10 Things You Need to Know about Running the New York City Marathon (That Have Nothing to Do with Running)

Updated: October 28, 2021

I’ve run the NYC Marathon seven times—most recently in 2014. It’s a terrific race, and if this is your first time, you’re going to be in for a treat. No doubt you’ve scanned every single article/blog and watched every single video about how to run the course, and so on. I also assume you’ve read about making sure you have all your items ready the day before, so you’re not frantically trying to find that bottle of vaseline the morning of. Good job. I’m here to give you a few pieces of advice that you may not have come across and that I (natch) think you’ll find useful. Because I’m revising this seven years after last running NYC (the 2021 race will be my first marathon in seven years. Yikes!), some of the details may be out of date or not applicable to the new COVID reality. But the general advice, I think, is solid.

1. The Staten Island Ferry time you’ve been given is not a deadline. So, you’ve booked your baggage/no baggage thing, and clipped your toenails and packed your goo, and you’re (rightly) going to use the SI Ferry to get to the start. You’ve been assigned a time with your registration form and it’s on your bib, and you fear that there are people at the terminal ready to turn you away if you take the 7:00 a.m. ferry when you have a 6:30 slot. Don’t worry. Everyone’s way too sleepy and there are far too many other runners streaming on to the ferry for anyone to check. Now, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the “correct” ferry. Why? Not because the ferry might sink because there are too many people on it (don’t be silly!) but because of Thing #2. . . .

2. The bus ride from the ferry might take thirty minutes or more. You are going to leave the terminal and it’s going to be cold. You’ll make your way to a line of (school) buses that will fill up with people just like you and drive you to the starting area. In recent years, New York Road Runners has been trying to shorten the time it takes, but it’s still a trek. If you’re a worrywart like me, and you don’t want to waste energy getting nervous, take an earlier ferry. The ride is beautiful, and the sun (you have already creatively visualized a beautiful day) will be rising over the bridge you’ll be running over in a few hours. It’s your day; make the most of it.

3. Be prepared for the Village experience. I’m not talking about Greenwich Village or M. Night Shyamalan’s execrable movie. I’m talking about the place where you will be spending the next couple of hours, once you get off that bus. You have been told it is cold and to bring lots of old clothes that you can throw off ecstatically. Do that. What are you being brave for? I’ve bought an old sweatshirt, hoodie, and gloves from Goodwill just for such purposes. The clothes you throw away will make it back to Goodwill, and may be ready for you the following year!

4. Bring a robust black trash bag. Cut a hole beforehand in the bottom for you to put your head through and then slide it on once you get into your corral. You’ll be amazed how warm (and dry) you’ll be once you’ve gotten rid of all your other clothes. If you want, you can cut holes in the sides to slip your arms through, but if you’re like me that might be too fashion forward for your taste.

5. Use your old heat sheets. Remember that heat sheet they gave you at the end of your last marathon or half-marathon that you put away in a draw as a memento? Why not honor your last effort by using it to keep warm before the race? Don’t worry: they’ll likely give you another one at the end of it.

6. Bring a broken-down cardboard box to sit on. It’ll be wet or dewy, even muddy, as you sit on the grass listening to the polyglot recorded message welcoming you over and over to the athletes’ village. You need to keep your bottom dry, and a cardboard box is just about the only thing you can bring to the place that security hasn’t prohibited as an offensive weapon.

7. Talk to people. Yeah, I know it’s early and it’s cold, and it took you fifty minutes to get coffee from the Dunkin’ Donuts stand. And, sure, you wanna get in the zone and psych yourself up. Plus, you bought six copies of The Economist that you haven’t read yet. But, you know what? You can’t concentrate and you’ve got plenty of time to get your game face on. In fact, your aim should be to psych yourself down so you don’t find yourself speeding through Brooklyn alongside a willowy Kenyan and crashing into The Wall before you leave Queens. Perhaps you think everyone else around you is too cool (temperamentally speaking) to talk to you. They aren’t. They’re just as nervous, excited, cold, and freaked out as you. Find out where they’re from; practice your Swedish; give and take some advice; wish them luck. If nothing else, conversation will eat away the many, many minutes you have to wait.

8. There are portapotties everywhere. You will need to pee. A lot. A combination of nerves, unnecessary amounts of pre-dawn energy drink, and necessary amounts of coffee will make you want to use the bathroom. DO NOT WORRY. There are toilets at the ferry terminal (Manhattan side). There are toilets on the ferry. There are toilets at the terminal (Staten Island side).* There are portapotties before you get on the bus. There are portapotties when you get off the bus. There are portapotties in the village. There are portapotties in or near your corral. You could spend the entire time lining up for portapotty after portapotty if you wanted. (Note: portapotties arrangements change frequently.) The one place that matters is your corral. For which reason: Thing #9.

9. Get in line for the portapotty as soon as you near or enter your corral. You’ll be in this densely populated area for perhaps 30 minutes before you move toward the bridge, so you want to avail yourself of the facilities. You could hop into a portapotty further toward the front once you start inching forward to the start, because that corral will have moved on, but that means you’ll lose your place in the line up, if that concerns you (which it shouldn’t). Why does any of this matter? Because beyond the corrals, that’s it: no room or place to pee or anything else (apart from off the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge itself, but that’s another story) . . . except for all the portapotties en route, between miles 3 and 25.

10. Breathe. Before the national anthem is sung, before the elites are introduced, before the cannon goes off, and before some semblance of Francis Albert requests that you start spreading the news, just take a second. You are about to run 26 miles and 385 yards, accompanied by tens of thousands of other runners from all over the world, cheered on by more than a million people, serenaded by scores of bands of all types and abilities, and on a course that takes you through neighborhoods that encompass virtually all of humanity’s countries of origin and language groups. You might feel overwhelmed or you might be jazzed by all the hoopla. Don’t matter now. It’s your race, your moment. All those training runs, the plyometric exercises, the track work, and days when it wasn’t even light out when you were tying your shoelaces (oh, by the way: double-knot those laces!): this is what it’s about. This. Right now. Right here. So, breathe. And then go have a blast.

* It’s early on Sunday morning, and they may be closed.

About martinrowe

I am the executive director of the Culture & Animals Foundation, the co-founder of Lantern Publishing & Media, and the author, editor, and ghostwriter of several works of fiction and non-fiction. I live in Brooklyn, New York.
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