Tuesday, March 22, 2016

NYC City Half Marathon - Guest Post from my husband

I was lucky enough to get a lottery entry to run the 2016 NYC Half Marathon!

This race was one of those "once in a lifetime" races I'll remember for a long time.  There are many neat aspects of this race, including a unique course through Central Park, Times Square, and lower Manhattan.  But there are also a lot of logistical issues to deal with because it is a big-city race, and you also need a sound race strategy to achieve your goals because of the course layout and elevation profile.  It is a course where one can PR, and I just missed one for me (more on that later!)...

The weather forecast showed a big cold front coming through, with highs in the 30s on race day.  That alone is fine, I can race in the cold weather no problem.  But they were alternating between rain, rain-snow mix, and a snowstorm.  We received email updates from the race organizers about the weather, and luckily the forecast changed the day before. We had a cold and windy, but sunny, race! Whew.

Packet Pickup:

The Packet Pickup was at the Metropolitan Pavilion, a few blocks northwest of  Union Square.  For how big of a race this is, the expo was really small.  They had the official race gear to buy, then one sponsor vendor selling running gear and that was it.  They did have a charity area, and a "running lab" where you can meet the pacers, get pace bracelets, and get your picture taken.  Since United Airlines was the main sponsor of the race, they had an area for photos.  The workers were great, they shouted out each bib number as people got photos taken. They yelled "let's here it for runner 608!!!"  and then reacted "Wow the lowest bib number we've seen yet!"

I joked with them: does that mean I have to run fast tomorrow???  (The bib numbers are by projected finish time, and each thousand series is a corral.  Since I under 1,000, I was in the first corral, which was technically Corral Zero.  That had me a bit nervous haha).

I signed the big wall at the expo, saying that I was running for my wife and daughter, my two most important ladies!

Meanwhile, my daughter made a heart-warming poster to hold up when cheering me on:

You will need to pay attention to the race instructions in the emails, website, and runner guide they give you at packet pickup.  Each of the three waves has about 7 or 8 corrals, and each wave has a different bag drop time, and a different corral entrance location.  They also have strict times about when bag check closes and when the corrals close, and when the race starts.  Each wave has different times for all of these and you need to know where you need to be at what time. Here is a sample from this year:

Race Morning:
This is where the logistics get tough.  For my wave number 1, the corrals closed at 7:10am for the 7:30 wave 1 race start.  But it was a long walk from the bag drop and then the porta potties.  So you have to give yourself enough time to use the bathroom (luckily the lines weren't too long) and get to your corral.  I dropped my bag at 6:25am, which went pretty smoothly.  Then I entered the security check, used the bathroom, and entered the corral about 7:00am and was one of the last to get into the corral!  So, I wasn't late, but I didn't have a lot of extra time before the corrals closed.  They aren't lying when they tell you get there early!   But on a cold morning that means lots of time out in the cold so plan ahead with throw-way clothes to keep you warm. I wore an old hooded sweatshirt and I also wrapped a space blanket from a previous race around my legs to stay warm. (Luckily it wasn't raining or snowing, that would be a miserable way to wait it out!)

(It's important to note that only runners are allowed anywhere near the race start.  Your family and friends will have to say goodbye before you enter security, and they won't be able to see you on the course until well after the start.)

But what a great location to start the race.  As I walked up the hill towards the start, I turned around and took it in.  There, in full view from the top of the hill, was the sun rising over wall of high-rises of the mid-town Manhattan skyline at the edge of Central Park.

I just stared at that view for a good minute or two without moving.  Once in the corral, they announced all the elites, and I got to see them doing warm up sprints.  They had singers perform America the Beautiful and the National Anthem which gave me goosebumps.  All the waiting was almost over, it was time to start!  I should note that I had a last minute decision to make before I left the hotel, would I wear my "Running Nerd" shirt or my Captain America shirt?  My wife suggested Captain America would get more shout-outs.  It was so cold that morning, that I wore a long sleeve under the short sleeve.  Here I was with throw-away clothes tossed, ready to start:

The Race:
My goal was a PR, which is 1:23:18 (or 6:21 per mile).  The race is really two distinct parts...and this is where the race strategy is important!  The first 6 miles you run a winding course around Central Park.  The rest of the race you run the city street grid to the finish downtown.  Here is the course map:

The first half of the race is also a bit hilly throughCentral Park, as you can see in the course profile:

The main strategy is hold back the first 6 miles though the hills of the park, then cruise through the net downhill of the second half.

One thing I had to accept with this race is that it will run long, and longer than most other races.  The course in Central Park is winding, and with the crowds at the start, even up in the first corral, meant you couldn't run the tangents.  I'm a stickler about finding that shortest route and running as close to the race distance as I can, but I knew this one would be tough.  At the end of the first six miles I got almost two tenths of mile behind the mile markers.  But after leaving the park the course goes down straight streets with less runner crowding and I didn't lose any more distance from the course mile markers from that 0.2 mile offset.  The water and Gatorade were every two miles and were well stocked, and had really long tables to avoid crowding.  They have gels at only one water stop (mile 7.5 +/-).

Mile one is uphill, but you won't feel it from all the excitement.

I was telling myself to hold back.  I ran the first mile at 6:22 which was a pretty good start in my mind, I didn't burn out of there!  It was almost right on the goal pace.

Mile two there was a big downhill:

I opened it up to run a 6:00 minute mile just staying with the crowd.  I was feeling good at that point!  If you run this, and want to get some early excitement out, wait until this mile!

Mile three was an out-and-back along the north side of the park with a slight up and down on the out-and-back.  It was neat starting up front since I could see the world-class lead runners coming back on the out-and-back.  Man were they flying! (I later saw they finished in a 4:40 pace, wow!). I ran this mile in 6:05 and even though I felt great in the early going as I hit the 3 mile marker ahead of goal pace, I realized needed to slow down a bit!  The next mile will surely force you to slow down:

Mile four features the toughest hill on the course. As you re-enter the park, you go up a winding half mile hill that shocked my body into realizing this race wasn't going to be a breeze.

I ran this mile at 6:35 and boy was I winded at that point!  I grabbed a cup of Gatorade but had trouble getting it down with all heavy breathing.  This hill is why you want to start slow, because you still have 10 miles to go, and you don't want to use up all your energy just to get up that one hill.  The downhills are coming later in the course so patience here will pay off!  I was pleased that I slowed it down to be below goal pace for that mile.

Miles five and six you run south through the park and I lost track of all the small up and downs, and turns.  There were lots of them!  I was just looking forward to leaving the park and seeing my family cheering my on, and hitting Times Square.  I did mile five at 6:25 and mile six at 6:18.  I was just ahead of goal pace leaving the park for the net downhill second half so I thought I was in good shape.

Mile seven: As you leave the park, you will want to soak this part in!  You have a few blocks of a very slight uphill, but you then start going downhill and head towards Times Square.

After the serene setting of Central Park, you are now smack in the middle of Midtown Manhattan.  What a contrast.  And my wife and 5-year old daughter were at mile 6.5, as we had planned.  It was so great to see them waving and yelling!  Especially since it was cold and windy and my daughter was sick.  For them to come out and cheer me on lifted my spirits for sure!

Then I came into Times Square and loved the excitement of the crowd there.  I heard a lot of yelling at me for Captain America (the shirt choice paid off as my wife suggested it would!).

Then, you run under a camera on a boom over the road and you can watch yourself on the big screen running.  How cool was that!?!?  All of the photos from there we are all looking up at ourselves on the jumbo-tron in Times Square haha:

I ran this mile at 6:18, still in great shape as the excitement carried me though this stretch. By this time, the sun was getting higher and I was starting to sweat through both my shirts.  At this time, I was wishing I had gone with just short sleeves.  If I knew it was going to be sunny instead of cloudy, I probably would have.

Mile eight is a long slight steady downhill from Times Square to the West Side Highway.  I let the hill carry me down at a 6:13 split.
This is the last downhill before the flat stretch to the finish, so I let it open up a bit.  It's also some of the last of the big crowds before you get to the West Side Highway.

Mile nine you start the 3.5 mile flat straight stretch down the West Side Highway towards downtown.  This was a hard stretch.  You can see the World Trade Center tower up ahead for 3 miles straight and it. just. doesn't. get. any. closer.  It is quite a majestic site to see the tallest building in the USA (appropriately designed at 1776 feet tall), but it almost taunts you because you don't seem to ever get closer to it!  There is less crowd support here too.  I did mile nine at 6:22, and was still just ahead of goal pace.  Four miles to go but I was really feeling it after that first mile on the West Side Highway.

Mile ten I gave it my best but ran it in 6:26 which gave some time back. I was still overall exactly on pace but starting to lose it.

Mile eleven was my worst mile. I ran a 6:36 and felt my PR slipping away.  I gave a few bursts to try to get on pace but couldn't hold it.  Even though my race strategy was pretty good, it was just not going to be my day for a PR, even though it would be close.

Mile twelve I finally passed by the World Trade Center with a 6:26 split.  I knew I could probably still hit a time in the high 1:23s but I couldn't find that kick to get me back on PR pace despite trying a few small bursts of speed again that I couldn't hold.  Here I was passing the last water stop before the tunnel:

Final Mile! Wow so much happens here.  You first enter the tunnel under Battery Park.  I think it's about 0.3 or 0.4 miles long, but since it is a gradual curve, you can't see the end until you almost right to it, so it seems much longer.  It took me about 2-3 minutes to get through it.  It's dark, you lose satellite signal and have no idea on your pace.  It was noticeably warmer, and slightly humid in there.  Then, you hit the end of the tunnel and go up a hill out of it. It isn't a big hill but you will feel it!  Adding to that, the headwind was powerful coming out of it.  I later read the women's winner Molly Huddle saying it even seemed to blow her backwards as she ran up it neck and neck with her competitor.  I definitely lost some time there.  Then you weave under the elevated highway and if you have a kick, you need to start it there.  You are only a half mile from the finish but you can't see it since there are two 90-degree turns to go.  I unfortunately didn't have much of a kick left but I gave what I had left in my tank.  I remember seeing a "400 meters to go" sign, then you make a left turn.  You then almost immediately pass the 13 mile marker and a "200 meters to go" sign.  Then a final 90 degree left turn onto Water Street and bam right there is the finish at the intersection of Wall Street.  By the time you actually see the finish line, it is literally just steps away.  I crossed the line at 1:23:47, just 29 seconds off a PR.  I was doubled over for 30 seconds to catch my breath so I know I gave it a hard effort.  In a longer race like a full or half marathon, if you are within a minute of a PR you always think there was somewhere you could have made that up.  I know which miles I lost pace, but don't know how I could have run faster there.  So I was a little disappointed being close on time, but on a "long" course where I couldn't run tangents well, like this one, I was happy with the results.

Finish line area with the medal
Also, I was 411th place out of 20,124 finishers.  As mentioned above, since the bib numbers are assigned to projected finishing, I "beat my bib number" as I joked to my wife, so that was a success right?! :)

Finish area
Right after crossing the line, the race director was there shaking people's hands.  In my delirious state, I told him "great race, thanks!"  You then have what is a half mile finish area for runners only.  So if you plan on having family and friends see you near the finish, they will have a long walk to see you exit the runner area.  Plan ahead to have a meeting spot because cell coverage was spotty with everyone there.  There is no room for a "family meeting zone" like other races have due to the crowded narrow streets of downtown so be sure to take all that into account with your cheering squad!  You can see here, the runner-zone stretches for blocks so make sure to plan ahead for a meeting spot:

The bag claim was very easy, they had lots of volunteers and the bags were all aligned by big so they could retrieve them quickly.  They give each runner a space blanket, but they also have people there to tape it shut on you so it won't fall off or blow off.  Nice touch.  They give each runner a bag with some food, Gatorade, and water, and that's it.  No beer garden or beer tickets. But it is NYC so there are probably just a few (thousand) places around to get a beer right?!

Other Recommendations:

Where to stay
If you are staying out of town, the best place to stay is close to the southern edge of Central Park.  We found a hotel about 3/4 mile from the park and I could walk there.  The subway is on a Sunday schedule and people I talked to said it was crowded.  So I'm glad I was within walking distance.  But the closer you are to 59th Street the better, since that is where you have to drop your bag and enter security.

Spectator Tips
The course is not conducive to having your family and friends see a runner multiple times.  The best way to spectate in my mind (to see somebody more than once) is to watch a runner on 7th Ave between the exit from Central Park and before Times Square (Times Square will be so crowded they may have trouble seeing you in the crowds).  And stand next to a subway stop so as soon as the runner passes you can get right on and head downtown to see them at the finish.  You'll need to move quickly though with the Subway on a Sunday schedule.  One thing to keep in mind is that the east side of 7th Ave is where the Kid's Run is, and the half marathon is on the west side of 7th Ave.  There are a few places to cross from the east side of 7th Ave to the west side by going down into the subway stations and then back up the other side of the street, so scout those locations out if you can.  Then you can see your runner go right by you on that side!

If anyone else ran it or watched the race this year, or previous years, I'm curious on your thoughts on it, so feel free to comment!

1 comment:

  1. My experience was a little different, as I am back of the pack. I was in the very last corral. My plan was similar to yours, in that I knew I needed to keep it slow in the park. Then, hopefully I could pick up/maintain faster paces on the downhill toward the finish I tailored my playlist with really slow music for the park, with this in mind. The park was perfect, as I expected I kept things slow and I felt good. That half mile hill 3.5 miles in was a killer, but I did it. I train on a lot of hills, and some of them are very long, so I felt confident. By the time I got to Times Square the crowd had all but diminished and the kids races were long over. It was busy, but not the crowd boost, I was hoping for, and the turn down to the east side highway, was brutally windy and cold. The west side highway actually yielded more cheering for my section of runners than the earlier parts of the race. You're right though, this stretch felt almost endless, and the highway was sticky with Gatorade by the time I got there. I'm not even joking, I could hear and feel my shoes trying to pull themselves off the road it was so coated! I only track with strava, and it was so far off by mile 9, it said I was at mile 10.5, so that made it mentally harder through the last few miles, to not know where I was really at, in terms of the mile markers. I was expecting the battery tunnel, so as I saw it come into view, I was prepared for what was on the other side, about half way through, there was a paramedic blasting "Eye of the Tiger" which was awesome! It gave me a little boost. I got up the hill and the wind was killer, I just kept thinking, "where is the finish"?, I expected it to be a lot closer than it was, I was so done at that point. I was so relieved to see the 400 meters to go sign. When I finally rounded to the finish, I was thrilled to finally be there. Peter chacha, was still at the finish, high fiving all who crossed. I like that he was out there for even us back of the pack folks. I finished ahead of my bib as well, but it was slower than I expected, and I am, kicking myself for the moments when I stopped to snap a pic, or waited online at a porta potty. I loved the course, and I'll go back, but I'll do things very differently.