Training for the NYC marathon: an academician’s perspective

I decided to train for the New York City Marathon.

Why an averagely fit person may decide to run the NYC Marathon

Let’s rewind my decision. Running in Central Park is probably one of the most iconic sport activities in the world. Most of its charm fades after doing it a few times, but it still a great place for a stroll or training, especially in the Manhattan borough that lacks green areas so much. As you run past the Harlem Meer, the Great Lawn, and the MET, you’ll realize that everybody in NYC goes from a run, from athletes to untrained amateurs, from kids to mature and old folks. I don’t know why this happens – it may have to do with the “you always have to look good” unspoken policy of NYC, or with the lifestyle of New Yorkers – but it is a fact that running is a part in most people’s routine, just like food trucks or going to the cinema.

The sublimation of this routine is of course the NYC marathon. Designed to pass through all the 5 boroughs (yes, even Staten Island, it actually starts down there – just to makes you think how LONG  a marathon is), it is organized by New York Road Runners (NYRR).

The marathon happening does not go unnoticed. Many roads and bridges are closed. A lot of people will cheer on the streets – for their friends, for a cause they care about, or just for the fun of it (Americans really respect, and like supporting, those who fight hard for their goals, whatever the latter are). When the marathon hits Manhattan around kilometer 26, the cheering is so loud that often pushes the first-time runners beyond their limits – a bravery they’ll pay later in the race. As they say, “You can’t win the marathon on First Avenue, but you can lose it”.

The NYC triathlon, on a smaller scale, has a similar effect on the city and the crowd. And just like in Central Park, you’ll notice that everybody – really everybody – is running those races. So it’s easy to get convinced to join the excitement and dream about upgrading your weekly stroll to something more challenging. If – at the same time – you bump into the novelist Haruki Murakami describing how he became a long-distance runner, then you’re ready to give it a try.

When I first started running I couldn’t run long distances. I could
only run for about twenty minutes, or thirty. That much left me
panting, my heart pounding, my legs shaky. It was to be expected,
though, since I hadn’t really exercised for a long time. At first, I
was also a little embarrassed to have people in the neighborhood
see me running—the same feeling I had upon first seeing the title
novelist put in parentheses after my name. But as I continued to
run, my body started to accept the fact that it was running, and I
could gradually increase the distance. I was starting to acquire a
runner’s form, my breathing became more regular, and my pulse
settled down. The main thing was not the speed or distance so
much as running every day, without taking a break.
So, like my three meals a day—along with sleeping, housework,
and work—running was incorporated into my daily routine. As it
became a natural habit, I felt less embarrassed about it. I went to
a sports store and purchased running gear and some decent
shoes that suited my purpose. I bought a stopwatch, too, and read
a beginners’ book on running. This is how you become a runner.

(From: Haruki Murakami, What I talk about when I talk about running.)

You’ll think “Well, I can try training for that, worst case I can just drop”. As you’ll discover later, that’s not exactly true.

The 9+1 program

If you follow the standard path, getting to run the NY marathon is not easy. Sources in the internet claim that, out of all the people who apply, roughly 15% gets a spot (I could not find official statistics). But as someone living in New York, you have a pretty good way to circumvent this. NYRR has a program that will guarantee you’ll get in: you just have to complete 9 races among the dozens they organize in a calendar year, and volunteer in another one, and then you’ll have a guaranteed spot in the next year’s marathon (you still have to pay for it, though). Incidentally, running those races is a good way to pre-train (the real training starts 4-5 months before the marathon) and to understand whether you can actually convince your body to run way more than it wants to.

The “+1” in “9+1”

You can volunteer at one of the races (which means: watching for runners in distress; serving water or food; work at the bag check) or at any of the events NYRR organizes. I cleaned up a garden of a historic house in south Brooklyn: three hours of work, and the opportunity to go to an area of NYC I would not have gone to otherwise. If you have a terribly bad opinion of volunteering or high opinion of spending your time doing other things, you can add a “K” to the “1” and donate it to NYRR – that’ll work, too.

On training and the solitude of a special type of New Yorkers

So, you start with the training. Your weekly 3 miles will become 5 twice a week, then 8, then still 8 but faster, then 10. In between all this, there are the 9 races you signed up for, and the times you wish to achieve. I find especially hard to predict how fast you can run a distance if you never tried before, but there are tables on the internet that in my case worked pretty well, even if they are obnoxious to life events happening on the side, that will affect how much you can train (or maybe they can abstract this out). As for most activities (other than learning German), first progresses are quickly achieved, and you can see your pace improving steadily.  When that is not the case anymore, you’re already hooked. Addicted to the pleasure of self-improving, you will start therefore to look for new ways to improve your performance: reading everything you can find in the internet (keep your elbows at 90 degrees, your shoulder down, do the right stretching before and after). You’ll think about taking running classes, or at least joining a group.

This addiction motivates you in the most unlikely situations. Like taking the train alone at 6 on a Sunday morning to get to that race in south Brooklyn, the only companions party animals on their way back home, and people getting to work that look at you wondering why the hell you chose to be there. Solitude is a pretty constant companion of runners. If you have a pretty tight schedule, it may be hard to find fellows to train with. And during the run, most chatting is cut off after the first mile or two. It is a unique opportunity to be in NYC with so many people around you and enjoy the silence.

Running a half-marathon

You don’t wish to do it, but since you’ll have to run a marathon anyhow, at some point it makes sense to run a half marathon. For me, it came a little too early (roughly 2 months after I started training), but since I began piling up my 9 races late in the calendar year, I did not really have a choice. I run the Staten Island marathon, at 8:00 am on a Sunday morning in October, which means waking up before the sun rises to be sure you’ll get there in time.

In all races there is a moment when you really would like to drop, and your only, repeating thought is “Why am I actually doing all this?”. To me, this first happens during the 7th km, when my left knee starts hurting. For some unknown reason, the pain increases until km 10, and then slowly recedes (I know, I should see a doctor about it). The main crisis usually happens 2/3 into the race, as a mix of regret (“I shouldn’t have run those first kilometers that fast”) and fatigue, that fades away as soon as you smell that the finish line is getting close. When you run a distance you have never run before, you should  add to that a “last miles” crisis: you have no idea what to expect from your body then, and for me the last kilometers of the half marathon were way worse than I could imagine. Your body will beg you to stop and since you have no intention to listen, it’ll get vicious, simulating all kind of illnesses: left arm pain, collapsing stomach, choking sensation.

But there are a number of things I enjoyed about running the SI half marathon, too. First of all, the entertainment, with the best of it being impromptu – a not so young anymore couple, the man playing the guitar, and the lady dancing for us. The feeling of running through a terrible storm on a seafront road with the vintage, fascinating and somehow creepy name of “Father Capodanno Boulevard”. More than all, the relationship that unfolds between you and your body throughout the race. From the outside, a race may look monotonous. But from the inside, each run has its own story, during which you develop an intimate understanding of your mechanics: which parts feel the strongest, which start to cease, what you can do about it and, if nothing can be done, you learn to ignore it and go on, developing your personal version of the bumblebee’s flight.

On the relationship between training for a marathon and doing theoretical research

The way a researcher is evaluated is different from most jobs. A surgeon or a clerk are expected to perform well every single day at work, since every mistake is extremely costly. A researcher publishes a bunch of papers every year, and in each of them there are a handful of ideas (sometimes by one of the coauthors). He is therefore expected to perform extremely well few times, and do whatever the rest of the time. This is why many people think of research as a product of pure creativity1. And creativity indeed matters, but, as Terence Tao – arguably the most famous mathematician of our times – puts it:

Contrary to public opinion, mathematical breakthroughs are not powered solely (or even primarily) by “Eureka” moments of genius, but are in fact largely a product of hard work, directed of course by experience and intuition.

What distinguishes research from most other jobs is that the outcome of this hard work is not daily available for you to be proud of, and to motivate you to continue. You may take a wrong turn, work on it for a while before understanding it does not lead anywhere, and be left with no progress on what may actually work. The Eureka moment, when (and if) it comes, is so exciting that one may attribute all the merit to it, and discard the importance of wrong turns. But there is, I believe, a hidden path that you are discovering everyday, through all your mistakes and the small observations they imply, which allows you to build a stronger and stronger intuition for the problem. This hidden path will never reveal itself, but without constantly looking for it the final bright idea is virtually impossible to achieve. Convincing young collaborators that they should believe in the existence2 of, and keep looking for, this path is, I think, one of the hardest tasks of supervising Ph.D. students.


On the other hand, while training for a run, there is a very strong correlation between the effort you put and the results you see. If you train harder, you’ll run faster. There are moments when you have to deal with an incredible amount of pain and discomfort, and live through it. You know that, if you will give up, there will be no finish line, no friends cheering you – in a word, no reward. This does not happen when you do research, since you don’t know if the reward was there anyhow. Hence running trains the hard-working and self-convincing attitude you strongly need for effectively doing research.


Also, while running you learn to have faith in certain facts, well before they become intuitively clear to you. This is fundamental in research, since you often must learn and use some results well before you have a solid grasp on them (that will come when you become more familiar with the topic). For instance, every collection of tips for runners begin with the suggestion to start a race at a pace slower than your expected one. Which, of course, you never do the first time, fueled by the excitement. You pass the first mile, look at your watch showing a much earlier time than planned, and the usual thought is “I am way more trained that I thought I was. Cool”. More often than not you are wrong, and you’ll find yourself regretting your sprinting start in the last miles (this has happened to me, more than once). So you’ll have to learn to believe in starting slow, well before it becomes part of your natural routine.


The funny part

There are moments in running that are sheer fun. For instance, in races where participants are encouraged to dress in peculiar ways, you may then get the opportunity of seeing a T-Rex in the subway, on its way to the starting line (notice the running shoes, as well as the christmas lights in the bag, as if it had a chance of going unnoticed).


Sometimes something accidently comic may happen. During a 15K race in Central Park under a colde, heavy snowstorm, while I was feeling like one of Napoleon’s soldiers during the Russian Campaign, a bunch of people passed me running bare-chested. (Now that I think about it, I did not see them at the end, though). During such a hard race, giggling about the funny things you see can help getting past the finish line.


1. The work of artists is perceived in a similar manner. But Nick Cave actually composes his songs by working 9-to-5 in an office.

2. This path may, indeed, not exist for some problems. Still, the only way you can look for it is convicing yourself it indeed exists.