Race report: 2018 Popular Brooklyn Half (May 19, 2018)

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Defending my home turf (photo credit: Luke Redmond)

Let’s begin by contemplating the marketing genius who connected this race, which routinely sells out in less than an hour, to its new title sponsor, Banco Popular. Was it the result of a caffeine, doughnut and Gatorade-fueled spitballing session in a New York Road Runners conference room? Did someone at Banco Popular, possibly a runner themselves, come up with the idea? Or was it – as my friend Michael, who has some tenuous family connection to the world of marketing consultants, tells me is most likely – the handiwork of a professional branding matchmaker?

However it happened, this popular race is now officially Popular. 

It also plays up the Brooklyn shtick. Bib pick-up at Pier 2 of Brooklyn Bridge Park wasn’t just bib pick-up; no, it was a “pre-party,” sponsored by New Balance, featuring food trucks, craft beer and live entertainment. One could, if one wanted, contribute to a street art mural (paint provided) or pose for a photo in front of an artfully constructed replica of a Brooklyn stoop, complete with a cruiser bike propped, unlocked, in the patch of garden out front;  unstolen packages on the welcome mat and big, fat envelopes from Banco Popular and New Balance protruding from the mailbox for all the world to see; and metal trash cans (I suppose the giant plastic bins people actually use wouldn’t have been picturesque enough) behind a spiky iron gate dangling New Balance sneakers.

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Faux Brooklyn (photo credit: random NYRR volunteer)

I was in and out of there in 15 minutes, including time to pose for an ironic photo on the fake stoop.

The forecast called for the cool temperatures I prefer, and for rain, which doesn’t bother me overmuch. And I had no particular goal for the race, other than a vague desire to run fast enough to qualify for an automatic entry next year. (To give you an idea of how vague that desire was, I didn’t look up my age-graded qualifying time until after dinner Friday night.) Even so, I spent a restless night interrupted by anxiety dreams that hovered just south of nightmares. Steep, twisting escalators were involved (I have a mild phobia about escalators). So was a forgotten pair of running shoes.

I was surprised to hear my alarm go off at 4:45, so I evidently did get some sleep. After a mug of coffee and some smashed avocado on whole grain toast, I grabbed my gear-check bag and headed out.

To save a bit of time, as well as wear and tear on my body, I pedaled a Citibike to Grand Army Plaza. (Eric doesn’t read my blog, so please don’t tell him that I risked the pre-dawn streets of Park Slope without a helmet.) I docked my bike, heard shouting, and was enveloped in the arms of a team mate.  I saw more PPTCers, most of them blurry (I’d taken off and stowed my rain-slicked glasses) during the long walk to bag check.

It was indeed a long walk. I finally found the baggage truck for bibs 14000-15999 at Franklin Avenue, roughly a mile (or exactly two subway stops) from where I’d docked my bike. (Note to self, and to other future runners in Wave 1: head directly to Franklin Av instead of GAP next year.)

A lengthy bag check line meant that I barely made the published 6:10 am cut-off, though it was not being enforced, as far as I could tell. There were still long lines of soggy runners waiting to check their bags as I made my way to the D corral.

This involved heading back the way I’d come, past higher-lettered corrals already filled with long, snaking lines for the port-a-johns. As soon as I reached my own corral, I joined a line – and then, when I finished, joined another one. I mean, why just stand around when you can be standing around waiting for the bathroom?

As I looked at the younger, speedier runners shivering in their skimpy shorts and singlets, I felt, if not warm and dry, then at least smug. I’d opted for tights and a long-sleeved shirt, and though they were thoroughly rain-saturated, they at least provided coverage. There’d be no second-guessing my clothing choices today.

Which is not to say I wasn’t second-guessing something. At some point between bag check and the second port-a-john line, I started thinking about my house keys. In my last clear memory of them, they were dangling from the Citibike dock. I tried to replay the morning like a movie – “In the pre-dawn darkness, a woman dressed in running clothes and carrying a floppy, over-stuffed plastic bag inserts her key fob into a slot at the bike-share station. She yanks out a bike, then utters barely audible curses as she wrestles the bungee cords around the bag, which resists them. After an awkward start, she pedals uphill, weaving slightly” – but the director kept insisting on cutting away from the keys. Had I put them in the bag first, before I secured it, or had I left them there as I pedaled away, gears clunking? Had my pre-race anxiety dream about forgotten items been prophetic?

The only way to find out now was to run to Coney Island and retrieve my bag.

So that’s what I did. The running went better than I’d expected. My vague goal of a 1:54 finish translated to a mile pace of roughly 8:40. The first mile, which goes downhill on Washington, turns right onto Empire, then right again to run back uphill on Flatbush, felt ridiculously easy. I glanced at my watch, prepared to be pleasantly surprised: 8:57. Well, no wonder it felt easy. But without feeling as though I was picking up the pace, I picked up the pace. Around Grand Army Plaza and back down Flatbush: 8:36. Around the eastern and southern periphery of the park: 8:18. Into the park: 8:29. And so on, my pace varying slightly with the terrain, until the race reached long, flat, Ocean Parkway, with its alphabetized avenues, and I fell into a kind of running trance, churning out miles with metronomic consistency (8:23, 8:23, 8:25), and realized that even though my legs were tiring, I could slow down to 9 minute miles – make that 10 minute miles – and still make my goal.

I did slow down, but just a bit, and finished in 1:51:54.

Now it was time to retrieve my bag.

The baggage truck assigned to me by my bib number was on the far side of the giant MCU stadium parking lot. As I trudged toward it, the wind ripping my heat sheet off my body (how did other runners manage to wrap themselves so securely?), I saw nothing but long snaking lines and disorganized crowds.

Wow, I thought. I feel sorry for them. I sure hope my truck is better. Ever the optimist, I was sure it would be.

It wasn’t, of course. If anything, it was worse. (But then, I’m sure everyone in that miserable parking lot thought their truck was the worst.)

I found a line, then worked my way back through multiple snaking turns until I found its end. As daunting as it was, the length of the line troubled me less than what we could all see at its terminus: several hundred people massed around a truck. Once every few minutes someone scuttled away, clutching a bag, but mostly, the crowd just seethed and shouted and grew.

We waited. The line did not move. A passerby offered advice: “You can respect the line, if you want, but if you want your bag, you should just go up there and try to get it. No one is following the line.”

And so, after a few more minutes of hesitation, I joined the scrum around the truck. So did most of the people around me, though a stream of newcomers continually replenished the line, such that its length never seemed to change appreciably.

What shall I say about the crowd around the truck? Standing there – wet and cold and exhausted among hundreds of other wet, cold, exhausted people – brought to mind news footage of desperate people, the victims of disasters natural and manmade, awaiting relief. It’s not a comparison I’d take too far, and I’m certainly not suggesting equivalence.

And yet, it was striking how thoroughly the sun-dappled brownstone Brooklyn conjured by that fake stoop at the pre-party gave way to abject misery; how quickly the privileged people who’d paid $90 and up to run a footrace sank into despair.

All the possessions that mattered to me at that moment were in a plastic bag somewhere in a mountain of identical plastic bags. Dry clothes. My phone. My Metrocard. A small amount of cash. My glasses. My keys, I hoped. That heap was surrounded by hundreds of other runners, bewildered to find themselves among the dispossessed, and policed by NYRR volunteers.

From time to time, one of the volunteers would call out a random bag number. If by chance the bag belonged to someone present in the crowd, they could claim it. That hardly ever happened, however. Time passed. The wind and rain picked up. Fingers lost color and sensation. Teeth chattered. Exposed arms and legs erupted into gooseflesh. Some runners grew angry, and shouted abuse at the volunteers. Some called out their bib numbers, more to register their presence than out of any serious expectation that their bag would be found and returned to them.  “14828,” the woman next to me chanted. Five second pause. “14828 . . . 14828 . . . 14828 . . .” Others stood silently with their numbers held high, muted by misery. I was one of the last group.

From time to time, NYRR volunteers would shout at us to step back, and threaten that if we didn’t, none of us would get our bags. We would shuffle back a step or two, and the volunteers would return to what they’d been doing – mainly, stepping aimlessly through the bags, picking one up, inspecting it, putting it back down, unloading more bags from the truck, and very rarely, depositing a bag into a runner’s outstretched hands.

Rumors pulsed through the crowd (a woman had collapsed at one of the other trucks?), along with bits and pieces of advice: try to make eye contact with the volunteers, stand on this side for the best chance, stand on that side if your bib is in the 14000s. By this time – probably an hour, hour and a half after I first joined the line – the pile of bags was noticeably smaller and  beginning to take on a rough semblance of order. I moved  to the other side, as advised, and scanned the pile as I continued to hold my bib aloft, tried to make eye contact with the volunteers, and stood an obedient distance back from the tarp. I was a model of compliance and respect, one of the deserving. Surely someone would notice and reward me?

It took some time, maybe another 10-15 minutes, but I finally spotted my overstuffed bag in the pile. Astonished joy gave way to a frantic need to capture a volunteer’s attention. Fuck respect and compliance.

“My bag,” I screamed. “My bag! I see my bag! Somebody, my bag! Please!”

A volunteer glanced in my direction and I waved my bib number. “My bag! It’s there! Right in front of you!”

The volunteer reached for the wrong bag.

”No, no, behind that one. There, it’s right there!”

The volunteer reached for another wrong bag.

“No, not that one! Next to it!”

I had strayed onto the forbidden tarp by now and was prepared to rush the pile if the volunteer continued to stare down at the bags, then at me, then at the bags.

“By. Your. Foot!” I screamed.

He reached for the bag by his right foot.

”Your other foot!”

I got my bag. A hundred or more people, still waiting for theirs, watched with resentment as I wrapped my arms around it and slunk away as inconspicuously as I could manage.

It had taken me approximately as long to collect my bag as it had to run 13.1 miles.

But at least my keys were there.

. . .

A postscript: two days after the race, my summer took an unexpected turn, which explains in part the delay in posting this report. More details to follow soon.

 

 

 

 

 

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