The New York City Marathon is BACK! After the heartbreaking year that was 2020 for so many athletes, the New York Road Runners were able to put on the iconic 50th running of the NYC Marathon this fall 2021. Historically the largest road race in the world at 50,000 runners per year, COVID protocols reduced the field size to about 30,000 runners with just under 25,000 finishing the race on the first Sunday of November. When news came out about the deferral of the 2020 race, runners were given the option to choose 2021, 2022 or 2023 as their deferral year. With the travel restrictions still in place until the day following the race (bummer on timing) many international travelers did not participate in this year’s race. That said, the New York fans came OUT to celebrate the 50th race and it felt symbolic of the emergence from the pandemic back into the life and heartbeat of the city.
Pre-Race Festivities & Packet Pick Up
Javits Center on the West side, near Hudson Yards and The Vessel houses the packet pick up and festivities, including an impressive New Balance NYC branded collection of clothing, as well as many vendor stands and information zones for nervous runners. We selected 8am packet pickup on Friday knowing we wouldn’t be running that day and certainly have plenty of coffee starting in the early hours. We arrived at 7:55am and volunteers already funneled us into the expo after checking registration, license and vaccination. To my knowledge, only runners are allowed at the expo.
We headed straight for bib assignments and checked in with the information desk to see what other Staten Island Ferry times were available. My mom and I were smart to select the latest possible – 8:45am but my dad was late to the game and ended up with an 8:15am slot. In the interest of sticking together they were able to place us all in the same Staten Island Ferry slot. Then we perused the swag for an extended period of time before buying half the store and were on our way! One thing that was changed this year was the checked bag situation. We opted against it – as you have to deliver your checked bag to a different location and time than your Javits pick up. Unless something is absolutely critical to have at the end of your race, skip the headache of coordinating your checked bag.
The Saturday before the race we have two traditions – The JDRF runners’ breakfast and the runners’ blessing mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral at 5:30pm. If you opt to run on a charity team – GO TO THE EVENTS. This is not only a nice thing you do to thank the charity coordinator for dealing with all your drama, questions, logistics and fundraising, but also ties the race more concretely to something larger than yourself. This has been such an impactful, and what I believe to be critical, component of long distance running.
Race morning looked a bit different this year than in years past – I was able to get up at the civilized hour of 6:45am to enjoy coffee at the hotel and making the short 13 minute walk down to Staten Island Ferry. In 2019 with the condensed and earlier waves, I arrived at Staten Island around 6am and got up in the 4am hour. Dressed up in my oversized sweatpants and sweatshirt, I waddled my way coffee in hand to meet my parents inside the ferry station. They ended up hitching a taxi ride with someone from Kenya (claiming to be a slow Kenyan) in their hotel lobby. Options for transportation are tricky given road closures begin early in the morning, but if you have a taxi that will stay on the west side of the island, that is more feasible to avoid blockades. Truly subway is the easiest with many connections to Staten Island Ferry station.
It felt like little red riding hood getting to the start line. After passing through drug sniffing dogs, we waited for the ferry to arrive, boarded, road, deboarded, walked to line up for the buses, got on the bus, waited in line to get off the bus and go through security at the starting line village. It probably took us 2 hours to get to the right corral village from the time we were waiting on our ferry. It is best to take the latest possible transportation however, as it is better to wait in the warmth and comfort of your home than on the grass or a curb next to port-a-potties.
We opted to start together, which NYRR currently allows as long as you go with the slower runner / later corral. With our wave starting at noon, we found a sunny place to laydown and both of my parents took naps on the hay. We brought our own breakfast to eat (peanut butter sandwiches) and I indulged in the free bagel at the bagel stand. Each village had Dunkin Donuts proudly served, which is great for early morning waves. Before we realized it, we killed about an hour and a half, and the race directors requested we enter the corral up to 1hr before our wave.
Looking around the last and final wave, you see a TON of charity runners. The best part of this race is the fact that bringing together so many people also raises so much money for local charities. JDRF raised $900K in this single event and all charities raised a total of $45M. Incredible. And such a special wave to be a part of with charity runners supporting worthy causes.
With each wave of runners comes the national anthem and a cannon booming. The person signing the national anthem was also running in the final wave! Once she finished the last note, and the boom of the cannon, we were off!
The early miles I expect to be the most energetic of any race. The nerves, excitement, built up anticipation all bubbling up to the surface. However… the first few miles are largely solemn. They’re the “oh hell what am I doing” atmosphere. The Verrazzano Bridge is the steepest inclines of the race and folks are charging up and quickly out of breath. The helicopter hover at eye level almost taunting us with the fact that they are sitting down and observing from far away. After the first 1-2miles, runners are taken onto a highway with no spectators aside from police support, and eventually make there way into the crowds around mile 3. The first ~30min are surprisingly difficult for this reason. Although we all opted to start the race together, my mom intended to walk the vast majority of it, so once we entered the crowds cheering in Brooklyn, my dad and I parted ways with her just beyond the 5k mark. One of the funniest moments of the race happened in those first 3 miles, where a police officer shouted to the crowd “Eh, you know we have Ubah, right?” in a thick Northeast accents. The comment still has me laughing for the accent and the statement in the first few miles of the race.
Brooklyn – Miles 2 – 13
The best part about Brooklyn is the energy. With the development of parklets and restaurants converting parking into outdoor patios, the amount of people eating, drinking and partying along the race course seemed higher than before. We had so much to look at from the people, the signs, the scenery, everyone livened up between miles 3-13. I taped and wrote my name across the top of my race shirt so as I would run by someone would cheer for me by name. I collected my cheers while I could! My game plan was to run as close to the edge as possible, waving to the crowd which encouraged them to cheer even louder. My dad’s one regret is not taping the name “Allie’s Dad” to his own chest to elicit some cheers.
The Brooklyn fans were wild from cheering in your face, to wearing costumes, to clearly be day drinking, this is my favorite part of the course. These spectators are oftentimes creating their own food and water stations, handing out bananas, candy and tissues to participants. We split a banana from a stranger around mile 10 and took many tissues along the way as well.
We ran into several other JDRF charity runners and even a Beyond Type 1 charity runner. One cool thing about Beyond Type 1 is that they had a team of 50 people with Type 1 run the race, whereas JDRF has all sorts of people run that have some connection to T1D. Pretty amazing to see T1D folks out there running a marathon while managing an incurable autoimmune disease. Such an inspiration along the way and a method to break up the miles by chatting with other people.
The one odd patch of broken is when you get to the Hasidic Jewish neighborhood where folks dressed head to toe in black scurry across the street between runners or blankly and silently the stare. There is a good half mile that they looked at us, and us them, before we were back in the roars of Brooklyn neighborhoods.
Queens – Miles 14 – 15
Brooklyn is a large part of the race, and only a tiny portion is in Queens at all. By the time we rounded a corner and spotted “Welcome to Queens” sign, it was already time to start the trek across Queensboro Bridge. Oh my. This is the longest 2 mile bridge that will feel like it is taking a lifetime to get over. There is no downward slope except maybe the very end. The bridge is (or felt like) 80% uphill. Many people walked. My dad all but cursed my name and uttered the words “you may have to go on without me” but eventually we made it out with our egos a bit bruised. The crappy part of this bridge is you go from the energy and hype from Brooklyn and Queens to a deserted uphill 2 mile stretch with a ton of potholes and walkers around you. It doesn’t do well for motivation.
Once we rounded the corner of the bridge into Manhattan we could hear the roar of the crowd once more which revived our spirits.
Manhattan – Miles 16 – 19
The interesting part about Manhattan is that it is probably my least favorite part of the race. Is that bad to say? At least miles 16 – 19 which feel like a steady uphill as you head North towards the Bronx, and also further away from the finish line. This is the point in which I started walk running in 2019 and a huge mental obstacle after coming off Queensboro Bridge. The crowds are more fair weather fans as well, with large empty sections of the race course with many spectators calling it as soon as they saw their runner.
The shade also hit us at this point between the sky scrapers of Manhattan. My gloves I previously peeled off and stuffed in my pockets when right back on my hands, and I started inching up my neck buff as well. It was chilly in those shady blocks despite being Mid-50s weather all day.
What was really special and another large reason to go the charity route – is the fact that our charity had a cheer station at mile 18 and went wild for us as we jogged by. There was nobody else around them, but you wouldn’t know it by the loud screams. At this point Dad and I had started walking to the next light after a water station. We would grab water and Gatorade and double fist drinking and walking to a street light, usually 20M beyond the last volunteer. This became the necessary game plan through the end of the race to stay hydrated and sane.
While there are water and aid stations nearly every mile, NYRR doesn’t do much by way of food options on the course. In retrospect I should have brought my own food rather than relying on the kindness of strangers handing out bananas.
Bronx– Miles 20 – 21
A large focus of the race for me was making it through the Bronx. I kept repeating to my Dad, “just get me though the Bronx, just get me through” because it was such a mental obstacle in 2019. To my surprise the crowds were way stronger than 2019 and the energy bumping all the way though the Bronx. There are few sharp turns and before we knew it, we were coming on a bridge back down to Manhattan. The Bronx is where I started walking in 2019 and couldn’t run anymore. It was a painful memory thinking “hell how am I going to walk 6mi back to the finish line?” Luckily we entered Harlem in one piece physically and mentally.
Manhattan – Miles 22+
Harlem and neighborhoods in upper Manhattan had many bands and cheering fans, so it was nice to continue the energy as the miles really increased. It was around mile 22 that the sun started setting and it grew darker and bit colder in the shade of the buildings. My attitude also took a tumble as my hip flexor was feeling terrible on my left side and I was over it. My dad kept asking if I was holding back to keep him safe…no pal. My body didn’t bonk but my attitude completely bonked. I was tired and over it. So we started walking longer after water stations until we took a walk uphill / run downhill approach. There was a woman with a massive bag of salty pretzels and I took her up on it, shooting my gloved hand into a probably quite contaminated bag of pretzels but the result was so worth it.
Around Mile 24 we reached Central Park and it was SO DARK. The sun had set and there were very few lamps present in the park itself. It was a good thing there were still some spectators around, because even the path was hard to see. We schlepped our way down Central Park as a power walking / slow jog combo. When we finally hit the southern most point of Central Park, the crowds intensified and screamed for us in our last mile. The finish line grandstands and central park area is very difficult for spectators given the security reasons. In 2019 Patrick tried to get close but couldn’t because of his backpack. The Central Park miles can be difficult because of the thin crowds and fewer spectators. It certainly feels like a lonesome sport despite the many runners around you. We popped back up heading Northwest in the park and slow jogged it into the finish line hand in hand. What a day.
Final time: 5:15:29 and a proud finish! The NYC course is historically brutal and starting the day at noon was an added challenge. I couldn’t be more proud of my mom, who came in only an hour after us looking fresh as a daisy. We were immediately cloaked, handed a goody bag with water and food and ushered out of the park. We lurked in the finish line area by sitting on a curb just to wait for my mom, however we saw many volunteers asking folks to press on for crowd control. I turned on my phone at the very last mile (it had been off since Staten Island Ferry) and surprisingly managed to track mom’s time. Historically service is terrible, and the plan is to assume no communication. However, I was able to send the victory texts and figure out how long we needed to evade the crowd control volunteers before she crossed the line. Eventually we were all reunited and exited the park together.
After the race the subway, restaurants, and passersbys will all cheer and congratulate the blue caped people with gold medals. We stayed in NY until the Tuesday after the race and even then saw many folks wear their medals and swag on the plan. While New York is a very individualistic culture, it is really special to see the city come together to put on a race with such magnitude.
Did you run the race or thinking about trying your odds in the lottery? Best of luck since less than 5% get in, ha! It is always a good idea to check out the charities and see if one is going to be your motivation to train and race for something greater than yourself.
Check out related posts:
What to Bring to the Start Line of the New York City Marathon
12 replies on “New York City Marathon 2021 Race Recap”
Great recap and congrats on finishing! While I am not a fan of waking up early for NYC M, I did not like my 11:20 am start. That said, I’m glad that NYC M has returned because the runners AND the city have missed this event.
Mile 22 is always bittersweet for me because I live about 0.5 blocks from Marcus Garvey Park. It’s weird seeing my apartment building, but realizing that I still have to run 4.2 miles to finish.
I’m with you on the start times – I certainly prefer the early wake up if it means I am not finishing in the darkness! Congratulations to you as well 💪