If you are going to be lining up on the Verrazano Bridge this year, it’s time to get familiar with the course. The beauty of the New York City Marathon is that it traverses all five boroughs of the city—Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, and Manhattan—which gives participants a taste of the different neighborhoods and spectators plenty of room to cheer. And after COVID-19 forced the NYC Marathon to cancel last year, the 2021 race promises to be a celebration.
Even though New York sits on the coast, the route isn’t by any means flat. Thanks to the long, grinding inclines up bridges and the hills on Fifth Avenue, the race will test your strength and stamina. Luckily, you’ll have roaring crowds to encourage you every step of the way.
Here, we break down this World Marathon Major by each borough, highlighting exactly what you need to prepare. (If you’re looking for the course map, here’s the official route from New York Road Runners.)
Staten Island (Miles 1-2)
The starting line at the New York City Marathon is unlike any other marathon in the world. The runners arrive at Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island, early on Sunday morning before checking into their designated starting village (this is listed on your bib number). Make sure to leave yourself plenty of time before the start—the wheelchair race kicks off at 8 a.m. and the fifth and final wave of runners departs at 12 p.m.—to pay a visit to the porta-potty, find your corral, and consume any prerace fuel.
You won’t spend much time in Staten Island. When the race starts, you’ll cross either the upper or lower level of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, which offers sweeping views of the New York Harbor and skyline, including the Statue of Liberty. Pace yourself during this two-mile stretch; it’s easy to get caught up in the moment. Going too hard too early could hurt the later stages of your race.
The first mile is an uphill climb up the bridge, while the second mile is downhill, heading off the bridge to Brooklyn. At the foot of the bridge, you might consider dropping any throw-away clothing you kept on for the start, as it will be much less cold and windy once you’re off the bridge.
Brooklyn (Miles 3-12)
These next 11 miles should feel smooth and steady, thanks to the relatively flat streets of Brooklyn. As you settle into your pace, enjoy neighborhood in the borough, from the trendy restaurants in Park Slope to the charming tree-lined streets on Lafayette Avenue to the lively crowds in Williamsburg.
Remember to relax in this section. It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of the crowds on the easy grade; you’ll want to save your legs for the hills ahead. Stay loose and focused, and keep your fueling plan in mind—this is a great section to take those first few gels or chews you have stashed in your pocket.
Queens (Miles 13-15)
After you cross the 13.1 mark, prepare yourself for the Queensboro Bridge at mile 14. While the vantage point offers beautiful views, the climb up the bridge is tough—especially because it hits right at the halfway point in the race. The absence of spectators on this stretch can be mentally challenging. Focus on maintaining your pace here, and be sure to run on the special race carpet, as the real surface of the bridge is spiky.
Try to make the best of the quiet in this portion. Over these miles, reflect on your journey to this very moment, channel the support of the family and friends you have waiting at the finish and at home, and soak in the sights of the city.
Manhattan, Part 1 (Miles 16-18)
Once you descend the Queensboro Bridge onto Manhattan’s First Avenue, the quiet fades into a swell of spectators. If you’re feeling good, try picking up the pace a bit (within reason) on this flat, wide, three-mile stretch, and et the thundering shouts of support carry you through the distance. This is a great spot to have your friends spectate from the sidelines, as they’ll have plenty of time to make their way back to Central Park for your finish.
The Bronx (Miles 19-20)
Crossing into The Bronx, you’ll notice the crowds have thinned from First Avenue. This is a great time to turn your attention to fueling and hydration. You’ll need them to bust through the 20-mile barrier. You might even break out a motivational mantra here, such as “You got this!” or “Strong mind, strong body.” Look out for the bands and dancers at the Entertainment Zone at 139th and Morris Avenue.
Manhattan, Part 2 (Miles 21-26.2)
There’s no way to sugarcoat it—the final 10K of the marathon is going to hurt. But the final push of this race—exiting the Bronx, running down Fifth Avenue, turning into the iconic Central Park—is worth it.
After a quick section in Harlem, you’ll run up Fifth Avenue (warning, it’s uphill), reaching the northern edge of Central Park around mile 23. The next mile is fairly flat; this is a good place to fight off fatigue and pick it up before the home stretch. But be prepared for a tough last portion. Inside Central Park, around mile 24, there are a couple of rolling hills that are no joke—pay attention to your stride and listen to the booming sounds of the crowds and the finish line music to carry you through.
After you reach mile 25, you’ll soon exit the park and be surrounded by the deafening crowds along 59th street near Columbus Circle. Let their cheers propel you through the right turn back into the park and over one last hill. Kick it home with everything you have!