Marathon Recap Article 4 – Mile Zero to Twenty One (the Easy Part)

This article is the fourth of six detailing my personal experiences from Week One of Training to finishing the 26.2 miles of the 2013 ING NYC Marathon. For the previous posting, please click here

Staten Island (i.e. The Verrazano)
The first two miles of the race were probably my favorite. Everyone is fresh and pumped up, the views of Manhattan from the top of the bridge are mind blowing, and NYPD helicopters set the pace. For me it was my first taste of what it’s like to be surrounded by thousands of runners all with the same goal and who have all overcome significant challenges just to get to Staten Island. It’s really easy to go too hard here and my fastest mile did end up being the one coming down the other side of the bridge, but I settled down stepping into Brooklyn and got into a pretty good rhythm as I turned onto Fourth Ave.

You spend more time in Brooklyn than any other borough and while it lacks the shear masses of people cheering in Manhattan, the streets are much tighter and less organized, providing plenty of excitement to feed off. There is also a great band playing on just about every corner down Fourth Ave and my one complaint is not getting to enjoy them for more than a block or two a piece. I heard everything from ACDC to Sublime to Marching Bands and Gospel. It was awesome. For me Miles 2-8 flew by and the icing on the cake was seeing my wife and friends waiting for me as I turned left onto Lafayette Ave in the Clinton Hill neighborhood. You’d be surprised how much you look forward to visiting your friends and family along the route. It helps to break up the race into smaller pieces and especially in the latter miles, gives you something to push towards when you start wearing down.

The next 5 miles through Williamsburg into Greenpoint were more of the same with crowds on top of you, great little unique neighborhoods, and rocking music. It was also cool to go from one cultural feel to another from Hipster to Hispanic to Hassidic…with all of the people and scenery, the race was never boring. Kind of like sitting outside at a coffee shop on a crowded street, except you’re not sitting but running for four plus hours.

During this stretch you also got a feel for the pure magnitude of people running with you. One of my few complaints about the organization of the ING NYC Marathon was spacing. Spreading 50,304 runners over only four waves often left things cramped on some of the smaller streets, especially through the water/Gatorade sections…conversely, at some point I imagine adding extra waves could dilute the energy of the race and I definitely wouldn’t want to further limit the number of people because this event is something that every avid running needs to experience sometime in their career. Plus I’m pretty proud to have been a part of what is currently the largest marathon in history!

Queens and The Queensboro Bridge
The end of Brooklyn comes out of nowhere. There is a sharp left hand turn onto McGuinness Blvd and dead ahead lies the Pulaski Bridge connecting the Greenpoint neighborhood to Long Island City in Queens. This is just about the halfway point of the race and where you start to a lot of walkers. I personally saw the open row of Porta Potties to my left and figured this would be my last chance for a number one in Brooklyn until the Nets get lucky and figure out how to win.

Coming down the other side of the bridge, Queens is definitely a different feel than Brooklyn. The race is much more open through here and the neighborhoods are replaced by more of an industrial suburb setting. With only two miles before the first entrance into Manhattan, my memories of Queens aren’t as poignant but what sticks in my mind is keying in on the iconic Citigroup Building all the way down 44th Dr, then turning the corner to see the entrance to the epic Queensboro Bridge.
This is where the things get real. Also known as the 59th Street Bridge, I’m pretty sure Simon and Garfunkel were not running a marathon when they wrote “Feelin’ Groovy”. The span of the bridge makes up all of Mile 15 of the race and it is a very gradual incline where all of a sudden the sound of cheering is replaced by thousands of feet hitting pavement and runners sucking wind. I was fairly prepared for hills from running in Weehawken and in the Park and I also tend to get impatient hill running so I was moving pretty quickly, slaloming the other runners up and over the peak…in the meantime I managed to get a couple quick views southbound from above the East River. Although it’s almost as awesome a vantage point as the Verrazano, after 14.5 miles of running, you start to get a little more focused on the path ahead than on sightseeing.

The First Tour of Manhattan
At the bottom of the Queensboro, there is a quick 270 degree turn onto 1stAvenue and then you’re heading north in the granddaddy of all boroughs, Manhattan. This is often billed as one of the most amazing experiences of the NYC Marathon and it did not disappoint. Looking down 1st Ave, I counted seven open lanes (including the empty parking spots on the left and the bus lane on the right) guarded on both sides with loud, cheering spectators packed three deep on the sidewalks. You can literally see for miles and it takes on the feeling of a great valley guiding runners north. The wall of sound is a stark contrast from the peaceful footbeats over the bridge. This is another once in a lifetime running experience and it provides a lot of adrenaline for the beginning of the final ten miles.

For me another pick up was the thought of seeing my wife and friends again waiting for me at 96th St. Again, it was helpful to break the race up into more digestible portions and I was counting down blocks from 60th St on. About the time I got a few high fives and hugs from my personal cheerleaders, I started to feel the weight of the distance beginning to tire me out. This was Mile 18 and for most, it’s where you approach your longest training run and where the crowds thin out leading up to the Willis Avenue Bridge and the Bronx. Regardless, I found that crowds are only helpful to a point; the rest is up to the runner.

The Bronx
It really isn’t fair to what I imagine to be a fine borough on most days (except for the fact that it’s home to the Yankees) that the Marathon enters the Bronx at Mile 20. Especially after a deceiving double hilled bridge that really zaps the extra energy from a runner. The grand Bronx tour is only about a mile long and punctuated by many runners hitting “the wall” for the first time. I don’t really know if I experienced this wall, but I definitely felt my pretty consistent nine minute pace starting to slip through this section. It’s much quieter (though the few fans do give it their all) and the scenery is fairly depressed. In lieu of the lack of crowds and in an effort to provide a pick-me-up to tired competitors, NYRR has a giant live video feed set up for runners to try and pump themselves up and also hands out bananas which I did not take having just ingested my fourth Gu gel. In hindsight this was an error on my part because a little potassium goes a long way. Runners leave the Bronx over the Harlem River by way of the Madison Avenue Bridge. If anything this final borough connector is a huge mental victory, being the start of Mile 21, the return to Manhattan, and the gateway to the last five miles of the Marathon. The hardest five miles I have ever traversed.
Next Article: End Game
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