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02 Apr, 2012

A Thumbs up for the New York City Marathon!

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A Thumbs up for the New York City Marathon!

The 2011 ING New York City Marathon (NYCM) weekend was a record-breaking weekend in many aspects. Not only did about 47 000 runners from all over the world take to the streets of New York, but race winner Geoffrey Mutai’s time of 2:05:05 is now the fastest performance on a record-certified course in the United States. In fact, the top three men as well as the women's wheelchair champion beat the course records. And just to top that off, more than US$34 million was raised for charity. I could not have asked to be part of anything better than that!

THE CALL THAT CHANGED IT ALL
I absolutely love my job. Sometimes when I’m in the middle of an interview with another inspirational athlete, or just on the sporting field, I need to remind myself that this is actually work. As my friends often chuckle, “Tough job, hey!” Admittedly, on deadline weeks it definitely feels like a high-pressure job, but for the most part, it really is so much fun, part of my life and who I am. So when Modern Athlete’s publisher and my boss, Mike Bray, phoned me on 4 August, I did not think much of it at first when he asked me how much I loved my job. “Well, you are going to love it even more, because I’m sending you to the New York Marathon,” he said.

To say that I was over the moon is an understatement! It took a day or so to actually sink in that I was actually going to the Big Apple, the city that never sleeps, and that I was going to run my first international marathon. One of the first calls was to my dad, of course, with whom I’ve shared this dream for so long. And though this wasn’t the year that we would run together, it was definitely a shared joy.

GETTING THERE
I had loads going on in the three months leading up to the NYCM, which made the time fly by. My training went well, though I never put any pressure on myself, as I knew it was definitely not a marathon where I was going to try and run a PB. In fact, I was going to take it very slow! This was one marathon where I was truly going to do what everyone advised: Take in all the sights, take loads of pictures, and savour the experience. Time is of no consequence.

Before I knew it I was packing my bags and on 3 November I landed at JFK Airport. Well, New York is definitely the place to be if you want to be part of something big. The shuttle drive from the airport to my hotel was like a scene from a movie, and everything I saw was exactly as on the big screen. My trip was booked through Penthouse Travel, which specialises in sporting tours, and I saw Marie Howarth from Penthouse Travel and the rest of the SA group the next day, as we were all on our way to the marathon expo. As an avid Comrades and Two Oceans runner, I’ve been to a lot of sporting expo’s over the years, and though I expected a lot of people at the NYCM Expo, I was still stunned by the exact amount of people and the variety of sporting goods available… which meant I made a considerable dent in my credit card balance!

OPENING CEREMONY
Marathon weekend kicked off on Friday night with the Marathon Opening Ceremony. To celebrate the global running community, a Parade of Nations was held for the first time this year. Runners from around the world marched in a parade across the marathon finish line before legends such as former NYCM organiser Fred Lebow and Grete Weitz, nine-time winner of the NYCM, were inducted into the New York Road Runners Hall of Fame.

I met the rest of the SA group in our hotel foyer and we all walked proudly in South African colours to the parade. It was a long and cold wait, though. We had to arrive at 4pm and the parade only kicked off past 6pm, but what fun we had. It was awesome seeing everyone from the different countries around the world dressed up in their cultural outfits.

After the ceremony it was back to the hotel because the next morning it was time for the 5KM Dash, which I had entered at the expo. I made sure I was part of everything and did not want to miss out on one single thing. Yes, I knew I was going to have to run 42km on race day, but what was another 5km? After all, I was in New York!

5KM DASH
The 5km NYRR Dash to the Finish Line was another inaugural event this year and was open to all runners who wanted to join in the marathon festivities. It gave everyone the chance to run through the streets of Manhatten and finish at the famed marathon finish line in Central Park.

It was absolutely awesome lining up with a strong field led by Olympic hopefuls and other top runners. More than 5 000 runners started at the United Nations building and we all headed uptown into Central Park. I ran with friends from Breakthru Midrand Striders and we had so much fun,  and before I knew it we were running into Central Park. This was definitely one of my highlights, as it was the first time I’ve experienced Central Park, and doing it while running was a privilege. After the race, I met up with Chris, who was on a later flight than me, and we explored New York for a while before it was back to the hotel to get ready for race day.

RACE MORNING
The whole South African group of about 60 runners met in the hotel lobby and by 6am sharp we were off to Staten Island and the start of the race. The atmosphere in the bus was electric. Road works on one of the motorway’s caused a bit of a delay and at one stage it felt as if were in rush hour traffic in Sandton! Two hours later, the bus dropped us on Staten Island. A short walk up to the race village was an experience in itself. As all runners start at different times and the wait is quite long for most of them, some brought sleeping bags and blankets to keep them warm and comfortable for the long wait. It looked like a camping site.

I was fortunate that my starting time was 9:40 and that I had to be in my starting pen at 8:55. So I didn’t have to wait long. The weather was close to perfect, cool and sunny, the best start to race day. I checked my runner’s bag into the huge trucks transporting it to the finish and hurried to my starting pen. Before I knew it, we started moving towards one of the bridges where the race started. Because of the masses of people, runners start on different bridges and it was amazing to see the mass of people on the road leading to the bridge above us.

This year’s race was dedicated to the beloved Grete Waitz, the great Norwegian runner who died earlier this year and who won the NYCM nine times. One of my most memorable moments was minutes before the start, when Frank Sinatra’s New York New York started playing. This was followed by the United States National Anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner. Afterwards, runners erupted in a spontaneous cheer and within seconds all of our different journeys would start.

THE COURSE
The NYCM allows you to see some of the sights of New York that most visitors won’t see. The course passes through all five boroughs and shows off some fabulous skyline views along the way. The first bridge we crossed was the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (the highest point on the course), making our way into Brooklyn and Queens, where I realised why the first Sunday of November in New York is always ‘Marathon Sunday.’ Close to two million New Yorkers drop everything to cheer and welcome the runners. Crowds literally lined the whole course!

The route goes over the Queensboro Bridge for a roundtrip in Manhattan and a short stop in the Bronx. Running through the five distinct boroughs was an amazing experience. I got to see so much of the different communities and their cultural diversity. The highlight, of course, was running across five New York bridges. It was as if I was on a sightseeing tour in my running shoes. There was never a single moment that I was not surrounded by runners or where I did not see crowds. I packed my Ipod for those ‘quiet’ moments one sometimes experience at races such as Comrades. Well, I can honestly say I never used it once. The roar of the crowds was too loud, while live bands and musicians lined the streets.

The whole course is pretty flat and the hardest work to be done is probably getting onto the bridges, but the awesome views are worth it. The Queensboro Bridge after 24km is probably the steepest climb. The run itself was awesome and I took it very easy, took loads of pictures, chatted to my fellow runners and shared some jokes. Before I knew it, we were starting to head towards the finish line in Central Park.

REACHING THE FINISH LINE
As with most marathons, no matter how easy one takes it, the last 5km are always long, probably because your mind is tuned into that finish line. And what a finish line this was going to be! It really is hard to describe what I felt running into Central Park, it was such a bag of mixed emotions and everything seemed a bit of a blur. I was in awe of the thousands of people lining the finish, and I felt like a champion being cheered on, but most of all I felt grateful for the ability to run and that sport could bring such a huge amount of like-minded people together to share their passion.

As I ran in the final straight towards the finish line, I heard my name being shouted and saw Chris. What a memorable moment. Because of the sheer amount of spectators and athletes, and the wide road towards the finish line, the chance of seeing loved ones is usually very small, but somehow we managed it. I stopped and it was great to share my joy with him before running the last 100m to cross the finish line of the 2011 New York City Marathon.

As they say with Comrades or Ironman, your first one will always be the most memorable. My first international marathon in New York will forever be my most memorable. And as Frank Sinatra sang, I felt like ‘King of the Hill, Top of the Heap’ as I raised my arms crossing the finish line.

EXPLORING NEW YORK
After the marathon we were typical tourists and explored everything New York had to offer. We were at the top of the Empire State Building, saw the Statue of Liberty on Statue Island, enjoyed a show on Broadway, watched an ice hockey game at Madison Square Garden, hopped on and off the subway, visited the 911 Memorial Preview Site, ate hot dogs in Central Park, tried a Big Nick’s burger and fries, tasted some greasy doughnuts, and of course, did loads of shopping!

To me New York will always be synonymous with Central Park; I absolutely fell in love with this spot and went for morning jogs there every morning.

A LIFETIME EXPERIENCE
So after 12 days in New York, what stood out the most? Simply answered, it has to be the incredible feeling of knowing that running allows me to don my running shoes any place in the whole wide world to trot around a city for 42km!

I am already starting to think about my next international marathon. So Dad, we meet in London 2013, because the next one is definitely with YOU!

To my publisher and boss, Mike Bray, THANK YOU so much for this opportunity and for making a dream come true!

SOME INTERESTING NEW YORK STATS

STARTERS
Men: 30 166
Women: 17 272
Total: 47 438
FINISHERS
Men: 29 867
Women: 16 928
Total: 46 795
SOUTH AFRICAN FINISHERS
Men: 100
Women: 82
Total: 182