New York City: Manhattan Perimeter Ultramarathon
17th of August, 2022
This is the story about my run around the coast of its central island, Manhattan.
I decided to fly to New York City about five months ahead of the trip, because I needed a break from daily life. Too much of the same, no space to think. Most people would then head to a quiet place, maybe somewhere in the mountains or by the sea, but my preferred change of pace leads me to the United States of America. I have seen the city in person twice before and loved it. New York City has so much to offer, so much convenience, so many possibilities.
One of those is running. While most runners in Manhattan prefer Central Park or a stretch along the Hudson river for a short fitness-boosting run, I was immediately thinking about Manhattan’s perimeter. Along the coast, around the whole main island, is that possible? Turns out, yes. Some people have done it before and there’s an impressive Fastest Known Time set on that route.
A new course record here is not within my powers, but I could still spend a few fun hours near the water, exploring most of this borough’s neighborhoods including those that most tourists like me usually won’t see.
In advance, I had decided to do as many fun things as possible during my few days in the United States. I can sleep later, was my logic.
I landed at JFK airport on the evening of July 29th, and right the next day was packed with activities. First, I went for a shake out run. Of course. Twenty kilometers, though. Still jetlagged, in the 30C plus heat, my enthusiasm for being in this city was so high I barely noticed these hurdles.
I ran through the whole length of the High Mile and did the full 10k Central Park main loop in one go. Met two friends, took a look at the Apple Store at 5th Avenue. Citibike’d the whole way from Central Park down to my hotel in Downtown next to the 9/11 Memorial for a quick shower, then back up north to have a late lunch at Whitman’s diner, which was delicious, went shopping for some clothes, explored the stores down under 30 Rock for some ice-cream, but then I had to subway back to the hotel for a quick thirty minute nap. Up again, and now I’m taking the train out to Forest Hill Stadium in Queens to see a live show of one of my favorite bands from adolescence called Coheed & Cambria. Seen them a handful of times in Europe, some fifteen to twenty years ago, but when I saw they played a whole stadium on their home turf in New York, I jumped and bought the ticket immediately.
When the singer screamed “WHAT’S UP NEW YOOORK!” I got goosebumps.
Great show, and since this was the first rock concert I attended outside of Europe, I was especially keen to find out what it’s like. Bigger, obviously, but the crowds were similarly motivated, I thought. Alcohol consumption was at the same level, too, security a bit more thorough but not by much, so the main difference was the crowd’s bigger confidence in its ability to sing along. Also not surprising, in retrospect. All in all it was a great evening listening to the band surrounded by New Yorkers.
Lying in bed that evening, just before midnight, with 42,000 steps in my legs, I was hugely thankful for an incredible day before an ultra run.
On the other hand, I was sure that tomorrow’s 55 kilometers (34 miles) would get tough. Not much of a tapering day, this day.
July 31st, Wake Up and GO!
Alarm clock to 7:30 AM, brushing the teeth, coffee from the hotel room machine which was actually not too bad, one of my CLIF bars for breakfast, getting dressed, packing the backpack with mostly water and at 8:00 AM I’m outside the building, nearly ready to go.
I just needed to buy two bottles of Gatorade for a carb supply along the run and fill those into my soft flasks of the backpack and walk about ten minutes to the designated starting point of the loop. Done.
8:15 AM, corner of Maiden Lane and South Street in Downtown, Manhattan.
Immediately it was clear this was going to be a good day. Perfect blue sky, but hot. I like hot weather, so that’s not a problem – except that I needed to somehow account for getting a lot more water during the day. These 2.5 liters in my backpack would not get me far today.
I am a little nervous about today, though. I’m far from perfectly fit, especially after yesterday’s incredibly full day and the jet-lag from the day before, and since I have lined up even more things to do today after the run this can’t take too long. Will I make it in time? Who knows how hard the sun will beat down later during the day. Another unclear thing was the routing. I spent a great deal of time planning the route before today. Turns out, “just running along the water” isn’t as easy here as you might think, which is why I planned the track using komoot, Strava segments, and even Google Earth before loading it on my navigational watch.
But two things all three of these services lacked, was the knowledge about current construction sites blocking the walking paths on the one hand, and a useful 3D function. Usually you would never need such a 3D function for any route planning, but Manhattan is multi-dimensionally built. Sometimes, there’s a 10-lane highway, and underneath it a beautiful walking path. This just isn’t visible in any of the tools we have, probably because it’s almost never useful. Except in New York City.
Running underneath the huge FDR Drive not only had this nice view of Manhattan Bridge (left) and Brooklyn Bridge (right) to offer, but also some welcome shade. And, to my surprise, a substantial amount of people of Asian descent were here, organized in groups, doing what looked like Tai chi moves in a meditative way, playing relaxing music. Maybe a Sunday morning tradition for the people living here, right next to Chinatown.
Not too much later I’m suddenly in the middle of a construction site that increasingly looks like it’s not allowed to run here. But there is no way out of it except back and I’m invested in it too much already, so I keep going. After a few more minutes, I reach a gate with a security post next to it. Fortunately the guy inside of it is friendly and helpful and believes that I’m not a corporate espionage professional but just a lost runner instead. Or am I? Perfect camouflage! Anyways, he unlocks the gate and mumbles something before continuing to watch his favorite soap on the tiny TV inside his hut.
Right after that construction area, I am surprised by this perfectly suited running path here in the area of East River Park.
This park also has some public sports fields to offer. I can just run through a gate and use this well maintained track and leave again. This is a huge difference to what it’s like in Germany. The housekeeper would have immediately come out of his molehill, cited several legal paragraphs, screamed, and shoved me off the track while calling the cops. I’m glad I’m in the United States today! No wonder Americans win a lot more Gold medals than Germans do.
As you can see, running here is still lovely, and by now a few more runners are coming my way, too. The nice path is about to end, though. At East 38th Street, the route leads up some stairs and over FDR Drive, because the United Nations Headquarters are here and would like no pedestrians along their water access, I assume. Which is why I need to run around it through the neighborhoods of Murray Hill and Tudor City, which are both part of Turtle Bay. Lots of stores here, so I contemplate getting a proper New York Bagel for breakfast. But unfortunately, I’m absolutely not hungry yet. Thirsty, though. The supplies vaporize quickly on my skin.
Behind me, you can see Queensboro Bridge, another impressive and beautiful construction. All the bridges are just so huge, bigger than many skyscrapers even. I’m in absolute awe, didn’t remember them this big from last time I was here. A gondola of the tramway is right next to it at this moment.
Randalls Island in view, the walkway ends again and at this point I need to cross FDR Drive another time. East 70th Street. At 78th, it’s back towards the East River again.
This marks the northern end of the Upper East Side, a rather posh part of Manhattan which you might have heard of. Expensive cars lined the streets, pretty people walking their pretty dogs to their millionaire apartments, the well-dressed kids in tow.
Within just a few minutes of running, I cross from this neighborhood into East Harlem. You might have heard of it, too, but for different reasons. It suddenly looked like I was in another country. Homeless walking around aimlessly, trash on the sidewalks, people screaming at each other in broad daylight. Everything is dirty and it smells worse. What a contrast!
Then, the walkway just ends. No demand from joggers to get this fixed, apparently.
The detour leads me through Thomas Jefferson Park which has a little playground.
What a great idea! At 30C, I use this chance to cool off. Soaking wet, the journey continues.
An American cliché, the broken fire hydrant, still East Harlem. I wasn’t brave enough to use this as a shower right now, though.
Twenty kilometers in, around two and a half hours in the heat, the water and Gatorade supplies are empty. Thankfully, Harlem is quite populous and shops are everywhere. I have to leave the Harlem River coast here anyways because of too many bridges and elevated feeder roads keeping me away from the water. In the deli I am the only white guy, naturally, and restock on water and Gatorade.
A few minutes later I see a shabby looking car with a removed window on the passenger seat. The owner has put a small A/C unit into its place and taped it shut with duct tape. This might have been their home. Next to it, there’s a tennis court, full of well-dressed players. These contrasts, again!
I’m now entering Highbridge Park via this boring sidewalk. At the end of it, the running is quite nice, though. Lots of greenery, and many people are using this public park for their kids’ birthday parties, as it looks. Shopping carts full of supplies are dragged here and people are having fun on the meadows next to all the concrete of Manhattan. It’s a long and straight part here. Boring, and the fatigue is adding up. Not the best moment of this run. It is a lot less noisy up here, though. I notice that.
After the park, the coast is again inaccessible, so I need to run through the city, block by block. It’s quite a poor area, here. Especially the smell gets to me. I think that’s because people often dump their trash bags onto the sidewalks but the cleaners don’t come more than once per day to collect them. So it sits there in the sun providing perfect conditions for the bacteria inside the bags sitting on the plastic packaged food remains.
So many blocks plus a few more down south which are not numbered. For reference, the northernmost part of Central Park is at 110th Street. Manhattan is looong!
At 218 it’s over, well technically 220th is the northernmost one, but I need to turn west at 218th for the route to work out.
This is a Little League game. Also something which is very American, if I can say so. Kids who play baseball competitively are in this league system and have these games on the weekends. Fun to witness one!
Right afterwards, the Inwood Hill Park begins. This one is quite close to its natural state, as opposed to many others of today. Lots of trees. And now, some hills! The highest point of Manhattan is at just 81 meters, but this is at about 50 tops. Still, noticeable.
The best thing about this park is the clean air and the lack of a bad smell.
And from now on, it’s back home! The turning point at the northernmost tip is reached and almost the whole remaining route will lead south.
So far, I didn’t see many other runners, especially during the last few kilometers. On the way back down from Inwood Hill towards the Hudson River, there are two cyclists though. They contemplate if it’s worth it to cycle up these mountains here. I strongly advise them to do so. “Maybe we can offer you twenty bucks if you carry up our bikes?” – they joke. I almost took them up on it! For no money, of course, but it would have been good to help them a bit. When I look back a bit later I see they have decided to go for it. Well done.
Can you spot 1 World Trade Center? That’s about where this run will end. Twenty-five kilometers away from the finish being able to see it is unusual, too.
Didn’t expect that to exist anywhere in Manhattan, but there you go!
Then, a Rottweiler dog approaches me. He is tired and won’t attack. And also, he is nonchalantly wearing sunglasses. This is New York City.
The little parks along the Hudson are again filled with people having private barbecues, celebrating a graduation or a birthday, and it’s a very friendly atmosphere. Lots of plastic waste, though. I can hear almost every language in existence on Earth I think. What a global city, really.
A few more public baseball fields and tennis courts, and slowly the city starts to appear again.
I think this was somewhere around the Upper West Side. The conditions are clearly different now. A long and straight road, right now that’s both satisfying and challenging to mentally digest at the same time. The full marathon distance is broken around here and my water supplies are done, too. I eat the one CLIF bar I brought, because I think I need it. Still not that hungry, though. For the last ten to fifteen kilometers, no shops were visible along the route at all. Also, I didn’t come by any working public water fountains, until somewhere here. The water is warm because the fountain is exposed to direct sunlight all day, and it tastes like chlorine, but I’ll take it. I’m super thirsty after having had more than five liters already so far. A hot day, to say the least. I drink around half a liter and fill up my backpack with another liter. Way too little, as it turned out.
When I see a street sign in the vicinity and recognize the “109” on it, I’m happy because this means I’m not too far from Central Park, which is an indicator I’m back in the core of Manhattan again. Some more runners appear. Most of them with very good bodies and very little clothing. Well done, New York.
The huge Hudson next to me is great. I really like to be next to such a powerful river, the calming effect the water has on me is appreciated.
Forty-eight kilometers, my water tank is empty already. There’s a vending machine but it won’t accept my credit cards or my wet dollar notes, how disappointing. An ice-cold coke would have been heaven right now. But not long after that low point, my friends Andreas and Jule appear out of thin air!
I didn’t know they were planning on meeting me, so this makes for a great surprise. Since Andreas and I constantly share our locations via the Find My app he knew where to find me today. They were on holiday just like me, in fact we sat next to each other on the plane here and had lunch together yesterday, but our paths would diverge tomorrow when I would go on a road trip.
Great seeing them here at 14th Street. We talk for a bit and I’m in no rush since my legs managed to support my running pace all the way so far with no walking breaks necessary. All’s going according to plan. Then, on the other side of the street, there’s one of these street vendors selling highly questionable meats, and also, ice-cold drinks! We have to go there. The price is unexpected, though. A bottle of water, a Gatorade, and a Mountain Dew. Seventeen dollars! Doesn’t matter. Right now I would have paid double that for the feeling of drinking it all.
Not much left now. To get going again after this break comes easy, fortunately. Here, one of the other main running paths is located. Lots of sexy people running, rich people walking, and the Piers on the right side. Yachts.
Then, Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan, where the ferries leave for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
I find it funny that the free Staten Island ferries have people employed walking around in front of the terminal warning tourists loudly of going to Staten Island by mistake. They probably mean to go to the Statue, not to Staten Island – because no one in their right minds could ever want to go to Staten Island! It’s just seagulls and garbage over there, every New Yorker knows this.
Battery Park is slightly difficult to navigate, there are some more roadblocks in the way making me do 180s. But since I know I’m almost finished, this doesn’t bother me at all. Around the tip, Brooklyn Bridge is in sight, again. Just a few more minutes and then it’s done. Success!
This was great. Totally worth it.
Not easy, especially since the heat squeezed so much water out of me, but the things I’ve seen today and the completely new and different grasp of New York City I have now internalized were amazing.
The moment of finishing such a run is always something special. This feeling of so many emotions, for example pride and relief, is overwhelming and never gets old. I hope I can do these things until I’m really old.
I’m doing not too bad at this point. The ten minute walk back to the hotel through the canyons of skyscrapers is slow and slightly wobbly, and I welcome every red traffic light, but in total I’m doing quite well. Not too exhausted. Just over six hours of running and six and a half hours from start to finish including all breaks, total.
After an extensive and well-deserved shower, there’s even enough time left for a short nap, but my racing mind won’t let me settle for it. Too much information circling around. What a day! And that was just half of it. Next on the agenda is having an early dinner at the official world’s best restaurant, the 3 Michelin Star Eleven Madison Park. I managed to get a table for Andreas, Jule, and me, right when they opened up reservations two months ago. On the way there I first need to stop and have a two dollar slice of authentic New York pizza, though.