Saturday, September 22, 2012

NYC Run: 6 Mile Loop Around Central Park

This is a special feature for runners in NYC, runners coming to NYC, or runners interested in running in NYC. For all others, this could be boring, although you might like the pictures, who knows?

Central Park holds a special place to me. I run it a few times a week, 12 months a year. It's not only a place that I use as my personal track, it is also a place where I find piece of mind, meditation, and where I am alone to sort out my thoughts. Rain or snow, searing heat or blistering cold, I am there and I enjoy every season. I've thought about writing this little guide to the Central Park loop, and suddenly, something possessed me to actually do it today. So here it is:

"NYC Run: 6 Mile Loop Around Central Park":



The Starting Line- 84th + Park Drive East (A. Fine)
Mile 1- The East Side Flat
Start- 84th and East Park Drive
 
When I run the Central Park 6 mile loop, for me, the starting point is at East 84th Street, right where the northwest corner of the Met meets Park Drive East. It is a counter-clockwise loop heading north.

The first mile is deceptively easy, almost entirely flat for the first half mile and then downhill for 3/10ths of a mile, before going just slightly uphill for the last 2/10ths. Like every mile in Central Park, there is no shortage of foliage and sights. One highlight, for the runner at least is the statue of Fred Lebow staring at his watch. Fred is the late founder of the NYC Marathon and NYRR club. His statue is always keeping an eye on your time at the entrance to the Reservoir at 90th Street (the 3/10th mark of your run). As you wind down your first mile, active ball fields are on the left, and a water fountain can be found adjacent about 5 yards to the left of the road. I find myself holding back on the first mile since the next two pose a much greater challenge.



Dicey Rock Outcropping, Harlem Hill (A. Fine)
Mile 2- The Harlem Hill
Start- Approximately 102nd St and East Park Drive

At the beginning of mile 2 you face a mighty big choice. At the 1.1 mile mark you will see a road splitting off to the left. This is the 104th St transverse. If you are not up to the Harlem Hill challenge, or simply want to cut a mile off your loop, you would hook the left and run for about a 1/4 mile to hook another left to go South on Park Drive West. But everyone loves a challenge, right? So you forge ahead and you think, wow, this is easy! That's because you have found yourself on the longest stretch of downhill on the loop. You snake down a long S turn passing Lasker Rink (pool during the summer) and at the 1.5 mile marker a bucolic view of the Harlem Meer emerges. Ahh, so nice, what a beautiful run! But, if you have done it before, you know, here comes the tough part! Once you follow the road west you begin a modest incline that gradually gets greater and greater. You are on what I call the Harlem Hill. It is otherwise know as "The Great Hill". There are some precarious rock outcroppings that hang over the road which make for a somewhat disconcerting distraction.If you have saved up your energy, taking it a a modest pace, the 4/10th of a mile climb isn't that bad. If you are in poor shape, or try to take it too fast, you chance taxing your legs something fierce. Just remember, it's 4/10ths so pace yourself. At just about the 2 mile mark you have topped the Harlem Hill, Congrats! But, don't get too excited just yet because the next mile can be tough...


El Dorado, Mile 3, Central Park (A. Fine)

Mile 3- The 4 Hills of the West Side-
Start- Approximately West 106th Street and Park Drive West

You've conquered the Harlem Hill, you are a third the way done, and you are heading downtown. Mile 3 starts with a reprieve- 2/10ths straight downhill. It is a great time to let your legs catch up and reenergize because despite having tackled the toughest hill in the park, you have a rolling 4 hill succession coming up over the rest of this mile. If you are in great shape, this is no problem, if 5 or 6 miles is a stretch for you, this is where you may be tempted to pull over. It's happened to me plenty, so don't feel bad. The first hill is more of an incline which starts just over a bridge where you may hear a waterfall and a few ducks. Such sounds are rare in the middle of NYC, so enjoy them! There is a pretty little pond with weeping willows on your right and ballfields come into view on the left. Quickly you come to another, longer gradual incline of about 2/10ths of a mile. At this point, a number of the Iconic highrises of Central Park West begin to come into view on your right- buildings like the San Remo, El Dorado, and Dakota will grace your view for the next mile. It's a good distraction. Hill #3 quickly approaches, another 2/10ths of a mile effort, and another decent incline. I call this Resevoir Hill because you've reached the NW tip of the Resevoir when you've reached the top. A view of the twin towers of the El Dorado greet you at the top. At this point of the run I'm always feeling good because I know that I have one more hill to tackle, another 2/10ther, and I get a long deserved downhill and flat stretch. By the time you reach the top of the 4th hill, you have now completed your Third Mile.

The Lake, Central Park (A. Fine)
Mile 4- The Easy One You've been waiting for!
Start- Approximately West 86th St and Park Drive West
Finally an easy mile! The first 3/10ths to a traffic light is virtually all down hill. If you need a rest stop, there are bathrooms in the building on your left about 20 yards from the light. You also have a side of the road water fountain on your left at the 3.4 mile mark. You continue downhill to the 3.5 mark where you come to a flat portion that covers the back half of the mile. This is a very pleasant stretch with beautiful lake views on your left as well as peaks at the Central Park South skyline. Assuming you have plenty of leg left, this stretch requires minimal exertion. At about the 3.9 mile mark you encounter a mild uphill and you cross over the 72nd Street transverse to continue going straight to the south. If you want to clip a mile off your run, a turn left here and another left at East Park drive will clip a mile off for you. If you are going for just 5, make this turn. But, what's another mile?

Southwest corner of the park, near Time Warner (A. Fine)
Mile 5- Skyline and Tourists-
Start- Approximately West 68th Street and Park West Drive
Mile 5 starts just towards the top of the incline a couple hundred yards past the transverse. Here you see the Great Lawn to your left and Midtown skyline straight ahead. You also experience a pretty nice stretch of downhill and very tame rolling hills for the entire mile. At the quarter mile mark you'll see the time and temperature readings atop a building on Columbus Circle and begin the turn east as you run along the south side of the park. Since this stretch is closest to Midtown, you encounter the greatest amount of potential road hazards here. You are passing by Christian de Portzamparc's new 1000 foot tower, the iconic Essex House and NY Athletic Club to name a few. But with these attractions you have plenty of tourists just hitting the park on bikes, horse drawn carriages, pedicabs, etc.. It is the most crowded strech of the loop, but usually not much of an issue if you are alert. There are water fountains on the right just before and after the road bends back to the North (mile 4.5 and 4.6) and you are on your home stretch. You pass the Central Park Carousel on your left at 4.7 and pass by Literary Walk and the Mall (where I was married), also on your left, and voila you have hit the final mile of your trek!


The Cat, Cat Hill, Central Park (A. Fine)
Mile 6: Cat Hill and Mini-Met
Start- Approximately East 67th and Park Drive East
You've had it easy now for a couple of miles, and you are nearly there, but you have one more challenge- The Cat! The start of your mile is an easy uphill for a little more than a tenth where you come to a fork in the road- you stay left, not exiting the park at 72nd St and then stay right to continue north. Through the trees on the right you can see the "Sailboat Pond", and at the 5.3 mark you will be approaching the Loeb Boathouse on your left. You will also be at the base of the park's 2nd toughest hill- Cat Hill. Cat Hill is a fairly steep .3 mile hill whose degree of difficulty would depend on your level of fitness and how far you've already run prior. Cat Hill is named after a statue of a cougar ready to pounce perched atop a rock 2/3rds of the way up the hill. Regardless of your fitness level, the hill will burn the reserves much like Harlem Hill. For me, it is usually at the end of the run and adds to the challenge. The statue mockingly stares, and I usually make a point to gesture towards it. Depending on the day, it can go from flipping him the bird in frustration, to a simple, more gentlemanly salute. Once the Cat has been conquered there is little left. There is .4 to go which is split between gentle down hill and a mild incline at the 5.8 mark (I call this Mini-Met Hill since it is behind the Met). It's not much of an incline at all, unless you are toast at this point, in which case it is a mild insult. A few more strides and you are back where you started at East 84th Street and Park Drive East.
 
All in all, the 6 mile loop is fairly challenging. If you are running it for the first time, expect a slower than average time, and if you are training on it, it should benefit your flat speed. The best thing about the loop though is that you get to enjoy seeing the seasons change in one of the most remarkable and beautiful parks in the world!

Here is a great running map for Central Park (PDF)
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3 comments:

  1. This is a great description of the 6 mile loop. I wish I had read it prior to yesterday's 10K in Central Park, where the Harlem Hill almost took my soul. Next time I'll be better prepared and maybe I'll even try to enjoy the sights a little more. Thanks.

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  2. I'm glad you liked it! It's a great place to run and train!A little practice and it becomes easier, but not easy.

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  3. Thanks for this description! I agree with you about the hills - once you hit the stretch on West 86th street, you feel like you've really accomplished something. :)

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