The Washington Heights Salsa, Blues and Shamrocks 5K: Some Thoughts, Friendly Advice and Modest Proposals by Richard White.

Each year, as February comes and goes, a delightful roller coaster of a race in northern Manhattan sneaks up on the running schedules of spring marathon trainees and happy running warriors alike. It’s really for those who prefer their anaerobic workouts to be intense and brief, and just as likely it will be an early race season event for the unsuspecting and the unprepared. And perhaps it’s for those runners who are all these things. Following is a brief rundown, puns always intentional, of what to expect and how to be at least better prepared for this 5K along rip-rolling Fort Washington Avenue on the first Sunday in March.

Before addressing a race strategy… and for those of you who are not ‘racing’, as in not running this at your own speedy 5K pace, you may still find the course a bit challenging. Put another way, if you've not run up a hill or two since the first of the year you will find achieving a PR finish time on this very course somewhat difficult. So as is always the case, identify your race day goal before blast-off. If running up hills along with a brief and intense speed effort are not what you were thinking of when you signed up for a chilly winter Sunday morning NYRR points race, then fine. Always know when you’re ready to race, and if this is not the day, you’ve got the whole rest of the year to enjoy breathless leg-burning speed workouts with water stations. If you’re unfamiliar with the course, go to the NYRR website and check out the course map. If you turn it upside down you’ll see the fitting outline of a hangman’s noose. Charming and adorable.

Cheeriness aside… whether you’re racing for time or running for exercise or just achieving your odd goals of fun crossed with self-delusion, here are some tips and observations I’ve made after participating in this event a bit more often than I care to admit to over the years.

  • It is likely it will be chilly in the corral, so pack and check a bag beforehand with toasty after-race clothing and a separate inner bag for sealing up any sweaty layers you’ll shed post-race before heading home. Or better yet, before heading off to P&J’s brunch for wayward Front Runners, a reward you will have certainly earned. 
  • The assigned corrals are crowded and narrow, so sashay into yours just a little earlier than you would normally before NYRR races. You’ll be dressed as if it’s 10-15 degrees warmer that it is, as one does. It will probably be cold, but that will be a distant and fond memory by the time you arrive at the top of the first hill.
  • The first few moments of the race start has all the charm of Black Friday morning at Macy’s, you’d think $100 flat screens were being given out on 180th Street. So it’s all rather a bit insane, but you probably already knew that, just look around at all those people moving forward in a semi-agitated state. Don’t take sharp elbows personally, and besides, bad karma for the rude runner (and for us all) arrives with the first of four uphills dead ahead.
  • Be mindful of the cross street numbers during the first and last miles. The start line is slightly past 173rd and the finish is right about 170th, now behind you. When you’re tired and churlish it’s good to know how far you’ve gone and how much distance you’ve got left to go on the course.
  • Five blocks in (at 178th Street), before going under the GW Bridge underpass, shoot a look over to the left for a nice view stretching westward to the flyover states. You’ll be coming back through here later from the other direction but of course by then you won’t be quite so interested in sightseeing. So take a nice look before the party really gets going. 
  • Continuing on, right about 180th Street is where the course begins to ramp up. It gets steeper, ending after 3 city blocks (the shorter north-south kind, not cross-town, thank you). And then the roller-coaster ride heads back down for yet another 4 blocks… only to bottom out for another challenging 4-block trip back up. After you cross 190th Street, you’re flattening out. The course, that is.
  • The start of Mile 2 appears right before entering Fort Tryon Park. After that first mile of rollers there’s that welcome downhill that’s .3 miles long. It levels off right alongside The Cloisters museum. If you’ve not been to The Cloisters, it’s part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and houses one of the best collections of medieval art in the U.S. Sections of the building were created from monasteries in Europe and were shipped in, rebuilt and installed as part of the museum, which now has about 2000 works of art inside. You may not be thinking of unicorn tapestries while looping around the complex, but a moment of sightseeing might help keep your mind from continually monitoring fatigue.
  • The road now becomes a two-way race course, most of us will see the faster folks on the left, ascending the hill. If you still have the lung capacity, pick out a struggling friend or teammate in the opposing lane and shout out an encouraging word or two, whatever form that may take. Again, occupying your mind away from your effort, even for a few seconds may be helpful when you find yourself struggling. That goes for either direction.
  • As you come back around The Cloisters the course ramps up a little early before heading back up the hill. This section is .35 miles long, and is as steep as any hill during the race. Again, the road is back to being a two-way course, stampeding runners wearing black leggings and flapping numbers descend the road on your left. It’s not an easy course stretch, power up and get through until you reach the traffic circle where it again flattens out.
  • Mile 2 is over before the top of that hill. The third and final mile section is, you guessed it, a reverse profile of the first mile: down-up-down. The hills aren’t over, but it nets out to a downhill, so get your running form back while letting gravity help with the recovery. With a little more to go, finishing at about 170th Street, a good idea for the final mile is to hold on to your pace without losing any control on the downhills. It’s ok to make up time, but not at the expense of injury or an embarrassing face-plant this early in the race season (face-plants are much funnier later in the year, besides). Cross the finish line looking like you do this every day: head up, knees up, shoulders back, as much of a smile as you can muster. And walk briskly once you’re done, some runners behind you are flying through the finish line, you don’t want to get mowed down.

So for those runners who want a less intense race effort: get up those four hills during the race, recover on the four downhills, keep your pace, sightsee a little, offer encouragement, smile for the cameras. The race may still not be easy, but you probably don’t get to run around Romanesque buildings very often, either. To recap, break up the race into sections. Mile 1: Up-down-up. Mile 2: down and around then up. Mile 3: down-up-down. Mile 4 for everybody, regardless of pace: brunch.

… And if you’re racing:

For many of you it will be a racing day and not only a Sunday morning tour of the upper reaches of Manhattan. It will be a test of the strength of your convictions. And physical ability. And for me, mental ability, too.

Be honest with yourself on your race goals. Unless you’ve never run a 5K, it’s not a great course for a 5K PR. You’re going to know by the end of mile 2 and quite possibly sooner whether or not it’s ‘your day’. Better yet, assuming you’ve done this race before, perhaps shoot for a course PR. 

Long before blasting off determine your expected 5K pace. Remember, it’s not your all-out 10 meter sprint pace, so when starting out you just want to ramp it up to a doable but somewhat uncomfortable fast effort you can sustain for barely 3.1 miles. The first 5 blocks consist of a gently sloping uphill that many run way too fast only to see their pace sadly drop during the first hill that begins at 180th. It’s too early for burning quads, they’ll be showing up soon enough near the end of mile 2. So cool it a little, and when you start up the hill it’s fine to lower your speed 5-7% or so to compensate for the increased workload but keeping the same effort. When you get a downhill, and remember, in this race there’s always a downhill coming up, you can make up some lost time there. Perhaps not all of it, but enough to get your average pace closer to your predicted 5K pace. So lower slightly your expected pace on the uphills, increase slightly your pace on the down, recover with a return to proper running form and breathing on the flat sections. 

All that said, and it’s all easy to say, you may ask how I myself approach this course. Assuming I’m racing that day, here’s my approach:

Using recent race times and workout performances I will first determine my predicted 5K race pace and compare it to previous year’s finish times on this course. Now I’d love to run a 5 minute/mile, no, make that a 6 minute/mile in this race, but neither will be happening. I will be realistic using my past numbers as a guide. For example, if I’ve recently raced a 90 minute half marathon then I’ll know that a 6:52 pace in that race translates to a 6:20minute/mile 5K effort on a similar course elevation. Generally, my 5K pace will be about 15-20 seconds per mile faster than race pace times at longer distances such as the 5-miler and 10K. But again, I will have to be realistic, especially given the uneven terrain. I may have to adjust my pace by adding a few seconds to account for the hills. Yet I have to be smart but somewhat daring by pushing myself. Sure, it will be an intense effort over a short period of time, but the long-term game matters too. Fast 5k races may lead to faster marathons. (For those who are unsure about or don't know their respective paces, find a various distance race effort calculator on-line and figure out your current 5K pace based on recent running performances).

8:30AM on race day, after I arrive and a half hour before the start time, I go to an empty numbered side street and jog-run a loop of the block length for a mile in total with five 10-second pick-ups during the second half. Time to wake my legs up and get used to quick turnover. Soon I’m in the corral and tamping down nervous energy and absentmindedly checking my shoelaces and everyone else’s, for that matter.

 

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MILE 1

Once the start gun goes off, I’m staying center right or left on the course. Eyes directed slightly downward to identify and avoid any potholes, at least until the crowd starts to thin out and I can better see what’s ahead. Car side view mirrors will be arriving along either side of the street at 8-9 miles an hour, that’s why I’m staying toward the middle of the course. Too many close calls in years past with side view mirrors. And I will not take it personally when receiving someone else’s sharp elbows; many folks, especially the younger runners, are running blindly at pants-on-fire pace whether they should or not, and are utterly oblivious.

So all that means is I’m going to ramp it up and not explode out of the gate. That said, by the time I see the GW Bridge on the left I’m at my own 5K pace, a pace I’d describe as comfortably difficult. And two blocks later, at 180th Street I’m going to attack that first hill. Which simply means I say to myself: Attack Hill. Attack Hill. I will use whatever mantra I can to focus on picking my legs up and to gather the sheer mental force to finish off that part of the course. And I know it will get tougher a third of the way up once my oxygen debt really kicks in and I’m nearing my lactate threshold. But thoughts of VDOT values, graphs and numbers evaporate during this hard effort. Tough is tough, time to suck it up and get it over with, one mile at a time. Good news, there’s a rewarding downhill coming up.

The course flattens out again, time for a 5 second mini-recovery. Like a vertically-thrown tennis ball hanging mid-air and overtaken by gravity, I’m ready to accelerate back down to earth. Once there I’ll make sure proper form has returned and I’m ready to make up some lost time through a faster pace while not losing control over leg turnover. I’ll get my race pace breathing back, too. I will be physically and mentally ready for the next hill. I will say this and listen, even if I have early doubts.

The second hill has the same grade, but it’s only a little shorter, ending about 191st Street. But wait, there’s no 191st Street, only 190th, but I’m going to power up anyway, again at a little less than my average 5K race pace. Attack Hill. Where the road flattens out before the Mile 2 marker, I’ll get my breathing, pace and form back. Time to get medieval at The Cloisters.

MILE 2

The generous downhill in Fort Tryon Park starts out with a moderately sloping section that gets pleasantly steeper halfway through. It always feels great, comparatively speaking, many runners fly right down this hill. But as Miss Jackson once said, I’ve got control, and lots of it. Clearly, at this point in the race my inner dialogue chooses from a wide range of pop culture material. 

And this is precisely when I wish the race was a 1.5 miler with a surprise-you’re-done finish line hidden behind The Cloisters. Never mind that delusion, I’m almost halfway done.

But before hitting that welcome midway point, the course loops left and up a little, that’s indeed an incline they didn’t tell me about, I forget about that every year. It’s going to be OK, the course heads back down on the other side. No need for hill attacks, just keep your pace and sunny disposition. Still too busy to notice New Jersey across the river, though.

And now the third implacable hill looms ahead, with a slow ramping up before meeting the arrival of the Mongol hordes streaming down the other side. Time to attack yet another hill, perhaps this time armed with some well-seasoned language. Shoulders back but barely bent over from the waist, hips slightly forward, knees lifted up, pistons hitting the asphalt. Eyes periodically up to the hilltop that’s slowly coming into view, curving right. If my quads are going to burn today, it’s here. Acknowledge teammates. Attack %&#* Hill. Near the hilltop spacetime slows down as acceleration begins to suffer, my personalized micro-theory of relativity. Self-doubt and recriminations safely tucked away behind gritted teeth. Lip-synching for my life.

MILE 3

Crossing over (multiple meanings there) into mile 3 as I’m finishing the hill, finally. Get through the traffic circle by ramping up to a return to form and attitude. Back to average 5K pace after 5-10 second recovery and using earth’s gravitational force when necessary. I am reminded that gravity can be a friend during a race and any and all race friends are welcome here, too. Plus gravity never says ‘you’re almost there’.

One more uphill a little further, they aren’t over. But it’s the last one, it lasts for only 3-4 blocks. Attack. Eyes up, feet up. If I’m getting tired it’s time to snap my legs back up off the ground despite the counter-intuitive impulse. Once the hill is over I’m back to recovery and a final downhill making-up-time push.

Again, I will recover for lost time as best I can while staying in control. If I see a teammate or friend not far ahead I will try to reach them or try to keep up with any passing runners. I will silently tick off the street numbers as they arrive. 179, 178, 177… And I will even stay in control after the 3 mile mark, though I will attempt a final pick-up just short of all-or-nothing with less than .1 miles to go.

As soon as I cross the finish line I swear to myself I’ll never run this race again. Until next year. 

After departing the finish line I’ll spend a few quiet minutes on the curb rocking and weeping, later searching for a misplaced lung on Fort Washington Avenue; but before I stagger off to bag check, I vow to learn something, anything, from today’s race experience. That means later today I will check my splits, compare this 5K time to my previous Coogans’ performances versus my predicted pace, assess (not judge) what happened and how my mind and body responded to the effort. I will have a shiny new current 5K pace, admittedly on a hilly course, that I may use to extrapolate paces for longer courses and training this spring. I will also vow to run this course at least once early next year to re-acquaint myself with the terrain so that I am better prepared. Which I indeed do every February, pre-race knowledge is power, to borrow a phrase.

And after all this discussion about hard truths and nasty hills, you’d still have the right to say that this race experience isn’t, or if you’re reading this later, wasn’t so bad after all. Perhaps I’ve laid it on a little thick, but in my race log book that’s not such a bad thing. I’d rather be warned about trouble ahead of time and then discover later that the predicted pain was sweetly exaggerated. I love finishing a race and announcing to myself ’that wasn’t so bad after all’. But all of this still doesn’t change one of the simple truths of road racing: if you run up a long hill at or near your top speed, it will kick your ass.

So good luck out there…

P.S. And finally you may ask, why do some old-timers call this race ‘Coogan’s’? Years before this 5K was taken over and promoted by the NYRR it was organized by the owners of the locally-owned Coogan’s Restaurant to benefit the Armory Track and Field Center. Coogan’s, nearby at Broadway and 169th St., is as runner-friendly a place as you’ll find anywhere. Recently faced with extinction by a depressingly familiar Manhattan rent increase, Coogan’s was saved by the Miranda family and presumably a nice wad of cash from one of several truckloads of Hamilton box office receipts. Viva Coogan’s!

Steven Waldon