Where were we? Oh yes, the first damn bridge.
The course profile for the New York City Marathon looks, shall we say, rather undulating. The marathon course runs through all five boroughs of New York and the first of the significant undulations on the profile was the first bridge, the Verrazano Narrows bridge which takes you from Staten Island into Brooklyn.
On the profile map it looked like this bridge went up to a 150 feet of elevation in about three quarters of a mile. I had been assuming it was the worst of the bunch and had been looking forward to getting it over with, but actually it was completely fine. It started raining as we headed across the Hudson and the misty drizzle meant there was no view of anything whatsoever (when we went to Ellis Island on the following Tuesday I realised we should have been able to see the Statue of Liberty, but nothing doing). The activity on the bridge was more than enough entertainment though, there was a lot of NYPD and marathon volunteers and loads of runners stopped almost immediately to take selfies on the bridge.
We got to the top of the bridge before I knew it and started powering down into Brooklyn. Although I was still settling in, I had decided that I was going to run at even effort and take advantage of the downhill sections so despite it being early I did let myself speed up a bit.
Off the bridge and into Brooklyn and the first of the supporters…and now the reason there had been a huge cowbell display at the expo made sense. I mean, it can’t have been every person in Brooklyn that was ringing a cowbell, but it certainly sounded like it! It was amazing – the streets of Brooklyn were lined with people the entire way through this section of the race (which was really long, I think we were basically in Brooklyn til about the halfway point).
People talk about the support on the London marathon route, which is incredible, but this was something else. As well as the cowbells there were signs everywhere you looked – you run better than the government, if Trump can run so can you, and poop related ones were popular but my favourites were ‘find your happy pace’ and later on a little girl holding a sign that simply said ‘try your best’.
The ‘find your happy pace’ one struck a chord; I’d been a bit worried that trying to go more conservatively than in training would be hard work, because I get stiff if I run slower than I find natural. OK then, I thought. Let’s try running at the happy pace. I let myself settle into a slightly faster pace that I feared was entirely sensible, but one I thought I was ok to keep up at least til 20 miles.
Another thing that struck me about the support was what this phenomenal cheer squad were actually cheering at us. This was no polite British crowd clapping and saying ‘well done’ or ‘keep going’. Hell no, this was Brooklyn baby, in the US of A. No half measures here!
Cries of ‘yeah baby, you got this’ and similar sentiments were repeatedly shouted at total strangers with complete confidence. I heard my name every few seconds (about 50/50 between Ange and Angie, but Angie sounds cool in a Brooklyn accent so I’ll let them off). Each cheer we heard was another push towards believing that this was not an impossible task. Right then, they seemed to say, you’ve trained for this, you’re here, you’re on your way. Why on earth should you think you can’t do this? Of course you can do this. On you go. Get it done.
So on I went.
My race strategy came upon me slightly out of the blue. I knew I wouldn’t run even miles because of the course profile, but I noticed at 10k that my splits had been basically even at 5k and 10k. I had run just under 32 minutes for each of them, and my watch was already slightly out on the mile markers. I was aware that there would be a number of club mates tracking us as well as friends and family, and they got alerts every 5k. So I decided I would keep trying to hit 32 minutes for each 5k mark and run as evenly as possible for as long as possible. I knew I could do it to 30k, I thought I could keep it up til 35k, I wasn’t sure if I could manage it til 40k but thought I was at least in a position to give it a shot.
Continuing on through Williamsburg and Greenpoint, still in Brooklyn, I got through 15k and 20k on schedule and headed up to halfway. My watch was still out of synch with the markers and I hit the halfway marker about a minute over where I’d had it on my watch, 2:15:09. It was good that I noticed this I think, because that basically told me that whatever I did I wouldn’t be making sub 4:30 today on the official course measurement. My watch got to 13.1 at 2:14 something, so by my watch I could do it but that’s not what counts on race day. I didn’t actually mind though – I hadn’t started the race expecting to feel this good, and it was always going to be very close to the wire. I could now focus on simply maintaining these 5k splits and getting as close to the 4:30 time as I possibly could but without flaying myself alive to do it and losing out on the fun of the experience.
Onwards from halfway and into Queens, and with apologies to Queens I’m afraid this was my least favourite part of the route. The support was good and still in plentiful supply around Queens in general, but we left the borough via the Queensboro Bridge and, to quote that celebrated New Yorker little orphan Annie, I found this bit ‘plain awful’.
It’s a decked bridge and we were running on the lower deck. It felt very low, enclosed and narrow. It was also really steep, and seemed to go on absolutely forever. I’d ended up in a funny place in the pack with regard to the pacers, or maybe they were from different corrals, as I’d passed the 4:35 and 4:40 pacers earlier on and was now stuck behind a pace group running 10:40 minute miles. They were fine, they were doing their thing, there just wasn’t much space and I was determined not to stop running – it reminded me very much of Narrow Street during the London marathon, which had completely messed me up and caused me to slow down because I lost my rhythm. That could not happen again!
We reached the top and I managed to nip past enough people to have a much clearer run down the other side. Everyone’s watches suddenly started beeping for 16 miles and a very exuberant lady who I assume was a NYRR member (she knew the pacer) appeared alongside me, cheering madly from the pack and geeing everyone up. ‘Just ten miles left you guys, we’re nearly there! Let’s get these people of Manhattan going!’ We swooped down off the bridge and took a sharp left into Manhattan with this girl yelling ‘what’s up Manhattan, how y’all doing today? Let’s go!’ at the already very loud crowd – it was just the boost we all needed after that horrible bridge!
The route then heads up First Avenue, which is Not Flat. This bit was also tough actually. It was very up and down, but there seemed to be more ups which lasted longer than the frustratingly short downs. It’s about 3.5 miles of the route and seemed to go on forever. The crowd was still really big but they were a little further away from us, and it was raining harder so they were perhaps a little dampened, in more ways than one.
A few people have said they thought I was in trouble here because the tracker gave me a slow mile; I think there may have been a glitch in the tracker as my Dad said it looked like I stopped completely, which I didn’t, but around mile 18 and 19 were a little slower because apart from it feeling like a bit of a slog up First we had to slow briefly for a fire truck!
Eventually we could see we were leaving Manhattan again….by another damn bridge. This one, the Willis Avenue Bridge, was to take us into the Bronx. I was not relishing running up another bridge but could see by the time we hit the bottom of it that it was pretty small, and there was a one woman cheer squad at the top yelling ‘welcome to the Boogie Down Bronx, you’re all amazing!’ God knows how long she’d been standing there for in the rain to keep us all going, the least we could do was dig in our heels and pick up the pace.
I was past 30k by now and had hit my 32 minute target consistently for each 5k. I knew the next 5k marker would mean just 7k left to go – so close now. We swung through the Bronx and towards Harlem over what was, according to the two people with signs at the top, the ‘Last Damn Bridge’. Finally!
I’m going to pause for a second in Harlem to give a shout out to the music acts which were along the whole route. I don’t know how many there were, but it was pretty constant and they were all so good. I mean it’s New York, so I would expect there to be some fantastic singers, but my goodness. There was a lady singing in Harlem backed by a full choir. She was phenomenal – I actually slowed slightly to applaud her, she had the most beautiful rich voice. With 4 miles left to go her voice was balm for the soul. The smile brought to my face by this lady and by a particularly gravelly voiced man cheering ‘let’s go Ange, you got this’ at me once more gave me that little bit of energy to keep pushing.
35k done, still at my target pace, still even, still smiling. I was torn between being sure this was too good to be true and the wheels almost certainly being about to fall off, and the instinct to embrace the confidence of the New Yorkers who had been cheering us on and just keep going for it.
Going for it was winning out, just about.
The last proper undulation on the route was up Fifth Avenue at about mile 23. At London, mile 23 was a beautiful downhill stretch full of my friends, family and club mates. At New York, it was a hell of a slog. I wasn’t struggling at this point, but this hill hurt. I’m well aware it wouldn’t have felt like a hill had it not been 23 miles in, but it definitely was a hill in this context. It was a hill which was for some reason covered in glitter, but it was still a hill. And it felt like the end would never come. I avoided the water station on this mile, knowing it wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference now, and kept on going. I had to reach 40k in 4:17, I was nearly at the park…
Thankfully most of the section in Central Park is downhill! Hooray! There was enough left in the legs to try to make a bit of time back, and I cruised through the 40k marker just sneaking under 4:17 and let myself start to smile at the crowd – back in force and with cowbells again I think, although I may have been hallucinating at this point. I could feel my vision starting to go a bit funny but refused to slow. You’ve got 2k to go, I told myself. You are absolutely not stopping now unless you actually faint. Just. Keep. Running.
And then came the final corner and the home straight. My watch reached 26.2, and it showed me a time of 4:28:54…I had run almost an even split from halfway by my watch – within seconds! What would my actual official time be?
With music blaring, the light starting to fade and barely noticing the little final hill to the arches, I raised my arms and managed an ‘Eagle’ for the camera as I crossed the finish line of the New York City Marathon. I had done it!
My watch said 4:32 dead, for 26.51 miles. I don’t care that it showed as over the distance, it always will for big races and I’d rather longer than shorter. My official time (as published in the New York Times, thank you very much!) was 4:31:54. If you take off that fabled 3 minutes, it gives you 4:28:54, which was what my watch had said at 26.2. Well how about that? That sounds pretty bang on to me! I was absolutely thrilled.
I was so happy and slightly crying with relief and joy that I nearly missed the medals, but grabbed one in time for an official photo and then started the long trudge for a heat sheet, recovery bag of food and drink, and eventually a warm and snuggly post-race poncho. It really started to get dark as we cleared the finish area and headed to the family reunion point. People were still cheering us out on the street but I was completely done – apart from the bus ride I’d been on my feet since 6am, it was now 4.30pm and an hour after I’d finished running. I just wanted to find Mr Duff and stop walking.
We found each other, and as he is super speedy he’d been able to get to the hotel, get changed, and come back with my bag which had my finisher’s top in it. Despite the cold and rain, I changed into it right there in the street.
With no hubris in sight, I could finally wear my New York City Marathon finisher’s top with pride.
Thank you New York. What an amazing race.
You truly are King of the Hill, and Top of the Heap.
And now for stats…
For the fact fans out there, my 5k splits were:
That means the variance between fastest and slowest 5k’s was only about 50 seconds, and my first half/second half split was about 1:45. I ran a 50.17% age grading and was just out of the top 50% by 518 and a half of a runner…so basically slap bang in the middle of the pack. NOT in the bottom third.
I might have to change my tagline…