NYC Marathon Course Analysis and Race Strategy
Updated: Jul 21, 2021
NYC Marathon: THE Best Marathon on the Planet. Period.
The Strategy: Preserve till mile 13, preserve yourself until you enter Bronxville, then serve it UP after you enter Central Park.
Fallback Point: Waves 1 and 2, the Queensboro Bridge (mile 15-16). Wave 3 has to wait until First Avenue (17-19). When I ran in wave 3, nothing broke up until I passed the Gu station at 92nd st on First Avenue (18-mile mark). Be prepared to stay in the middle of the road and watch your feet, the ground will be COVERED in Gu. Blast through it and do not look back!
“I think of every marathon as an opportunity to learn: about your strengths and weaknesses; your toughness and resolve; your potential. What works for you in training and what doesn’t. The same for race strategy. Every time you toe the line and race a marathon, you test your limits, and you learn how to better find the invisible line—the threshold you want to push precisely to the edge of, but not cross. And this line shifts and changes. It’s different on different days based on myriad factors, including your training trajectory. What happens when you step over that line changes too.” – Matt Flaherty, 2:20 marathoner
Myth: “this marathon is one of THE hardest marathons in the world!”
Truth: Like Boston, NYC is a world marathon major and is widely reported to be a positive split course. What you need to know is that the first half is WAY easier than the second half, so we need an energy cushion to get us through it.
Why MK Likes it: This is one of the largest and best organized races on the planet. NYRR (New York Road Runners) is the premiere Road Running Club in the United States (HARRA is a distant second), organizing multiple races every weekend of the year. All races are huge- weekend 5ks can host up to 18,000 participants – so the logistics for the marathon are flawless and ensure a seamless experience for the runner.
Worth Noting: Even professional runners who get first-class treatment complain about the super-early wake-up time to reach a 5:30am ferry for a 9:50 race start (hint: you will probably have to rise at the same time, but won’t start until at least 10:15am).
It is a true urban marathon, taking you through all 5 boroughs that comprise New York City and into parts of the city you normally cannot experience by foot. It is well-established, meaning it has been around for decades and the city totally embraces the race- spectators will be 4-6 people deep all along the course. Once you’ve run this race, you will be ruined for all future races, it’s THAT good.
How to get to the start? I have ridden in Sponsor buses but never on the NYRR buses; it was a fine experience. I have also taken the ferry. I greatly prefer the ferry; the buzz is phenomenal and I love watching the Statue of Liberty in front of the sunrise.
What Will I do for 5 hours? Well, if you are on the 6:30am ferry, you won’t be sitting around very long. The ferry takes approx. 25 minutes, and then you will board NYRR buses to take you to Start Village. Boarding, waiting, and driving to start village will take another 30-45 minutes. Don’t stress out memorizing the Start Village map, the area is very well-marked and you won’t have any trouble figuring out where to go. Once you get off the bus, you will have to go through heavy security, which is very efficient but still takes around 15 minutes. By now it’s probably 8:30am and you will see tons of Dunkin Donuts coffee stations. You will be fine, even if you didn’t bring a blanket/sleeping bag/huge bathrobe like everyone around you did.
Do I check a bag? This is a logistics question that goes back to planning. You do NOT want to be staying anywhere in Spanish Harlem or on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I highly recommend staying near the finish line, even if it is pricier than you’d usually choose. Getting around the city will be a nightmare that day with limited taxis avoiding the closed roads, and subway trains won’t be running on time. Don’t even think about Uber unless you’re willing to walk 2 additional miles to the waterfront. If you aren’t staying near the finish line, yes check a bag. Be sure to put snacks, recovery drinks, warm clothes and a change of socks and bra as well as shoes, and a portable phone charger. Meet friends for drinks and wait a few hours before trying to head back to your Air BnB in Brooklyn. If you are staying near the finish line, you will be fine with the free recovery bags and ponchos/blankets in the finish chute. Bonus points if your hotel has room service that includes bar service. YOLO.
Miles 1-3: You face a huge uphill on the Verrazano bridge. Stick to the middle as people will be slowing for bridge selfies on either side. Let the crowd pass you, you do NOT want to waste energy trying to maintain pace here. Watch your heart rate, recover as you crest the top of the bridge for .25 miles, then sit into the downhill and don’t go too fast. Just like any other marathon, if at any point you start thinking, “I’m BEHIND!” you’re screwed. Don’t go there.
Miles 4-8: Smooth sailing along 4th Ave, semi flat with some downhill that will absolutely feel like downhill. Control is the name of the game, do NOT get carried away. Slight incline when the road narrows, stick to the middle.
Miles 9-12: Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Again, this is just NICE. Enjoy the smooth sailing and don’t get carried away, we are banking ENERGY for the tough stuff ahead.
Mile 13-15: The QBE on-ramp, which comes *right* after you cross the halfway timing mat, is terrible. It got me two years in a row. That photo of me with my arms in the air was taken by my running buddy in 2015 at the crest of the QBE, the first time I’ve not tripped/fallen/walked at this point. The ramp is short, but steeper than people expect so slow your roll and do NOT waste energy, the hardest part of the course is ahead of you. Recreate my race photo but do not lose focus. Use mile 14 to dial back, recover on the flat and brace yourself for the shitshow that is the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan. It is steep, no one is ready (especially if they wasted energy trying to keep pace up the QBE ramp), and everyone will die. Walkers will be EVERYWHERE. Just slow your roll and focus on steady, capped effort until the slope changes and you have to resist the urge to FLY down the bridge. You will be grateful for the excess energy as you face First Avenue.
Mile 16-19: yeah, no one told you how uphill this is, it doesn’t look that bad on the elevation map. It is KILLER. Lock your cage, sit into that hill and ride it all the way up. Don’t try to maintain pace, mind your effort caps as we will have plenty of time to recover in Bronxville. Focus on the crowds, you can hear them cheering for miles. THEY ARE CHEERING FOR YOU.
Miles 20-21: short and twisty with 2 bridges. Look out for the church choirs singing in the streets, the crowd support dwindles and you will have to fight to keep your mojo.
Miles 22-24: 5th Friggin Avenue:, the energy is huge there, the end is near, but notoriously rough. This could be the toughest 4 miles of your life! A steady dose of gradual incline, but the crowd is still awesome. GET TO THE PARK!!
Miles 24-26: you enter the park and immediately soar downhill. Take .25 miles to recover from FIFTH FRIGGIN AVENUE, then pick up your pace/effort and negative split all the way to the finish! Remember, when you exit the park at 59th st, you still have a mile to go. Stick to the middle of the road to avoid walkers, then once you go back into the park you face a ‘slight’ uphill….then you see the finish line….THEN YOU SPRINT.
Then you text your coach, who loves you and was probably tracking you anyway, and tell her you just finished THE best marathon on the planet. She will be very jealous.
You are coached, you are loved, GO ROCK THAT RACE!!!!!!!!!!
MK Fleming is the founder of Fitness Protection, LLC where she trains runners for $29 per month and gives marathon plans away for free. Click here to download her most popular Marathon plan, Tenacious AF, free!