How the NYC Marathon Works

NYC Marathon Route

NYC Marathon participants in Brooklyn
M. David Leeds/Getty Images
Marathon participants make their way through the Williamsburg part of Brooklyn in the 2003 ING New York City Marathon on Nov. 2, 2003.

So much of the allure to the NYC Marathon is its route. It's run through one of the largest and arguably most popular cities in the world. In fact, the course is a tour through the city's different cultures as it winds through the city's five boroughs.

But the course isn't just unique. It's also tough. It's considered a slow, albeit technically challenging course due to the hills and bridges. When the race began in 1970, runners had to complete four laps and some change around Central Park to finish the course. Since 1976 though, that course has wound through the streets of Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, Staten Island and Manhattan [source: ING NYC Marathon]. In order to weave its way through the five boroughs, the course incorporates five bridges. It's on these uphill bridges where runners often struggle. Let's take a look at the course route.

The race begins in Staten Island and immediately tackles the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge before entering Brooklyn. From mile two through eight, the course flattens out. Over the next few miles, the course weaves through Brooklyn before coming to the Pulaski Bridge. Another climb completes mile 13 and the course enters Queens. This section is tough, as it's mostly uphill. The route stays in Queens for a mere 3 miles and culminates with an uphill grind over the Queensboro Bridge. Once on the other side, the course hits Manhattan. This is where the crowd is the largest and runners creep up on hitting the wall (at about the 20-mile -- 32.2-kilometer -- mark). A tough section up the Wills Avenue Bridge takes runners into the Bronx for about a mile before a return trip into Manhattan via the Madison Avenue Bridge sets up the finish. The rest of the route travels through the streets of Manhattan before culminating in Central Park at Columbus Circle.

Don't worry about running out of gas during the race. Beverage stations can be found all along the route. Beginning at mile three and set at each mile thereafter, more than 1.6 million cups filled with special Gatorade heavy in potassium and sodium is available to runners. Runners can also snag an energy gel from the food station at mile 18. Both the food and beverage stations are secured from outside influence.

Perhaps nothing helps an athlete push through to the end of an extreme exercise regimen more than music. That's why more than 100 live bands show up to play along the route. Spread out at regular intervals, bands play music as motivation, and a special stage near the finish line at Columbus Circle serves the same purpose for runners nearing the end.

For runners who are injured or who have hit the wall during the race and need medical attention, several medical stations adorn the course beginning at mile three. These medical stations are spaced roughly a mile apart thereafter.

While everyone sets out with the same goal -- to finish the race -- not everyone will. Therefore sweep buses follow the pack along the route at roughly a 15-minute mile pace. These buses are intended to pick up participants who are either injured or drop out of the race.

That's the nuts and bolts of the course. Now let's take a look at how the race has gone over the years in the final section.