The Yonkers Marathon is the second oldest marathon in the U.S., running for the 88th time on September 29, 2013. The race has a storied history going back to Thanksgiving Day in 1907. Two-time Olympic marathoner John Kelley dubbed it the “marathoner’s marathon” and the moniker stuck.
The Yonkers Marathon has gone through many iterations and course changes over the years. After its initial run from 1907-1917, the race died, but was resurrected in 1935. It’s been run every year since. In decades past, the race was home to the national championships and Olympic Trials. Running legend Ted Corbitt ran the race 26 times.
This year, nearly 800 runners finished the Yonkers Marathon and Half Marathon. I used the marathon as a 20-mile training run for the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon on October 20, and my final test to help me decide if I would stick with the marathon or switch to the half marathon there.
The Yonkers Marathon Course
The Yonkers Marathon course is reportedly easier these days than in the days of yore. But it’s not a cakewalk by any stretch of the imagination. The course tours runners through hilly terrain in Yonkers and Hastings-on-Hudson, Yonkers’ neighbor to the north. The Yonkers Half Marathon is a 13.1-mile loop from the city center beside the Hudson River to the hills above. The Yonkers Marathon is simply two loops of the half-marathon course.
With over 1,000 feet of elevation gain and another 1,000 feet of loss in the half-marathon loop, it’s one undulating ride. For the marathon, that means 2,000 feet of climbing and another 2,000 feet of downhills. It’s not for the faint of heart. But many of the climbs are long and gradual with respites of straight-aways in between. Only two hills—near Mile 4/17 and Mile 10/20—strike fear in the hearts of runners. The climb at Mile 4/17 is especially pernicious with a steep grade on a curve. But thankfully, it’s a short one.
Mile 6 to 7 is a rare downhill reprieve before the sole flat stretch that also happens to be in full sun. But even then, the downhill is steep enough to be killer on your calves. Come mile 8, the undulations start again like an extended roller coaster ride, before the final descent to the finish in the last mile of the loop. Half-marathoners finish there, while marathoners get to do it all over again.
The first seven miles are fairly scenic with views of the Hudson River, small storefronts, and tree-lined streets. The next six miles are busier with a more urban landscape—gas stations, large storefronts, and passing cars.
It’s important to note that the course is open to traffic. In most places runners have a dedicated lane separated from traffic by cones, but in other places you’re right next to cars. Police are at every major intersection directing traffic and there’s a fair amount of honking. Honking seems to be the New Yorker’s favorite mode of communication.
But the course is well-marshaled with officials at every turn, water stations every mile, and Gatorade every other mile. Stations are manned by an assortment of volunteers—Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, local sports teams, the Yonkers Brewing Company, and other folks. They were all really friendly. My favorite? A little girl who shouted, “Do it for America!” One station of Girls Scouts were offering to “splash” water on runners as they passed by. There were really into the race and it helped a lot.
The race is put on by NYCRUNS, a company I’ve collaborated with a lot over the years. Founder Steve Lastoe asked me to sing the national anthem at the race last year and invited me back again this year for a repeat performance.
The race may be small—by New York standards—with less than 1,000 runners, but it has many of the perks of a big-town marathon while still being a low-frills event.
I quoted Lastoe in my post about women’s cut race shirts; the Yonkers Marathon has one of my favorites. This year I got a V-neck women’s cut shirt by New Balance. Last year it was a women’s cut shirt by Brooks.
Water was available before the start on a table right next to the portable toilets. Runners were given a clear plastic bag for bag check. About 15 minutes before the start, marshals asked runners to start lining up for the race. There are no corrals here. Runners self-organize and the course is wide enough that everyone spreads out right away. And the race started right on time.
Post-race, finishers receive a medal after crossing the beautiful waterfront finish looking over the Hudson River. An announcer shouts out names and hometowns as runners finish. And the post-race spread is excellent: bagels with cream cheese, doughnuts, apples, and strawberries, along with water and Gatorade.
Getting there from New York City is also a breeze. The start is just 30-minutes by train or car from Grand Central Station and Midtown Manhattan. The Yonkers train station is right next to the start and a parking garage is one block away. If you picked up your bib in the days before the race—times were available in Manhattan and Yonkers—you could easily show up 15-minutes before the race, stash your bag and jump into the start.
I ran the Yonkers Half Marathon last year as a training run for the Philadelphia Marathon. At the time, I found the course’s undulating hills incredibly challenging. This year, I’m happy to report, that I found them downright manageable.
It was a perfect morning for running—about 57 degrees at the start. By the time I finished, it had warmed up to 70, but a large portion of the course is shaded so I never felt too hot.
When Lastoe asked me to return to the race to sing the national anthem again, I looked at my marathon-training calendar. I had my last long run—a 20-miler—before the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon scheduled for the same day. So I decided to run 20-miles of the marathon as a training run. I knew it would mean earning my first DNF. But I figured that if Mo Farah can do it with the entire world watching at the London Marathon, I could do it in Yonkers.
Best. Decision. Ever.
I’m often nervous before a race, but I was especially nervous before this one for a few reasons. First, I was singing the anthem. That always gets my nerves going. It’s funny. I can sing with my band, play weddings, post-race festivals, private parties, clubs in New York City and I rarely get nervous. There can be 10 people or 4,000 people present. It doesn’t matter.
But put me on a stage—at Yonkers it’s the steps of the town library—take away my music, and make me sing a cappella? Totally nerve wracking! When I sang at the professional women’s and wheelchair starts of the 2010 ING New York City Marathon, I think I was visibly shaking as I stood next to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
But I made it through, dashed down the steps and into the back of the huddle of runners crossing the start.
The other reason I was nervous: After my disastrous race at the Newport Liberty Half Marathon in New Jersey, I debated switching from the marathon to the half-marathon in Toronto. It shook my confidence and I was worried about running 20-miles on a hilly course, doubting whether I really should be moving forward with marathon training.
So I decided that I’d run 20-miles and see how I felt about it. After all, I’d done all the marathon training leading up to this point. I didn’t know if my half-marathon blow-up was a fluke, a product of the day’s conditions, or an accurate reflection of my fitness at this point. Running a 20-miler on a tough course would let me know which was the case.
Let’s just say that I never knew a 20-mile training run could actually be—dare I say it?—enjoyable. Doing the run at the Yonkers Marathon was the best decision I could have made. It was so helpful to have other runners to chat with, fluid stations at every mile, and the general support of a race atmosphere. Honestly, it’s going to be my new modus operandi. If I can find a small marathon—where I’m not taking a coveted bib—three weeks before any marathon I’m planning to race, I’ll do my last long run there. It was that helpful.
I was very careful in the first few miles to keep my pace in check and not get caught up in the excitement of the race. It was great practice for race day, and it worked. My first five miles were my slowest of the entire run.
I chatted with a bunch of runners along the way. Some recognized me as the anthem singer and struck up a conversation. Others noticed we were running the same pace and started chatting. It was really helpful and infinitely better running than by myself, as I usually do for long runs.
I mentally broke the run into quarters. When I reached the 10-mile mark feeling great, I started to gently push the pace. Just as I was coming into the 13-mile mark, where marathoners continued for a second loop and half marathoners ran to the finish, I saw a man up ahead of me. The back of his shirt said he was running his 111th marathon in 18 years. I pulled up alongside him and congratulated him. It was all the inspiration I needed. As the half marathoners turned left and the marathoners turned right, I was ready to crush the rest of my run.
And I did. My second 10 miles were over 6 minutes faster than the first for a 6:27 negative split. That means I ran an average of 40 seconds per mile faster. I ran the last four miles at my goal marathon race pace. Those last four miles felt hard, but the rest felt downright easy.
I finished the 20 miles in 3:30:20 at a 10:31 pace. That’s 45 seconds per mile slower than my goal marathon pace of 9:45. I’m super happy with that, especially considering this was a very hilly 20-miles and Toronto is largely flat.
I headed back down to the finish area where my husband, Phil, was waiting for me. He did the same thing with his 20-miler, and also had a great run. We stayed and had brunch outside at Dolphin restaurant on the Hudson River waterfront in Yonkers right next to the finish.
Phil and I were both in great spirits after redeeming ourselves with great 20-milers. Honestly, 20-miles never felt so good.
Marathon Training Done
When I got home from the race, I decided to compare my training log from last year to this year. Last year, I ran a 4:28:06 marathon personal best at the 2012 Philadelphia Marathon.
This year, I’ve already done more overall mileage and more long runs. Some of my long run paces were faster last year, but the Yonkers Marathon 20-miler was my fastest, most comfortable one yet, and on the hardest course too.
So after almost giving up on the marathon last week, I’ve decided to go through with it after all. I’ve done the training. I’m in shape. And I’m ready to run it.
Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, here I come!
NYCRUNS gave me complimentary entry into the race for singing the national anthem. But as always, all opinions are my own.