Okay, so all that yammering I did last week about my cold, time off for the stress fracture, and whether I’d be able to handle an 8-minute pace? Poppycock. Whether it was race day magic, the perfect conditions, or my new and improved core and leg strength, the NYC Half was a dream.
As is my habit, I spent about an hour on Saturday studying the course and elevation map and constructing the perfect playlist. I have long been a believer in the motivational power of music (which is also backed up by science), but race day playlists are something special. I just don’t believe in Pandora or even those podcasts that target specific cadences. Race tunes need to be hand-selected, and the playlist carefully crafted. When it’s done well it sets the tone and the pace for the race, gives you an extra boost when you need it, and even lets you know if you’re on target for time goals. I suppose in some ways it’s kind of the last stand of the mix tape, and my grand theory of running playlists is something like Rob’s in High Fidelity.
For me, the first section is all about starting big and setting the tone. It has to start strong with a song that really gets me excited. From there, you have to maintain the momentum, but really lock in the pace with the next couple of songs. This is where your race can run away with you, so those first three or four songs is where I really pay attention to cadence. The next section is really course-specific. This is where I choreograph uphill and downhill efforts, and any other course features that I really want the soundtrack to reflect. In anything longer than a 5K, I always feel like there’s a no-man’s land somewhere around two-thirds of the way through the race, which I think of as the Loneliness-of-the-Long-Distance-Runner phase. For this stretch I want good music that will hold my attention a little more, but is relaxed and just rolls along. (Jesus, Etc by Wilco is always my go-to to kick that section off.) After that, I start building to a hard finish, again dusting in anything course-specific that I might need. I also make sure I have a good hard finish song for both my A-goal time and my B-goal, because there’s nothing more depressing than missing your time goal and having that point further driven home when your playlist starts over. Since my very first half-marathon, the A-goal kick song has been and always will be Shipping Up to Boston by the Dropkick Murphys. A girl can dream.
On Sunday, I arrived at Central Park with my earbuds in, already listening to some chill music to calm the pre-race nerves. The Park Lane Hotel across from the Simon Bolivar entrance to the park was being incredibly nice about letting runners congregate and stay warm in their lobby, and I chatted with people about races and courses while we waited to use their lavish marble bathrooms. Ah, the luxury of flush toilets before a race! I enjoyed the warmth in the lobby as long as I could and then warm-up jogged to the start about 10 minutes before the corrals closed. I had been kind of bummed because I missed getting a Wave 1 start by 5 seconds on my splits, but I ended up in the first corral of Wave 2, which was probably better positioning anyway. The first few miles were the usual dodging and weaving, but at least the crowds were fast and I split an 8:05 first mile. It seemed like we got to the lollipop turn-around in Harlem in no time, and then it was up and down the Harlem Hills. I dialed the pace back a bit on the uphills, but pushed to low 7’s on the downs. I was a little worried I was going to pay for the faster pace later, but I felt comfortable and in control and decided just to go with it. My splits through the park were all hitting right around 8 minutes, and soon we were exiting at 59th St. for the run to Times Square. I had structured the playlist for 8’s, and I knew I was right on target when we turned onto 7th Ave and Empire State of Mind started on cue. Once again, my Garmin lost satellites for the full stretch through Midtown, so I tried just to lock in the pace and keep up with the runners I’d been seeing for the last few miles. When I finally turned onto the West Side Highway I got telemetry back, and I was still on pace with high 7’s. That was my Loneliness-of-the-Long-Distance-Runner section, and I managed to pretty completely turn my brain off and just run. I actually wasn’t checking the watch much either, but when I did I was clocking in slightly ahead of pace. The whole stretch seemed much more downhill than it usually does, and I just kept my eyes on the Freedom Tower up ahead and focused on getting there.
The strangest part of the NYC Half course is the tunnel into Battery Park City, and I was totally unprepared for it last year. This time I made sure I had turned off the auto-stop on my watch so that at least the clock wouldn’t pause when I lost satellites. The tunnel is probably three or four-tenths of a mile long and curves, so you really can’t see the light at the end until you’re almost out. The good part is that once you come up a steep little hill out of it, you’re just over half a mile from the finish. Again, I had no pace info from the time I got into the tunnel until just before the finish line, but I knew from the overall time that I was tracking to come in under 1:45. (I highly recommend trying to run splits with even numbers–the low-blood-sugar math is much easier.) NYRR is great about putting up markers at the 800m-, 400m-, and 200m-to-go points, and I hammered as hard as I could. I came in at 1:43:29, which was sub-8 (!) splits and a PR of more than 6 minutes. I honestly never in my life expected to run a half marathon with a 7 handle on the pace. I texted Long Run Buddy as soon as I cleared the chutes and he told me that Molly Huddle had become the first American to win the women’s title. (I get a little fan girl about her and Shalane…)
I’m still recalibrating my season goals and trying to decide if this was a freak of weather or not. When I think that less than two years ago I was struggling to break two hours, I’m amazed at how far I’ve come. I can’t believe I’m saying this publicly, but I think if I squint hard I might be able to see Boston from here.