Sports

New York City's Underground Half Marathon

Since it's unsanctioned and not entirely legal, the Midnight Half can't close streets to traffic and set up a course—but that's part of the fun.

by Adam Elder
Jun 9 2016, 3:05pm

Illustration by Eli Neugeboren

On a humid Friday night on Memorial Day weekend, 120 runners sweated through one of New York City's most respected road races—although most New Yorkers had no idea it was going on. It was 11 PM, for one thing, and there were no cheering throngs of fans behind barricades for this half-marathon. Instead, some of New York City's fastest elite runners were dashing through intersections, dodging cars, cutting through parks, running up stairs, or jumping the occasional fence.

They were competing in the fifth annual Midnight Half, which has become the world's greatest underground urban foot race. The winner only gets a couple hundred bucks and not even a trophy to show for it—what's really at stake is serious street cred in the city's flourishing running scene.

"The Midnight Half plays into the strengths of what our city offers," says Mac Schneider, a sports documentary producer who won the men's race in 2014. "Boston has the marathon and the hills; New York is the city that never sleeps, and so to have a marathon that runs through traffic in the middle of the night is very fitting."

In the city at the center of the world, the race takes place out of sight and with little fanfare. Participants do not get an ugly T-shirt for entering, or a finisher's medal for completing the course. In fact, there is no set course: Runners start in Lower Manhattan, then have to run to four checkpoints half-buried throughout Brooklyn, in order, before returning across the East River to the finish line in the Lower East Side. The runners can get to the checkpoints any way they want to as long as it's on foot.

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The Midnight Half is the brainchild of Joe DiNoto, a Queens native who spent his childhood summers driving through the city at night with his father, delivering Italian bread from the family bakery. Several years ago, DiNoto founded Orchard Street Runners, a run crew on the Lower East Side. But before that, he used to work long hours as an architect and would run through Lower Manhattan late at night.

"This was after 9/11—there was no one down there, and you used to have the city to yourself," DiNoto says. "It was kind of creepy. But really awesome."

He always thought it would make a cool setting for a road race, but didn't act on the idea until David Trimble started going on runs with OSR. A longtime motorsports driver and mechanic, Trimble was already putting on well-respected street-bicycle races. From there, it wasn't long before the Midnight Half took shape.

Both men were motivated by the desire to make it the complete opposite in every way of most road races, which tend to be overcrowded, overpriced, and run early in the morning on boring routes through a city, with racers assaulted with sponsor messages and advertising from the moment they sign up online to their final steps away from the finishers' corral and pop-up beer garden. That isn't to say that major brands haven't come knocking—they have. But DiNoto and Trimble have fiercely guarded the purity of their race.

"I just feel like anything that's engineered to accommodate masses of people is bullshit," DiNoto says. "It's so impersonal and so unaffiliated and unattached to anything real, I don't see what's the point. I wanted to offer something else for the people that are like me."

The finish line, shortly after midnight. Photo by Caitlin Kelly

"It's a no-fucks-given type of race," says two-time women's winner Leigh Gerson. "In this world of races selling out in 50 minutes for 50,000 spots in the New York City Marathon, where people pay an exorbitant amount of money to freeze their butts off, 60 bucks gets you some awesome views, and you get to meet some cool people."

What DiNoto and Trimble have created is an event with the feel of a street run but the production values of a major race. All runners have timing chips, course marshals on bicycles track the leaders, and there's a big L.E.D. race clock at the finish line on Ludlow Street. No city permits are required, so it's funded totally on entry fees, with some help from generous friends, neighbors, volunteers, and the New York City running community. And it's not something that DiNoto and Trimble make any money on.

Since it's unsanctioned and not entirely legal, the Midnight Half can't close streets to traffic and set up a course—but that's part of the fun. The four Brooklyn checkpoints change every year, and it's up to runners to find their own way to them. Of course, the many who get lost every year sometimes run more than a half-marathon, but those who get truly creative with their route can shave off a half-mile or more. The unique format tests a runner's bravery—but also his or her local knowledge.

"I'm a native New Yorker," says this year's men's winner, Dave Knowles, an engineer by day who runs for the New York Athletic Club. "These are my streets. It was my race to lose."

He beat fellow elite runner and NYAC teammate Jerry Faulkner, a 2:20 marathoner who moved to New York City two years ago from Oklahoma. Every year for the past three years, Faulkner has been the most talented runner in the field, but the course has gotten the best of him. The first time, he assumed it was a closed course and ran straight into the Brooklyn night, not to be seen until hours later at the finish line.

"In a race like this, you don't have to be the fastest to win," Faulkner says. "You just have to know the route and how to cut."

This year, after running the first couple miles together, Knowles let Faulker get ahead and then quickly slipped into Commodore Barry Park behind his friend's back. He then cut through Fort Greene Park so quickly that the bike escorts had trouble keeping up before running down a hill and hopping a fence. Knowles had this move planned. Having shaken Faulker, he was all alone on his native streets for the rest of the race. He averaged a 5:30 mile pace and ended up running only 12.6 miles.

"I didn't take the shortcuts, I took the longer cuts," Faulkner said after the race.

Faulkner has not been shy about his anger at losing to runners who aren't as fast as him: last year he was heard screaming at winner Pat Casterline, "I'm coming for you!" in an attempt to get inside his head. But the Midnight Half's format has made this overwhelming favorite into a lovable underdog after several years of coming up short. One volunteer at the finish uttered, "I kinda wanted Jerry to win," after Knowles came across the line.

"People send me their GPS from the race and you'll see people running in circles, the craziest shit," DiNoto says. One of his friends inevitably gets lost every year and just heads home, grabbing a slice of pizza on the way.

MIDNIGHT HALF from (((vernor))) on Vimeo.

The race keeps evolving. A couple years ago, Schneider opened everyone's eyes to the possibility of course planning after he jumped fences and ran through the projects and backyards. Now the race is attracting more elite runners like Faulkner and Knowles. Caitlin Phillips, the female winner, is also part of the New York Athletic Club and competed in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials earlier this year.

Phillips dominated the women's race, but not before having to retake the lead five times. She pored over maps the week before, but along the way and against her better judgment, she second-guessed herself, and would follow groups of runners she encountered who looked like they knew where they were going, only to be burned several times.

"Even at the end when I was coming over the Manhattan Bridge, I'm like, 'Am I in first place? I have no clue,'" Phillips said after her win.

This feeling of disorientation for runners is one of the Midnight Half's greatest features. Are you in the lead? How many people are ahead of you? Maybe they found a shorter route? And so in addition to being on the lookout for cars, pedestrians, and potholes, the constant directional awareness required means it's impossible to zone out and settle into a pace.

"You're running through these remote neighborhoods late at night at a pretty fast pace and kinda feel alone, and then you'll go through an intersection, look over three blocks and see another guy dart through an intersection," Schneider says. "You don't know where everyone is in the city right now but you're all racing against each other."

Past the finish line, though, everyone finally comes together at the post-race party. There's dim sum, cold beer, and a deejay awaiting all the sweaty runners, who stream in, get their portrait taken, meet their friends waiting at the finish line, and share stories with other runners. Since everyone's already in the Lower East Side, many keep the night going afterward. It's a step or two up from a typical race's Budweiser beer tent.

"I told my friends that if they're gonna go out drinking Friday night, be at Ludlow Street around midnight," Knowles said. "I came through and they were all there."

"It reminded me of why I started running," Phillips said. "No matter where you finished, people were out there to enjoy themselves and have a good time and socialize."

Imitation races with checkpoint formats have sprung up around the world—some are even named the Midnight Half, which irks the founders a bit—but none are nearly as large or well organized as New York City's.

Runners all say that it's the passion that DiNoto and Trimble put into the event that makes this Midnight Half so special. The race is, in a sense, a celebration of the city and its running community, and runners and volunteers are all stoked to be a part of something so authentic.

"I hate to be like, 'Oh my shit's better than everybody else's,' but this is really for runners," DiNoto says. "It's not about profit. This is just about seeing who's fastest, just for the sake of doing it. People will ask how come you don't get a medal for running it, or how come you don't get a T-shirt, but they figure out why. And usually they appreciate that."

Additional reporting by Caitlin Kelly

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