Race Report: Popular Brooklyn Half Marathon
The 2017 Brooklyn Half Marathon was my first-ever half — and for the past year I've been looking forward to racing the same course again with another year of running (and racing!) experience under my belt. Unfortunately, as the 2018 Half approached, I had to accept that I wasn't going to be in tip-top racing shape, and my dreams of crushing last year's time on a familiar course for a shiny new PR were quickly becoming unrealistic. After a spring plagued by injury, leading to months away from running, countless physical therapy appointments, and inconsistent cross-training, I had to reframe my goals before race day.
I was still determined to enjoy the race, and decided to use the half as a test of my fitness for the spring. In 2017 I ran a 1:46:59 (8:10min/mile pace), so I hoped that this year, without much training and while still building my endurance back up, I might be able to come in under 2 hours (9:09min/mile pace). Ideally, I'd pace myself properly and run a negative split, a goal I could still work towards even if I didn't PR. While the idea of racing was daunting without any training, the distance itself wasn't intimidating: just a month ago I ran the Lege-Cap-Ferret Half Marathon in the middle of a vacation, finishing with a relaxed attitude, no time goal, and no stress in 2:11 (9:59min/mile pace).
The weather was increasingly terrible the week before the Brooklyn Half, and it was soon clear that there wouldn't be any way to avoid the forecast of chilly rain on race day. I was lucky that the day I made the trek out to Brooklyn to pick up my bib and race materials at the Expo/"Pre Party", the weather wasn't miserable — the views from the Pier where it's held are incredible, but the extra hour and a half it adds on to my commute isn't! I'm not sure why the New York Road Runners insist on holding the Pre Party in such an inconvenient location (they hold the expos for other large races in Manhattan) but I picked up my and my boyfriend's bibs on Thursday night, to avoid the stress of a late night out on Friday before the race. I wish we could have gone on a pleasant eventing and hung around—the band playing, views of the Manhattan skyline, and food trucks do make for a festive atmosphere!
The Brooklyn Half is absolutely enormous, and divides the 27,000 registrants into two waves that start the race about an hour apart. As relatively fast runners (we're not setting any land speed records — but fast given the size of the field) my boyfriend and I were placed in Wave 1, corral F. Along with the ego boost comes an early start time: bag check was only open from 5:00 - 6:10am, the corrals closed at 6:40, and the race began at 7am, with Wave 2 following 45 minutes later. We set our alarms for 4am and tried to get some sleep the night before.
I didn't sleep terribly well, and woke up a few minutes before the alarm went off. Thank god for automatic coffee pots: at least I could get started caffeinating right away! I made a bowl of oatmeal with PB2 (my everyday breakfast) and sleepily started eating. I'd prepared my race outfit the night before, and as I ate I packed an extra change of clothes, along with essentials like a comb, vaseline, and extra phone charger into the bag I would check at the start of the race.
With a 30 minute cab ride to Prospect Park ahead of us (public transit would take at least that long, and would be very unreliable) we wanted to leave the house at 4:45am. Of course we ran a little late, and by the time we got outside the rain was starting to pick up. It was 50 degrees Fahrenheit with 94% humidity: I was planning to race in shorts, a tech T-shirt, and rain jacket, but had bundled up in throwaway sweatpants and sweatshirt as well. I realized earlier in the week that I had no more junk sweats at home, so I picked up a pair on super-sale during my Friday lunch break — boy was I glad I did. Spending $10 on a pair of sweatpants that would be collected and donated after I ditched them at the start line was completely fair price to pay to stay warm and dry in the hours before the gun went off!
We walked out the door at 4:50am, and there wasn't a cab in sight. For every other race with an early start time, we've had a minute or two of concern that we won't find a way to get there on time, then a taxi materializes just before I start to get really panicky. However, before the UA Half at the beginning of the year, the taxi driver who brought us to Brooklyn from Queens nearly made my boyfriend miss the Wave 1 start because he got so lost and didn't detour around the road closures from the race! We were especially nervous after that experience, and I started anxiously opened the Uber app while we hung around a main intersection. One taxi driver who pulled up told us he'd only take us to Brooklyn after stopping by his house — and it might be a while — so I requested an Uber despite worrying it wouldn't arrive with enough time. Like magic, as soon as I did, a different taxi driver arrived and we jumped in: a taxi in the hand is worth two in the app, right?
At 5:00am there's very little traffic and we easily sped along to Prospect Park. My anxiety faded away, and at one point the taxi driver started blasting top-40 pop songs for no apparent reason — but I was really into it! Really got me in a positive, amped up mood. He dropped us off at the northwestern edge of Prospect Park so we still had a bit of a walk to the start, but we had plenty of time and his music had put us in a great mood. We wrapped our feet in plastic grocery bags to keep our shoes dry in the rain, and hopped out of the taxi as the sun came up.
As soon as we started walking we joined a growing column of runners headed to the start. There's a funny sort of camaraderie at this early hour, where everyone knows they're surrounded by fellow racers, but there's still a calm sensation overall. We walked past the Wave 2 corrals, still empty, and as we approached the Wave 1 area the energy in our group and from the crowd ahead picked up despite the chill and rain. I stayed dry under my raincoat, while other runners wore garbage bags, ponchos, and all manner of disposable cover-ups against the weather. Plastic-wrapped shoes and ziplock-bagged phones were also common — I had to rewrap my feet in new grocery bags because mine leaked and soon became bags of water, instead of protection against it!
At a point-to-point race this size, bag check isn't at a corral-like area, but a caravan of UPS trucks that drive checked bags right to the finish line. We dropped off our bags in the truck that corresponded to our bib numbers, and headed through security to our corral. Again, because of the size of the race, water stations and port-a-potties were located inside the corral, so we headed right over. One perk of arriving early is that lines are short and bathrooms are still clean! But then you have a lot of time to hang around before the race actually begins.
I tried to focus on drinking water and staying calm while we waited, but I was still very nervous about how untrained I was. I debated dropping back a few corrals to run with the 2:00 pacer, but was worried I would fall apart if I felt the pressure to run with someone specific, even if their paces should be manageable. I have to confess, I was also feeling a bit of pride, and didn't want to admit I needed to move back to a slower corral. I was already beating myself up a bit for not being as fast as last year, even though I knew my plan going in to the race was not to PR, but to focus on having fun and try to negative split by running a "smart" race — The Brooklyn Half's first half through Prospect Park is hillier than the second, a straight shot down Ocean Avenue to the finish, so this was actually an ideal opportunity to practice pacing strategies and discipline. In the end I stayed in my corral to run without the pacer, but let my boyfriend know I wanted a few minutes alone before the start of the race to get my head in the game. He'd be running at a faster pace than me, so with about ten minutes to go we separated and I dropped to the back of the corral so I wouldn't get in the way of faster runners once we got started.
I put in my headphones and did my best to find my game face: I hadn't seriously raced since the marathon last fall! The rain was still coming down but as the pre-race announcements picked up I knew I needed to get rid of my sweatpants and sweatshirt before the gun went off. I wiggled out of the sweatpants easy enough, but had to take off my rain jacked to ditch the sweatshirt — in the minute that I was removing that layer, the inside of my rain jacket and my t-shirt got soaked! I wished I'd taken it off in the shelter of a port-a-potty earlier, but I had decided to wait until the last minute so I could to keep the extra layer of warmth. Not a bad decision at the time, but now I was all wet underneath my jacket, and the race hadn't even started yet. I focused on tying my shoes comfortably —a nervous habit I have before races— and waited for my corral to shuffle towards the start line. I ate two dried dates, saving three more for the race itself, along with a packet Clif Bloks tucked in my pocket. I had been carrying a banana around all morning but couldn't bring myself to eat my planned second breakfast: instead of the nervous nausea I had been struggling with recently, my stomach was calm, and I didn't want to jeopardize that with too much food. I left the banana on the side of the corral as I dumped my throwaway clothes into a donation bin surrounded by discarded ponchos, bags, coats, and clothing.
At 7:16am I finally crossed the start line! The rain was still coming down, there were puddles everywhere, and I was immediately having a blast. I went out faster than I planned, and even in the first mile caught myself smiling and delighted to be racing. A week later, I still don't know exactly what changed when I crossed the starting line, but I was grateful and excited to be racing despite the conditions and concerns I had about the race.
The first mile through Prospect Park features a pretty sharp turn North towards Grand Army Plaza, and that corner was the first huge puddle we came across: on that hairpin turn, any runner unlucky or foolish enough to be on the inside corner would suddenly find themselves splashing through ankle deep water! The slope of the Brooklyn streets made turns hazardous and swampy, but the straightaway towards the first destination of the race was largely passable. By the time my corral started, the faster runners were already returning from the "out" of this early out-and-back and watching the superfast AA corral fly by in the opposite lane was really inspiring. Running around Grand Army Plaza by the 10-minute mark was also exciting and really had me amped up — I even found the sight of a runner on the course with their enormous dog funny instead of terrifying or annoying. I have no idea if that person was a spectator dragged onto the course by their excited pet, or a runner with no understanding of etiquette, but I soon passed them by and lost track of the pair entirely.
I clocked my first mile in 8:55, a little faster than I wanted, especially because I hadn't warmed up at all. My heart rate wasn't too high, but I was concerned if I overexerted myself in the early miles I'd crash and burn in the back half of the course — the exact opposite of my plan to negative split the race! I tried to control myself and for mile 2 (9:19) I dropped my pace a bit, but in 3 and 4 I couldn't help but run 8:47 and 8:55 min/miles. This may not sound like a big increase in pace — but I hadn't done any speed workouts this spring, and over the past few weeks had been battling exhaustion and nausea in even my easiest runs, rarely dipping below 9:00 min/miles even over shorter distances. Once my heart rate shot up, I had a lot of trouble calming back down, and I was really concerned that I would ruin my race if I ran too hard early on, especially because I wouldn't have the luxury of pausing my run, taking a breather, or stretching out with my watch paused! The clock was ticking and I wanted to run my best, not stand around on the side of the road.
I think miles 5 and 6 are the toughest on the course: the slope up to Grand Army Plaza may be an early shock to runners (like me) who aren't warmed up when they reach it, but the biggest hill on the course comes just at the start of mile 5. As the runners head northwest, the course climbs steadily, and some deceptive "false flats" catch a lot of runners by surprise as the course continues to climb for the better part of a mile. I was still feeling good here, and tried to keep my effort consistent without letting my heart rate get too high. At the same time, I didn't want to check in too often and be glued to my watch;— that takes the fun out of racing, but I've noticed it also increases my stress level and elevates my heart rate even more! I wanted to stay aware of my body and tuned in, but not psych myself out. I was surprised to see my heart rate hovering in the 150 beat per minute range given the pace and slope of the hill, and decided that I wasn't going to hold back more than I was already. My concern that I would fall apart early on was starting to dissipate as I neared the halfway mark of the race and my energy levels and heart rate remained steady: I hadn't felt this strong in recent memory, but I wasn't about to pass up the chance to run well by second guessing myself too much! Some pain at the bottom of one foot passed quickly, and mile 5 (9:14) and mile 6 (9:10) were lined with spectators, which was really powerful given the crummy weather. By midway through mile 6 the slope evened out for good.
Mile 7 begins with a sharp descent out of Prospect Park onto Ocean Parkway, one of my favorite views in this race. The highway ahead stretches out to the horizon, a column of runners as far as the eye can see, only interrupted by a bright green sign labeling the route to Coney Island — exactly the course the race takes! Flying down the on-ramp (and under an overpass with one final, sudden slope out onto the highway itself) is awe-inspiring and for the first time in the race, you can really see how many thousands of runners are out there with you. You can tell I got excited — my 8:34 mile didn't feel like anything at all! I checked my time against the two pace bands I wore — for a 2 hour and 1:55 finish — and was happy to see I landed right between my two benchmarks.
I did try to hold back a bit at this point: I still had half the race left and last year I found the highway section of the race to be devastatingly long and monotonous. Miles 8 and 9 clicked into place at 8:43 each, and this year, I found the countdown from Avenue A to Z (and then some) passed quickly, and even the crossroads where stubborn pedestrians walked out on the course with little regard for the runners didn't feel like a chore. The spectators who came out to cheer were full of energy, and seeing how I fell into a comfortable rhythm with the runners around me kept my spirits up. I couldn't believe how energized and positive I was feeling given the steady rain and my steam room of a jacket —the damp clothes underneath were now also soaked with sweat and my entire torso was humid and sticky. I ate one date per mile and tried to wash them down with water at the aid stations I passed, switching to Clif Bloks around mile 9.
By mile 10 (8:48) my stomach was starting to cramp and I stopped eating and taking water at the aid stations. I knew at this point I was nearly home free, and would rather take my chances with fewer calories in my system than have an upset stomach hold me back in the final miles of the race. I started trying to pass a few of the runners near me, instead of just keep pace, but was still nervous about burning myself out by sprinting uncontrollably or misreading my body's signals. Miles 11 and 12 (8:39, 8:37) were a debate in my mind over how much I should speed up, and how far below 2 hours I might be able to finish. I spent more energy finding runners to pass than honing in on a specific pace, and finally reached the 13 mile marker with the last set of turns before the Boardwalk finish.
Once I was in mile 13, I had no excuse not to pick up the pace: breathing hard and with legs burning, I set out to pass as many other runners as I could. I had been amped up early in the race, but not competitive — now I was really out to "beat" all these other racers! An 8:07 mile isn't particularly impressive but was a big change from the earlier 12 miles, and I'm happy I had the energy and drive to kick my last mile into high gear. I started to see A and B corral finishers walking on the side of the road, which was both funny and depressing, as they'd not only finished the race but walked a mile away from the finish line already — here we were still in our final minutes, with other runners literally hours behind! The scale of this race continues to amaze me.
The 800 meter mark is usually my cue to flat-out sprint for the finish, but this course has a 90-degree left turn onto a short side street, followed by a bottleneck of a right turn up a ramp onto the Coney Island Boardwalk for the final 400m, so my final kick would have to wait. I drank in the views of the Cyclone and ferris wheel, a spectacular sight I barely remembered from last year — I must have been so focused that I didn't catch the scenery! By this point I was racing hard, but still felt comfortable enough to look around and appreciate the course and views along the way.
At the 400m mark I was shocked to feel despair at how long I had yet to go —literally just two minutes left!— and forced myself to power through one of the most unexpectedly difficult moments of the race, up the ramp and onto the slick boardwalk. I had already passed one couple practicing holding hands while running, and couldn't believe it when I saw another couple do the same thing as they approached the finish line — how rude to runners behind them! I dodged around the pair and crossed the finish just as the finale to the Transiberian Orchestra's Carol of the Bells blared through my headphones. Some runners don't race with music, and I don't always run with any, but racing to my favorite epic orchestral pieces and movie soundtracks is a jolt of adrenaline that I still love. I'd been repeating this track for the past few miles, and absolutely credit my final kick to the familiar energy of one of my all-time favorite songs.
The finisher zone for the Brooklyn Half continues along the boardwalk, where you collect a medal, heat sheet, water, and recovery bag before cruelly being sent down a flight of stairs into a parking lot for bag check retrieval. I stumbled through and managed to approach my bag check truck from the wrong side, along with a crowd of shivering, confused runners. As soon as I stopped running I started to notice the rain and cool air more than ever, and looked forward to getting a warm change of clothes and some food. Unfortunately, the bag check area was a complete disaster: though the trucks had supposedly left Prospect Park hours ago, almost none of the bags from my truck (all runners within a certain bib range) were unloaded or organized. So, unless a runner at the front of the queue was lucky enough to spot their bag in the unloaded pile, there was no way to get it back. Some runners started arguing with volunteers, not knowing why a lucky few got their bags while the rest of us had to wait — and eventually a golf cart with even more bags arrived and added to the chaos!
The runners on the wrong side of bag check were eventually forced to join the existing line, stretching out across the parking lot from the other side of the half-emptied UPS truck, where I met up with my boyfriend. He'd been standing in line even longer, having finished the race in a speedy 1:44, but with no rain coat or change of clothes, was soaked to the skin and shivering under his heat sheet. We huddled together and alternately caught up about our race experiences while complaining about the cold, disorganization, and odds of getting hypothermia. I'd never seen such a mess at the end of a race — with over an hour head start on the runners, I didn't understand how the bag check could be so disorganized! We heard a rumor our truck had broken down or gotten lost, which made it late arriving at Coney Island and prevented the volunteers from organizing before the finishers arrived to reclaim their bags, but don't know for sure what happened. While we waited, I tried to eat some mini-pretzels from my post-race snack recovery bag, but the rain and my cold hands made it really hard to navigate them into my mouth and not drop them all over the ground!
Eventually the line started moving, and by the time we got to the front volunteers were calling out bib numbers to the mass of waiting runners in hopes of matching bag with finisher. "I won the lotto!" hollered one runner when he finally got his bag, before limping off to go change clothes. We worked our way up to the front of the line, where bags were laid out on a wet tarp, and eventually I spotted the teal shirt and hot pink sports bra I'd packed, along with my bright blue comb.
I managed to get the harried volunteer's attention. "That's mine, the green one right there!" I yelled, and even though I forgot my basic colors, she managed to find my bag and luckily, my boyfriend's right next to it. We made a beeline for the stadium in order to find bathrooms to change in, and after another agonizing set of stairs, found ourselves inside. The line for the women's room wasn't very long; it was so short that by the time I had a stall to change in my hands weren't warmed up yet. I've joked many times about being stuck in a soggy sports bra, but in that moment I found myself completely helpless as my cold, cramped fingers couldn't pull my sweaty one off over my head and a clean, dry one on in its place! I had to give up and change my shorts for dry leggings first, and very nearly fell over in the process. I finished changing my socks in and drying my hair in the hallway so someone else could have some privacy, and eventually went back outside to meet my boyfriend for some food.
The rain was still steadily falling, but we found a relatively sheltered, dry area outside the Nathan's snack bar, and while I struggled with my compression socks (and berated myself for not packing a dry change of shoes) my boyfriend rustled up some food. A hot dog for him, fries for me, and a beer each, and we were ready to celebrate. A beer may not be the best choice after a race from a nutritional standpoint, but the light summer ale I drank tasted like heaven after what we'd been through. Carbohydrates, water, a little alcohol to numb the muscle aches— a beer is a pretty damn perfect post-race drink (if you aren't concerned about training again the next day!)
After our snack and a quick hello to some friends who finished around the same time, we decided to get going. On a nicer day, the finisher zone with music, drinks, and food in the Coney Island's Stadium would have been a great way to celebrate, but we didn't want to stick around on this rainy day. Our trip back to Queens would be a long one, from one endpoint of the subway line to the other, so we decided to break up the trip with a stop at the NYRR Runcenter to get our medals engraved with our names and finish times. We thought we'd drop them off, get our habitual post-race lunch at a nearby diner, and then meet up with another friend for coffee, but were happily surprised that when we arrive the engraving only took a few minutes! Perhaps the rain kept a lot of runners from adding this leg of the journey on to their day.
Personalized medals in hand, we headed out to our usual diner for omelettes, home fries, and toast — a classic post-race brunch for us! The rain continued outside while we rehashed the half marathon from start to finish, from avenue A - Z, and from every angle possible. All that greasy food didn't sit very well with me, the weather might not have been on our side, and we ran into some snafus along the way, but I'm really happy with my day overall. I negative split the race as planned, ran stronger than I expected, and am feeling more excited about running than I have in weeks. My finish time might be 10 minutes slower than my PR, but it was still a confidence boost given my low expectations, and a useful benchmark for my spring training.
I'm looking forward to racing more this spring and summer, and getting back in shape for my fall marathon: the TCS New York City Marathon, on November 4, 2018. I have a lot of work to do before race day, but I'm excited to get down to business. And while that's my big goal for this year — I'm also looking forward to the 2019 Brooklyn Half already! I can't wait for another shot at this course, and even have my fingers crossed that after two years of rain, I might finally get a chance to race in the sun.