unique travel experiences

Month: October 2015

26.2 tips for running the New York City marathon

There are the “big six” marathons and the New York City marathon is one of them! 🙂 London, Berlin, Chicago, Boston and Tokyo being the others.

It’s a prestigious event and if it’s on your “bucket list” it’s a monumental one to tick off. Of course if you haven’t already been to NYC already it ticks that one off the list too!

Find the winners' rostrum and get your own Facebook cover photo :)

Find the winners’ rostrum and get a new Facebook cover photo 🙂

There’s an international ballot which makes it slightly easier to get in as a foreigner. I’ve run it twice now, 2013 and 2014. Both times for maternal health charity ‘Every Mother Counts’, once with one of their charity places and once an an International runner.

Read more about my first marathon running for TeamEMC.

So running in the New York City Marathon is a wonderful experience. The fact you get to navigate through 5 boroughs ending up in iconic Central Park is pretty epic.

So those New York marathon specific tips:

  1. Register – Don’t forget to register at the Javits Center, 655 West 34th Street when you arrive in New York. Try not to go when everybody else does!
  2. Website – Check out all the race-day information at
  3. Timing – Get yourself a pace bracelet. A great way of correctly pacing you through the race. A course specific one is even better.
  4. Relax – If you’re new to NYC resist the urge to do TOO much walking in the few days before.
  5. Wrap up! – November mornings in New York can be chilly! Buy some cheap clothes from the charity/thrift stores that you can wear on the day and discard at the start line. Tracksuit top, bottoms, gloves and a hat! Less is not more! It was so cold and windy in 2014 I was still wearing my tracksuit top at mile 2! They all get donated to charity afterwards.

    The long cold wait before the start of the marathon

    The long cold wait before the start of the marathon

  6. Spectators – If you have supporters watching you tell them EXACTLY where they should stand! That means what side of the road and on which exact curbstone! You’ll find it much easier to see them, than them see you, what with your spectators watching 50,000+ heads bobbing up and down! Better still get them to stand on a footstool/stepladder.
  7. iPhone app – Get friends to download the iPhone App so they can see where you are, even friends back home.
  8. Garbage bag – Bring a garbage/bin bag to sit on at the start as the ground could be damp. Buy a cheap $1 dollar poncho to keep any rain off too.
  9. Your name – Write your name in big bold letters on the front of your shirt/vest. If it’s on the back it’s too late for spectators to shout out your name. It’s amazing how much a “shout out” from a random stranger can lift you up.
  10. Exit strategy – Work out your exit strategy. If you’re staying on the east side of Manhattan the marathon is coming down 5th Ave and you won’t be able to cross the road very easily.
  11. Breakfast – You have to get up very EARLY. Organise your breakfast the night before. For me that was porridge, bananas and some energy bars.
  12. Getting there – Did I mention that you have to leave very EARLY? The Verrazano-Narrows bridge to Staten Island closes at 6:45am. Our team bus from Greenwich Village left at 05:30. Make your plans way in advance to whether you are getting an organised bus or catching the ferry. Some great tips about that from
  13. The wind direction – Pray for a south wind rather than a northerly one as most of the course goes in that direction. In 2014 the side wind was so strong I saw a few people almost fall over as one leg was blown into the other.
  14. Free hat – Grab a free orange and pink Dunkin Donuts hat at the start! It keeps you warm but is thin enough to wear for the first mile or two.
  15. Bridge positioning – Get lucky and have one of the corrals on the top of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge rather than the lower level as supposedly runners underneath can get peed on! I didn’t see that happen myself though.

    About to start on the lower section of the Verranzano Narrows-Bridge

    About to start on the lower section of the Verranzano Narrows-Bridge

  16. Mile 1 – Don’t worry about your mile 1 split time! You climb 150 feet in that first mile! So don’t go off to quick! Remember all the bridges are actually mini hills.

    The first mile on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is uphill and windy

    The first mile on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is uphill and windy

  17. Funny signs – Read the funny neon banners held up on the side of the road. My favourites were “If it was meant to be easy it would be called your mom”, “Toenails are for losers!”, “Don’t poop your pants!” along with various power-up button signs for you to tap as you run past.

    Funny New York Marathon Signs

    Funny New York Marathon Signs – Photo Filip Wolak

  18. High Fives – High-five some of the 2 million spectators lining the streets when you get the urge. It will raise your energy levels!
  19. Quiet mile 11 – Don’t worry if it goes VERY quiet here as you pass through the Hasidic Jewish enclave of Williamsburg where the residents seem most disintersted in proceeedings. A time to get into your rhythm.
  20. Mile 16 – You run the hilly Queensboro Bridge in silence (no spectators are allowed on the bridge) but the crowd erupts as you hit First Ave and the hairs go up on the back of your neck. But don’t get too carried away! It’s only just over halfway! The elite runners say “You can’t win the NYC Marathon on First Avenue but you sure can lose it.”
  21. First Ave – First Ave is a LONG road. I was looking forward to seeing friends at 125th Street but you join at 59th! That’s a 66 street, 3.5 mile countdown and it took ages!

    It's great when you know wxcatly where your supporters will be

    It’s great when you know exactly where your supporters will be

  22. Mile 23 – Don’t let mile 23 get you down. There’s a 50 foot climb to come – you haven’t hit the wall – probably.
  23. Mile 24 – Central Park – But don’t get too gung-ho when you finally enter Central Park – there’s still 2.2 miles to go and it’s deceptively hilly in there! But you can afford to start smiling at this point.
  24. Say cheese! – As well as looking out for the photographers out on the course make sure you position yourself and smile at the finish line. They also have photographers 25m after too so make sure you get one to take a photo of you with your medal.

    Smile as you cross the finish line as you might want to buy the photos later

    Smile as you cross the finish line as you might want to buy the photos later

  25. After the finish – If you decided not to have a bag transported to the finish, start looking forward to having a snug fur-lined poncho wrapped around you.
  26. Have a post marathon beer – After 4 months of very little alcohol that beer will probably go straight to your head! Mine was right next to the hotel in Times Square’s Planet Hollywood.
    Enjoy a post marathon beer!

    Enjoy a post marathon beer!

    … and 2 bonus ones!

  27. 1. NY Times newspaper If you beat 4.5 hours make sure you buy the New York Times the next day as you’ll have your name published in the results.
  28. 2. Central Park – Finally – go back to Central Park on the Monday, visit the shop, find the finishers’ rostrum, sit with Fred Lebow and take a picture of you and the finish line. Enjoy all the comments from strangers congratulating you. You’ve earnt it!
    New York Marathon Fred Lebrow Statue

    New Fred Lebrow checking my slow time

    Revisting the scene of the crime! The New York Marathon Finish Banner

    Revisting the scene of the crime! The New York Marathon Finish Banner

An amazing video by ‘TheGingerRunner’. Just watch this 🙂

Want to make some sloe gin?

I’d never heard of sloes until a friend mentioned them while we were out running through the Hertfordshire countryside. Up until that point I’d been more preoccupied with the blackberries you can eat straight from the hedgerows instead.
So what are sloes? Well they’re the berries of the hawthorn shrub, traditionally used in Britain to make “cattle-proof” hedges … so “wild” fruit with a helping human hand. On their own sloes taste particularly bitter, but when added to gin and mixed with sugar …. 🙂
Sloe berries close up

Sloes berries close up

There’s a lot of mixed opinion out there regards how you should best make sloe gin. Essentally it’s pick sloes, add to gin, mix in some sugar and then wait 3 months!
    1. Should you pick them after the first frost?
      Traditionalists suggest waiting for the “first frost” but Jamie Oliver’s blog post simply suggested picking them when they were “ripe and ready”; when you can pop the berries easily between your finger and thumb. The first frost might simply not coincide with when they’re ripening! Generally wait until they’re bigger, riper and softer and not small and harder. Even then the “bigger” ones tend to be higher up out of reach of course unless you can find a secret, unknown bush.
  • Should you prick the skins or put them in the freezer?
    Pricking the skins allows the juices to flow out of the sloes when immersed in the gin. However adding them to the freezer overnight stimulates the “first frost”, and expands the fruit so when they defrost the skin will have natually split essentially doing the same thing. I pricked the odd one that hadn’t split with a cocktail stick.
The defrosted and split sloes

The defrosted and split sloes

  • Should you add caster sugar before or after?
    Some say before but others say you don’t know how much you’ll need until you actually taste it, so it’s better to sugar it to taste using a syrup mixture at the time of opening. However I added mine before so the sugar could help allow the full flavour to be extracted from the sloes. Why does this have to be so confusing?!
  • How much caster sugar?
    One blog suggested two big spoonfuls. Not too useful when they didn’t specify the spoon size! Other recipes I saw suggested 225g … which is a lot … and the amount I used for my 1 litre bottle.
Sloe gin ready to be made

Sloe gin ready to be made

  • How long should you leave it before you drink it?
    Some say a minimum of two months is needed for the drink to mature (so just in time for Christmas) whereas others specify a minimum of 3 months, while yet others suggest the longer you leave it the better (like years)! I’m having one mid Feb (a 4 month wait) and saving the other bottle for next Christmas.
  • What type of gin to use?
    Another bone of contention. 1 liter of gin will actually make 2 liter bottles of sloe gin as the sloes take up half of the space. Some websites say cheap gin makes cheap sloe gin, but others say the tastes of the sloes is strong enough to overwhelm the flavor anyway. You decide. I went somewhere in the middle with a bottle of Gordon’s London gin.
So the actually picking part. My friend Jake and his little daughter took me to a particularly fruitful location in-between Hitchin and Pirton in Hertfordshire where the south facing side of the footpath had allowed the sloes to fatten up in the sunshine, with the best bushes being in natural dips where they had been better watered too.
Take along a strong carrier bag or better still a big Tupperware container with 450g being about right to half fill a 1 liter Kilner bottle when you get back home. As it’s never easy to determine weight when standing without scales on a footpath I picked a bit extra just in case and needed up with 1.2kg!
Once back home optionally sterilise your airtight bottle(s) (I used Milton baby sterilising tablets) or alternatively swill it out with boiling water (careful here as bottles can crack) and then half fill them with the defrosted fruit (about 450g).
Sloe gin completed

Sloe gin complete and ready for the 3 month wait

Once sloes, gin and sugar have been added together (I found the order of sloes > gin > sugar worked best followed by a final top up of gin) shake for half a minute and then lay on its side in a dark cupboard. Then every other day give a little shake and twist 180 degrees for 2 months. Then strain the sloe gin through muslin into another bottle come drinking time in case the old maggot, stalk, leave is still in there.
So if sticking to the first frost approach then the start of November looks a good time to go picking. If keen to get going now, pick them and simply stick them in the freezer overnight. This will simulate that first frost, split the skins, and once defrosted will allow them to release more of their juices come the actual gin drinking time.

In summary:

  • Pick 450g sloes when ripe and ready
  • Stick in freezer for the night
  • Sterilize a 1 litre bottle
  • Allow sloes to defrost
  • Prick any that haven’t split
  • Half fill the bottle with the sloes
  • Add the gin
  • Add 225g of caster sugar
  • Top up with some more gin
  • Shake
  • Store horzontally in a dark cupboard
  • Shake slightly and turn 180 degrees every couple of days
  • Wait 3+ months
  • Strain and drink … the part you’ve been waiting for! 🙂

Only “independent” coffee shops for a month?

For the whole of September I only bought coffee from small independents. So no Starbucks, no Costa Coffee and no Neros … and so on! The initial idea for this came when my girlfriend Claire and I had a delicious ‘flat white’ from Campervan Coffee Company in the garden of Hitchin’s Vic pub back in the Spring, but it took me until September to go fully “independent” once I’d stumbled across an Instagram image bigging up visiting small businesses rather than lining the pockets of another multi millionaire CEO.

The Midweek Mercury Newspaper Article

The Midweek Mercury Newspaper Article

My hometown of Hitchin is a delightful little market town in the UK with many independent coffee outlets so there was plenty to choose from there. More about Hertfordshire’s Hitchin from Hornblower Travels. A few tweets even caught the attention of the local Hertfordshire Midweek Mercury newspaper with my exploits making it to the top of page 12.

The Inspirational Instagram Sign

The Inspirational Instagram Sign

During the week I work in Clerkenwell, which has the biggest concentration of design agencies in the world, meaning I was spoilt for choice there too. Within 100 metres was Workshop, Timberyard and my favourite lunchtime haunt Look Mum No Hands. However within 30 metres are Costa, Pret and Starbucks which is where 95% of the office dive in to … as do I …. usually.

Look Mum No Hands Bike Cafe

The Look Mum No Hands Bike Cafe

So what can you learn after a month of avoiding the tax avoiders? 😉

  1. You get to sample so many more flavours from the many different bean varieties stocked by the independent traders.
  2. It feels good when you support a small business and it gives you a warm feeling inside: in this case literally.
  3. You’re tasting “proper” coffee.
  4. Sometimes you may want “some coffee with your coffee” with cup sizes being on the small size compared to a sizeable grandé from Starbucks! But then that’s the great thing about having the choice. When you fancy a large coffee just grab that grandé Starbucks instead.
  5. Value for money isn’t necessarily about the amount of coffee you receive though. One establishment worked out to be 3x more expensive than a Starbucks latté per ml but if you’re getting over 3x the enjoyment in nicer surroundings then it’s money well spent.
  6. Purposely grabbing a coffee most days for the month turned into an expensive little exercise but it gave me a much better idea of what I like and where my favourite places are.
  7. After a while I had to walk further and further to find new places so at that point I simply ended up going back to a few shops repeatedly, but then that’s how you become a regular somewhere.
  8. Oh and “independents” pay their taxes of course!
HandleBar Coffee Shop

HandleBar Coffee Shop

So favourite coffees in my little experiment? Well to be honest I enjoy coffee so I loved all of them. However I did like the flat whites from ‘The Handlebar’ in Kinetic Cycles (Hitchin), ‘Campervan Coffee Co‘ (Hitchin) and ‘Look Mum No Hands‘ (London) as they’re the ones I just happen to go to most frequently.

What next? I might keep it going and do my best to grab an “independent” coffee when I have the choice. The coffees I sampled certainly tasted better and were often served better too … and that’s all part of the caffeine experience!

The coffee shops visited as part of this little “independent” exercise were:


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