Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Five Boroughs, Five Bridges, One Great Race
From Staten Island to Central Park, the TCS New York City Marathon delivers a 26.2-mile experience unlike any other. It’s not just the biggest marathon in the world, with more than 50,000 runners taking to the streets on the first Sunday in November. And it’s not just the loudest, with millions of spectators cheering their hearts out (mostly for perfect strangers). It’s a once-in-a-lifetime tour of the planet’s most diverse city.
Your journey begins at Ft. Wadsworth on Staten Island. The start village will be teeming with runners from all over the world, and excitement will mount as you enter your corral at the foot of the longest suspension bridge in North America—the Verrazzano-Narrows. “The air literally vibrates with the energy of thousands and thousands of runners getting ready to tackle the streets of New York City,” says American marathon record holder Deena Kastor, who made her marathon debut in New York in 2001. “And every one of us—all the athletes and even the VIPs who come out to watch the start—can’t help but feel a little uncertain about what’s about to unfold over the next several hours.”
When you cross the starting line, you’ll hear the theme from New York, New York. As you begin the mile-long climb up the Verrazzano, take a moment to admire the view of New York Harbor below. You’ll see Lady Liberty, the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan, the Brooklyn Bridge and FDNY fireboats spouting huge plumes of water—and taking them all in will help to keep your pace in check.
With Staten Island in the rearview mirror, you can settle into your race pace in Brooklyn. You’ll enter the Borough of Kings in Bay Ridge and then make your way north along Fourth Avenue. “This is a long, straight, flat stretch where the marathoner’s job is to exercise patience and restraint,” advises New York Road Runners coach Gordon Bakoulis, who has twice finished in the top 10 in New York. “I feel more than the usual impatience during this segment because I don’t have any variations in terrain to engage or distract me. I remind myself of all the hard work I’ve done to get to this point, and how patiently I’ve built my fitness.”
At mile 8, you’ll see Barclays Center, the home court for the Brooklyn Nets. And then you’ll make your way into Fort Greene, past stately brownstones whose residents will be out on their stoops cheering for you. The Bishop Loughlin High School marching band will also be on hand, making a joyful noise—specifically the theme from Rocky (they play it over and over, all day long—an endurance feat in its own right). From there, you’ll make your way into Williamsburg, where uber-trendy hipsters mingle with Orthodox Jews. “New York has such an incredible spirit of community,” Kastor says. “It’s a truly amazing showcase of humanity.”
Queens (For A Few Moments)
Near the halfway point, you’ll cross the Pulaski Bridge into Queens. If you look over your left shoulder, you’ll get a great view of midtown Manhattan’s skyscrapers. This once-gritty, industrial part of the city is now home to chic cafes, and residents will welcome you with Irish folk music and a water station staffed by Girl Scouts (alas, they have no cookies on race day). Long Island City is relatively flat, and it’s a good place to take a moment to prepare yourself for your next serious climb: the Queensboro Bridge.
Other than the Verrazzano, this is the only part of the course where spectators aren’t permitted. With nearly 100 feet of elevation gain, the bridge is a significant climb—and at mile 15, it’s a tough spot for any marathoner. “It’s quiet, and all you can hear is the breathing and the footfalls of other runners around you,” Kastor says. “It forces you to check in with your own breathing and take stock of how you’re feeling.” Take Deena’s advice—because things are about to get loud.
Manhattan: Chapter One
As you begin to descend from the bridge’s peak, you’ll start to hear a roar unlike any you’ve ever experienced. At mile 16, you’ll get to Manhattan (for the first time). The next two miles are packed with thousands of race fans—many of whom will be fueled by the Bloody Marys on offer at First Avenue’s numerous watering holes. The noise and excitement are a welcome boost after the quiet of the 59th Street Bridge, but don’t get carried away—you still have 10 miles (and a few hills) to contend with.
Beyond mile 18 (at 97th Street), the crowds thin out for a bit. If you’re bringing a cheer squad of your own, they can catch you twice if they stand on the west side of First Avenue, and then make their way to the east side of Fifth Avenue (about a 15-minute walk). By this point, says Bakoulis, “I’ll feel pretty tired and want to fast-forward through the tough miles north into the Bronx and back into Manhattan rather than continue to engage. I get past this by drawing support and inspiration from the spectators.”
The Boogie-Down Bronx
When the race moved out of Central Park and onto the streets of the five boroughs in 1976, New York City faced significant challenges—public safety chief among them. There was a traffic cone at the northern end of the Willis Avenue Bridge, and runners circled it before beating a hasty retreat to Manhattan. But a lot has changed since then, and on November 4, the birthplace of hip-hop (and the only stretch of the course that touches the continental United States) will welcome you with open arms. You’ll be deep in the race by now, and a drum corps on 138th Street just might put some spring back into your step. At mile 21, you’ll cross the Madison Avenue Bridge (the final one of the day) back to Manhattan—and the finish.
Manhattan, Again: Harlem To Home
In the final miles of the race, you’ll return to Manhattan. You’ll run through Harlem, where many residents wear their Sunday best to church—and then out to cheer. You’ll make a loop of Marcus Garvey Park, and then head south on (but not down) Fifth Avenue toward Central Park. If you were walking, you wouldn’t notice it—but this stretch of the course is actually a gradual climb. Bakoulis cautions, “Though the crowd support is loud and enthusiastic, it doesn’t do much to take the sting out of your legs.”
Just past mile 23, you’ll enter Central Park through Engineers’ Gate. If you’ve ever watched the TCS New York City Marathon on TV, you may have heard the announcers say something ominous at this point, like “And now, they have to battle the brutal hills of Central Park!” And while Central Park is home to some truly gnarly hills, the good news is that from here on in, you get to run down most of them. “At this point,” Bakoulis says, “I know that I will make it to the finish line no matter what! The crowds swell, the volume kicks up, and I become very emotional as I realize what I am about to accomplish.”
After descending Cat Hill (look to the top of the boulder on your right for its namesake feline), you’ll briefly exit the park onto 59th Street, passing the world-famous Plaza Hotel (alas, Eloise is about the only New Yorker who prefers to stay indoors on marathon Sunday). By now, the crowds are at maximum volume, and you can finally believe any spectator who says you’re nearly there.
At Columbus Circle, you’ll make a sharp right back into the park. In addition to the grandstands filled with frenzied fans, you’ll pass the flags of all the nations who’ve sent runners to New York. This is where Shalane Flanagan famously pumped her fist and shouted, “F— YEAH!” last fall, and you’re more than entitled to do the same. Just north of Tavern on the Green, you’ll cross the finish line and run into the record books. More than a million athletes have completed the New York City Marathon—more than any other race in the world. Congratulations! You’re now one of them. Wear your medal with pride and bask in your accomplishment. You’re a New Yorker now in a way you never have been before—welcome to the club.
New York is fairly reliably cool on the first Sunday in November, so be prepared with warm clothes, especially for the trip to Staten Island in the morning. The start area features bins for donating clothing—shed a layer and help someone in need.
Big Apple Beats
From Cole Porter to the Velvet Underground to Alicia Keys, artists of every stripe have drawn inspiration from New York. “Empire State of Mind” is sure to quicken your pulse. Ace Frehley’s “New York Groove” is another good bet. And who could forget that Madonna got her start here—you can’t go wrong with Confessions on a Dancefloor, specifically “I Love New York.”
Just as New York often pops up in music, you’ve probably spotted it in hundreds of movies. Saturday Night Fever takes place in Bay Ridge (and, memorably, on the Verrazzano) and features an iconic disco soundtrack from the BeeGees. Moonstruck is another good bet, taking viewers from Brooklyn to Lincoln Center (just a couple of blocks west of the finish).