Race Recap: The 2017 Brooklyn Marathon by Richard White

Organized by NYCRUNS and race director Steve Lastoe, The Brooklyn Marathon is held each year on the third Sunday in November, two weeks after the New York City Marathon. A more accurate name for the event would be The Prospect Park Marathon since the race course is contained entirely within the park, and consists of nine counter-clockwise paved park drive loops at that. The course may and probably will change with future runnings, but more on that later. For now, here’s a quick overview of the 7th running held in 2017.

The marathon itself is, if a little odd to say, relaxed. It is practically everything the NYC Marathon is not: no pre-race hoopla, no corrals, no lines, no long waits, no runner traffic, no crowds of spectators, no long walks after the finish line. It’s a small race of under 500 entrants and it has a much smaller course footprint. Unlike your typical point-to- point marathons, it’s just a race of several loops, again and again. Runners may either be comforted in its predictability or maddened by the sameness and monotony of the nine trips around the park. Or in this runner’s case, both.

The course starts at where so many of the shorter race distances begin, on Center Drive in the park. It heads west toward the outer loop and turns left for a quick trip around and back up and over to the starting point; runners complete nearly three of these shorter, lower loops before beginning the six 3.5 mile full loops that cover the last 20+ miles of the course. Meanwhile, non-racers and pedestrians have access to the park drives as the race progresses, the course is not cordoned off. Two water stations, one on the west and one on the east side of the drive offer welcome relief and crowd support. After finishing the last and ninth loop the race ends back on Center Drive beyond the start line.

Of course, describing a marathon course in one paragraph makes it sound so very doable. And indeed it is, but those of you who’ve completed a multi-loop race at any distance already know that the monotony of repetition has its drawbacks. Put another way, familiarity breeds contempt. It’s the same hills, the same direction, the same runners passing you or you passing the same runners. However, practice makes perfect, to employ another cliché. If you’re going to get some hill repeats or a tempo run in on a long run, you might as well be wearing a number and have your distance timed, for most hill repeat workouts do not provide a technical shirt, a hat and catering when you’re done.

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So the first few mini-loops are not so bad. The lower section of the Prospect Park Drive is relatively flat and unexceptional and most everybody feels just fine during the few miles of a marathon anyway. Once the first full loop begins, so does that challenging uphill everybody knows so well in Prospect Park: Battle Pass Hill, also known as Zoo Hill. And as anyone who’s done the Cherry Tree 10- Miler/Relay or really any other race in that park realizes, it doesn’t seem quite as steep or daunting as Harlem Hill in Central Park. But it is not particularly easy, either, it’s fairly long. It’s just there. Once the drive finally curves left and Grand Army Plaza comes into view on the right you know the hill is over. Well, not all the hills are over, there’s another incline coming soon, but the longest and steepest is done. Until next time around, that is.

Of course, learning to live with discomfort during the second half of a marathon (and that’s a quaint way of putting it) is part of the deal you make with yourself, it’s just part of the job. And a multi-loop super long run may add monotony to the discomfort, to be sure. But a runner can use that familiarity on each successive time around. After so many loops, knowing exactly how far and how long it takes to get to a particular point on the course may be helpful in dividing it into mentally manageable sections. So much of the experience of running the last few miles is about testing mental strength - it may still hurt, but having surety about the course ahead helps to keep away possible mind games and fuzzy thoughts regarding distance and space time. I’ve unwillingly tested the theory of relativity during the final hour in a few long-distance races, too, and I swear I’ve seen light refracted on more than one occasion.

Another positive of multi-loop courses is the opportunity to employ the race strategy of ‘running the tangents’. Those of us who’ve run marathons and had our GPS watches pass 26.2 miles with a quarter mile to go before the finish line know too well that sticking to the path of least mileage is not easy. But with most multi-loop races going in the same direction, over and over, it’s easier to stick to the inside of the course when it turns and to run across the course when it turns the other way. So since The Brooklyn Marathon runs counter-clockwise it’s best to stay to the left when the course curves left and to run across the course from point-to-point (the tangent) when it curves right. Of course, common sense and runner etiquette requires not running over other folks and being aware of your own personal space. But since you’re already familiar with the course after at least one loop, it’s worth the effort. And it may not mean as much in a 5K, but shaving a few feet off your mileage here and there may add up during a marathon.

As far as the race organization goes, it’s your typical NYCRUNS event, low-key, friendly and with the usual perks. Race materials may be picked up the day of if runners can’t make it to number pickup in the lead up to the race (in 2017 pre-race pickup was at Paragon near Union Square). Long sleeve technical shirts are given out with bibs and knit hats with Brooklyn Marathon logos handed out at the finish line. The typical post-race food spread awaits runners. It may also be said there’s better food given out than at that other local marathon two weeks earlier.

Speaking of, it’s difficult not to compare the two races since NYC is so fresh in runners’ minds during mid-November. To begin with, most New York City Marathon entrants know too well the long morning spent traveling to Staten Island and the slow drip of time spent waiting for the race to begin. It’s always like flying international out of JFK; you probably have to take several modes of transportation, give yourself hours to do it, worry and fret about what you’re bringing, go through security, go to the gate, sit and sit some more, eat too much and not go to the bathroom enough, and then you finally, finally get to board the plane for take off. And take off you do, up the Verazzano to cruising altitude at a pace you’re going to have to pull back on before trouble begins. None of that in the Brooklyn Marathon, or in most small long distance races like it. The pre-race experience is so low- key you’ll think you’re just getting ready to run one of those ubiquitous Turkey Trots, only a week early. But not really... it’s still 26.2 miles, and here you are again. But it’s a different experience with exactly the same distance, and one worth considering whether you prefer behemoth race experiences or don’t.

So you may wonder or even ask how it went for this veteran of the marathon distance. More to the point: despite all the positives, why would anyone want to run loop after mind-bending loop to complete a marathon distance?

Myself, I’d run the annual NYRR (formerly Knickerbocker) 60K in Central Park several times over the years. Held on the 3rd Saturday in November, it covers nine loops of the park. For those who pine for their school days in algebra, that’s 5.2m + (8 x 4m) loops. It’s a marathon plus 11 miles of ‘what was I thinking’ and an increasingly dour inner dialogue. And yet I kept coming back for more.

Except in 2015 I decided I’d had enough of the 60K after eight times in ten years. Of course, I would return the following year, we all suffer a bit of memory loss when it comes to certain courses.

So for me in 2015 the next best thing was Brooklyn, a day later. Shorter loops! Fewer loops: no number seven, eight or nine! No Cat Hill, even! Right. Well, after all the race experience wasn’t so bad because while I was running I actually did compare the Prospect Park marathon course to the 9 loops in Central Park, and running just the marathon did seem easier. Knowing I didn’t have to run another eleven miles after that first 26.2 was of some small comfort.

And I did well, crossing the finish line with a totally unexpected PR a month after the last marathon PR. And with that godforsaken hill, six times no less. So back I went in November 2017 preparing to just enjoy myself - if that’s possible, after a couple of race pace-killing injuries slowed me down for the entire year.

Like many around me I took off way too fast but reigned it in and soon settled into a more conversational pace. A knowing and mildly amusing spectator with a sign that read You're Almost There was at the 1 mile marker, where he stayed for at least two hours for us to enjoy, loop after loop. There really weren’t many spectators, but I’m not one to need throngs of crowds to convince me to keep going. Yes, I look great and I know it even though I also know I feel really lousy, I got it. See you again on the next loop, folks.

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I’m happy to say Battle Pass Hill was not so bad, generally. Knowing it’s ahead and exactly how long it takes to complete is indeed comforting, and I found myself actually passing people by just keeping my head down and methodically moving forward and up. Likewise, sticking to the curb on the left and running across the tangents when available made me feel or at least create the illusion of shaving a little distance off of the course. If I know I’m going to be playing mind games during the final hour of running a marathon, I might as well play games I can win. Happily, my Garmin read 26.26 miles when I crossed the finish, the shortest marathon distance I’ve run on a measured course.

And once I knew I was going to be finishing neither my slowest nor my fastest marathon, I stopped to walk and stretch at the water stations in the last loop. I negotiated with myself a 20-30 second break during each, and the time lost didn’t make or break my day. My last mile was marked by the usual negative split/let’s get this over effort mixed with sullen relief. And they announce your name as you cross the finish line, if you can still hear it. It was worth the effort despite the festival of loops and increasingly loopy mindset for which I’d signed up, again.

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The New York City Marathon started in 1970 with 4 consecutive 6-mile loops of Central Park only to become the 5-borough mega-race that it is today. The goal for NYCRUNS and Steve Lastoe has always been to put The Brooklyn Marathon course on the streets of Brooklyn, not just solely in the park. Word has it that may happen sooner than we know, while the race may possibly be held earlier, perhaps next October. Since this year’s NYCRUNS Queens Half (held the day before this marathon) was a test run for a large-scale event by the race organizers, that seems to have been the success they needed to prove they can organize another larger-scale event on city streets. So wherever the event is held next year, consider The Brooklyn Marathon in whatever form the course takes. At the very least it’s a nice back-up marathon for those who also want to try something new and local. And you can practice your tangents.

Steven Waldon