DUE TO THE CORONAVIRUS, THE 2020 RACE IS CANCELLED. PLEASE CLICK HERE FOR DETAILS.
Over the years, I published what I hoped would be the gold standard review of the NYRR NYC half marathon course only for NYRR to change the course two years in a row. I poured hours of work into half marathon course elevation comparisons, manual adjustments to GPS files, speaking with fellow runners, analyzing the angle of the sun on race day, and fighting the temptation to reject the new course just because it was new.
Then we ran the race each year and depending on who you talk to, there seems to be general agreement that the changes were for the better. There will always be those who prefer the older courses but regardless of your feelings, the current course appears to be the new standard (though the NYRR website hasn't officially released the coure map). This post will help newbies and veterans of the older courses understand what to expect.
For newbies, here is the headline: some early hills and sharp turns, a generally flat middle, and a steady uphill final 5K.
For those who ran in 2018 and before, this is your takeaway: more Brooklyn at the start, less Central Park at the end, a hairpin turn, and a basically unchanged middle stretch.
Despite the changes, I still wouldn't consider this a PR course. In the world of NYC half marathons, the Brooklyn Half still holds that crown.
So let's get to work.
We are in a reasonable-minds-disagree situation on whether the revisions made the course tougher. The answer depends on the type of runner you are. Before I zoom in section by section, you may already be able to tell that the start will not be overly fast. Runners will begin by tackling Prospect Park's Battle Pass Hill followed by the out-and-back on Flatbush Avenue. And whatever type of runner you are, it is fair to say that the current course requires a thoughtful early race strategy.
THE FIRST HALF
Getting to the Start and Corrals:
Assuming they start the race similar to, or the same as, 2019, the corral area is very short. To accommodate this, NYRR established a 5 wave, 8 corral staging system, debuted in the 2019 race, complete with a Jumbotron. Runners will wait in the area south of Center Drive (known as the nethermead) and as each wave is released, Center Drive will be refilled. Experience from 2019 suggest that if you're in wave 1 it probably won't be so bad. If you're in later waves, it is likely to get dicey. Remember, it is close to 25K runners!
The 2019 wave starts were 7:30, 7:50, 8:10, 8:30, 8:45 with approximately 5K runners per wave. This should have the effect of spreading runners throughout the course to avoid congestion, particularly in tighter areas. Depending on who you talked to who ran the course, there were varying opinions on whether it worked. If we are being kind though, any race of 25K people plus staff along 13.1 miles of NYC on a major bridge is going to be complicated. It won't be perfect. Hopefully, NYRR looked for ways to improve the starting line system. The best you can do is go with the flow (literally, there's going to be a directed flow of people) and mentally prepare for whatever happens.
I would advise you to get there early! Once NYRR shares race day details, take note of where you can enter the night before and plan accordingly. Remember that Prospect Park has many entrances and nearby subway stops—if you choose unwisely, you could be well over a mile from an entry point to the race. The F/G stops at 15th St/Prospect Park or Fort Hamilton Parkway, as well as the Q, stops at Prospect Park or Parkside Ave are your best bets. Check this link the week of the race to see if there are any MTA issues.
Start–Mile 1: Center Drive and Battle Pass Hill
The start line is in the middle of Center Drive, heading east. After a slight downhill on Center Drive—too slight and too short to provide many benefits this early in the race—you take a sharp left (~110 degrees) onto East Drive. Though the incline of East Drive won't be obvious at first, you'll quickly reach the main hill, commonly known as "Prospect Park Hill" or "Battle Pass Hill." This portion of the park 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%.
Prospect Park is the home turf of my running club, the Brooklyn Rogues, so we know a thing or two about this hill. The most challenging aspect is that it is fairly serpentine, so tangent running may be impossible for anyone not in the AA or A coral. Plus, if you are unfamiliar with the park, it is difficult to know when you've reached the top until you're there. Just know that the hill will end.
A fellow runner and Brooklyn Rogues coach suggests staying to the south side of your corral, swinging wide as you turn onto East Drive, and sticking to the right on the uphill. I wholeheartedly agree, as this positions you well if you get stuck in a crowd on East Drive and when you exit the park onto Flatbush.
Battle Pass Hill is one of several hills you'll face, so don't power up this thing. I'd recommend you take this easy. When you come out on top, you'll still have 12 miles left to run.
Mile 2–5: Flatbush is anything but flat
When exiting the park, you'll greet Grand Army Plaza (I bet there will be official cameras around GAP, so smile!) and take some sharp turns onto Flatbush Avenue. This will be your home for 4 miles. Mile 2 covers a downhill along the park and part of your return after the hairpin. I'd recommend that you recover on this portion and prepare for a clean turn around.
Wait what? There's a hairpin? Yes. Now Flatbush is relatively wide so you SHOULD be ok without experiencing a back up of runners. Last year, there was an artificial “lollipop” roundabout to ease what would otherwise be a 180-degree turn. That said, the general consensus from fellow runners last year is that it was annoying. Keep your wits about you!
Mile 3 begins after your slingshot lollipop hairpin return up Flatbush, through GAP, and onto a long 1.5 mile straight downhill. I plan on using the downhill here to gain speed and really dig into a nice pace that can carry me through the next section. The tail end of mile 5 is the beginning of your approach to Manhattan Bridge and—yep, you guessed it—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 still very much a hill, as well as the steepest and most difficult elevation change you'll experience, the sun will be at your back and most of the race's difficult parts will be behind you. You may face some wind, and the bridge has some potholes, so be careful. As you get off the bridge, you've finished 6 miles and should be well into race pace, if not a little faster. Life is 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, 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 less dizzying than the zig-zag through Chinatown in the 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 experience earlier.
Throughout and at the end of mile ten, I love the FDR for its scenic views of the Manhattan and Brooklyn skylines as well as the beacon that is the United Nations building, signaling the turn to 42nd Street. You'll finish this section at 3rd Avenue with the iconic Chrysler Building just ahead. Don't forget to enjoy the views!
Now, of all the sections in the race, I would argue that you're most exposed to the elements here. The FDR is wide open. 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 I can't tell you the weather in advance, I can tell you where the sun is going to be! The following image from www.suncalc.org shows the location of the sun at 8:30 AM on the day of the race in 2020. 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 place in a half marathon race. You have 5K left—a mentally manageable and easily understood distance for almost any runner. It is usually where your brain sees 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, I 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. Instead, it starts a gradual uphill climb all the way to the finish! Take note of the elevation map. There are some ups and downs, 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. 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. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. While this is also steadily uphill, you might not know it. The energy is positively electric.
In 2018, runners shot through Times Square and into Central Park. In 2020, we will hang a right onto Central Park South as we finish up mile 12 and enter the park at the southeast corner—the same corner you exit in the final stretch of the NYC Marathon.
Mile 13 to the Finish: Take Me Home
In 2018, 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 since 2019), 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 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), I think you can start your kick whenever you're ready. The only thing left will be to cross that finish line!
Once you're medaled up and ready for the post-race life, get ready to enjoy a really fun finish line party!
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. I would guess that they'll also have photographers in Grand Army Plaza this year. 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 2018 and 2019/2020 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 2019/2020, 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, I 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.
NYRR has still not officially released the course profile. It's possible there will be some changes and I'll do my best to amend this post to reflect what they are.
The changes over the years have been slightly frustrating but I'm hoping this year we get a chance to best last year's effort. The course is a challenging one but...I 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, and the best we can do is prepare and take it as it comes. You're doing the work on the physical end, and I hope this post has helped on the mental end. 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 will 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.