We set the buzzer for 3:30am but we had no problems waking up earlier! Our bags and race paraphernalia were already laid out the evening before, so we geared up quite quickly. As a form of courtesy, I’d informed our Dutch roomies a day before to expect some noise from the 3 of us on Sunday morning. We’d set our watches backwards by an hour due to daylight savings, and thus we had a extra hour of buffer. I made sure my feet was doubly protected from blistering by applying Bodyglide on top of shaking anti-chafing powder into my socks.
- Heady mix of excitement and grogginess!
Since we were on time and only meeting Mohan and Hazel at the South Ferry Terminal at 7am, we could still relax in the comfort of the hostel lounge. While munching on an unconsumed cereal bar provided by the airline, I updated my Facebook status and checked some emails on SP’s notebook while the 2 ladies went out to get coffee. It wasn’t from the corner Starbucks since they “only” open at 5am, but diluted black coffee would have to do. Other than the three of us, there were several other marathoners who also stayed at the hostel, among them a wheelchair participant and 3 very fast runners (we identified them from their low bib numbers). They were catching the earlier bus ride to Fort Wadsworth, and so had to leave earlier. Given the 4 celcius biting temperature on race morning, plus the longer waiting period, that couldn’t have been good!
The roads were still wet from the earlier showers when we left the hostel and it was still dark. As we stayed very close to the 103rd St station, we could still find seats on the train. A few more stops down the line and the whole train was filled. 90% of the riders in our car were runners and it was an exciting experience. It felt like we were going into battle together and the smell of excitement permeated through the air as conversations centered around the race. I got round to chatting with a sweet woman next to me who was going to run her 3rd NYCM. 30 minutes later, the train reached its destination (the South Ferry terminal was the end of the line). 4 escalators moved us to the Level 1 waiting lounge where a line had already formed leading to the only coffee and sandwich stall. I sat on the floor as with many others while munching on a Powerbar and sipping Gatorade, to wait for the arrival of Mohan and Hazel. I tried to catch some shut eye but failed miserably.
I had to get in more food as the race would not be starting for another 2.5 hours. I remembered hitting the wall prematurely at the 27K mark of the 2007 Penang Marathon due to poor eating. Just as I took the last bite of the bar, Mohan and Hazel arrived, and there were more photo ops. I discovered to my annoyance then that the Olympus had ran out of juice suddenly without warning. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise so that I could concentrate on the race. The volunteers informed us that we didn’t have to wait for our scheduled ferry timing, and so we joined the hordes of runners to board the vessel.
The ferry ride was pleasant and we got reasonably near to Liberty Island to get some shots of Lady Liberty – we were afterall tourists! Other runners were contented to sit quietly keeping to themselves or chatting quietly. We reached Staten Island’s St. George Ferry Terminal in 30 minutes and the experienced ones among us – namely Mohan and Hazel – adviced that we needn’t hurry to the shuttle buses and should stay in the comfort of the terminal.
Sagely advice. The place resembled a refugee camp as nearly every square foot was occupied by runners. Some slept or pretended to while most just sat there reading or listening to their iPods. Others, like me, stretched. I had enough time to empty my bladder before we left the shelter of the terminal close to 8am. It was very cold out and I pulled the wool hat down to cover my ears which was an exercise in futility. The thin running gloves offered no more protection than the hat. Luckily there was no waiting for the buses and we were whisked away very quickly. The ride to Fort Wadsworth took about 20 minutes and when we disembarked and walked to the Village security checkpoint, the wind was blowing even harder. It was miserable and took away quite a bit of my excitement. Perhaps the senses had been numbed by the cold. Security checks were strict. I had to dump my non-transparent bag at the checkpoint and retained only the official clear UPS bag.
There were already many runners in the Village and directional signboards to the various areas were plentiful. I mentally noted the directions to the 3 starts (Orange, Green and Blue) and decided to deposit my bag with the UPS truck before the crowd got bigger. It took me less than 3 minutes to accomplish that. Of course with my ACG jacket off, it became much colder for me.
On my body were already 4 layers of clothing, arm warmers, woollen hat, 2 garbage bags on top of my disposable light jacket. And it was still cold! Any more layers and I’d be looking like the Michelin Man. I saw people hiding in between trucks to keep out of the wind and leaning on the hoods of vehicles to stay warm. I even contemplated standing behind a tree but realized how ridiculous that idea was. Where possible we turned our backs to the sun in a vain attempt to get some warmth. Desperately needing some comfort, we got into the line for Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. I also topped up my bottle with Gatorade, which the volunteer gladly and politely did for me. Then I picked up a plain bagel and dipped it into the coffee to make it easier to eat – otherwise the bun was a little hard and dry. That done, the 5 of us had a group huddle for good luck before splitting up into the various start locations. Seow Ping and I were in the Blue Start but hers was the 2nd Wave. Mine was Wave 3 and so had to wait just a little longer.
The PA announcements in English, Spanish and Japanese were very regular and clear as there were many speakers positioned in the Village. The announcer repeated that the baggage check for a certain start was closing and called for the runners in certain waves to start making their way to the holding area. I tried to stay calm and warm (failed miserably is this area) by laying down on the grass and totally covered myself up like a human cocoon in a garbage bag. And munched on another Powerbar Triple Threat.
Not long after, my wave was called. I slowly drained my drink, headed to the porta-potties for the last time before taking my time to shed my cotton track pants. I kept my tops on until the holding area. My corral was the first one, so I had a distance to walk. Once Wave 2 cleared the holding area, we were allowed in. Our bibs were checked as we entered to ensure we were in the correct corral. There weren’t many runners in my corral and each corral was separated by volunteers holding a line of rope. My head was aching either from the cold or lack of sleep and strangely felt a little woozy but I tried to stay as calm as I could. I didn’t have any race expectations, other than to enjoy the occassion. But at that time I was finding it hard to even enjoy it. I took in deeper breaths to get oxygen into my lungs and brain and was glad to spot a diversion in a guy dressed up like Superman but instead of the “S” on his chest, it was “Marathon Man”. I thought I saw a group of English women in bras featuring the Union Jack, flowers and other adornments. They were apparently there to spread awareness on breast cancer. At the head of my corral, a volunteer held up a round sign which showed “Stop”. it reminded me of the sign flashed to the F1 driver in the pitstop. A boom sounded in the distant to indicate the start of Wave 2 and some runners clapped and cheered.
Our turn would come next as we then followed the volunteer (he flipped sign over to show “Walk”) on a short walk to the base of the bridge. Everything was planned so smoothly. Volunteers even told us to watch out for tree roots as we walked out. We were getting more and more excited and some let out shouts and hoots. The walk was surreal to me and I was perhaps beyond excitement. No words could describe it – I was walking to the same starting point that Paula Radcliffe, a world record holder and other champions had stood earlier, and was about to run the very marathon that I’d read, researched and dreamt about doing since the early ’90s. I was minutes away from running my 10th in perhaps the greatest marathon in the world that a Joe Ordinary could possibly run in. Unbelievable. The veil of discomfort lifted momentarily when the public services personnel (NYPD, DOT, and other workers and volunteers) applauded and wished us good luck as we neared the start. We were made to feel really good. If there was ever to be another NYCM for me, it’s to experience this level of support again. It’s really about the people making the event fantastic.
A short speech was given and a dedication was held to Victor J. Navarra, the retired NYFD lieutenant who served as the start coordinator for the marathon for 25 years. Navarra died last December at the age of 55, having suffered for more than two years with sinus cancer said to be brought about by his work at Ground Zero during 9/11. I found myself in the 6th row from the start and with the open road ahead, felt immediately like an elite. The wave start concept seemed to be working in easing congestion so far. Hazel however, reported that there were some confusion and congestion in the corrals further behind. Finally the song America was sung by someone and with the media helicopters whirring above, the cannon was fired. Almost immediately Sinatra sang “New York, New York” and we cheered as we raced off! Gosh, I have goose pimple just thinking back to that moment.
The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (VNB) is 1 mile up and 1 mile down but with the training that I’ve put in, it wasn’t a problem. The REAL problem was the headwind and crosswind bringing down the temperature even lower. Don’t take my word for it – check this report out too. If an Englishman complained about the cold, what more an Asian who trains in 32C?! I found that I had to breathe harder and I was pumping my arms more in an automatic response to generate more heat. The woollen hat was no help as it had little thermal properties. My nose was just a little snotty, which was a relief. In fact save for this little discharge, my breathing and nose irritability that periodically bothered me (blockage and sinus) had been non-events ever since leaving KL. I ran a distance with a girl with a sign “I’m running the marathon on my birthday” sign pinned on her back – she received plenty of wishes from fellow runners. I also spotted a bib which said “I’m proposing to my fiance after this race”. I passed a few participants with disabilities from the Archilles Track Club in their trademark top, and there was a particular one who stood out – he was tackling the course backwards! I also spotted a blind runner tethered to a buddy running at a brisk pace.
The issue with the wind went away as soon as I got off the bridge and into Brooklyn. The runners on the upper deck veered to the right into Brooklyn, while the those on the lower deck veered left. I don’t remember much of the route specifics except that this borough was probably, the best in terms of crowd support. Some stretches bordered on maniacal – in a good way! Everyone seemed to have come out to cheer us. Not a mystery then that the NYCM is the largest marathon in the world (since 2003). By the 5th K I observed that I’d been hitting steady splits and running comfortably, so I ditched monitoring my splits on my watch so frequently and went with effort-based approach. Other than the headache, I was really running well. The flats of the early miles allowed runners to settle into a consistent pacing. While the fans were doing their best in cheering for us, I tried to limit my interaction with them to periodic waves so that I could focus on my running. Not only did they lend their voices to move us, but ordinary Brooklyn folks came out in force to provide us with anything they can think of – be that orange slices, bananas or tissue paper to wipe our sweaty faces! We were being pampered! There were bands every half a mile and from what I read, there were about 100 of them out there on race day. Support for the Italian and Mexican runners were plentiful and vociferous. Larry the Lighthouse got his fair share of cheers too. The world’s only running lighthouse were there for Camp Sunshine, a retreat for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families. I stayed in the middle of the road for the most part as I skipped the first 3 stops and relied on my own Gatorade supply. I knew of the false sense of being hydrated when running in cool weather so I ensured that I drink regularly, even if in hindsight, it wasn’t enough. I didn’t want to be waylaid by a loo stop.
Congestion was at an acceptable level at the drink stations and tables were available on both sides of the road. The first stations were always the plain water (water temperature was always naturally chilled!) followed by Gatorade. The last table was marked with a balloon. At each table, paper cups were stacked 3 high and runners were kept away from them (there were security) to prevent the cups from being knocked over.
You can imagine the efficiency of the volunteers in managing the incoming runners, which was constant. Besides handing out the drinks, they cheered and nearly always put in a good word of encouragement for us.
The next bridge we had to pass was the Pulaski Bridge at about the halfway mark in the Polish part of Brooklyn. This bridge offered a fantastic view of Manhattan to the left, with the Empire State Building clearly visible. But there was still some distance to go before we would reach the island. Pulaski was a short bridge with medium steepness but there wasn’t any problems on this one too, and my timing at the halfway point was 1:58. I remained spot on for a 4-hour finish. The temperature rose to a level where I could throw away the woollen hat but I kept the gloves on as it was still chilly. Cheering was consistent throughout Brooklyn and only subsided just a little when we passed the Jewish section. I enjoyed the short but fun section of the fans who sang “Y-M-C-A”! Almost instantly we runners raised our arms to mimic the lyrics. There were several climbs that I passed that needed more focus and I switched my target to getting to the Queensboro Bridge (QB) at the 25K mark. Before that, I had to ask for Tylenol at one of the aid stations before the QB to relieve the headache. The woozy feeling had gone away but the pounding in the head was made worse by the many rock bands along the way.
The QB was where many runners struggled. Some complained loudly, some walked. Once again all the running on the Solaris route allowed me to stay on pace. I gained confidence passing the runners, while looking forward to the notoriously loud 5-deep spectators of First Avenue after exiting the bridge. The atmosphere was exactly like that up the crowded road. I remembered wondering how I could possibly navigate past the thousands of runners who were in front. The First Avenue stretch is no less than 6K in length and it took a bit out of me with the long gradual climb (see photo). The roads were wet from all the spillages of fluids from the runners in front of me and it was sticky as a result of the sugary mix. Volunteers were raking the excess crushed cups from the street so that we have an easier passage.
My condition at this stage was still reasonably comfortable. I was breathing normally – no huffing or puffing. I’d been taking gels consistently – 12K, 22K, and at 30K when Powerbar handed me a pack. I’d not yet hit the wall and save for some twitching on the quads, all systems were good. In terms of timing, I’d slipped by 4 minutes (I guess I just slowed down bit by bit over the last few miles) but I wasn’t too beat up about that. Things turned a little more difficult when I reached the yellow carpeted over the steel-grated 4th bridge, the Willis Avenue Bridge leading to Da Bronx. It was a little surreal that a group of bagpipers were playing on the opposite side of the bridge as we crossed it.
An enthusiastic DJ welcomed us into their domain. I was too embroiled in my personal battle that I didn’t hear nor see the Bronx’s famed Gospel Choir. Neither did I see the kids from the pediatric ward of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center earlier although I spotted many of their cheer teams along the way. Sighting the kids would’ve been ultra inspiring. I picked up pace a bit and fought back to reclaim 2 minutes off my deficit and held on to that until just before entering Central Park on the Upper East Side next to the Guggenheim Museum (which wasn’t that large as compared to the photos I’ve seen). I’d thankfully passed the now-famous Borat guy (to see how he looked like, read Marci’s report) who were being butt slapped by cheeky runners. A participant in the RW forums reported that when asked how he was doing, “Borat” replied that he was chafing (duh!) and at that point of being asked, he still had 10 miles to go!
Having run up the never-ending Harlem to Fifth Avenue stretch to find that we still needed to negotiate the winding and undulating Central Park was a bit demoralizing. There were signs that a nasty cramp was imminent on the quads. I knew hiting 4-hours would be near impossible since I needed to cover the last 2K in 10 minutes flat. However I wanted to give the race and clock a good fight and steeled myself not to walk which would otherwise had marked the end of my race. I even thought if I landed myself in the hospital with my effort, so be it. I’d simply come too far to end this race like a wimp. In fact I picked up pace whenever the cramping receded momentarily a few times. The cramps were like toying with me. The fans were getting thick here and they could easily have reached out and touched me – I had images of Lance Armstrong climbing up the Alps. Yeah, like real! Where I blocked them out earlier, I was finally embracing their cheers. Next to Brooklyn, this section had to be the next best. They never let up and thoughts of both my kids cheering me from home carried me to mile 25 and into the short Central Park South stretch and then round Columbus Circle. A little bit up was the beautiful “26 mile” sign and all the crowd support got me a bit emotional as I pushed the final climb toward the finish gantry. I lifted my Oakleys to my forehead and savored crossing the finish line. I thought to myself, “I’d done it, I’d done it!”. A check on the watch showed 4:03.49 which meant this was my 2nd PR (an improvement of 13 minutes or so) in the marathon this year and my 6th PR this year for distances from 10K, 15K, 21K, 30K and the marathon. If I take my 30K timing from the marathon into consideration, I’d broken my 30K PR by 6 minutes, for a 7th PR. Given my other aspects of life which take away much of my running, I couldn’t have asked for more. And I believe I can go faster as I age. This 4:03 somehow felt like a barrier had been broken. I’d previously thought that it’s very very difficult to dip below 4:10 but with this, a sub-4 race is certainly in the near future. And other than the quads and headache, I felt really good!
In the heat of the battle, I’d totally pushed aside my headache but now it returned with a vengeance. And nausea was beginning to hit home. We weren’t allowed to stop, but I was like the leaning tower tilted to the right. The first group of volunteers greeted us with congratulatory words – “You guys were awesome!”, “Fantastic jobs everyone!”, “You’re all heroes”. Let me tell you that after running 26.2 miles, those were nicest things you could possibly hear. We all needed affirmation for our effort, and justification that what we did was something to be proud of. Next was the Grete Waitz medal and an opportunity to be photographed on the event board. We were moved along and the photographers worked really fast in snapping runners – everything seemed like a conveyor belt.
Then I was handed my HeatSheet, the volunteer said, “Hope to see you again next year”. Then another taped my sheet together so I needn’t bother to hold it. It was details like these that runners felt appreciated. But I was still nauseous and burdened with a throbbing head, so I stopped a medic captain to report my state. After a few probing questions, he asked that I wet the back of my hand so that he could empty a salt packet. He said, “Like when drinking tequila except that you need to get that tequila much later”. I licked the salt off and drank from the Gatorade bottle provided in the food bag given out, thanked him and went my way. The symptoms didn’t go away but I needed firstly to get my bag from the UPS truck. I guessed I must’ve walked about 400m to reach my truck after which I quickly changed out of my wet top, put on my thicker jacket and made my way back to the medical area I spotted. I was again asked some questions about my condition and was given 2 more salt packs and 2 Tylenols.
The second administration of the painkillers did its job and the headache subsided and the salt steadied the nerves as I looked for the exit from the Central Park. I stopped by to have my timing chip cut – yes we needn’t bend down. Just rest your shoe on a bench and a volunteer will snip it off. I made sure I thanked the cherubic lady enough and she was very happy to be appreciated. Outside the park were signages of bib ranges where family members can wait for the runners. A long stretch of Central Park West was blocked off for this Reunion Area and the atmosphere there was quite amazing as runners met up with their family and friends after their accomplishments. I walked a few streets westward to the 79th St station to catch the subway back to the hostel. My legs felt quite alright and the quads had pretty much eased up. I liked the fact that I finished the race in gear that were just moist and not soaked and dripping sweat. I reckoned it was due to dehydration that led to the cramps and nausea – a lesson learned. The next time I run in cold weather, I’d be sure to drink more and carry salt. The folks in the subway looked at my HeatSheet and medal which I wore proudly. I found it hard to believe that the marathon was over – it felt too short. The crowd made the journey that much quicker and I went through the miles not realizing how far I’d covered. Unlike the sparse and unforgiving local marathons in Malaysia where no one cheered the runner on in the late miles making proceedings tough and seemed much longer. Good for building mental toughness but culture shock for those accustomed to well supported events.
When I reached the dorm, SP was already there, showered! I quickly did likewise and appreciated the warm shower – even though cold water would’ve been better to minimise soreness. Changed into fresh clothes and while sipping on a large bottle of Powerbar Recovery and munching on yet another Triple Threat bar, I was wondering where G was when she walked right in. We would be meeting with my friend Mitch for dinner at Tony’s at 8pm, but there was plenty of time. In fact we chose to get off the subway at Columbus Circle and walked to down to the Hudson, Mohan’s hotel and then down to Times Square. My legs were surprisingly fine probably because I’d refuelled with 2 bars and 2 recovery drinks. It was very nice to have finally met Mitch after staying in touch over emails the past 2 years, or more. Mitch played the perfect host and food was great. The dinner came to a close 2 hours later and we said our goodbyes. Everyone had a great time and many new friendships were established.
In fact so many marathoners wore their medals out that evening and the next day.
Congratulations to all of the finishers of the ING New York City Marathon. And thank you from the bottom of my heart, to all the race organizers, the NYRR, volunteers who welcomed and treated me like a hero from first interaction to post-race. To New Yorkers who came out in droves to support all of us – you have every reason to feel proud of your city and the marathon. The NYRR blog mentioned that the runners inspire them to improve upon the event every year. In actual fact it’s the club, its causes and volunteers that inspire us runners. And so we need each other!
- Unbelievable fans, volunteers and organizers
- Wave starts
- Plenty of porta-potties, food at the start, and drinks all the way
- Best way to see NYC in half a day, or lesser
- Energetic just like the city
- Nice sized expo – not too mega, not too small
- Technically first class, attention to details
- The weekend when the entire city came together
- It’s THE marathon to experience
- Point to point course meant long commute to the start and long wait time for the wave starts (a necessary evil).
- Weather (tough on those from the tropics)
- Expensive entry
- Difficult lottery system (though a necessity, given the popularity of the race)
- NYC is located on the other side of the world, which meant a killer flight time for those from Asia
More race reports to check out!