Race report: the NYC Half experience

NYC half mile 12.75

So glad to see Andy. Even gladder this race is almost over. (Photo credit: Andy Wong)

The NYC Half is a race I swore I’d never run: too big, too expensive, too early in the year, too much of a pain in the ass. Then, late last year, I logged on to my New York Road Runners account and saw an utterly unexpected message congratulating me for having earned guaranteed entry to the 2016 NYC Half.

I caved immediately.

All of the things that had led me to swear I’d never run this race were still true. It’s still big (more than 20,000 finishers), expensive ($122?!?!), early in the year (I’m only just beginning to ramp my training back up after last November’s marathon), and a pain in the ass (more on that in a bit). But never, I’ve learned, is a long time. I changed my mind about Boston; what if I changed my mind about this race, too? Would I kick myself someday for not having entered when I had the chance?

It wouldn’t be a goal race, I told myself. I could use it as a training run for the Brooklyn Half, coming up in May, where I really do want to race my best. Mainly, though, I’d be running it for the experience. And so I clicked “purchase,” and put the extortionate registration fee on my American Express card.

As it happens, “The 2016 United Airlines NYC Half Experience,” was the branded name of the “three-day pre-race event,” which is what packet pickup is called when it’s a really expensive race.

Here, then, is my report on Sunday’s experience. It included getting up before 5 a.m. in order to catch the 5:30-something R train that the MTA Trip Planner tool had promised would whisk me from 4th Ave/9th St to Central Park in 38 minutes. It included finding out (surprise! fooled you!) that no Manhattan-bound R trains were running. It included dashing up to the F platform and waiting there, stomach churning with anxiety, watching minutes tick by. It included emerging from the 57th St station in Manhattan and discovering that it was still dark outside, and even colder and windier than it had been in Brooklyn, and that the flip side of a seamless bag check operation and no port-a-john lines (major kudos to NYRR on both counts) was even more time to stand around and shiver and wonder if experience isn’t maybe just a tad overrated.

I used the time as constructively as I could, seeing if I could stand on my tiptoes with my legs crossed without falling over; retying my shoelaces obsessively; and reviewing my race goals (just because this  wasn’t a goal race didn’t mean I was completely without goals). I wanted to sustain a pace of under 9 minutes per mile, for a finish in the high-1:50’s, while being a good sport about the fact that I’m so much slower now than I was ten years ago.  I wanted to reach the finish line upright and unsoiled and aware of my surroundings. And I wanted to get home before the guy who sells tamales and champurrado and arroz con leche outside St. Thomas Aquinas church on Sunday mornings had closed up shop, because, oh my god, wouldn’t a cup of steaming hot arroz con leche be good right now . . .

My reverie was interrupted by the press of the crowd as the corrals were collapsed and we shuffled forward, then stopped. I slipped off my Smurf-blue, fleece-lined NYC marathon finisher’s poncho, but only for as long as it took to wriggle out of the cotton jersey I’d put over my PPTC race shirt for an extra layer of pre-race warmth. I discarded the jersey and re-wrapped myself in the poncho, which didn’t stop me from shivering violently and knowing, just knowing, that I would never be warm again.

“It’s really cold,” I said to the woman next to me, and she agreed that it was. (Moments of personal connection with strangers are part of the NYC Half experience.)

The starting horn sounded, and nothing happened. Then we began to shuffle (off came the poncho), then run, then stop (damn, I want my poncho back), then shuffle again, then run – my insensate toes clunked against the ends of my shoes – across the start mat and up Cat Hill, which I barely noticed. I was preoccupied with my frozen toes and avoiding collisions with the orange delimiters placed in the middle of the roadway. (Were we supposed to stay to the right or the left?  I must have missed that in the race instructions.)

The first and second miles clicked by (8:48, 8:12). There comes a point early in mile 3 when you can look ahead and see four separate lines of runners moving in alternating directions (east out of the park at Lenox, west on 110th street to the circle at Central Park West, east on 110th street back to the park entrance, west into the park), and the effect is kaleidoscopic – a wild mix of colors in motion. Other than that, the first 6 miles of the NYC half are pretty much the same as any other Central Park race.

My toes had thawed out in the first mile, and the cold was no longer a problem once we turned so that the wind was at our backs. My gloves came off in mile 3 or 4. By mile 5, I was beginning to regret my long-sleeved shirt.

In mile 6, feeling pangs of digestive distress, I decided that caution was the better part of valor (see: race goals), and stopped at the port-a-johns.

Shortly after that, we exited the park onto 7th avenue. The next mile and a half are what entrants pay the big bucks for: running by Carnegie Hall, through the canyon defined by all the towering midtown buildings, toward the lights of Times Square, then right onto 42nd street, past all the theaters, and on to the West Side Highway.

It was cool, to be sure. Very darn cool. It was also a mile and a half out of 13.1 miles.

As we approached 42nd street, I saw a concentrated group of spectators. (To my surprise, spectators had been rather sparse along the route.)  The first thing that struck me was that they were all Latino. They were holding signs, and shouting, and I saw that the signs were black-and-white photographs of young men, and I thought, of course, Ayotzinapa.

Not long after the 43 students were kidnapped, New York Road Runners races became a focus for the local Mexican community. I wasn’t sure why, or how, or by whom, but I’m pretty sure I remember seeing someone wearing a “43” shirt, covered with writing about justice and an end to impunity, at the Ted Corbitt 15K in December 2014, and then again – but more people, this time – at the Scotland Run 10K last April, and a big group at the Brooklyn Half (I still have the button with the face of Jonas Trujillo Gonzalez given to me after the race as I stumbled toward the train), and an even bigger group at the NYC marathon.

On Sunday, after I got home, I was sufficiently curious to go online to try to find out more about the connection between New York road races and Ayotzinapa. I learned that one of the 43 disappeared students is the son of Antonio Tizapa, a plumber – and talented runner – here in Brooklyn. Another local runner is the cousin of two of the disappeared.

Rural Guerrero state and New York City are not, it turns out, so very far apart.

But back to Sunday’s race. I shouted support to the Ayotzinapa demonstrators, and then headed toward the West Side Highway. Miles 9 through 12 are a long straightaway on a wide swath of cement especially formulated to jar runners’ feet and knees. I thought about slowing down, but I knew my teammates were somewhere up ahead, and – hey, there’s Murray! Wave! Pick up your feet and smile for his camera!

And there’s the big group, got to try to look good for them.

nyc half cheering squad

Look at my teammates, cheering in the cold – wouldn’t you want to run your best for them, too? (Photo credit: Myriel Frische)

Thanks to peer pressure and vanity, I was holding a nice, steady, 8:20-8:30 pace. Ten miles down, just 5k to go, and oh god, not again!

I really needed a bathroom.

It’s demoralizing to have to stop in a race, knowing that the minutes and seconds are ticking by (even if you claim you don’t care about your time), and physically difficult to get your rhythm back afterwards. Once upon a time I would have tried to push on through, but I’m too old and too slow to take that chance now. There was a medical tent with two port-a-johns shortly before the 11 mile mark, so I stopped. (I hit my watch for both stops, the one back in the park and this, which is how I know that they cost me a little over four minutes altogether.)

Back on the course, it was a pure grind now, and I was getting clumsy. I clipped elbows with another runner, apologized, and then clipped elbows with him again. Or maybe he clipped elbows with me . . . let’s just say that elbows were clipped. Mile 12 was approaching, and shortly after that, we headed underground into the Battery Park underpass tunnel. I enjoyed the darkness. I told myself that all I had to do was hang on, I could do it, I knew I could –

– and then we emerged into the blinding sunlight and a ferocious headwind that scoffed at confident self-talk. (Andy, it was so great to see you standing by the helipad, and I can’t believe I’m smiling in the picture you took!)  The sign that promised just “400m to go”? It was a taunt.

What a sweet relief to turn onto Wall street, out of the wind, and then onto Water street and see the finish ahead. According to my watch, I ran the last 0.1 mile in 48 seconds, which is, for me, a mighty kick.

My official time was 1:54:22. That’s a so-so time for me, even with the bathroom breaks factored in, but I’ll take it. I met all my race goals (under 2 hours, upright, home in time for a post-race arroz con leche and tamal oaxaqueño from the vendor by the church).

The best part, though, was passing half a dozen volunteer medical “spotters” on my way through the medal/recovery bag/baggage gauntlet, and not having a single one of them look at me with a concerned expression and ask if I was OK.

I wish that were true of all my races.

 

 

 

 

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