Bike-Spot the Pros in the New York City Marathon
What It’s Like to Bike-Spot the Pros in the New York City Marathon
By: Molly Ritterbeck
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 9, 2017, 9:06 AM
In Partnership With Runner's World
Rogue dogs, tossed bottles, and the best view of the action.
As Shalane Flanagan opened up her near-perfect stride along the slight descent between miles 24 and 25 in Central Park, the crowd watching the New York City Marathon roared. I glanced over at Flanagan and out of the corner of my eye, saw a bundled-up fan clapping so wildly that she dropped her dog’s leash. The small Shih Tzu darted directly at Flanagan’s feet, leash trailing behind, but at the last second, the rev of a motorbike engine on course sent the dog scurrying back to the sidelines, tail between its legs.
Meanwhile, I was watching this all play out as I rode alongside the soon-to-be 2017 New York City Marathon female champion as an official bike spotter.
Bike spotters—to answer the question you were just about to ask—are a group of cyclists who ride the course to communicate real-time splits and information about the race to the live broadcast . As a bike spotter, you get a specific assignment—usually an elite athlete or a “person of interest,” like a celebrity—and you ride (as invisibly as possible) alongside that person or group. Plus, you get to gear up with an official jacket and a dorky helicopter-style headset and mic attached to a walkie-talkie that connects you to broadcast and the other spotters.
I lucked into this role three years ago when a friend who worked at New York Road Runners at the time sent a call out for experienced cyclists to bike-spot. There were some requirements: You’d need to attend a few hours of training and an equipment check the day before the marathon (no matter how many years you’d spotted), and show up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, at 7:30 a.m. on marathon Sunday. But in exchange, you’d get a better-than-front-row seat for the most exciting event in running—plus a small stipend. I immediately signed up.
You do need to show up with your own bike—I opted for my road bike, but people do it on anything from a hybrid to a hardtail. Throughout most of the race, you call in the mile and kilometer markers of the lead runners or the location of your assignment. But you also need to be on high alert for anything else that goes on (think: a runner dropping out because of cramps). The rule is: expect the unexpected.
This year, my assignment was to spot the first place female—a position that can shift several times over the nearly two and a half hours of the women’s race. Here’s an inside look into what it’s like to ride on the course of a World Marathon Major race—plus some details from the 2017 women’s race that you might not have seen on TV.
1. The anxiety is real.
Although running 26.2 miles at speeds somewhere between 10 and 14 miles per hour is hard to wrap my head around, riding a bike that fast is pretty easy for me. Spotting, on the other hand, is anything but. You have to somehow keep your eyes on the runners, on the road, and on the 1 million hazards along said road. You have to try not to crash, call in the times as discreetly as possible, avoid getting in the way of the motorcade or cutting off a runner on an inside corner, and stay out of camera view, all while keeping your eyes peeled for the mile markers (which are really hard to see). Most important, timing your marker countdown correctly. This is spotter one-eight, mile 11 in five… four… three… two… one… mark! I found out quickly how poor my depth perception is.
2. The fuel zones are chaos.
Beware of flying bottles! Pro marathoners may be exceptional runners, but they’re really sub-par bottle tossers, and they’ll ditch them directly at your wheels. Aside from that, fueling stations are dangerous for the runners themselves. Everyone jostles to get into position closest to the tables (which come along every 5K and have each pro’s special fluid or fuel marked by numbers). Some try to signal their way through, others just gun it. In years past, I’ve seen pros miss or drop their bottles, losing out on a precious element of their marathon plan. This year, one elite woman tripped and wiped out. To her credit, she was up and back in the pack faster than I could even call it in.
3. Instagram makes fans crazy.
New Yorkers are a dedicated bunch. So dedicated that they readily sacrifice their personal safety for the sake of a good ’gram. When the lead pack passes, the crowds swell into the narrow streets, sectioned off only by tape, and the phone-wielding fans come dangerously close to getting swiped by a motorcycle or causing a bike crash.
4. There is no such thing as the ideal runner’s body.
Riding just feet away from the best long-distance runners in the world, you quickly learn that all runners’ bodies are different—even at the pro level. Sure, they’re lithe, but some are short, others tall. Some are all legs, while others are all glutes. Some have laborious upper body mechanics while others look relaxed and graceful. Some clip away at a fast cadence, others slow. And yet, there they all are, running at the same pace, at the same level, for the same distance.
5. But there is, apparently, an ideal shoe (for the pros, at least).
At one point, I looked over and four out of five of the lead runners were in the new Nike VaporFly 4% shoe. Just saying.
6. Expect the unexpected.
Around mile 22, a non-credentialed cyclist rode onto the course, riding just inches from the lead pack while filming the women. A heroic fellow bike spotter reported it, then boxed him in and rode him off the course, possibly preventing disaster.
7. No matter what happens, nothing is as inspiring as the marathon.
As a spotter, you’re never allowed to speak to the runners. Even if your assignment drops out, and she is crying alone on the side of the road (a real thing that happened in 2015), you have to stay there without speaking to her until broadcast dismisses you.
This year, I was rooting for Shalane Flanagan from mile one. She stayed tucked in the pack throughout most of the race, so technically she was not my assignment until she took the lead. But I had eyes on her the entire time. I watched her closely—her position in the pack, her relaxed upper body, her patience when others surged, her near-perfect stride. When she tore off her gloves in the Bronx and tossed them in the street, it took everything in me not to pull over and grab them as a souvenir. I had a feeling she was signaling a throwdown.
When she opened up a gap charging uphill around mile 23, I wanted to scream, “Let’s go, Shalane!” but I restrained. She never looked back, and I was too afraid to risk it as well. I wondered how far Mary Keitany and Mamitu Daska were, but then I heard in my earpiece, “The gap is about 10 seconds.” I wanted to tell her to keep pushing. “The gap is up to 20 seconds.” I wanted to tell her it was growing! “The gap is now 30 seconds.” I wanted to tell her she had it in the bag!
But I kept silent and continued calling in her markers, feeling giddy and intimately connected to this woman who was about to make history. When we had to peel off at Columbus Circle (so runners can finish without cyclists in camera view), I didn’t go straight to the broadcast trailer to return my equipment like I usually do. I stayed on the sidelines to watch her cross the finish line.
Sure, I watched her become the first American woman to win New York in 40 years on a television screen like most of the world, but to have had a front-row seat—er, saddle—to her historic performance? That’s something I’ll never forget.
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