Marathon 2021: Return to New York
On November 7, 2021, my son Dan and I ran the 50th New York City Marathon! It was my third (second NYC) and his first official marathon. He had previously run 26.2 miles alone on his 18th birthday in 2020, but this was a different experience! I was so glad we were able to do it together and I was thrilled I could keep up with him the entire five boroughs. To his credit and my everlasting gratitude, he could have run faster, but decided to stay with me so we could finish together. What a sweetheart!
Dan is a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University and came home to Pennsylvania Friday night before the race. We left for New York early Saturday morning and after checking our bags at the hotel, wandered down to the Expo at the Javits Center to pick up our bibs and shirts and do a little exploring. The Expo this year was not nearly as big as it was in 2019, but there was still plenty to see. We got our stuff, gathered some pacing bands (to track where a runner is on the course for a specific finish time), bought a few things, and took lots of pictures. Photos were certainly a theme for the weekend!
After the Expo, we went to the Autism Speaks pasta lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe. Dan was the youngest member of our team and we met the eldest. She is in her 70’s and from Tennessee. Our team, Double the Adventure, was the 4th highest team fundraiser, with $8,063. Thank you to everyone who donated!! And thank you to Jennifer DiPalma from Autism Speaks for all your efforts to make this event go smoothly for us!
We headed back to the hotel for a little while and then attended the 5:30 "Runners' Mass" at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. At the end, the priest blessed all the runners, volunteers, and everyone associated with the race. I figured we would take all the help we could get!
After a take-out dinner (it took a while, but was delicious!), we turned in early to get a good night's sleep before The Big Day. Dan slept fine, but I was up around 12:30 ready to go! I kept telling myself that my body was resting even if my mind was not.
Sunday morning, November 7, was the day we had been anticipating for over 22 months! We took the Q subway downtown with another runner we met in the hotel elevator. Fortunately, he realized we needed to change to the R line before we went to Coney Island! We hopped on another train with lots of other runners and followed the crowd to the 8 am Staten Island ferry.
We talked to another Autism Speaks teammate, Kathy, who was running her 15th or so marathon. Impressive! Getting off the ferry, we got into a line on Staten Island to ride the bus to Fort Wadsworth. We saw someone holding a “run to Jesus” sign who was shouting blessings for the runners over and over.
We posed for the first of many (many!!) official photographs and wandered over to the Blue Village. Runners all wear bibs, which tell them their wave (start time: 9:10/ 9:55/ 10:40/ 11:20/ 12:00, spread out more this year due to covid), color (start location: blue, orange, or green), and corral (A-F, where runners line up within the queue). Blue and orange run along the top of the Verrazzano Bridge and green runs underneath. You are allowed to drop back to a higher (slower) number if you want to run with someone, but not the other way. I was blue (#31551) and Dan was green (#32233), so I worried for weeks that we wouldn’t be able to start together up top. It was not an issue.
The professional wheelchair division blasted off at 8 am and the winner, Marcel Hug, from Switzerland, finished 1:31:34 later. That’s a 3:30 pace! Madison de Rozario from Australia was the first woman, with a time of 1:51:01. We were probably still on the bus when these amazing athletes finished. One year, the wind was so bad that the wheelchair racers had to begin on the other side of the bridge because of safety concerns! We were lucky with the weather — it was a beautiful fall day. (Per the NYRR website, it was 44 degrees at the start and 51 at the finish with wind 6 mph.)
We got hats from Dunkin’ (I was very excited about this!) and relaxed until it was time for our wave — the last one. We chatted with other team members and watched the elite women on the big screen tv. They looked like gazelles, so strong and graceful. Wow.
We had brought a yoga mat along with some garbage bags and extra clothes, so we could stay warm and dry while we waited. And waited.
Before we started, the elites had finished! Africa swept the women’s podium, with Peres Jepchirchir and Viola Cheptoo of Kenya placing first and second and Ababel Yeshaneh of Ethiopia finishing third. They were so close! (2:22:39, 2:22:44, and 2:22:52) Peres won the gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics and the bronze medalist, Molly Seidel of the US, finished fourth and broke the American record (while running with broken ribs), with a time of 2:24:42. The men’s winner was Albert Korir, also of Kenya, who had a 4:54 pace and 2:08:22 time. Second and third were Mohamed El Aaraby (Moracco, 2:09:06) and Eyob Faniel (Italy, 2:09:52). Elkanah Kibet, running for the US Army team, was the first American finisher and 4th overall (and won his 35 - 39 age group) with a time of 2:11:15.
Eventually, our wave was called and we started lining up in the Blue corral. After discarding some of our outer layers (and pinning my new hat to my back so it looked like a tail) we met Ken, who was pacing for the 4:55 time. He has run hundreds of marathons, including one in Indianapolis the previous day! We posed for another race photographer as we began the trek to the start line. We both had signs I had made on our backs. Mine said "Today We Can! Running for my twins" and Dan's was "First Marathon! Running for my brothers." Our name tags were sticky fabric letters that I had laminated as well. They worked great!
A runner sang the Star Spangled Banner, the cannons boomed, and we were off! We ran on the right side of the Verrazzano and could see a police helicopter really close by. Dan and I both jumped up on the partition to take a few pictures with the bridge span behind us and kept reminding ourselves to take it slow. It is so easy with the crowds and adrenaline to go out too fast and have nothing left in the tank later. That happened to me on my first marathon, but I have learned. We were passed by a former pacer who was wearing a garbage bag. She nodded approvingly, “old school” at our socks for sleeves.
The bridge from Staten Island is the first of five and the biggest incline of the day. After about two miles, we entered Brooklyn, where we saw our first spectators. (They are not allowed at the start.) Signs were everywhere and there was great energy. At one point, the road narrowed and the crowd packed the streets. We were offered tissues, oranges, candy, bananas, pretzels, and vaseline, among other things, throughout the race. There were also official water/gatorade stations at almost every mile and gels at miles 12 and 18. We saw Mom and Bill, my brother, with the “Runner Moms Rock” sign around mile 8 or so and gave them the sleeves, hats, and gloves. A little bit lighter, we journeyed onward!
We snapped a selfie at the 13.1 mile marker on the Pulaski bridge between Brooklyn and Queens and were excited that we were half-way there! My pacing band had fallen off at some point, so Dan was tracking our mileage and time against his. We knew we needed to pick up the tempo a little if we were going to finish under 5 hours.
After Queens, we crossed the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan. There are no spectators allowed on the bridge, so it was quiet. I was getting tired and was happy to stop for another selfie with the city behind us. I remember Dan talking to me about rowing (he's on the crew team at school), but don’t remember many details.
We exited the bridge and ran into loud and excited crowds on 1st Avenue. This is one of the highlights of the course, as folks are so enthusiastic. Their support really helps runners, for miles 16 - 19 or so. You can start to taste the finish, but it’s still a long way to go! Since Dan and I had our names on our shirts, we heard them shouted throughout the whole course, which is a lot of fun!
Bill and Mom were at about mile 17, so we saw them briefly as we ran by. Around mile 18, we picked up the pace and my Garmin said we were under 8 minute miles. I don’t think so! Our official splits said 10:18, which is much more reasonable for me at this point in the race. Around this time, we started seeing the 5:00 pacers, so we knew we were on target for our sub five goal. We would pass one and then she would overtake us when we walked through the water stations. I was so annoyed each time she caught up! But in 2019, I passed the pacer just in the last 200 meters, so I knew we were running faster than I did then.
We crossed the Willis Avenue Bridge into the Bronx, pausing for a photographer, and exited about two miles later. We asked a police officer to take a picture on the “Last Damn Bridge” (Madison Avenue Bridge) and then asked him to take it again to get Emily’s LDB sign in it. Emily is out every year at that location to encourage runners with words and snacks. She is a legend and a hero to the runners on Runar’s NYC Help page and I think everyone was excited to see her. We knew the end was near, but after 20 miles we were now embarking on a longer distance than we had done in training.
In Harlem, we reentered Manhattan and just kept running. Eventually, we ended up on 5th Avenue, where it’s nice to see the street numbers going down! I wished I had paid more attention to the course, as I was excited to get into Central Park and didn’t know how far it was. (Now I know -- we entered Manhattan at 138th and turned into the park around 90th.) When we finally approached the rolling hills of the park about mile 24, I was really starting to fade. We were still running faster than we did the first half, so a sub-five was well within our grasp. Every so often, I would see Dan out of the corner of my eye raising his arms and pointing at me to get the crowd to cheer my name. It was a sweet gesture.
We saw Bill and Mom for an instant in the park and Dan gave them my visor and headphones (which I had not used at all!). I look exhausted in a series of pictures in which I didn’t notice the photographer, but I perked right up and smiled for the next camera a few minutes later!
The longest .2 of the course for me was just after we reentered Central Park. I couldn’t see the finish line, but I knew it was there. I was so tired at this point and Dan was holding my hand and helping me get to the end through force of will. I managed to smile and put my free hand up and Dan did a mighty jump as we crossed the line. We finished together at 4:55:33, which was almost exactly 4 minutes faster than I ran in 2019 (4:59:43). We had a negative split of about 11 minutes (the second half was that much faster than the first). We met the pacer we had kept seeing a few minutes later. Louisa said she had noticed us too and wondered who we were that everyone kept cheering! Our bright yellow names really stood out!
Dan and I hugged and then got our finishers medals and recovery bag. It was glorious! There is so much joy at the finish line and such a communal feeling of accomplishment. I tried to jump, but could barely get off the ground. We received our ponchos and both of us were teary-eyed. Dan said he couldn’t remember the last time he cried. I was really proud of us and all the finishers, including a mother-daughter couple we had met at the start and saw at the finish. Parent-child runner pairs are awesome!
After a few final pictures in front of the NYRR banner, we headed out to find Mom and Bill. Since we started so late, it was getting dark by this point. We had planned to meet them on 71st Street, but we exited the park south of that this year and we were not about to walk a single extra step! Finally, Bill found us and we piled on the extra clothes he had carried all day. Mom had tripped earlier, so she waited for us back at the hotel. We visited with them for a little while and Bill picked up far too much take-out for dinner. They left for the bus home and Dan and I went to bed early! He slept wearing his medal. We both slept well.
Overall, 25,390 athletes started and 25,017 were listed as finishers on the NYRR website, with 45.45% women and 54.49% men. Sixteen people identified themselves as non-binary. The oldest man was 83 and the oldest woman 81 years old. An impressive 98.5% of starters finished the race, a huge percentage! This year especially people felt so fortunate to be able to run. The race was cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic and this was the 50th running! I imagine that those 373 runners dropped out very reluctantly. In 2019, there were 53,627 finishers, but this year there was a cap of 33,000 runners. Many international folks were not able to enter the country before the November 8 travel ban lifted. Despite that, 91 countries were represented, along with all 50 states and DC.
Shalane Flanagan, a retired professional runner and previous winner, completed her goal of six major marathons in six weeks with a strong finish in New York. She ran 2:33:32, her fastest time of the six (Berlin, London, Chicago, Boston (back-to-back days!) and Tokyo virtually). Larry Trachtenberg was the only one of the original 1970 marathoners (entry fee $1!) to compete in the 50th. Chelsea Clinton also finished, beating her goal of 4 hours with a 3:59:09 time. A duck ran part of the course, but not the whole 26.2 miles. It even had special little shoes!
The next morning, we wandered back to the finish line to celebrate Marathon Monday. It’s fun to wear the medal and trade looks of respect with other runners. There’s such a feeling of camaraderie and it’s lovely to be congratulated by random strangers. We skipped the long line for engraving (we did it locally when Dan came home for Thanksgiving) and checked the New York Times when we entered the building. Our names were in it! In 2019, I was too slow to make the cut, but there were so many fewer runners this year that they listed people up to 8:28:54. The last entry was Benisse Lester, a 65 year old woman. Dan was listed as Garrou Miltenberger and they really had to squeeze the letters together to make his name fit! We bought two copies and headed in to check out the merch!
We bought a few things and left the pavilion to take a few final pictures with the marathon backdrop and the statue of Fred Lebow, a long-time president of NYRR and a key figure in the marathon’s history. We finally said farewell (see you next year?), gathered our luggage from the hotel, and walked down to Port Authority to catch the bus back to Allentown. Dan said hello and goodbye to my parents, his uncle, and the twins, and returned to Richmond.
And then, after so many months and miles, the Marathon was over! Fortunately, the glory and self-satisfaction last a lifetime. It’s such a cool thing that Dan was able to do his first official Marathon in New York City at the age of 19. What an accomplishment! (He then rowed in a crew regatta in Georgia the following weekend.) The fact that he slowed his pace to stay with his mother is a great tribute to his character and kindness. I don’t think I need to say how proud I am of him, but I will anyway. Dan, you are amazing! I am so glad we could do this journey together. Thank you again to everyone who donated and to my mother and brother for making the trip to New York (from California for Bill) just to see us run by a few times. And Tom and James, for being the "why." We love you all!
Here are a few websites that were super helpful during training and in writing this summary.
New York Road Runners (NYRR) Marathon Page:
Their app is also really good.
Race stats and results:
Article about the duck:
Runar's webpage. He is a Norwegian who has run NYC 45 times! He also manages a facebook page that is excellent!
The NYRR Coaching Lab Facebook group was also helpful. I think it has been disbanded now that the Marathon is over. I participated with a few of their live chats, which were fun and I learned a lot.
I also read some running-related books this fall. They include:
Mile Markers: The 26.2 Most Important Reasons Why Women Run by Kristin Armstrong
26 Marathons: What I learned about faith, identity, running, and life from my marathon career, by Meb Keflezighi
A Race Like No Other, by Liz Robbins
Showdown at Shepherd's Bush: the 1908 Olympic marathon and the three runners who launched a sporting craze, by David Davis
Triumph: the untold story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics, by Jeremy Scrap
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