Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the NYC Marathon

November 01, 2011 at 2:43 pm

Runners use 2.3 million paper cups during the New York City Marathon, according to The New York Road Runners, the organization that coordinates the logistical wonder that is this race. MetroFocus/Sam Lewis

Marathon week in New York is my favorite time of the year. The energy is inspirational and the adrenaline is addictive. From Central Park to Midtown, the streets are suddenly teeming with tourists of a different sort: runners.

I love to see packs taking light training runs in Central Park, their voices hailing from Italy and Brazil, Ethiopia and Oregon. On the first Sunday in November, they will all speak the same language.

This is where regular runners feel like celebrities and celebrities feel the pain of regular folks. The experience is both exhausting and exhilarating.

For all the build-up this week (ideally, runners have been at it for the past four months), marathon day never disappoints, proving why New York’s marathon truly is “A Race Like No Other.” This is where regular runners feel like celebrities and celebrities feel the pain of regular folks. The experience is both exhausting and exhilarating — for participants, volunteers and fans, alike. The race is more than just a sports story. It is the ultimate New York story.

As the author of a book about the marathon, I regularly field questions on the subject. Here’s a sampling of common queries and my responses:


Q: Where is the best place to be as a fan? Where is the worst place to be as a runner?

A: For spectators, Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn and First Avenue in Manhattan are the longest and the loudest straightaways in their respective boroughs, full of bands and crowds five-deep. For a more intimate viewpoint, go to leaf-lined Lafayette Avenue in Brooklyn (where you can listen to the Bishop Laughlin High School band play the theme song to “Rocky” over and over). The best place to actually connect with a runner you know — preferably handing him or her replacement socks or a new jersey — is in Upper Manhattan, past the canyon of high-rises, further north on First Avenue. After 96th Street the crowds have thinned, and, by mile 19, runners could use a little personalized attention before heading to the Bronx.

The worst place to be as a runner might just be in the first mile, next to the railings on the lower deck of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Certain fluids emanating from overly anxious and hydrated runners on the upper deck could find their way down a deck, depending on the wind.

Q: What is the best advice for a first-time marathoner?

A: Newbies represent about a third of the participants. Resist the impulse. Do not go out too fast. This is what every coach and every elite athlete preaches. The consequences are disastrous. Think negative split: making the second 13.1 miles faster than the first.

Q: What are the chances that someone will break a world record?

A: Virtually nil. New York’s course, with its five bridges, was not built for speed. Still, this has been the fastest year yet for men’s marathon running, with a world-best time — wind-aided — coming on the hills of Boston in April, and then a sanctioned world-record time in Berlin this past September — 2 hours, 3 minutes and 38 seconds. The record on New York’s course (by the Ethiopian Tesfaye Jifar) has stood since 2001 at 2:07:43. Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya, the man who ran an unthinkable 2:03:02 in Boston this past April with help from a tailwind, will be in the New York field. We’ll see what he can do.

Q: Should I write something on my shirt? What should that be?

A: Something you want to hear for 26.2 miles. You will, without a doubt, get sick of hearing your own name.

Q: Every number in this race is attached to a story, and not just on a runner’s bib. What are some of your favorite numbers of the race?

  • 2.5 million fans
  • 2.3 million paper cups used, according to the New York Road Runners, the organization that coordinates the logistical wonder that is this race
  • 52,000 acetaminophen tablets available in medical aid stations
  • 47,000 runners and wheelchair racers
  • 8,000 volunteers
  • 7,700 entrants participating for 210 different charity teams
  • 4,500 pounds of elbow macaroni cooked in the pre-marathon pasta dinner
  • 2,062 portable toilets
  • 127 starters at the first New York City Marathon in 1970, held only in Central Park
  • 55 finishers in 1970 (all male)
  • 35 years that Carmine Santoli, 85, a volunteer captain on the course, has worked the race
  • 26.2 miles to a medal


The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge has been the starting point of the New York City Marathon since 1976. Over 40,000 runners participated in the race in 2010. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority captures a behind-the-scenes at how the bridge is readied for the race.

Liz Robbins is the author of “A Race Like No Other: 26.2 Miles Through the Streets of New York.” (Harper 2008). She is a reporter for The New York Times.