Over the years, we've worked to publish what we is the gold standard review of the NYRR NYC Half Marathon course. NYRR has changed the course several times over the years, including this year, 2023, meaning that each year requires an update of course elevation profiles, comparisons to previous years, and analyzing the angle of the sun on race day.
This year is no different--the 2023 course has changed slightly (entirely within the first 3 miles) but is otherwise the same as last year. Naturally, we needed to run the course for ourselves to know what we (and you) are getting into. This article is to help you prepare for the big day.
In previous years, we said that we didn't think this was a PR course. While we stand by the fact that the Brooklyn Half, given time of year and elevation profile, is better suited to a PR, we've consistently seen fellow runners drop serious times at the NYC Half. So we're revising this to say while it's no gimme, it is absolutely a course that you can have your best day at.
So let's get to work. Note that the images referencing 2019 are accurate for 2023 comparisons.
Before we zoom in section by section, let's address the changes to the start. You may already be able to tell that you have two hills within the first couple of miles. What NYRR has done is essentially reversed the order of the hills. Last year you started in Prospect Park with Battle Pass hill, while this year you start with Flatbush. On paper, I didn't like looks of the new start, but having raced the old course and having now run the new course, I'm actually a fan of the change. Get the hairpin turn out of the way on a flat part of the road, less than 1 mile in, rather then around after mile 2 on a downhill! While the turn will create some slowing, particularly further back in waves, we recommend just planning for this and using it to your advantage to control your pace early. Suffice it to say, whatever type of runner you are, it is fair to say that the current course requires a thoughtful early race strategy.
The following analysis compares the NYC Half's current course to the original 2018 course, as well as to more recent iterations and to those of the city's other major half marathons: Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Fred Lebow (Manhattan).
THE FIRST HALF
Getting to the Start and Corrals:
A race of this size requires planning not only for the race itself, but for getting to the start with as little stress as possible. The corral area on Washington Ave for this year's race is similar to the NYRR Brooklyn Half which loads on Eastern Parkway and starts on Washington Ave. To accommodate this, NYRR will have a 5 wave system this year, as compared to 4 from 2022. Runners will wait on Washington Ave per the official start line map, though with 20K people, we suspect that some part of Eastern Parkway will also be used.
The 2023 wave starts are below:
It's largely the same as last year except there are 5 waves instead of 4 to account for what I suspect is a slightly larger field as more people get comfortable in large crowds and to better space out runners. For example, Wave 1 last year included bibs through 8649 and this year only goes up to 6699. And wave 2 covered around 6.3k bibs this year whereas last year it included 8.5k bib numbers.
This should be a benefit compare to last year, particularly in tighter areas. If we are being honest though, any race of many thousands of runners plus staff along 13.1 miles of NYC, through a major bridge is going to be complicated. It won't be perfect. The best you can do is go with the flow (literally, there's going to be a directed flow of people) and mentally prepare to roll with whatever happens. And while it seems that while there are a few more runners this year, the adjusted wave structure suggests that there will be about 80% of the runners in each wave as compared to 2022.
Regardless, get there early! Portapotty lines get hella long the later you arrive and there are almost never enough. Take note of where you can enter on race morning via Eastern Parkway. And in case is isn't clear, and you know some people will forget:
YOU DO NOT START INSIDE THE PARK THIS YEAR. YOUR COMMUTE TO THE START LINE LAST YEAR MAY NOT BE SUITABLE THIS YEAR!
For subways, it looks like the 2,3 is you best bet. Think more like Brooklyn Half start than last year's NYC Half. Check this link the week of the race to see if there are any MTA issues.
And now that we've gotten through course changes and race day logistics, let's get into the actual course strategy!
Start through Mile 3: Flatbush Ave and Battle Pass Hill
The new start line is on Washington Ave, heading South. You have two immediate turns onto Flatbush Ave. And while I didn't like the look of this on paper, I actually like what they did. Your two hills come a little sooner in the race, and your first one (with the hairpin turn) is done before you finish the first mile. As with all races of this size, stay alert at the turns, but don't worry too much about running the tangents while the field is still sorting itself out. Focus more on not getting boxed in or tripping over a barrier in the first mile and you can worry about choosing your line when the race starts to spread out.
The Flatbush Ave hill isn't bad. While the grade is noticeable, it's so early that you probably be more focused on finding space in the crowd in this first mile. The part when you turn around is flat and Flatbush is quite wide, creating a better turn around position than the old course. After a downhill stretch, you have a hard right into the park. Once you get into the park, you're basically done with the turns until mile 6. But not without some work.
For these early miles of the race we recommend staying to the south side of your corral, swinging wide as you turn onto East Drive, and sticking to the right on the uphill. This positions you well if you get stuck in a crowd on East Drive and when you exit the park onto Flatbush.
As you enter Prospect you'll have a small incline on East Drive leading up to the main hill, commonly known as "Prospect Park Hill" or "Battle Pass Hill." The hill is between 0.3 and 0.5 miles, depending on how you delineate it and has a max grade of 6.8% and an average grade of 4.3%. While very raceable, it is one of several hills you'll face, so don't power up this thing. I'd recommend you take this easy.
Prospect Park is the home turf of my running club, the Brooklyn Pace Project, so we know a thing or two about Battle Pass. The most challenging aspect is that it is fairly serpentine, and tangent running may be impossible for anyone not in the AA or A coral. Where possible, make use of both lanes, and don't assume those around you are taking the best line. If you are unfamiliar with the park, it is difficult to know when you've reached the top until you're there, but just know that the hill will end and the steepest part of the early course will soon be over.
The good news is that after completing Battle Pass Hill, your early work is done! Now it's time to settle in as you'll still have 11 miles left to run.
Mile 3–5: Flatbush is anything but flat
When exiting the park, you'll greet Grand Army Plaza (we bet there will be official cameras around GAP, so smile!) and have a nice straight path onto Flatbush Avenue. This will be your home for 3+ miles onto a long 1.5 mile straight downhill. Use the downhill here to gain speed and really dig into a nice pace that can carry you through the next section. The tail end of between 4 and 5 is the beginning of your approach to Manhattan Bridge and—yep—another uphill. So get ready!
Mile 6: Manhattan Bridge
You're now at the beginning of what makes this race so scenic and iconically New York. Of course, the usual laws of bridges and hills apply. You won't benefit as much from the downhill on the other side as the challenge you'll face getting to the top.
While Manhattan Bridge is very much a hill--it is the steepest and largest elevation change you'll experience in the race--the grade is steady, the sun will be at your back and most of the race's difficult parts will already be behind you. You may face some wind, and the bridge has some potholes in the past, so be careful. Without crowds or spectators, though, the bridge is a good chance to check in, settle into your pace and focus for the second half. The downhill side offers a good opportunity to pick up the pace a bit, and as you get off the bridge, you will have finished 6 miles and life should be looking good!
THE SECOND HALF
Mile 7: Making your way to the FDR
The start of mile 7 includes two sharp turns: first onto Canal Street and then immediately onto Allen Street, where you'll hit the 10K timing mat. Allen Street is surprisingly downhill as well as scenic stretch, and this portion of the course gives you a perfect view of the bridge you just conquered.
At the end of Allen, you turn left onto South Street and run through for half a mile before merging onto FDR Drive. There is just a single turn involved, which is far less dizzying than the zig-zag through Chinatown in the original 2018 course. From here on, your race will be far flatter and straighter.
Mile 8–10: FDR Drive
At Pier 36, you'll begin your 8th mile and merge onto FDR Drive. This 3-mile stretch is mostly flat but includes some up/down ramps that are not unnoticeable. Compared to the sections both before and after this stretch, though, it's a welcome reprieve from the serious changes in elevation you experienced earlier (and will experience again soon).
We love the FDR for its scenic views of the Manhattan and Brooklyn skylines as well as the race beacon that is the United Nations building near the end of mile 10, signaling the turn to 42nd Street. Be aware that GPS usually goes a little haywire through this stretch, so it's good to have race pace locked in and not rely too much on your watch. It's a good chance to enjoy the views as you'll finish this section at 3rd Avenue with the my favorite NYC building, the Chrysler, just ahead.
As a final consideration on this section of the course, we will point out that you're most exposed to the elements here. The FDR is wide open with the river to your right. The sun is at your right, or your back. If it is raining, there are no buildings, trees, or overhead ramps to shield you. And if there is wind, then nothing will break or divert its force. Pay close attention to the weather report and form your expectations accordingly.
While we can't tell you the weather in advance, we can tell you where the sun is going to be! The following image from www.suncalc.org shows the location of the sun at 9:00 AM on race day. If it is a clear day, the sun will be virtually unobstructed. The later you get to this point, the farther behind and above you the sun will be.
Mile 10–12: Crosstown traffic and Times Square
To me, the 10-mile mark is the most significant point in a half marathon race. You have 5K left—a mentally manageable and easily understood distance for almost any runner. It is also usually where your brain may want to swerve away from the on-ramp to the pain cave. But no! You have time to make one more move. Lean into this thing. Now's the time to remember why you put all that time into training, and what you're capable of. At the 10 mile mark, we always shout, "Game on!"
For those not familiar with NYC running, do not be fooled into thinking that Manhattan is an easy pancake-flat island. The beginning of the final 5K is not a crosstown express, even though you can ignore the traffic lights (and run in the express bus lane). Instead, it starts as a gradual uphill climb which continues all the way to the finish! Take note of the elevation map. There are some ups and downs in the final stretch, and your mission is to keep yourself steady.
Please note that your watch in this section will be bugging out. No one EVER gets a clean GPS reading with skyscrapers to your right and left. Your watch might read a 17-minute pace and then a world record mile immediately after. (This is exclusively why the graphs show my run as 14.4 miles and not closer to 13.1.)
As you wonder 1) WTF just happened and 2) if the city is trying to tip you back into the East River, don't forget to look UP and around—the Chrysler, Grand Central, the New York Public Library, and Bryant Park are all around you. Keep your cool, anticipate the hills, soak in the cheer squads, and you will be fine.
When you turn right onto 7th Avenue, you will find yourself in Times Square, a magical and memorable experience--particularly when you're not trudging through it at tourist pace. Even as a local who works in Times Square, I can't help but smile in awe as the city stops, holds traffic, and carries me up to Central Park. New York runners get goosebumps just thinking about it. While this is also steadily uphill, you might not know it as the energy is positively electric.
Once you hit 59th street, you'll hang a right onto Central Park South, finishing up mile 12 and entering the park at the southeast corner—the same corner where you exit in the final stretch of the full NYC Marathon.
Mile 13 to the Finish: Take Me Home
In the original 2018 course, NYC runners experienced a familiar loop of the park complete with Cat Hill, the 102 Transverse, the Three Sisters, and a nearly half-mile lovely downhill to the finish. NYRR threw most of that out (remember we have more miles in Brooklyn now), and instead, we will turn on the 72nd Street Transverse and finish at the same spot as the NYC Marathon, between Sheep Meadow Park and Tavern on the Green. This last hurrah through Central Park is comparatively a pretty easy section.
While there are still minor ups and downs, particularly at Bethesda Fountain (about 400M from the finish), we think you can start your kick whenever you're ready. The only thing left will be to cross that finish line!
It's difficult to know where the course photographers will be but I'm willing to bet they will have some when you exit Manhattan Bridge, in Times Square, and in Central Park. We would guess that they'll also have photographers in Grand Army Plaza. Heads up, throw a Blue Steel, Ferrari or Le Tigra and smile!
Overall Elevation Analysis
So we're back to a reasonable-minds-disagree conclusion. The min/max elevations of the original 2018 and 2019-2023 courses are identical. The gain/loss is slightly inflated in 2019/2020. However, most of that loss (downhill) for 2018 was in the first half and most of the gain (uphill) in the second half. In 2019-2023 versions, there is more balance, which is crazy when you think that 10–11 miles of the race are the same! That 2–3-mile shift makes all the difference.
As compared to the rest of the NYRR half marathons, we would still say that the Fred Lebow course is undoubtedly the most difficult, both because of the hills and time of year (January). The current NYC Half Marathon course is a close second.
The course is a challenging one but...we like it. Like all things in NYC, you have to work for it. The hairpin is annoying. The many sharp turns aren't pleasant. The start has proven to be good for some but NOT for all. As with almost any NYRR race, they could do with more porta-potties.
All that said, the best we can do is prepare and take it as it comes. You're doing the work on the physical end, and we hope this post has helped on the mental end. This is definitely a course that rewards preparation and smart tactics. Some final reminders? Nothing new on race day (or, in my personal rulebook, for 72 hours before the race). Come with A and B goals. Trust in your training. And for this course in particular? Manage your mental and physical engines.
This will be a formidable challenge. And at the end of the day, we get to run through one of the greatest cities in the world.
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.