For three years now, I’ve compiled a spectator’s guide to the NYC marathon. Sometimes, I even take my own advice. Here’s a belated race report, of sorts, from someone who did not run – but nonetheless spent the entire day (from a little after 7 in the morning until nearly 7 at night) along, or in proximity to, the course.
I love marathon morning. I love it even more now that the first Sunday in November is also the first day of standard time, which lets me bounce out of bed, linger over my coffee while the sky lightens, and still head out at a ridiculously early hour. By 7 am, I had my running shoes on and was heading down to Fourth Avenue for my traditional run-the-course-backwards jog from Park Slope to Bay Ridge.
I love seeing the volunteers setting up fluid stations and medical tents. I love thanking them properly (as I never manage to do when I’m actually racing). I love waving to the other runners – and the much bigger groups of cyclists – taking advantage of the mostly traffic-free avenue. I love the banks of pristine port-a-johns with their doors zip-tied shut, the bored cops, the race staff with their lanyards and walkie talkies.
I love having half a dozen strangers tell me, “You’re going the wrong way.”
Ever the intrepid researcher, I noted a few omissions and corrections for next year’s guide. Sunset Park’s Cafe Lore – generally shuttered and mysterious looking when I’ve run by on weekend mornings in the past – is in fact open on Marathon Sunday, meaning I really need to stop by to check it out. Up at 86th street, I was surprised to see the cooks at Karam frying up mountains of kibbeh well before 8 am. Turns out their take-out operation gets going bright and early, meaning they are in fact a viable race day option; spectating in Bay Ridge just got a whole lot tastier.
I had intended to stop by Eddie’s Hero Place, if only for coffee and a quick hello, but managed to miss it, so caught up was I in my marathon reveries. At 94th street, the folks at Pasticceria Rocco were already setting out pastries and urns of coffee and hot chocolate. I stopped and looked and snapped a picture, but continued on to the Coop, on the other side of 95th, for my marathon morning guilty pleasure: a pumpkin spice (yes, I know) waffle with whipped cream, and an orange juice fresh from their Zumex machine.
A long wait for the R train had me checking my watch and calculating travel times. I got off at 36th street, as plannned, and picked up an empanada filled with arroz con leche from Inés Bakery for later – but decided against a detour up to Fifth for a cafe bombón from Bakery Lopez (even though I craved one) in order to stop by Reyes Grocery for an eggs toluqueño sandwich (eggs scrambled with chorizo and then topped with avocado, stringy Chihuahua cheese and salsa, on a roll) – and yes, that’s two breakfasts, if you’re counting.
As I waited for my sandwich, I chatted with another woman who was waiting for her own order. Another thing I love about marathon morning: the number of people touched by the event, and the way race day brings out their stories. This woman had run the race for the first time twenty years ago, and was hoping to run it again next year, when she’d be 60. I wished her luck.
Foil-wrapped egg sandwich in a brown paper bag in one hand, pudding-filled empanada in a white bakery bag in the other, I jogged back home, trying to keep my hands and arms relaxed – less in the interest of running form than to avoid squishing the precious contents of my bags.
After a warm shower, a change of clothes, and a few
instructions sweet nothings to Eric, I headed back down to Fourth Avenue, where I ate the better part of my sandwich while waiting for the lead women.
Whoosh – there they were. And whoosh – there they went.
We (Eric had joined me by this point, and I’d also bumped into a PPTC teammate) stuck around to cheer on the stragglers. I’ve long thought that the women in the elite race who aren’t in the lead pack (or the chase pack, if there is one) are the gutsiest competitors of all. They’re world class runners, maybe even age group record holders, far too experienced to harbor any illusions that they’re going to win – but they’ve still chosen to start 30 minutes before the general race in order to give it their all. They’ve done so knowing it means they’re going to run most of the course by themselves, and that the only time they won’t be running by themselves is when the lead men start passing them. But they still do it, because they’re awesome.
So, yeah, I’m going to stick around and cheer them on at Mile 6.
To await the lead men, Eric and I headed for the semi-official PPTC cheer section at 3rd street. After the lead pack flew by, merely fast runners raced past, the density of the field growing by the minute until Fourth Avenue was flooded with runners in shorts and singlets, runners in tights and long sleeves, runners in Dunk’n Donuts caps, runners in Viking horns, runners with pink hair, runners wearing their national flags, runners in solidarity with the 43 students disappeared in Guerrero State, runners advertising charities, bare-chested runners in Aztec headdresses (well, only one of those), and, of course, teammates. We yelled, rang our cowbells, slapped hands and waved the famous PPTC track cat for all comers (only a little louder and more wildly for teammates). Silly as it sounds, I think we all felt a responsibility to represent our club to the world coursing down Fourth Avenue.
After the 3:30 pace team passed by, I jogged back to 9th street – spotting a few more teammates along the way – to catch a crowded G train to Greenpoint. The G covered the distance at a roughly 8:30 minutes/mile pace, such that the first runners I saw when I emerged at Nassau and Manhattan avenues were the last runners I’d seen at Fourth Avenue and 9th Street. I recognized teammates, of course, and the guy in the Aztec headdress, but also a few random runners – a young Colombian guy, an older French woman – who for some reason had stuck in my mind. A few of the speedier runners from Wave 2 were now mixed in with those from Wave 1.
It was afternoon by now, and I had been carrying my empanada de arroz con leche around with me since a little after 9 am. I extricated it from my small running pack, where it was tucked away with my gloves, an unread September issue of the New Yorker, and a dry shirt for later. It was definitely showing signs of wear, but it was – I took a bite – still delicious. With the empanada in one hand and a locally-roasted drip coffee from Upright Coffee in the other, I prepared to leave my Brooklyn comfort zone for the wilds of Manhattan.
That took some doing. The G train I picked up at at Greenpoint Avenue was even more crowded than the earlier G from Park Slope, and the Court Square station in Long Island City was full of family groups carrying hand-made signs (things like “Run, Jeff, Run!!!!” magic-markered in balloony rainbow letters), consulting maps, and disagreeing about which train to take. I didn’t emerge from underground in Queens, but even inside the station, I could hear the clamor of the spectators above. Across the East River, the cavernous Lexington Av/53rd street station was all mayhem and confusion as some riders ran, others speed-walked, and still others stopped suddenly to puzzle out directions from the E to the uptown 6. The first train that arrived (and then pulled away without me on it) was packed as full as any train I’ve ever seen; that includes Quito’s Ecovia, the previous champion.
The next train was blissfully empty in comparison, and after a couple of stops I was even able to sit for the rest of the trip to 103rd street.
By the time I hit First Avenue, it was after 1 pm and it was raining. Shalane Flanagan had won the women’s race, Geoffrey Kamworor the men’s, and most of the non-elite runners in the first wave had already crossed over into the Bronx and were now back in Manhattan, on Fifth Avenue or in Central Park. And yet runners from the second and third waves continued to stream up First Avenue. Once again, I recognized a few individuals from back in Greenpoint (including a guy in a tuxedo, carrying a tray of – fake – drinks), and spotted some additional teammates. Between the rain and the accumulation of miles, the atmosphere was different now, less celebratory, more dogged. Some runners were still trotting along easily, smiling as they ran – these were the ones who’d paced themselves intelligently in the early miles. But many more were grimacing and limping. (Was it here that I saw my first bloodstained shirt, or was that back in Greenpoint?) Some avoided my eyes as I cheered them on.
Wet and hoarse and, in all honesty, a little bored, I decided it was time for lunch. Cafe Ollín had caught my eye during my pre-marathon scouting expeditions, so that’s where I headed. I can report that it was as pretty on the inside as it was outside, with peacock blue walls and cut-out paper decorations for Day of the Dead; that the food was excellent and plentiful (too plentiful – see photo); and that it is not a place to go when you are in a hurry which, at that point, I was not.
After my extended lunch break, I went back to First Avenue, where runners from the final wave of the race continued to stream north toward the Bronx. Most were walking at this point. The crowds were gone, except for a few die-hards. The bands had stopped playing, replaced by kids with vuvuzelas and me with my PPTC cowbell. The avenue itself was a mess of sodden paper cups and slimy bananas (whose brilliant idea was it to pass out bananas)? I had never watched this part of the race before, and the sheer determination on display humbled me.
I used 116th to cut up to Fifth Avenue, which put me between miles 22 and 23. The crowds were a bit thicker up here, and the pain in the runners’ faces, more extreme. I thought of the times I’d run, how that long uphill stretch beside the park was still ahead of them, how very far away the turn into the park is. My cheers sounded hollow, even to me.
There was, however, one runner I wanted to see back on First Avenue. My teammate Michael is battling his way back from a paralyzing case of Guillain Barré syndrome. One day in the spring of 2014 we were doing a long run together; a few weeks later, he was in the hospital, critically ill. He stayed in the hospital, and then in a rehab facility, for a good long time, but I think he started plotting his marathon comeback almost from the start. It took a while, but he trained all through 2016 . . . until a broken foot sidelined him a few weeks before the race.
So he deferred, spent another summer training, and around 3:30 pm on November 5 he was approaching the 30K mark of his 30th marathon.
Yeah, I cheered my head off for him. (As did the cheer squad from the great organization, Girls on the Run, who were out on the course as well.)
My spectating was done; it was time to head to the PPTC reunion site a few blocks from the finish. I caught a Q train and changed to the 2/3 at 42nd St, where the station was packed with marathon finishers in blue ponchos and foil heat sheets. Some looked exultant; many just looked tired. A surprising number were carrying flowers, something that no one ever thought to offer me after any of my marathons (and that, in all honesty, I wouldn’t have known what to do with if they had).
I exited at 72nd street, into another throng of marathoners and marathoner friends and family, where I made my last food stop of the day (“wicked” hot chocolate from Jacques Torres) before continuing on to the PPTC reunion.
I’ve written before about my love for PPTC, and I feel yet another paean coming on, so brace yourself. Our club’s post-marathon ritual involves gathering in an elementary school lunchroom where each and every PPTC finisher – from the handful of sub-3:00 guys to the super-5:00, back-of-wave-4 plodders – is greeted with whoops and applause and hot chocolate and hugs. It’s like a big Thanksgiving family gathering, but not as fraught.
As we celebrated, we continued to track Michael – still out on the course at 6-something pm, with a projected finish time of 6:45. A group of us had planned on cheering him at the finish and so, around 6:30, we headed for Central Park.
Getting there wasn’t easy. The security zones and associated barriers were still in place, guarded with varying degrees of zeal – which meant that getting past one sentry didn’t preclude being turned back by the next, as happened to us several times. We finally found a weak point and headed in, right where empty grandstands looked out over the last trickle of finishers.
And there, at last, was Michael, with his son and his official guide (not that he really needed a guide), picking up the pace in that last 0.2 miles. We cheered and rang our cowbells and, after he had passed, cried a little. (You can find pictures of Michael’s marathon day here.)
Then we went home, after a very long day.
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