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The New York City Marathon Experience by Jamie Pang

Note:This posting is to share with readers what went into a world-class event such as this one, and what to expect should you win an entry lottery and make plans for the race experience of your life. I'd like to share with you what I observed from my singular experience in NYC. For my NYC and race experience, photos and videos, head on to my training and race blog here or the event blog I set up here. A guide to applying for the race and making your Visa and travel plans can also be found in the same blog.

The People
Just before the firing of the howitzer at start of Wave 1 the 2008 ING New York City Marathon (NYCM), NYRR President Mary Wittenberg was heard shouting into the PA system "Runners, are you ready to run? The city is yours today! Have a fantastic race!". If just being there at the start with 39,000, all full marathoners, others didn't get you excited, the sheer enthusiasm of the indefatigueable former elite marathoner would. By the time I queued up near the first row of my Wave 3 feeling like an elite, she had disappeared, presumably rushing here and there supervising the progress of the race and not to mention getting to Central Park in time to welcome back the winners from the wheelchair category, Paula Radcliffe and then Marilson Dos Santos.

Nearly every volunteer from young to old, black to white to yellow that I encountered exuded similar warmth, wit and charm as Wittenberg to sweep you off your feet. And there were more than 12,000 of these folks in the course of planning, coordinating and executing plans leading to and on Race Day. They're not paid other than meals and the volunteer apparels (different roles require different apparels). When you apply online to be a volunteer, you can choose where you prefer to be based along the 5-borough route and what role you'd like to play. While NYRR will try their best to accommodate your preferences, you may still be assigned to areas that require additional manpower. If your assignment is to the water stations, your provided apparels would be bright orange poncho-like overalls to prevent the spillage of fluids on your body. Volunteers who were tasked to provide directions at the staging area in Fort Wadsworth would be suitably garbed in bright jackets for visibility. Medical personnel were in red jackets. In this mega-marathon, everything is planned to the minutae, serves a purpose and runner-centric. We runners are afterall customers.

Roles can range from areas like Expo duties, pre-race pasta party (which reportedly 15,000 runners attended) and multiple race day duties.

"As the heat is on, the good thing is – as with many things worth working for it life – it will all be worth it. We are the luckiest team in the world to stage this event for you and I am lucky to work with the best team in the business. Our sacrifices pale in comparison to the huge sacrifices many of you and your friends and families have made in preparing for marathon day. Know that your satisfaction and fulfillment on race day are what drives us. Together, with the hope that running will become a way of life for you that benefits you greatly going forward. You have worked hard to get this far. We are counting on you to start resting up so you can make the most of the big day! Take it easy, Mary"

Excerpt from the NYRR blog a few days before the race. With such a note from the President herself, it's hard not to love this race, and appreciate the passion that went into organizing this mega event.

We were greeted by volunteers who ushered us to our correct lines. Clear instructions like "International runners proceed this way" and "This way in" were constantly heard. As the 3-day expo was also opened to the public, I can't imagine the number of people the usherers had to handle. The flow of the collection were very very structured. International runners will firstly approach the International Friendship Run (IFR) booth (manned by 3 volunteers) to collect the free bibs and goodie bags - time spent 20 seconds. If you didn't receive the registration card in the mail, you can stop by the Service Desk to get a pickup slip (20 seconds), but if you've the card or email printout, you can skip this step. Next would be a short walk to your respective bib range to pick up your Marathon Goodie Bag - 20 seconds (my booth was manned by 2 volunteers). I immediately tried on the long sleeved asics technical tee for size but found that M was just too large, so I made my way to the Exchange counter (3 volunteers) to swap for an S size - another 20 seconds. They were so fast with the exchange process because there were always people exchanging shirts and they just basically swap the sizes on the spot. At every touchpoint, we were greeted with smiles and wishes of "Have a great race". It was very apparent that regardless of where they're stationed, the volunteers take pride in their job. That out of the way, it was time to check my chip. Just pass your chip (a 1 second job) over the sensor and verify that your own name is flashed on the screen. This table was manned by a single volunteer. Up until this point, the total time spent was an amazing 7 to 10 minutes (a PR timing for bib collection!). It could've been faster had I not gawked at the whole setup. The other reason the organizers want you to get the collection over with was so that you can get on with the shopping for running goodies! It is afterall a big business. Check the chart out below.

Eve of Race
I was at Tavern-on-the-Green, the finishing area of the race, at about 4pm on the eve of the big day and the whole place was buzzing with activities. There were events happening in the park and workers and volunteers setting up the finishing area had to contend with runners, rollerbladers, bikers and tourists and pedestrians. Team leaders were briefing their members and running through the procedures, perhaps for the umpteenth time. You can check the videos out in the RunnersMalaysia site. To the left and right of the last 200 metres were erected stands for paid-up spectators and corporate sponsors. Barricades stretched all the way from the finish line up to the baggage claim area where close to 70 UPS trucks would be waiting with our belongings tomorrow.

Race Morning Commute
The group of us opted for a subway (packed with runners!) and ferry ride to Staten Island, so we didn't encounter the volunteers at the various bus pickup points. I read that these volunteers were already in position as early as 3am assisting runners to the correct buses. When we got to the ferry terminal we were greeted by more marshalls who directed us to the waiting platform. Each of them wished us good luck on top of their instructions. Similar to the Disney Experience, each of the volunteers seemed to be carrying out their scripted performances. They were like performers on the big stage greeting visitors to their city. The runners' turn to perform would come later.

To The Start
At the Fort Wadsworth staging area easily identified volunteers patrol the area which looked like a carnival site. For security reasons only the official clear UPS bags were allowed into the area. We already had the provided ID stickers pasted on the bags for identification and collection later. Multilingual announcements played repeatedly over the PA systems. When it was time to take the short walk to the topside of the bridge for the start, we were heaped with well wishes from the NYPD, FDNY, DOT (Department of Transportation) and other security and city workers that I felt truly like a star. The discarded clothes would later be picked up and sorted out for charities. I would've endured the waiting more if not for the ridiculous 4 Celcius temperature. Thankfully due to the newly implemented wave starts, I never had to fight the huge crowds. The 39,000 runners are broken up to 3 waves and 6 corrals within each wave, in the order of projected finishing times. I was in Wave 3 Corral A. Each wave were scheduled to start about 15 minutes apart and NYRR predicted that a runner will be able to cross the line within 6 minutes of the start. Starts took place on the top deck and bottom deck of the Verazzano Bridge and runners converged only at the 8th Mile mark which meant no congestion issues for me. Nearly everyone was going the same pace as I.

Along The Way
Throughout the race route, the process of drinks being handed out to us were quite seamless. It had to be. With the number of runners passing through, there simply were no other options than to make the process smooth and efficient. This area is also one that Malaysian race organizers can easily and effectively implement. Runners weren't required to approach the drink tables, which were set up on both sides of the road. There were more than enough volunteers (8 to 10 each side) passing the drinks (and encouragement) to you. The tables were clearly marked and water tables came before Gatorade. On the tables were cups stacked 3 to 5 levels high, so there never was a need to scramble to refill more cups. Sweepers were at hand to clear the discarded cups from the road with long rakes, paving a way for the constant stream of runners to pass through.

On a day when the entire city came together, there were kids and New Yorkers out there along the race route handing out things from fruit slices and candy to tissue paper. Since much revenue is brought to the city by the marathon, residents know they have to play a role in the show. I feel that we were being too selfish and petty over here in Malaysia. Instead of cowbells, cheers and screams from supporters, it's not uncommon for Malaysian runners to be cussed and shouted at by motorists for causing road closures. Of course in certain races that we only know too well, Malaysian runners had to run with their fingers crossed too praying that there would be water at the next station! On a plus side, we Malaysian runners are so battle hardened that we can take on anything, from traffic fumes to dehydration and curses. On the negative side, we don't realise how much we're losing out in terms of sports tourism revenue. Malaysian runners will feel pampered in the NYCM!

Note for example the Powerbar station located at 1st Avenue. We could choose the flavour of our gels by approaching the appropriately marked tables placed along the station! Recognizing the fact that some runners may not want to consume the gels just yet, the packets were handed out unopened. Various photographic checkpoints had signs that read "SMILE!". Yellow cushioned mats were laid over the steel grating of the Willis Avenue Bridge as runners head into The Bronx. Even road surface protrusions like bolts and reflective cones were taped over with bright coloured tapes to prevent runners from kicking and tripping over.

The Finish
The finish line was where everything came together. Flags of nations line both sides of the final 200 metres. Runners who until the race day don't know each other ran hand in hand. Pain dissipated, swallowed up by the cheers of thousands as marathoners call upon months of training to pull them uphill towards the finish line. As many ran for personal bests, there were thousands who ran for charity causes. After a brief moment of ecstasy when you crossed the finish line, you'll feel like you're being placed on a conveyor belt as you're asked to move along. Every instruction from the marshalls were tagged with a compliment "You're heroes! Awesome/Fantastic/Great job". And when I reciprocated with a tired "Thank you", the marshall quipped, "So that means I'll be seeing you again next year?". Those who wanted their photo taken were ushered to the wallboard where 5 photographers were furiously at work. Someone handed me a HeatSheet and then another placed a sticker to hold the sheet on my body. Yup, there's no need to lift your tired hands! Then a food bag containing an apple, a Protein Bar, a rock-hard bagel, salty peanuts (which were a wise choice), large bottle of Gatorade and another bottled water was handed out to me. A medic spotted that I wasn't looking too good and asked if he could help. I received some salt from him. After a slow trudge to my designated UPS truck, I managed to collect my bag rather quickly. Before the chill set in, I quickly changed into dry clothes and headed to the park exit to have my timing chip clipped. Yup, just lift your foot up and someone will snip the plastic ties and the chip off!

Outside the park was where the runners were reunited with their families and friends. There were demarcations by bib ranges to make locating the correct spots easier.

Next Year
Recognizing the fact that the spirit and contribution of the volunteers count as much as their race management skills, NYRR is encouraging volunteerism by introducing a new 9 + 1 requirement. This calls for members to complete 9 qualifying NYRR races within 2008 on top of volunteering for 1 NYRR race in the same year. Completing this requirements will get you a guaranteed entry into the 2009 marathon. You'll still need to pay though!

It got me thinking whether there will be a day when Pacesetters will be organizing something as big as a 10,000 participant race. Afterall, both the NYRR and PACM are clubs run by passionate runners. And when that happens I'll be there!

Postscript: I completed the 39th NYCM, which was my 10th marathon, in a personal best of 4:03.49, an improvement of 13 minutes over the 2008 KLIM. While New York is too far and expensive for me for a return trip, I'm never going to say never. To read just one of the many volunteers featured, just head onto the New York Times feature article here. The subject was also covered here.

Congratulatory letter from NYRR President and Race Director Mary Wittenberg (click to read)

Finisher Certificate signed by Wittenberg and NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg


Jamie Pang
Feb 9th, 2009


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