“I can’t believe I’m here!” was my only thought as I stood in the pen. Me. At the start of the 2019 NYC Half Marathon in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York. It felt completely unreal. But I did it and now (of course!) I have to tell the story.
See, it’s not as if I am this amazing athlete, running impressive times, flitting in and out of New York every other day. I live in Cape Town, South Africa, and I am an ordinary on-the-slow-side average runner (think half marathon best 2h25, full marathon 5h25). I am not a super-person who works on sub-whatever-times. I am not built of speedwork and hill sprints. I have little to no grip on fartleks. The word alone makes me cry. I am one of those people who did no exercise until their thirties and then started an eight-week ‘Learn to Run 5K’ program. It was a challenge – and an attempt to regain sanity – as my second son hit three months old. That son is now eight and as he grew so did my running. I was hooked. ‘Learn-to-Run’ gave way to ‘Run your first 10k’, then the ‘Half Marathon’ programs. Even the ‘Run a Marathon’ program got two successful outings. But over time the ‘Runner’s World 21k Novice’* program, tweaked here and there to suit my time and energy, stayed the favourite.
And then the NYC Half Marathon called me.
The attraction was a mixed bag of the sentimental and the practical. I’d never been to New York but my late mom visited the city when I was a child. Her stories of adventure so impressed me as a little girl, even more when I grew up and understood that her travel experience during Apartheid was extraordinary for a woman of colour. It left me with a soft spot for the city and when I saw Pentravel Sporting Tours advertise their international runs a few years ago, the New York Half Marathon shouted for me. It seemed the perfect way to see the city: the route started in Brooklyn, crossed Manhattan Bridge, passed iconic landmarks including a traffic–free Times Square. It ended in Central Park. The 21k distance would give me enough of a physical stretch without the pressure of a full marathon. I dreamed of doing it and immediately mailed Nicole Adams of Penthouse Travel for details, but things wouldn’t line up for me that year, or indeed every other time she mailed me in the few years after.
Until this year.
A race date in the school holidays, a last-minute entry available after the advertised closing date and a non-running husband’s gracious and generous support made it happen quickly. Nicole mailed me on 7 January, and on 8 January I booked myself to run the NYC Half Marathon 2019 on Sunday 17 March.
Fast forward to little more than two months later. I’d diligently followed the Runner’s World 21K program. I’d experienced all the nerves and anxiety (read panic) of dragging my husband and two sons across the world for a run. I was as ready as I would ever be. We arrived in New York City on Friday 15 March after a 16-hour flight from Joburg to JFK Airport. An hour’s drive later we were finally at the Westin Grand Central Hotel, on 212 E 42nd St., which was the accommodation included in Pentravel’s race package. I was relieved to find the Pentravel guides set up in the hotel foyer, if a little disappointed to realise that I was the only South African in their group. The rest were either from Britain or Ireland. For them Saturday’s St Patrick’s Day Parade and festivities were a big drawcard but for me the main Saturday event happened before the Parade. I had to collect my race number at the Expo at the Metropolitan Pavillion on West 18th Street. Pentravel were taking groups on the 38-minute walk to the expo but we decided to ride the subway on our own instead. Once there it was a slick and simple process. I shopped a “NY Finisher” jacket in anticipation of seeing Central Park.
17 March: Race Day!
I met the Pentravel group in the hotel foyer at 5h30 and we made our way to the subway station a few minutes away. We reached the Prospect Park race area at around 6h15. It was quite beautiful to be there over sunrise and to watch more runners arrive to the race field of nearly 25 000. There were plenty of toilet facilities and free water was available but there was no food for sale. Without breakfast it was a tube of Gu Chews in my pocket to the rescue.
The weather had been my main concern as I am a bit of a shivery Capetonian. In the two weeks before the run there had been snowfall in New York but fortunately, on race day the sky was clear – no clouds, no rain and very little wind. It was just cold. Really cold, at the start especially: -1 degree Celsius with a real feel of around -4 according to weather reports. The maximum temperature for the day was 8 degrees which is considered a good March day in New York. Race organisers handed out heat sheets before and after the run. These helped but my saving grace was the advice of a friend who recommended Ice Breaker merino wool running gear. The long pants, base layer top and thin running jacket stopped me from freezing. (Tip: wash these in Woolite to reduce the slight wool itch factor). I also wore a thin beanie, running gloves, SA-flag themed run vest courtesy of Pentravel, and a bulky jacket. I left the jacket in the donation bins but everything else stayed put for the whole run. With hindsight I should’ve worn extra socks for leaving in the donation bins too. (Another tip: The race has a staggered start with runners seeded into Waves. If you are in the later Waves like mine which start at 8h45, take the subway a bit later for a shorter wait in the park. I’m good at people watching and I coped fine, but waiting for hours in the cold is not ideal.)
My only run strategy was (as always) to run with enjoyment, without picking up injuries and to finish comfortably before cut-off. I think it’s because I don’t have the achievements of my 20-year old self to compete with. So, the only route information that was important to me was the elevation that showed some early hills, a flat middle and a steady uphill for the last 5k. And that the cut-off time was 3 hours.** Truth is that on the day I didn’t find the hills significant and I was so busy looking around that I hardly noticed the changes under my feet. Particularly memorable was running over Manhattan Bridge and into lower Manhattan, passing through the Lower East Side before going north on FDR drive. The route took us onto East 42nd past the United Nations and our hotel where my husband and sons were waiting for me. The boys ran along on the side of the barrier for bit which hit my sentimental spot full on. Then it was past Grand Central Terminal and Bryant Park before heading on the famous Times Square. There is great spectator support all along the route (my SA vest got recognised a few times) but Times Square was the most fun with the loudest music and cheers. And then Central Park! Even though spectators are not allowed at the Finish Line, ending in Central Park as a first-timer was as goosebump-ey as I thought it would be. I met my family just outside the park showing off my heavy medal. My time was 2h32 which I was proud of given that I’d stopped and taken plenty of photos along the way.
After all the prep and focus on the Race, it was fantastic to go completely into holiday mode. We stayed on in New York for another week and it passed in a blur of sights and kilometres of walking. I felt strong and I managed to squeeze in another 10k Central Park run by myself. As a family we racked up between 10 and 21 kilometres of walking a day. With kids, I can tell you those are not elevations anyone wants to see! But New York was all I remembered my mother telling me and more than I’d seen in the movies. The skyline, the traffic, the people, the yellow cabs, all of it. Nothing disappointed. My only warnings would be the obvious ones. Everything, especially food, is expensive on the SA Rand. And there was so much we simply didn’t have the time to see.
We’ve been back home for a bit now and my medal hangs in a clump with medals from the other runs I’ve done. I’ve literally got the t-shirt and the jacket. As I wrote this, I thought, “Was it worth it?” The time, the travel, the effort, the jet lag and the cost. I didn’t break my own or any other records. I didn’t make the news. I didn’t even get to see all that New York has to offer. But here’s the truth: An average runner from Cape Town, South Africa, ran the NYC Half 2019 and she sure as hell had a Personal Best. Totally worth it.
*the Race Organisers make plenty of race information available before the race by email and on their website. www.nyrr.org
*this post is not sponsored by Pentravel or any other provider mentioned