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My Love Affair with Central Park started 40 years ago tonight - Larry Allen on Running File 5

If you want a useful guide for running in Central Park this isn’t that. There is plenty of concise information available online and all of it will do a far better job telling you exactly how to go for a run in New York City’s favorite 840 acre backyard.

If you want to know about beginning a long term relationship with New York City and running in Central Park, this is my story.

My first run in the park was on December 29, 1978. I was in college on the GI Bill and had taken my slightly unreliable but fun-to-drive MGB from Maine to Florida over Christmas break.

I didn’t want to think about the trip back north. Hitchhiking was still an option in those days if my car gave out but it surely was not what I wanted.

I was already a veteran of two marathons and was ramping up my mileage for the Boston Marathon the following April. I had a glorious couple of weeks of running in the technicolor light and warmth of south Florida and while there even managed to meet Frank Shorter.

I ran twice a day including a couple of two hour runs, went to empty beaches to bask in sunny 60 degree days while bundled up locals looked on, amused and mystified.

All in all it was a great time, went quickly and too soon I was starting the long drive back to Maine.

A couple of uneventful days on the road brought me back to the NJ turnpike two days before New Year Eve. In the fading light of a cold, clear winter afternoon I pulled into a service plaza for gas.

My plan was to continue driving on through the night for the last 500 plus miles vs. spending money I didn’t have for a roadside motel room. A “you are here” map in the foyer of the restroom surprised me with my close proximity to NYC.

The next thing I remember is rummaging through the stuff in my car for an address book with the phone number of a longtime summer friend from Maine who spent the balance of his life on upper west side of New York.

I searched between the seats for change to make a call on a pay phone and was fortunate that my friend even answered. He graciously said I could crash for the night.

I’d never even been into NYC proper and the prospects for the evening were exciting if not a little intimidating.

I finally made it safely down from the high bridge over the Hudson River into the city and found a place to park near Grant’s Tomb on Riverside Drive, a few blocks west of my friend’s apartment not far from Columbia University.

I made the wise choice to schlep all of my stuff to the apartment for fear that the patched convertible top and dodgy locks of my car wouldn’t deter anyone in 1970s NYC, from breaking in looking for anything of value.

I said a quick hello and thank you to my friend on arrival but needed a run before I could eat or do anything else. He understood and gave me directions to Central Park and showed me how to buzz myself back into his high rise building.

Running down Broadway entailed dodging and weaving along hopelessly crowded evening sidewalks, scents from all manner of ethnic food wafting as I made my way through the 20 red lights, one per block, for a mile.

Eventually a left turn, to the east for a few more blocks to enter the park around 100th St at Central Park West.

The park was dark and cold, full of energy but it oddly felt peaceful too. The air was filled with different smells; diesel bus fumes, horse manure, musty fallen leaves, street pretzels, roasted nuts and yes, adrenaline, some of it mine.

Traffic hadn’t been banned from the park drives in the evening yet so it was full of yellow cabs and giant 70s era sedans moving slowly in heavy evening traffic.

I looked around for a landmark, something to remember so I could find my way back out of the park onto the same street in hopes of finding my way back to my friend’s place through what felt like barely contained chaos on the city streets.

I took note of a broken, graffiti covered park bench in this far less than gentrified version of the city. It seemed memorable enough and I guess it was.

Inside the park there was a lane for running. Parallel were two traffic lanes around what I’d been told was a six mile loop circling the park just inside the perimeter.

In spite of the hummock and pot-hole filled streets, particularly in the nearly bankrupt version of the city at the time, I recall the park drives being remarkably smooth pavement.

I turned right, running downtown on the west side.  The rolling hills also seemed more downhill than up too, something I confirmed in years and miles to come.

At first it was a gentle contained pace, working out the stiffness in my legs and back after a day long drive from North Carolina on a bad suspension and the hard seats in my car.

The grade of the rolling hills and gently winding turns in the park seemed worn-in to the landscape. It felt perfect for running, almost carved into the city like the equivalent of glacial wear but from the mass of some number of the eight million city residents using the park day after day.

Making my way down the west side for a mile offered peeks through the leafless trees and scenic overlooks of the lights and architecture of pre war apartment buildings forming what appeared to be a tall, impenetrable wall along the avenue fronting the park.

Periodically there were glimpses further downtown to the iconic skyscrapers in midtown. The Empire State Building and Chrysler Building most familiar amongst a forest of others that seemed just as big if not as well known.

I simply didn’t want to stop running, the pull was almost magnetic, my tempo gradually increasing around the next corner or over the next hill, all just to see what was ahead.

It was all a bit like a party that you didn’t want to leave for fear of missing something good that might happen.

Just before reaching a first opportunity to choose between veering left from the main park drive or continuing straight toward the high rises of midtown; I went by what, in a few years, would be renamed Strawberry Fields.  It was in honor of John Lennon; murdered not far away at the entrance to his building, the Dakota, which overlooks the park here.

The park is a perfect rectangle, slightly off of an exact north to south axis extending from 110th St to 59th St., 2.5 miles on each side and slightly over .75 mile between 5th Avenue on the east side and Central Park West on the other.

Years later I learned that the cutoff (or shortcut) I had seen and gone by at 72nd St and another I hadn’t reached yet at 102nd St made for a seemingly endless variety of options for creating and running multiples of loops of 2, 4, 5 miles and of course the full 6 mile circuit.

The New York Road Runners used the counterclockwise 6+ miles of the full park four times plus the slightly less than two mile loop from the bottom of the park to 72nd St for the 26 miles 385 yards for the 55 finishers of first New York Marathon in 1970.

The marathon still uses the park, but only about half of it for part of the final three miles of the race.

I read somewhere that 20,000 people run in Central Park on an average day. There are days and seasons during the year when that number seems high but other days and times during the year when it is certainly low. I guess that’s what they mean by average.

There are over 30 races in Central Park every year. Most hosted by the New York Road Runners Club and a few by other organizations.

Nearly all have thousands of participants, racing distances ranging from a 1 mile kids race to a 60k ultra marathon. Some with top invited international and American stars, some simply very large competitive local races. Every one a variation in the options for running loops in the park.

I continued running through the park, next past a big open meadow on the left, learning later that it was the 15 acre Sheep’s Meadow.

It has been a historic spot for protests over the past 100 years, up to 30,000 sunbathers on a nice day and 150,000 for a Barbra Streisand concert in the 1960s and yes sheep, from the 1860s until the 1930s.

Adjacent to the finish line of the marathon at Tavern on the Green the meadow also was a post race staging area for a few years.

22 months after my first run in the park I was back here, finishing my first marathon in New York. My last run up the hill to that familiar finish line was 32 years later.

The buildings along the southern edge of the park loom up just a few hundred yards away from the marathon finish. Columbus Circle marks one of the four corners of the park here and is a block from where I lived for 10 years when I finally moved to the city.

Almost every day was a 15 minute walk home from work at MoMA for me, dogs out for a walk and then into the park for an evening run. Sometimes clockwise, up the westside, the opposite direction of my first run.

Often I ran the same counterclockwise direction I was running that night. Across the bottom of the park to the east side, the legendary Plaza Hotel, the Central Park Zoo and the Wollman Skating rink anchoring the corner on that side.

I saw the familiar sign for the Essex House hotel along the way on my first run in the park that night and invariably still take a glance up at it on every run 40 years later.

Turning back north on the east side of the park led me up a gentle hill through dramatic exposed rock outcroppings of Manhattan’s bedrock schist. Apparently something which allowed New York to more easily build foundations for it’s famous skyscrapers over the last century.

I ran past playgrounds, the 100 year old children’s carousel and about a mile beyond Columbus Circle, to the other end of the 72nd St cutoff.

In years ahead it became a familiar corner. Nearby is the start and finish for the New Years Eve 4 mile race in the park, starting at the stroke of midnight with fireworks. 

The corner is also near the start of one of the bigger hills in the park, this one known among local runners as “cat hill”. Midway up the 1/4 mile climb is a sculpture of a life sized and menacing mountain lion, seemingly ready to pounce from a natural stone overhang directly over the runner’s lane.

It was too dark to see the cat that night but is familiar enough now. Cat hill is a popular place for training for some of the dozens of running clubs that meet up and use the park for weekly group training sessions.

A couple of minutes more led me past what I didn’t know at the time was the back of the massive Metropolitan Museum of Art. Around it and closer to 5th Avenue for another half mile brought me near a building I did recognize, Frank Lloyd Wright’s landmark cylindrical Guggenheim Museum.

The nearby entrance to the park would become familiar later as the place where the marathon enters the park for the last 2.5 miles of the race headed back in the direction from which I’d just come.

The summer after my first NY marathon and having entering my 2nd, there was a fundraising appeal in my race confirmation. The NYRR was trying to raise money to purchase a six story Beaux Arts townhouse just opposite the Guggenheim for one million dollars.

They were successful and for 36 years it served as headquarters, clubhouse and place to pick up bibs for their many races. It was listed for sale this past year for 25 million dollars as they apparently need something fancier and/or bigger.

Nearby is a statue of the late, charismatic leader of the NYRR, Fred Lebow. His vision arguably responsible for the explosive growth of urban marathons around the world for decades. His likeness stands looking at a stopwatch, appearing to be silently calling out time splits to runners just inside the park.

The entrance of the 1.5 mile long reservoir running path is there too, named for Jacquelin Kennedy Onassis, a nearby resident for decades, she was known to jog on the scenic cinder path and reportedly was even seen wearing long white formal evening dress gloves on cool days.

At the reservoir it felt like I had run between 5-6 miles, I knew it was six around the park but then maybe 10 minutes more to and from my friends place.

I was moving along briskly, feeling good but thinking I should get back but had reached the point where it made more sense to continue on vs. turning back. Maybe three miles to go.

Just 1/4 mile past the flat straight section along the reservoir the drive started down a hill and turned toward the center of the park from the perimeter. I felt a change. There were fewer street lights, less traffic and not as many people around. It all seemed a bit more ominous.

A half mile further brought me to the 2nd cutoff between the east side and the west. This one at 102nd St. It was very dark, narrow and almost foreboding.

In 1989 this section of the park, down the hill from the reservoir to the 102nd St cutoff became notorious as the site of a series of “wilding” gang assaults on a number of runners and pedestrians over one hour on a frightening night that April. It culminated in the vicious assault and rape of the “Central Park jogger” on the cutoff road I was passing.

Even 11 years prior to that night it felt dangerous. Today most runners and running clubs practice a buddy system when running at night in the park as a result of what happened in 1989.

There is a prominent police presence in this area and thankfully crime in the city and the park has declined precipitously too.

In all of my thousands of miles in the park over the years, many at night, I’ve never personally experienced a threat or even witnessed one and I’m grateful for that.

The almost kaleidoscopic park quickly changes again at the far north end. The park drive quickly snakes through a steep S shaped descent with high bluffs overhead on one side and an open high view of Harlem on the other; the Meer waters and the Conservatory Gardens in the foreground.

The far north end of the park remains the most natural with unspoiled ravines, dramatic rock faces, waterfalls and streams all tucked away.

On runs here I’ve seen families of raccoons crossing the road at night and hawks swoop down for unsuspecting squirrels during the day but nothing of the sort on this particular night.

Midway down the hill brought me past a large skating rink outfitted for youth hockey. I learned later that it does double duty as a community pool in the summer.

Now at the north edge of the park I could see into Harlem. I made the turn, running to the west. Just outside the park were dilapidated tire changing shops, gas stations, boarded up windows, burned out cars and a trash can with a makeshift bonfire offering warmth to a few men huddled around.

Continuing on, anticipating a turn to the south to complete my circuit of the park it quickly became evident that I was going to climb a good hill.

Runners in NY refer to this climb with some dread as THE Harlem Hill, it climbs about 150 ft in half a mile and then just as quickly drops down again. I wasn’t far beyond where it leveled out again and suddenly on my right, there it was!  

The familiar broken, graffiti covered bench that I’d decided to use as part of my trail of bread crumbs when I entered the park.

Not much had changed on the surface. Traffic had lessened somewhat as the evening rush was concluding. The smells were the same but had become permanently imprinted in my brain vs. something new to experience.

I slowed my pace for the few blocks back toward Broadway and a final right turn north for the last mile up toward Columbia.

After less than an hour on foot I felt like I understood New York to some extent....and I liked it. The prospects for the evening seemed exciting enough when I decided to spend the night but I had no idea.

Even before I finished the run one big thing had changed. I knew or at least hoped that I’d spend part of my life in the city. 

My wife, step daughter and I have been fortunate to have lived the last 21 years of our life together in New York and adjacent to Central Park, 10 years on one corner of the park and the last 11 years a few blocks from the far opposite corner. In part, all due to one unforgettable run around Central Park on a cold December night 40 years ago tonight.

(Larry Allen on Running is an exclusive My Best Runs Running News Daily feature.  Additionally Larry is doing the Run The World Challenge for the third time.) 

(12/28/2018) ⚡AMP
by Larry Allen
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