Sprinting a mile to the start of a race is never a good idea. Doing it after ditching your throwaway clothes in 30-degree temperatures with high winds, only to miss your wave start and then having to wait another 45 minutes, is a disaster. Such was my experience Sunday at the New York City Half Marathon.
It was par for the course, however. I am a small-town, low-key racing fan, so taking on a big-city race with 22,000 participants put me squarely out of my wheelhouse. A mistake or two was a given.
I’ve been racing for about 20 years now, and in that time have covered about every distance, terrain, size and location possible. With that much experience, I’ve learned what I like and don’t like when it comes to races.
Small is my thing. I love waking up in my own bed, hopping in the car 30 minutes before a race start, and parking with a few minutes left to warm up. I don’t like corrals, jostling for position, or ironing out the logistics required getting to and from a big event. I prefer that when the race is done, I grab my banana, jump back in the car, and arrive home before the rest of my family is even stirring.
Also, I am an introvert. I draw my energy from quiet, and the older I get, the more this drives how I race. The past few years I have spent far more time on trails and in trail races than anything else.
I’ve made the occasional exception here and there. Cherry Blossom, located just down I-95 from my Maryland home, is one I often do with friends. I’ve run Boston a couple of times, too, and there’s no denying its size, crowds, and logistics. I enjoy both these races, but increasingly find the noise, hassle factors, and entry fees more trouble than they are worth.
I’d been thinking that maybe I am becoming a racing curmudgeon. That maybe my attitude is bad and that I should line up at some of the bigger events more often. Determined to get out of my comfort zone, I signed up for the NYC Half, which is how I found myself at go time sprinting though Prospect Park in Brooklyn with frozen legs the color of a Santa suit.
Because I am so out of practice at big races, I didn’t give enough respect to the New York Road Runners’ recommendations on arrival time a full hour before the race if not checking a bag. I pushed the envelope on my mid-town departure, and my arrogance came back to bite me. As I ran, out of breath, up to the start line just after 7:30, the volunteers informed me I now had to start with wave two.
I knew, of course, that my one-mile sprint, combined with the next 45 minutes of shivering in a corral, was probably not going to come to good end. Still, I tried to adjust my attitude and soak up the spirited atmosphere surrounding me.
There were the announcers, pumping out the tunes and firing up the runners. There was the multitude of languages spilling out of the mouths of athletes who had traveled from afar to make a trip out of the race. Runners snapped photos, joked with one another, and jumped up and down trying to stay warm. It did feel like one big party.
Finally, we were off at 8:15 a.m., and in my impatience at having to wait so long, I took off at a pace I was comfortable running 10 years go. I realized my mistake when I looked at my watch at mile one—it read 7:25, which is about 45 seconds faster than the pace I intended so early on. I tried to reel things in, but I think the damage was already underway.
My legs felt like cold lead, and by mile five, I knew a respectable time was far out of reach. I pulled back my pace and decided to take in all the sights and sounds of New York City. The race may have been off the mark, but the race experience could still be salvaged.
We ran over the Manhattan Bridge and into Chinatown, and I got to high five an enthusiastic NYPD volunteer on the bridge. We got the rare opportunity to run straight down Broadway through Times Square, staring up at the iconic electronic signs. As we headed into Central Park for the final four miles, the crowds were deep and the cheering was loud. I soaked it all up.
In the final miles of the race, I basked in all the crowd support a big city race has to offer. The Harlem Run crew, members of Achilles International, and a huge contingent from Team in Training lined the park roads, carrying us to the finish and helping me forget my bias against big-city racing—at least for a little bit.
When I crossed the line, the volunteers handed me a Mylar blanket, which I immediately wrapped around my frozen legs. Next up, they gave me a bag holding water and food, a nice touch. There are perks to big races, after all.
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But there was also this: a one-mile walk, sandwiched in with all those other runners, to get out of the park. By this time, my newly acquired big-race enthusiasm was waning again, and I yearned for that short drive home and a warm shower. I vowed to return to the trails for my next race.
I suppose at my core, I am a racing curmudgeon, but it’s good to know that every now and again, I can still break out of my routine and find the silver linings.
how to enjoy a big city race