Central Park Half Marathon Recap

As I've mentioned already, my race plans for the spring have evolved quite substantially from what I thought they would be even a few weeks ago. This race was originally supposed to be a marathon training run/race, and when I decided not to run the marathon anymore it became more of a "physical fitness test" to see where I am in my running ability right now. I've lost some speed to Ironman training over the last couple of years, which has been a hard pill to swallow. I've been expecting it to come back immediately and it's just not, so over the last month or so I've started to take a step back and reevaluate my goals, so my plan was to use this race - the first half marathon I have raced in 2 years! - to find my starting point. I started working with a coach and have been working really hard to get that speed back and get even faster, so this race was the first step in this new journey!

My time goal for this race was pretty broad, by design. I knew it wouldn't be a PR (1:48), but I hoped to finish between 1:50-1:55, which I felt like was a good range. I've only run two sub-1:50s, so I knew that 1:50ish was probably a little ambitious but I was curious to see how close I could get, and 1:55 is the time I've been aiming for in the last two half marathons I've run since IM Louisville. I finished those in 1:57 and 1:56, so I was hopeful that this time I could at least make 1:55 happen.

More than anything, I wanted this to be a good, fun, solid race. The last two halfs I ran didn't go well for a lot of different reasons. They didn't feel good and I didn't really enjoy them, and that's a huge bummer. I run because I do enjoy it (even if I don't enjoy every second), and it always sucks to have races that I don't feel like I get anything positive out of. I was overdue for a half that I felt good about, with a time that I felt like aligned with where I am in my running journey right now.

I talked to my coach Katie on Thursday night before the race and we talked about time and pacing strategy, but we also talked about process/non-time goals. She is really big on process goals and so am I, in theory, but in practice I usually have a hard time coming up with them! She had a few suggestions to get me started, and as we talked I identified a few things I wanted to accomplish during this race:

1. Try not to look at my watch.
Katie gave me the goal of not looking at my watch after the first 2 miles, which was very scary for me. I actually tried this for the first time ever during the Kiawah Half and it did not go well. I made it 9.5 miles without looking, but when I did I was disappointed by my pace and already havng a tough time and the wheels totally came off after that.  The idea behind this being that I have an idea in my head of what certain paces feel like and what's too fast and what's too slow, but I'm working on redefining that because a lot of times my brain is flat out wrong. 

2. Be nice to myself. 
I talked abot this in my Kiawah recap, but I didn't start that race in the best mindset, and I got into a weirdly dark place during that race. I'm not sure why I went into it so negatively, other than the fact that it was supposed to be a fun race weekend and it didn't end up at all like I was expecting (weather was crappy, I was sick, etc.), so from the start I think I felt kind of like what is even the point of this? Nothing was that wrong and nothing bad happened during the race, so it was sort of weird that there was no obvious catalyst for it, but by the end of that race I hated running. I hated every single step and I just wanted to stop more than I have ever wanted to stop running in my life. Looking back I think I was dealing with some burnout, that possibly - or even probably - I didn't give myself enough time off after Louisville. Whatever the reason, it was a very bad race for me mentally, and given that that was the last half marathon I ran before Central Park, one thing I really wanted to do this time was to be more positive. I got really negative and really down on myself during Kiawah that I wasn't able to run like I thought I should be able to and it just wasn't a good experience.

I'm really hard on myself in general, which I know sounds sad, but I honestly don't have a lot of positive self-talk. That's just not where my brain naturally goes so I have to try really hard to look at the bright side and tell myself nice things. And when I'm running and it's not going as well as I would like, it's really difficult for me not to default to a lot of negative self-talk. So one of my goals this time was to be nice to myself, and since it doesn't come naturally me to usually, I tried using a technique that actually has been coming to me fairly easily recently: I've been thinking a lot lately about races when I felt really happy or strong or really enjoyed so I've been trying to channel those. I know I'm never going to be able to replicate any past experience 100% - every race is different, of course - but I wanted to be able to cycle through in my mind a few different races that for whatever reason made me feel good and feel good about myself. I thought that reminding myself that not all or even most of my races have been like Kiawah, and that I have run a lot of races I enjoyed or felt sucessful during, would help me regain some confidence.

3. Run the mile I'm in. 
That's something else Katie brought up, but it's a mantra I've had for a while that I try to use when I'm really struggling to try to focus on taking one mile at a time. I've always thought about it as focusing on the mile I'm in, but recently I realized it can also mean not focusing on the mile I'm not in. That might be really obvious to everyone but me but I had never looked at it that way before. In the last couple of halfs I've run I've definitely gotten overwhelmed in the beginning thinking that if the race feels hard in those miles, the next X miles are going to feel so much worse. While I think there is definitely some room for that - pacing is important so thinking about the later miles is kind of necessary for that - I think I let those thoughts spiral too much and be too quick to draw the conclusion that if mile 2 is hard then mile 10 is definitely going to be hard and I should just stop trying or caring. So that was something that I wanted to avoid this time and not think about the later miles. I had always thought of this as more of a mental strategy than a practical one, but it hit me for the first time that if I'm running mile 2, I can't think about mile 3 or mile 6 or mile 8 because not only am I not running those in the present moment, I physically can't run those miles until I get to them and nothing I do in my current mile is going to change that fact.

Race Day
This race didn't start until 9:00am which was much appreciated! I don't mind earlier start times and actually sometimes appreciate them, but I started coming down with a cold on Friday and, despite all  my efforts to abate it, when I woke up on Saturday to drive to New York I felt awfult. I had a headache and my back hurt and my stomach hurt, I think from taking so much cold medicine, and I just didn't feel right at all. I was seriously concerned that I wouldn't feel better for the race (but also thankful the race wasn't on Saturday because that would have been a total distaster). I ended up sleeping in a little more than I had planned to to rest up as much as I could, and the later start time meant that I could get a good night's sleep on race eve without going to bed at an unreasonably early hour.

Alyssa and I left her apartment about 30 blocks north of the race start at 8:30am, walked to the subway in light rain (which would continue for the duration of the race), and made it to the start with just enough time to spare to hit the porta-potty. I had read before the race that there wouldn't be any waves so I wasn't too worried about the possibility of starting a little late. This race didn't actually utilize any type of corral system - I had assumed that there would be signs with paces to self-seed, but it wasn't even that. People just lined up in the start line as they showed up, so since we got there later we were definitely toward the back of the line. 

We were only in line for a couple of minutes when the horn blew and we were off! We could see people ahead starting to run and we made our way to the start line and took off. There were just over 1000 runners so it definitely wasn't small, but it wasn't big by any means. There was some congestion the first couple of miles, which was a little worrisome since the course was almost 3 loops through the park, so I thought there might not be enough room to spread out, but it really didn't end up being an issue. 

The course is made up of almost 3, almost-5 mile loops around Central Park, starting on the West side at 96th Street, heading south to around 70th Street before turning to get to the East side of the park and heading north to the top of the park and snaking through the northern part of the park, up and around Harlem Hill (which I now know is a thing) before turning back south and going not even a full mile to get back to the start line. We did that two full times, and the third loop was probably close to 70% of the full loop (the finish line came just before what would have been the third time hitting Harlem Hill). I have run a 3-loop course once during a 70.3 and suprisingly liked it, but the loops on this course felt a little long to me for some reason and the race felt like it dragged on just slightly.

First Loop (Miles 1-5)
My pacing strategy from Katie was to run the first 2 miles a little conservatively, at 8:30-8:35 pace, then stop looking at my watch and just run hard. She had originally given me a goal of trying to hit 8:20 for the rest of the race, but when we talked she explained that that was more of a leash to keep me from running too fast than a minimum pace she expected me to run, so I felt better after she told me that (side note - if you don't think you're good at running you should definitely hire a coach because Katie thinks I'm a lot better at running than I actually am). 

The first mile was pretty congested, and although we started out going uphill a little, I think overall it was a little more downhill than uphill. There were definitely times I had to almost jog in place to get around people, especially since we had started toward the back. My first mile chimed in at 8:37, which was pretty much right where I needed to be. The second mile was fairly similar to the first, although I think it was more uphill than downhill and that did slow me down a bit. My second mile beeped at 8:42 so I was averaging right at 8:40 and I felt pretty good about that. I felt like I was holding back a tiny bit, but it definitely didn't feel slow and I think the hills and having to maneuver around people forced me to hold back a little. I was definitely cognizant of the fact that I wanted to conserve my energy and I felt good about my effort so far.

After the second mile I switched my watch over to the screen that only shows distance, not pace, so I was basically running blind at that point. The third mile actually felt pretty good. I dont think there were any significant hills, and I do remember one or two gentle inclines, which I actually do really well on, so I felt pretty strong this mile. I could tell I was running pretty fast but I still felt in control. I accidentally looked at my watch when it beeped at mile 3. It beeped just before we got to the mile marker, and I wanted to see what distance was on my watch when I actually passed the marker so that I would know how far off my watch distance was from the actual distance. I thought enough time had passed that the mile alert screen would have gone away but I guess not because it was still up when I did look at my watch. I was shocked when I saw that my mile 3 split was 7:57 - I knew I had been running fast and that there hadn't been any big hills that mile, but that was crazy! I thought okay fine Katie maybe you are onto something with this not knowing my pace thing, because if I had known I was running that fast I definitely would have slowed down.

Mile 4 was mostly heading north still before we turned to do kind of a switchback section, which was a nice downhill, but right after that was Harlem Hill. I had looked at it on Google Maps so I reoxgnized it when we started to get there (although the Google imagery was from summer and verdant and lush, so it looked a tad different in drizzly grey February). The nasty part about the hill is that it turns a corner and continues uphill, I think twice, before it finally crests. My goal for the hills was to at least not walk Harlem Hill...and I didn't! I hit mile 4 somewhere around the base of the hill (and I didn't look at my watch, but I was shocked to find out later that I ran sub-8 that mile also 0 7:58) so I was still feeling pretty good at this point. There was a nice descent back to the start line/beginning of the loop after Harlem Hill...and then I got to do the whole thing over again!

Second Loop (Miles 6-10)
I felt really good, mentally and physically as I headed into my second loop. I knew it wasn't my best race ever, but I felt good. I freaked out a little thinking about how far I still had to go, but I tried to push those thoughts away and run a mile at a time. I certainly had some negative thoughts at various points, but I felt like I was able to deal with them in a way I haven't been able to recently, so I didn't panic. And I successfuly avoided looking at my watch at miles 4, 5, and 6!

The first half had dragged on just a bit and I was hopeful that it would pick up once I got halfway through, but that wasn't quite the case this time. By mile 6 my watch was already about 0.1 mile over the course distance, which, maybe I'm crazy, but that seems a little long to me and that was a little irritating to me at the time. Mile 6 was still on the part of the loop that heads south, and I don't know what possessed me to do this, but around the 10k mark I decided to switch my watch back to the screen that showed me distance and pace.

I really don't know why I did made that split second decision, but I felt okay doing it. I was worried for a second that I was setting myself up for a Kiawah repeat, because I tried really hard not to look at it during that race but eventually I did, and that's when the wheels fell off. But I think the difference is that then it was because I already knew from how I felt that it wasn't going well, and I was desperate for a miracle, proof that it wasn't as bad as I thought, or to in some weird way punish myself by validating that I was doing exactly as bad as I thought I was (or worse). This time I felt like it was going well, and I was honestly genuinely just curious how that feeling was translating to my pace. I knew I was taking somewhat of a risk because if my pace wasn't what I thought, there was a chance I would fall apart, but in that moment I felt mentally strong enough to handle whatever it was. 

At that point the race was getting pretty hard. This is probably the truest rolling hills course I have ever run, which isn't to say that I haven't run hilly (or hillier) races, but I don't think I have run hills quite like this. Most of them weren't steep, nor were they long, but they were relentless. I think the flattest sections were those one or two gradual inclines, but the majority of it was up and down the whole time. There was a hill coming up just before mile 7 that I wasn't looking forward to, and every hill felt substantially harder than it had the first loop. I think I might have even walked a little bit of one during mile 7. During the second loop I still felt like I was able to focus on just getting up each hill and then I could use the downhills to recover, so that was my strategy. That worked until I got to Harlem Hill the second time, and then HH totally wiped me out (and even though I walked some hills on the course, that wasn't one of them). It was super slow-going the second time and it felt like it would never end (I think it's like 0.3 miles long but it felt like an eternity). At that point even the downhills weren't easy and I didn't feel like I could recover on them as well as I'd been able to previously. 

Another thing Katie and I talked about before the race was that there are always going to be low points during a race, and I weirdly think I had kind of forgotten that. I think I started taking for granted the races I've run in the past and the times I've been able to run and forgotten about some of the bad parts and that that's warped how I think of races now, so hearing her say that the other day really helped me shift my expectations a little bit and not panic when I got to those low points in the race.

I left my watch on the pace screen and I definitely looked at it multiple times throughout the remainder of the race, but I never really paid attention to my mile splits. I did spend a lot of the second loop doing mental math about my finish time, but in this case I think it helped me more than it hurt me. It definitely kept me distracted, which helped on the loop course. I wish it had been a nicer, prettier day when I could have enjoyed the scenery of Central Park, but everything - the sky, the trees, the ground - was shades of grey and brown and it got old after a while!

Third Loop (Miles 10-13.1)
By the last loop I was feeling pretty beaten up, and the last few miles were tough. When Katie and I talked about the fact that there will be low points in every races, we also talked about how they will pass, and I tried to remember that on the last loop. I had just over 3 miles left when I made it to the last (partial) loop and I felt good about finally getting ot the last one, but it definitely wasn't over yet. I really struggled with the hills on the last loop and I think I took at least one or two more walk breaks to get up them. My stomach had also started feeling a little weird around mile 9 or 10, so that was a concern and didn't feel good, but fortunately I never had to make a pit stop. 

The last loop wasn't pretty, but I did what I had to do and I felt like I was almost in survival mode at that point and I accepted whatever my body needed in any given moment - if I needed to slow down, I slowed down. If I needed to walk the rest of the way up a hill, I walked. If I had to pump the breaks on the downhills, I pumped the breaks. By that point I knew that my 1:55 goal was probably secure (there was a point around the halfway mark that 1:50 was looking like a possibility, but the second half was a lot harder than the first half), but I still had to work for it, so I was trying to balance how I was feeling at that point (i.e. not great) and that I needed to keep working hard. I felt like I was falling apart a little bit during the last loop, but I was still able to pull it together. 

Mile 12 was my slowest mile of the day by far - I walked a water stop and a part of a big hill, and it had started raining harder and gotten windier...there was a lot going on that mile and it was a rough one. By the time I got to about a mile and a half left, I started trying to pick it up as much as I could because I just really wanted to be done, and once I got close to mile 13 I really gave it everything I had. I knew I would be under 1:55 for sure and when I got close to the end I knew I would be close to 1:53, so in the last half mile or so I really pushed to make it under 1:53. I was able to find a little kick at the end and, according to my watch (which was almost 0.2 miles longer than the course distance...) my last quarter mile was at 7:30 pace for an official time of 1:52:48 (8:30 pace according to my watch, 8:37 according to my official results).

In the end, I felt really good and really proud of this race. There were a lot of opportunities when I could have broken down over one thing or another - the rain, the cold, the wind, the hills, my stomach problems, not being close to the low end of my time goal, etc. - but I didn't and I feel really proud of myself for that. This was a good stepping stone between IM nad getting back to pre-IM running fitness, which is really my goal right now - just getting back to where I used to be. I think I was frustrated those first couple of months after IM because I assumed that I could just instantly pick back up running like I used to, and I feel weirdly good now about working hard to run a race time that a couple of years ago I might have taken for granted.


  1. i used to be naturally really awful to myself and i had to force/train myself to be more positive. not just with running, but with everything. it really makes a huge difference in your life when you are nice to yourself, so i think that's a great goal. i try not to look at my watch when i run races, but i notice mile markers and normally have an idea so i'm not disappointed when i check it at mile whatever. i know the feeling though. and yeah, if i start a race with a crappy mindset i can basically guarantee it will be an awful race lol.
    congrats on your time! and feeling good about the race. that's really awesome! glad you're getting back to feeling good about running. and i kinda want to hire katie lol.

  2. I always think looped runs are going to feel so much better than they do. The most convenient five mile run from my house is two, 2.5-mile loops and I HATE IT MORE THAN ANYTHING. Haha. Five mile days are my absolute least favorite because I dread the loops so much! I can only imagine how much more brutal it would be if it involved constant hills as well!

    I'm so glad to hear you're proud of how the race went for you! Based on where you were mentally heading into this, it seems like that's the most important outcome you could've hoped for.