PLEASE NOTE THAT THE COURSE HAS CHANGED FOR 2019. OUR NEW COURSE STRATEGY CAN BE FOUND HERE. IF YOU WANT TO CONTINUE READING ABOUT THE 2018 COURSE, PLEASE READ ON!
By now, you probably know that New York Road Runners changed the course of its premiere United Airlines NYC Half. (If you didn't, surprise!) The old course was a favorite for many, and for a half marathon in NYC, it had an elevation profile that only the Brooklyn Half could beat. Now, just about the only thing in common between this year's course and last year's is the name of the race. You may be running on some of the same terrain, but you're in for an altogether different experience. Hang on to your energy gels, ladies and gents.
If you're like me, your first reaction to the news of the course change was, "How could they do this to us?!" The current course is a total 180 from what people have come to expect for this race: a challenging first six miles with an amazing burst out of Central Park, a satisfying downhill through Times Square, and a mindlessly flat five miles to the finish line, the Freedom Tower acting as your beacon. Those days are gone. Anyone hoping for an easy confidence boost in their winter-to-spring transition should read on, because what was once a PR course has become an uphill battle. Please note that I have discovered a bad data point in the course profile which reduces the effect of the Manhattan bridge.
PLEASE NOTE: The new course profile should read an elevation of 140 feet instead of dropping to zero at around mile 2.5. The GPS normalization program brought me to sea level while on the bridge. I am correcting this and will upload new images but keep this in mind for the charts in this post.
Many of us, especially seasoned local runners, could tell from a first look that the new course looked tougher. To put those suspicions into numbers, I ran as much of the new NYC Half course as legally (and safely) possible.
The following charts compare the new NYC Half course to the old one, as well as to those of the city's other major half marathons: Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Manhattan (Fred Lebow). (Spoiler! The new NYC Half elevation profile is drastically different.) I hope the following assessments will be helpful to both newbies and seasoned runners of the old course alike.
The First Half
Start–Mile 2: Flatbush Avenue
This is going to be a FAST first mile. For those who have run the downhill slope of Brooklyn Half’s first mile, this stretch will feel familiar: it is about as steep, but continues for much longer, descending approximately 130 feet. It should be a thrill, navigating the crowd and keeping your adrenaline in check as you advance toward the river.
Mile 2–4: The Manhattan Bridge and Entrance to FDR
What goes down must come up. That's how the saying goes, right? As soon as you hit mile 2, you immediately start coming back to periscope depth, up and over the bridge. Enjoy the scenery around you and let these two miles sink in. This is probably the best you’ll feel the entire race. The real hills haven’t started, you haven’t entered the pain cave (hopefully!), and the sun is at your back. While this is still very much a hill (the steepest and most difficult elevation change you'll experience), life is looking good.
Please note that I have discovered a bad data point in the course profile which reduces the effect of the Manhattan bridge. The new course profile should read an elevation of 140 feet instead of dropping to zero at around mile 2.5. I are correcting this and will upload new images shortly.
Mile 4–6.5: FDR Drive
Welcome to the calm before the storm. Coming off the Manhattan Bridge, you transition straight on to the FDR, which is mostly smooth sailing. Since I couldn't actually run on the FDR during this test run, I ran alongside it, so the elevation profile of my run is likely flatter than that of the official course. While I can’t be 100% certain, I suspect that this stretch may have some unexpected hills--that is, if we run on the ramps that crisscross the highway. (Unfortunately, the course map doesn't clearly show whether the ramps are part of the course. We'll find out!)
The great thing about this section is its nice view of the United Nations. But wait, what time is it? Sometime between 8 and 9? As you're heading northeast on the east side of Manhattan? Is that the sun roughly in your face? Did you remember your sunglasses? Now you will! The following image from www.suncalc.org shows the location of the sun at 8:05AM on the day of the race in 2018. If it is a clear day, it will be virtually unobstructed.
The Second Half
Mile 6.5–8: Crosstown Traffic
Turning onto 42nd Street doesn’t sound like it should be a problem. Except for the fact that heading west on 42nd means heading up one big hill. You can see a drastic change in elevation at about mile 7. Go on. Take a look. (Keep in mind that the actual point in the race is closer to 6.5 due to GPS blips and the extra running I had to do to get on to the path next to the FDR.)
As you wonder WTF just happened and if the is city trying to tip you back into the East River, don't forget to look around at the sights around you--the Chrysler Building, Grand Central, the New York Public Library, and Bryant Park.
Mile 8–9.5: Times Square
Running through Times Square was my absolute favorite part of the old course. It was a treat to zip out of Central Park and cruise down Times Square knowing that the worst was behind you. But as we will now be heading in the reverse direction, Times Square will sadly be uphill, foreshadowing the Central Park terrain ahead. But let's be real. You'll still be running through a car-free, screaming-fan-lined Times Square (!!!), and the feeling will still be amazing. Grab that feeling and hold on to it in the final stretch.
Mile 9.5–13: Walk in the Park
The final 5K of a half is, for many, the doorway to the pain cave. It’s my favorite checkpoint, because 5K is just long enough for you to really, really race--to make a move, correct something, or make up time. It's an easy distance to grasp and visualize, and you can get a good sense of where you truly stand in your race. The final 5K of the new course will really make you work for it, as you have to tackle Cat Hill and several undulating hill-sicles that Central Park has to offer (though fortunately, no Harlem hills)! All I can say is, get ready to prove yourself. At least it all ends with a nice little downhill.
Overall Elevation Analysis
The elevation profile of last year's NYC Half course is similar to the current Brooklyn Half course. Some hills through mile 6, then a long and flat straightaway for the second half. As a combo, the old NYC Half and Brooklyn Half were a great way to check your progression, just two months apart. If you're pairing the two together, then knocking off NYC will put you in tip-top shape for Brooklyn.
Take a look at the elevation data below for a better understanding of what to expect.
If I were to put aside my trepidation and nostalgia for the old NYC Half experience, I'd commend the new course for giving runners a formidable challenge, going through two boroughs instead of one, and showcasing the diversity of what NYC running has to offer. (And, separately, for starting a stroll from my house. Thanks for the extra hour of sleep, NYRR!) Given the running community's propensity for routine, I'm sure many share my apprehension about the change, but I also suspect that we'll learn to embrace it. After all, we are still getting the chance to run through one of the greatest cities in the world. This year, we just have to really earn that honor.
Bakline wishes all NYC Half runners the very best in their training and on race day. Stay injury free, and maybe get a healthy dose of hill repeats in your plan this year. A thank you to http://www.gpsvisualizer.com/ for giving us the ability to present data analysis to you.