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Friday, November 1, 2013

New York City Marathon: What To Expect Sunday

Eric Dixon is a veteran 10-time marathoner (personal best: 3:34) who declined to run the 2014 New York Marathon to protest the New York Road Runners' initial decision to run the race after Hurricane Sandy despite relief efforts occurring virtually alongside the race route.  Mr. Dixon much prefers the Philadelphia Marathon and Long Island Marathon and is scheduled to run both (this month and next May, respectively). Forget the "experts." Here is candid advice from someone who's actually run the race...and ended up in the hospital one year as a result!

While the New York City Marathon is a challenging course for the most experienced world-class runners, weather conditions for this Sunday's 2013 New York City Marathon will be especially difficult for all competitors.

Let me stop holding you in suspense: All but the fastest runners should expect significantly slower times Sunday due to the wind. Taking five percent off your goal time should be a good expectation (that means a three-hour racer should expect to run about 10 minutes slower; a four-hour racer, about 12 to 15 minutes slower).

First, the weather. The temperature forecast has been steadily dropping all week, and now the official National Weather Service forecast is for highs Sunday in the upper 40s.  This would be ideal, except for the wind. A brisk wind of 15 to 20 miles per hour will be blasting runners. Even worse, it will come from the north-northwest.  This means runners will be going into the wind virtually the entire first 20 miles! 

UPDATE: For current National Weather Service forecasts for New York City, click here.  NWS now predicts gusts upwards of 20 miles per hour, mainly from the north, lasting throughout the morning and early afternoon -- right during the Marathon. 

What are the effects of this? Runners will feel much colder, and in fact should dress for conditions in the mid-30s.  In addition, the wind is a factor not just for cutting times and comfort, but also poses a safety hazard.  The wind tunnel effect from the numerous buildings and skyscrapers means runners should expect particle debris and flying debris during the race and will need eye protection. Sunglasses or googles are well-advised.  

As for spectators, you are all fools for standing for hours on the side of the road. (Do what my wife does: she stays home and waits for the 911 call to tell her which hospital I've ended up in!)(Seriously, that did happen one year when it was very humid and I cramped up before the race.) Anyone watching the race in person will be miserable. Even worse, New York City has an open container rule, so you cannot -- repeat, cannot -- get drunk while watching the race in person.  Find a good pub where you can at least relieve yourself in semi-privacy for a few hours.   

Back to the race.  Runners will face immediate discomfort upon starting the race.  The first mile is one mile straight up the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.  This is the longest suspension bridge in the world and so long that its construction and design account for the curvature of the Earth!  Do not be impressed by that fact, for it hurts your time. (See below.)  But much worse for the unsuspecting runner is the tendency of thousands of other runners, with little or no running experience, little or no business running a competitive race of any distance and similarly, no experience holding their water, to urinate off the side of the roadway after the race has begun! Remember I mentioned the wind? That means all that bodily effluent will be blown back into the faces of other runners -- so upon beginning the race you will be covered in sticky urine from absolute bloody strangers!  This is not a factor that contributes to enhanced running times, and it is not a good idea to ever start a marathon sprinting up a one-mile bridge for any reason (hygienic or otherwise). You've been warned. 

Coping mechanisms? Resist the impulse to push these runners off the bridge in a fit of earned anger. Keep going straight ahead. Run at close to the middle of the bridge as possible, so there are always several runners between you and the side of the roadway to get in the path of all aerosolized urine particles. (And do not -- repeat, do not -- show this column to anyone who is meeting you after the race.) 

The Verrazano Narrows Bridge will hurt your time. Use mile one as a warmup to get loose (as your other runners get loose with their fluids).  Don't watch the watch until after mile two which is on the other side of the bridge.  Anticipate running these two miles at least one minute per mile behind your "goal time" or "pace time" for various factors including the arc of the bridge and the crush of the crowd -- another 40,000 runners sharing a race course designed for 10,000 (an excellent reason to avoid the New York race altogether and run Philadelphia instead). 

After the bridge, you are in Brooklyn and headed due north for about seven miles. This is the best part of the race -- friendly crowd, few tourists, real New Yorkers, and a flat and relatively pothole-free course -- and your chance to settle in on your pace.  Find taller runners to run behind so you can use their height as wind resistance, and "draft" behind them. The lessened wind resistance may gain you a few seconds each mile and you'll be thankful for that later on.

In northern Brooklyn, once you are off Fourth Avenue's straightaway and right after you run past the Barclays Center, you start to get into a zigzag of narrowing streets.  This section (the miles 10-13) is also the first point where you should take those energy gels for energy.  Before this point they do little but now you have spent a considerable part of your stored energy.  Take a gel pack but keep the rest for miles 13 and after.  That's when you'll need them. 

If you are on your pace you will already be running past a substantial number of runners who have no idea and no business running a marathon or even a 10-mile race. Don't let this fool you. You are keeping pace, that's all. Now start watching the watch carefully. Fatigue may already set in even in the first half of the race -- even if you've trained properly -- so make sure each mile you are no more than 10-15 seconds behind goal pace. If you fall behind, pump up the intensity right away on the next mile, because the second half of the course is no place to gain time.  

Moving towards the halfway mark of the race, you'll cross a small bridge into Queens.  The course should be opening up for you as stragglers struggling with the distance really start to flag. The downside, however, is that the course becomes much more difficult.

At mile 15 you'll start to move onto the Queensborough (aka Edward I. Koch) Bridge. Another mile up a bridge, and this one is worse than the Verrazano, for while it is shorter and not as high, it is steeper. This is the most serious physical test of the race. Keep moving at all costs, even if you walk.  To stop at this point is to kill any chance at your goal time. And now is the time to have a gel pack since you're not going to be able to run at full speed anyway, not on a steep incline. This will stave off energy depletion which will start to hit you on the Manhattan side of the bridge.

Coming off the bridge, you'll enter First Avenue and the roar of the crowd.  By this time, you'll be covered in a crust of dried liquids of various origin and in no mood to share any emotion with the crowd that can be expressed in a family blog. If you have friends waiting for you on First Avenue, DO have them have a beer (I suggest a can of Guinness) ready for you.  This is serious advice! After two or three hours of running, you do not need more water. You need carbohydrates and beer has that! (And beer is healthier than Gatorade, which I consider nothing but a mix of high fructose corn syrup, water and food coloring.)

On First Avenue you are going up a barely perceptible incline.  Be prepared to have your speed suddenly drop 15-20 seconds per mile. Immediately crank up your engines if that occurs. Watch your watch carefully and look for each mile marker. You are getting close to the "wall" which for humans may feel like a downshift on the transmission.  I have literally felt the wall, knowing the exact moment I've just hit "E" on the meter. It's a wild feeling and it is physical -- it's glycogen depletion -- and knowing that will actually help you cope with the mental side.  By this point, you are in Spanish Harlem and running by steakhouses. Get your mind off the food.  Use your remaining energy gels now -- they won't do you any good after mile 21 or so as you'll be done or close to the finish before you absorb the sugar. Head north past miles 18 and 19.

Crossing into the Bronx and another bridge, you'll now have survived the most grueling six miles I know as a runner. You're approaching mile 20 and now these are a different challenge.  The sun will be going down by this point -- it may be 2pm but the shadows come early in November -- and the cold and wind will mean you'll be feeling cold if you don't keep pace and generate enough heat to compensate for wet clothing (and your clothes will get soaked no matter what wicking material you wear!).  Another reason to keep moving.  If you must stop, you must stay warm and seek shelter immediately.

The Bronx portion is short and you cross back into Manhattan and head south towards Fifth Avenue. There are fewer people now and this can be a grind. Get your last water about mile 22 -- after this the water you take will not be absorbed by your body in time to help you finish -- and then plow through Central Park at miles 23 and thereafter.  Crossing the park is great and these last three miles will be the enjoyment you've been promised.  Trust me, miles 23-26 are easier than miles 13-23.  

Finally, after the race, keep moving as much as possible.  This will keep you from getting stiff. And avoid stairs if at all possible for about two or three days.  But the better conditioned among you will be able to run -- yes, run -- by Wednesday. Trust me. 

When he is not chasing like "60 Minutes'" Mike Wallace after other people, deadbeats or mail carriers, Mr. Dixon is an experienced corporate and regulatory attorney handling cases, investigative matters and sensitive other matters for personal, business and political clients in New York and New Jersey. 

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