Race Autopsy: Brooklyn Half Marathon 2014

Unless you’re a pro runner with some writing chops, who runs in exotic locales against the best runners in the world, like Dakota Jones, or Sabrina Moran, odds are your race report is tedious and uninteresting to just about everyone but you. Your mom may say she enjoyed reading it, but she’s lying.

Still, race reports serve a purpose. By setting down the details of what happened, we can assess what went right, and what went wrong.  We can learn, and hopefully, we can improve. This is of little consolation to the reader (who should probably just stop here), but it can be of help to the writer.

And so, here’s my dull, boring, and not very good race report for the Brooklyn Half Marathon.

In a nutshell, it wasn’t a bad race, but it wasn’t a great one, either.  I’d trained as best I could given a gimpy foot and a five-month-old baby.  I averaged around twenty miles a week for the two months leading up to the race focusing on miles, not speed. I got in a half dozen thirteen-mile runs, but did no speed work.  I choose to focus on miles because speed work often results in me getting injured.  And this year, more than any racing goal, I wish to remain injury free.

I started the race with good pal Joe. Joe’s an old friend and fellow aging amateur jock. He and I took totally different approaches to our training. He ran, I think, one 13 miler in the lead up to the race and did very few runs in double digits.  He did, however, do much more speed training than I did.  I was worried he was going to blow up at the end. I was wrong.

We took the first half easy. We cruised down Washington, up Flatbush, around Grand Army Plaza and back down Flatbush at a comfortable 8:30ish pace chatting about running, getting old, and the changes we’ve seen in the County of Kings.  Joe and I have both lived in Brooklyn for the better part of fifteen years and it is hard to imagine the Washington Avenue of 2000 playing host to 20,000 runners. In some ways, I miss the old days, the old Brooklyn of cheap rent, danger, and diversity; in other ways, I don’t.  Its great to see Brooklyn celebrated by such a huge crowd of runners, but its important to remember all the people who can no longer afford to live here or run in some dumb ass race.

Still, it was 8 am on a Saturday morning and Brooklyn was glorious.  The crowds for this race are never big, but those who came out were great: conga drum players, weirdos with ukuleles, and dozens of members of my running club, Prospect Park Track Club.  After we’d entered Prospect Park, an older PPTC member shouted at us “PPTC! Go Get ‘Em! This is Your Park!”

And it is; and we did.  We dropped the pace to low 8s as we circled the Park and headed out onto Ocean Parkway at mile seven.

This is the second year in a row I’ve run this race.  Last year, I went out much faster, at just under 8 minutes per mile.  By the time I hit Ocean Parkway, I was barely holding on to 8-minute miles. This year, I felt fresh and ready to go at the same pace at the same place in the race. I couldn’t tell if I was running smart, or too conservative.

One day, I’ll figure this whole racing thing out, but this wasn’t that day.

Somewhere around the 8-mile mark, Joe dropped me. He was feeling strong and picked it up.  He ran low sevens and a high six* for the last part of the course. I just didn’t have that extra gear. I got the pace down to high 7s, but didn’t have the legs for anything faster.  I finished feeling strong, but not fast, in a time of 1:49:08.  Joe finished in 1:45 something.

So, what went wrong? Why did someone who ran significantly less mileage than me beat me so handily? There’s probably a bunch of reasons:  Little Dude was up half the night and I started the race exhausted; my foot has been giving me some problems; I’m older. Etc, etc, etc. To me these sound more like excuses than reasons.  They’re also all factors I cannot control. The one factor I can control? Speed work. Joe did much more of it than I did and it appears to have paid off.

Lesson learned.  If you want to run fast, you have to train for fast.  It isn’t like this is new information, but seeing Joe pull away really put it in stark relief.  This next cycle of training will include consistent mileage, hopefully more than the last cycle. However, just as importantly, it will include regular speed work.  In the past, I’ve gotten hurt doing speed work, especially short intervals, so I plan to stick to hill work and tempo runs.  No need for 400 repeats when the distance I’m focusing on is 13.1 miles.

After the race we gathered with our partners and my kid for a celebratory beer.  As the loser, I was buying.  We’re already looking at some fall halfs — Joe will be buying the beer then.

Little Dude, Joe and I post-race. LD be all "damn dude, you smell."

Little Dude, Joe and I post-race. LD be all “damn dude, you smell.”

* One of the great things about training now-a-days is the ability to slice and dice not only your own running data, but also that of your training partners and friends. Joe and I both use Strava and it was easy to consult his log when writing this thing up.

Long Run: The Gowanus Bridges

I’ve written before about my fascination with New York’s waterways and the bridges that cross them and I’ve got a special place in my heart for the Gowanus Canal and the small bridges that cross this polluted little slice of Brooklyn. A couple of weekends ago, I plotted out a 13 miler that crossed all five of the Gowanus bridges and convinced good buddy Joe to come along.  The first half was a blast, second half was a slog. So it goes.

Starting from my hood (Prospect Heights), the bridges over the Gowanus canal, in order, are the Union Street Bridge, the Carroll Street Bridge, the Third Street Bridge, the Ninth Street Bridge and the Hamilton Avenue Bridge.  Pedestrian access to all of them is easy – just run down the street they’re named after until you hit them, then run over them.  Done.

The Union Street Bridge

The Union Street Bridge

Check out the classic Carroll Street Bridge sign. dating from when the Gowanus was still an active industrial waterway

Check out the classic Carroll Street Bridge sign. dating from when the Gowanus was still an active industrial waterway

Joe and I zippered the canal, crossing the Union street bridge, then cruising down Bond street, then back over the Carroll, up third avenue, over the third street bridge and so on until we crossed the Hamilton Bridge.

The view from the Carroll Street Bridge

The view from the Carroll Street Bridge


Wildlife of the Gowanus Canal.

Wildlife of the Gowanus Canal.

Joe thought it was silly, but he lacks a sense of adventure.  I thought it was fun.

Joe on the Third Street Bridge being all, "dude, this is stupid".

Joe on the Third Street Bridge being all, “dude, this is stupid”.

The Gowanus area is a microcosm of the Brooklyn of today. There’s a Whole Foods overlooking the polluted canal, a number of hotels and my climbing gym.  But there are also scrap metal yards, lumber yards, and sketchy mechanics working right on the street.


Ninth Street Bridge

As parts of my borough get more yuppifieid (like where I live) its important to realize that just two miles from multi-million dollar Brownstone Brooklyn there’s an active scrap yard where people pull up in beat up old vans and shopping carts to sell scrap metal, Bubs – style.


Hamilton Avenue from Ninth Street

Brooklyn isn’t all condo and artisanal pour over coffee.  Some of it is very broke and just trying to get by.  As a matter of fact, as this article shows, much of the borough is actually getting poorer.  As our mayor has said, it’s a tale of two cities. You can see that dichotomy on a run through Gowanus.


Hamilton Avenue 

After the bridges, we climbed Third Street to the Park for some loops.  Joe’s knee was bothering him, so he headed home after a half loop.  I completed a standard figure 8 and was feeling pretty gassed by the end.  When I finished the sun was high and the weather, for once, was warm . I was exhausted, but already plotting my next run through this ever changing city.

The Long Run – The Park and the Bridge

I run for many reasons. To stay fit, to stay thin, to sleep at night, to have time to think, to work at the nearly impossible goal of becoming fast, and to explore.  Exploration can come in different forms. It can be exploring new trails and road, or seeing old roads in a new way.  This weekend’s long run included a bit of both new roads and time spent in familiar places.

Things began with two figure eight loops in Prospect Park.  The figure eight loop takes you down West Drive to Center Drive, across Center to East Drive, where you take a right, cruise past the lake, and up the West Drive hill, then a right back down Center Drive over the East Drive where you take a left and head up Zoo hill.  From my house and around the figure 8 is just over six miles, two of them is makes it just about ten.

The Grand Army Entrance on a perfect early spring day.

The Grand Army Entrance on a perfect early spring day.

I’ve run thousands and thousands of miles in this park — 2,858 actually, according to my running ahead log.  I’ve run through all conditions. I’ve run alone and with friends.  This weekend, it was a prefect early spring day and I did the first loop with my Saturday run buddy, Joe.  We talked about life, love, work and kids.  We talked about running, rock climbing and how fat and old we have become.  It was a great way to spend an hour.

After Joe left, I did another figure 8 alone listening to a mad decent podcast.  The roads were packed with Brooklynites running, walking and cycling.  Kids were pushing scooters; hipsters were riding long boards.  It was all “tres Brooklyn” as, allegedly, the French say.

Two loops equals ten miles.  Three more to go.  I headed down Union street through the heart of strollerfied Park Slope all the way  to the Union Street Bridge and the majestic Gowanus Canal.


The Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn’s New York’s finest superfund site has been described by the Environmental Protection Agency thus:

The Gowanus Canal, in Brooklyn, New York, is bounded by several communities including Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens and Red Canal was once a major transportation route for the then separate cities of Brooklyn and New York City. Manufactured gas plants, mills, tanneries, and chemical plants are among the many facilities that operated along the canal.


You can’t really read it, but there’s a sign in this photo that warns you, among other dangers, not to smoke near the water.

 As a result of years of discharges, storm water runoff, sewer outflows and industrial pollutants, the Gowanus Canal has become one of the nation’s most extensively contaminated water bodies. Contaminants include PCBs, coal tar wastes, heavy metals and volatile organics. The contamination poses a threat  to the nearby residents who use the canal for fishing and recreation.


This gorgeous piece of waterway is crossed by five bridges. Over the next couple of weeks, I plan to run them all.  In fact, inspired by Phil McCarthy’s excellent “Bridge of the Week series” I plan to spend a lot more time exploring the cities bridges. Some of theses bridges, like Union Street are old friends. Others will be new.  I’m looking forward to seeing them all.

After Union Street it was down Nevins to Dean. Its amazing how industrial Nevins still is in this area.  Seven years from now, the fabrication and demolition shops will be apartment buildings people by finance and advertising professionals, just you watch.  I’ll run the street again then, and it will be like exploring a new world.


Ten Hours Post Sandy

Since I started obsessively logging my workout activities on Running Ahead, I have fantasized about crossing the line into serious jock-hood – spending ten hours or more exercising in a week.  I have come close a number of times, but never got there until Hurricane Sandy. This past week I climbed for two hours.  Ran thirty miles in roughly five hours, rode my bike thirty six miles in three hours and did other body weight work for another fifteen minutes.  Totaled up, that’s just over ten hours of exercise.  Its funny what you can do when you have to get to work and the trains aren’t running.


A crummy photo of a gas line on the marathon course.

Two hours of that time and thirteen of those miles came on Saturday when I ran part of the marathon course going down Bedford avenue through the Hasidic part of Williamsburg.  There are three gas stations on that section of Bedford.  Only one had gas, and the line for it stretched for ten blocks.  Police officers were patrolling the line, and pumping the gas.  It was an orderly but surreal scene.  I wrote repeatedly on this blog about how I wanted the marathon to go forward, but seeing those lines this weekend, I cannot imagine how it would have been possible.

I was expecting to be more excited about this little jock milestone, but the destruction we’re seeing everywhere along the east coast, the gas lines I ran past  on Saturday, the nasty  fight over the marathon, and the stories I heard while volunteering at a donation depot yesterday have left me unexcited about my stupid workout records.

No gas at the corner of Bedford and Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

The time running and biking helped me deal with the insanity of this week, but they were a luxury I was afforded because I was lucky enough to live in a neighborhood on high ground.  Perhaps the next ten hour week will feel more triumphant, but for now I plan on running again tonight and donating to New York Cares.  I hope you’re doing the same.

Commuter Ethics in a Disaster Zone

I’ve lived in New York through September 11th the black out of 2003, the transit strike of 2005, and now Hurricane Sandy.  In the days after those events, I’ve ridden my bike many times through a downtown Manhattan without power.  One thing has always been true – people behave better.

New York can be an aggressive place. Cars will cut you off when you’re trying to cross the sidewalk, cyclists routinely barrel through red lights and jaywalkers will casually walk across four lanes of traffic.  The roads of New York can be chaotic and perilous.  But this morning, when the street lights of lower Manhattan were out, the subways were closed, and there were thousands of inexperienced cyclists skateboarder, roller-bladers and razor scooter riders on the streets things went remarkably smoothly.  Even at the many intersections where there were no police, cars gingerly inched forward and cyclists waited patiently for their turn.

It was as if with the rules governing our behavior removed, we decided to act more ethically.  Perhaps because of some altruistic feeling brought on by the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, or perhaps because of some internalization of the categorical imperative – i.e. if I behave reasonably that asshole is more likely to behave reasonably and I won’t end up getting killed on 8th avenue.  I am cynical enough to think it is most likely the later.  But either way, it made what could have been a very dangerous ride to work a little less terrify.

Immanuel Kant, whose complex and nuanced theory of the categorical imperative I have entirely mangled in this blog post.

Now let’s see what this evening brings when we all repeat the experiment in play nice road sharing in the dark.

A Post Hurricane Run

I am lucky enough to live in a neighborhood in Brooklyn called Prospect Heights.  Heights is in the name for a reason- we’re on relatively high ground and far outside the evacuations zones.  All we saw from Hurricane Sandy were a couple of downed trees and some blown over signs.  We were very, very lucky.  Many of my fellow New Yorkers and people up and down the east coast weren’t so fortunate.  My sister in Connecticut  my in-laws in the West Village, and many, many others are without power.  Whole neighborhoods will need to be rebuilt and billions of dollars will have to be spent.  Its going to take awhile, but we’ll get it done.

My office is without power, and our remote server were down so there was no work for me today.  Instead, I did a six miler around the neighborhood to see what I could see.

The scenic Gowanus Canal.

The Gowanus Canal is a superfund sight and one of the most polluted water ways in the New York area.  There were worries that it would overflow its bank sending god knows what into the streets of the neighborhoods near by.  Thankfully, this does not appear to have happened to any large degree.  Any overflow was long gone when I ran by there this afternoon.  It looked like  the same old canal,  though the smell was even worse than normal.

Your humble editor at the canal, the smell was pretty bad… even for industrial Brooklyn.

After the check in at the canal, I ran up to Prospect Park to check out the damage in around my favorite loop.  The City had already cleared the debris from the roadway which circles the park, but dozen of trees were down around the perimeter including many which had been pulled from the ground.

Hundred of people were out survey the scene, taking pictures of themselves in front of downed trees.  I was out there two, taking photos, and thinking about how lucky I am that I get to go home, shower, turn on my computer and post this little piece to my stupid blog.

Downed trees in Prospect Park

New York and the whole east coast are going to need a lot of help in the coming months.  I know that New York Cares is already out in many parts of Brooklyn giving a hand, you can donate to them here.

The Long Run – Two Bridges

Considering the week I’d had, I was feeling pretty good when Joe from Movement Movement and I started out on a 13 miler on Saturday afternoon.  It was down Gates avenue to Bedford, then Bedford through the Satmar portion of Williamsburg and up and over the Williamsburg bridge down the Eastside greenway back over the Manhattan and up Flatbush Avenue.

Manhattan from the Manhattan bridge. The sky was already looking ominous and Sandy was far far away.

By the time we got back to Joe’s place, we’d only hit 10.5 miles so we just ran around in circles like a couple of idiots until we hit 13. Then I went home, showered, changed, and headed straight to a wedding in which both husband and wife had run Boston qualifying times, the best man was some sort of uber double ultra ironman guy and I hung out all night with a guy who climbed Everest when he was nineteen.  Needless to say, it was not a crowd that would be impressed with my 13 miler.  But whatever, a man has to (re)start somewhere.

The Brooklyn Bridge as seen from the Manhattan Bridge

It was a gorgeous day.  Sandy was a long way off and Joe and I had plenty of time to discuss running, getting old, the pettiness endemic in progressive politics, and what we’d had for breakfast.  The miles go by so much faster when you’re sharing them with someone else.  Looking forward to many more runs like this as the days get colder.  I’m running pain free, it feels so good, even when it doesn’t.

Joe: “When I open my eyes, I’ll be just as fast as Ryan Hall.”