New York City Marathon Recap by Coach Chris Bailey

Several people have asked me to share more about my race and how I prepared for it. I decided to write a recap as a way to share my experience, but also so that I could remember the experience for years to come. I believe that reflecting on goal races and training cycles, whether you meet your goal(s) or not, is how we learn and adapt before we chase the next goal. After this race recap, I also plan to write about the lessons I learned training for the race, and how I apply those lessons in working with the athletes I coach.

The idea to run the New York City Marathon (NYCM) first entered my mind in October 2018. I was in New York for work and made plans to run the Staten Island Half Marathon with a friend. Since the race was organized by New York Road Runners (NYRR), I was notified after the race that I had earned a guaranteed entry to the 2019 NYCM based on my finish time. I was excited by the prospect of running New York, but I also knew that it was a challenging course and could be difficult logistically. After running a new marathon PR in December 2018, I decided that I wanted to focus on embracing the challenge of a hard race in 2019 rather than chasing a fast time. So when the application window for NYCM opened in January, I made it official! 

[Side note: If you’re planning to register for the 50th running of the New York City Marathon in 2020, the application window for runners with guaranteed entry is January 30–February 13, 2020]

While I did not want to make a specific finish time my focus, I always advocate for how important it is to establish measurable goal(s). I looked at previous NYCM results and landed on a goal that felt ambitious, but achievable on a solid day. I decided that the goal that would motivate my training, and perhaps scare me just a bit, would be to finish in the top 50 overall at the New York City Marathon. I made it a point to share my goal with others and on social media so that I couldn’t back down. Let’s see how it went…

As is common with larger races, the NYCM requires an early wake up call. To calm the paranoia that I might hit snooze on my cell phone alarm and oversleep, I enlisted the help of a hotel wake-up call and a friend that would call me on race morning. Luckily that wasn’t an issue. Thanks to the end of daylight saving time and an extra hour of sleep, I ended up waking up earlier than needed. I left my hotel at just after 5:30am and walked a block over to where four buses were lined up for the professional and sub-elite fields.

We spent almost two hours pre-race at the Ocean Breeze Athletic Complex on Staten Island.

Part of what made my experience at the NYCM so memorable was that I was accepted to the sub-elite program. The NYRR designed the sub-elite program to provide benefits to competitive athletes who are not part of the professional field. The NYRR does not publish specific qualifying standards. Instead, they accept the fastest (roughly) 50 men and 50 women to participate. Benefits for the sub-elite program include separate transportation to the start, a warm-up and waiting area at the Ocean Breeze Athletic Complex on Staten Island, a starting position at the front of the wave 1, separate baggage carry to the finish, and a post-finish recovery area. I can’t overstate how grateful I am that NYRR offers the sub-elite program and that I was accepted. 

The eventual women’s top five finishers warming up. From L to R: Aga, Kiprop, Keitany, Jepkosgei, Diver

After a police escort led our buses from Midtown Manhattan to Staten Island, we spread out at the Ocean Breeze indoor track. It was pretty surreal to be among so many impressive athletes like Geoffrey Kamworor, Mary Keitany, Des Linden, Lelisa Desisa, and Jared Ward. It was hard not to question why I was in the same room with them, but I certainly wasn’t going to complain. It was warm and dry and they had food set up, plenty of bathrooms, and a 200m track to warm up on. I even had a chance to get chiropractic treatment and active release therapy (ART) on race morning. That’s not something that I would necessarily recommend to anyone on race morning, but it’s something my body is already accustomed to. There were three practitioners and I noticed that one of them was performing manipulations similar to Dr. Jeremiah Jimerson who I see somewhat regularly in Charleston. 

When we left Ocean Breeze, we took a 10 min bus ride to the base of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. The weather was just about perfect – upper 40s, sunny, and relatively light winds. The professional men headed to the blue start line and myself and the other sub-elite runners headed to the orange start line. NYCM has three starts (blue, orange, and green) that start separately on the bridge and merge later in Brooklyn. The cool thing about starting at the front of the orange start is that we started further up the bridge than the professional men since we would run extra on the other side of the bridge. A couple of minutes after the gun (cannon?) went off, I got to watch the professional men pass by me on the other side of a barrier on the bridge. Even more incredible than watching the pro field zoom by to my right was the Manhattan skyline to my left. I just tried not to think about how far away it looked and that we had to run there!

Running down the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in the 2nd mile of the race.

The Verrazano Narrows Bridge is the largest climb of the NYCM course. However, since it’s the first mile, the incline is almost imperceptible. I stuck with my plan to go out conservatively and was about 15-20 seconds slower than marathon pace for the first mile. Since the second mile is back down the bridge, I nearly made those seconds back up despite keeping my effort really relaxed. Miles 3-13 in Brooklyn were relatively uneventful. It was slightly breezy, but nothing that I felt was making the effort difficult. Brooklyn also had more rolling hills than I expected, but once again, nothing that made things too difficult. I think that I actually preferred that over it being pancake flat. Brooklyn was the only part of the course where I ran with other people. Compared to shorter races where I would prefer to run in a pack and have people to pull me along, I don’t mind running solo in a marathon. In fact, I found that the times where I was running with others at NYCM threw off my rhythm a bit.

Running with a pack of local runners in Brooklyn

The Pulaski Bridge marks the halfway point of the race and takes you from Brooklyn to Queens. My mental math is usually pretty good in the early stages of a race, but the half marathon mark is always a good check of what pace I’m actually running. I hit the half marathon in 1:13:35, which is almost exactly the same time I split in the two times I have finished in 2:28 (2014 Wrightsville Beach Marathon and 2018 Kiawah Island Marathon). Despite coming through halfway in the ballpark of where I hoped to be, this was the first time that I had any negative thoughts creep in. I felt like I was working pretty hard already and I knew that the second half of the NYCM course is much tougher. However, I realized that I was running uphill in that moment, so I was able to pretty quickly push those negative thoughts away as I started to cruise down the other side of the Pulaski Bridge. 

Entering Manhattan after the Queensboro Bridge

I don’t remember much about Queens beyond several quick turns and the anticipation of the climb up the Queensboro Bridge. As predicted, the Queensboro Bridge was eerily quiet. This was the first time that my GPS signal seemed to go awry, but I was manually splitting my watch, so it didn’t matter. I was pleased to see that I had only slowed down a bit in mile 15 (5:41) and mile 16 (5:40) from the 5:3Xs I was running in Brooklyn. As I descended into Manhattan, I made a mental note to soak in the energy on First Avenue, but to stay patient. The crowds were loud, but I’m not sure they were any louder than some parts of Brooklyn. As I ran up First Ave, I watched the street numbers go up. I was planning to see my friend Lina on her block (E 74th St) and nervous that I would miss her. Somehow I spotted her from a full block away which was a relief and a boost of excitement. The energy of the crowds and seeing Lina led me to run a bit quicker in mile 17 (5:29) and mile 18 (5:30).

Mile 19 (5:32) and mile 20 (5:34) is where things started to get difficult, but still manageable. My legs were very slowly starting to tighten up as I ran into the Bronx. Cramping felt imminent, but I just tried to shift my focus to my breathing and holding form together. This is the point where I had hoped that I could pick things up for an aggressive finish, but it soon became my goal to just avoid having my legs cramp up fully. The final 10k was probably the shift from enjoying the effort to wanting to get it over with. As was the case for most of the race, I was running solo as I ran down Fifth Ave. The Bronx and Harlem had incredible support that I really appreciated even though I probably did not show it outwardly. 

Finally made it into Central Park.

Once I got to the northeast corner of Central Park on 5th, I at least knew the end was close. I have run Central Park enough to have my bearings and I had prepared myself for a long, slow grind up for mile 24 before we entered the park. At 5:55 it was either my slowest mile of the race or second slowest after mile 1, but I was just glad it started with a ‘5’ and that it was done. I even got a great boost by seeing a familiar face in Cherry Kent (a runner from Charleston) as I made the climb. Seeing Cherry reminded me that I wanted to represent Charleston well with a strong finish and that I had teammates out on the course who were also putting in their best effort. At that point my legs were cramping slightly and felt on the verge of seizing up completely, but I tried to convince myself that I would hold things together.

 As I entered Central Park at around mile 24, I felt more confident that I could make it to the finish line smoothly. I mentioned before that my mental math is pretty good early in the race. Well, it’s a different story towards the end of a marathon. In the last couple of miles, one calculation led me to believe I would break 2:26 and another calculation led me to believe I wouldn’t break 2:30. I decided to stop worrying about splits and mental math and just RUN. I think that I passed a few runners in this stage, but it’s all a bit of a blur. I didn’t have the strong finish that I felt prepared for, but I was happy to hold onto 5:40 splits for miles 25 and 26. 

The finish line experience in New York is only rivaled by the experience at the Boston Marathon. It’s a somewhat cruel uphill finish, but I don’t remember the climb as much as I do the flags that lined the street or the grandstand with spectators. I didn’t see the finish clock until I rounded the final curve with about 150 meters to go and I was both elated and relieved to see 2:27:xx. I finished in 2:27:29, which was a 46-second PR. 

After I crossed the line I felt a bit disoriented and wobbly. The volunteers were supportive (literally) and helped me stay upright as I made my way to the finish area tent. This was one of the biggest perks of the sub-elite program since it was just a short walk from the finish line and they had our drop bags ready for us. In the tent I got to chat with Paula Pridgen, a runner I know from Charlotte who ran a PR to place in the top 20! It was nice to see familiar faces in Paula and Franklin and to chat about the race. We also walked back to our hotels together which were about a mile away and not as bad of a walk as I thought it might be post-marathon.

It wasn’t until that evening that I was able to find the overall results to see if I had met my goal of placing in the top 50 overall. I was close, but came in just a bit short at 53rd overall. There’s a small bit of disappointment in not achieving my goal, but that feeling is overwhelmed by how proud I am of the effort I put in during training and on race day. And more importantly, the experience of the New York City Marathon and everything that involves – boisterous crowds, demanding course, international flair, and blend of street party and serious competition – was the perfect reminder of how much I love the sport and want to continue to pursue it as long as my body and mind allow me.