Race report: the 2019 Popular Brooklyn Half (May 18, 2019)


The Brooklyn Half memorializes its entrants

Ah, the Brooklyn Half! This used to be my favorite race, an un-ironic celebration of all things Brooklyn. Then it became my favorite race as an ironic celebration of a very specific Brooklyn, the Brooklyn of curated food trucks, craft beer, and made-for-Instagram photo ops.

So what happened this year? My lack of excitement was matched only by my lack of preparation. I was running, because, well, that’s what I do – but honestly, I would really have rather spent the morning birding.

In the end, I did a bit of both.

Mindful of last year’s baggage retrieval meltdown (re-reading my blog post brought back the full horror), I did not check a bag this year. That should have allowed me an extra half hour or so of sleep, but I was up before the alarm went off. Nerves, I suppose (though with no real race goals, what was there to be nervous about?), and also force of habit from all those early birding mornings these last few weeks.

At least that gave me time to sip a full mug of coffee before Citibiking through deserted streets to the 2 train. And do you know where all those people who weren’t on the streets of Park Slope at 5:50 am were? They were on the 2 train, that’s where.

(Yes, I took the train to a race that starts just a mile and a half, tops, from my building. Such was my lack of running preparation – coupled with all those 4- and 5-hour birding excursions weighing on my legs – that I was unwilling to add more than the bare minimum to the 13.1 miles I was about to run.)

The train emptied out at Franklin Avenue, where Eastern Parkway was filling up with runners. My assigned corral was E, based on a ridiculous estimate of my likely pace (NYRR’s ridiculous estimate, I should add, not my own). I veered off into the G corral instead, and took advantage of a fast-moving Port-a-John line – until I noticed a pace group leader holding an “8:23” sign (the mile pace for a finish time of 1 hour, 50 minutes) in the corral behind us.

Chastened, I dropped back another two corrals.

I joined another bathroom line in my new corral, because why not? Earlier, in the G corral, I’d noted that the Port-a-Johns were set up in an innovative way (that’s NYRR, always striving for improvement – kaizen is their middle name). Instead of standing in one long row, they were arranged in threes, with another two jutting out perpendicularly on each end to create a well-defined group of five. Great thinking! What a clever way to create orderly, clearly defined lines!

Of course, I unwittingly chose the one where people had self-organized into two lines, leaving just 2.5 toilets per line and stretching the wait to approximately forever. It was long enough to start this blog post – no baggage check, combined with no pride, meant I’d brought my phone with me in a small running belt, or OK, let’s be honest, a fanny pack, because how the mighty, or at least the snotty, have fallen – while making a comprehensive survey of the other runners in my corral. I concluded that at least 80% of them looked to be at least 150% as fit as me.

What was I doing here on Eastern Parkway, while a vagrant sage thrasher hopped around the path by the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge visitors’ center (yes, I was checking bird reports as I waited), and mourning warblers were no doubt singing in Prospect Park?

Twelve minutes to gun time.

Eight minutes to gun time. I could hear mumblemumblemumble from the loudspeakers at the start, far, far ahead of where I stood. They sounded excited. I gathered that Meb Keflezighi was there.

Six minutes. Someone welcomed Christy Altomare to sing the national anthem, and the crowd around me fell silent. I took a personal interest in the anthem, since I had met Christy earlier in (where else?) the G corral bathroom line. I didn’t know who she was, but she told me she was going to be singing the anthem, and I congratulated her, and that was my brush with Broadway celebrity for the week. (She sang it beautifully, by the way, and went on to run a PR of 1:54:03. The me of a year ago could have run with her.)

Four  minutes. I remembered by goal to keep a bird list during the race, and made my first mental ticks: a trio of chimney swifts over Eastern Parkway.

Three minutes. Time to put the phone away.

Honestly, though, I could have kept right on live-blogging. Even after the horn – not gun, why do I still think in terms of “gun time”? – went off, nothing happened. For several minutes, we continued to stand. And then we shuffled, at live-blogging pace. And then we shuffled a bit faster. And then, magically, we turned the corner onto Washington and were running by the time we hit the start mats.

The first two miles – down Washington, around the corner, up one side of Flatbush, around Grand Army Plaza, and down the other – afford ample opportunity to see the runners ahead of you (wow, that’s a lot of people!) as well as behind you (hey, that’s a lot of people, too). I ran at a reasonably steady pace of just over 9 minutes per mile, picking it up a bit as we rounded the perimeter of, and then entered, the park. I took it easy on the long uphill on the park’s east side (9:20), restrained myself on the long downhill on the west side (8:50), and was feeling reasonably good as I blew clumsy kisses and shouted incoherent thanks to the PPTC cheer squad stationed at the Park Circle exit.

I also compiled a decent list of birds, mostly by ear, including four warbler species.

Mile 8, in which the runners leave the park and make their way to Ocean Parkway, running first up, and then down, a couple of short, steep inclines, was a zippy 8:36. I have no explanation for that.

Ocean Parkway was all business. There were no more birds to distract me. It was flat. It was predictable. It marched us pitilessly through the alphabet, one lettered avenue after another. I went into zombie mode, which was not, as it happens, a bad thing. It meant my pace was nothing if not consistent: 8:49, 8:47, 8:47.

I remember just two things about this segment of the race:

  • The “Running for Ayotzinapa 43” guy who handed me a water bottle when I saw his sign and shouted something about justice and solidarity. (The Ayotzinapa runners and their supporters never cease to move me.)
  • Obsessively calculating and recalculating how much I could slow down, and when, to still finish in less than 2 hours, and did I even care?

Yes, I did care, I decided. But at Mile 11, my eyes were stinging and blurry with sweat and my legs were leaden and even though I was too woozy to entirely trust my calculations, I slowed to a jog. It was just for a mile, I told myself. Less than a mile, even. As soon as we went under the Belt Parkway, I’d pick it up again.

Do you know what the problem is with starting to jog during a race? It’s really, really hard to pick it up again.

And so we passed the Belt Parkway, and then the Mile 12 marker became my goal, and then it was Neptune Avenue, and then it was the turn onto Surf Avenue. I jogged a little faster at that point, maybe, but not by much.

When the hell would we be turning onto the boardwalk? The line of runners stretched out disconcertingly far ahead on Surf Av, until it didn’t, and we turned left onto whatever street it is that we turn onto, and up that stupidly narrow incline onto the boardwalk, and then I could see the finish and all I had to do was pick up my feet and try not to trip.

1:57: 55.

It was my slowest half marathon ever, but I kept it under two hours.

Better still, I racked up a total of 17 bird species along the course.* (Gulls are notably missing; by the time we reached Coney Island, with its raucous, wheeling flocks, an ivory-billed woodpecker could have landed on the head of the runner in front of me, and I would not have noticed.)

Best of all, unlike last year, I did not celebrate my race by breaking my arm two days later.

. . . 

*Here, for anyone interested, is my race list: Mallard, Feral Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Chimney Swift, Warbling Vireo, American Robin, Gray Catbird, European Starling, Song Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Northern Parula, Yellow Warbler, Northern Cardinal, House Sparrow. And yes, after the race, I took a train to Jamaica Bay (there were still sweaty finishers on the G at that point) and saw the Sage Thrasher.




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