Staten Island Half is the final Five Borough race of the year, and it wasn’t originally on my schedule. Until, that is, Coach B told me I needed to run a dress rehearsal half that day as part of my NYC training. Since I wasn’t able to take a trip up to Niagara Falls to join the Sub-30 runcation happening, Staten Island was my best bet.
I’ll admit to a bit of dread when I realized I had to sign up for this race. I have friends who really like the course, and friends who would rather not run it again. Plus, the last two years have had lousy weather — rainy both times, plus cold and windy two years ago.
The course elevation map isn’t all that reassuring. It’s a slight downhill start, then a gradual climb up to about the 5K mark before a sharp downhill. The next 3-4 miles are basically flat out and back on Father Capodanno Boulevard, which parallels the boardwalk. When you approach Mile 8, you run into that downhill from before, but the other direction. It also climbs higher because the course heads to Fort Wadsworth and passes under the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge before heading down that gradual slope from the first part of the course on the way back to the finish. It’s not a true out and back, but it does end where it starts.
Most of the other hilly half marathons I’ve run load all the hills either at the front (Brooklyn, old NYC Half) or the end (new NYC Half). Having them bookend the course was going to be interesting.
This was a dress rehearsal, so Coach B had a pretty firm plan: 30 minutes easy, 150 minutes at marathon effort and 20 minutes at threshold effort. That worked out to 3:19, which would be almost an eight-minute PR. I checked a couple of weeks out, since I knew weather would affect any plan run at effort, not pace, to figure out if I should adjust the M or the T phases if running at the right efforts was working out to be longer or shorter than 3:19.
She said the threshold was basically so I could push if I was feeling good, but if I was tired, she was fine with me running marathon effort through because goal No. 1 was to finish healthy, especially since it was my peak mileage and my taper is a little shorter.
The second goal, after finishing healthy, was the marathon effort miles. She really wanted me to get the work in at marathon effort for a fairly long time and “not go to a dark place.”
And, finally, testing out fuel/clothing/hydration one last time. That included me trying out my pre-race meal from the place where we’re having our pre-race meet-up dinner, so I headed into the city Saturday for lunch. Why lunch? Because my wave of Staten Island started at 8:30 and my wave for NYC starts at 11 a.m. Add in the extra hour because the clocks change marathon weekend (“fall back”), and that meant I needed to eat the meal about 19 hours earlier than the start.
If you’ve never tried to get to Staten Island, well, let’s just say that from my part of New Jersey, it’s kind of a pain. My original plan was to drive, which meant getting there by 6-ish to make sure I could get a spot near the finish. Most of the parking locations are uphill from the finish and I didn’t want to have a long walk on top of a steep one. That meant getting up at 4 so I could leave by 4:45 — 5 at the latest.
The day before the race, I changed my mind and decided to drive to Jersey City, take PATH to World Trade Center and hop on the “new” 1 stop right next to PATH to the Staten Island Ferry Terminal. This is the subway stop that was destroyed when the Twin Towers fell, and it just re-opened last month. If I hadn’t gone in to have my pre-race meal, I wouldn’t have thought about it as an option. It was a little more complicated, but I could leave at the same time, or even a bit later, and if I decided to get my medal engraved, it would simplify the post-race logistics.
I had tested pretty much everything already with one exception: music. I’ve tried running races with music this year, and it’s been a mixed success. I ran Bronx with no music and was starting to think maybe I would do the marathon with no music. Except that hearing music on the course at Bronx did perk me up a bit, and after years of teaching group fitness, I know music has a lot of beneficial power over how much you think you can do and how hard you work because it alters your perception of how hard you’re working.
So at the last minute, I switched up my playlist. Instead of going with my musical marinade approach (a few songs I really like at the right tempo repeated many times), I just went through my iTunes library and dropped in any songs that were upbeat and had lyrics I knew would keep me going. The trick, of course, would be not letting those years of marching band and group fitness trick me into matching my pace to the music and mucking up the plan.
This is the third time I’ve made the drive to that section of Jersey City — Mr. and Mrs. Editor Runner and HS Teammate all live in the neighborhood — so that was pretty straightforward, even with some construction sending me on an alternate route. On the way, I listened to Fatman Chronicles interview Coach Silver Fox and the BAA podcast with Tatyana McFadden, just to get in the right headspace.
I hopped on the PATH right on time and headed in. I planned to make a pit stop at WTC, but both the PATH restrooms and the Oculus ones near the PATH station were closed, so I headed for the subway and South Ferry.
I knew I was going to be cutting it close to make the 6:30 ferry, but I could take either of the two after it and get there on time, so even as Wave 1 runners were sprinting by me headed for the terminal, I strolled. (The security guards were a little confused by my lack of urgency.)
I got to the upper level just before they opened the gates to load the ferry and headed right for the restroom. With everybody trying to board, there was almost nobody in there! Once that was done, I found a chair where I could see where the next ferry would leave from without turning around and settled down to finish off my Nuun and bagel.
Once the crowd lined up, I joined them — and then stood there for almost 15 minutes before I could actually board. I’d thought I was pretty close to the front, but when we actually boarded, I was quite far back and all the seats were taken. I ended up near the front, and even though it was in the high 40s, I went out on the front open area for a while just for the fresh air (and some photos).
At this point, I was glad I’d gone the ferry route because it gave me a taste of the chaos the terminal will be on race day for the marathon. I’ll probably tweak my plans a bit that morning as a result.
Once the ferry landed, I walked off and got in line for the bathroom in the terminal. After that, I changed into my NYC sneakers — only the second time I’d run in them, made sure everything was in the right spot — gear bag, hydration belt or pockets — and headed outside. I checked my gear bag, went through security with only one small snag — my iPod was in my hydration belt and my Aftershokz are wired because my iPod Bluetooth can’t handle the city interference on wireless. I ended up holding the iPod in my hand and didn’t trigger the metal detectors.
It was maybe 30-40 minutes from when I walked out of the ferry terminal to when I crossed the starting line, which has to be a record for me for an NYRR race. Definitely glad I took the ferry. Since I had set up my playlist with enough music for NYC and it wasn’t programed in any order, I had put the music on in the ferry terminal and hit shuffle. That made what waiting I had to do in the corral pretty relaxing, especially when I got some of my very “pump it up” songs.
It’s a downhill start, so I was really concerned that I would go out too fast and exceed the E effort Coach B had planned. That led to frequent watch checking, which carried through the race.
I was sticking with 30-minute manual laps to keep my fueling on target, but when you’re starting from the beginning, it didn’t take a lot of math to figure out my split — 14 flat at Mile 1. Whoa! That’s fast for easy effort. But my watch said I was still at easy effort and it felt easy, so I chalked it up to cool weather and a downhill.
I got to the spot where Mrs. Editor Runner and I cheered last year just as the timing truck for the lead men’s runner was coming up on the return — the two spots on the course are only separated by a sidewalk at that point before the back half heads over along the water. We all cheered for the man who was in first.
Mile 2 was where the uphill started and I was mixing in some walking to stay in the right zone. Still, I was under 15 minutes for the second split, too. I started to wonder what my splits would look like once I upped the intensity.
Picking it up
The M effort section started when I was already going uphill, so it was a little anti-climatic. I was still mixing running and walking, but with a higher cutoff for when I needed to drop back to a walk. This was about when I got to the point I knew would arrive — when my legs and lungs disagreed.
Thanks to a summer of sweltering afternoon runs, my cardiovascular system has really come a long way in six months. But because I ran by effort, my legs were going at about the pace they always had. My improving fitness was keeping me from slowing down, but that’s different from speeding up. On the rare occasions I was able to run at dawn in cooler weather, I found that the pace that was easy according to my heart rate felt fast to my legs, the way they felt during my 10K PRs in June.
As the weather has cooled down, I’ve had some faster training runs, but I’ve also been battling cumulative fatigue. What I’ve had more of have been recovery-level heart rate efforts and legs going just a little faster than in the summer.
My challenge during Staten Island: Make sure my lungs were driving the pace, not my legs.
As the course went under an overpass as we approached Mile 3, the course flattened out, my heart rate lowered and I told my legs to pick it up. They weren’t crazy about that, so I reminded them “The lungs are in charge. Stop backseat driving.”
Mile 3, and my pace was still looking good despite the hill, and I had a steep downhill and almost four miles of flat coming up.
The downhill was a little challenging to hit the right effort level, but after going a little too hard and then backing off a bit too much, I got it just right. This was the place where the back half of the out-and-back section branched off on the return headed to Fort Wadsworth. The faster runners were coming up the hill we were running down. It felt great running down it, but running back up? Yikes.
Once we got down the hill and out to Father Cappodanno, I was watching for Ocean Breeze Park and the massive indoor track complex they have there (home to the 2021 indoor nationals!). To get my volunteer stint for 9+1 this year, in case I want to run New York next year, I spent a Saturday clearing trails for what will be a cross-country course through the park. On the return trip, once I passed the park, I’d be about to Mile 7. But still a few miles to go before then.
All through this section, I was checking my watch to stay at the right effort level. (Legs, stop backseat driving!) The road never got all that close to the boardwalk, so the sea views I’d hoped for in this section never materialized, but it was a good, steady section where I was able to lock into marathon effort and just keep going.
They had a gel stop along this stretch, which I didn’t notice until it was too late to grab one on the way out. No, I wasn’t trying anything new on race day. But the Gatorade Endurance gels they had were also the ones they’ll have for NYC. I’ve only been able to find them in large quantities online, so this was a good chance to pick one up I could try toward the end of the 10K at RWF and see if it was even an option I should consider if I got to that point on the marathon course and felt like I would need more fuel to finish things out.
The music was working as planned — it was keeping me motivated, but not really influencing my pace. There were a lot more runners around me than I typically have at this point in an NYRR half, which felt like a good sign. Also good signs: the 10K and 6 mile markers I could see on the other side. The turnaround was maybe a quarter or a third of a mile before Mile 6, so I was getting closer.
I had to swing wide on the turn because somebody moved in front of me going around, but no biggie. Everything still felt good. After Coach B had mentioned “the dark place,” I had expected at some point this was going to get rough, but so far, things were going smoothly.
Heading back up the other side, I was actually having to tell my legs to stop backseat driving the other way — they wanted to pick it up faster than marathon effort. That was an encouraging sign. Then I got to right about Mile 6.5 and my playlist — the one I’d put on shuffle at the beginning — started “Livin’ On a Prayer.”
Woah, we’re halfway there/Woah, livin’ on a prayer/Take my hand, we’ll make it I swear
I laughed, and sang along. Yeah, I was going to make it.
The return trip
Saw Ocean Breeze coming up, grabbed a gel, hit Mile 7, felt good. But as Mile 8 approached, so did the hill. My original plan had been to run/walk by effort on the first hill, when my legs and mind were fresh, and do fixed intervals on this hill so I had something to lean on. That was pretty much my plan for Queensboro Bridge during the marathon, and this was supposed to be a dress rehearsal, right?
Except the hill was steep enough that at a brisk walk, I was actually still pushing up toward the top of marathon effort. I ended up doing a lot more walking than I’d planned. My brain started to get a little cranky at this point. Stop backseat driving! At least my legs didn’t have to feel like they were always the bad guys on this.
At the top of the hill, I took a planned pit stop. I’d figured if I hydrated right, I’d need one at some point during the race, and this was a strategic choice — it would give my heart rate time to come down after the hill so I could really coast down without worrying about pushing too hard. Once again, the darn cord connecting my headphones and my iPod (in the hydration belt) was a logistical challenge. Still, if that was the worst thing I’d have to fix, no biggie.
After getting Gatorade and water at the water stop right after the porta-potties, I coasted down a small hill into Fort Wadsworth. The course loops a bit in here, an starts out going under the Verrazzano. I looked up thinking “In three weeks, I’ll be going over, not under.” It was a good feeling.
Now my legs were starting to get a bit tired, but I kept moving. Stop backseat driving. From here through the end of the course, I started to pass people even though I knew I was slowing down some from earlier. Not a ton, but some. It was less than my legs couldn’t do it and more I was right up against the top of my marathon-effort zone and sticking to the plan was the most important goal I had for the day.
After a little loop, we came back under the bridge and I paused briefly to get a shot of the bridge to have during these final weeks of prep. That’s the beginning of this big race I’m finally going to run after two years of working and training to prepare. Then we came to what might be my least favorite part of the course, a weird dip that felt like we were running downhill just so we could run back uphill. Really? We crossed under the bridge again and as I ran by the water stop, the view of Lower Manhattan from up on the hill where Fort Wadsworth perches was amazing.
But Mile 10 was coming up, the big downhill was starting, so no stopping for photos here. I cruised along, past some base families out cheering, and actually felt like I was going too fast. Not for my lungs, but my legs were taking a beating, and my left knee was not happy about it. Trying to brake was almost worse, though, so I just did my best to cruise.
Coming around a corner and down a hill, I saw red light up ahead and thought, “Oh, good. There’s the Mile 11 clock.”
Nope. It was the safety lights at the bottom of the hill so drivers at night know to turn and not drive right into the ocean. But as I rounded the corner, there was Mile 11. Just a couple miles to go — maybe only half of one before I could gear up for the final 20 minutes.
At this point the course flattened out and I found my bearings again at marathon effort once the elevation wasn’t a factor. Up ahead, I realized I could see the medical tent that marked that spot where I saw the men’s leader on the way out, the little point where the two side of the course touch before the final mile-and-a-half of the race.
The course zig-zags a little bit here as it gets over near the water, and once it straightened out, I figured I had to be getting close to Mile 12. I wasn’t going to push my effort up to threshold until then, but I wasn’t going to pull back if I started getting there without trying either.
This was where I started passing people in earnest. I’m not usually that person, the one who finishes strong. I’m usually getting passed because I started out too hard and couldn’t keep it up. Stick to the plan, let the lungs drive. And then came the part of the course I hadn’t liked from the beginning — the hill at the end.
Still, I took it on. I didn’t run the whole thing, but I ran more than I had been. Up the hill, around a corner, over an overpass, down a small hill with a turn at the bottom. Once I turned, I could see the Mile 13 clock, and that meant I was getting close. I did walk one more stretch along there, but only so I could finish strong. I knew this would be a PR and I wanted it to feel great.
I fist-pumped once I crossed the finish line, then stopped my watch.
I stuck to the plan, and it paid off. Official time: 3:23:27, a 3:31 PR. Everything worked as planned, especially the music. My legs were stiff and sore at the end, but not as toasted as I’d expected, and I never did go to the dark place Coach B had mentioned. And, I now have a time goal for NYC: sub-7 hours.
I also now get to taper, which is as much a mental relief as a physical one.