I am surprised. I feel remarkably calm. I can see the 693 foot arches of the bridge in the distance beyond the trees. I am not sure how I ended up in the first wave, but I am here. Fifty metres from the start line of the New York City Marathon.
Somewhere up on the upper deck are the elite men. I can see one of them, leg up on the guard rail stretching. I can’t tell if it is one of the Americans, Ryan Vail or Jason Hartman. I laugh to myself, “these guys will be done the race long before I even cross into Manhattan”. It is amazing that even with a 2:11 marathon, neither Vail or Hartman will likely beat the big guns. Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai and Ethiopian, Tsegaye Kebede, both sub 2:05 marathoners, are the frontrunners for the $500,000 purse, and that does not include performance bonuses for leading at the different stages of the race.
The first wave green corral is on the the ramp to the lower deck of the Verrazano Bridge that links Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island and Fort Hamilton on the Brooklyn side. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world when it opened in 1964. The fact that we start with a hill, and my GPS watch will beep the first kilometre at about the two-thirds point across the bridge hasn’t registered yet. I am amused at the warning to the runners that urinating on the bridge is not pleasant, and unsanitary. I was previously warned not to stray too close to the edges of the lower deck as there is a distinct possibility of being pee’d on by the the upper deck runners emptying their nervous bladders. “Last year,” a Brit next to me was saying, “there were as many women pissing as guys!” Of course with all this talk, guess what – I had to go! Technically we were not on the bridge so I jumped over the guard rail and joined the other dozen or so guys relieving themselves in the bushes.
“Jesus!” I thought to myself, apparently out loud, “That has to be the sixth time I have gone this morning!”
“You and me both, mate!” retorts an Ozzie I met earlier in the corral.
Our day started early. I woke at 4:30am, knowing I had to meet our group in the hotel lobby no later than 5:30am. I wanted to be sure that my nagging muscles were loosened up so I had a hot shower and used my therapeutic yoga balls on my feet and calf muscles. I was really concerned about seizing up before the race. The temperature was spectacular for the days leading up to the race but this morning it was overcast, windy and only 3 degrees C. Definitely not great for a guy who periodically has sciatica flareups. The solution for today, a brilliant one Janice came up with, air activated heat pads from the pharmacy. The kind you use for back and muscle pain. These proved to be a God-send waiting at Fort Wadsworth with little shelter from the wind. I also have a few sweaters that I toss at the start. Volunteers collect all the disposed of clothes at the start corrals, clean them and donate them to the various shelters and charitable organizations in New York City.
Gaining entry into the New York City Marathon is typically the luck of the draw. Americans have three methods to gain entry. There are no time qualifiers like the Boston Marathon, so the NYC Marathon is therefore accessible to all. Typical entry is through lottery. Of the 50,000 people who ran this year, there was another 20-30,000 turned away. The New York Road Runners also has a 9+1 guaranteed entry program. Runners can run 9 New York Road Runners events over the course of the year leading up to the marathon and volunteer to assist at 1 event. This provides the opportunity to forego the lottery and gain a guaranteed entry. Raising money for a sponsor charity is the last option for Americans to gain entry. For runners from other countries, there is also the International Travel Partner guaranteed entry package that can be purchased in their country of origin. This is how I gained entry to the 2013 NYC marathon.
5:15am, our group meets at the clock tower, in the centre of the historic Waldorf Astoria Hotel lobby. The trek begins.We arrive at Bryant Park adjacent to the New York City Public library to a army of volunteers and convoy of buses. Security is very tight. After the Boston Marathon bombing in the Spring of 2013, and the cancellation of the 2012 New York Marathon due to Hurricane Sandy, nothing is left to chance. Runners are allowed to bring only a clear plastic bag issued to them at the running expo, the clothes on their back, and their race bibs must be showing at all times. Water bottles, 1 litre or greater are immediately confiscated. I knew in advance that my camelback hydration pack was not allowed. Security at Staten Island was even tighter. Fully geared and armed military police lined the Verrazano ramp at Fort Wadsworth. All runners were subjected to inspection and metal detectors by New York’s finest. Remarkably, even with 50,000 runners, everything went amazingly efficiently.
The absolutely best part about the New York Marathon are the people. I chat with a runner sitting next to me from Mexico City. This is not his first marathon, but it is his first in New York. He was entered into the 2012 race but of course it was cancelled because of the Hurricane. A mother and daughter duo sit behind me. I walked with them from the Waldorf. They are part of our Canadian tour and are from Ottawa, my home town. I am blown away to hear that at 59, it is the 20th marathon for Mom and the 7th for daughter.
6am on a New York Sunday is remarkable. The streets are just starting to show signs of life. Our convoy of buses make our way along FDR drive, under the famed Brooklyn bridge and over the Manhattan bridge. We step back in time as we make our way along the Gowanus Expressway past Red Hook, and Bay Ridge with amazing views to lower Manhattan. I laugh out loud when we are greeted at the Verrazano Bridge with the sign “Leaving Brooklyn – Fuhgeddaboudit!”
We are now minutes away. You can feel the energy. Michael Bloomberg gives his last pre-marathon speech of his twelve years as Mayor of New York City, followed by Mary Wittenberg, President and CEO of the New York Road Runners, who reminds us all that we are running for Boston, and for the people of New York who were devastated by Hurricane Sandy.
The cannons boom, and we are off, Frank Sinatra’s “New York New York” leading us on to the Verezzano Bridge.