Race review: The United Airlines NYC Half Marathon
What better way is there to start your St. Patrick’s day than a 13.1-mile tour of New York? We can’t think of one. We ran the United Airlines NYC Half Marathon Sunday morning and are giving you all the goods on it. It is the first time Joy ran it and the second time June ran it. The NYC Half Marathon is a highly coveted race in the New York Road Runner (NYRR) calendar. Gaining entry to the race is no straightforward process. You can either enter the race lottery and hope you get chosen, you can run for a charity or you can complete four out of the six NYRR races in the “Five Borough Series”. This includes the Popular Brooklyn Half Marathon, the NYRR Queens 10K, the New Balance Bronx 10 miler, t he NYRR Staten Island Half Marathon, the United Airlines NYC Half Marathon and the NYRR Manhattan 7 mile. There may be other ways to enter through tourism companies, but most people get in on of those three ways. After losing the lottery for the last three years Joy ran the five borough series in 2018 to gain automatic entry into this fine race.
Weather for this race is always tricky because mid-March can be either balmy or frigid, but luckily the weather gods smiled on us this year. Weather was cloudy with temperatures in the 40s, with breaks of brilliant sun. It wasn’t particularly windy, although the parts of the course by the water had some gusty moments.
New year, new course. Of all the races on the NYRR calendar, the route for this one has varied the most. It used to be all in Manhattan, then they switched it to start in Brooklyn. This year it was re-routed yet again. I suppose we made history as being the first runners on this particular iteration of the course. It is in a word -iconic. There are so many quintessential New York sights on it that you might as well be on a Big Bus tour.
The race starts in Prospect Park, looping around up Battle Pass Hill, then exits the park at Grand Army Plaza. There is an out and back portion on Flatbush avenue, passing the Brooklyn Botanic Garden before you make your way through downtown Brooklyn. You pass the Barclays Center and Atlantic Terminal, running all the way to the Manhattan Bridge.
The best views of Manhattan are from outside the city so we can see why the race coordinators moved the starting line to Brooklyn. The New York City skyline is on full display as you cross the bridge. You also have a stunning view of the Brooklyn Bridge to the south and the Williamsburg Bridge to the north. After a short run through the Lower East Side you get on to the FDR freeway and run north. You can clearly see Long Island City, Queens earmarked by the massive Pepsi sign to your right on your journey north. As you exit the freeway on 42nd street with the UN Headquarters is visible ahead of you. You run along 42nd street, past Grand Central Station, past the famous New York Public Library , right by Bryant Park then take a right on 7th Avenue through Times Square. The route up 7th avenue takes you to the edge of Central Park where the race ends. Are those enough sights for you? Even if you live here like us, it is beautiful to see the city from this vantage point. The actual route gets an “A+” for showing off what the Big Apple has to offer.
The elevation profile is a doozy, with hills from beginning to the end. The biggest hills come early in the course, although the rolling hills in Central Park are no joke. By the time that you get to the park you are 12 miles in, so a small incline feels like a big mountain. People will tell you this year’s route is better than last year, where you had to mount Cat Hill in Central Park in the last few miles. Everyone can agree that both courses have no shortage of hills.
Race organization and amenities
NYRR is generally a well oiled machine running massive races with balletic precision. The course was well organized as usual, with water and Gatorade available at every mile marker. Medical tents were liberally scattered throughout the course. Right before mile 6 there was a station with Stinger energy gels in every flavor you can think of. Having never tried those gels before we didn’t grab one, but it would have been a great time to fuel up.
The only area where organization could have been better was at the start. They tried out a new system to organize runners before the start. Participants walk about 10 minutes into the park, pass through the metal detractors and blue wall of NYPD into a small start village where there is bottled water and more port a potties than you've ever seen. A loud speaker calls runners by wave number into designated starting corrals. These designated areas have one entrance, which creates a bottle neck. You cannot slip under the ropes to enter your corral like you can at smaller NYRR races. Our best tip to get around this issue is to give yourself lots of time to get to your race corral. Just be sure to use the bathroom before you enter.
There are no port a potties in the corrals. In fact, there are no restroom facilities until you get close to the first mile marker. Within a few minutes of crossing the starting line there were many runners using the "outdoor bathrooms" ( aka peeing in the bush). That is never a good scene. We just focused on the road ahead.
Another good place to focus at the start is on the ground. NYRR provided participants with heat sheets in the starting village. Everyone was happy to get some warmth, but just as happy to discard them on the ground as they started to run. Watch that they don't trip you up!
The finish line is on the west side of Central Park. When you cross the line, raising your hands in glorious victory for the camera, there are lovely NYRR staff and volunteers ready with high fives. You get your medal, then you can line up for the step repeats with professional NYRR photographers. Next in the finish area there are heat sheets and finally your post race goodie bag. The bag has the usual fare including a water bottle, Gatorade, apple, a bag of pretzels, a power bar, and Biofreeze sample. Our only suggestion for the bag would be to have a vegan energy bar. Can't plant based runners get love too?
If you are meeting friend and or family after the race the best place to reunite is the Shops at Columbus Circle. This shopping mall provides a large warm space with landmarks that make it easy to find people. The fact that there is food and coffee close-by makes it an ever better spot. You can also reunite with non-runners just outside the park at 59th & Central Park West, but the crowds make it difficult. Almost 25 000 people participate in this race so everywhere is crowded. Coordination is key.
New York Road runners offers its members free medal engraving immediately after the run. The run center is just a 5 minute walk from where you exit the park to head over if you still have energy. The lines are long but there are places to sit, finisher gear to look at and hilarious NYRR staff keeping everyone entertained. They also replay highlights of the elite runners tearing up the course on large screens. It took about an hour for our medals to be engraved but the time went by so fast that we didn't mind. The chai tea latte from the Starbucks right beside the run center helped the time pass too.
How we did
This wasn’t our most well trained half marathon effort. With Jamaica Carnival rapidly approaching, we’ve been more focused on weight and HIIT workouts than we have been on distance running. Although we still run at least three times a week, we hadn’t done a long run in the weeks leading up to the race. Our bad. Sometimes life gets in the way. The goal this time out was the enjoy the sights, and finish the race without feeling too destroyed. Mission accomplished! When you take the component of time out of your race goals, there is really a sense of peace and fun in it. Running by instinct as opposed to as you have been coached by Garmin is a freeing experience that we should do again.
With that in mind, we planned to stop for a picture on the Manhattan Bridge and even took a rest room break halfway through the run. A fellow runner offered to snap a picture for us on the bridge so of course we took one for him. When a few other tourists saw our photography skills (more like when they saw we were game to take pictures) they asked us to snap them too. It is funny how things snowball. Camaraderie among NYC runners is a rule rather than the exception. We love this running community.
We finished with the identical time of 2:07:38.
So was this worth the early start, chilly temperature and waiting three years to gain entry.? We'd say so. The Brooklyn Half marathon is more popular, but the NYC marathon route is far more scenic. This would be a fantastic way for a tourist to see the city. As people who live in Manhattan we loved getting a street view of some our favorite places. If you get the opportunity to do it don't pass it up! It is a race to remember.