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What To Know When Running Your First NYC Marathon

We talked to veteran runners who’ve run New York at least 10 times to put together the best tips for first-timers taking on the five boroughs.

It’s easy to understand why so many runners have the New York City Marathon on their to-do list. It’s one of the six Majors, is a great way to see the nation’s largest city and, oh yeah, it’s the biggest one in the world. A record-setting 51,394 athletes crossed the finish line in 2016, and the finisher total exceeded 50,000 four of the last five years.

For many of those runners, NYC isn’t just a one-time thing to check off of a bucket list—though it often starts out that way—but is an event that they look forward to accomplishing each year. We talked to five runners who’ve run New York at least 10 times, to put together the best tips for first-timers taking on the five boroughs. Here’s what they had to say:

Take It Easy Before Race Day

Getting around New York involves a lot of walking. Sure, you’re a marathoner and can handle a little walking. You might even be a local and roll your eyes at this warning. That’s precisely why you need it. All the extra steps you take in such a walkable city could take a toll come race day.

“Stay off your feet as much as possible,” says Bette Clark, 63, of Yonkers, N.Y. Clark trains with Van Cortlandt Track Club in the Bronx and is running her 11th NYC marathon this year. For visitors, relaxing can be especially challenging. “I know when I’ve run races in other places, that’s the hardest thing—I want to do everything, I want to see everything,” Clark says.

If you can, visit the race expo to pick up your bib Thursday or Friday, Clark recommends. Depending on where you’re coming from, you may have to walk a ways to get to the Javits Center. It’s also a big space, and there are a lot of people. Navigating that the day before a marathon isn’t ideal.

Don’t Underestimate The Logistics

The New York City Marathon is a point-to-point race in the nation’s largest city, which also happens to be a collection of islands—getting around before and after the race takes a lot of time. “It’s hours before and hours after—it’s different from any other marathon” says Chris Solarz, 40, of Manhattan. Solarz knows what he’s talking about. The Central Park Track Club runner has finished more than 300 marathons, including the last 14 New York City marathons.

It all starts with the journey to Staten Island, which can easily take an hour, if not two. Once you arrive, you need to check your bag (if you have one) and go through security. Then you wait. “As much as you know to wear warm clothes, I never seem to bring enough,” Solarz says. “You can have your race ruined by being too cold when you start.”

All the runners we spoke to said to bring plenty of throwaway clothes and things to keep you warm and dry, like a trash bag, shower caps to cover your feet or even a change of shoes. They also recommended taking a snack. “They do have coffee and bagels, which is good, but it’s a lot of time to wait if you left your home at 4 or 5 or 6 in the morning and you’re not starting till 10,” Clark says. “I know a lot of people who said they were starving when they started. They hadn’t thought to bring extra food.”

And after it’s all done, you have to get home. Unless you live or are staying near Central Park, it’s a trek. It’s a good idea to have dry clothes in your gear-check bag or with a friend or family member who is meeting you after the finish.

Stay Calm

Most runners struggle to manage their nerves before a marathon, but that’s particularly difficult when you’re sitting in a field for a few hours before the start. “You spend a lot of time and a lot of nervous energy in these corrals in this big setup camp,” Solarz says. “For everything that’s great about that excitement, it can be very boring and very stressful.”

Michael Ring, 55, of Brooklyn ran his 20th NYC last year and recommends looking for a spot away from loudspeakers where you can sit and try to relax before the race. At the start line, nerves give way to excitement, and you have to remind yourself not to gun it up the Verrazano Narrows Bridge while Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” plays in the background.

“They blast that as the mayor sends you off,” Solarz says. “It’s an excitement in the air—it’s hard to explain and hard to replicate elsewhere.”

It’s important to remember that the first mile is uphill, so even if you’re not feeling the strain in the moment, you’ll feel it later. “It’s so exciting—you’re on the bridge, you hear the music,” Clark says. “You really have to be careful, you have to run those first miles slower than your goal pace. Even though people warn you about it, you have to be told over and over again. You just get swept away.”

When you turn onto 4th Avenue in Brooklyn (just after mile 2), you get the first taste of New York’s incredible, unmatched crowd support. “Brooklyn is Number One. The bridge to 4th Avenue, oh my god, it’s a huge crowd,” says 65-year-old Admas Belilgne. Although not a Brooklynite (she lives in Manhattan and is originally from Ethiopia), Belilgne has run 30 New York City marathons in a row and says this six-mile stretch continues to be her favorite. Belilgne has the third-longest streak of women who have run NYC (women aged 72 and 74 have 34- and 39-year streaks, respectively).

“One thing that I can say is it’s always exciting, especially the crowd, the people encouraging,” Belilgne says. Enjoy the excitement, but pay attention to your pace, because it’s easy to go too fast in Brooklyn and have it come back to bite you in later, quieter parts of the course. That’s what happened when Ring attempted his first NYC marathon in 1980 at 17 years old.

“No one advised me on two key things: hydration and pacing,” Ring says. “I drank 10 glasses of water in Bed-Stuy, I puked all over Queens, and I collapsed on the Queensboro bridge.” He didn’t finish. Had he crossed the bridge, he would have heard the roar of the crowd on 1st Avenue in Manhattan, another famously exciting section where it’s easy to go too fast.

“You come over the 59th street bridge and there’s massive crowd support,” says Denis Sweeney, 38, of Manhattan. “People will just get too excited and they’ll pull out the tubes too soon. You’re only at mile 16 or 17. You need to keep something for later.”

Feed Off The Crowd

Yes, all that patience and balance we just talked about is important, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore what’s happening around you.

“I always feel that each high five you get in Brooklyn equals 10 seconds of power in the Bronx,” Ring says. Thirteen years after his first attempt, Ring finished the NYC Marathon for the first time. He ran it every year after that until 2014, when he developed Guillain-Barré syndrome and, as a result, became a quadriplegic.

He recovered use of his limbs and ran the 2017 New York City Marathon with Achilles International, finishing his 20th NYC and 30th marathon in less than 10 hours. One of his main pieces of advice is to soak up the energy around you and read the signs people are holding along the course.

“I always felt that they’re cheering for me,” Ring says of the crowds on 1st Avenue. “I’m going to push up that hill a little bit harder, and they’re cheering, and I’m a rockstar, even if I’m one of 55,000 people.” The energy along the course is one of the event’s main draws.

“The crowd support on 1st Ave and in Central Park is so incredible,” Sweeney says. Sweeney, a lieutenant in the fire department and part of the FDNY running club, has raced the last 13 NYC marathons. “I went to watch my sister do the Philadelphia Marathon, I’ve done the Boston Marathon, nothing is like New York.”

Other Things To Know

Anticipate the quiet suffer fest that is the Queensboro (59th Street) Bridge. “It’s very, very quiet on the bridge,” Clark says. Not only is the incline challenging, it’s one of the few parts of the course without spectators. “I run on that bridge a lot. It’s nice, it’s a great bridge to run on, but in the middle of a marathon, it’s tough.”

All the runners mentioned the challenge of the Queensboro bridge. “You’ve run more than a half marathon but there’s still double digits to go, and it’s a big hill,” Solarz says. “Coming out of Queens and all that cheering, then there’s dead silence and you’re running on the bottom half of the bridge. You don’t even have the beauty of the sky. You’re in this dark and desolate subterranean running chamber.”

It’s A Long Way South From The Bronx

Several of the runners said that the race doesn’t start till you get to the Bronx—but you still have more than 10K to run once you cross the Willis Avenue Bridge. Turning into Manhattan feels like the end is near (and it is) but don’t get too ahead of yourself.

“You’re going through Harlem and you start to see trees. Do not—do NOT—get your hopes up, because believe it or not, it is NOT Central Park,” Sweeney says. Every year, people around him mistake Marcus Garvey park for Central Park. “You’re like, ‘Oh yeah I’m almost there, Central Park.’ Wrong park.”

Look For The Positives In Central Park

It’s important to remember that Central Park is 50 blocks long, and you have to run it from top to bottom (and then some). You know you’re close to the finish, but that doesn’t make the last miles easy. Belilgne says the hardest part of the course for her is in Central Park, even though she trains in the park constantly.

“Every year when I hit that portion I say, ‘Why am I doing this?’” she says, describing the incline from miles 23 to 24, and then the short uphill at 24.5 miles. But once she sees the boathouse, she knows the worst is behind her. There’s about 1.5 miles left, and the excitement of the finishing stretch makes it easier to manage the pain.

During the Central Park miles, Ring says he likes seeing all the people who have already finished, wearing their medals, cheering on everyone still running. He recommends racers use that for inspiration. “When they get to Central Park, they’re going to see finishers walking home, and they’re going to get a glimpse of the medal they’re about to earn,” Ring says. “That always drove me.”