At this point, the Rock ’n’ Roll running series is a pretty well established brand and I’d guess most runners would have a general idea of what to expect when they are the race directors. (They also have a healthy ego as on their About page they claim the RnR format “ignited the second running boom”).
You are going to get a professionally packaged race experience that is used to putting on a big production, typically in a big city with a big entry field. You are going to get bands/entertainment at most mile markers. Well stocked and spaced aid tables. A nice finisher medal. And lots and lots of upset opportunities to enhance your race day experience.
At the Brooklyn Half, I experienced all of that and a few more things, but had little complaint. I knew what I was getting in to. But let’s start at the beginning.
We started by dropping the kids off at their grandparents in Rhode Island and then continued on down to New Haven to get the commuter rail into the city. And, of course, also to stop at Frank Pepe’s on the way home. I have a hard time driving past New Haven without stopping somewhere for a slice. Somehow we just learned about using the Metro-North line to get into the city. Previously we’d still drive to New Have but take Amtrak. So, so, so much cheaper to use the Metro-North, at least on off-times, which is when we are typically heading into the city.
We met up with friends at Grand Central and since it was a ridiculously warm day for October, walked down to Penn Station for the expo and packet pick up. You could also do race day pick up over in Brooklyn, but since we were here, why not grab it and get rid of that stress. The expo was available Thursday and Friday before the race at the Penn Plaza Pavilion across the street from Penn Station. It was actually a bit tricky to find the entrance under the construction scaffolding, but once inside there were plenty of volunteers to direct you to the race packet pickup.
The one thing that’s slightly different than other race venues, is that you need not just an ID but also a signed confirmation form to pick up your packet. The confirmation forms were sent via email and had to be printed out, signed and brought with you. Our group were good rule followers and we all had the papers. Not sure if you could have printed it out at the expo.
Given all the pre-race emails and branding, the sponsors and vendors at the expo were not a big surprise and no one in our group needed anything so after getting our packets and shirts, we made our exit. Part of the group headed over the river to Brooklyn and the hotel to rest up before dinner, but Michelle and I had other plans. Or at least I did. I was in NYC and I was going to get some pizza.
My pizza obsession is fodder for another post, but despite outward appearances, it sort of looks like a generic Sbarro knockoff, if you are near Madison Square Garden and like pizza, definitely hit up NY Pizza Suprema. It’s a classic NY slice joint with a lot of options lining the counter to peruse while you wait in line (there will be a line). We enjoyed a couple regular slices and also tried a Sicilian and Roman. All were solid, but I enjoyed the chunky, yet light simplicity of the Sicilian the best. After carb loading at the pizzeria, we headed over to Brooklyn to check in and get off our feet.
We wanted to stay close for dinner and chose Al Mar, an Italian trattoria in Dumbo, and walkable from our hotel. Michelle and I agreed that this was the standout meal (after the pizzeria of course!) of the weekend. It might get noisy and crowded later, given the small space, but we were there early (by NYC standards) and our group had plenty of room. My only regret was that I couldn’t try more adventurous dishes. I kept it simple with a beet salad and a mixed mushroom pasta. Nothing too weird or far removed from my regular diet. After dinner, we walked it off back to the hotel and then turned in for an early night.
This was another early one with the race going off at 7 a.m. At least I could understand the bleary eyed start time as I imagine closing down roads in Brooklyn is not easy and doesn’t make you many friends. With the 7 a.m. (tired just thinking about it) start, I was up before five to eat, take my meds, have some coffee and um, get things moving (the most important pre-race ritual).
All that taken care of, we set off via the subway to Grand Army Plaza and the start line with 15,000 of our crazy friends. It was still dark, but not too cold. We definitely lucked out with the weather being much more mild than a typical early October morning. We exited the subway station and made the short trek over to the gear check trucks. They were set up by bib number and your race packet provided a clear bag to stash any gear you wanted trucked over to the finish. I shed my sweatshirt and pants and headed next for security.
This was the big issue last year. Not the security guidelines or the checkpoints prior to the corral, but the fact that they put the porta-potties and pre-race water outside the checkpoints, so people that had already cleared security had to go back out and re-do security. It was a mess. This year everything was inside the corrals. We had no issue with security and quickly moved through and into the corrals by 6:15. Good news, no lines for the many, many porta-potties. Bad news, it was still dark (no lights in the potties) and we still had 45 minutes to kill before the race.
Eventually, the corrals filled up, people were able to relieve themselves in the light and the race began. I was in the second corral and had only a short wait after the first gun before I was running. Michelle said there was a lot of slow shuffling forward before she got to start.
My biggest complaint overall about this race is probably the course itself, or the majority of it, at least. I really liked the end in Prospect Park, but the rest was rather stagnant. The first 3 miles were a short out and back spur on the Eastern Parkway before you passed the start line again, skirted Prospect Park and then spent miles 5-10 running out and back on Ocean Parkway. Those were some lonely, boring miles as most spectators stayed closer to the park and the finish line. Even the bands and entertainment (biggest highlight was the arial pogo stickers at the mile 8 turnaround) seemed to struggle to generate much enthusiasm for the parkway setting.
The first out and back spur was downhill on the way out, essentially mile 1, then back up the same hill for mile 2, before going downhill again for miles 3 and 4 as you ran along outside of the Botanical Gardens and through the Park Parade Grounds. This section was where the grounds were biggest. I tried hard not to get too caught up in the downhill or the crowds. It had been two years since I ran a half marathon and despite the med switch and the improving training, the race plan was still to have fun and not blow up spectacularly at mile 10.
Mile 1 / 7:36 – big downhill, maybe too conservative here, but it was mile 1
Mile 2 / 7:42 – climbing back up
Mile 3 / 7:16 – better effort on an equivalent downhill to mile 1
Mile 4 / 7:48 – another downhill, trying to settle in
Mile 5 / 7:29 – this is the first mile on Ocean Parkway and it begins to flatten out
As I mentioned above, miles 5 through 10 are an out and back section on a Brooklyn parkway. The good news is the roads are wide, closed to traffic and mostly flat. The bad news is the crowds thin out, the scenery is basically row homes, the stuck cars are not shy about using their horns and the neighbors keep trying to cross the street.
Needless to say it was not my favorite part of the course. It does however allow you to go on autopilot and click off the miles. The tight range of my splits reflect that mid-run zoned out approach. I also remember coming to the end of the parkway, climbing back up the exit ramp toward the park entrance and thinking I still felt pretty good. That put a smile on my face. Another small bonus, the out and back did allow me to see Michelle run by on the opposite side, so I knew she was still trucking.
Mile 6 / 7:34
Mile 7 / 7:33
Mile 8 / 7:34
Mile 9 / 7:39
Mile 10 / 7:28
The last section of the race is inside Prospect Park. The crowds pick back up and the scenery improves dramatically, as you can imagine, but it comes at a price. Miles 11 and 12 are a steady climb upward. On paper it’s only a net elevation of just under 100 feet, but at the point in the race it feels at least double that gain on your legs. And it finishes with a little stinger, a quarter mile to the top with an average gradient of about 4%. Yikes.
Remember me complaining about all the hills that surround my house and having to constantly finish each run going up hill. It paid off here. I passed way more people than passed me. I only recall one man really pulling away from me. I was able to pick up the pace marginally and hold on to the finish. Thankfully, they managed to find a slight downhill to carry me, and everyone else, right to the tape.
Mile 11 / 7:28 (7:17 GAP pace)
Mile 12 / 7:23 (7:00 GAP pace)
Mile 13 / 7:06
Mile 13.1 / 5:46 – a kick to the line
Final time: 1:38:36 for a 7:29/mile pace. Five minutes off my dusty HM PR, but given where I was this summer, I was ecstatic with the time. Maybe too happy. I felt so good after that it means I probably left a couple minutes on the course, but still, I sort of secretly was aiming at 1:40 since getting that second lung back with the new meds and I’d rather finish strong than crawl to the finish.
With over 15,000 runners they move the finishers through the chute pretty quickly, but there was a decent variety of hydration, (water, gatorade, chocolate milk is what I remember off hand), fruit (oranges and bananas), salty things and other random snacks.
The finishing chute dumps you out into a large open area of Prospect Park. You can collect your checked bag from the trucks, meet up with family or friends, just lay down and recover a bit, or attend the post-race concert and beer garden, even if it was still before 10. While the area near the finish line narrowed to choke point for spectators, this area behind the finish line was a good space to accommodate everyone.
The rest of our group trickled over the line and eventually we all met up, walked out of the park and back to the subway. The remainder of the weekend was a blur of brunch, mimosas, piano bars and late night ice cream. The perfect way to end a half marathon weekend getaway in NYC. Other than the white clam pie at Frank Pepe’s in New Haven, of course.