For those looking further afield, applications for the 50th TCS New York City Marathon open January 30. With more than 50,000 participants, the event is billed as the world's biggest marathon and many say, the best-timed foot race anywhere.
To enter, try your luck at the lottery, raise money for charity, or do as 17 runners and one supporter from the Bay of Plenty did earlier this month and run NYC with a tour group.
Bay of Plenty Weekend writer Dawn Picken takes us on a first-person slog through the course, finding stories that would make even a couch potato weep.
My first mistake at the TCS New York City Marathon was underestimating how long it would take to walk from one end of the pre-race village to the starting corral. I arrived for my 10.35am start around 10:20am (I got stuck in a porta-loo queue for about 15 minutes beforehand). "Sorry, this wave is closed," said a volunteer from the other side of a rope. "You'll have to start in the next wave." The last wave. Eleven am.
The sun was shining, the temperature a cool nine degrees as thousands of us marched towards the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. Joan Jett's 'I Love Rock 'n Roll' blared from speakers before cannon fire and Frank Sinatra's 'New York' got the race underway. We'd run four kilometres on the concrete bridge - the first 2km uphill, before leaving Staten Island and heading into Brooklyn.
The 42.2 kilometre course winds through all five boroughs - Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan, finishing in Central Park. Spread throughout the event are a million spectators, more than 100 bands, choirs, drum corps and orchestras. The NYC Marathon is not only one of the world's greatest races, it's one of the planet's biggest street parties, with more than one million spectators.
From the Bay to the Big Apple
More than a year before the race, a member of Mount Maunganui Runners and Walkers suggested investigating running New York. We flocked to information sessions like sheep, knowing 2019 would be the year to tick off an iconic event. What better way to do it than with a group of mates? Eventually, 17 of us with Bay connections registered to run and one spouse would come as a spectator.
The youngest member of our group was 39-year-old Blake Cloke, a mum of four, including six-year-old twin girls and two boys, ages seven and nine. The oldest was 70-year-old Allan Shadbolt, the lone male. Shadbolt ran five marathons and 10 half marathons in the 12 months before NYC. Shadbolt says pounding the course with more than 53,000 other runners was unforgettable.
"The amazing crowd support through the five boroughs and the entertainment kept your mind off what you were doing. It was really awesome to know that all our club members had finished the event and the first-timers I think are still smiling."
We all faced challenges to arrive at the start line - not just months of training, but working extra hours and extra jobs to afford the trip's $7000 price tag, which included air fare, accomodation and the marathon entry fee.
Some of us ran with injuries and health conditions. Breast cancer survivor Amy Dreaneen said she wanted to do something special around the anniversary of her October 2017 breast cancer diagnosis. For this year's 'cancer-versary,' she chose the NYC marathon. She says nothing she could ever say or show could do the race justice in terms of how it made her feel.
"I just got caught up in the event. It was very easy to go, 'Oh my God, this is actually happening. I'm in the world's biggest marathon'. But the crowd support made you feel like you were in a 5k race held in Fergusson Park. And it felt really genuine, their support."
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Checking Blood Sugars in the Big Apple
Running with Type 1 Diabetes
Running the NYC Marathon as a type 1 diabetic is something Victoria Wicks-Brown can be proud of. The 50-year-old who recently moved to Auckland from Tauranga works hard to try to maintain safe blood sugar levels, especially during exercise. She says getting an insulin pump with continuous glucose monitoring has made a huge difference in training and racing. It means she can read a device connected to a sensor in her stomach indicating whether blood sugars are rising, falling or stable.
"It's been an absolute game-changer for me. I can take fuel and can take insulin as I go along. You could always carry an insulin pen and testing kit and stop and test, but being runners, we don't want to do that ... with a pump you can just keep going; you don't have to stop."
Wicks-Brown says technology makes events easier than they used to be, though it's still not easy.
"Every single day is a science experiment because there are so many variables that can affect your blood sugar levels. It's just like maths, maths, maths all the time."
NYC was Wicks-Brown's fifth marathon and the event didn't disappoint. She stuck to the same eating patterns she used in training, consuming the same number of carbohydrates before and during the race.
"One thing about running and type 1 diabetes is you think about what any other athlete would do in terms of how they would fuel and what they would need and you match your insulin strategy to that. I'm a runner, I'm going to run a marathon - I need about 45 grams of carbohydrates an hour during a four-hour race. But everyone is different."
Because of security, runners weren't allowed to have backpacks. So Wicks-Brown ran with four small belts around her hips up to below her ribcage to carry glucose and other supplies.
During the event, her glucose monitor stopped working.
"But because I'd had a lot of years running without it, I could tell my blood sugars were good. I wasn't getting thirsty. I felt great during the whole marathon until 37km. Everyone feels crap at 37km - it had nothing to do with diabetes whatsoever."
Wicks-Brown tested straight after she finished and her blood sugars were well within acceptable levels.
"The whole thing is life-changing, quite frankly. I have never run a marathon before and felt that good the whole way. I know it's good luck. You can have good days and bad days but that happened to be a really good day and everything went right for me."
She encourages other type 1s to write down what works for them straight after training and not to shy away from tackling physical challenges.
Honouring a Friend
Rotorua's Wai McClutchie-Bennett travelled to New York with three local friends and a memento of another who had passed away. The foursome ran the NYC Marathon while taking turns wearing a pounamu (greenstone) with the late Kiri Kepa's ashes mixed in. Kepa was meant to participate in Ironman Taupō with friends this year, but died in January. McClutchie-Bennett says she had the honour of wearing Kiri's pounamu across the New York finish line.
"That was really beautiful. We ran it with her and felt her presence with us."
She says they encountered people they didn't know waving a Māori flag along the course and stopped to chat with a spectator wearing a Kiri Kepa hat.
"Her daughter lives in Rotorua and we had photos with her."
A veteran of Ironman and the Tarawera Ultra 62km ultra marathon, the 47-year-old says her group had no time goal in mind, focusing instead on savouring each mile. They finished in six hours, four minutes.
"We were talking to people along the way, doing high fives ... the Bronx was amazing. I loved the Bronx. I went live a lot [on Facebook] so my family at home could see it."
McClutchie-Bennett was chuffed that clothing runners discarded pre-race was donated to charity.
"I wore an All Blacks onesie. I thought it would be cool for someone to have it. And the bins overflowing with clothes - it's cool it goes to New York City homeless."
The New York Road Runners club website says Goodwill NYNJ collected 55,683 kilograms of clothing during this year's race.
NYC finishers must walk several extra kilometres after the race to collect a poncho and find private or public transport to their hotels. McClutchie-Bennett says she finished around 4:45pm and returned to her hotel to shower before going to an NBA (New York Knicks basketball) game at Madison Square Garden at 6pm.
"I saw one of the guys on the pedal bike taxis and I just jumped in with him. It was an amazing day."
Running After Tragedy
Ross Steele of Tauranga has completed 109 marathons, but says the New York race remains a special memory. He went with a tour group in 2001, arriving in the city less than two months after the 9-11 attacks that killed nearly 3000 people and injured more than 6000 others.
"It took 10 days before organisers decided, yes, we're going to carry on and hold the event. I had a few friends say to me, 'Should you be going?' I said there couldn't be a safer time to fly with all the increased security."
Steele says runners and spectators provided constant reminders along the course of who and what was lost in the terror attacks.
"It was very special, very moving, running past the police stations and fire stations and seeing great big photos on the fences of their dead colleagues with messages ... and there were lots of runners who ran for dead mates, they took their spot. And dozens who had t-shirts, photos of the deceased on their back: "Joe Smith, husband, lover, friend, father…"
He remembers listening to locals while running over the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge at the start. They looked across to the bottom of Manhattan where the towers used to be.
"Just that 'wow' factor - they're not there."
The Bronx provided a more light-hearted moment, says Steele.
"There were five big tattooed guys on the steps with dreadlocks. One had a big plate of food with tin foil over the top. I thought it's now or never. I bounced up the steps and said, 'Hey bro, thanks for giving me lunch.' I wouldn't have done that the day before or after, but these five guys just roared with laughter."
Steele says he stopped to chat with anyone along the course in a wheelchair and got kudos.
"One lady said thank you for taking the time. She was just in tears and I didn't give a sh*t about time.
He still finished in 4:04:48.
Watching and Waiting
Pāpāmoa's Sheryn Shadbolt was the lone spectator from our Tauranga group. She says she and several other supporters travelled by subway to the 10km point and were sent to the far side of the street to watch thousands of runners trundling across a four-lane road.
"We waved our NZ flags. I had a large sign with the motto, 'Mind over Miles - Mt Maunganui Runners' taped to a NY power pole. We shouted, laughed and watched for two hours." Shadbolt says some Mount runners said they saw her, but she didn't see anyone.
She went to the Central Park finish line and scored a ticket for the grandstand. Even with an app telling her where runners were and a non-stop photo function on her phone, Shadbolt says she couldn't get a single picture of anyone in our group until after the race.
"When they came out dressed in blue ponchos and shiny foil blankets...I found a couple of faces I recognised. They didn't know whether to look relieved or happy, but really looked like stunned rabbits."
Shadbolt is thrilled everyone in our group crossed the line and appreciates all the hours we trained together.
"I was delighted to be there. Loved the whole shebang and the spirit of it all."
Pulling Through Disability
One moment captured by international media was when Kiwi Ben Parore pushed James Akaka in his hand-cycle about halfway through the course.
After getting a photo with Akaka, Parore realised the athlete was struggling. With Akaka's consent, Parore pushed his new mate to the finish.
Sixty-nine participants finished the race with hand cycles.
Wheelchair racers started first, at 8:30am. This year's men's winner finished in 1:27:34; the women's wheelchair winner clocked in at 1:44:20.
Perspective is a souvenir you can get at any marathon, like finding pebbles on a path, but NYC provides perspective by the truckload. Just when you're ruminating about your niggly knee, you'll spot someone running or walking with a disability.
Wicks-Brown remembers one woman in particular.
"We came across this gorgeous, glossy-haired, stunning young woman. She'd had both legs amputated below the knee. She was on crutches and we caught up to her and passed her."
Wicks-Brown told her friend, "We are so blessed, so lucky. Look at what we can do".
"There was a lot of that during the race ... people on blades, people on crutches ... we might have these invisible challenges that we're dealing with but there's plenty of strategies you can implement to cope with all that and it's very hard to run without your legs."
City that Never Sleeps
Pre and post-marathon, participants dove into as many attractions and as much food as we could squeeze in: Broadway shows, trips to the top of the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center and One World Trade Center, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Wall Street, 9-11 Memorial and Museum, fine dining, street dining and grocery store dining from Whole Foods Market one block from our hotel. Some of us did heaps of shopping, plus attended professional ice hockey and basketball games, visited museums and markets, strolled neighbourhoods and walked the Brooklyn Bridge. Rotorua's Wai McClutchie-Bennett and friends also took a cruise on the Hudson River.
McClutchie-Bennett's words will resonate for people who've bitten off the NYC Marathon and the Big Apple. "It was such a buzz. Just what we imagined and more."
Tauranga's Amy Dreaneen says friends told her about the event beforehand "but nothing could prepare you for actually being there and experiencing it yourself. No superlative could ever describe it properly".
NYC Marathon by the Numbers
There were 53,627 finishers at the 2019 TCS New York City Marathon Sunday, November 3, making it the world's largest marathon. The 2018 TCS New York City Marathon held the previous mark with 52,813 finishers.
30,886 male finishers
22,741 female finishers
141 countries represented
50 states plus the District of Columbia represented
117,709: The total number of applicants for the race's free, non-guaranteed drawing.
Less than 9 per cent: chance of gaining entry via the lottery
Sources: https://www.nyrr.org/media-center/press-release/20191105_tcsnycmbythenumbers https://www.runnersworld.com/news/a26558054/new-york-city-marathon-entrants-by-the-numbers/
My NYC Marathon
I ran my first road race in 1996 to prove I wasn't sick. I'd been diagnosed months earlier with an incurable liver disease of unknown origin and was determined to show myself and anyone else who'd pay attention I was just fine.
I trained alone using a book from the library. I told workmates and managers I was going to run a marathon. "Ever do one of those before?," asked my boss, with a look that said, 'Might not be a good idea'.
The Columbus, Ohio course consisted of rolling hills but was mostly flat. I finished the race in 3hrs, 41minutes and change.
I ran the Portland, Oregon marathon in about four hours in 2003; Rotorua in 2013 took 3hrs, 53minutes.
My fourth marathon - New York City - may have been my Waterloo.
I entered the wrong time online and landed in a different start wave than my friends. That had me wandering alone through the start village and eventually missing my wave start. No stress, I could start 25 minutes later. I read t-shirts and examine hats and hairdos as I wait for the cannon to go off.
The Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge is a slow uphill grind at first, but finally starts heading down. I pick up a little speed as the elbow-to-elbow crowd starts to thin. Staten Island covers miles 1-2.
Brooklyn (Miles 3-12):
I love Brooklyn. I'm running on fresh legs, surrounded by a wall of sound. Our Mount Maunganui group had singlets with our names, so all along the course, I hear, "Go, Dawn! You can do this, Dawn!" For the first half of the race, I believe I can.
I stop at each aid station for water or Gatorade. This may have been part of my undoing, because not long after, I'm queuing for the Porta-loo.
Still in Brooklyn, at mile eight, I see my aunt and uncle, who've travelled from Kentucky to watch their daughter (my cousin) race. I skip to the other side of the street to give them big hugs, pose for a photo and hand Aunt Leslie my Mount Runners thermal.
There's a quiet section in Brooklyn, in the Jewish quarter. This is where men in yarmulkes with long side curls in their hair and women in ankle-length dresses walk peacefully down the foot path. No signs, no chants. No entertainment.
I perk up when I hit another band in Brooklyn. Music. Yes. I ditched headphones knowing there would be entertainment along the course, except for the five bridges (where runners often struggle).
Queens (Miles 13-15)
At Queens, I tackled the dreaded Queensboro Bridge (stopping for a selfie). I was thinking about the niggle in my knee when a man with long beard and US Marines shirt passed me while running on a leg and a blade. "Thank you for your service!" yelled another runner. My knee will be fine.
Still, I'm flagging. Fantasising about citrus. That's when a stranger with a paper plate full of slices gifts me the sweetest oranges I may ever eat in my life. I could feel juice dribbling down my chin and restrained myself from returning for the entire plate.
Spectators hold signs - funny, raucous, gross, uplifting … along the course with sayings like: All toenails go to heaven; Pain is temporary, finishing is forever; Tap here for extra power; Thick thighs save lives; and Finish better than GOT [Game of Thrones].
There were also heaps of photos on sticks with faces of people and pets.
At around 18 miles (29km), that knee niggle is worsening. Also, my bladder is continually squished; I'd make five toilet stops during the race, unusual for me. I can't hold any pace and feel slightly out of breath. I decided to run for five minutes and walk for one minute. This gives me something to look forward to and teaches me how very long five minutes can be.
Manhattan Part 1 (Miles 16-18)
Such a tease, this part of the course, because we'll finish in Manhattan, as well. Crowd support is outstanding and the next three miles are flat before we head into the Bronx.
The Bronx (Miles 19-20)
Crowds are sparser here, and I'm grateful not as many people can watch me waddle. My highlight of this section is the Entertainment Zone at 139th and Morris Avenue, where bands and dancers are grooving.
Manhattan Part 2 (Miles 21-26.2)
The last 10km of any marathon are gruelling and often painful. I promise myself no more toilet stops before ducking in to use the loo because there's no queue. Of all the things spectators offered on the course (besides those glorious orange slices), I loved tissues best. People would hold out a box and I'd take one or two in case the loo was out of paper (it often was). Also on offer: Halloween chocolates, pretzels, bananas, and other items you're not meant to take but I ate orange slices and didn't die.
I wonder what it would feel like to stand on the other side of the tape as a spectator. It looks marvellous.
After Harlem, 5th Avenue heads slightly uphill. Inside Central Park around mile 24, a couple rolling hills slow me even further. I try run-walking, but crowds are deafening and I feel a duty to at least shuffle-run the last part of the course as strangers cheer: "Almost there, Dawn! You're doing it, Dawn! You got this, Dawn!"
Three of my Mount friends catch me 800m before the finish.
"Come with us!," urges Blake Cloke. The spirit is willing but my flesh is done. Professional video shows me tottering across the line, raising my arms for a nanosecond before they drop.
I ask someone to take a photo of me with my medal. It's somewhat blurry, but I can see despite the fact I've shed 7kg without trying that past year, my stomach is distended. I looked and moved as if seven months' pregnant the entire race. I had been feeling bloated and tired the past couple months, but the marathon was a kick to my engorged gut that something is, in fact, wrong.
For more than two decades, liver disease caused few, if any, symptoms. I've learned what I have is genetic and rare: one-in-a-million. No one wears ribbons or walks for it. My ticking time bomb is growing in size and may have finally tackled me at the New York City Marathon. I finished the race in 5hrs, 31minutes, 32sec - a personal worst. Still, I'm grateful to have slogged NYC - even if the race taught me something about myself I didn't want to know.
*Postscript: the writer is under specialist care and hopes to soon have answers about further treatment.