4:30 or Bust: A Quest for Marathon Mediocrity

New York City Marathon Race Report

with 3 comments

What a great day.  And long.

Early to Rise

My bus ticket read 4am.  That is very early.  I’m typically an early arriver at races (I was the one on the 6:30 ferry before the 9:40 Staten Island Half Marathon), but this is ridiculous.  It was my choice though.  Race organizers encouraged people to take the Staten Island ferry as a way to get a later start, but I chose the bus.  With the earlier start times this year, they need to ensure they get all the buses to the start very early.  I guess this translates into starting at 4am.  I know it is a guideline, and I’m sure I would have been just fine arriving at the bus at 6am, but I decided to play within the rules and get to the bus at my appointed time.

Anyway, this translated into a 3am wake up time.  Boy is that early.  I got most of my gear out the night before but hadn’t really thought through what to wear before the race.  At 3am, the temperature was 45 degrees.  Not bad, thought I, should be able to get by with just a light pair of gloves and my running windbreaker jacket.  Ditched the heavier jacket because I was concerned that the bag provided by New York Road Runners would not be able to hold it.  I always go to and from races in my normal sneakers and change into my running shoes at the race, which takes up a lot of space in the bag.  Anyway, I didn’t have the foresight to realize it would get colder before it gets warmer and that I’d have to spend hours outside before the start of the race.

Was out of the house at 3:40, stopped off at a bodega for some Gatorade and snacks at the Hot and Crusty on 14th and 1st to get a bagel (nice to have a 24 hour bagel store in the area) and then hopped on a cab to 42nd St.

Bus Ride

The early morning scene at the corner of 5th Ave and 42nd street is amazing.  The buses are 3 lanes deep, going back as far as the eye can see up 5th Ave.  You have never, ever, seen so many buses in one place.  It was just after 4 when I arrived.  I’m always pretty early to the bus loading area and have usually been able to hop right onto the line without having to walk all the way down to 6th and snake back the line to 5th.  However, this time, even at just after 4am, the bus line was very long.  They clearly got the word out that the loading of the buses needed to happen early.  Was in a huge crowd of people walking down the line from 5th to 6th Ave, and then back to 5th.  Was also a huge line of people across 42nd St heading to 5th Ave.  Once those poor people got to 5th and got on line, they’d need to go again to 6th and then again to 5th.  Lot of walking involved!  Anyway, they directed us way down to 39th St, where we boarded the bus.

I’m a quiet guy, and pretty much like to keep to myself.  Luckily, I sat next to someone who didn’t feel like talking either, so I was able to eat my bagel and listen to my tunes in peace.  I enjoy the peacefulness of the bus ride. The buses go down 5th to 23rd St and then across to the FDR drive.  The route took us past where I park my car on 23rd and FDR, and past Stuyvesant Town, where I live.

Riding the bus made me think about my previously fastest marathon, Big Sur.  The Big Sur marathon is a straight line down the Pacific Coast from Big Sur to Carmel.  So, you need to take a bus 26 miles up the coast to get to the start.  2 thoughts came to mind.  First, I’ll always remember the lonely curvy coast road, and seeing the long line of buses heading to the start – it was a beautiful image.  The second thought was that the Big Sur start was the most nerve wracking ever for me because the bus got us to the start with very little time to hit the bathrooms, check the bags and get to the starting line.  I had an awesome race that day with very little time to chill at the start.  Today would be the opposite, the early bus would have me to the start 5 full hours before the cannon would blow.  I enjoy reminiscing about this race, as it gives me a lot of inspiration.  In fact, my Big Sur shirt ended up being my outer layer.  3 people chatted with me about Big Sur as they passed by me, which was fun.  One guy even ran it the same year I did, 2005.

Pre Start

Cold.  Very cold.  Very, very cold.  Focused on a bit of eating, lots of porto-potty visits, and 30 minute spurts of laying out on the ground and trying to nap.  It seemed to get colder and colder as time went on, even after the sun came up.  It was a bit windy, and I really felt it without the heavier jacket and the 1 thin layer of gloves.  When I loaded my bag up on the UPS truck, I made the very hard decision to hang onto my favorite long sleeve cotton shirt that I almost always wear before and after winter races and after fall softball games.  With the weather as cold as it was, I just did not think I would survive 90 minutes before the race start without the added layer.  Anyway, I hope it gets donated to someone who uses it well!

I knew that the corrals loaded up for wave 2 at 9:15, so determined that I needed to get my bag loaded on the truck by 8:30 and then get to my last bathroom visit so I would not get caught up in the giant crowds.  NYRR had a great idea with the wave starts, and I think it definitely helped ease congestion on the course.  However, the corral loading areas were just short of a mob scene.  Wave 1 corrals were to close at 9:10, however, it was clear that many wave 1 people had no idea.  Even at 9:20, they were still coming.  Finally, the corrals were closed, but there were many very upset people that did whatever was necessary, including rushing the poor high school girls volunteering at the corrals.  There were several fights.  For next year, NYRR needs to get the word out about when the corral times close, and need to get real security people out there to keep the peace.  There were a few moments where I thought angry runners who missed their start time were going to break down the fences and rush the volunteers.

There was excitement everywhere as we heard the 9:40 cannon boom at the start of wave 1.  Then shortly we started our slow walk to the start, heard our cannon, and made our way across the start.  I crossed the start within 3 or 4 minutes.

Early Miles

Although I felt slightly robbed at having to run on the lower level of the bridge, in the green start, it was still awesome and beautiful to cross the Verrazano Bridge and see the New York skyline in the distance.  Mile 1 is uphill on the bridge, then mile 2 is the down side of the bridge.  In the green start, mile 3 continues on the Gowanus Expressway, and so you do not get to experience the first bit of 4th Ave crowd.  After the 5k mark, you hit 4th Ave and the big crowds.  Much of 4th Ave is very loud and has wonderful crowds.  I love that section of the race, when you are still feeling fresh.  I did really well early on.  While these miles were faster than the 9:45 I was expected, I was definitely holding back.

  • Mile 1 – 9:52
  • Mile 2 – 9:17
  • Mile 3 – 9:19
  • Mile 4 – 9:22
  • Mile 5 – 9:36

Miles 6-10

Miles 6-8 take you on the upper part of 4th Ave.  As I said, for the most part the crowds on 4th Ave are great.  The biggest problem on that part of the course are the water stops.  Water and Gatorade is available on both the left and right sides, and the running space is a bit narrow.  The problem is that lots of people stop to drink and walk, making it is hard to run through.  My technique was to grab a cup, run past the last table, then move over to the side to drink.  It worked pretty well for me.

Somewhere around mile 6 I passed ‘naked guy’.  Well he was almost naked.  Just wearing some kind of thong covering up the critical body part – and otherwise very much naked.  I thought I had left this guy in the dust, but apparently not, because I passed him again in the 24th mile.  As bad as I felt at that late point in the race, he was looking worse.  Crowd still got a kick out of seeing him. (UPDATE: see picture here!  I missed it in my assessment, but read elsewhere that this was a Borat homage)

Mile 8 is where all the courses converge and everyone is running together.  It is also where we take the turn to Lafayette Ave to go through Fort Greene.  The crowd here is so loud and enthusiastic and has so much amazing energy that it is one of my favorite spots on the course. 

I was continuing to feel really good in those miles, and still trying to slightly hold back.  My miles were still in the range just under 10 per mile.   Looking back, I’m real happy with my consistency.  You will notice that each mile from 2 through 10 was in the same range, just slightly slower each mile.

  • Mile 6 – 9:31
  • Mile 7 – 9:40
  • Mile 8 – 9:47
  • Mile 9 – 9:51
  • Mile 10 – 9:58

Miles 11-15

This part of the course is where you make the transitions from Bed Stuy to the orthodox jewish part of Williamsburg to the young/hipster section of Williamsburg.  Williamsburg is another area that has really great crowds, in particular from the Williamsburg Bridge up to McCarren Park.  Last year, I let myself get carried away by the crowds in this section and pushed myself too hard.  This time, I continued to try to hold back.  After passing through Greenpoint, we hit the Pulaski Bridge and the halfway point of the race.  In my plan, to get to 4:30, I was hoping to finish the first half in the 2:05 – 2:10 range.  I crossed the half mark at about exactly 2:07:30.  Since I was still feeling good at the time, at hit my first half exactly on schedule, I was very happy with how things were going. 

I have mixed emotions about the Queens portion of the race.  It is one of my least favorite parts.  While most of the race is point to point, this part of the race seems to be circuitous, with lots of turns.  Even though the portion is less than 2 miles, all the turns make it seem longer.  In my previous NYC Marathon attempts, this would be the point where I’d start feeling tired and anxious about the 59th St Bridge upcoming.  Also, when the weather is not so great, the crowd is much smaller here.  This year though, I breezed through and even felt good enough to run the entire uphill of the 59th St Bridge.  I had definitely not done that before in the marathon.  In looking back, I think this is where I did get a little caught up in my success, and perhaps running the entire uphill was not the smartest move.  It is hard to tell, but I wonder if I walked up part of the bridge, would that have given me a little extra energy to push harder in the critical miles after 18?

  • Mile 11 – 10:08
  • Mile 12 – 10:01
  • Mile 13 – 9:57
  • Mile 14 – 10:00
  • Mile 15 – 10:23

Miles 16-20

The 16 mile mark is on the downhill side of the 59th St bridge.  The bridge is very cool, and very quiet.  The transition from the bridge to 1st Ave is typically billed as one of the most exciting parts of the race, where the amazing 1st Ave crowd boosts you all the way up the Ave.  While the crowds on 59th St and the early part of 1st Ave were huge, they were, by and large, surprisingly quiet.  One lady running in our group actually had to try to whip the crowd up into making some noise.  Another guy running nearby verbally expressed his disappointment of the crowd reaction.  To me, the word sterile is what came to mind.  1st Ave is so wide, and the crowd is kept all the way back to the sidewalk, that it seems like there is a big separation between the crowd and runners.   I think that is part of the reason why there was less crowd excitment. 

Anyway, the crowd got way more vocal as we made our way up 1st Ave.  In those miles up the Ave, I started taking more walking breaks.  At one point, there is a Poland Spring water stop where they distribute water sponges.  That was very refreshing!  My splits at this point were still under 11 minutes per mile, and I really felt like I was in good shape for 4:30.  I took another extended walk break up the Willis Ave Bridge, and got to mile 20 at 3:20:35.  At that point, I had 6.2 miles to go and 69+ minutes left.  11:15 per mile.   The 20th mile was the first one over 11 minutes, so I felt like I still had a chance.

  • Mile 16 – 10:19
  • Mile 17 – 10:08
  • Mile 18 – 10:49
  • Mile 19 – 10:46
  • Mile 20 – 11:42

Miles 21-26.2

The combination of taking my 2nd Gu around that time, and the amazing energy of the crowd in the Bronx gave me a nice lift.  My 21st mile was strong.  I guess in the 22nd mile is when I first started feeling some pain in my right knee.  I started stopping to stretch, and could sense 4:30 slipping away.  My best and last chance was turning it up in the last 2 miles in Central Park.  I was hoping to run those in 10 minute miles.  In the half marathon distance, I can usually summon up the will to run a very strong final 2 miles.  The marathon is a different story though.  To my advantage, although Central Park is hilly, the tendency is downhill, and I’m very, very familiar with the course.  In the end though, my knee was acting up and I had to keep stopping to stretch it out.  

The finish was cool.  I ran the last 1.2 miles in less than 13 minutes and thoroughly enjoyed the final stretch.  The finish area was definitely less crowded than last year, due to the wave starts, but was still very, very slow and congested.  It took a good 20 minutes to get my bag and get out of the park.  Subway ride home was pretty quick.  The hot shower was awesome.  Then I just layed out on the couch and watched some of the TV coverage I had recorded.  By 6:30 I was napping and on my way to sleeping for the night!

  • Mile 21 – 10:46
  • Mile 22 – 11:45
  • Mile 23 – 11:24
  • Mile 24 – 12:06
  • Mile 25 – 11:57
  • Mile 26 – 10:52
  • Mile 26.2 – 1:58


My final time was 4:31:25.  While not quite the 4:30 I was shooting for, I was very happy with it.  My strongest marathons have always been in the spring, and my previous fastest NY was 4:50.  Last year I finished in 4:51.  I effectively cut my time down by 20 minutes since last year.  Only 1 of the miles was slower than 12 minutes.  Last year I had 9 miles slower than 12 minutes.  Even my previous fastest (4:37 at Big Sur) had 5 miles slower than 12 minutes.

My place was 22580.  With 37750 official finishers, I still have not reached my goal of marathon mediocrity (50th percentile for this race was 4:19ish).   I still feel like there is room for improvement.  I’m also inspired by some of the other bloggers I follow who have had lots of success in their own training and races this year.  With the Austin Marathon in Feb (where I know I’ll break 4:30), and the NYC Triathlon in July, I’ll be assured of lots of strong training in the next year.  I wonder how much more time I can cut out next year?  Another 20 minutes?  Can I get to 4:19?  Only time will tell…


Written by SCL

November 5, 2008 at 10:45 pm

Posted in Race Report

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3 Responses

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  1. Fantastic, detailed race report. Loved it!! Really made me feel like I was running beside you. I have save your race report for me to study for when I run NYC in 2009.

    One question though, how can you remember all the details? LOL, I find in long races, after I cross the finish line, my mind goes blank. LOL Again, loved your report!!!!!!

    I know not a PR, but a well run race!! Congrats


    November 6, 2008 at 1:25 pm

  2. And so much was left out as it was! You’ll notice how less detailed it gets as the race wears on. The painful parts definitely get blocked out.

    I really didn’t talk about all the crowd support in the last 3 miles. It was really amazing. Every time I stopped to walk or stretch, people were encouraging me to go on (with true sincerity, rather than the idiots you typically see who yell “almost there” when you are not almost there).

    At one point in the last mile I stopped to deep knee bend, and I could hear 2 people whisper about their concern for me. After my knee bend, I popped up and continued on the run and I’m sure they cheered for me!


    November 6, 2008 at 5:10 pm

  3. […] My 2009 experience, including expo, can be found in several installments.  I’ve also got my 2008 race report here. […]

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