Paul and Ben after 2016 TCS New York City Marathon

New York Marathon – a father and son experience

Paul RYKENFirst Published: Last Updated: United States of America

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The New York Marathon is the mecca of marathons around the world. Every marathon runner would or should have it on their bucket list. Those attempting to run it as their first marathon may be disappointed with any future marathon, if only for the experience of running through the closed streets of New York – the ability to run through all five boroughs in one day in front of crowds in excess of one million.

Paul finishing 2011 Honda Los Angeles Marathon in 3h25m37s
Paul finishing 2011 Honda Los Angeles Marathon in 3h25m37s

The biggest marathons (in terms of the number of finishers) I had previously run in were the 2011 Los Angeles Marathon (19,626 finishers) and the 2015 Florence Marathon (8,275 finishers). The TCS New York City Marathon currently holds the world record of 50,403 from 2014.

Paul finishing 2015 Florence Marathon in 3h47m40s
Paul finishing 2015 Florence Marathon in 3h47m40s

It costs a lot to enter the race – USD350 for a foreign entrant – most Australian or New Zealand marathons cost about USD100, but once you participate in the event, you can only just begin to understand the cost of putting such an event on.

I vividly remember watching the 1983 New York Marathon live on television. In those days, this was a rare opportunity of free to air sports coverage, but as we had two great New Zealand athletes participating – Rod Dixon and Lorraine Moller – it was not difficult to get up at 0200h to watch. I had the privilege several years later, when I started my event management and sports timing business, that Rod Dixon would compete in my first televised event and would become a friend for life.

Rod Dixon winning 1983 New York Marathon in time of 2h8m59s
Rod Dixon winning 1983 New York Marathon in time of 2h8m59s

After we officially entered the Marathon in late January, we were bombarded with a series of emails over the next few months highlighting the various races that were conducted by the event organisers or by our travel agent. Not much use for those of us living outside the US, but still it kept our interest high.

The most important email received two weeks out, contained the official event acceptance document showing our race number, start group, corral, and start time. This allowed me to really start planning and researching the early part of the course. Due to the volume of runners, there are three start areas, four-wave start times, and multiple corrals. It requires military precision to get everyone underway without delay. Quite fitting then that the race start area is located at Fort Wadsworth.

Paul and Ben at Marathon Sports Expo
Paul and Ben at Marathon Sports Expo

On race day, we (the runners in our small group – myself, Ben and Tobi) all woke at 0400h, knowing that we would have to eat, get ready and leave the Residence Inn at Times Square hotel at 0530h to board the buses. The hotel’s location was ideal in that it is only 450m from the bus pick up point outside the New York Public Library. We were on the bus at 0600h and for the next 90minutes, crawled the 25km from Manhattan, through Brooklyn and over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to the start line. The bus ride alone was exciting, full of nervous runners, chatting in several foreign languages all talking about their injuries and their expectations for the day ahead.

It was a cool morning when we stepped out from the hotel (7°C), but by the time we got to the start area, the sun was slowly rising and it was a clear, almost cloudless day (14°C when we actually started). Luckily, it didn’t rise much higher than that for the rest of the day.

By the time we got there, the start area was already awash with runners walking slowly towards their designated start lines. Luckily, Ben, Tobi and I were in the blue start, so we were able to stick together for now. I’d read up, on blogs and in books, about the start area to know what we should do when. The first priority was to stand in line for the portaloos. I’d brought a spare roll of toilet paper and hand wash, knowing the condition of the portaloos would be nasty, to say the least.

After our ablutions, we then wandered into a free space inside the blue zone, but not actually in the corral area. We could lie down and relax on the curbside. Given that we were there at 0745h, Ben and I only started at 1015h and Tobi at 1040h, we had a few hours to kill. I’d bought a newspaper over with me, but it was difficult to concentrate with all the loudspeaker announcements being made – each announcement was in four languages repeated three times.

In the end, we just soaked up the atmosphere until it was our turn to move into the start corral. The corral had more portaloos, so I took this opportunity again. As we moved closer to the actual start line itself, we were required to start disposing of our plastic bag of goodies, food, spare clothes, drink bottles etc. Although orderly, at times, we felt like lambs in a chute ready to be transported to the abattoir. For some who had undertrained, it would be their day of reckoning.

As we got nearer the start line at the base of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Ben and I were able to stand behind the 3h45m official pace runner. I’d made a mistake a year earlier at the Florence Marathon in not getting into the chute system early enough to run with my designated pace group, and I had learnt my lesson.

At 1015h, the giant cannon sounded and about 10 minutes later we crossed the line. Frank Sinatra’s famous song New York, New York played at the time, and it was strangely something I was looking forward to, but by the time we got to the actual start line, the song was over.

The climb up the bridge was also anticipated as it meant we were actually on the course and any nerves would slowly settle down. We knew it would be a slow mile (all course markers were in miles rather than in kilometres, after all, we were in the US). We were buffeted by the winds as we hit the crest, and the course was slightly narrower due to road works claiming one lane of the three. As we headed off the bridge, an Irishman started running next to me and gloated about the Irish rugby team beating the All Blacks the previous night – their first-ever victory.

The run through Brooklyn was relatively unexciting, although it was early in the race. It allowed me to warm up, confirm that the body would be able to cope and just enjoy the experience. It was also the start of the crowds of people who would be yelling out at us “Go Ben, go Paul” for we had organised to have our bright orange shirts emblazoned with our names, a silver fern and New Zealand underneath. It was worth it as for the next few hours, our names would be called out and our heads and hearts would be lifted as if total strangers suddenly become our personal cheerleaders right around the course.

At approximately 10km, as planned, Sandra, Miky and Matt were waiting for us. It was a great feeling to be able to have them there for our personal support. My mood definitely lifted then.

Up until the 15km timing mats, Ben and I were running comfortably in the 3h45m pace group. At times, when we would go through a drink station, we would either be 50m in front or 50m behind, but always close enough to keep the miles ticking by at a consistent pace.

On the Queensborough Bridge (at approximately 26km), Ben was slowing down quite a bit and I almost lost him in the crowd. It was very difficult to slow down and look for him as the roads were still filled with runners going at our pass.

Off the bridge where no spectators were allowed, we were hit with a wall of people along the pathways on both sides of First Avenue. They were 8 deep and the noise was deafening. This was the point of sensory overload that we had been warned about.

We now had the long straight of First Avenue to content with. I don’t remember much of it except it was wall to wall people on either side. When we wanted to have the crowd yell our names, we would edge closer to the sides. When we needed the solitude of our space, we ran near the centre line. It was fun reading the various signs people held up. At the 30km mark, we saw Sandra again, and a short while after we bumped into Matt and Miky. As we crossed into the Bronx, we hit the 20-mile / 32km mark. We were running steady and had used up all the bananas that we had carried to that point.

Another mile later and we turned back south along Fifth Avenue. It was undulating but not as bad as I had expected it to be. Sandra had advised she would be near the statue on the corner of Central Park (close to the 36km mark). She saw us, but we didn’t see her. By that stage, we were getting tired and just wanted to finish.

Turning into Central Park at 24 miles felt great. It was still two miles until the finish line, but for some reason, I was on a high. We were on track to break four hours easily. I was running with my son and I felt great. We had run the whole way so far, something that I had never done before in any Marathon – and I’d run more than 25 of them.

Miles 25 and 26 and the crowd just got larger and louder. There was no stopping us. At that point, I was a little concerned that Ben might find an extra gear somehow and pull away from me. I just wanted to soak up the atmosphere – especially once we re-entered Central Park for the last time. The last 365 yards were surreal. This part, I didn’t want to end. As we got closer to the actual finish line, I tried to find some space around us, knowing where the official photographers would be and helping them to get a clear photo of us. No matter what I tried (speed up or slow down), there were people all around us.

For the last 50 metres, I tried to do what most people naturally do, raise their arms high and smile broadly. We had done it. We had just finished the TCS New York City Marathon in a time under 4 hours. We had started together, run together and finished together. The pride I had was enormous, in myself for running another marathon, but more importantly in my son for taking up the challenge. I had run my first marathon at age 15 in a time of 3h59m. Ben beat this time by three minutes, and in the official results, he beat me by 3 seconds.

Distance in kilometresAccrued time5km split timesEstimated finish time

After we had crossed the finish line, we were required to walk for a little while. We had the medal hung over our neck, the post-finish line photos taken, the recovery bag full of goodies thrust into our hands and the silver foil placed over our shoulders. We were both feeling it by then. Stopping after running for so long was harder than I thought. Ben needed physical support to stay up at times and I just wanted to see Sandra.

When we got out the volunteers gave us a nice branded poncho which helped a lot. We had walked more than a kilometre after the finish line and still hadn’t gotten to the family reunion area. We were getting cold and our feet hurt. We needed to sit down but still had ways to go.

Miky, Sandra and Matt were there to pick us up and help us through to the subway. Sandra had to return to the reunion area as she knew Tobi was soon about the finish so Matt took over looking after me while Miky looked after Ben. We got back to the hotel, I had a shower and lay down thinking I would sleep. I couldn’t. My mind was just re-playing over and over what we had just done, plus my legs hurt. Weird that.

Our stay at the hotel was over the next day so we all checked out and went our separate ways, although we all stayed in New York for a few more days. Matt returned to New Zealand, Miky and Ben flew to London and then on to Argentina. Tobi started his cross-country trek in a campervan.

It took several days afterwards before I could walk properly, but by Friday, I was able to go for my first run – in Montreal. Our minimalist journey had really started now.