of the course, pace bands and advice on pacing strategy including the race predictor (which I still think was a little off. I tried it a few times and it seemed determined that I would for some reason run a lot more slowly on race day that I had in training – I decided to just ignore it!). Particular highlights for me were the running sunglasses stand which had a lovely small pair of tortoiseshell frames on sale, the lady advertising races in San Francisco who was giving away Ghirardelli squares (yum) and another lady who was selling a very interesting form of running safety light, which I snapped up and am really looking forward to testing out and reviewing – keep an eye out for that!

Friday was spent in gentle sightseeing; we went to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum to learn about the lives of some of the 19th Century immigrants to New York which I would highly recommend. Later on Friday we went to the opening ceremony for the race and the marathon organisers were keen to point out that runners from 130 nations were represented and that ‘regardless of what anyone says, you are all welcome here’. New York, like London, is a city of immigrants. I once heard a very clever man say that London is not an English city, it’s a world city. I would say the same is probably true of New York which is why both are towns of great opportunity, resilience and diversity. Given the current global climate with its growing fear of the ‘other’ and following the attack in Manhattan the previous week, this was a hopeful message to hear.

On Saturday the sightseeing got even gentler. It was a beautiful crisp fall day of the sort you really want when you’re in New York, and we decided to go to Central Park to enjoy the colours and quiet and to go to the zoo.

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We met up with fellow Eagle Luke and had a pleasant afternoon strolling around the park and the zoo. It all felt very Manhattan…we even met Big Bird!

Early dinner with Luke and another Eagle, Gideon, and then it was back to the hotel to lay out our kit, set alarms and hope we hadn’t messed up the clocks going back (I actually didn’t even know they did daylight savings time in the US and it seemed unfortunate timing for the 50,000 or so of us in the city anxious to wake up at the right time, but we did get an extra hour in bed!).

I slept pretty well. I deliberately left my Fitbit off so I wouldn’t know how much or how little sleep I’d had (an anti-clock-watching trick that had worked for London), but I felt pretty refreshed when the alarm went off at 5am. I’d slept loads the previous two nights as well so I felt ok on that score.

Transport to the start is arranged well in advance via the race organisers. As early as July you’re asked to choose a bus from the New York Public Library or a ferry and get taken to Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island for the start of the race. We were booked on buses and were staying really close to the library to make it as easy as possible.

Mr Duff was on an earlier bus so he shot off at 5.30am, and I followed at 6am and was ridiculously proud of myself for successfully navigating one block over and three blocks up. With the library in front of me and the buses starting to leave, I got a huge flutter of excitement and had to choke back a sudden well of tears. Having not been able to run last year it felt like such a long time coming, but I was here and in good shape and today I would have the absolute privilege of racing the New York City Marathon. On Friday at the opening ceremony and on the news all weekend emotional VT’s had played about the race and how it was essentially a 26.2 mile block party. The whole city seemed to be excited about the race. I wasn’t sure yet what my strategy would be, but above all I was determined to enjoy the experience.

I’d assumed I would make a bus friend fairly easily and as I approached the line for the buses the lady in front of me turned round and grinned, and in a very British accent said ‘this is exciting, have you run this one before?’ This was Karen, for whom this would be her 53rd marathon (including some ultras!). We stayed together from that point on and it was pretty amazing that despite having run so many marathons, and some much longer races, Karen was still really excited and also slightly nervous because she hadn’t run a road race for a long time.

We were both supposed to be on a 6.30am bus but we were held for quite a while and it looked like runners arriving from all the other directions were being allowed to go ahead of us. We knew we had plenty of time though – Karen was in the 10:40 wave and I wouldn’t start til 11am. We eventually got on a bus at about ten to 7 and promptly made another friend, Natascha, who had come from Australia to run her first ever marathon.

The bus ride was uneventful but we were all nervously watching the weather as the sky lightened up. A wet day had been forecast but we were supposed to be ok for the rain to hold off til we had actually started running, and no one wants to start a race wet through.

We arrived at the start having sat on the Verrazano Narrows bridge for what seemed like ages, and joking that the goal would be to spend less time running back over it than we had sat on it on the bus for, we jumped down onto Staten Island and headed through security. By this point they were starting to set off the wheelchair athletes and elites so every now and then a Howitzer cannon went off causing us all to jump out of our skin. It was super loud! Between the cannon fire, the noise of several NYPD helicopters flying low over the start zones and the general buzz of the runners this was starting to get really exciting!

The race start is split into waves and within those waves into colours and then corrals, to reduce congestion as much as possible. Karen, Natascha and I were all in different colour starts, so we decided to stay together in the main race village until we absolutely had to go to our corrals. This helped pass the time really quickly and completely prevented me from being nervous because we were all laughing so much. It was really lovely. We were complete strangers a few hours before but we bonded over loo queues, had some official pictures taken together, posed for silly selfies and appeared in Karen’s Facebook Live video of the start area as if we’d been old friends for years. I should say a big thank you to both ladies (who should see this as we are now Facebook friends, natch) for keeping any nerves at bay and sharing such an amazing experience with me on race morning.

The start area itself was well signposted, there were lots and lots of loos, and so many volunteers around that if you couldn’t find something you really wouldn’t have far to go to find someone who could help you out. There was free tea and coffee, Gatorade, bagels and even therapy dogs somewhere, although we didn’t see them. Karen tried a bagel for the first time and was unimpressed but I advised her not to write them off til she’d tried a proper toasted one with cream cheese on it, and not to base her entire bagel opinion on a cold, plain, whole bagel in a wet field in Staten Island. Hopefully she tried one later in her trip!

10am came and it was time for the girls to leave for their start, as they were both in the wave above me. We hugged, wished each other luck and they were off, and I headed over to my start corrals expecting to be on my own now til we set off in an hours’ time and hoping that the nerves would stay away.

I needn’t have worried though, since in yet another loo queue I recognised a club mate, Peter, and his friend Max at the front of the next queue over. He didn’t hear me shout before we both went into portaloos so I had an extremely fast wee to make sure I got back out in time not to lose him! It turned out we were in the same corral so I stayed with them til the start of the race, and again I think this was a big help. They’re so fun to be around and they were both so excited and not at all stressed (Max is a 100 marathon club runner and Peter does tons of marathons as well) that I was just grinning and giggling until it was time to go. Peter is an incessant selfie king and chats to everybody and anybody, so by the time we’d shed our warm layers and started to walk to the end of the bridge he’d taken about 20 selfies and videos, made friends with a nice young lady from Houston (another selfie) and caused enough general enthusiasm to totally trounce any nerves.

So here we were at the start. I wasn’t at all sure how fast I was going to run yet or how I would handle this race. That funny pain I’ve been getting in my back had started niggling an hour or so before. It was definitely going to rain. Everyone had talked about how this was a slow course, and to assume an extra 3 minutes on your time even if the race went perfectly. I’d trained for a 4:30 marathon. Would all my training be thwarted by the bridges and the weather?

But on the other hand I had been having too much fun to feel nervous, and the only things to worry about were things I couldn’t control, so there was no point worrying. As Frank Sinatra rang out from the sound system singing (of course) New York, New York the excitement bubbled over and all I felt was happy. Frank finished and Gloria Estefan followed him up. I danced my way over the start line and tried to settle in to a pace.

Here we go.

First damn bridge.

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