NYC Marathon Race Report, Part 1: Race Week

Marathon week in NYC is just that, a week. I worked Sunday, so missed the opening race and kickoff events, but I had Tuesday, plus Thursday through Monday of race weekend off. Monday night I headed into the city after work to scout the cheer squad’s new Brooklyn location and attend the NYRR Member Happy Hour at the marathon Pavilion.

Twin Mom also decided to go to the Happy Hour, so we made plans to meet up in Brooklyn and head over together.

I’d picked the cheer squad spot off a map based on subway lines and course elevation, so I was pleasantly surprised when I got out there. It was an even shorter walk than I thought from the various subway stops, and the food/caffeine options in the area looked good. So good, in fact, I was glad I’d already suggested to my mom that we head over to the area after her train arrived Friday so she could see the cheer stop, and we’d get a late lunch before the opening ceremonies.

The first part of the course in Brooklyn was the one I was least familiar with, basically everything before North Williamsburg, so I walked up and down Lafayette a bit and looked past that section in either direction to get a feel for the course. There was a hill there that wasn’t huge, but felt long as I was walking it. Still, it was a gradual enough climb that I thought there was a chance it would just feel like a stretch of my usual running loop that gradually climbs over its mile-long length.

I walked over toward Atlantic Terminal because I had time to kill before Twin Mom could meet me, and chilled out in front of Barclays Center. This was about the point in the week when it really hit me that this wasn’t a drill. After two years of working toward this goal, it was almost here. That was an equally exciting and terrifying thought. Still, the excitement was winning. By the end of the day Sunday, I’d be a marathoner.

Happy Hour

When we headed up to the marathon Pavilion in Central Park, Twin Mom and I were both really excited. She’d run a marathon before, but not New York. And then we got there and walked in and it felt a whole lot more real all of a sudden. Especially since the countdown clock on display showed there were only five days left. Plus, they had these nice marathon glasses for us as a souvenir, the first of many pieces of swag for the week. They had the marathon logo on the bottom of the glass, so even when drinking you couldn’t forget it was marathon week.

The course strategy session that followed was pretty standard for big NYRR events, and coaches Mel and Steve did a great job as always. Nothing they said really surprised me, which made me feel good about my course prep for the race. Then Runner’s World Runner-in-chief Jeff Dengate was up to lead a conversation with Patrick Harten, one of the 26 #TeamMovedMe runners in the race this year. Twin Mom hadn’t heard about those, so I explained: They’re runners with particularly compelling stories the NYRR folks picked to highlight (and pitch as story ideas to media). Harten is probably better known by his job: air traffic controller for The Miracle on the Hudson.

One of the themes that really came out in the conversation was how running can really help with mental health, but it is possible to escape so far into it that you overdo and then aren’t able to run. While being a breaking news editor isn’t (usually) as stressful as being an air traffic controller, running is definitely a way I burn off stress, so I found the conversation particularly interesting.

After the conversation, Twin Mom and I went to look at the finisher gear on display and both drooled over the finisher jacket, a black windbreaker with a copper lining and all sorts of useful details, like zippered pockets and armpit zippered vents. That was definitely on my list to get on Monday. I’d pretty much planned to go overboard on the marathon gear because really, you only get one first marathon. To have it also be New York? Definitely wanted to have things to remind me of all the hard work and what I’d accomplished in the future.

They were closing up the pavilion for the night, so we headed out and walked over to see if the finish line was up yet (nope). But a lot of the finish area structure was set up, and it was hard to believe we were going to be coming up that hill and crossing the finish line in five days.

Tuesday ended up being a pretty quiet day for me. I went down to my favorite coffee shop on the Hudson and spent some time there with yarn and a latte and their excellent goat cheese and roasted tomato omelet. I also did laundry, some cleaning and started sorting out what I would need for the weekend.

Wednesday I had to work — we had mandatory training — and by the end of the day, I was glad I’d taken the rest of the week off, because my mind was not on work.

The Expo

Thursday was the big day: The Expo! I headed in early and ended up at the Pershing Square Cafe across from Grand Central for breakfast. (OK, not sure I’d go again.) Then it was into the depths of the subway to get a 7 train to Hudson Yards and the Javits Center. The one time I’d been to the Javits Center for an event before, we had to line up outside if we got there early, so I was pleasantly surprised to be able to wait inside.

One quirk to this whole process that I don’t know that I’ve mentioned before: A few months ago, the Road Runners contacted me and said they’d put me on their media list, which also came with a bunch of perks. Now, as a journalist, when I hear perks, my first response is “Nope.” And when I looked at the list, a bunch of the things on there were ones that either violated our newsroom ethics policy, or didn’t, but were things I didn’t feel comfortable accepting, like some training runs and the special bus to the start village. The only one that was tempting was the tent at the start village. After I asked a bunch of questions of the Road Runners media people to make sure there was no quid pro quo or hidden catch, I checked with our editor. He said to take the tent. So I did.

What I hadn’t realized was that also came with a separate bib pickup process. The good news: No line to get my bib! The bad news: They didn’t have the large and XL women’s shirts in the Blue Room yet, so I had to wait about half an hour before I could get my shirt. I spent that time in the New Balance shop you have to walk through to get to the rest of the expo. Once I’d gotten my shirt, and gone back through the NB section to pick up some marathon gear, it was on to the rest of the expo!

The special photo area was fun, and this was a sizable expo, on par with the other large expos I’ve been to — Broad Street and Boston — in terms of vendors. But the NYRR Running Lab also was set up with course strategy sessions, giant maps and even video of the course, broken up into chunks and running on a loop on monitors that were placed at those spots on another giant map.

I skipped the lab at first to find my name on the big wall of names, and to find the Oofos booth over there to pick up special NYC edition Oofos slides. I was supposed to pick up a pair for another Subber who had deferred until next year for injury, but they were out of her size in both the slides and the thongs. Rats!

I also stopped at the wall opposite the name wall, where they had sticky notes so you could put your future running wish on the wall. I had to think about this for a while. A BQ was my first thought, but that wasn’t my wish for this race (immediate future) and really is more shorthand for me becoming the best runner I can be in the long run (which I think will get me a BQ). But when people read “A BQ” on a marathon expo wall, they would think about something much different than I meant. Frankly, most runners reading that wouldn’t know the subtext of my BQ goal, which is that achieving it means I will have shed the “slowest kid on the team” category and — more importantly — the mental image of myself as a perennial BOTP runner who’s not capable of anything faster.

That’s not a knock on the BOTP at all — I love running with the BOTP. But I also like challenging myself in every other aspect of my life, and this is just another example. I know enough sports science now to understand that my HS performance was less a reflection of my potential as a runner and more a reflection of not doing a lot of things I could have done to be a better runner. I want to see where doing those things takes me, and a BQ is a big enough goal that I don’t risk falling short of my potential by setting too low a goal.

After a few minutes, I settled on what I thought was both more accurate long term and a better reflection of what I want out of running if you don’t have that massive explanation that goes along with it: “Many, many years of running still to come!” As somebody who quit HS track because of injuries, that carries just as much resonance as my BQ goal, and needs far less explanation.

Back at the Running Lab, it was time for another course strategy session, and it was somewhere around now that Twin Mom joined me. I’d also made plans to meet up with Big Dog, but his flight wasn’t due in for a couple of hours.

One of the great things about the expos for the bigger NYRR events is that they run course strategy sessions every hour, so it’s easy to catch a couple. The basics are the same, but especially when they mix up the coaches, there can be small variations that are quite useful. This time we had Roberto and Steve, and Roberto talked about fueling by time instead of distance, since over the course of a marathon, a lot of people slow down. That’s actually how I fuel once I reached a point earlier this year where my race pace for distances where I fuel got below 15:00, throwing off my fueling every two miles strategy for fueling every 30-40 minutes. Twin Mom had never thought of it like that before, though, and after the session, I explained how I use my watch lap button to track fuel time, not miles.

We also looked at the video loops, and I finally got a feel for how we would come off the Queensboro for the race compared to how you come off on the pedestrian path.

After the strategy session, we wandered around and checked out all the booths, including the Runner’s World one where you could get a magazine cover mockup with your photo. The other tempting booths were the ones for other races, and we both ended up taking information on the Dublin Marathon. The runDisney booth was mobbed, and I didn’t stop — #Dopey2023 will probably be the only time I’m willing to spend what a Disney race costs, and I didn’t want to be tempted.

After Twin Mom headed out, I went to grab food. Lesson learned: Once you exit the expo to the area with the food court and Starbucks, you have to go all the way back through the expo. They won’t let you in the exit, and they won’t let you skip the bib check area. You also have to go through security again. Next time, I’m getting coffee first and bringing my own food.

The Running Lab was mid-session and crowded when I got back, so I parked myself on the floor and hoped everybody would clear out after the session and I could grab a chair at a table until Big Dog showed up. (I could.) He made it about eight minutes before the next session was set to start.

We ended up with a session on recovery tips by the HSS folks instead of a course strategy session, which we both pretty much ignored unless we heard something interesting. A lot of it was not new. Again, I was feeling like I’d prepared well as I listened to them talk.

Big Dog had just done his first marathon at Chicago, and I was amazed he was tackling NYC so soon after. He’d had some problems in Chicago with his feet and hips, and he was shooting for a faster pace this time because he thought he’d resolved those. His goal pace was about 30 seconds slower than mine, even though the last race we both raced together was the NYC Half, where he would have beaten me even if I wasn’t in Corral L(ost). Still, I felt good about my goal pace based on my training.

I finally headed out and headed home — time to make sure I had everything ready for the first of the crazy weekend days.

Weekend kick-off

For time reasons, I ended up not doing my shakeout run Friday morning. Then I was about to pay for my bagel at the cafe next to the train station and realized my MetroCard and credit card were in the pocket of my other pair of jeans. Thankfully, the cafe cook let me leave my backpack (heavy with seltzer bottles) there and I ran home to get the cards to make it back before the train arrived. I made it with four minutes to spare, and ended up with a somewhat unorthodox shakeout run. My legs had felt good, though, and I had enough time to stretch before I hopped the train.

When I got to Penn Station, I had time to kill until my mom’s train came in. Also yarn and podcasts. I started with a latte and oatmeal at Pret, then headed to the Amtrak waiting room. I stopped by the NJ Transit waiting room to use the restroom, but they had a new, giant yellow sign warning that the waiting room was for ticketed passengers only. My NJT tickets are for Hoboken, not Penn Station, so I used the bathroom and headed on to Amtrak.

I’ve waited for my mom there before, but they were insisting on checking tickets that morning and told me I couldn’t wait for my mom’s train there. So I asked where I could wait. “7th and 32nd,” she said. Which is the NJT waiting room. I told her that was only for NJT customers, and she told me that’s where I had to wait if I wanted to sit.

So I sat on the floor up against a support pole outside the Amtrak waiting room. After a while, an Amtrak police officer came over and asked if I was OK. She told me I couldn’t sit there. So I asked if I could sit in the waiting room. Nope. I asked where I could sit. She told me to go over to NJ Transit. I said that was only for NJ Transit customers. “Oh, but they never check,” she said.

At this point, I was pretty cranky. I get that I didn’t have ticket, although you’d think that there would be some sort of option if you’re waiting for a family member to arrive. But to insist that your waiting area is only for ticketed passengers, and then tell me to go wait in a different railroad’s waiting area for ticketed passengers, seemed pretty hypocritical.

The officer told me to move over next to the trash can where I would be out of the way if I insisted on sitting on the floor.

After about 15 minutes, I was fed up enough to head over to the ticket counters and find out where I could complain. Mom’s train was due in soon, but there was definitely time to find a manager or get an email where I could complain. In customer service, they tried to hand me a piece of paper with a phone number to call. I took it, but asked for an email, because I wanted to put it in writing. After I asked for that again, the woman said she’d go get her manager.

He was actually helpful. I pointed out that I wasn’t arguing so much with the policy for their waiting room. With the number of homeless people who try and sleep in Penn Station, I understand their logic. But I objected to the “Our rules are sacrosanct. Go break somebody else’s rules. They won’t mind,” approach. That’s when he told me I shouldn’t have been told that and he was very sorry. I said I also didn’t want to go to the NJT area because I can’t see the Amtrak boards there, plus my mom was going to look for me in the Amtrak section. He asked when my mom’s train was getting in, and once he found out it was only another 15 minutes, he escorted me to the waiting area and told the woman guarding the entrance to let me sit there. “Oh, of course.”

As it turned out, her train was late and I was there for about 30 minutes, but at least now I had a chair.

When the train finally pulled in, I went to where we’d planned to meet. When she finally showed up, I missed her at first because she was coming from the wrong direction.

Turns out when she got off the train, she’d come up from the platform in the NJ Transit section of the station. Because how else could this story end?

Tour Guide

Mom loaded up her MetroCard with a 7-day pass, and some cash for the PATH, and we headed out to Brooklyn. After scouting the cheer stop, we ate a Turkish restaurant in the area that was excellent (and inexpensive!), then headed to Atlantic Terminal to grab a Q up to 57th and 7th, just as she and the cheer squad would do on Sunday once the last of us passed the Brooklyn spot.

We got up to the park as people were lining up for the opening ceremonies. I’d meant to get tickets that morning and forgotten (that would have eliminated the waiting room fuss), so we ended up standing for a while. They finally let non-ticketed people up into the stands, and we managed to get seats in the second row. Big Dog and Mrs. Brooklyn Runner were marching in the opening ceremonies for the U.S., along with another Subber for the Dominican Republic, and I was hoping to see them.

The opening ceremonies took longer than I’d thought based on the schedule of events, but man, were they fun. It was very much like the parade of nations at the Olympics, but often with countries that don’t field an Olympic team. Some were just marching, while others (Brazil) got very into it. When the U.S. delegation finally came through, I saw Big Dog and Mrs. Brooklyn Runner at the back and started yelling their names. She finally heard me and all three of us were going nuts cheering and waving.

As the fireworks started going off, we headed out to catch a train back to Jersey, this time walking down the course toward Columbus Circle. Mom told me she’d had a lot of fun, and I was relieved. Cheering for my high school indoor track meets is one thing — they were pretty crazy (four schools, boys and girls teams, two simultaneous dual meets, one field house/track), but coming to New York when you don’t really know the city to cheer for a marathon that’s a whole different level of crazy? I was just hoping she wasn’t going to end the weekend regretting the trip.   

The long ceremonies meant we got stuck in the “not many trains” part of my commuter rail line’s schedule, so it was almost 9 p.m. before we got back to my place and could unpack and repack everything for Saturday, which would start early.

Dash to the Finish Line (and the city)

Saturday morning went without a hitch on the transit end of things, and we met our Airbnb host right on schedule to drop off everything by my small backpack, which was loaded up with seltzer and carb-heavy snacks, and the cheer squad sign. It was raining a little, but settled down to a mist by the time we got up to the park. The air was warmer than I’d expected and humid, and I could only hope that this rain was clearing the moisture out before the marathon the next day.

We made it to the park before the hand cyclists (all two of them) finished, and then got to watch the USATF 5K championships for the men and woman. Emily Sisson was running solo to take the women’s race, but the men’s lead pack of three was so close that even as close as we were to the finish line, I didn’t know who won until later in the day.

Then the Dash to the Finish Line started and we were watching for Subbers. Mr. Brooklyn Runner was the first one we saw, but he was in his own level of misery and didn’t see us. InknBurn Queen had finished her shakeout run and met up with us, so the three of us were cheering together. We missed the two Subbers I didn’t know by sight all that well, but it’s pretty much impossible to miss #TeamSizzle, especially when all three of them are running together, so we got to see them.

After the race, Mom and I met up with Team Sizzle to pick up the black flag, then they headed to the expo and we decided to have brunch at Tavern on the Green since we were right there. Not cheap, but again, I’m glad we did it. Great atmosphere and delicious food.

Then it was off to the RunCenter. While author Alex Hutchinson and Emma Coburn talking about the limits of human performance, I foam rolled my legs and stretched out my hamstrings, then showed my mom some stretches since hers were tight. I also told her about the running/sports psychology book idea that’s been simmering in my brain since I realized nobody had written it yet. She and Coach B are the only ones I’d talked to about it, and both had some good feedback on it. One of the threads in the human performance discussion fed into the research I need to do, so I’m hoping there’s a video or audio recording somewhere.

Next up was the reason we were at the RunCenter: A discussion about the new “30 for 30” podcast episode “Six Who Sat,” about the women who protested the AAU at the start of the 1972 NYC Marathon. Among the panelists were Nina Kuscsik, one of the six, and Kathrine Switzer, who was the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon.

I’d heard Switzer before, but hearing her story never gets old. I had looked forward to hearing from Kuscsik, too, but it was clear that she doesn’t do as much public speaking, and is less comfortable with it. She didn’t have too much to say.

After, you could get your picture taken with them and the photo from that day, so I did. Switzer asked me if I was running Sunday, and I told her yes, it was my first marathon. She fist-bumped me, and told me “Good luck!”

Day made.

Pre-race dinner

We had a great Subber dinner at the same place we usually eat the night before the race. Twin Mom, Big Dog, Mr. and Mrs. Brooklyn Runner and their son, InknBurn Queen, Mrs. Editor Runner and a few others were there.

Mom said afterward it was good because now she has faces to put with some names she’s heard a lot. InknBurn Queen and I also had some excellent conversation that fed into my pre-race planning. And then it was off to the Airbnb to formally check in and get everything ready for Sunday.

Next up: Part 2 — Pre-race planning