In the leading days before the half-marathon, I was a nervous wreck. I made the mistake of reading that the 2014 NYC Half average finish time was 2:04:22, which resulted in major race nerves. In my terms, this was 16 seconds faster than my second fastest half-marathon, 7 minutes slower than my PR of 1:57:35, and 20 seconds faster than my finish at Richmond in November. In addition, March 2011 was my first half-marathon which I finished in 2:05:33 and I was about to run my 10th half-marathon. In my mind, after running for as long as I have, finishing faster than my 1st half-marathon time was absolutely essential. But I also didn’t want to finish with a below average time. Maybe my putting so much pressure on this race is coming from the fact that this race is happening in NYC– concrete jungle where dreams are made of, where if you can make it there you can make it anywhere. But what better place for validation than New York City?
How I Prepared My Race Strategy
After reading several blogs and studying the course to see that it was hilly through Central Park and the West Side highway was windy and desolate, I started looking back over the past 10 weeks since I’d started training for this race. In formulating a strategy for the race, these are the training runs I am studying closest:
I also looked at my splits from my 2:04:42 Richmond Half-Marathon and then I looked at my splits from my 1:57:35 PR at the Brownville Half-Marathon in July 2013. My jaw dropped and my stomach kind of sank at the thought of the battle I was about to jump into. Oh my gosh, was my first thought. Who was this girl who ran these blazingly fast paces?
I was starting to weave a web around myself of Omg this is impossible. What had started out to be, I thought, a smart strategy of charting my race turned into a numbers game frought with negativity and the kind of pressure that frankly an amateur runner shouldn’t be putting on herself. I was almost ruining my own experience by trying to make it something that I could only control so much. Yes, you train for races. You take rest days, eat nutritious foods to help you recover, stretch and strengthen, all of that. But a race is easily some unequal percentage of preparation and what happens on race day. You could have a perfect training season and a terrible race and vice versa. I knew that, and yet here I was trying to control something that I really couldn’t to an extent.
On top of all that, between Sunday and Monday nights of race week, I got maybe 8 hours of sleep total. Insomnia is especially the most frustrating thing to deal with the week of a big race. It’s pretty much a given that nerves and excitement will keep you up the night before (I got 3 hours of sleep the night before the Chicago Marathon), so the days before the race are critical sleeping days. To combat the insomnia, I instituted a strict 9PM phone curfew to shut my brain off and keep the blue light from killing my brain cells. I felt like I had no emotional control over my race nerves because I was just so darn tired.
Getting My Head Straight
Thursday night, after work, I went to see one of my favorite running bloggers, Dorothy Beal of Mile Posts, speak at Athleta. By a stroke of circumstance, we happen to live in the same region of the country and I’m inspired by the way she came up from being someone who never considered running to change her life and has now made it a lifestyle. It’s always so fun to meet someone you’ve followed on social media (I also met Jessica a.k.a. Pace of Me), but what impressed me the most about Dorothy’s event on Thursday was how vulnerable she made herself to the crowd. Most speakers I am used to just let their conversation flow, but Dorothy had her notes on hand and kept looking at them perched on a stack of running shirts in the store as she spoke. Talk about being real.
I raised my hand and explained that I was getting into my head about numbers and outcomes for my race and asked Dorothy to reflect on a similar experience if she’d had one and how she overcame it. Her answer, as simple as it was and as deep down as I knew it to be true, was brutally honest: “If you’re already thinking you can’t do this, then you’re right.” Heads in the crowd sort of bobbed up and down in agreement, and I, feeling a little embarassed, instantly wondered, “How did I become the person who asks for help??” I’m someone who hates to be called out, who hates to be wrong, who doesn’t like to be put in my place. And yet, that’s exactly what I needed. Dorothy spoke about embracing fear– hence her speaking in public, even as she had her notes propped up. What this all needed to come down to was this: I didn’t need to worry about doing it right; I just needed to freaking do it. And get out of my own head, enjoy my weekend, and let the race handle itself. I already knew that but I wasn’t letting myself do that.
I had a ticket for a 6:20AM Amtrak scheduled to arrive in New York City just before 10AM. Union Station in DC is incredibly creepy that early in the morning. You’d think even the small comfort of eating oatmeal from Au Bon Pain would help you forget where you are, but having strange men eyeing me, one of them actually telling me, “[You] look[ed] very nice today,” just made me feel completely unsafe and totally gross. I found myself envious of the few couples I saw wandering around together and wishing I was with someone. I’m totally over single girl vacations. Sometimes I hate being my own everything, including, at this moment, my own bodyguard.
By now, I’ve been to New York City so many times that its fast pace doesn’t shake me anymore, but I really suck at taking the subway. I’m always on the wrong side of the platform and more often than not find myself on a downtown train when I needed an uptown train or vice versa. I went against my better judgement of getting a cab, because I figured I’d rather just deal with dragging my suitcase around than spend $15 on a cab ride, but when I got on an E train and realized I was in Chelsea when I needed to be in Midtown Central, I gave up and caught a cab from W 23rd Street to E 51st. Sometimes it’s just worth it to make things easier on yourself. The irony was that I would need to take literally the exact subway route back to get to the expo— which was at the Skylight at Moynihan Station on 33rd (Penn Station is at 34th Street), so I should have just taken the lesson and learned it when I had the chance. My hotel was situated right next to the subway entrance to the 4, 5, and 6 trains but I needed to walk literally two blocks up to get to the 53rd Street entrance heading downtown on the A, C, or E lines. It was so simple, and yet I totally blew it. Oh well. At least it was two blocks I didn’t have to drag my luggage in the pouring rain.
The Race Expo
In a nutshell, the expo underwhelmingly met my expectations. Credit where it’s due, however: I loved the decorations. The race is sponsored by United Airlines, and my dad flies for them, so this felt kind of personal. You walked in through the entrance in what felt like a city-in-the-clouds theme with United Airline plane cut-outs flying above your head. The entrance and exit said “Arrivals” and “Departures” and the music was the grand orchestra music you hear on Olympic Team USA commercials. It felt really thrilling. The volunteers were top notch and I easily grabbed my bib and t-shirt. Everyone said “good luck” and “enjoy the race,” which felt very welcoming. I loved that part of the expo the best.
I don’t want to sound cynical, but expos are becoming less exciting the more you attend them— yes, I own The Stick…I love Larabars, thank you for the sample…I already use the SPI belt and I love it…‘I thought they said rum’ headband is very clever, haha. What I look for at every expo is some sort of unique piece that commemorates the race itself. I want something that shows I was there for that experience, so for New York City, I was definitely in the market for some cool race swag. I don’t know if it was because it was the expo’s third day and the merchandise had all but sold out, but there was just nothing to choose from. Long-sleeve cotton T-shirts– I’m not a fan of those. Short sleeve shirts that didn’t feel like they were made of moisture-wicking material but instead made of a thick cotton-y cloth that felt heavy and frumpy, not thin and sleek. Of the items that were still left on the racks, only the smallest and largest sizes were left. The color scheme was fine, but bubblegum pink and cerulean were the only colors left in my size and I’m superstitious about buying “Finisher” items before the race is over. There was a sale rack with size small Greenlayer pink half-zips on clearance, one of which I ended up taking home with me, but it’s a snug fit and I found a few snags in it later. That was disappointing. You can do better, NYRR.
The crowds as well were oppressive— it was really hard to maneuver. I played Jenga and won a purple hooded T-shirt from Project Purple, but the guy at the booth suggested I go up a size (thanks, dude). The lines for photo ops at the United Airlines booth were long, which would have been fine if I had actually received my photos. That ended up being a waste of time.
To be fair about everything, it was the third and final day of the expo the day before the race and the first weekend day of the expo. I likely wasn’t the only person coming in from out of town that morning. I also wasn’t in the best of moods either. I hadn’t had a chance to rest and freshen up from the train ride because my hotel wasn’t available for check-in. Also, as much as I tried putting this out of my head, I felt overwhelmingly alone. It was my first race-cation taken by myself, and all around me where runner friends and families all there to support each other and have fun together, and I was just…there. Alone. I watched a runner mom take an adorable picture with her bib and her baby at the United Airlines booth. I watched friends take silly pictures at the oversized medal platform, and I missed my running friends. Only when I got up to the medal did I realize there wasn’t a volunteer there to take pictures for the runners and I had to turn around and ask the two women behind me if they wouldn’t mind taking my picture if I took theirs together. That was embarassing. “Hello, I’m the lonely loser freak who’s here by herself, can you take my picture for me please?” Ugh.
At that point, I felt sad. Traveling alone used to make me feel like I could conquer the world, but I’ve done it so often now that I’m just over it already. Sure, I’m proud of my accomplishments. Grateful for the experience to be there. Glad I’m not settling for someone who didn’t want to be there with me. But what is all of this if there’s no one to share it with? Something I’ve always believed in. Just being real here; it was a tough time for me.
How I Do NYC Before a Big Race
After the expo, and with 3 hours before I could check-in, I walked the 8 blocks from the expo in the rain. New York City is chaotic and busy, sure, but it’s also easy to just get lost in your own head and think if you maintain a base level of awareness. Times Square was busy, so I ducked into a cafe for pizza. Picked up a Starbucks New York City mug for my city mug collection and an Earl Gray latte. Meandered through Duane Reed for curl-shaping cream (my straight hair was D.O.A. in the rain), the Gap where I picked up a white linen skirt and coral t-shirt for total of $40 (40% off sale), City Sports where I splurged on a new Nike Element zip top (my new favorite running gear– also perfect for hanging around the house in). I sent Snapchats to some friends, paused every once in awhile for a picture of the city. Dodged school groups, gave subway directions to tourists (I got asked twice, weird), located the nearest Magnolia Bakery where I’d have to stop for cupcakes for dinner later. But getting up to my hotel room was the biggest blessing I’d could have at that moment. I really needed to get off my feet, but I just needed a quiet space.
I stayed off my feet for almost two hours, feeling partially guilty that I was wasting my time hold up in my hotel room when New York was right outside my door but also totally content watching Couples Retreat on Comedy Central. I wandered back outside around 5PM, keenly aware that I needed to get my dinner and prepare for an early morning. I stopped at Magnolia Bakery for cupcakes, making a mental note to myself that the Rockefeller Center location is an utter sinkhole of chaos (you’ve been warned), and picking up two slices of pizza at a pizza shop near my hotel. I ate both slices of pizza but could only stomach one of the two cupcakes I’d picked up. Breakfast maybe? It was weird to be in for the night at 7PM in New York City, but I scribbled a few notes in my Believe training journal and it was lights out by 9PM.
Having slept pretty well for the night before a race, I woke up around 5:15AM, stumbled into my race outfit, chugged a bottle of water and inhaled a package of brown sugar cinnamon Pop-Tarts. Central Park was about 8 blocks up and 3 blocks over from my hotel and baggage check was closed at 6:50AM, so I had plenty of time that morning. I left about an hour later, stopping at the Duane Reed next door for a can of espresso (surprisingly, there weren’t any coffee shops near me that were open at 6AM). The morning was slightly cool— 41 degrees with a feels-like of 36. I almost regretted my decision to wear shorts with the cool breeze. New York City is amazing in the early morning hours. There’s still city noise that has been hushed to an ambient hum. The streets are empty with the occasional roaming yellow cab, the street lights and walk signals are almost ghost-like the way they still work for people who aren’t there. It feels like you have the whole place to yourself. Not in a post-apocalyptic world sort of way, but a restful and refreshing quiet like naptime in grade school. I think if I lived in New York City, I would totally become an early morning person.
I got to the race start, walked up and down the line of trucks, eyed runners congregating on the steps of the Plaza Hotel. I was looking for a place to change out of my shorts into my tights. The morning was much cooler than I thought it would be with the breeze, and I was wondering why on earth I decided shorts were a good idea. Unfortunately, I didn’t find a place to change into, so I threw on my compression sleeves as a compromise (not because I needed them). It was weird how that little change actually kind of helped combat the cold.
The walk through the park was a great way to warm up and think to yourself before the race started. Security was a breeze, the lines for the johns weren’t atrocious. Once I got into my corral, I hardly any any race nerves left. My legs felt loose, I felt well-rested, I was excited and armed with a great playlist. I was ready to see what I could do. I didn’t really have a race mantra in mind; my strategy had evolved into, “Focus on the mile in front of you.” I knew not to go out too fast, I knew the course would be hilly, I knew I’d have to push hard. I felt like it was too late to change my mind about how my race would go, so I just let go any sense of strategy. All I could do was execute the race mile by mile.
Central Park: Miles 1-6
Before we knew it, Wave 2 started running. I was surprised at how loose my legs felt and resisted the urge to charge ahead with the masses of runners who were passing me on both sides. About a tenth of a mile in, I looked at my Garmin and realized it hadn’t started– fist!!– but I was holding a steady 9:36 pace. That felt a little fast, but I decided to just go with it and run how I felt.
The hills started happening immediately. I was listening to “Addicted” by Morgan Page with Greg Laswell, which is a song that is almost as calming as it is energizing. An easy pace song that feeds your soul. I felt at that point like I was sinking into the race experience, getting comfortable, but feeling alive and high on life. Great way to put the first mile behind me.
I really give myself credit for putting together a playlist that was a perfect blend of high energy and soul-feeding music (at the end of this post). I felt like it helped carry me and keep me out of a dark place at some of the hard parts. “Superfabulous” from BT makes me feel like a rockstar, and my mellow mood shifted quickly to badass. I took a downhill fast and decided to charge the downhills from here on out and back off on the uphills. A sensible solution.
By mile three, I was pushing paces that were frankly starting to concern me. I kept thinking to myself,”Can I sustain this?” I had to start telling myself, “Yes, I can. I can do this.” I swooped up some Gatorade followed by a cup of water at the second aid station. I decided, rounding a tight corner and charging downhill, that I was ready to take on the pain of pushing a hard pace throughout the race. Even if it meant totally bonking later on in the race. Sometimes you need to just DO something instead of worry about how to do it right. And I guess I was ready to go there. I think that was my mentality all along– a battle mindset– but now it was time to acknowledge that and execute. I was ready for war.
Right after I had decided to charge this race, I was presented with a HUGE incline and had no choice to back off and let my pace drop down into the late 9’s. My quads started feeling stiff and the thought occurred to me that this might be it– I might have just shot my battle mentality– but then the other side of the hill came and I tore down that hill. A couple of mellow 80’s rock songs were playing, a strategic placement on my part to remind me to slow down. They were playing just as I needed them to; purely providential. I also realized that I was over Central Park at this point. This part of the course was the hardest not only for its hills, but it was a gloomy, brown day in March. Not very aesthetic. My surroundings and constant doubts were starting to feel heavy.
Just as I was starting to get bored, the song “Almost There” from Disney’s The Princess and the Frog came on, and it was an instant lilt. Immediately following that song, U2’s “Walk On” came on. This song is so New York. I was in college when this song was released to honor the Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi, but it took a much more profound meaning to me when it became an anthem of healing after the September 11 terrorist attacks. I’ve always felt uplifted listening to this song, so imagine the chills I got when I rounded a corner and coasted down a hill with the New York City skyline in front of me. Oh, if only we could take mental pictures. I’d been able to hold my pace steady over hills until that point, but I was feeling exhausted and constantly tempted to stop and catch my breath. Hearing that song, I thought about the strength of New York City having gone through that and how the country rallied during that time and I let it carry me through another mile. It was the first of many times I told myself, “Look where you are!” Awesome.
Times Square: Miles 7-8
Running out of Central Park was the best mid-race boost I could have gotten. This race gives you the opportunity to see the city in ways you ordinarily wouldn’t. We ran out of the park and immediately onto 7th Avenue. Straight ahead, Times Square. And an entire major thoroughfare blocked off just for us.
This, by far, was the most thrilling part of the race. The streets of Times Square only get blocked off for this race and New Year’s Eve. For as many times as I have seen it before now, running down the middle of it with cameras flashing and people cheering for you literally made me fly. I looked down at my Garmin and realized I was running a 6:38 split and that it felt easy. The adrenaline rush was unreal and I was flying. I tried to slow down– I knew if I burned out here then all of those hills in Central Park would have been for nothing. But I couldn’t slow down. I just let it ride and soaked all of it in. There’s really no words to describe how it felt to run through Times Square. I’ve been processing for days how I felt about that part of the race, and I’m simply unable to put words to those two miles. I just ran, staring at the bright lights and the city. I think this is something that every runner has to experience.
West Side (Highway) Story: Miles 9-12
Following miles 7 and 8, I knew that the “dreaded” West Side Highway was the only thing I had left to conquer. I slowed my run to suck down a chocolate raspberry Gu. I had decided several miles earlier that I was no longer going to drink Gatorade during this race because it made me extraordinarily thirsty, even when I chased it with a cup of water. The small bottle in my hand was filled with just water that I like to use as a Gu chaser, and it was pretty much empty. I was tempted to toss it– I hate running holding a water bottle, unless it’s really hot outside. I had to tell myself to stop fidgeting with my gear because it was causing me to lose focus, making me frustrated, and using up valuable energy. My compression sleeves had drooped around my ankles within the first mile, my Erica Sara charms were clanking together, I was hot so I kept trying to push my headband up without pulling my hair. Ugh.
Immediately turning the corner, we were blasted with a cold rush of wind. My quads were feeling stiff from the hills and my adrenaline-fueled speed and exhaustion was growing on me fast. The crowds were minimal at this point and, even though I was in the race mentally, I was tired from maintaining a strong pace through the whole race. There were a few bands along the course and, just like the music in my ears (a little more U2, “Hold On” by Colbie Callait, and “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons), they were placed exactly where they needed to be for this part of the race. I just listened to the music and focused on where I was in the moment.
By now, we were running toward the Freedom Tower, so I fixed my eyes on it and ran by effort, refusing to look at my watch. I recited my Chicago Marathon Bible verse, Proverbs 18:10: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower. The righteous run to it and are safe.” I didn’t feel a rush of strength, but I felt like I’d regained some control and speed. Out of what I’m not certain was habit or curiosity, I looked at my watch as we were rounding the Chelsea Pier. 9:33. I whimpered to myself. I was burning out of fuel. That pace was slower than my first mile split, and I felt like I was running a 6:38 again.
I actually wondered if I would have to walk the rest of the course. I admit, it was tempting. It might have even helped me, but it was a chance I couldn’t take. I remembered when I slowed to a walk at mile 13 of my 4th marathon after running an even 10:30, and the moment I started walking, I never recovered that pace again. I couldn’t let that happen, not here. I had decided miles ago that I was going to fight for this; I knew I would be exhausted. I should not have been surprised at the pain I was feeling at that point. No way was I going to let myself give up, especially when I’d run hard for 9 straight miles.
Running past the September 11 Memorial, which was just to my left and set aside, the crowds and runners were hushed. The Cure was playing in my ears, but I still remember only hearing the constant pounding of runners on the pavement. I felt so humbled, like this struggle to finish a hard race a blip of pain in comparison but one of the many examples of humanity prevailing. A moment of reverance came into my heart; it felt too loud to breathe. Just before passing the memorial, about a mile or so back, an Achilles International guide was running through shouting, “Blind runner coming through!” He was tethered to someone else. I couldn’t believe I had the privilege to run with them, and alongside such hallowed ground. Between the blind runner and his guide, the reverance of running in such a strong city, and running with people of all nationalities and from so many countries, coming into this race with any expectations put me so off-base. There are no expectations to be had for this race.
Did I Get A Personal Record?
I can’t remember actually seeing the mile 12 sign. I think I’d somehow gotten my groove back and wondered if I could maintain this pace for more than 1.1 miles. It barely occurred to me that I had just about a mile and I’d be done. My Garmin had been off the entire race, so I had no clue if I was going to get a PR. I just…wasn’t sure. About a quarter mile into the last mile, we ducked underneath Battery Park and my Garmin lost satellite reception. The tunnel was dark with a faint orange glow. Lots of runners whooped and hollered. I wondered how they even had the breath to do that. Coming out of the tunnel was another hill. I could barely handle it. It was a steep ramp upwards. I charged it, but my quads wouldn’t let me run as fast as I think I probably did. I saw a sign that there were 800 meters left. I was out of breath, legs weak, my form was chaotic. We turned a corner and the finish line was in front of us and I reached down to run as hard as I possibly could. And just like that, it was over. My iPhone blinked with a notification: “Sara Brown has finished in 2:01:28.”
And my heart just fell to the ground.
I stumbled through the finish area, pissed. Disheartened. In disbelief. That was by far the hardest half-marathon I have ever run in my life. I had never fought for a race as hard as I did that one, and I’m back under 2 hours!?!! It seemed unjust.
I don’t know when I finally decided that I was proud– no, DAMN PROUD– of my race. All I wanted to do when I got back to my hotel was sleep and take a hot bath. And eat as many Magnolia cupcakes as I could. Looking at my splits compared to the elevation chart is kind of a wake-up call for me that I finished one hell of a race with an amazing time. I didn’t get a PR, but I did beat my first half-marathon time like I wanted to. I beat the 2014 average. I beat my third and fourth fastest half-marathons. And I know FOR SURE that I didn’t relent when I was out there running. I did meet my goals.
I kind of wonder if charging through Times Square killed my race, but I look at my splits and they are all pretty consistent with the first part of my race. Maybe if I had run Central Park much slower, I could have charged the West Side Highway in the same way I ran through Times Square. But I can’t look at it like that because I don’t know that for sure. Racing on 6.5 miles of hills in a half is tough, no matter what. Running through Times Square was an absolute rush; an experience I won’t forget and a feeling that you only get briefly. I enjoyed that part of the race immensely. It’s a lesson I’ll take in stride when I run another half-marathon, but for now, I have both an amazing experience and a time that I can be proud of.
At some point, while running this race, you have to let go a little and enjoy the experience. There were definitely moments when I had to focus on everything I had trained to do in that moment, but this is no ordinary half-marathon. Arguably, it’s the most prestigious half-marathon in the country and I ran it all the way through. I think about the last time I was in New York City– I was once again on my own, it was the weekend before I was moving back to Nebraska for a job when I didn’t want to leave DC. It was one of the saddest points in my life, really. I took that trip because I didn’t think I would be back in New York City for a long time and, a year and a half later, there I was running the streets on yet another weekend get-away. Crazy. I definitely thought about that during some parts of my race. It gave me something to fight for. I’d come to far to let up. Or else I’d been fighting too long that it was time to let go and be.
Also, I was able to overcome the loneliness I felt at the expo and being there alone, at least to get what I came to do done and not let it keep me from living. I hope I will have someone to cheer me on at races someday, someone who wants to be there for me as much as I need him there, but just because I didn’t have someone to support me at the race didn’t mean I didn’t have support. After the race, I got numerous congratulations and remarks on my social media pictures. Overall, I know I can be proud of this race. As one remarker said to me, I’m “New York strong now.” I’ll take that! But New York is exhausting, and I just wanted to get back to my own town. 🙂
My United New York City Half-Marathon Playlist
- “Addicted” Morgan Page (feat. Greg Laswell)
- “Superfabulous” BT
- “The Animal Song” Savage Garden
- “Bang Bang” Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj
- “Canned Heat” Jamiroquai
- “Ocean Avenue” Yellowcard
- “Africa” Toto
- “Under the Milky Way” The Church
- “Jump” Van Halen
- “Alive” POD
- “Almost There” The Princess and the Frog soundtrack
- “Walk On” U2
- “I Like It” Enrique Igelsias (feat. Pitbull)
- “Dreams” Stevie Nicks (Deep Dish remix)
- “Beautiful is Gone” The Ruse
- “My Own Worst Enemy” Lit
- “Edge of the Ocean” Ivy (Duotone Mix)
- “Answer the Phone” Sugar Ray
- “Barrowland Ballroom” Amy Macdonald
- “Hold On” Colbie Callait
- “Radioactive” Imagine Dragons
- “Everybody Dance Now” C&C Factory
- “Vertigo” U2
- “City of Blinding Lights” U2
- “Crystal Ball” Keane
- “Happy” Pharrell
- “Ooh Ahh (Just a Little Bit)” Gina G
- “Friday I’m in Love” The Cure
- “Polish Girl” Neon Indian
- “Made for Us” Mackintosh Braun
- “Bright Lights Big City” Clubfeet