“You doin’ Brooklyn next?” the guy next to me asked, a dark-skinned man in his 30s, all dressed in black, including a black runners hat, in the heaviest New Yorker accent I have encountered all weekend. He was referring to the long sold out Brooklyn Half-Marathon upcoming in May, of course. “Oh, I am not sure yet,” I lied since I knew very well that I would not travel another 2500 miles to run another race on the other side of the country soon. Wrapped in a space blanket for warmth, we parted ways with an awkwardly sweaty fist bump, and I made my way out of the already congested finish area back to my hotel at 85 West St, around the corner from the WTC site. It was 9:15am on St Patrick’s Day in Manhattan, and I had just completed the NYC Half Marathon.

The NYC Half was the first big running event after the cancellation of the 2012 New York City Marathon last year thanks to Hurricane Sandy. The New York Road Runners (NYRR), organizers of both events, tried to redeem themselves for the fact that they had initially insisted on going through with the marathon all the while people in New Jersey were suffering the dire consequences from the devastation.

Labeled as “More than a run,” NYRR created initiatives where runners and spectators alike could “give back” to the community, either by making use of special deals and discounts at shops and restaurants in the city as well as quickly donating money online to Mayor Bloomberg’s Hurricane Sandy Recovery Fund.

Why fly 2,586 miles to run 13.1?

Why fly to the East Coast to partake in a running event? “There are plenty of half marathons around here, you know,” the slender-built guy at the gym at work, who runs to the office daily, remarked. While this is obviously true, the prospect of running through the island of Manhattan, together with 15,000 others, had its own unique appeal. When can you ever roam that freely through the streets of the Big Apple, including Times Square? Or run through a tunnel (which, ahem, is actually an underpass) at the southern tip of the island without getting hit by a car? You get to run along streets where cars and taxis battle for every inch on any given day, and tourists abound with little room to move. That sounded like good enough reasons to me.

Early start

Getting up at 3:45 in the morning is never fun. But with a 7:30 start, I tried to get my breakfast in at the right time without it bothering me during the race. I made my way down to the lobby a few minutes past five, only to find at least a dozen other runners waiting there, stretching, and chatting. “We just got here for the marathon,” a German guy informed me, wearing a Berliner Halbmarathon race shirt. “We have done Berlin four times, my daughter and me, but we really wanted to do this one together.”

At 5:30, right on time, we boarded multi-axle buses to shuttle us to the start area in Central Park. “I did this one in 2011, and I really liked it. I love New York; there is just so much to do”, the Minnesota woman beside me on the bus replied. Thirty minutes later, we got unloaded at 72nd and 5th Avenue, where hundreds of runners lined the sidewalk, stretching, warming up, discussing race strategies, and complaining about the freezing temperatures.

Making my way to the gear check for my corral, I spotted a guy wearing a wool hat with the Scottish flag that read “Scotland” on the back. “Are you from Scotland?” I asked, in a tone indicating surprise, bordering on mocking him for the idea that someone would come that far to run in NYC. “No, I am neither Scottish…nor Irish”, pointing to the front of his green t-shirt that said something about St Patrick’s Day. “I am actually Swiss, but I have been living here for quite a while. I just got that hat from the Scotland Run.” “But that is confusing; people would assume you’re from there,” I argued. Right then, two women passed us, pointing at the Swiss guy, and said, “Scotland!”. “It’s just the hat…” the guy yelled after them as if to apologize.

Corral small talk

My plan of running a PR could have been massively foiled by the weather, which had graced participants and spectators of the St. Patricks Day Parade with snow and wind on Saturday. By Sunday morning, conditions had unexpectedly improved with clear blue skies but still sub-freezing temperatures at the start of twenty-nine degrees Fahrenheit.

It was just pure luck that the weather gods decided to punish the Irish, not the Runners. As with the whole race, the starting area was well organized, the corrals clearly marked, and each corral even had its own dozen Porta Johns. “This race is much more fun than the actual marathon,” the athletic but small-built woman in her late 30s with curly dark hair held in place by a headband behind me in line for the toilets remarked. “This one goes through Times Square and stays in Manhattan. I mean, it is kinda nice that you run through all the five boroughs, but getting out to Staten Island is such a pain. And it is f***ing freezing there.”

Off we go

Starting on Central Park West Drive around 65th Street, we spent the first six miles of the race making a counter-clockwise loop through Central Park. Olmsted clearly had put some thought into not making it a flat landscape, which we, the runners, learned well enough with us having to conquer little hills and speeding down descents of a few hundred feet throughout this section of the run. Not ideal for getting into a good running rhythm, but not bad enough to leave you gasping for air at the crests.
“Wait, this is not the parade?” was to be read on a sign held up by a girl in her teens, all bundled up in a winter jacket, wool hat, and mittens. At mile two, that made me smile.

We exited the park on Seventh Avenue and headed straight through Times Square, where the most significant amount of spectators along the course congregated, fending off the freezing temperatures. Hollering people on the sidelines, massive billboards wherever you look: my personal goosebump moment of the race. From there, we turned right onto 42nd Street, heading west to the West Side Hwy/12th Ave. Only on that stretch, a few wind gusts from the northwesterly wind blowing between the skyscrapers provided a bit of an obstacle. Once we were on our way down the western side of Manhattan, it was all sunny again with the wind on our backs. Unfortunately, that part turned out to also be the more monotonous section of the course, very straight and flat with very few spectators.

Light at the end of the underpass

Eventually, after we made it past the Meatpacking District, Tribeca and the WTC Site, we reached the home stretch, which consisted of 800 meters through the Battery Park Underpass and then left & right bend combination to the finish line on Front Street. Running through an underpass, where the shouting of the other runners is amplified by the tunnel walls, is an experience by itself. However, the incline bringing us out of the underpass proved quite demanding after close to thirteen miles behind us. All that was left to do after that was take in the endorphins rushing through my body, triggered by seeing the finish area and crossing the line for another Half Marathon completed.

Whether you like New York City or not, the exhilaration of running through the streets of the Big Apple takes your mind off your burning muscles. Seeking redemption for the unlucky chain of events and PR failures around the marathon last year, I feel that the organizers have won back the trust of at least some of the runners and New York residents. The organization was spotless, and the efficiency of getting people through the recovery area after crossing the finish line was the highest I have seen in a half marathon event. If you can’t get into the marathon, the NYC Half is the next best thing you can sign up for to satisfy your craving for a run in the city that never stops running.