by Mindy Solkin, RAC member since 2001
Flowers in full bloom. A zoo. A castle. Museums galore. Alice in Wonderland. You might imagine this to be a rural setting, perhaps in the English countryside. But it is quite the opposite. It is within the city that never sleeps in the urban jungle. It is the oasis in Manhattan. It is Central Park. Nestled in the middle of this urban metropolis and situated north of midtown and the bright lights of Broadway, the rectangular-shaped park is home to New York City's running community as well as to the more than 20 million visitors each year. Bounded by Central Park North (110th Street) and Central Park South (59th Street), and by 5th Avenue and Central Park West (CPW) to its east and west, the vast expanse of roadway and trails allow for great training whether you're a beginner or training for a marathon.
A Historic View
In 1858, a competition was held for the design of the first major public park built in America and was won by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. It took 16 years to build the Park, which included the construction of 30 bridges and arches and 11 overpasses. Many of the 51 sculptures within the Park's 843 acres, serve as meeting points and mile markers for running clubs and races. Among the more popular sculptures is the Bethesda Fountain, which was the only sculpture to be included in the original design, and Strawberry Fields, the beautifully landscaped site dedicated in memory of John Lennon as an international garden of peace. At the center is the infamous "Imagine" mosaic where flowers, poems and quiet reflection can be found daily.
The Road Beneath Your Feet
The Park's roads, East Park Drive (which runs parallel to 5th Ave) and West Park Drive (which runs parallel to CPW), make up the majority of the measured, hilly oval in Central Park. You can begin your run at many entrances to the Park and true to running standards, runners circumvent the Park in a counter-clockwise direction. If you run the entire oval, or "loop" as it is known, you'll get in a six-mile run. Be prepared for the hills at the north end of the Park, which is New York City's version of Heartbreak Hill. Within this loop are two run-able transverses, one at 72nd Street (where the Bethesda Fountain is located) and the other at 102nd Street, which create loops-within-loops. To run five miles ("the upper five" or "the lower five"), just cut through one of these transverses; running through both transverses will yield a four miler ("the middle loop"). If you're pressed for time and are closer to the lower end of the Park (which is near most hotels), you can run the one and three-quarters miles "lower loop." This route will take you through the 72nd Street transverse, past Tavern on the Green and the famous NYC Marathon finish line.
Off the Beaten Path
If your muscles and joints need a break from the asphalt you'll want to head to the dirt trails of the Reservoir or bridle path. "The Res," as it is affectionately called, is a smooth, flat dirt surface of 1.57 miles that surrounds a 106-acre body of water. The main entrances are located at West 86th and West Park Drive (near the American Museum of Natural History) and East 90th and East Park Drive (near the Guggenheim Museum). It recently had a facelift including the resurfacing and smoothing-out of the dirt path and the removal of the unsightly, seven-foot chain-link fence that had encircled the Reservoir since 1926. In its place is a new steel fence with cast-iron ornamentation, which closely resembles the 19th-century original. The four feet, eight inch high fence was installed on the existing coping stone and opens up breathtaking vistas of New York City.
Circling the Res is the bridle path loop, home to runners, walkers, dog walkers and horseback riders. The approximately 1.8-mile loop is part of a larger 4.5-mile path and is the closest thing to a running trail that Central Park offers. A quiet respite from the noise of the city, this serene wooded trail allows for harried New Yorkers to feel as if they are somewhere in the country, far from the maddening crowd. Many runners like to mix up their runs by incorporating both road and trail running in one run, giving them a chance to recover from the impact of the asphalt.
Speed and Hills
Although remote, and recommended to go with a friend, there is a round gravel track located off of 103rd Street and West Park Drive. Its distance is irregular too, about two-tenths of a mile once around. If you're looking for hills, Central Park's got them. One of the favorites is called "Cat Hill" named for the black panther-like sculpture that sits upon a rock peering down at you as you make your way to the top of the hill. You can start your climb in front of the Loeb Boathouse at 74th Street and East Park Drive (which is a lovely full-service restaurant and snack shop) and run to the first light at the top of the hill. The total distance is 1/4 mile.
Fun For All
- There are 11 refreshment stands and various independent vendors.
- You'll never get lost. The tall, green lampposts serve as orientation tools. The letter and numbers indicate a direction and cross street. Example: W74 indicates you are parallel to West 74th Street. E86 indicates East 86th Street.
- There are 17 restroom facilities.
- Park roads are closed to motor traffic on weekends from 7pm Friday to 6am Monday. The roads are also closed weekdays from 10am to 3pm and from 7pm to 10pm. Certain holidays have special hours especially between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.
- Dogs must be kept on leashes, except in designated areas at specific hours.
- The Central Park Police Precinct is located on the W86th Street underpass.
- Call boxes can be found on lampposts throughout the park.
When planning a trip to New York City, Central Park can certainly fulfill everyone's needs, as there is something for everyone. The kids can go to the zoo, older adults can take a walking tour and runners can do their training. One can find so much to do that there may barely be time left for a run. Well, not quite!
Central Park Conservancy:
The official "Keeper of the Park"
Free Park Tours: 212-360-2726
City of N.Y. Parks & Recreation
Special Events: 888-697-2757
24-hour Parks Hotline: 800-201-7275
ING New York City Marathon in November
The premier event of New York Road Runners, will be run by over 35,000 athletes and viewed by two million spectators lining the course. From its humble beginnings in 1970 (55 finishers and a total budget of $1,000), the race has grown to become a weeklong, worldwide celebration.
New York Road Runners Half-Marathon Grand Prix April thru October
The NYRR Half-Marathon Grand Prix is a five-race series comprised of a half marathon in each of the five boroughs of New York City. The borough "excursion" begins in Brooklyn and Queens and concludes in Staten Island.
Circle of Friends New York Mini 10K in June
In 1972, New York Road Runners staged the world's first road race exclusively for female participants, the 6-mile Crazylegs Mini Marathon. It drew 78 women-a huge turnout for the time-from all over the country. In 2002 the Mini celebrated its 30th anniversary and nearly 4,000 women finished. In 2004 the Mini was a salute to American women runners aiming to represent the United States at the Olympic Games in Athens. The world's original women-only road race continues its tradition of celebrating all that women's running has to offer.
About the Author: RAC member Mindy Solkin is a USATF, Level III-certified running coach, and is the owner and head coach of The Running Center in New York City (TheRunningCenter.com), where she offers services for groups and private clients, from one mile to the marathon. She can be reached at info@TheRunningCenter.com or 212-362-3779.