Everything you need to know about running the TCS NYC Marathon
We ran the TCS NYC Marathon a couple weeks ago and it was the best thing that we did in 2018. We call it New York’s best day because you really see the best of what this great city has to offer. Every borough, every spectator and every runner are there to uplift, elevate and reach a goal.
Before we became recreational runners we were spectators along the course in Harlem and on First Avenue. We would go out early to watch the elite runners fly by, then return later to cheer on our friends and other strangers who took on the challenge of 26.2 miles. For years we saw people of different shapes, sizes and abilities run down our streets. We saw the tearful reunions, determined friends powering up a few miles before the finish line and the amazing entertainment along the way. When we started running we always said we’d top out at a half marathon. Coming out to watch is what inspired us decide to sign up for ourselves. We wanted a little piece of the magic.
After running nine races with the New York Road Runners (NYRR) and volunteering at the 5th Avenue mile, we signed up. The rest is precious history. If you have ever wanted to run the TCS New York City Marathon here is everything you need to know.
How to get in:
The lottery: You can enter the random drawing for the marathon in the open window from mid-January to mid-February. The drawing date for next year is February 27th 2019. The entry fee is $11 and the likelihood of being selected is 10-15%.
The 9+1 Program: If you run nine qualifying races with New York Road Runners (the non-profit organization that coordinates the marathon), and volunteer for one race you will automatically gain entry to the marathon for the following year. For example, if you complete the 9+1 program in 2019, you will qualify to run the marathon in 2020. This is how we got in. You must claim your spot from mid-January to mid-February. You are allowed to cancel your entry and claim it for the following year.
Run fast: If you meet the time qualifying standards in particular NYRR races you are eligible for guaranteed entry. If you run below the standard in a non-NYRR race you can also gain entry on a first come first serve basis.
Run with an NYRR Charity Partner: Eligibility is gained by running with one of a list of NYRR charity partners and raising a particular amount of money – usually around $2000 - $3000. Depending on what charity that you run with, you can have VIP perks on race day.
Complete the Virtual Marathon: Through the NYRR page you can register for and complete a virtual marathon. You need the running app Strava to do it. Click here for more information.
International Tour Operators: If you live outside of the United States certain tour operators offer marathon packages. Packages often include flight and accommodations – which are hard to get marathon weekend. Click here for a list of official NYRR international tour operator partners.
Complete 15 NYC Marathons: If you complete 15 marathons you qualify for guaranteed entry the following year.
Entry fees for 2018 were:
NYRR members: $255 USD
Non-NYRR members: $295 USD
Non- US Residents: $358 USD
With race entry you get to run through five boroughs of New York on the first weekend in November. You also get a dry fit shirt, discounts on race gear, organized transportation to the starting village, coffee, energy drinks and bagels for breakfast before the race and a finisher package after the race. These fees also pay for street closures and security along the way.
If you are an experienced marathoner you can skip right over this portion. If not, here is how we did it. We searched online and found a bunch of free online training programs. Hal Higdon is an experienced marathoner, author and running coach. His website has training plans for half marathons and marathons for runners of all abilities. We used his free 20 week novice 2 training program. It is supposed to be for people who have already run a marathon, but given our level of fitness we thought it matched us well.
Should you get a running coach and pay for a running program? It depends on your goals. We just wanted to complete a marathon as comfortably as possible. We are self-motivated, we train together and have a weekly workout schedule that we stick to like clockwork. If you are new to running, check in with your primary care doctor to make sure it is safe for you to engage in long distance running. Once you are in the clear, join a running club in your area and see if they have a running coach to help you. We firmly believe that running is for everyone and that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to marathon train unless you really want to. If you want to – there are online programs on that Hal Higdon website, with NYRR, Fitness Sanctuary and many others. We have had great experiences running with Harlem Run, Runstreet, Black Girls Run, Nike Run Club, Adidas Runners and the NYRR Run Hub. Here is a good list of free and paid running clubs in the New York area.
1) Transportation to the start village
The start of the TCS NYC Marathon is in Staten Island, one of the most isolated boroughs. In mid-August you will get an email asking you to choose your mode of transportation to the starting village. This is included in your race fee. You can either take the Staten Island Ferry or a motor coach from midtown Manhattan/New Jersey.
Pros of Staten Island Ferry:
You will have beautiful views of the Statue of Liberty at dawn.
You the option to leave Manhattan at a later time slot than the motor coach. This means you will spend less time waiting outside in the starting village.
You can ride and interact with thousands of fellow runners from around the world.
Cons of the ferry
After the ferry you will have to board a bus to the starting village, so the journey is slightly more cumbersome
If you need peace a quiet before a race it is harder to come by on the ferry
There is no guaranteed seat on the ferry – it is first come first serve. The majority of people end up standing for the 20-minute ride or sitting on the ground.
Pros of the bus
Your will be dropped off right at the start village.
There is a guaranteed seat for you in a warm comfortable environment.
Get a preview of the first 2 miles of the course when you drive over the Verezzano Narrows Bridge.
Cons of the bus
Earlier departure times mean you must spend more time waiting in the starting village
No view of the Statue of Liberty
A more isolated ride
Our ultimate decision: the bus.
2) Poncho vs Bag Check
In early August you will also have to decide whether you want to check a bag with your belongings at the start of the race. This bag will be brought to the finish line, allowing you to retrieve it after the marathon. Temperatures in New York in November are usually in the 40s-50s. After the race you will be sweaty and cold, so having access to a warm change of clothes will be high on your to-do list after you cross the finish line. In order to reduce the number of people checking bags, NYRR gives you the option of getting a warm, fleece-lined poncho after the race instead of checking a bag.
We chose the poncho. We live relatively close to Central Park and only needed to be warm for the short train ride home. We also don’t love waiting for our bags after such a large race. Finally, the poncho is a great memento that would otherwise cost $70 if purchased at the marathon expo (see below for more information).
If you are staying far away from the finish line in Central Park, and if you want shoes, other clothing or something else special after your 26.2-mile journey, we suggest you check a bag. You will wait in line to retrieve the bag, but at least you will be warm and comfortable.
Alternatively, you could ask a kind friend or family member to meet you close to the finish line with warm clothes.
Race week events
The marathon is one of the biggest events in New York City, and the entire city takes part in it. The week before the event, NYRR organizes a host of events and even constructs a Marathon Pavillion in Central Park. The pavilion displays official TCS marathon gear, showcases with historical marathon facts and hosts speaking events to get marathoners and their supporters ready for the big day. Expect talks with elite runners, pre-race strategy and amazing displays.
Fitness stores, running clubs and restaurants have themed events leading up to marathon Sunday. Whether you want to do a shake out run with elite athletes or have a massive pasta dinner to carb up before the race, there is something for everyone.
As with most big city races, there is a marathon expo prior to the race. However like with everything in New York City, it big, bright and larger than lie. It is the biggest marathon expo in the country, and among the top health and fitness expos in the world. It is free and open to the public just like the pavilion. All marathon participants must go there to pick up their race packets but you’ll want to stay for longer than that. Exhibitors show everything from clothing, to race nutrition, to mattresses that make sure you have a great sleep before hitting the road. Every hour or so there is a talk where NYRR running coaches discuss race strategy and give tips. It is a runner’s paradise. It is almost impossible not to wear out your legs looking at all the displays but hold yourself back. Resting your legs during the week will help you have your best race possible on Sunday. The expo usually runs from Thursday to Saturday before the race. Our best advice is to go early, sit in on a race strategy talk then go only to the vendors you are most interested in. Rest and relaxation are the only things you need at this point.
The staging area for the 50 000+ runners on race day is Fort Wadsworth, one of the oldest army installations in the nation. It is in Staten Island at the base of the impressive Verrazano Narrow Bridge, the highest and longest incline of the course. Upon arrival you are greeted by marathon volunteers and more security than you have ever seen. There are NYPD officers corralling you into lines to go through metal detectors. There are counter terrorism officers, sheriffs, state police and probably FBI. We saw police on horses, on foot and even on quad-bikes patrolling the grounds.
Each participant is assigned a start village by color, a corral by letter and a wave by number. The village/color assignment is random, with the blue and orange groups starting on the top deck of the bridge and the green group starting on the bottom. Your wave is assigned based on how fast you are. Faster runners will have a lower numbered wave (ie wave 1 runners are faster than wave 2 runners). This is a general rule, although in special cases certain VIPs can change to a different starting wave. There were four total waves of runners, with wave 1 starting at 9:50 and wave 4, the final group, starting at 11:00am.
Within your wave you are split into corrals, again based on how fast you run. Corrals are lettered from A to F, with A being the fastest. This pace chart puts it all into perspective. We were in the green group, in wave 2 and started in corral E.
The start area is split into different “villages” or areas based on your group color. On the way to your assigned starting village there are tons of port-a-potties and runners everywhere trying to keep warm. Each start area has tables with self-serve Dunkin Doughnuts coffee, bagels, an information desk, first aid station and tons of port-a potties. Therapy dogs from New York Therapy Animals are roaming around with their handlers to help calm anxious runners. A smiling NYRR volunteer handed out hand warmer packets and Dunkin was kind enough to provide cute winter hats.
There are no seats and no benches. Check the weather religiously so you will know how to prepare for spending up to 4 hours of sitting outdoors before your start time. We tend to get extremely cold so we suited up like we were back in our hometown of Ottawa, Canada. On top of our race gear, we had cheap snow pants, wooly sweaters, a cheap bubble coat and Whitepaws run mitts. We also put foot warmers in our running shoes, hand warmers in our mitts and brought a blanket to sit on. You can call us a lot of things, but you’ll never call us unprepared. We didn’t check a bag, so when we were ready to run we put all of our exterior layers into one of the many donations bins in the village. Each year NYRR donates tons of these discarded layers to Goodwill, so nothing goes to waste.
A loudspeaker will be running a constant loop of announcements in different languages. The speaker and the screens will let you know when it is time to head into your race corral. The race organizers adhere closely to wave time, so take heed and head to your corral with plenty of time to spare. If you miss your wave you can always run with the following wave. If you’re late for wave 4 you will have to wait until next year.
No bags are allowed through the gate to the corral, so eat the last of your pre-race fuel, have your coffee and drink your last few sips of water before entering the start-line area. There are bins to donate clothing in the corrals, which means you can keep wearing your layers right up until the race begins. Many people run the first few miles with their extra layers and discard them along the route. Corrals also have port-a-potties in case nature is calling. The next portable toilet won’t show up until mile 3.
The start of the TCS NYC Marathon is iconic. You will hear a few announcements and stand for the American national anthem. Then a booming cannon goes off and the race is underway. As you begin your climb up the Verrazano Narrow Bridge you will be serenaded by the sweet sound of Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York”. If you look left there is a NYFD fire boat with water cannons going at full blast. Look further and you’ll see the New York City skyline in the distance.
The Verrazano bridge is the steepest incline of the course but you won’t feel it at all. The excitement will carry you for more miles than you can imagine. There will be lots of runners stopping to take pictures and others who will discard clothing as you run by. Enjoy the start of the greatest marathon in the world.
When you finish traversing the bridge, a crowd of friendly New Yorkers will welcome you to Brooklyn. (We also saw a ton of runners who couldn’t wait for the port-a-potties at mile 3, but there is no need to focus on that). It will be the beginning of a 13-mile block party that defines the marathon route through Brooklyn, the second-largest borough in New York. Most of the marathon is run in this borough, and luckily it is one of the best parts of the race.
Throngs of kids and families line Brooklyn’s 4th avenue with hilarious signs and little hands eager to give you a high-five. Runners are treated to every type of musical entertainment -- drum lines, the famed Bishop Loughlin High School band playing the “Rocky” theme song, rock bands, rappers, and even a full gospel choir singing on the steps of a church on Bedford Avenue. Most of these musicians are volunteers, and if you consider that there are up to 4 bands performing at each mile, you have a sense of the amount of goodwill surrounding the NYC marathon.
Around mile 10 you will arrive at what is termed the “silent mile”. The silent mile runs through an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Williamsburg. Here, the residents value modesty over sweaty marathoners. Although there will be a few spectators, most residents are going about their day, trying to avert their eyes away from the half-naked athletes running to Manhattan.
You might feel the stark contrast of going from the loud crowds to quiet streets, but the quiet doesn’t last long. After a few blocks you are back to the big crowds in Williamsburg and big sounds before you reach the Pulanski Bridge to Queens.
After a comparatively mild climb over the Pulanski Bridge you will enter Queens, New York’s largest borough. Specifically, the route traverses a neighborhood called Long Island City, which will be home to the new Amazon HQ2. Your quick 2-mile stint through trendy ‘LIC’ will be loud, fast and bright. You will be happy to finally leave Brooklyn and really feel like you have made progress. Borough number 2 is in the bag! You can use the flat streets of Queens to ease back and prepare for one of the most challenging parts of the course: the Queensboro Bridge.
Veteran NYC marathoners dread the bridge to Manhattan, and the dread is real. The Queensboro Bridge is a long steady climb. The full bridge span is roughly a mile and most of it is spent on an upward incline. A hill at mile 15 seems rather cruel, as this is when many runners are beginning to feel fatigued. To make matters worse, spectators are not allowed on the bridges, so there is no crowd support for tired runners. We have mentioned it a few times but it bears repeating: Never underestimate the power of the New York crowd. A cheer from a random stranger may perk you up right when you need it. To make it through the Queensboro Bridge play something uplifting in your earbuds, talk to your running mate or just focus on the horizon. Manhattan awaits.
The tough climb of Queensboro is well rewarded with what some call the “wall of sound”. This is Manhattan’s First Avenue, where crowds four-to-six people deep greet runners with signs, cowbells and noisemakers galore. As you run north on First Avenue, every few blocks there are billboards reminding you how many more miles you need to go before “beer” aka, the finish line. Of course the crowds were impressive, but in our opinion Brooklyn had even more energy. The crowds thin as you continue north through East Harlem, but there are always a few people showing you love. This New York energy provides the fuel you need to traverse the final bridge and enter the fifth and final borough.
The Willis Avenue Bridge comes up faster than you think. At this point there are many people walking the incline of the bridge, waiting to hit the infamous wall at mile 20. Although marathon training involves many long runs, most training programs peak at 20 miles. This means that most runners do not know how their body will feel after the 20th mile. The Bronx is uncharted territory. Here, you will need a boost to keep you going. Ask and you shall receive.
Whoever said the crowds are quiet in the Bronx didn’t run the marathon in 2019. Runners are only in this borough for a mile, but man is it a loud one! There are families with noise makers, running crews throwing confetti and the life-saving Biofreeze zone! Biofreeze is a numbing pain relief gel or spray that soothes aching muscles fast. There were dozens of attendants lining the road around mile 20, ready to provide a spray or rub of numbing liquid. Biofreeze provided us with much-needed relief as we prepared to face the final 6.2 miles. On to the Madison Avenue Bridge to Harlem!
Harlem is familiar ground for us. It is also lively, with speakers and DJs blasting R&B, dancehall and hip hop. The streets are teeming with spectators, particularly as you run south of 125th street. If your legs are feeling heavy at this point, move to the outer edges of the road to gather some of the crowd’s energy. Although you have made it over all five bridges on the course, the worst hill is yet to come.
When you hit the intersection of 110th Street and 5th Avenue the real work begins. From around 110th Street to 90th Street there is a slow and steady 100-foot climb that can feel harder than running over the Queensboro Bridge. You already have 23 miles in your legs at this point. Crowd support at mile 23 is great, but it may be a good time to focus and remember your race mantras. Will yourself to continue. Convince yourself that you have the energy to make it for three more miles, even if you don’t. Focus on the horizon and you will see the entrance to the park. You’re in the home stretch!
Central Park/Finish line
Regardless of how well you train, it is hard to predict how your body will feel once you finally arrive in Central Park after a five-borough tour. Entering the park on the east side, you run through a flat section of road before arriving at Cat Hill, a steady decline heading south. Cat Hill gives way to the rolling hills that Central Park is known for. Your legs are screaming but so are the spectators.
The route exits the park and continues to Central Park south, where you will find another surprising incline. Ouch. You will feel as though you are running on stage because of the solid barriers separating you from the throngs of people lining the course. The route heads back into Central Park at Columbus circle. The finish line is not yet within your sight line, but it is so close that you can taste it. There is one more steep incline before your glorious finish.
Remember to raise your hands in victory as you cross the finish line, allowing the cameras to capture your achievement. Your sprint to the finish will be recorded on a continuous video shot from above. This video will be available for purchase after the race, along with all your race photos. You will want to commemorate this achievement, and if that means emptying your wallet for some overpriced race photos and gear – do it. You are now among the less than 1% of people in the world who have completed a marathon, and one of a small group of people who have done so in the great city of New York.