THE Queensboro Bridge is over 100 years old and over two-thirds of a mile long, spanning the East River and linking the New York City boroughs of Queens and Manhattan. And it is one of the few parts of the New York marathon route where there are no spectators. The guide on my bus tour the previous day said spectators would gather five or six deep at the Manhattan end and that runners would be hit by a “wall of sound” almost as loud as a rock concert, as they exited the shadow of the cantilever giant.
But the guide had never run the marathon and that business about hitting a “wall of sound” is not quite right. You run uphill onto the bridge and everything is silent but for your increasingly heavy breathing. And you wonder how much farther to go till you start descending. Then your tired legs feel a little better as uphill turns to level turns to gradual descent… And then you hear this noise, not a wall of sound, but a low rumble, like distant thunder maybe.
I worked my way through the mass of runners towards the side of the bridge, as the noise gradually intensified, and I could see the crowd on the pavements below, hundreds of them, thousands, and the rumble became a roar, deafening, inspiring, making it all worthwhile… the long, slow solo runs through Leith, Musselburgh and Prestonpans on cold Sunday mornings, the discomfort of ruptured fascia in my lower back, the pain in my piriformis muscle in my butt that had curtailed the training and the agony in my hamstring that still prevented me from sitting on anything other than a deep comfy chair.
The New York City Marathon is the biggest marathon in the world, with 51,307 runners in the November 2017 race. It visits all five boroughs – Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx and finally back over to Manhattan and that final, long, undulating stretch through Central Park, one of the most famous parks in the world, six miles around, 843 acres of greenery surrounded by towering apartment blocks.
But what is particularly impressive is not the number of people on the road. It is the number of people on the pavement, an estimated 2.5 million – the equivalent of half the population of Scotland. They wave flags and placards – the one that said “Run like a Kenyan, stop after 2 hours” made me smile. They offer everything from high-fives and sweets and bananas to, at one point, with about five miles to go, small plastic cups of “free beer”. I was tempted, but common sense prevailed. But then if I had any common sense I would probably not be here running 26.2 miles with a chronic injury.
Spectators lined every inch of the route from Staten to Central Park, with the exception of the bridges that serve as artificial hills to break a runner’s stride, and the Hasidic Jewish area of Williamsburg, where the pavements are not so much quiet as eerily deserted, with only the occasional ringletted resident going about their business, in black suits and impressive shtreimel hats.
I took a coach tour over the entire route the day before the marathon and our guide had said the locals were very traditional and even a naked elbow was regarded as immodest – subsequently I did a little research and discovered there had been pressure from some in the community to encourage residents to stay off the streets completely during the race in which many elbows were brazenly exposed.
I was a little surprised at the extent to which so many neighbourhoods had retained their distinct ethnic identities, whether Polish, Hispanic or African-American – there are still not many white faces in East Harlem where we stayed for a couple of nights in airbnb when we first arrived, before moving to a hotel in Brooklyn, which was more convenient for the ferry that would take me to the start of the race, via an inspiring view of the most famous statue in the world. I would add that everywhere I went in New York seemed safe, wheareas when I first visited the city in 1981 there were numerous areas which visitors were advised to avoid.
And I was impressed by the diversity across the city as a whole. Residents are proud of their origins with Mexican, Dominican, Cuban and Polish flags in abundance and dozens of other countries represented along the route, including Scotland – global support for a United Nations of runners, ranging from elite professionals to octogenarians who doggedly kept going as the clock ticked into its ninth or even tenth hour.
New York is one of the six official “marathon majors” along with London, Berlin, Tokyo, Chicago and Boston. It was first run in 1970, when the entire race was simply loops round Central Park. There were 127 runners and only 55 finishers. Running, as a sport or leisure activity, has simply exploded in the years since then. Now it is for ordinary people, all ages, all abilities, all shapes and sizes. And it is a great way to see a city.
There are various ways to get a place in the New York Marathon, including a ballot – 98,247 people entered the ballot for the 2017 race, but only one in six was successful. You can also get a place via a charity by guaranteeing to raise a specified sum for them or you can buy a package that would include a race place, accommodation and flights and possibly training advice. These latter two options will almost certainly cost well into four figures.
Or you can do, as I did, run a qualifying race within a certain time. New York is unusual in that you can use half-marathon times as well as marathon times to get a “good for age” place and I used the 2016 Glasgow half as my qualifying race for the 2017 marathon. You need to apply well in advance. The 2018 application window for both the ballot and time qualifiers opens on Monday and runs until February 15.
Qualifying times vary with gender and age, but you certainly do not need to be an elite runner to clock them. For men aged 18-34 the qualifying time is 2.53 for a marathon and 1.21 for a half, for women the times are 3.13 and 1.32. By the time runners reach their early fifties – I’m 60 years old – a 1.32 or 1.49 half-marathon will suffice. If you can manage a reasonably speedy half, you can then work your way up to the marathon in the knowledge that you have a guaranteed place on the start line of a race through one of the greatest, most iconic cities in the world. And then it is all about the training.
But do not overtrain or push your mileage up too quickly, which is what I did. I had already run the London marathon earlier in the year, Edinburgh to North Berwick a couple of weeks later and the Lairig Ghru ultramarathon and then I overdid it one weekend in September, running in a club relay thing in Edinburgh and then a flat race and a hill race at the Braemar Gathering and then driving across Scotland to climb a Munro and then run down it… and I have been sore ever since.
However, having forked out $358 (£287) simply for race entry, as well as buying flights and accommodation, there was no way I was not going to New York. I finished in 4 hours 13 minutes, which is my slowest marathon time ever by some way, but I was delighted to get through it, even if my lack of training did slow me right down in the latter miles.
The men’s winner Geoffrey Kamworor ran it in 2 hours 10 minutes and the average finish time was 4 hours 39 minutes. While fewer than half the runners finished in that first New York marathon back in 1970, this year almost 99 per cent finished, which is hardly surprising given how much they were paying to do it.
But, despite the collapse of the pound on the back of the Brexit vote, New York itself remains affordable and there is so much you can enjoy for free just walking round those iconic streets. Or maybe even running round them. Meanwhile I am now looking to negotiate sponsorship deals with Ibuprofen, Deep Heat and BioFreeze.
Norwegian Air flies from Edinburgh to Stewart International Airport, about 60 miles north of Manhattan, with flights starting at around £60 one way. I bought two one-way tickets, with one check-in bag, as soon as my marathon place was confirmed more than eight months ahead, which cost £422. There is an express bus from the airport to downtown Manhattan, costing $20 (about £15). We made a holiday of it and came home via Toronto. We paid £84 a night for a small room airbnb in Harlem and just over £100 for a decent hotel room, with bath, in Brooklyn.
Source : HeraldScotland