FitnessNew YorkRunning

The best and worst of running in Central Park

In the last month I’ve run around Central Park’s large loop numerous times. First to mix up my daily run’s scenery on my morning run from my office. Second, in the Big Apple Half Marathon in December. Then, most recently, with a loop that featured a run up the famed Harlem Hill three times for the Fred Lebow Half Marathon. After all these loops, I’m willing to say that Central Park may be one of the best places for long runs in New York, but I don’t need to run it again any time soon.


Central Park is iconic, an absolute model of a massive urban park with so much history and influence in culture. For runners, it’s one of only a few places to run in the city without worrying about cars, intersections, and crowds. The long loop is a bit over six miles of wide pavement. For a city known for being pretty flat though, the loop has a surprising amount of rolling elevation change, and not only the famed Harlem Hill, certainly the steepest and highest hill. However, it’s actually the ones right before and after that always get me the most, probably because they’re unexpected around the main hill.


The first time I ran a loop around the park this winter was on a day I needed a long run and was completely sick of my normal route over to the East River park and along the water. Other times I might have gone over to the Hudson River park instead which has a more scenic and longer path for a run, but I was sick of dodging the crowds around Penn Station and stopping a dozen times for the traffic lights along the way. Running up to the park may have involved more lights, but my theory was that since they were cross traffic, there would be less traffic slowing me down.


Unfortunately I didn’t count on it being the day of the Rockefeller Tree lighting ceremony and streets getting closed off for it. Adding in the crowds already starting to form all around the area, and it was still just as difficult to get to the park as over to either river. Still, after I got there it was smooth sailing all the way around the park and back until I left and hit the streets again. For a nine mile training run, it actually worked out pretty well.


Then came the two half marathons. First up was the NYRuns Big Apple Half Marathon. My first run with the organization, I picked it due to recommendations from others about how well run the organization’s races were. It was without a doubt the easiest bib pickup and start to a race I’ve done in New York. Pickup was close enough to my office to go on a Friday at lunch, and I got in and out with not only my materials, but my friend’s as well in under 5 minutes.


The day of the race was just as easy. I got into the park with less than 20 minutes to spare and had no trouble lining up and heading off. This race, like most around the park, involved two full loops to get to 13.1 miles. That’s two runs up and over the hills and holding my breath at the bottom of the park where the horses spend most of their time and the smell is thick in the air. It was an uneventful race for me, one where I got to enjoy a rare run talking to a friend and not just running solo.


My final run in the park for the winter and probably for a while was the Fred Lebow Half Marathon. This was my fourth time running it, but thanks to some construction, the loop was changed from two laps of the park to three loops over the hill. While a bit more structured than the Big Apple Half, it was still easy to quickly get into a start coral and get going. I spent far more time hunting for a parking spot only to find one right next to the start line on the side of the park than I did waiting for the race to start.


It’s also my favorite NY Road Runner race for swag and the medal. This year I added another pretty nice New Balance winter hat to my collection as well as a stop-watch themed medal – Fred Lebow was known to stand with a watch timing his runners in the park . I always see a ton of the hats from previous years out and about in the city, and I know I’ll get a lot of use out of mine.


The part about the race I didn’t enjoy so much, and what will probably keep me from the park for the time being, was the triple run up Harlem Hill. The day before I had run 17 miles on the treadmill as part of my 50k training, so my legs were just a bit tired for the race. Three jaunts up not only Harlem Hill but the ones before and after made for a long race for me. I felt fine the first two loops, but the third was killer. It wasn’t even the uphill that was the worst, but the feeling after reaching the top only to have legs continue burning on the way down. At least going up uses slightly different, less sore muscles.


It’s not that the park has hills, it’s something about the configuration of them and the length of the other flat stretches of the route that get me. As much as the park is better than running pretty much anywhere else in the city, I think I prefer the woods and streets around my house far more. I’ve got the same lack of traffic and crowds, no lights at all, and some hills to beat anything in the park.


After this, I’m a bit over the park, at least for a while. Blame it on the cold weather, but I haven’t been as interested in running outside recently, at least before work when it’s often below freezing. I’ve come to prefer running around our neighborhood and the state park near us to the city. At least until the sun starts to come back, I’ll be staying out of the park and away from the hills for a while.

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