On November 7, more than 30,000 runners will line up at the starting line of the 2021 New York City Marathon to run 26.2 miles through New York’s five boroughs. After COVID-19 canceled the 2020 marathon, the race will feel even more rewarding this year.
Although the NYC Marathon is a challenging course, it’s one that will draw your strength out through your spirit. There’s a reason this marathon is one of the greatest in the world, with the sweeping views of the skyline, the contagious energy of the crowds, and the epic finish in Central Park.
Unlike other World Major Marathons, such as Berlin and Chicago, New York has several rolling hills, so it’s best to run it by topography rather than the pace on your watch. Doing so will allow you to let go of PR expectations—although you very well might set a new best time, with the fellow runners and roaring crowds pushing you to the finish. Just enjoy the ups and downs, taking in all the magic that is a marathon in the heart of the Big Apple.
Need a little extra help conquering the course? Here are some tips.
Don’t try to see everything there is to see in New York City on the Saturday before your race. This weekend, you’re a runner, not a tourist, so stay off your feet as much as you can.
When you swing through the expo, give yourself a time limit to get your race info and shop around, but you don’t want to spend too much time walking. Afterward, stick to activities that don’t require too much physical movement. Maybe enjoy a cup of coffee or tea in Times Square, read a book in Central Park, or see a Broadway show (but don’t stay out too late!). Remember, the marathon will be your tour of all five boroughs!
Conquer the hills
Not many people think that New York City has hills, but the marathon course throws plenty of elevation at the runners—the race starts on an uphill on a bridge. The number one way to tackle hills in a marathon? Conserve your energy.
Many runners will try to maintain pace on hills, but when you do, it can suck the life out of you by mile 20 (which is the real start of the race). It takes a lot more energy to run hard up a hill, and many times it leaves you too tired to take advantage of the downhills. Think like a cyclist (or mountaineer), and use your gears by working with the hill to gain the most for your energy.
Run up the hill at a consistent effort rather than a pace. Shorten your stride, use your arms, and feel free to let other runners pass you (you’ll be passing them later in the race). When you reach the top, lean into it, open your stride, and let gravity pull you down. Don’t go crazy on the downhills; keep it in the effort zone of the moment. Meaning, don’t race too hard down the Verrazano Bridge! We guarantee you’ll have more fun on hills than you’ve ever had before in your life and it will make a difference later in the race when you still have the mental and physical strength to “go fishing” (more on that later).
Dress for success
Plan to pack layers of old clothes or throwaway gear—old blankets or sleeping bags work, too—for the prerace wait on Staten Island. It can be a few hours of standing around outside depending on what time your race kicks off. Make sure not to bring anything valuable, since you’ll be ditching the extra layers at the start line. (Head to your local Salvation Army the week of your race to pick up some layers that you won’t mind leaving behind.) Shivering in the early-morning cold is not only unpleasant, but it also burns up a ton of calories, which can be detrimental before your race.
Normally, you would be able to drop a warm coat off with your bag check. However, due to COVID-19 safety protocols, there will be no race day bag check. So throwaway gear is even more important.
Warm, dry clothes will also come in handy at the finish, since your body temperature drops quickly after racing. Another way to keep warm is to wear an air-activated heat patch like ThermaCare on your low back (it warms up your core); gloves, a hat, and a garbage bag to keep you dry in the event of rain; and huddle while seated with a group of people.
Pass the time at the start
One of the greatest joys and challenges of the NYC Marathon is the wait at the start on Staten Island. Bring a blanket to sit on, and rest your body. Calm your mind by reading a newspaper or book on your smartphone, stay focused and meditate with an app like Pranayama (my fave), or create a calming/motivating playlist. Connect with local runners to learn more about the course and the city they love so much. (And learn a little about the daily rules of running NYC.)
The later start time is a little tricky with prerace meals, but is very do-able if you plan ahead. Eat a light snack when you wake up, and set your watch alarm for two to three hours prerace to consume your usual prerace meal in the starting village. You’ll stick with what your body clock knows, and you’ll be fueled and ready to go when the gun goes off.
Eat the elephant one bite at time
The NYC Marathon is made famous first by its people (the crowds of support) and next by its hills, bridges, and long straightaways. Standing at the starting line on the Verrazano Bridge can be quite overwhelming, and it helps to have your strategy firmly committed to memory. Review the course map, visually break the course up into five pieces, and then focus only on the very next bite as you go.
🍎 Bite One: Verrazano Bridge [Miles 1-2]
The start of the race is one you’ll never forget. Relax, focus on your breath, and be patient as it will take some time to get moving in the crowds. Pace yourself, breathe easily, and mindfully hold yourself back in these first two miles. You’ll hit the highest point on the course about 0.8 mile in and be graced with the most spectacular view of the New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty, and the city skyline.
Don’t take this first section too quickly. Chances are, you’ll feel jittery from the excitement of starting and a little cold from stripping away your throwaway gear—just remember that you’ll warm up quickly once you exit the bridge. It’s the most exciting two miles of a marathon in the world, especially as you make your way off the bridge into Brooklyn, with Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” serenading you along the way.
🍎 Bite two: Brooklyn and Queens [Miles 3-15]
Pace yourself from within rather than follow a predetermined pace, as it allows you to run your best effort on that given day, no matter what happens. The key to finishing strong in Central Park is to be patient and run at an easier effort through 15 miles as you make your way through Brooklyn.
Runners often lose their race in the first half of the race because they allow themselves to get caught up in the excitement of the crowds and push too hard. Tune the crowd out and tune into your body; run at a conversational effort to conserve your energy until you reach the base of the Queensboro Bridge, which is just past 15 miles.
🍎 Bite three: Up First Avenue to the Bronx [Miles 16-20]
As you make your way over the Queensboro Bridge and into Manhattan, dial things up to a moderate effort. Not too hard, not too easy. This is one of the best spots on the course because the crowds are huge, and it feels like you’re in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. As you run down the long, straight stretch on First Avenue from Mile 16 to 19.5, think about transitioning into your second gear, while still keeping in mind this isn’t the time to push hard. That comes next.
🍎 Bite four: Bronx to Central Park [the final 10K]:
As you make your way through the Bronx and over the final bridge in the race, activate your mental game and pull out some marathon mantras. This will help you navigate the long, gradual hill on Fifth Avenue. This is where your conservative pacing and running by effort will really pay off, but you’ll likely run slower because of the incline. Keep your focus forward and on your breath and effort level. This is the perfect time to dedicate miles to the ones that have supported you in your life. Keep your mind active and on the positive.
The final three miles are hard, but worth it—you’ll be celebrated by the roar of the crowds while you traverse the rolling hills through Central Park. On each uphill, remember to run with good posture, with your head up, shoulders back, and hips slightly forward.
If you’ve got it in you, “go fishing!” Cast out that invisible hook and gradually reel in that runner in the pink shirt who’s been singing Miley Cyrus for miles. Then focus on your next fish, and the next. Every time you pass a runner (nicely, please), you gain a little more energy to push forward. It keeps your mind focused and engaged while you roll through beautiful Central Park.
When you reach mile 25, set yourself up for the final two right turns, and run it to the finish. Take it all in because there’s nothing quite like finishing a marathon in New York City.
🍎 Bite five [the long walk through the finish]:
After you finish, you’ll get your medal, take your photo, and go on what may feel like the walk of torture (it’s long), but it’s actually a blessing in disguise. Walking postrace will help flush the lactic acid in your body and bring you gradually back to a resting state.
Just go with it, take in some calories on the way—that energy bar race organizers give you after the race will never taste so good—and celebrate your New York City Marathon finish!
Here at Runner’s World, we’ve learned a few things about running through the Big Apple. Use these additional tips to run your best NYC Marathon.
It’s great to have a race goal, but be sure to take in the experience.
The cheering crowds, the atmosphere, the thousands of runners, the bridges and boroughs, the helicopters overhead, the glorious sight of Central Park ... the greatest city in the world is pulling for YOU.
However, don’t get too caught up in the excitement on First Avenue after coming off the 59th Street bridge.
It’s unreal, coming from near silence on the bridge to hair-raising cheers and crowds lining the street and the bobbing sea of runners ahead of you as far as you can see. But you have a long way to go and you must hold back. The elites have a saying: You can’t win the NYC Marathon on First Avenue, but you sure can lose it. Same principle applies to us mortals.
If you end up on the lower section of the Verrazano Bridge, beware of running on the outside of the pack.
You may see a bunch of guys peeing off the side of the Verrazano Bridge and quickly came to two conclusions: First, people are doing the same thing on the span above you, and, second, that isn’t rain.
The last miles in Central Park are the most difficult ones.
Try not to run alone and find someone who goes at the same pace as you in order to support each other through the finish line.
Use the quiet time on the bridges to refocus.
There are so many screaming spectators on the main thoroughfares that the quiet on the bridges may come as a shock.
Tell your family and friends who are spectating which side of the course you'll be running on.
Also, make them tell you precisely where they will be standing so you can look for them—or ask them to hold a balloon above the crowds, so you can see them.
Wear your name in big letters on your shirt.
You’ll feel like a rock star for all 26.2 miles as strangers cheer your name.
This is not a marathon to run for a PR.
This is a marathon to run for the experience, which is unlike any other. Enjoy it, soak it in, look around, keep your head up, stop your headphones for a few minutes (or don’t wear them at all!). There is no other race like it. Enjoy every mile. And if you hit a PR, that makes it even sweeter.
Have a plan for where you’ll celebrate after the race.
The bars near the finish line fill up in a hurry, so you might want to hop on the subway and go a couple stops away before toasting your finish.
Thank the ones who got you there.
You undoubtedly received tons of support in your training and in the race. Make sure you reach out to those friends, family, coaches, and fellow runners who pushed you to the finish line in Central Park.