Here it is, at last: my report on this year’s NYC marathon from the spectators’ side of the police tape.
As you may recall, I’d mapped out a plan in advance that would take me from Park Slope to Bay Ridge (with a stop in Sunset Park) to Greenpoint to Long Island City to East Harlem to the Upper West Side. I executed my non-running race plan much better than I’ve ever executed any of my actual running race plans. You could even say I hit my “A” goal.
I also learned a lot, and am already making plans for 2019.
Here’s how it went down.
0715. My running shoes hit the pavement. As is my custom, I ran the Fourth Av section of the course backwards, from 3rd St in Park Slope to 84th St in Bay Ridge. I was a bit worried about time at that point – needlessly, it turned out – and turned around before Pasticceria Rocco, so no cannoli for me. Instead, I doubled back to 47th St in Sunset Park to hit up Panadería Don Paco Lopez, less for their pan dulce (though I did pick some up) than to admire their spectacular ofrenda. Don Paco is Día de los Muertos central in Brooklyn: really, don’t miss it.
At nearby Luz del Mundo church, parishioners were setting up an outdoor grill and unpacking containers of hot sauce and curtido to accompany the pupusas they’d be making and selling later that morning.
That’s one of the pleasures of getting out on the course early: getting a behind-the-scenes look at race preparations, both official (volunteers unloading water and Gatorade, the special fluid tables set up for the professional runners, bands conducting sound checks) and unofficial (bake sale tables in full swing outside the St. Anselm Catholic Academy in Bay Ridge, small knots of Jehova’s Witnesses everywhere).
Cafe Loré, at the corner of Fourth Av and 46th St, was as mysterious as ever, one of those clubby, old-school Italian places with dusty windows, closed more often than it’s open – or, if it’s open, devoid of customers – leaving you to wonder what sideline keeps it in business. On this marathon morning, a man in a tuxedo was sorting through a tangle of cords and equipment at the small stage area in the front of the house. (Should I go there sometime? Will it be open? Do I dare?)
0850. Where did the time go? Back in the South Slope, I stopped by Reyes Grocery for my traditional (meaning: two marathons in a row) eggs toluqueño sandwich. Ducking in and out of the store as my eggs and chorizo sizzled on the grill, I saw police lights and then, in a blur, the lead wheelchair racers. They were more than a bit terrifying. Running a marathon is hard – running a marathon fast is astonishing – but wheeling at those speeds, down hills and bridges and around turns and over potholed roads, unprotected save for gloves and a helmet? That’s ballsy.
Heading home, sandwich in hand, I noted the pricing for the chili cookoff at PS 118 – $8, which this year got you 18 samples – and added it to my “really should do this” list for 2019.
0945. Showered, changed, marketed and back on Fourth Av at the bottom of 6th St to await the lead women, who were those runners jogging into view? They certainly weren’t the lead women, and they didn’t appear to be disabled Achilles athletes. I’d forgotten all about the Foot Locker Five Borough Challenge, a promotional flourish in which representatives from each borough are given the VIP treatment and an early start, told to stick together through the first half, then race to win in the second. Go, Brooklyn! (Brooklyn – in the person of Stephen Andrews, an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago, who clocked 3:52:25 – did in fact win.)
1000. Now it was the elite women’s turn. There they were – and then they were gone. That was my signal to walk down to 3rd St to join the rest of the PPTC cheer squad. At 1026 the lead pack of elite men whizzed by, and from that point on, the crowd thickened – from a few stragglers (running unimaginably fast, just not quite fast enough to hang with the leaders) to people just outside the ranks of the elite to the very best local runners to, at last, faces I recognized – as we whooped and hollered and clanged our cowbells. (Please, runners – you really shouldn’t wear earbuds in a race, but if you do, then for god’s sake don’t put your name on your shirt. Nothing pisses me off more on marathon day than wasting precious throat and cowbell-arm reserves on someone who can’t hear.)
Oh, and to the guy with a dog who decided to cross the avenue while sub-3:00 runners were passing, almost tripping at least one person: you are an asshole.
1050. Mindful of my race plan, I began my slow cheer/walk back to the G train at 9th St. First, though, I gave my sign to my teammate Aditi: first of all, because I knew she’d rock it (which she did), and second of all, because her first election as a U.S. citizen was 2016 and we all have to make that up to her.
1130. Greenpoint! It was a bit strange be in Greenpoint on a sunny day – peruse past posts, and you’ll find that it always seems to be raining, or at least gray and damp, when I go there. So glaringly sunny was it, in fact, that it was easier to see the runners’ elongated shadows than the runners themselves. These were still mostly from Wave 1, at this point; not the leaders, of course, who had already crossed through Queens and were in Manhattan, maybe even in the Bronx, but ordinary mortals looking to run solid, under 4 hour times. I recognized some of the faces because they were teammates – go, Dominique! – and others because I’d seen them back on Fourth Av. As in the past, I was struck by how many random faces stayed with me. There was a Spanish guy named Carlos, an older Swede, a Delta Airlines group, the guy in an Aztec headdress who always runs, and a few of the Ayotzinapa runners whose commitment to memory and justice humbles me.
I ducked into the Polka Dot Cafe for a snack (their apple pancakes are delish) and a bathroom break. By the time I came out, most of the Wave 1 runners had passed and Wave 2 predominated, with a few especially zippy (or: foolishly aggressive) representatives of Wave 3 mixed in. It was fun to see new faces, and while Fourth Av holds special honors as my home turf, I have to say that Manhattan Av is a great place to watch and cheer. It’s narrower and thus more up-close-and-personal than Fourth Av, but more commercial (read: more food and bathroom opportunities) than Lafayette. And because it’s later in the race, your cheers mean more.
Note for future spectators: for an especially close view, position yourself on the inside of the turn from Manhattan Av onto Greenpoint Av, where the runners practically brush up against you. And yes, those are hay bales stacked on the other side, presumably to protect those ballsy wheelers should they lose control on the turn. (Or to protect spectators from those ballsy wheelers.)
1230. I entered the crowded G train station at Greenpoint Av, and emerged ten minutes later at Court Square in Long Island City. My mission: to figure out how to get to the John Brown Smokehouse. Court Square is an agglomeration of different lines, with a bewildering number of exits and entrances, and the marathon course is directly overhead (you can hear the cheers from inside the station). There is, as far as I can tell, one and only one way to get from the station to the John Brown Smokehouse side of 44th Drive on marathon day without being an asshole and cutting across the course (do you hear me, Park Slope dog guy?).
Naturally, I messed it up on my first attempt.
That only made me more determined to figure it out, and so I reentered the station (thank you, super-chill agent) and retraced my steps. This time I ignored the main Court Square exit, which tries to lure you above ground with its light-filled space and fancy escalators. If you’re coming from Brooklyn on the G, you need to continue through the dark and dingy corridors, following signs for the Manhattan-bound E/M platform. When you get there – this is the secret, which I’m now revealing to all – you need to walk the entire length of the platform. At the other end is where you’ll at last find the exit for the northeast corner of 44th Drive and 21st St.
So there you go, future barbecue-loving marathon spectators: your route to barbecue bliss.
The unfortunate thing is that by the time I got there, the order line snaked through the front room. As much as I was craving burnt ends (a lot) and beer (even more) and corn bread (oh my god), I had a race plan to stick to. So I cheered for a while – spotting a teammate, Sam, on the far side of 44th, out of lung range despite my best efforts – and then ducked back on an F train that was pretending to be an E and headed into Manhattan.
1340. At 116th St and Lex, I was paralyzed by indecision: should I go up to Fifth Av? or down to First? I avoided the issue by looking first for something to eat, which turned out to be a suadero taco from a sidewalk vendor. It wasn’t John Brown Smokehouse barbecue, but it served.
Nourished and newly resolute, I headed for Fifth Av, where I saw many faces I recognized from Long Island City – the Belgian guy with a GoPro head strap, the pair of South African women still running side-by-side, “Tess” in her rainbow jumpsuit – as well as one of the 4-hour pace groups, much-diminished by the intervening eight miles.
I also met the spectator from hell.
She was about my age, Canadian, and perky. “You’re almost there!” she shouted to the runners, who still had four painful miles to go. “You’re almost there! You’re almost there!”
Please shut up, I pleaded with her telepathically. Please, please just shut up.
“You can do it! You’re almost there!” This to someone who was limping and grimacing.
“You’re almost there!”
No, it was quite clear, she was not going to shut up. Not unless someone made her.
”It’s all downhill from here!”
”Excuse me,” I said. “It’s not all downhill from here.”
She looked at me.
“In a few blocks, they’re going to start climbing uphill. It’s actually one of the toughest climbs on tbe course.”
She continued to look at me, with a mixture of puzzlement and alarm. She may have “oh my goodnessed.” I think she did say, “I had no idea.”
“I know,” I told her, thinking, otherwise you wouldn’t be saying such stupid, unhelpful shit. “And it’s actually not such a great idea to tell people they’re almost there, either.”
She and her crew left a short while after that.
As did I, just a little later.
1430. My last cheering stop was back down at First Av. We were deep in Wave 4 now. I spotted a few more teammates, looking strong and determined, and chatted with a sweet guy holding a dry shirt that he planned to give his girlfriend, running her first marathon, when she passed.
1505. My last food stop of the day was La Chula, back at the corner of 116th and Lex, for Baja-style fish tacos.
My cheering was done. All that remained was to make my way across town to the PPTC reunion school to see teammates, hear how their races went, and head home, thinking about how to do this better next year.