When a race is 26.2 miles long, there's no such thing as a sure thing, which is why the ING New York City Marathon can always be counted on to provide a few surprises. Last year, for example, all eyes were on Paula Radcliffe, the world's fastest female marathoner, who was expected to take her third straight NYC title. Instead, the women's race developed into an exciting four-way battle, with Derartu Tulu, of Ethiopia, crossing the finish line seconds ahead of Russia's Ludmila Petrova. Hobbled by tendinitis, Radcliffe finished a respectable fourth, just 35 seconds off the pace. More surprises unfolded on the men's side, where Meb Keflizeghi delighted the crowd by becoming the first American to win the race since Alberto Salazar in 1982.
On November 7, the spotlight will fall on the men's race, with the world's fastest male marathoner, Haile Gebrselassie, of Ethiopia, making his New York City Marathon debut. A 10,000-meter Olympic gold medalist, Gebrselassie has dominated men's marathoning in recent years and holds a world-record time of 2:03:59. He'll be pitted against Keflizeghi, who is sure to have the crowd behind him once again, as well as two-time New York champ Marilson Gomes dos Santos, of Brazil, and Antonio Vega, of Minnesota, winner of the 2010 USA Half-Marathon Championship back in January. But all four might well be upstaged by a recent entrant into the race: Chilean miner Edison Pena, who ran 3–6 miles per day to Elvis Presley tunes to help pass time during his 69 days trapped in the mine. Pena was recently invited to participate in the festivities by New York Road Runners president Mary Wittenberg.
On the women's side, with Paula Radcliffe out of the running (she recently gave birth), the race is wide open. Tulu will be returning to defend her crown against Petrova; US hopeful Shalane Flanagan, who took a bronze in the 10K at the 2008 Olympics and half-marathon world record holder Mary Keitany, of Kenya, are both running their very first marathon; and this year's NYC Half-Marathon female champ, Mara Yamauchi, of Great Britain, is also competing.
Of course, the New York City Marathon, which celebrates its 40th birthday this year, not only provides a crucible for world-class competition; it has steadily become one of the City's largest and most beloved annual civic events, with more than 2 million spectators across all five boroughs. They come to celebrate the 43,000 runners' discipline, commitment and heart, and to cheer them on when spirits flag. They come to see runners in their teens and runners in their 80s; runners who have one leg and runners who are legally blind; elite athletes hoping for a share of the $800,000 purse and first-timers just hoping to finish. Watching the marathon is an emotional, exhilarating, exhausting experience, and it definitely pays to plan ahead. Just as the runners have given thought to the course, the weather and what they'll wear and eat, spectators are well-advised to do the same.
If friends or family members are running, they'll be counting on their own personal fan club to exhort them on to the finish line. Coordinate the logistics of your rendezvous beforehand:
• Agree on where you'll be, including the specific side of the street. It's much easier for "your" runner to emerge from the pack and find you than for you to pick him or her out from the moving pack.
• Know your runner's starting wave and expected pace.
• Stand out from the crowd. Wear a distinctive hat or bright clothing that's easy to spot, or make an eye-catching sign.
• To meet up afterward, a café near the finisher area is a good bet, preferably one that serves pasta.
• Sign up for the Athlete Alert system to receive texts tracking the splits of up to three runners throughout the race. (The marathon website will offer free split info through its Athlete Tracker, but that tool will not be optimized for mobile use.)
Choosing Your Spot
For details on the course, check out the official spectator guide and download the invaluable official course map. There are a range of viewing options, each with its own flavor. If you like crowds and easy access, for instance, commercial corridors such as First Avenue on the Upper East Side and Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg are close to subway stops as well as markets and restaurants for refueling. These stretches are crowded, loud and exciting.
At several key locations, you can gain a magnificent view of the long stream of runners as they approach a turn. Drop anchor at Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues in Brooklyn (mile 8), near the iconic Williamsburg Savings Bank Building, to catch runners making their way up Fourth Avenue. The location is right on top of a transit hub, and plenty of cafés and shops line the route nearby.
As the runners enter Queens just past the halfway mark, their descent on the Pulaski Bridge forms an impressive tableau. Watch from the turn at 48th Avenue and 11th Street. It shouldn't be too crowded, and it's just steps from the 7 train and the lively strip on Vernon Boulevard.
At Fifth Avenue and 90th Street in Manhattan, as runners enter the park at Engineers' Gate, most of them will have already hit a wall. This is a beautiful spot, with a long vista up Fifth Avenue, but bring food—there are no stores nearby along the route.
For the most intense experience, head to Central Park South at Columbus Circle, where runners push through the final mile. Some put on a final burst here, while others are doing their best to hobble to the finish. Expect an emotional roller coaster and big crowds. Tickets for the grandstands at the finish line are available for $75.
Packing the Essentials
Before leaving home, check the weather report so you know what to expect. Bring protection from the sun, or rain gear, as the forecast dictates. You'll be outside and on your feet for hours, so wear comfortable shoes and bring an extra layer of clothing.
Essential gear for spectators also includes a subway map (the marathon wreaks havoc on surface transit, including cars and cabs), the course map, a cell phone, a camera, a water bottle and some food: energy bars, nuts and fruit make for good snacks.
And They're Off
Once you've settled on a viewing location, double-check your mile position on the course map and be sure to get there in time to catch the elite runners or cheer on a friend. The marathon begins in phases: wheelchair competitors (8:30am) and handcyclists (8:55am) start first, followed by the professional women (9:10am) and men (9:40am). The elite male and female runners maintain otherworldly paces of about 5 minutes/mile and 5:30 minutes/mile, respectively. The rest of the field starts the race in three staggered waves, at 9:40am (right behind the elite men), 10:10am and 10:40am.
As the time approaches for your runner to appear, get into position early. Be visible, with camera in hand and sign held high. You'll want to be ready and alert, but also patient—even an accomplished runner may not be on his or her intended pace.
You might consider having a special treat handy for your intrepid marathoner. After burning off 1,000 to 2,000 calories, nothing hits the spot like a banana, a peeled orange or even a fruit smoothie. Check in advance, though—runners have different approaches to eating during the race. (Also, take care not to step out onto the course. As the miles mount, marathoners' lateral agility decreases drastically.)
A word of caution for spectators: you may find yourself inspired to get off the sidelines and run the marathon in 2011. For details on applying, check the official website the day after the race. We'll be out there rooting for you.