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New York state of mind

New York state of mind

Olympic silver medallist and AW publisher Wendy Sly ventured to the Big Apple and found herself uplifted by what proved to be an unforgettable marathon

George Hirsch was right. Not long after Shalane Flanagan had crossed the finish line to become the first American female to win the New York Marathon since 1977, the man who was a founding figure of the event turned to me and said “we needed that”.

It struck me, however, that not only did the New York Marathon need that but marathon running as a whole needed that, women’s distance running needed that. After the awful events of the week before, the city of New York certainly needed that, too, while Flanagan herself also needed that after the disappointment of having to withdraw from Boston earlier in the year following injury. It was a moment to savour.

The men’s race didn’t disappoint, either, with a close finish between Geoffrey Kamworor and Wilson Kipsang keeping the atmosphere in the stands alive while the popular Meb Keflezighi finishing his last ever marathon brought cheers almost as loud as those afforded to the winners. The press conference afterwards revealed just how much of an influence he has been to American and African runners, both through his gutsy performances but also his gentle and respectful personality.

Flanagan even mentioned, in the aftermath of her own moment of history, how she took inspiration from Keflezighi’s victory in the Boston Marathon in 2014, the year after the terrorist attack on the city, and the way he conducted himself after such an emotional and important win.

“The running world was, without question, in New York!”

All of this was the culmination of an unforgettable weekend. As an athlete I ran in New York many times – competing in and winning events such as the Fifth Avenue Mile, Millrose Games and the New Year’s Eve midnight run in this incredible city. A nerve injury stopped my running career early so, while competing in the New York Marathon would have been high on my list, it was a dream I never realised.

Somehow being in the Big Apple for the marathon, in any capacity, had never happened either so when the chance to experience it all for the first time as a media representative came up it was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss.

The atmosphere around the event was apparent from the minute I got off the plane. Staff at immigration were all asking about the marathon and the taxi driver who drove me into town was going to spend the race taking pictures along the route – everyone was somehow involved!

I didn’t waste any time in heading to Central Park to run a route that I’d followed hundreds of times before and is loaded with memories, but never had I seen the park quite so busy. In the space of a mile I passed several groups of 10-20 runners from many different countries, some with pace flags and each wearing their own unique t-shirts, out for their last training run together while taking in the sights. Then a group passed me led by London 2017 steeplechase world champion Emma Coburn. The running world was, without question, in New York!

The 5km US championships which took place on the Saturday morning was a great event with over 10,000 runners following the elite into Central Park. It seemed almost bizarre that runners could stream down 6th Avenue at 9am on a Saturday morning. Shutting the busy streets in a major city is no mean feat and policing an area like 6th Avenue and Central Park South tougher, but it worked well.

Molly Huddle looked supreme in winning her 25th national title, but it was also great to see Paula Radcliffe, whose image flies near the finish line in honour of her victories in New York and induction into their hall of fame, sneak under the radar with an 18:43 ‘run for fun’.

“The New York marathon is one of the biggest in the world with budgets to create the most spectacular set-up, but it’s the individual stories”

To witness that event, to see 51,000 people pouring into Central Park in the footsteps of the marathon elite the following day, made me realise once again what a great sport running is and how inspiring both great athletic performances and mass participation events on a large scale can be.

The New York marathon is one of the biggest in the world with budgets to create the most spectacular set-up, but it’s the individual stories – whether that be Keflezighi’s last marathon, or the 2:29 from Allie Kieffer, who spoke afterwards of having no sponsorship in the build-up to the event and her hopes that this performance could change her running career, to a Philippine runner who’d dealt with natural devastation at home and had come all the way to New York to raise money for that cause.

Running around the park the day after the race, I saw hundreds of people re-walking the path to the finish line, many wearing their race T-shirts and medals proudly and getting pictures taken on the re-positioned medal podium. It was clear everyone wanted to re-live the experience, almost not wanting it to end, even though the finish gantry was being dismantled in front of them.

If running a marathon was possible for me, I’d love to include New York. I’d certainly go back again to watch, meet up with colleagues and friends from the world of running and feel happy and proud that this is my sport.

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