Once off the checkpoints we had to pass another gruff Asian-looking officer who growled “Go” after giving us a once over. Like Erik nearly every officer there carried a sidearm. The arrival area was spartan, with only a Subway stand. We didn’t hang around and promptly got into line for a mad cab ride to the hostel. Ride cost $55 including tips, expensive if converted to Ringgit but I’ve since ditched the conversion mindset. If there’s any chance of enjoying the travel experience, you need to do away with the depressing thought of the currency conversion. The cab was equipped with a small LCD TV with a GPS showing our travel route in realtime. We could either pay by credit card or cash.
The air was chilly but not uncomfortably cold. The most obvious feeling was the lower humidity and you instantly feel lighter. 40 minutes later, after a nausea inducing ride we arrived at the hostel in one piece. I paid the elderly Indian or Pakistani driver and got ourselves checked in. Seow Ping was already under the sheets when we entered the dorm and we sorted out our things quickly before calling it a day. Finding myself in an unfamiliar room with unfamiliar sleeping partners (we shared the room with 2 other Dutch men and another guy of unknown origin – a snorer) didn’t help and I tossed and turned the many days I was there. Snorer didn’t stay long, thank goodness and he checked out the very next day. The other 2 Dutch guys were cool dudes, friendly and didn’t mind our early rise and rustling about. They’re the night owls while we’re the early birds.
As it turned out, the Hostelling International (HI) was a neat place to stay (see photos). Residents range from young teens on their school trip to old folks but we only see them in the lobby or outside the building. It wasn’t noisy and our room was just 2 doors from the toilets, bathrooms and water cooler. The place was clean enough even though we found a few of our food packs were chewed through by small mice and there was a dank smell either on the carpet or the room mates’ clothing, but it wasn’t as bad as it sounded. We always left the window slightly ajar to air out the room. Each of us had a locker large enough to stow our bags and we came prepared with padlocks.
The first order of the next day was to head out for breakfast and then to the expo to collect our goodie bags, shop and meet Mohan and Hazel. I had coffee with a toasted cinnamon bagel with cream cheese and committed the mistake of taking photos with the proprietor in them. You see, many New Yorkers don’t like to be photographed. This was only one of two incidences I encountered, but I had my wits about and there were no further problems. I supposed they knew I was a tourist and cut me some slack but I thought they should really chill out.
After buying the $25 7-day unlimited ride Metrocard, we took the A Train from the 103rd St to 34th St Penn Station and took a short walk to the Javits Center (JC). It was quite easy to get around the subway system despite looking quite imposing on the map. All you need to be sure is to orientate yourself correctly once you exit the station to get your bearings right. Manhattan was clearly geared for the marathon. Marathon buntings were everywhere – on the street posts, buildings, buses, even subway cars. Asics, being the main sponsor, were very visible with pictures of Ryan Hall and Deena Kastor. Nike wasn’t to be left out and Paula Radcliffe images were plentiful too and their taglines “Keep Up Or Shut Up” and “Limits Lie” were quite catchy. Everywhere we walked, we came across marathoners. You’ll know they’re runners by the knowing nod you exchange with them. It was like gunslingers exchanging glances before a high noon confrontation minus the animosity and suspicion.
We got to the glass and steel structure of the JC within 20 minutes and the place was already bursting with people. The amount of energy and excitement was palpable. I paused for awhile to take the whole set up in but almost immediately, we were greeted by volunteers who ushered us to our correct lines. “International runners proceed this way” and “This way in” were frequently heard. They were all very polite, warm and I observed, never curt even though I can’t imagine the number of people they had to handle the 3 days of the expo. The flow of the collection were very very structured. International runners will firstly approach the International Friendship Run (IFR) booth (manned by 3 volunteers) to collect the free bibs and goodie bags – time spent 20 seconds. If you didn’t receive the registration card, you can stop by the Service Desk to get a pickup slip – time spent 20 seconds, but if you’ve the card or email printout, you can skip this step. Next would be a short walk to your respective bib range to pick up your Marathon Goodie Bag – 20 seconds (my booth was manned by 2 volunteers). I immediately tried on the long sleeved Asics technical tee for size but found that M was just too large, so I made my way to the Exchange counter (3 volunteers) to swap for an S size – another 20 seconds. They were so fast with the exchange process because there were always people exchanging shirts and they just basically swap the sizes on the spot. I was lucky in that I received an untried shirt. At every touchpoint, we were greeted with smiles and wishes of “Have a great race”. It was apparent that regardless of where they’re stationed, the volunteers take pride in their job.
Next on the agenda was, well, spend some money. Asics being a main sponsor had the largest floor space. The shelves were full of merchandise and most were not available in this part of the world. Asics even had anti-chafing powder which I admit worked quite well for me on race day. Everyone had to pass through the Asics section and pay before getting to the other exhibitors. The major exhibitors were all the major sporting brands and stores covering apparels, shoes, accessories and timepieces (Timex, Garmin, Polar, Suunto). Of course charity organizations and nutrition companies were also there. Gatorade, Powerbar, Gu, Clif, Snickers all provided product sampling from their full product range as well as value buys.
One could’ve easily got carried away, which was what happened to me when I totally lost track of time and missed the Fdipper meeting at the Team Boomer charity booth. Paragon Sports were giving away tokens for free pasta lunch at their outlet. Having picked up some socks and event t-shirts, I hit the Runners World booth to pick up Bart Yasso’s book (Bart, RW’s Chief Running Officer, autographed the following words in my copy: “A marathon is like life – it’s not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters”) and got Peter Reid to sign a postcard for me. Next was the Asics promo booth where I got my photo taken and uploaded to a hosting server. The novelty was that I could have my photo displayed on the giant electronic wallboard at Times Square when I send an SMS to a preset number at a certain time. I also picked up several pace bands at the ING booth but I was disappointed that there wasn’t a 4-hour pace group in my wave. The fastest was the 4:30 group. Besides ING, Nike also gave away customizable velcroed pace bands. Here are some videos of the expo.
The 3 of us finally linked up with Mohan and Hazel when they arrived close to noon but we couldn’t hang out that long as we had to make our way up to Danbury, Connecticut for an evening of Halloween with a friend. The experience made the 1-hour trip worthwhile. It was unfortunate we couldn’t stay longer. A good night’s sleep awaited me and I managed a full 5-hour sleep, which was an improvement over the previous night’s 4. After a hearty breakfast, it was back to Manhattan and just in time too since we caught the IFR runners running down 42nd St. The IFR is a free fun run the day before the race organized so that overseas runners can mingle. The run is also open for Americans but they need to pay. In line with the global theme, the run starts from the UN Building after the presentation of the Abebe Bikila Award to Lornah Kiplagat of the Netherlands (check my previous posting here). There was such an air of festivity when the runners (reportedly numbered 16,000) ran by that all my tiredness from lugging the expo bags was instantly lifted. Runners were from all over the world, many of whom ran in costumes or carried their countries’ flags. Fine weather and mild temperature brought out the crowds and traffic stopped in busy Manhattan (if Manhattan can close its streets and avenues for runners, I don’t see why we can’t close ours) for the runners. There were no impatient honks from the stranded motorists and New Yorkers came out to applaud the runners and they ran by singing songs, waving flags. I soaked it all, in absolute awe and wonderment.
So far NYC has lived up to its billing. It was apparent that Marathon week is when the city unites and puts on the best show for visitors. And being tourists, we were on the receiving end of all these good and positive vibes.