Marathon training in Central Park is no picnic

Training in the park can be risky business. Illustration by Jim Carroll
Training in the park can be risky business.
Illustration by Jim Carroll

February was the first time I had ever run in Central Park, taking part in the 4-mile Gridiron Classic, a Super Bowl Sunday road race around the park’s lower loop. Until then, I’d primarily used the park for getting quick sunburns or taking long contemplative walks (which, OK, I never took — it just sounds good).

My relationship with the park has taken on a new dimension since I got into the marathon, and one of the reasons I do the majority of my training there is its variety of running surfaces. From the soft cinder trail around the reservoir, to the dirt surface of the bridle path, to the asphalt of the Park Drive loop — it keeps things fresh, which is important for a runner like me.

There are also some challenging hills on the main outer loop that can help develop a larger range of muscles, which is important for a fairly hilly marathon course like New York. Overall, the park is perfect for marathon training, which is why it’s home to so many marathon training programs.

The park, however, is not without its faults. Weekend afternoons are a parade of potential skull fractures due to the variety of recreational activities that it can host. Here is just a partial list of what a runner must dodge on any given weekend: horse-drawn carriages (and what comes out of a horse that draws a carriage), zip scooters, rollerbladers (who have clearly invented a time machine allowing them to visit us from 1998), tourists on bicycles, tourists on foot, tourists taking pictures, tourists eating ice cream, rickshaw bicycle taxis, serious cyclists, park department vans, police cars, crazy squirrels, skateboarders and the occasional wedding party.

Now, picture any three of these things converging all at once at different speeds and angles. If you pictured a crying bride holding a bloody squirrel, leaning up against a flipped-over rickshaw: Congratulations, you get the picture. I just accept this as all part of my training, so if a crazed time-traveling rollerblader leaps out at me during the marathon, I know I’ll be prepared.

Weekdays are a different story, with the park being primarily inhabited by runners and cyclists who aren’t too fond of each other. It’s true hatred: think Sharks vs. Jets, Hatfields vs. McCoys, Red Sox vs. Yankees. Both believe they have the right to the road and both aren’t afraid to get into a shouting match to defend that right, using colorful language best kept out of this family-friendly blog.

Overall, the park is a pretty peaceful place, and at times while running alone, I imagine Nov. 3, when hopefully I’ll be entering the park at mile 24, finishing this long journey where it all began.


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