In year’s past, I’ve spent the winter months counting the days until the mid-March NYC Half. After all, the 13.1 mile trek from Central Park to Wall Street is as energetic as it is iconic. But with a February marathon already under my belt, and another marathon on the horizon, this year’s event seemed to sneak up.
New York is such a special place for a runner. Very few cities can offer such marquee races attracting participants from around the world. It’s been fun to see how much this event has evolved since my first outing in 2013. As I stood in line at one of the two designated security entrances at the Southeastern edge of Central Park awaiting my turn to be cleared so I could enter the start area, I thought back to my first NYC Half outing.
Then, before the bombings in Boston, there had been no lines. I’d arrived extra early, sipped a hot chocolate inside a nearby Starbucks, before casually making my way towards the baggage check area and then on toward my coral. There had been just one wave, and with a long, steady stream of more than 15,000 runners, I crossed the starting mats 25 minutes after the professionals has begun their trek.
Four years later, about the only familiarity at the start was the sound of the hovering helicopter, providing aerial shots for those watching on television at home. Sure, the air was just as crisp, and after the fact realized I’d actually worn the same black Under Armor long sleeved top, but that’s where most of the similarities ended. The course had since been modified to allow a larger field and United Airlines had staked its claim to the race as the title sponsor.
The hoopla surrounding this popular half marathon had continued to grow, now attracting more than 20,000 runners, though I had to admit my interest had not kept pace. But while it, at least for now, no longer held the pinnacle position on my winter or spring racing calendar, it was still a fun and challenging 13.1 mile trek.
In year’s past, the field had been corralled by an honor system of self predicted finish times that each individual would input at the time of registration. In my experience, the exuberant, and often unrealistic, optimism of some inevitably led to a slow start, when coupled with the unavoidable congestion. This year, the system was modified. Those with NYRR race histories were sorted according to their prior performances, or a distance equivalency metric. As a result, my October outing had moved me up to the first wave, a first for me in this event.
The first 10K of the NYC Half course snakes in, out, and back into Central Park until finally releasing runners to the friendly city streets for the trek to Wall Street. Adopting a “leave no hill behind” approach in the course design, the first portion presents the most challenging miles of the day, elevation-wise. More than the beginning of the morning’s journey, crossing the start meant a respite from the near freezing temperatures, as my body would finally begin to warm.
The most recent half marathon I’d actually raced was October’s Grete’s Great Gallop, occurring towards the end of a focused 16-week marathon training buildup. On paper, the NYC Half course should be more favorable for faster times. But, if topography were the most determinative factor to a runner’s performance, I’d of never realized the result I had in October. For a distance runner, there are always many factors at play any time one toes the line, both physical and mental. That’s one of the reasons I truly love this sport—with so many factors to contend with on any given day, each race allows an opportunity to grow, that is, if you let it.
During the almost immediate ascent up Cat Hill, the first, I was struck by how relatively clear the path around me was- the gridlock so common at the start of such a big race was missing. I wondered if the aerial photographer in the helicopter had somehow been swapped for a traffic reporter who had radioed to the ground to successfully keep a steady a flow.
From the start, spasms of self doubt pulsed my synapses, disrupting my mental and physical rhythm. Was my pace too fast? What pace is realistic for me with my current fitness? How close to my October finish time could I come? What does the Garmin show? How does my effort feel? From the start, these thoughts consumed me in Central Park, through Times Square, down the West Side Highway and all the way to the finish. After 13.1 miles of overthinking, I was completely mentally fatigued.
The next day, I came across an impeccably timed Runners World article reported on some new research findings that delved into what I should have been concentrating on during my race. The article summarized, “Monitor your body for signs that you’re running at an effort you can sustain to the finish. But do so only periodically. For much of the race, focus on running with as good form as possible, because doing so will could help you to run faster at the same effort level. And if there’s a pack running at your speed, tuck in. Let the pack take your mind off of pacing so that you can allot your mental energy to keeping your body relaxed and running efficiently.”
Non-runners often assume the most daunting aspect of distance running rests in an athletes physical fitness, but it’s actually one’s mental focus that everything else springs. It’s also the aspect that is difficult to train for, making the expression, “there’s no teacher like experience,” a truism when it comes to racing. Finishing in 1:49:33 didn’t make this year’s NYC Half my fastest, though it also wasn’t my slowest. It was just ok. But if the experience allows me to become a better racer and to avoid similar mental fatigue in the future, then its lasting teachings may ultimately make it far more than “just ok” in the long run.