Travel: United Airlines NYC Half Marathon

The United Airlines NYC Half Marathon is a gamble. With more than 20,000 runners, you have to snag your spot through a lottery. What are the chances I’ll get in? I thought as I submitted my application in 2021. Turns out: likely. I, in fact, got in.

Turns out, it really was an impulse move too. For starters: training in the winter isn’t really my cup of tea. There were a lot of training runs that were downright miserable. At roughly ~25 degrees with wind chill, my last long run — 12 miles — took more than my usual half marathon time. Add to it several hills I didn’t train for adequately enough, I knew this was going to be my worst time yet. And I was okay with that. I was going to run through New York City!

We haven’t been to New York City since well before COVID. The last time we went, I had us touring the entire city all day, every day. This time, I knew I had to conserve my legs for the race. I tried to scale back considerably. So I’m not going to pretend this is adequate or even thorough. But for anyone who intends to run the race, here’s what I did and what you can expect.

Day 1: Settling in

With all the recent issues with flights, I knew I needed to arrive early in order to be able to head to the expo (which took place at Center 415 in Manhattan 3 consecutive days before the race). I opted to stay near Times Square since the race ends in Central Park. Our hotel, the Hilton Times Square- Central, had a great location. (But that’s where the list of glowing reviews ends.)

Hungry, we set out for a meal within walking distance. We finally settled on Shake Shack. After a quick walk around Times Square, we called it a night and went back to bed.

Day 2: The expo

For whatever reason, we always seem to settle into Central Park. With my trusted Levain Bakery cookies in tow, we spent the morning walking through Lincoln Square, before settling in and watching the dogs in the park. As I mentioned, the race ends in Central Park so we planned on an area where to meet and even took some pictures along the course.

Lunch was a quick bite at Joe’s Pizza. Then, it was time to go to the expo. Because of lingering COVID restrictions, I had to sign up for a time slot beforehand. (But it didn’t seem like they were enforcing this rule and you could easily swap time slots online.) For anyone looking to do the United Half Marathon, I highly recommend buying your gear online before the race. The expo was well done, but the gear itself was virtually gone. It was also quite small, with only a handful of booths. It only took me ~1 hour to get everything and head back.

With my big to-do item off the list for the day, we headed to West Village and eventually the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. The intention was to find something that did not call for a lot of walking, but we still clocked in around 20,000 steps this day regardless. We actually ended up staying in the museum until it closed, as there was a lot to see and take in. Overall, it was a tasteful tribute and I’m glad we went, though we would probably not go to the museum portion again. (Instead, I make it a point to pay my respects to the memorial every time we go to NYC.)

I went through so many options for the big pre-race meal. I finally settled on Carmine’s but wanted to get out of Times Square and visit the Upper West Side location instead. (I’m so glad we did, too! I would love to explore this area more next time.) We ordered a heaping dish of chicken parmesan. Brandon ate the chicken, while I chowed on primarily on the noodles. Overall, it was a great meal but definitely better suited for larger groups. I finished the night with a quick stop at Starbucks and Whole Foods to grab my pre-race items and get ready for the next day. As usual, I laid everything out and set my alarms for 5:30 a.m.

Day 3: The race

For anyone who has gone to a half marathon, half the battle is getting to the half marathon. Thankfully, the Facebook group of runners did a really great job explaining exactly which line to take. Turns out, I didn’t even need to map out my route so carefully. The entire subway car was packed with runners. Once we got off, we simply followed the runners to the starting line. Brandon and I walked together until just before the starting line.

The race itself was well organized. (Although the communications leading up to it is slow.) We had to go through metal detectors to get to the starting line. The route was well-marked. There were plenty of bathrooms, water stations, and even gels along the way. (Though I would highly recommend bringing your own.)

But most importantly: New York City knows how to come out and celebrate their runners!

Although there is a hill during the first mile (which takes place in Brookyln’s Prospect Park), I actually felt extremely invigorated during miles 1 through about 3. There were plenty of spectators and there was a lot to look at and keep my mind busy. (Usually, mile 1 tends to be pretty hard for me to get going, so that is a rarity.)

One of the exciting points of this race is you get to cross a closed-off Manhatten Bridge. And even though that too is uphill, and actually quite congested as people started to slow down and take pictures, it was a gorgeous view and you knew you were that much closer to the finish line.

What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was the long drag on the FDR Drive. A stretch of three miles (miles 7, 8, and 9 of the race, respectively), hardly any spectators, and barely any water stops or bathrooms — this part was a complete mind game. Normally, I hit a high around mile 7 but this was tough. I knew our big turn was at the United Nations building, but it never seemed to be in sight.

After what seemed like hours, the race turns onto 42nd Street. As you know, this is the stretch that leads the way to Times Square and then eventually the conclusion of the race: Central Park. This is where everything starts to pick up again. And, even more exciting, I finally got to cross paths with Brandon. The race and the energy pick up from here. I was surprised we didn’t run directly into Central Park, but instead got to enjoy some final gorgeous views (and crowds!) as we wove into it at the 12-mile mark. The course in the park brings some slight hills, but honestly, the energy is great. I happen to do a negative split at the end, and this one was no different. So I actually had a great run through the park itself. Once we were done, we were given our medals, warming blankets, and very large bags of post-race goodies including an apple, water, two Gaterades, and pretzels.

Overall, I can honestly say this was the best race I’ve ever done. What’s more: it wasn’t my worst time after all. The adrenaline must have fueled me, and with the exception of FDR Drive, the race itself kept me entertained and engaged the entire time.

Afterward, we headed towards Battery Park, Wall Street, and eventually had a celebratory meal at Rubirosa.

Was this weekend the picture-perfect way to explore New York City? Probably not. We hardly explored, we kept our dining pretty safe, and our hotel was anything but remarkable. (Yet, somehow we still clocked in more than 38 miles in two days.) But for my runners, if you take nothing else from this, I highly suggest you put this run on your bucket list. It’s an incredible route unlike any other, and quite honestly, I’m not entirely sure what can beat running through New York City.