Complemented by a race week build-up that rivals a big-city marathon experience, the Brooklyn Half Marathon has rightfully become fan favorite. With bib pick-up occurring at a three-day “pre-party,” featuring live music, food, drinks and even haircuts, a dedicated social media feed teemed with messages from excited, smiling runners. NYRR deserves great credit for creating such a unique marquee event with its own vibe- not an easy task to achieve. I stopped by on Wednesday evening after work to grab my bib and buy a reasonably priced ($25) event-themed shirt from the New Balance booth. I didn’t stay long, as however festive, the deafening hipster-inspired music wasn’t really my scene. Nonetheless, I did find the energy surrounding the Brooklyn Half quite contagious.
The Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep till Brooklyn” has almost become the unofficial anthem for the Brooklyn Half, and when I began planning my race day logistics I soon realized that someone must have taken the lyrics a little too literally. Due to MTA weekend work on a number of transit lines, my trek from the Upper East Side to Brooklyn would serve as a pre-race test of stamina. I’d need to rise at 3:30 AM, leave my apartment by 4:30 AM and catch a cab crosstown to the Upper West Side in order to board a Brooklyn-bound train by 5:00 AM. Whoever plans the city’s subway construction schedule certainly has a sick sense of humor!
Despite the daunting morning logistics, I was really looking forward to running Brooklyn. The allure of beginning in the northern third of the borough, finishing alongside the Atlantic Ocean in Coney Island and celebrating with a hot dog at the iconic Nathan’s was irresistible. It was on this mostly flat course that I set my half marathon PR a year ago, and I hoped to do so again. Each of my March half marathon outings had ended just shy of my personal best, and I knew I was poised to beat last year’s time.
Though I had set a half dozen alarms for Saturday morning, the excess proved unnecessary. Awaking ten minutes ahead of schedule I began my pre-race ritual: take the dog out, prepare a bagel and jelly, have a cup of coffee and brew a second for the road, shower, pin my bib and collect my baggage. Flagging down a cab, I glanced up and down the street and realized I was about the only sober individual within eyesight. I couldn’t help but chuckle knowing that those staggering out of the nearby bars would be snoring heavily by the time I arrived in Brooklyn.
Though there were only a handful of runners on the train when I boarded, each stop along the 50-minute route welcomed more early risers. By the time we arrived at our final destination the platform was completely packed. Normally, I’d find the congestion annoying. But on this morning the collective excitement was inspiring.
Despite the sunny skies, it was still chilly at the start. Of course, I knew that just as the temperature would warm as the morning wore on, my body temperature would also rise as the miles clicked by.
The first 3.5 miles of the course traveled through the narrower streets of Prospect Heights, Crown Heights and Park Slope as we made our way into Prospect Park for a single 3-mile loop. Not unexpectedly, these early miles were a tad congested and required a bit of weaving. Though all things considered, it wasn’t too bad. Most important, I felt good.
Usually I make it a practice not to check my Garmin during a race, but I did steal a wrist-ward glance at about the 5K mark. My watch showed I was hoofing through at around an 8:24 pace, about 20 seconds a mile quicker than my previous PR. If I could keep that up, I’d be pleased. I knew the only major hill on this course would be coming at about mile 5, so I braced myself. Though I’ve run that hill a handful times, I never seem to remember it correctly. At times I’ve thought the long, gradual incline was the most evil of all hills. During other outings, I’ve thought it was fine. On this occasion, I found it dastardly long.
Leaving the park around mile 7 is such an uplifting experience. A true runners paradise with a stream leaving the park, a steady flow entering the park and throngs of spectators cheering. Onward to Ocean Parkway headed to, where else, the Atlantic Ocean.
Since the long stretch of Ocean Parkway can be monotonous, I mentally focused on mini “miliestones.” At mile 8 it would be time for fuel. At the 9.3 mile mark, I’d cross the 15K threshold. The street signs were also a welcome beacon of progress, as they would countdown from Avenue C until the end of the alphabet was finally reached. There were also a number of enthusiastic spectators at various points. My favorite was a rather unfit bearded man wearing an American flag speedo holding a sign that read, “Your legs are almost as good as mine.”
I was quite warm on the exposed roadway, so I made sure to stop for water or Gatorade at the aid stations. Mile 11, however was brutal. I was giving this race all I had, but at that point I was feeling the effects. Should I have eaten a gel sooner? Should I eat one then? I was perplexed.
Ultimately I opted to just push through, as I was fearful that it might not sit well. I’m not sure whether this was the right decision, but it’s what I went with. I looked forward to the excitement mile 12 would bring: 1.1 more mile, passing the 20K mark, seeing the 800 meter sign, and passing the world-famous Cyclone.
Last year’s Brooklyn Half was cloudy and overcast, somewhat fitting for the recovering Coney Island community. The area was still rebuilding after Super Storm Sandy, and while the mood was resilient it wasn’t celebratory. What a difference a year makes! Running towards the Cyclone and hearing the rush of a car speeding through the coaster was a thrill. Snaking through the streets nearing the Boardwalk and the final stretch was truly palpable. I looked to my left and could see the sand stretching along the Ocean, then looked straight ahead and zeroed in on the finish line.
Clocking in at 1:49:35 (8:22 pace), I had managed to best last year’s time by 4 1/2 minutes. Progress! As I accepted my medal and headed toward the Gatorade and water, I was drained. I had left it all on the course. I accidentally bumped into a few runners along the exit, as my balance was a bit wobbly. Neither my family nor friends could understand why I would voluntarily wake up at 3:30 AM to subject myself to a 13.1 mile race, but the feeling of that moment, this view, and the bursting sense of satisfaction made it all worthwhile.
There are 25,587 reasons Saturday’s Brooklyn Half Marathon is now the country’s largest 13.1 mile race. For me, this PR-friendly course’s stunning finish makes it a most rewarding, must run event. A truly spectacular morning. Would I even think about missing next year’s Brooklyn Half? As the Brooklynites would say, “Fuggetaboutit!” I’m already counting the months!