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26.2, because 26.3 would be crazy

Date:
21 November 2011
Author:
Michael Whitehead

6.30am, a police escort through the streets of New York; this marathon thing is really going to happen…

It is actually easy for international runners to get into the New York marathon.  You can enter the ballot (around 28,000 spots this year, but there is a bias against international entries), or qualify (currently that would take a 3.10 time for me, moving to 2.58 next year – no chance on that one), but the easiest way is through an accredited travel agent or through a charity.

After missing out on the ballot, I put it out of my mind until I got an email introducing Fred’s Team (Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York).  As far as choosing a charity goes, cancer research was an easy decision, and Sloan-Kettering checked out. Why not combine a run with raising money?

Fred’s Team turned out to be superb choice (although admittedly I didn't look at any others).  They offered guaranteed spots if you raised $3500 or $5000.  I signed up for the $5000 level, but set a goal of $10,000.  What I didn’t realize at the time was how organized and supportive Fred’s Team would be.  As well as the police escort, their buses leave at 6.30am (official transport starts at 5.00am, and with the last wave going at 10.40am, that would be a long wait).  They have a tent at the start village, and a tent at Cherry Hill at the end of the race.  Their support team was amazingly helpful: from answering silly questions in the lead up, to the expo, the pre marathon dinner, the marathon breakfast and the support at the start and finish (not to mention the energetic support on the course). All the interactions with the Fred's Team were professional, enthusiastic and supportive. 

The fundraising support was more than I could have hoped for.  Together we raised $10,580. My donation page reads like a who’s who of the business intelligence industry.  I can’t thank enough Scott Humphrey, Claudia Imhoff, William McKnight, Jill Dyche (poker star), Simon Arkell, Tamara Dull, Donald Farmer and all the fabulous Pacific BI Summit participants.  Thanks to my anonymous donors, to the WhereScape team, the motley group of mates, our customers and partners:  Paul Glass, Graeme Boag, Doug Barrett, Steve Dickens, Trevor Eastabrook, Nick Lambert, Chris Wylie, Jason Laws and the team at Barclays, Jeremy Rees, Lindsay Esler, Daniel Barnes, Doug Hoogervorst, Stuart Preston, Tony Millar, Gerhardt van der Westhuizen, Peter Newey, Martin Sowter, James Arbuckle, Sandra Lukey, Raphael Klebanov, John Quirk, Perry Sansom, Rob Briscoe, Peter Wogan, Wayne Richmond, Mark Budzinski, Mary Edie Meredith, Martyn Levy and David Morris…you all rock!

Each donation was a huge motivation, both to get out there and train and also to ask for more donations.  It is a great feeling to come back from a long run and see that while you were out another donation has come in. 

Training for marathons is hard work.   I ended up doing training runs in Auckland, Taupo, Oregon, California, Colorado, New York, Budapest and Sydney.  I got two plans from Brendon Downey of marathontraining.co.nz, a 12 week marathon plan preceded by a 7 week “get ready for the marathon plan” plan.   I also took the opportunity to eat better, and Jonny from Mission Nutrition had me eating cottage cheese and oatmeal.

It all came together on November 6th. The actual race was tougher than I expected.  I had looked at the elevation charts, and it didn’t look as steep as some of the hills in Auckland.  What I hadn’t really taken account of was where the hills come in.  In Auckland the second half is all flat, in New York there are still hills at 20+ miles, and the finish line is up hill – what’s with that?

Over 47,000 people gathered in the starting village in Staten Island.  I was in the blue start of wave 2, which means running the same course as the pros, but starting at 10.10 (all three start courses join by the 8 mile mark).

First up is the Verranzano bridge, and I can confirm (from observation not participation) that it is not anecdotal: if you are in the green start (lower level) you definitely do not want to run on the outside.  The bridges are the big hills on the course, but none are particularly tough.  You do lose time going up them, but what I hadn’t really contemplated was you don’t make the time up going downhill.  Particularly on the Verranzano Bridge, you run at the pace of the crowd.  You would normally expect to be back on goal time after going up and down a hill, but I found myself behind my goal time right from the start.

The first half marathon is basically in Brooklyn.  Each neigborhood has a distinct feel, with no bigger contrast than Williamsburg which goes from Orthodox Jewish to New York hipster in the space of a block.  Two feet past the seventh light pole on the Pulaski Bridge between Brooklyn and Queens marks the half-way point.  I was still running fine as I passed the sign, but with the time I had lost knew that sub 4 was now my goal.

It was around here I passed the only New Zealand flag I saw on the entire race, but I did chat with two New Zealand runners.  One of them I ran with up the Queensboro Bridge between Queens and Manhattan.  For some reason he was not keen on a long chat.

The theory was Felicity could follow me on the Marathon ipad app.  Unfortunately the app never worked so she had to guess when I would run through based on projected times and rumours of a delayed start time.  The technology on the course was a little disappointing.  Clocks are only set up for the first wave.  ASICS set up giant screens where personal messages flash up as you pass over sensors - but they don't work if a group crosses a sensor pad together.  My plan of live tweeting also didn’t come to fruition (but this may well have been user error).  I had set up some tweets to come out as I passed sensors at key milestones but they only appeared on Facebook (to my eight friends) and not on twitter.

In the end Felicity just waited for me on First Avenue, at around Mile 16.  After a tired wave I veered over to the other side of the street to pick up the support from the cheering section at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital, and they did not disappoint with a noisy reception.  I found this section one of the hardest of the race.  The runners were spread out enough to be able to run at your own pace, but did I have enough in my legs to push at the 18 mile mark?  And it is up hill here!  It may not seem like it when you are in a taxi or walking along, but I can assure you it is uphill.

There still may be some traumatized people around 110th and 1st as I had to stop, strip off and donate my compression top to the streets of New York.  I had underestimated how warm it got, and felt much better running in only one layer.  The crowd thins a bit in Spanish Harlem, and then it is over another bridge into the Bronx.

You are only in the Bronx for a short period of time, and then it is into Harlem.  At this point it was all about survival, not walking, and getting to Central Park.  I am not sure how this works, but it is definately uphill along 5th Avenue as well.

The turn into Central Park is a big moment.  At this point you know you can do it.  It is up and down in Central Park.  The section at the bottom of the park when you drop out by the Plaza Hotel and run along to Columbus Circle was another of those tough sections.  You feel like you are there, yet you still have to keep going.  Turning back into Central Park it was all on.  By this time I knew I was pushing the 4 hour mark, so picked up the pace.  At least I thought I did – looking at the times later I did the same split times for the last three miles.

It is superb feeling to head up the hill to the finish line.  I had been warned not to look at your watch as you cross the line (or you are left with a great finishing photo of the top of your head), and ended up fist pumping for the last 20 yards or so.


At the finish of the race you get a heat blanket, finishers pack and of course the medal.  For most it is then a mile long walk to pick up your gear.  Fred’s Team members get picked out by volunteers and escorted to Cherry Hill where you are handed water, Gatorade and pretzels.  After 26.2 miles all were welcome.

Despite the claims of my children about not being able to move post marathons, after catching up with Felicity we walked back from 77thish to the Hilton at 54th, and I was up to going out to dinner that night.

Overall, what a superb experience.  I was thrilled to be able to meet my fundraising goal, as well as my (admittedly amended) finishing goal.  Thanks again for everyone for the donations – I owe you all.

For the runners, I finished in 14876th place, 1748th in my age group, at a pace of 9.08/mile or 5.40/km with a time of 3.59.07.  Split times were:

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