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NYC Marathon Course Map and Route: A Five-Borough Tour

Follow our live coverage of the 2021 N.Y.C. Marathon.

The New York City Marathon is both a race and a journey through one of the most diverse cities in the world, the ultimate tour of this sprawling metropolis.

It is 26.2 miles of bridges and hills and flat pavement requiring roughly 50,000 steps, depending on who you are, but those numbers are really too big and exhausting for any runner to conceptualize. Counting off the miles or kilometers one by one isn’t much fun either.

Far better to break up this endeavor into a series of more digestible chunks, which is how most runners experience it, from the fastest East Africans at the front of the pack to the folks who are venturing out on their first attempt at double-digit miles in the back.

That strategy has gotten me to the finish line in New York 10 times, and I hope it will get me there for an 11th on Sunday, though a strained calf and hamstring following last month’s Boston Marathon may make that impossible.

But if you are a first-time marathoner, a veteran, or someone who knows someone who is running and wants to understand the experience from inside the barricades, this is the marathon in 13 parts. (An official PDF course map is here.)

Crossing the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge is the first challenge. Good news — it actually represents the longest climb of the race. Thankfully, there is so much adrenaline from the start and the sparkling view of New York Harbor and the downtown skyline that runners barely feel the ascent. The real challenge is not blowing too many reserves too early, especially when there is every temptation to fly down the span into Brooklyn. A little patience goes a long way there.

Runners begin to hear Bay Ridge for a quarter-mile or so before they are on the land. Take it easy. All that noise and plenty more will be there soon enough, during the couple of turns through the neighborhood ahead of the big right onto the long straightaway of Fourth Avenue, where, just like that, the first 5-k is all but finished.

It’s big and broad and flat. If the wind is coming from the north, it’s a real drag, especially as the street quiets from the northern part of Bay Ridge for roughly four miles until the thoroughfare starts to bisect Park Slope to the east and Red Hook, Carroll Gardens and Boerum Hill to the west.

This part of the journey is really just transportation. Fourth Avenue runs nearly six miles without a turn, the course stretching out before the eyes with the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building in Downtown Brooklyn looming in the distance for what seems like forever. Breathe, let a rhythm evolve and fall into it.

The calm of Fourth Avenue ultimately gives way to the bedlam of Downtown Brooklyn and then Lafayette Avenue. For two miles it’s the joy of the brownstone-lined streets in the heart of the borough, where lots of kids are always offering orange slices and other refreshments. Careful, though: Lafayette Avenue is uphill. Don’t let all the music coming from the windows of the house parties force a sprint. Soak it in during these two miles instead, especially as the party continues after the left turn into Bedford-Stuyvesant, and keep the memory of those cheers fresh for what comes soon.

Williamsburg delivers what may be the least and most fun stretches of the marathon. It starts with a grind across the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway that ends up in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood where the marathon is something of an afterthought. The result is a strange kind of silence and little support among the locals that can make Mile 11 feel like two or three.

But eventually that quiet gives way to the Williamsburg of hipsters and art galleries and cafes and bars that has blossomed during the past two decades and made a party of this last part of the first half of the race. There is an over-staffed water station near McCarren Park and glimpses of the Queensboro Bridge that will eventually lead into Manhattan.

The end of the beginning starts with a left in Greenpoint and a view of the Pulaski Bridge into Queens. At first glance it looks like a tough incline. It kind of is, because it’s longer than it initially appears. This is the moment to feel the satisfaction of putting the borough with so much marathon real estate in the rearview mirror.

The middle of the bridge brings the 13.1-mile mark. The bottom of it brings Queens and another boost of noise that was not there 25 years ago in Long Island City, before the residential construction boom. The Queensboro Bridge feels so close, because it is. Brooklyn might have taken an hour or two. Queens gets done in roughly 10 minutes.

Deep breath: Here comes the left turn onto the Queensboro Bridge (known in song, of course, as the 59th Street Bridge). Manhattan is right there. Oops. It’s not. First there is a 1.5-mile climb and descent on a quiet, dark bridge, where the fatigue from the first 15 miles is impossible to ignore. There is a gorgeous view of the skyline and the stretch of the harbor and a vision of how far has already been run, but there is also the overwhelming echo of labored breathing until a few hundred yards past the crest of the bridge. Then comes the downhill, which at this point exacts some punishment on the tiring quads.

But just ahead is the 16-mile mark and the wall of sound on First Avenue, and there is only one thing to do — let gravity do its job, allow the wheels to spin and catch a little speed. That eases the pounding of the quads and allows for some fun. Time to smile for the big crowd.

How many times in the lead-up to this day have you run 10 miles? Probably a lot. That’s all that is left. Think about it for a moment, and then no more, because the only mile that can be run is the one you are in, so regain that rhythm from before the roll off the bridge and then look around at the crowds six deep on the sidewalks, the people hanging off the fire escapes, the course stretching out straight north for three miles, music coming from the bars on the ups and downs of the Upper East Side, and then from the big speakers beside the avenue on the flats in East Harlem. There the crowd is a little thinner, making it the perfect spot to say hello to a friend or a mom, who can then head west to catch you in a half-hour or so on Fifth Avenue.

There’s so much to love about the Bronx. The bridges into and out of it are low and short. The hip-hop and salsa fill your ears. The quick turns throw in some variety after a long straightaway and the one coming up. The whole fourth borough gets done in a mile and a half. Try to keep all these positive thoughts flowing because the race passes the 20-mile mark in the Bronx, and the door to the pain cave has officially opened.

Welcome back to Harlem and upper Fifth Avenue and the last five miles. Look up. That sky up ahead is above Central Park, where this thing ends. All the bridges are over. There are two parts to this next stretch of a little less than two miles — getting to Marcus Garvey Park and its picturesque spin around the square, and then the final 10 blocks to the top of Central Park. If you are lucky, the gospel choir will be singing on the steps of the church across from Marcus Garvey Park, providing a sign that the Almighty is in your corner.

On a stroll beside Central Park on a fall afternoon, the one-mile incline would be practically unnoticeable. But this is Mile 23 and 24 of a marathon, so it feels like Mount Everest with a summit that never comes. The hill starts just after 110th Street. Take comfort that Mount Sinai Hospital is there if things get really dire, and that this endless hill ends with the turn into the park at 90th Street. When the Guggenheim Museum comes into view, the end is nigh.

Getting close now. Less than three miles to go. For the thousands in the race who have trained in Central Park, being back on the loop is pure heaven. It’s time to roll past the reservoir and then the Temple of Dendur in the back of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then down the hill to the boathouse. On the side of the road, everyone is yelling how close you are — because they do not have to run another two-plus miles after running 24. But then, on the brief uphill after the boathouse, through the trees and across the Sheep Meadow, there it is: the finish line.

One more mile. One last wall of sound. One last long incline, even if it is only a slight one that, depending on the energy level, feels like either Denali or nothing at all. Focus the eyes on the farthest traffic light and see the Christopher Columbus statue that gets bigger with each step. That marks the final turn back into Central Park. This thing is getting near done.

Somehow, the mind is thinking that right after the body is in Central Park once more, it’s all over, but one last spit of road remains, and it’s a little longer than it’s supposed to be. There’s a little bend that keeps the finish line out of sight at first, and then, in one last stroke of cruelty from the marathon gods, the final 50 yards are uphill. It’s like a bad joke. Or a good one, because the hill is a nonissue and it’s time to raise the arms and look up at the photo bridge for a triumphant close-up.

Time for beer.

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