Yonkers Half Marathon & Marathon History
Located directly north of New York City on the Hudson River, Yonkers is one of those not-so-small “small towns” with nearly 200,000 residents. It’s not exactly Mayberry, but compared to the monster that is NYC, it’s a hamlet. Much the same thing can be said about the Yonkers Marathon & Half-Marathon. With just 1,000 registrants for both races combined, it truly has the feel of a hometown race, unlike the behemoth that is the ING New York City Marathon.
The Yonkers Marathon has a storied history as the second-oldest marathon in the country behind Boston. First run from 1907-1917, the race was resurrected in 1935 and has been going ever since. In decades past, the race was home to the national championships and Olympic Trials. Once described by two-time Olympic marathoner John Kelley as “A Marathoner’s Marathon,” the famously hilly race drew running legends like Ted Corbitt, who ran the race 26 times. But somewhere along the way, the glory of Yonkers faded, and a mere 400 runners finished the marathon and half-marathon in 2010.
For the 87th running of the Yonkers Marathon, the city handed over the task of bringing the race back to its prior glory to NYCRUNS. I first met NYCRUNS founder Steve Lastoe back in 2010 when he was just getting the company off the ground. Since then it has flourished into a busy race management, timing and registration company that focuses on events in the New York metro area. With a new organizer and PR push, the 2012 edition of the Yonkers Half Marathon and Marathon had 888 finishers, more than double the participation from the years before.
I’ve collaborated with NYCRUNS in the past as a columnist, moderator for events they’ve produced and, my favorite, as an anthem singer. I was honored to sing the national anthem at the very first Brooklyn Marathon in 2011. So when Steve asked me to sing at Yonkers, I jumped at the chance on one condition: that he’d give me a race entry for the half-marathon so I could run it too. I already had the Staten Island Half-Marathon on my racing calendar in preparation for the Philadelphia Marathon in November, but I thought it would be much more fun to do Yonkers as my long run that Sunday instead of eking out 13 miles by myself in Central Park.
When I showed up on Sunday morning to sing the national anthem and run the half-marathon, I found the small-town vibe of Yonkers to be a refreshing change of pace from the big-name half-marathons I have run—NYC, Brooklyn, Montreal, Disney’s Princess, Tinker Bell and Wine & Dine halves. Don’t get me wrong, I love those big, marquee races with all the bells and whistles. It’s why I keep running them.
But there is something to be said about a more intimate race experience in a non-destination location.
The Yonkers Half Marathon tracks through 13.1 miles of hilly terrain in Yonkers and Hastings-on-Hudson, its neighbor to the north. The Yonkers Marathon is simply two loops of the half-marathon course.
With over 1,000 feet of elevation gain and another 1,000 feet of loss in the half-marathon loop, it’s one hilly ride. For the marathon, that means 2,000 feet of climbing and another 2,000 feet of downhills. It’s not for the faint of heart.
The race starts at sea level, climbs to 130 ft straight away, then drops and climbs and drops and climbs between 50 ft and 150 ft until mile 5 when it climbs to 300 ft. Mile 6 to 7 is a rare downhill reprieve before the sole flat stretch that also happens to be in full sun. Come mile 8, the undulations start again like an extended roller coaster ride, before the final descent to the finish in the last mile of the loop. Half-marathoners finish there, while marathoners get to do it all over again.
My husband and I boarded the 6:20 am Metro-North train from Grand Central station in Manhattan and hopped off in the heart of Yonkers just 30 minutes later. The starting line was more than visible from the train-station; it was right out front of it. Half of the runners seemed to hop off of the train with us; the other half came from locations nearby in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, with a smattering traveling from further afield.
As we waited near the start, the 1,000 runners milled about chatting with each other in an especially friendly way, ready to tackle the notoriously difficult course. I’d heard how challenging the race was and I steeled myself for the worst, particularly two pernicious hills near miles 5 and 10.
I wasn’t aiming to race; instead I wanted to run it at the same pace I’ve been doing all of my long runs during marathon training: about 10:20 minutes per mile, which comes out to a 2:15 finish in the half. Considering I’ve done most of my training runs on largely flat terrain, I thought that would be challenge enough.
Boy, was I right.
The steps of the town library provided a natural stage to start the race. With Steve as the race director and Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano on hand, I sang the anthem, hopped into the mass of runners and started the race.
The first mile began with an immediate climb from the banks of the Hudson into the town above for the first mile. The next two scenic miles undulated gently as we ran high above the Hudson River. But after mile 4, the real fun began. We hit the first of the really nasty hills that twisted sharply up an almost vertical curve. I was running, but I felt like I was moving through mud. To make matters worse, I was fighting some pretty nasty cramps and an accompanying back ache that I woke up with. Since most of the medical field advises against taking pain killers before long bouts of running, I went without. Ugh. Let’s just say it was not a fun run from that perspective.
Thankfully, a runner named Darren recognized me as the anthem singer and pulled up to compliment me. We ran together and chatted until the next mile marker. He was a veteran of 15 marathons and training for another go at the ING New York City Marathon in November. We compared the hills in Yonkers to the hills in Central Park and he helped take my mind off of my body for a bit. He let me run on so he could catch up with a friend who had fallen behind on the big hill. Later in the race, they passed me and he cheered me on again. I tried to find him after the race to thank him, but didn’t see him. Thank you, Darren, and I hope you had a great run!
There were a few other runners along the way who recognized me as the anthem singer and paused to chat or just say hello as they passed. It was always a welcome distraction. If you were one of those runners, thank you! I hope you had a great run too.
I caught my breath a bit during the downhill mile 7 and as we hit one of the few flat stretches of the race. But it didn’t last long. The course began undulating again. It felt like there was a not insignificant hill every half mile. But as I climbed each one I began to tell myself, “What goes up must come down.” Thank goodness for downhills!
I was well ahead of my 2:15 goal by the time I reached the second really hard climb near mile 10. I’d been chugging along just below a 10-minute average pace, so I had about five minutes in the bank. It was another twisty curve that climbed up an overpass. I looked at my watch and as my cramps twitched, I slowed to a walk up the hill. I walked for two full minutes. All I can say is this: walking felt sooooo good.
But after two minutes of total indulgence I realized that my cramps and back ache weren’t getting any better. The faster I got to the finish, the faster I could down some water and pain killers.
So I moved my feet from a walk to a shuffle and eased on up and down and up and down the hilly road. As I made my final descent toward the waterfront finish, I happily picked up the pace.
I crossed the finish in 2:15:40, right on target for my goal of 2:15 and 10:20 pace. Sure, it’s more than 10 minutes slower than my PR. But I wasn’t out to PR. I was out there to practice marathon race pace, and just survive a day where I’d normally be curled up in bed with a heating pad.
I walked to get some water and then to the medical tent for the first time in my entire running career. I must have looked worse than I felt, because they made me sit down as they fetched some ibuprofen that I happily downed. What a glorious feeling when it kicked in.
My husband and I sat along the water as I waited for the pain to subside, enjoying the rather impressive blues band that played the after-race party. Then we snagged some post-race doughnuts, bagels with cream cheese and Nesquik Chocolate Milk compliments of Team Refuel. Yum! I sipped my milk like a little kid as we waited for the train to New York.
Overall, I really enjoyed running the Yonkers Half Marathon. Nabbing a fast time on a flat course can be a boost to the ego, but conquering half of a storied race on a famously tough course isn’t too shabby either. It was definitely a great addition to my marathon training.
For more photos from the 2012 Yonkers Marathon and Half Marathon check out Newsday’s excellent slideshow. You can see me in the first photo.
Karla Bruning is a veteran journalist and running nerd. She has completed four marathons, two triathlons, trains with the New York Harriers and is a member of New York Road Runners. Follow Karla’s “Notes From a Running Nerd” at RunKarlaRun.com, Facebook and Twitter@KBruning.