Bright Lights, Big City, Best Course

Despite its reputation as “the city that never sleeps,” I’ve always found the stillness of New York’s pre-dawn morning hours rather sacrosanct.  That was certainly the case as I left my apartment to head to the start line for Sunday’s NYC Half Marathon.  I couldn’t help but smile as I swiped my metro card and noticed the platform filled with bib-wearing commuters carrying clear plastic bags.  These fellow runners may have been strangers, but right then it didn’t feel that way.  All of us were about to take the same 13.1 mile journey through the most famous city in the world.

In a post-Boston environment the enhanced security was quite visible.  Checked belongings were inspected closer than some TSA inspections, as security guards poked and prodded through the contents of each individual bag.  Then, to get into Central Park, metal detectors awaited.  (Thankfully, there were no full-body scans.)  Though to NYRR’s credit, the process moved along quite smoothly.

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 8.55.08 PMGrowing up in the Midwest, we would often say, “If you don’t like the weather, stick around; it’ll change.”  Unfortunately, the converse is also true.  While Saturday was a teasingly beautiful day with temps in the 50’s, by race morning the temperatures had dropped to around freezing.  In a reminder that spring had not yet arrived, it was cold and windy.

I knew I’d warm up once I started running, but waiting for the start wasn’t pleasant.  The slowly rising sun seemed to have no effect whatsoever on the thermometer.  Fortunately, a very kind couple noticed that I was visibly shivering and invited me to stand with them in a spot along a wall, where the wind was mostly blocked.  It served as a nice respite until the corals started to fill with more runners, when the collective body heat emitting would be strangely welcome.

As I and my fellow wave 2 runners awaited our turn to begin the trek to Wall Street, the anticipation was palpable.  I was really impressed with not only how quickly the wave 1 runners were ushered through the start, but how manageable the course was once it was my turn to cross the start line.  Even though there were nearly 21,000 runners, the course seemed less congested than some “regular” races a quarter of the size.  NYRR’s organizational capabilities never cease to amaze me.

The newly configured course began with a climb up the 1/4 mile “Cat Hill,” which I actually welcomed as it helped my legs to begin their needed warm up.  But I knew, the more hilly west side was awaiting.

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 7.20.44 PMBefore the race I had compared my milage preparations with last year’s training.  As I suspected, this year’s effort had been much more consistent despite a decidedly worst winter.  As I settled into my run, I could feel it too.  I dare say, trekking up Harlem Hill and through the subsequent rolling hills just felt “better.”  Later, when I compared some Garmin splits from previous races, the numbers bore this out.  I felt at ease, and truly enjoyed seeing an impressive number of spectators lining the roads as I made my way up and down the park’s westerly hills.  But for as smooth as this portion of the course was, the best was yet to come.  For the NYC Half, Central Park is like having to eat your vegetables before you get to partake in dessert. I couldn’t wait to hit the streets.

It was exhilarating to round the final bend inside Central Park just before exiting onto the expansive pavement of 7th Avenue.  Straight ahead in the distance the flashing bright lights of Times Square served as a welcoming beacon.  Yes, we are running this big city.  This is what the NYC Half is all about, and what makes the course incomparable.

Racing toward Times Square – in the middle of the street- provides a really fun perspective.  I yanked out my headphones so that all of my senses could complementarily absorb the scenery, the cheering, and the surrounding concrete jungle.  I wish everyone could experience the vantage provided by the traffic-free streets.

Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 7.15.34 PMAfter making a right onto famed 42nd street, runners only occupy one side of the road, with traffic permitted on the other.  Talk about gridlock!  I may not be the quickest, but along this stretch I was literally moving faster than New York City traffic.  Granted, the cars had come to a halt, but still…

Mile 7 on 42nd street meant PowerGel time.  I gladly accepted an orange-colored fruity flavored gel and continued toward the West Side Highway, which would lead all the way down to lower Manhattan.  Though some may find this long stretch rather monotonous, I enjoyed passing alongside the various neighborhoods – from Midtown to Chelsea to the West Village and onward, as the street signs provided a nice countdown.  Once Freedom Tower jutted into view, the shiny, new skyscraper served as a nice reminder of the distance already traveled.  Then, before I knew it, I was running alongside it heading towards the Battery Park Underpass.

Soon after entering the darkened Underpass I removed my sunglasses, and realized my memory of this portion of the course had obviously faded since last year.  I didn’t remember it being so dark, or as long.  I could feel myself losing some speed, but I kept moving and waiting for that, quite literal, light at the end of the tunnel.  Perhaps conveniently, I had also forgotten how cruel the steep climb out of the tunnel had been.

Keeping one foot moving in front of the other, I managed the uphill and focused on navigating the upcoming turns.  As the signs counted down, 800 meters, 400 meters, then 200 meters, the cheering of the crowd rose to a crescendo – I threw my arms up and simultaneously stepped across the finish and clicked off the Garmin.  My arms fell back down to my sides, and I took a moment to fully appreciate the atmosphere.  The finisher chute gave me goose bumps, as I reveled in the remarkable energy of euphoric runners bursting with endorphins.

NYCHalfMedalAfter proudly accepting my medal, eagerly snagging a recovery bag and graciously allowing a volunteer to drape a much needed heat sheet over me, I headed to collect my baggage.  After putting on my jacket I grabbed my phone and clicked on the tracking app to finally check my finish time. 1:54:34.  Compared to last year’s NYC Half, I had shaved around 5 minutes off my time.

Initially, I was disappointed that I had come 30 seconds from setting a distance PR; however, I soon realized that was a silly perspective.

After this winter and on this course, was I going to let an approximate 2-second per mile pace differential get me down?  Heck no!  I had improved my 2013 time and come darn close to setting a PR.

Far more important than a few seconds here or there, I had the fortune of enjoying the most amazing run through the bright lights of this big city on the best course – an experience that thousands had been denied due to field size limitations.  Yes, I ran this city and had the time of my life.  What more could one ask for?

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