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How to run the New York Marathon

by Fiona Harper

Seeing New York City alongside 50,000 runners

On the first Sunday in November athletes of all shapes, sizes, ages and abilities take a bite line up at the start line of the New York City Marathon. Fiona Harper joined them for a 42.2km run through the city that never sleeps accompanied by 2 million spectators who bump, grind and groove on the sidelines, encouraging runners towards the Central Park finish line.

The start line of the New York City Marathon feels more like a dance party than a running race. Frank Sinatra’s anthem to the city that never sleeps belts out over loud speakers. Lyrca-clad runners sashay and sway towards the official starting line, our grins as wide as the Verazzano-Narrows Bridge we’re about to run over from Staten Island, the first of five boroughs we’ll run through.

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Getting a ticket into the New York City Marathon is just the start

I’ve wanted to run the New York City Marathon for many, many years. Despite allowing 50,000 runners to enter, it’s difficult to get a ticket. For international runners like me, there are only two options to get a slot. You can enter as a charity runner, which comes with an obligation to raise a minimum amount of funds with one of the events chosen American charities. Or you can go into the ballot and hope your name is drawn out for a coveted entry slot. Which is how I got in. Of 90,000 hopeful entrants I was one of 9,000 lucky runners to get a spot on the starting line.

Though gaining entry is just the first of many logistics and eye-watering expenses that come with a ticket to run in the New York City Marathon. Navigating the cost of travelling from Australia to New York, finding accommodation, then figuring out the logistics of getting to the start line alongside 50,000 runners in the early morning, not to mention dodging two million-odd spectators claiming their place along the route, running 42km seems the least of my worries. At least that’s how it feels before race day.

New Yorkers embrace the marathon with an estimated 2 million supporters

New Yorkers embrace the marathon as one city-wide street party with all the sass and attitude they’re renown for. Affection too, enthusiastically cheering on strangers like lifelong friends. Many have spent days preparing signs to hold aloft as runners pass through their ‘hood.

‘Due to inflation, you now gotta run 27 miles,’ says one. A blonde ponytailed woman’s sign encourages us to ‘run like the men in my life.’

‘Can I call an Uber?’ and ‘where is everyone going?’ others ask. A golden retriever sports a sign declaring, ‘your dog is proud of you’.

Unscientific estimates put spectator numbers at two million-plus. Churches dispatch choirs, schools send their bands, charities set up stalls selling cakes, bagels and hotdogs. Volunteers man drink stations by the thousands. Paramedics are stationed at almost every mile marker. Three days before the race, council workers on the night shift went through more than 200 litres of paint, marking the course in ‘marathon blue’.

My sister and brother-in-law join me for a week in New York, so I task my non-morning-person sister with the formidable challenge of getting me from our New Jersey apartment to the start line. We figure we need to allow five hours. She’s more than a little horrified as we set five alarms for stupid o’clock, plotting our pre-dawn route through NYC’s streets by subway, uber and bus like a commando operation. Jaci and John don’t let me down and I join the lycra-clad crush on Staten Island with plenty of time while I wait for my start wave to be called. They slink off to find caffeine and return to Manhattan where they hope to see me coming off the bridge and into Manhattan. This is one of the few marathons I’ve run where friends or family are in the crowd and I can’t wait to see them amongst the spectator throng. They’ve got an Aussie flag to wave, though I’m not confident I’ll see them along the route then later at the finish line.

But that’s a long way ahead as I inch towards the start line, Frank Sinatra’s New York New York egging on the runners.

Running the New York City Marathon is the run of a lifetime

‘Hey folks, you people need to move along, there’s no loitering in the Bronx,’ barks a uniformed police officer as we run over the bridge into the Bronx. ‘This aint like those other boroughs!’ he smirks cheekily.

‘Hurry up,’ the Bronx Cop shouts to other runners behind me as I run over the final bridge that will take me back to Manhattan and the Central Park finish line, ‘Manhattan called and wants its runners back!’

Despite my exhaustion I can’t help but laugh. We’re at the business end of the New York City Marathon, fatigue has set in and my focus has narrowed to little more than putting one foot in front of the other. In my trance-like state, numbers are all that I can focus on as I compute how far I’ve come. But more crucially, how far I still have to go. Earlier, I’d high fived kids handing out jelly jubes and enthusiastically wiggled my hips to Frank Sinatra’s anthem New York New York. In Brooklyn I’d danced with hipsters, stomped to drumbeats and traded jibes with partygoers hanging off balconies above Queens. In the Bronx I’d paused to catch my breath as Scottish bagpipes whaled. On the Staten Island Ferry I’d taken selfies with Lady Liberty as a background prop and felt surprisingly emotional at a live rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.

Oh, and I’d almost run a marathon. It had been a long day already and we weren’t done yet.

Today wouldn’t be ‘done’ until I’d taken 67,122 steps. Run 42.19 kilometres alongside 47,893 finishers. Passed through five boroughs. Crossed five bridges. Laughed. Cried. Exalted with equal parts exhilaration and exhaustion. Clutched one coveted finishers medal.

But that medal was still far, far away.

New York Marathon starts on the Verrazano Bridge from Staten Island
The New York Marathon starts on Staten Island on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge

"At 32km I need to dig deep. The next 5-8km are the hardest part of a marathon."

Running a marathon is more about what goes on in your head than your legs

My marathon mind game strategy is always to just think about running 10km. I can’t think further ahead than that as the distance becomes overwhelming.

“Just 10km. Just 10km,” is all I think about. I take in the crowd, absorb their energy and chat with runners doing the same pace as me.

The first km feels good, then by about 3km I’m thinking, “shit, I don’t like this.” I get to 8km and feel like I’m back on track. 

“Only 2km to go”. By 10km I’m warmed up and feeling good. Between 10km and 20km is the best part of a marathon. I’m energised and feeling great! High fiving the kids, I dance to the bands, stop to take photos and selfies. And I keep running, loving every moment, feeling the runner’s high that keeps runners motivated.

At 20km I mentally reset and start another 10km run. I’m still feeling good at 25km, even at 28km. Though I’m no longer high fiving the crowd. And I’m not dancing anymore. But I’m still grinning like a cheshire cat at the crowd with their signs. 

I get to 30km and mentally reset again. “Now I think about a 5km run.” It’s starting to hurt.

“Just a parkrun to go,” I tell myself.

At 32km I need to dig deep. The next 5-8km are the hardest part of a marathon. I’m still not thinking about the finish line. I’m telling myself it’s just a 5km run. Then, when I feel depleted and don’t want to run any more and am thinking about walking, I break it down to a 2km run in my head. 

“I can run 2km,” I tell myself. I don’t look at my watch which will only confirm I’m nowhere near done yet. I try not to see the mile markers which never come up quick enough. Denial is a useful strategy at this point.

By 37km, everything is hurting. Even my teeth hurt. My legs are heavy, my calf muscles are twinging and feel whiskers away from seizing into cramps, my toes are on fire, my back hurts, there’s more than a little chafe around the edges of my underwear. I’ve drunk many, many litres of water yet have not peed since before the start. I’m drenched in sweat, and I’m soaked from head to foot from the water I’ve been pouring over my head at every drink station. I’m aware of my surroundings but my energy levels are close to depleted and my smile is barely more than a grimace. I’m no longer taking photos and am completely focused on finishing this. I’m sucking on every piece of sugary sweet liquid that is handed to me by the gorgeous volunteers. I walk through the drink stations then somehow find the energy to run again. But it’s barely running by this stage. It’s a shuffle, one foot in front of the other. “Keep moving forward,” is my mantra by now.

As the 40km mark looms I finally allow my thoughts to think about the finish line. I start to really believe I can do it. Even if I have to crawl, I know I’m going to finish this damn thing. I start to relax just a little. I can feel my inner smile return. I’ve broken the back of this mammoth challenge and the hardest part is behind me. The crowd is going nuts at this stage of the race.

“You’ve got this. You can do it.” they scream enthusiastically. And, worst of all, tell me, “You’re nearly there!” In my head I’m thinking how much fucking longer do I need to keep running. I look at my watch and register what my actual finish time may be. I try and do the maths to calculate how long it should take me to run the final 2km. How much longer do I need to hang in there? But my mind is toast and I can’t do even the simplest of calculations. At the business end of a marathon every step seems to take an eternity. All I can do is count my steps, one to twenty. Then I start counting again. One, two, three…

Soon I can hear the announcer calling runners over the finish line. 

I start to think about crossing that line. It’s not far. I can do it. I’ve got this. I’ve actually fucking got this! I’m running the New York City Marathon!!

"I cross the finish line, stop my watch and I stop running."

Finish line euphoria drives runners in New York marathon

As I approach the finish chute I look around at the crowd. At their smiling faces. They are clapping and dancing and screaming and cheering They’re high fiving runners. They’re cheering for me like I’m Frank Sinatra himself.

I’m finishing the New York freakin Marathon! My pace increases. Fuelled by adrenaline I start to actually run again, not just shuffle. I’m suddenly energized. I’m grinning like an fool.

I can see the finish line! I feel relief. But also euphoria. Exhilaration. This is what I trained for. Why I did all those lonely, solo 30km+ runs up and down hills, doing tempo runs, beach runs, getting up at stupid o’clock to beat the heat. This is why I ran and ran and ran, day after day, week after week, month after month. For this exhilaration. For this incredible elation and euphoric endorphin-fueled rush. It’s a feeling like nothing else.

I cross the finish line, stop my watch and I stop running. Tears fill my eyes. Emotion overwhelms me and drop my face into my hands and I sob big gulping, gasping sobs.

A volunteers drapes a finishers medal around my neck, someone else hands me a drink and a lovely stranger wraps a warm poncho around my shoulders. It’s now dark, its getting cold and I need to find Jaci and John. I’m still grinning like an idiot when we find each other in the crowd and I’m deliriously happy to see them. We’d had a brief hug around the 25km mark and then once more in the high 30s when I was in a world of pain.

New York Marathon takes runners on a scenic foot race through five boroughs

In what now seems a lifetime ago, earlier I’d stood on the Staten Island on-ramp to the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, Manhattan skyscrapers minuscule in the distance, Lady Liberty a small dot on the Hudson River. Ear-splitting cannon fire marked the start of our scenic foot tour through New York’s five famed boroughs – Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan. No other city does events like the Big Apple and the first Sunday in November is devoted to one of its most ambitious.

The 42.19km/26.2 mile marathon distance is brutal. A marathon leaves nowhere for pretenders to hide. There’s no faking it: you either get to the finish line or you don’t. Sure, not everyone wants to run a marathon, but it’s a goal which is achievable for anyone with a modicum of fitness who is prepared to put in the training. A healthy dose of determination and optimism helps too. The evidence is all around me on marathon Sunday in New York. Our pulsating mob of Lycra-clad, sweat-soaked bodies of all shapes, sizes, ages and abilities propel each other forward one step at a time. 88-year-old New Yorker Alan Patricof is the oldest finisher. Israeli runner Mosher Lederfien runs the entire race balancing a pineapple on his head. It was his twelfth marathon wearing pineapple headgear. Go figure!

New York marathon is like no other race

Author Liz Robbins noted in her book, A Race Like No Other, that marathoners push themselves to the edge of insanity and exhaustion, ‘because when they look back on those 26.2 miles the view is profoundly satisfying. They see where they have been and what they have become.’

This unique view of New York is what has propelled me across hemispheres, flying over 15,000km in order to run 42.2km. My scenic foot tour through New York’s five boroughs represents a victory run for the 800-plus kilometres I’ve run in training. Exhausted and depleted by unseasonal November heat, I leave New York with a coveted finishers medal embossed with Lady Liberty in my luggage. But more than that, having been embraced by a city at its pulsating best, I take a small part of New York in our hearts.

I never set out to be a marathon runner. It just kind of happened as I found a group of running buddies who were doing extraordinary things. There’s actually not that many people who can say I ran the New York Marathon. But I can.

‘Come back anytime. If you love New York, we love you right back,’ says Matthew Futterman of the New York Times.

Runners love you too New York.


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1 comment

Claudette Harper February 7, 2023 - 11:02 pm

Fiona I’ve just relived the excitement and preparation needed for this amazing event. Having JC and JR there to witness your success was heart warming. we were there witnessing every digital step.
just loved reading your well written article.
Mum (Claudette)


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1 comment

Claudette Harper February 7, 2023 - 11:02 pm

Fiona I’ve just relived the excitement and preparation needed for this amazing event. Having JC and JR there to witness your success was heart warming. we were there witnessing every digital step.
just loved reading your well written article.
Mum (Claudette)


Leave a Comment

* By using this form you agree with the storage and handling of your data by this website.

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