Marathon in the Big City: No One Does it Like New York

Getty Images Sport/Ezra Shaw

The New York Marathon is fast approaching. It's the race that created a marriage between marathon running and big cities that continues to thrive in urban settings all over the globe.

Since 1976, when the event moved from Central Park to the five boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, Yonkers, The Bronx and Manhattan, the New York City Marathon has set the standard for metropolitan marathons. More than 35,000 eager marathoners will line up on the Verrezano Narrows Bridge in Staten Island on Sunday, November 7, eager to make the long journey to Tavern on the Green in Central Park.

As always, the New York Marathon will feature a star-studded field of world-class marathoners. The biggest name in the field however, will be the UK's Paula Radcliffe, the women's world record holder and defending champion. She will be making her return after an Olympic letdown, creating even more interest in how she will fare in her New York Marathon attempt.

While Boston has more than a century of tradition, New York has blazed the trail with many innovations other races have copied, but rarely duplicated. In addition to leading the way in attracting top international fields year after year, New York was the first marathon to be aired live on national television, as well as the first to offer a big-time prize money purse. In terms of excitement, few races can match that generated annually by spectators in New York. The wide variety of ethnic neighborhoods adds a special touch to the race, supporting the runners in their own unique way.

The folks at the New York Road Runners Club have embraced modern technology as well, and continue to do so. Its athlete alert system sends individual runner updates via e-mail and text messaging. I'll tell you this: it sure makes it easier for spectators, knowing when to expect a runner, thus eliminating the need to scan the field endlessly to pick out a single runner.

There's only one problem with New York—it's a tough race to run. The course is not extremely hilly, but the climbs on the Verrazano and Queensboro bridges are sneaky tough, particularly the latter. The final three miles in Central Park also contain some hills, mostly short rises that seem worse than they really are, due to where they are situated on the course. The road surface is changeable and features more than a few turns. As for the weather, New York has had more than its share of warm days for mid-November—an even greater concern nowadays—but the race has also had many picture perfect crisp autumn days as well.

Even if you conquer all of these issues, there is one more: people. Lots of 'em. Too many of them. Surely it's helpful to have allies in the battle of the marathon, but almost 40,000? That can create problems that upset the best laid marathoner's plans, from the registration process to the pre-race dinner and the Woodstock-like atmosphere in Staten Island at the start, where the hours of waiting before the cannon fires can be unnerving to the most relaxed of runners. The wait can take those who are used to getting up and out the door out of their games before they even take a step in the marathon.

These challenges are all part of the New York Marathon experience, however, all part of why the world's most famous city annually stages a marathon that lives up to its well-deserved reputation. There is no other marathon quite like New York, and probably never will be.

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Don Allison, from Weymouth, Massachusetts, is the former publisher of UltraRunning Magazine and a founder of Cool Running. He has completed 55 marathons, with a personal best of 2:35. In addition, Don has completed several ultramarathons, Ironman triathlons and cycled across the U.S.A. in 2006.

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