Why was I getting up at 5 am to run a race that starts within easy jogging distance of my apartment?
Because when a race has more than 26,000 entrants – making it the largest half marathon in the U.S., according to the New York Road Runners – it’s not a neighborhood event. It’s a global production requiring precision, political finesse, and the occasional tactical compromise.
Like starting at 7 am on a Saturday, so that most of the runners clear the vicinity of Grand Army Plaza before most Brooklynites are up and about.
Like requiring runners to walk through metal detectors to enter their corrals. (So what if they beeped for everyone?)
Like closing the baggage trucks at 6:10 am, so that . . . well, I’m not sure why the baggage trucks closed so early. I only know that (a) they stretched a loooooooong way down Eastern Parkway and (b) many unhappy runners clutching NYRR-issue clear plastic bags were sprinting toward their assigned trucks at 6:09:59 am.
Even as I chafed at some of these decisions, I had to give credit to the race organizers. “No one does large race logistics like NYRR,” I thought to myself. “They’re pros.”
That was before I saw what the decision to allocate port-a-johns by corral had wrought. The confined space inside each corral became one long, snaking line. Or a series of separate lines. Or total chaos. There was no place to stand that wasn’t a bathroom line, and no way to know where the line(s) began or ended.
Not that it really mattered. Where else would we go at that hour, and what would we do there? I used the time to think about goals for the race. Back in January, when I signed up, I imagined running a blazing fast (for a 54-year-old) time. But my training over the winter and through the spring was lackadaisical (no speedwork, a handful of tempos, many stop-and-go birding jogs on park trails), and I figured I’d be lucky to break 1:50 (a pace of 8:20-something per mile). A quick check of qualifying times for the 2016 NYC Marathon sapped my ambition further. At my advanced age, I only need to run 1:54. And do I even care about that? How many times am I prepared to bang my head against the marathon wall?
It was, I fully realized, a little late to be defining race goals. My best bet was just to run the damn thing.
So that’s what I did, and here’s how things panned out. I’ve divided this report into three parts (plus an epilogue), corresponding to what I think of as three mini-races within the 13.1-mile distance.
Part I (miles 1 to 3.5)
Think of the first part of the race as a complicated math problem. How can you maximize the distance run within a given radius of Grand Army Plaza while minimizing the number of car-hours lost to drivers, keeping the front and back of the pack separate, and preventing bottlenecks? The solution arrived at by the course designers is to send runners down Washington Avenue, then have them turn the corner and run back up Flatbush Avenue (mile 1), make a quick loop of the traffic circle that is Grand Army Plaza and then run back down Flatbush (mile 2) before hanging a right to trace the eastern and southern perimeter of Prospect Park (mile 3+).
Good job, course designers! Although I started in the fifth corral, I was able to run at full speed as soon as I crossed the start mat (why aren’t all NYRR races like that?), with no energy wasted dodging other runners and swearing under my breath.
The uncongested start did pose a challenge: where was I to focus the seething annoyance that has become a necessary race day emotion, as important to my performance as racing flats and Body Glide? I settled on the guy to my left, who chose the first mile of the race to take a phone call.
“Hey, man, how are you?
“I’m running a race right now. No, seriously. Half marathon – the Brooklyn Half. What are you up to?
“Oh yeah? Where you at? In the park, huh? Are you on the path?
“Nah, it’s OK.
“Yeah, you too. Bye.”
I tried to meet the eyes of other runners so as to roll my own. But other runners seemed more interested in running their own races (go figure!) than joining me in condemnation of the phone-talker as an insufferable asshole. I did heave an audible sigh, but in the midst of so much heavy breathing (and so many ears plugged with ear buds), I doubt anyone heard.
As we neared the 1 mile mark on Flatbush Avenue the race leaders came into view, running back down the other side of the street. Who should weigh in at that moment but telephone asshole guy. “Ha!” he exclaimed. “We’ve got ’em right where we want ’em.”
It was the best line of the race, and a reminder that people can be insufferable assholes one moment, and redeem themselves the next. (Not often, I’ll grant you, but sometimes.)
Shortly before turning into the park, we hit the 5K mark. That first 5K split was 25:22, for an average mile pace of 8:10.
Part 2 (miles 3.5 to 7)
The second part of the race is a full loop of Prospect Park. That’s my club’s home turf, 3.35 miles (give or take) that are intimately, even boringly, familiar from hundreds of training runs and dozens of races.
A Prospect Park Track Club cheering squad gave me an extra boost as I entered the park. (Thanks, you guys! You’re the best.) I also found that starting the loop at Park Circle, instead of at 3rd Street (my usual entrance) shook things up in a good way. I didn’t even see the Grecian Shelter, which I usually use to gauge my progress around the bottom of the park. Before I knew it, we were rounding the corner by Lakeside. And thank you, NYRR, for placing a fluid station right at the bottom of Zoo Hill – so distracted was I that I didn’t realize the climb had started until it was halfway over.
The 10K mark was roughly 3/4 of the way around the park, at the start of the long, fast downhill back to Park Circle, where we headed out of the park to another round of PPTC cheers. My second 5K split was 26:04, for an average mile pace of 8:24.
Part 3 (miles 7 through 13.1)
Before you begin the long straightaway on Ocean Parkway that takes you to Coney Island, you have to climb up – and then careen down – a short, steep overpass. Just as I was telling myself that this was the last hill of the race, I discovered it wasn’t: there’s a second, bonus overpass I’d totally forgotten.
And then the sun came out. The forecast had called for rain all morning, and I was neither mentally nor physically prepared to run under bright sun. I cursed the blue sky, the fluffy white clouds, the spring light. Where was the dreariness we’d been promised?
Fortunately, it soon returned.
Many people complain about the Ocean Parkway segment of the race, which is flat and straight and rather featureless. I don’t mind it, though, and would argue that the alphabetical avenues substitute for landmarks and provide a sense of accomplishment – you really feel you’re making progress as you roll by Avenue H, Avenue I, Avenue J, and so on. In fact, I have argued this (and rather vociferously, too). So imagine my consternation when I missed the 8 mile marker (that fluid station was also the official PowerGel distribution point, so there was even more swerving and fumbling than usual – “it was like the Hunger Games out there,” said a teammate later, over beers) and, seeking an alternative way to gauge my progress, saw I was at Avenue . . . 18.
What was a number doing there? Aren’t the numbered avenues generally north-south and the lettered avenues generally east-west? Will I ever understand the geography of my adopted borough?
Puzzling out the logic of Brooklyn streets – and the sight of a beefy spectator wearing no pants, just a red, white and blue speedo – kept me mentally occupied even as my legs operated on autopilot. We hit the 15K mark just before Avenue M (that 5K split was a speedy 24:52, just over 8:00 pace), and I thought to myself, “If this were the Ted Corbitt race, I’d be done by now. I love the Ted Corbitt race.”
My attitude was deteriorating, and so was my vision. Even in the best of circumstances, I get bleary-eyed when I run hard. Saturday was not the best of circumstances: with rain forecast, I’d chosen to run without my glasses, and the thick humidity combined with that brief interlude of sun meant my eyes were bathed in sweat. M looked like N, and was that an O or a P or a Q (yes, I know there’s no Avenue Q)? I started to play destructive mind games . . . if I were to run 9 minute pace for the rest of the race, what would my finish time be? How about 10 minute pace? How about walking?
It was right around this point that I spotted another red-and-white PPTC singlet some 100 meters ahead of me. I let her pull me along, eventually catching up with her. Working together – sometimes she pulled me, sometimes I pulled her – we clicked off the next couple of miles at right around 8:00 pace. When the threatened rain finally fell, it felt good.
I imagined running the rest of the race with her, finishing together in a blaze of red-and-white glory. But just past the 11 mile mark, I wished her well and stopped at the bank of port-a-johns. I can train my aerobic system to deliver more oxygen to my legs; I can train my muscles to metabolize glycogen more efficiently; I can train my joints to withstand the pounding; I can train my brain to tough it out when every other fiber of my being is screaming “stop” . . . but I’ve yet to find a way to train my digestive system.
Thanks to the forced stop, that was the slowest 5K segment of my race – but thanks to my teammate, it wasn’t disastrously slow (27:01, with at least 90 seconds sacrificed to preserve my dignity).
And there we were, on Surf Avenue. If I squinted, I could see where the long line of runners turned sharply to the left. Then I was turning sharply to the left. My right shoelace had come untied and was flopping underfoot. No matter. The rain had left giant puddles in the road. I splashed through them. Up a short, narrow ramp to the boardwalk, past the 13 mile mark (who were these people around me who were sprinting so madly?), and at last: the finish.
My time of 1:48:54 would have given my 45-year-old self ample opportunity to rehydrate, stretch, and go for a cool-down jog before greeting her future self at the finish (I can almost hear the slightly patronizing “way to go!”). It was about 5 minutes slower than last year’s Staten Island race (a tougher course), when I was in full marathon trim. Still, I met my time goal, maintained a steady pace, did not soil myself, and walked through the gauntlet of finish-line volunteers without a single one asking if I was OK or offering to get me assistance. Should I be crazy enough to want yet another go at the NYC Marathon in 2016, I now have my automatic old-lady qualifier.
After the long walk through the finish area, after collecting my plastic bag of dry clothes and doing an awkward change in a port-a-john in the MCU Stadium parking lot, after finding and congratulating teammates, I headed for the Stillwell Avenue station and the train ride home.
On Surf Avenue, a small group of people were offering free bottled water to passersby. I reacted the way I usually do when someone on the street offers me something for nothing – I ignored them and walked faster. This time, though, something made me look back and turn around. I thought I’d glimpsed a local runner standing with the water bottle people – the guy who, since last fall, has been entering races wearing a T-shirt demanding justice for the 43 Mexican students disappeared in Guerrerro state, and accountability for the perpetrators. I’d seen him at the Ted Corbitt 15K, and spoken with him briefly at the Scotland Run.
Then I noticed that the bottles themselves bore handwritten labels . . . something about “justicia.”
When I stopped at the table, a young woman gave me not only a bottle of water with “Justicia por Ayotzi” written on it in red magic marker, but also a button bearing the broad, serious face of Jonás Trujillo González. Age 20, from Costa Grande de Ticuí, called “Beni” by his family. I don’t know if he was a runner, but if he was, there are no half marathons in his future. Along with 42 other members of the M20-24 age group, he was abducted by police, handed over to drug lords, and presumably murdered and incinerated.
I thanked the woman for what she was doing, pinned the button to my windbreaker, and continued toward the station. Beni’s face is now secured to my Brooklyn Half medal and hangs with my other finisher medals as a reminder of what really matters.