Last week marked the sixth anniversary of my very first running race back in 2007. Last fall, I chronicled how I went from a person who loathed running to someone who loves it. How much do I love it? Over these last six years, I’ve run 53 running races with number 54, the UnitedHealthcare Providence Half Marathon, in one week and numbers 55, 56 and 57 already on the books.
Looking back at six years of racing, it occurred to me that certain races have a special place in my heart. Every runner has that race they look forward to every year, the race they’ve always dreamed of running, the race that moved them in unexpected ways. These are mine.
So without further ado, here are my “Races to Remember,” the running races that left the biggest impressions on me, culled from my six years out there on the road.
Running Races To Remember
Most Memorable: ING New York City Marathon
It’s the largest marathon in world, and it was also my first. There’s nothing quite like your first marathon. I nearly cried as I crossed the finish, accomplishing something that had been beyond conception for me. I remember thinking of marathons as something other people did—crazy people. Now I was one of them. I had such an amazing time the first go round, I ran it a second year in a row. I trained hard and beat my first time by nearly an hour. Yes, you read right—an hour. They are both races I will never forget.
Most Sentimental: Bank of America Chicago Marathon
Running the Chicago marathon was a homecoming for me. I was born and raised in the city’s west suburbs and spent much of my childhood in the city with my parents. My dad worked downtown at the Merchandise Mart, which sits right around Mile 12 on the course. That year, the race coincided with the 6th anniversary of my father’s death, so I dedicated the marathon to him. I got verklempt as I ran past the Mart, and many of the other places I associate with my father. It was, quite literally, a run down memory lane.
Most Fun: Any runDisney Half Marathon or Walt Disney World Marathon
Anyone who has ever read my blog knows I love me some runDisney. Disney races are among the best organized I have ever run and, second-to-none, the most fun. Runners wear costumes! Disney characters cheer for you! You run through Disney Parks! I honestly can’t decide which of the four I’ve run is the most fun: Disney’s Princess Half Marathon, Tinker Bell Half Marathon, Walt Disney World Marathon or Wine & Dine Half Marathon. They each have unique characteristics. So read my race reports and decide for yourself!
Most Romantic: Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon
For me, the Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon race is the Lady and the Tramp of running races. The music, the moonlight, the mood. The wining, the dining, the food. And best of all, this is where my husband and I got engaged. He popped the question at the half marathon after-party, forever making Disney’s Wine & Dine Half Marathon a magical race for me.
Best Start: ING New York City Marathon
I know, I know. I already gave the ING New York City Marathon an award. But that’s how amazing this race is. And it boasts the best start of the 50+ events I’ve run. As you climb the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge from Staten Island, Frank Sinatra sings, “New York, New York” over the loud speakers. Take a look to your left and the entire city is at your feet. Manhattan, your final destination, glimmers in the distance, a NYFD boat spays a water salute and Brooklyn lays dead ahead. I’ve run the NYC Marathon three times, and it’s taken my breath away every single time. Plus, in 2010 I got to sing before the start of the Professional Women’s and Wheelchair races. If that’s not the best start I’ve ever had, I don’t know what is.
Best Finish: Montreal Half Marathon
Running around the track of an Olympic Stadium is usually reserved for Olympians. But at the Montreal Half Marathon, runners get the royal treatment with a finish in the 1976 Olympic Stadium, where Frank Shorter won marathon silver. Running down the ramp and into a stadium filled with a cheering crowd is probably the closest I’ll ever come to feeling like an Olympian. Priceless.
Proudest PR: Staten Island Half Marathon and Philadelphia Marathon
I’m tempted to pick my second marathon, when I shaved nearly an hour from my one and only marathon time. While that PR was incredibly satisfying, there are two I think I worked even harder for. Every single year since I started running, I made the goal of breaking 2:00 in the half marathon. And for three years in a row, I made the goal of breaking 4:30 in the marathon. At the Staten Island Half Marathon in 2012, I ran 2:00:30, missing my mark by 30 seconds, but still PR’d by nearly 5 minutes. But at the 2012 Philadelphia Marathon, I redeemed myself by running 4:28:06, which was a 17-minute marathon PR. After three years of trying, breaking that 4:30 barrier felt so good. Sub-2 half marathon, I’m coming for you this year!
Most Grueling: Yonkers Half Marathon
Yonkers has a storied history as the second oldest marathon in the U.S., dating back to 1907. But it also ranks in the hill department, treating racers to a roller coaster run around the New York town just north of NYC. The course starts near sea level and finishes near sea level. But in between the half marathon climbs a total of 1,100 ft. And what goes up must come down. It’s not one long slog; you climb and descend on the Yonkers Half Marathon course over and over and over again. If you haven’t trained on hills, the course is a killer. I used it as a training run for the Staten Island Half Marathon and Philadelphia Half Marathon. It worked. I PR’d weeks later on those much flatter courses.
Fastest Race: Fifth Avenue Mile
Fifth Avenue Mile, How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. A run down one of America’s most storied streets? Check. A rare one-mile race for grown-ups? Check. A stellar professional field to watch at the end of the day after your heat is over? Check. Where else do you get to watch the likes of Bernard Lagat, Matt Centrowitz, Leo Manzano, Jenny Simpson and other Olympic and World Championship medalists after running your own race? Only the Fifth Avenue Mile. I’ve been to this race five years in a row. I ran it in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 when I set my mile PR of 6:46. It’s the fastest I’ve ever run in my life. I was registered to run in 2012, but ended up covering it as a reporter instead, so that 2011 PR still stands. Maybe someday I’ll go sub-6:45…
Most Empowering: NYRR NY Mini 10K
Started in 1972 to give women the chance to race the roads, the NY Mini 10K was among the first women’s road races in the world. It was a time when women were still fighting for the right to run, among many other things. The original Mini, named after the mini-skirt, was staged at a time when women were just starting to break gender barriers in running and sports at large. In April 1972, the Boston Marathon welcomed female entrants officially for the first time; in June, the ground-breaking Title IX legislation mandating equal federal funding for women’s sports became law; in September, the Olympics featured the women’s 1500 meters as the longest race for women for the first time; and in October, six women entered the New York City Marathon. The Mini stands as a testament to how far we’ve come as female athletes. And toeing the line with a few thousand other women on Central Park West feels mighty empowering.
Most Family-Friendly: Disney’s Royal Family 5K and any runDisney 5K
The 5K Fun Runs at runDisney race weekends are designed to be family-friendly. Kids run with their parents or cheer them on. There’s even a stroller division for parents who want to push their little one as they go. I ran the Never Land Family Fun Run 5K at the Tinker Bell Half Marathon Weekend with my husband and the Royal Family Family 5K Fun Run at Disney’s Princess Half Marathon with my sister. It was a blast from the past for two ladies who came to Disney every year as kids. We had a blast stopping for photos along the way. Afterward? We headed on over to the Disney Kids Races where her kids were ready to run. It doesn’t get more family friendly than that.
Most Crowded: Cherry Blossom 10-Miler
The 2012 race was so crowded the entire 10-miles, I was never able to get up to speed. It was like being stuck in traffic. And I live in NYC. I know traffic. I’d planned on racing it, and ended up being content with calling it a fun run. Even in the last mile, I was still weaving around people. I hope the organizers have figured out a way to spread runners in the middle of the pack out better, because the Washington, D.C. course and the cherry blossoms are dynamite.
Most Intimidating: Peterborough Sprint Triathlon
The Peterborough Sprint Triathlon in Ontario gets this award not because of the race itself, but because it was my first triathlon. I didn’t know what to expect. I hated cycling. And I was sure everyone, and I mean everyone, would finish ahead of me. It was more intimidating that my first running race because it was so much more involved. Swimming! Cycling! Transitions! Oh my! But I made it through and learned to love the tri.
Best Team Spirit: NYRR Team Championships
One of the best parts about running with a team in NYC is the NYRR Team Championships. One day a year, we get our own race in Central Park just for club runners. Teams compete for a trophy and it feels like being a high school or college athlete again. Everyone is in their team singlet. Men and women race separately and cheer each other on until they’re hoarse. Then our team has a picnic in Central Park afterward. Seeing all the club runners racing, cheering and celebrating puts a smile on my face.
Best Name: NYCRUNS Lousy T-Shirt Race
I ran a 5K and all I got was this lousy T-shirt? You bet. It was NYCRUNS very first first race back in June 2011, and it’s still one of my faves. Small, short and sweet in New York City’s Riverside Park, the Lousy T-Shirt Race has a tongue-in-cheek name that could apply to thousands of races across the U.S. It also happens to be the site of my last 5K PR, since it’s the last 5K I actually raced.
Most Cathartic: Long Island Gold Coast Triathlon
I set out to run the Long Island Gold Coast Triathlon in Port Washington, NY as a fundraiser for my cousin Laura who was battling a rare form of cancer. But Laura died two weeks before race day. Wearing my Stand Up To Cancer K-Swiss shoes emblazoned with her name, I took out all my sadness, anger and frustration out on the course. The result? I crushed my triathlon PR by 15 minutes despite less than stellar training. It wasn’t about the PR. The PR showed me what motivation, true motivation, can do. I was doing this for Laura and I wasn’t about to let her down.
Most Moving: Brandon Motta 5K
Charity races abound and I’ve run plenty. But the Brandon Motta 5K in Rhode Island was different. It was a small community event that had one simple goal—raise $100,000 over the course of many years so that one little boy named Brandon can live in a handicap accessible house with his family. Brandon is a 10-year-old boy from Riverside, RI, who lives with CMT, a neuromuscular disorder that has left him in a wheelchair and reliant on medical devices to breathe. But he has the best smile and the greatest spirit. Brandon comes out to the race every year to cheer on the runners who are there to help him. In the first year, the event raised $15,000, enough to help Brandon’s family buy a handicap accessible van. 2013 will be the event’s 6th year. It has raised $45,000 to date.
For a complete list of the races I have run, check out my Races & PRs page.
Karla Bruning is host of On The Run, New York Road Runners’ web show about running. She has finished six marathons, two triathlons and trains with the New York Harriers. Follow Karla at RunKarlaRun.com, The Washington Times Communities, Facebook and Twitter@KBruning.
Disclosure: runDisney sometimes provides me with complimentary race entry, hotel, park tickets, and some meals for runDisney events. I also received a complimentary entry to the Yonkers Half Marathon as the national anthem singer. And I freelance for New York Road Runners, who puts on the ING New York City Marathon, NY Mini 10K, Fifth Avenue Mile, Staten Island Half Marathon and Team Championships. I have no affiliation with any of the other races mentioned. As always, all opinions are purely my own and my affiliation with any race has no bearing on whether or not I write about it. I write about the races I like. Period. For more information read my Disclosure Policy.