Last Thursday at noon, registration opened for the 2016 Airbnb Brooklyn Half Marathon. Fifty-two minutes later, it was sold out. In less than an hour, 27,000 people, presumably of their own volition, willingly singed up to run 13.1 miles through Brooklyn on Saturday, May 21st. For some perspective, last year’s race sold out in just under seven hours. In 2014 it took a whole 48 hours. This is, by pretty much any measure, completely insane.
Except it’s not, really. Running’s popularity has been growing at a rapid rate for years now, and it’s not exactly like people have been sleeping on Brooklyn, either. Put the two together, and it’s no wonder it’s come to attract enough eager hopefuls that the New York Road Runners website nearly crashed under their weight.
The Airbnb Brooklyn Half has become such a high-profile event that a huge number of people who’ve never run, let alone raced, are signing up to trek from Grand Army Plaza, through Prospect Park and down Ocean Parkway to the glorious finish at the boardwalk in Coney Island. We spoke to John Honerkamp, one of NYRR’s running coaches and an all-around tireless advocate for the sport, about what first-timers should expect, how they can best prepare, and whether they can keep getting drunk all the time. Have your own question for John? Send an email with “Ask the Coach” in the subject line and we’ll get it answered in a future installment.
So John. What has the first-time runner gotten his or herself into? For those who registered and are now crippled with regret and self-doubt, tell us why the Brooklyn Half will be a magical experience. (It will be a magical experience, right?)
For people running the Airbnb Brooklyn Half for the first time, it can be a little scary initially, but the fact that they signed up is a great motivation to actually get out there. The Brooklyn Half by itself is a great little tour of Brooklyn. It starts at Grand Army Plaza and goes through historic Prospect Park, and then you shoot down Ocean Parkway, and it it’s a really nice climax down at the Coney Island boardwalk. It’s May, and Memorial Day is right around the corner, so it helps kick off summer for a lot of us runners. And there it’s pretty easy to find a place to celebrate with your medal, with all the bars and restaurants down there. So there’s also that incentive.
Assuming we’re talking about real beginners here, they’ll need to properly equip themselves. Seems sensible that they’d start with sneakers, yes? How should they go about choosing them?
Luckily, here in the five boroughs there’s no shortage of specialty running stores. It’s intimidating to go into some of these stores if you’re a beginner because you think, they’re for the “real runner,” and I put “real runner” in quotes—people think they’re fake runners or they’re dressed up as runners, like it’s Halloween. A runner is someone who runs from point A to point B, putting one foot in front of the other—it’s pretty simple.
But, the folks that are trained at these stores, the employees, they’re there especially for the beginner runner. Someone like myself, I know what shoes work for me. But it’s really for the folks that are new. They look at your feet, how narrow or wide it is; they look at your arch, if you have a high arch versus a low arch. Some people have a lot of flexibility and can put anything on their feet and be fine. But some folks can be pretty finicky, and it takes some trial and error to find the right shoe.
But the good news is the only thing you really need is a good pair of running shoes. Gear and all the other accessories are helpful, but they’re not really necessities. The running shoe is where you need to start. Talk to the people at the store. Don’t give yourself 5 or 10 minutes to get shoe; it might take 45 minutes or an hour. Oftentimes they’ll have treadmills, and they’ll have you run on the treadmill and they’ll watch how your foot performs while you’re running. It’s really important to get the right shoes. They can be anywhere from $80 to $140, but it’s a wise investment because you don’t have to spend much more than that.
So there aren’t any other gear purchases would you suggest off the bat? People don’t need to fuck with GPS watches and all that?
Nah, it all depends on whether you’re a data geek. I started running in 1982, so we didn’t really have data devices. Nowadays you can do it with a free app on your phone —track your route, how far you’re going and all that stuff. Other folks want to get a bit more technical. It’s up to the user. It’s an aid, a tool that helps you. But you don’t have to run out and buy a $400 watch, no. I have a simple stop watch that I use, and I get splits when I do repeats and intervals down at the Red Hook track where I work out. You can keep it simple or you can more it more geeky and more data-driven. Whatever drives you.
Aside from Prospect Park, which is sort of a no-brainer, where would you suggest people do their training runs? Brooklyn is full of nice paths with really great views. What are some of your favorites? (We will allow for one Manhattan recommendation as well, if you insist.)
I’m a new resident of Brooklyn, so I’m having fun exploring. Outside of Prospect Park, you have the Red Hook track. There’s also Brooklyn Bridge park—they’ve done some great work over there, where our Airbnb Brooklyn Half pre-party is, so we’ll have some stuff going on there during race week.
New York Road Runners also has this new initiative, the NYRR Open Run. We have one, for free, at Pier 6 in Brooklyn Heights on Thursday nights. You check in at 6:45, and there’s a 5k starting at 7pm. Someone will be there to time you. You don’t need a fancy watch or even a basic watch. If you have a bag, if you’re coming straight from work, folks out there will watch it for you. That’s one run you can guarantee each week that’s free and easy and convenient, and there are also beautiful views of Manhattan.
This past weekend, I did a couple bridges. I started in Manhattan and ran over the 59th Street Bridge, then ran over the Pulaski Bridge. Then the last three were the Williamsburg, Manhattan and Brooklyn. I just kinda did a zig zag over them. People will often run around Greenwood cemetery, too. I think it’s three miles around. I’ve done that a couple times.
Realistically, for someone who’s just looking to finish the race and maybe meet a modest goal time, how much will they need to run over the course of a week? If someone’s only able to commit to three days of running, what should those three days look like?
I think three is a good number for folks just looking to finish. But I want to step back—often people say, “My goal is to just finish,” and we always want to eliminate that word just. Because it’s a pretty big feat. Don’t minimize what you’re trying to do. A half marathon is a pretty big deal.
But yeah, three days a week is all you need. Obviously you can do more, but if you’re doing three, the long run is the anchor of your week. You can do that by miles or minutes so if your longest run is 30 minutes, maybe the week after that you’re running 35, then the week after that 42, then 55… you’re gradually creeping up to double digits in mileage. The other two days a week, both of them could be easy runs where you keep it at conversational pace. But what I like to do, because I get bored, is one of those days I’ll swap out for some type of interval work or hill work or tempo work. Go to track and do eight laps with two minutes of rest in between. Or find a hill in your neighborhood and just run up the hill and walk down or jog down. To me that’s helping your fitness level and helping you learn efforts and paces, and that internal clock. It also breaks up the week, where you’re not just going for another run. I just think it’s more fun to run fast.
Let’s talk a little about nutrition — are there any changes to one’s diet that are particularly impactful during training?
People always ask me, “What do I eat the day before a long run or a race?” and I always say, “Eat what you normally eat.” But you also have to define what works for you. Write down what you eat the night before a long run, and then keep a little diary of what you felt like on the run. Try to find a trend for what works better.
Are we justified in wondering how much faster we’d be if we didn’t drink alcohol all the time?
We are. But then again, Frank Shorter used to have two beers before every marathon, and he won the gold medal. So, I’m not saying everyone should go out and do that, but “everything in moderation” is a pretty good rule of thumb. If you can avoid alcohol the week of the race, you’re gonna get better sleep, you’re gonna be more hydrated. And you do need to hydrate a week out. It’s not just having a glass of water right before. I also feel like if I go out for a long run, I like to reward myself with some mimosas. Earn that brunch. People say once they start training for something, they can eat anything they want. But if they’re in the first week of training and they’re doing three days a week, and they’re running 20 minutes each time, that’s not really a ton of calories. It might be a lot compared to zero. But they’re like, “Why am I gaining weight?” Because, well, you’re eating like a pig.
Oh, and I hear a lot of people talking about incorporating an additional race into their training. What’s that all about? When should it be, roughly, and what kind of distance are we talking?
It just keeps you more accountable. You can sign up for shorter distances during your training journey. If your’e running a half marathon, any 5k or 10k would be a fine. New York Road Runners does a lot of four-milers in Central Park and Prospect Park. Think of them as quizzes before the final exam. You might go out too fast in that race, and so you learn for your goal race to start a little slower. If you’re training for 10 weeks, I’d say anywhere from week three to seven, or even eight, would be fine. It just keeps you honest and gets you more prepared.
It’s probably helpful for people who’ve never raced before to get a feel for the raceday environment, too.
Absolutely. It’s one thing to go to the track and do six 1/4 mile repeats, but when you go to the starting line and there are all these corrals, and thousands of spectators and thousands of runners, it can be overwhelming. Getting used to that experience is important, so that on race day you’re more used to it and you’re ready to go. You’re not gonna waste as much energy on anxiety.