As the 2023 New York City Marathon draws closer, runners across the five boroughs – and those flying in from abroad – are readying for a 26.2-mile journey across the city. Beginning in Staten Island, runners will head over the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge into Brooklyn and aim for Queens. From there, they’ll cut across Astoria and up into the Bronx before making their way into Midtown, Manhattan, finishing at the bottom of Central Park.
This year’s marathon counts more than 50,000 runners. The race itself is structured in “waves”: professional men and women run first, followed by five waves of amateur runners, that correspond with expected finish times. Those who run a 7-minute mile or less will fall into wave 1, with the ensuing waves correlating with higher minute-per-mile paces.
The most elite in the pool will finish in under three hours, while a majority of hobby runners will complete the race between 4 and 5 hours. Long after many racers have gone home, showered and are celebrating the day, many will still be several miles from crossing the finish line. In fact, marathoners, on average, are slower than ever. According to The Washington Post, the average finish time at last year’s NYC Marathon was 4:50:26, a 23-minute increase from the 4:27:45 average in 2000.
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Running culture has grown exponentially since the pandemic, and that extends to marathon participants. It’s not as if individual runners are getting slower, but as a group, there’s a more diverse mix of speeds among their ranks. Long gone is the notion of a “typical” marathon runner, who is thin and most likely ran in college. Nowadays, back-of-the-pack runners – those with a pace above a 10-minute mile and also those with a 15 or 20-minute mile – are no longer shying away from the daunting nature of a 26.2-mile race. In fact, they’re embracing the challenge of taking on a marathon, even when they know it may take them literally all day to complete it.
Isabel DiGiovanni, the founder of Slow Girl Run Club, says that the “tides are definitely changing when it comes to the perception of slow runners.” DiGiovanni ran the NYC Marathon for the first time in 2022 — a feat she calls a “bucket list item” — after securing a spot via the event’s general entry lottery program. (Other runners gain entry by meeting time-based qualifications or through representing a charity). She started Slow Girl Run Club, which meets weekly for a two-mile run at around an 11:30 pace, while training for the marathon after noticing that there weren’t many run clubs for runners of her speed.
In the year and a half since, she says there’s been a noticeable uptick in run clubs in the city that specifically cater to a slower pace. She attributes the aforementioned shift to the pandemic, when many took up running to simply get moving, developed an affinity for the sport and now want to reintroduce the social aspect of it.
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As for the place of slower runners in the marathon, DiGiovanni emphasizes that “everyone is running the same distance and that is the true challenge”
“It’s also a challenge in itself to run a marathon at a slower pace,” she says, “Because the time on your feet increases — running for 5 or 6 hours is a long time.”
Anyone can run a marathon if they feel compelled to – it’s simply a matter of building up mileage, regardless of speed.
The sheer well-earned pride of simply completing a marathon is a sentiment echoed by Kelly Roberts, the founder of run club Badass Lady Gang that brings together 9-minute and 22-minute milers alike. Roberts believes that anyone can run a marathon if they feel compelled to – it’s simply a matter of building up mileage, regardless of speed. “Slow” runners, however, may have to take a different approach than those who come from a running background or are naturally speedy.
“Too many running plans overtrain slower runners because they’re created with 8-10 minute milers in mind,” Roberts says. “For slow runners specifically, my advice to you is to find a plan or a coach who understands what it means to run a 12-plus-minute mile.”
Runners will have to get used to the labor of being on their feet for five, six or even seven hours at a time. For those who take longer than that, race organizers may have technically shut down the race before they can complete it. In the case of the NYC Marathon, the event wraps 9 hours and 30 minutes after the last wave of runners begins at 11:30. By 9:00 p.m., the remaining runners are expected to finish but will likely be followed by street sweepers during the last hour or two of their endeavor.
As streets reopen and traffic resumes, determined runners may have to revert to running on the sidewalk, often adding a layer of physical obstacles to completing the race. While runners who complete the race after the cutoff won’t be able to have their times documented and signage and barriers may have been taken down, marathon staff will still wait at the finish line to award them with a medal.
“Remember, you deserve to be out there.”
“Mentally prepare yourself for that moment when the sweepers pass you. It’s a little chaotic and you’ll be tired,” Roberts says. “But visualize that moment and prepare for it. Remember, you deserve to be out there. It sucks that the race doesn’t support all runners but things are changing. Take up space.”
Running a marathon, no matter how long it takes, is an act of mental and physical fortitude, Roberts reminds, recalling that the 11 marathons she’s completed include a 7+ hour marathon and a 3 hour and 37-minute marathon.
“To me, neither is more impressive or better than the other,” she says Both were incredibly challenging in different ways. “Everyone is putting in the work doing the training.”
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