“In Brooklyn on a Saturday night, Saturday night, yeah, Talkin’ bout Brooklyn on a Saturday night”– “Brooklyn on a Saturday Night” by Neil Diamond
I have spent two fabulous Saturday nights in Brooklyn. That might not be enough, true, but I spent both with family, fun was had by all, and I loved the city, its eateries, and its beer. My first experience in Brooklyn was with my brother Jeff. Together we ate, drank, and crushed the Brooklyn Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon. It was a memorable weekend, and it was a running trip that we have modeled all our other trips after. The incredible times we had in other locations, and in subsequent years, was inspired by our “brother trip” to Brooklyn. As I have focused on and provided attention to a half marathon each month, this month, it’s time to lace up the sneakers, get some craft beer, eat delicious food and enjoy Brooklyn. Two brothers, 13.1 miles of scenic running, and the weekend that established a tradition.
A Little Background
I have written several posts about my half marathon experiences, and in so doing, shared my love of “runcations.” Posts that have detailed not only those races I ran, but a discussion of the travel, those sites observed, the food ate, and the beer drank. While not the first half marathon I traveled for, Brooklyn was the first race my brother and I voyaged for together. No spouses, no children, just two brothers who started a tradition that has birthed numerous trips and “runcations.” Since Brooklyn, we have run an additional four half marathons together, but it was this trip that truly started it all. Brooklyn was the third half marathon my brother and I ran together, but my eighth half marathon and eighth state in my quest to run a half marathon in every state.
Why Brooklyn? My brother has a love of Brooklyn stemming from a trip he took to see an old friend from high school. He had pressed me to run in the city, but since I had already run a half marathon in New York and was often in the state to visit my wife’s family, I was hesitant and repeatedly pushed for other locations. But, it was my eagerness to try, for the first time, at this point, a Rock n’ Roll series race that finally spiked my interest. The Rock n’ Roll series offers some incredible races all over the country, including Brooklyn. Therefore, I suggested to Jeff that we sign up and run Brooklyn and then consider doing another Rock n’ Roll race further away the following year. Wink, wink; we did run Rock n’ Roll Denver the next year. Since our two previous races had been in November of their respective years, and the Brooklyn race fell on Columbus Day weakened in October, it seemed meant to be. We agreed to make Brooklyn our 2016 race, as long as we continued to run, near or far, each year in the fall.
2020, because of the pandemic, was the first year that my brother and I were unable to run a half marathon together since 2014. Of course, that makes sense, although I am sitting here typing, saddened by that fact. I long to restart this “running” enjoyment my brother and I share. But, as many of my posts illustrate, I am often reflective, which is true of that trip to Brooklyn. The last time, and only the second time, I was in Brooklyn was 2019 when I visited my sister-in-law Kaitlyn and her husband Ryan, who lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan but moved to Brooklyn. The day started with hitting golf balls at the Chelsea Pier to walking The High Line, then a fabulous lunch at Westville in lower Manhattan, and a therapeutic walk on the Brooklyn Bridge, which was fantastic. We capped off our fantastic NYC day with a night of axe throwing at Bury the Hatchet Axe Throwing in Brooklyn. After we had a few drinks, threw a few axes, laughed way too much, we ate terrific pizza at Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop and ended our night with stomachs full of Brooklyn pizza. That night I fell in love with Brooklyn for a second time. In that reflective haze, I often think about the fun my brother had, the places we ate, and the mayhem we got up to, which was not mayhem at all.
I prepared properly in the months leading up to our inaugural Rock n’ Roll series half marathon. My last two half marathons were opposites. I had run my best half marathon in Springfield, IL, which I discussed here, Lincoln Presidential Half Marathon. Then I suffered a knee injury, which took months to rehab, and had a terrible fever as I ran what was my worst half marathon ever in Vermont at the Covered Bridge Half Marathon. Therefore, going into Brooklyn, I bought new Brooks Glycerin sneakers, got on a running schedule, and ramped up more miles each week, but kept the focus on my hips and breathing. Avoiding injury and feeling good, Brooklyn seemed a race I could conquer. But running was merely one component of the weekend trip. I had to book our accommodations, find a few breweries to target, and select a few restaurants for our lunch and dinner opportunities for both the day we arrived and the hours after the race. So, once it was all set and the race/travel weekend came, I was ready; my brother was ready, but how did our “runcation” together go? Let’s say this; Brooklyn rocks!
Journey to Manhattan
Our journey to Brooklyn began in Norton, MA, where my brother lived at the time. The night before, my brother picked me up from my home in Salem, MA. We got road sandwiches from Amazing Pizza and drove an hour to his house. That night we relaxed, chatted and had a drink as we prepared for a morning start to our drive to Manhattan. You might be thinking, why Manhattan? Well, the plan of action was for my brother to drive straight to the race expo, held at Madison Square Garden in midtown Manhattan. I was pretty anxious about this. Driving around downtown NYC is not something I looked forward to, and since this was our first Rock n’ Roll series race, we had no idea what the expo would entail. Letting go of my worries, both my brother and I got some sleep.
We awoke the next morning and packed my brother’s large truck, and hit the road. Yes, I am sure to reference the fact that we were driving a large truck to Manhattan/Brooklyn. More on that in a minute. Overall, our drive to the city took around four hours and was a little over two hundred miles. We didn’t get stuck in any traffic, so it was a smooth ride from my brother’s house to Manhattan, for what it’s worth. Driving in New York was another story. In the city, traffic was terrible, but that’s expected when you are in America’s most populace city, double the second-largest city, Los Angeles. We slowly made our way along the West Side Highway until we finally made it to Madison Square Garden around 11 am. But where would we park?
I have criticized the Brooklyn Rock n’ Roll expo in every single post I have written on other Rock n’ Roll series half marathon travel experiences. Most of those expos, whether Denver, DC, San Diego, or Nashville, were incredible. So, it should be of no surprise that I will lambaste it again, but with more detail, as to why I rank this as the worst race expo I have visited. Sure, I had some negative things to say about the New Orleans Rock n’ Roll expo, which you can read here, but Brooklyn was objectively bad. For one, I still do not understand why a half marathon in Brooklyn housed its expo in Manhattan. That seems like poor planning, especially when you could have had it at a place like the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The location was the top reason it was lacking, which brings me back to my previous question; where will we park? Well, on-street parking was never going to happen, so finding a garage needed to be arranged, but as we got closer to MSG, that proved impossible. As we arrived at MSG, my brother suggested an idea. He asked if I would be willing to get out of the car, take his ID, and get both of our runner’s packets, including our race bibs. It was a bold idea, and I quickly agreed. We could easily spend hours driving around looking for parking on a Friday in NYC. The annoyance of the entire thing, which, if allowed to simmer, could wreak havoc on our time, seemed an unacceptable way to start our trip. Therefore, once we were within a block of the expo, I prepared to enact his plan.
This plan would not come without its challenges. For one, this was my first Rock n’ Roll expo, so I didn’t know how it worked. If I did something wrong, I would need to contact my brother, but what would that do? I had Jeff’s ID, his race waiver, and my materials. Once we arrived, he pulled the truck over, and I jumped out. My brother told me he would drive around and meet me back here when I had our stuff and was ready to be picked up. I followed the signs leading me through MSG and to the expo packet pick-up area. After about ten to fifteen minutes, I received my brother’s race materials and my own. Not bad, not bad at all. I didn’t look around or enjoy the expo, which was a shame, but it was disjointed and choppy. The poor location chosen for it, on a Friday in NYC, sealed its fate.
With our race packets, I immediately left MSG and walked towards the street, and like a perfectly arranged plan, my brother’s truck arrived as I walked to the street corner. I jumped in the car, and we eased back into traffic, with tons of horns blaring. I ❤️ NY! As I buckled my seatbelt, I asked my brother where he drove. He answered, “I took four lefts and saw you at the corner!” In the time it took me to get all of our stuff, my brother had only taken four lefts. That is pretty funny. I mean, it worked out in the end, but I would have liked to see him, in his oversized red truck, navigating around MSG, midtown Manhattan, and only allowed to take four lefts! He still complains about it whenever I bring up this story. Determined to get out of Manhattan, and with all race materials in tow, we headed to Brooklyn and our Airbnb.
Welcome to Brooklyn
Jeff had asked me to select our lodging for this two-night stay in Brooklyn. After lengthy research, I could not find a hotel close to the race’s start/finish. I like to stay as close as possible to the start of the race, with the off chance that the finish will be close too. Brooklyn was a wonderfully located race because it began at one end of Prospect Park and finished inside the park. Prospect Park itself is beautiful and completed by 1877, was designed by the “landscape architects Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux after they completed Central Park about a decade earlier.” Therefore, if we could stay close to the park, we would be in great shape to walk to and from the race and make our race day about the race, not transportation. Save the transport for our brewery visits! Therefore, I took a chance and, for the first time, chose Airbnb. I have used Airbnb twice, in Brooklyn and Nashville. I built both trips around Rock n’ Roll half marathon races, and both Airbnb’s were fantastic. During my booking for Brooklyn, I reserved a condo that offered more freedom than a hotel and a more affordable option only a couple of blocks from Prospect Park. With surprisingly no anxiety, I booked our accommodations.
As we drove from Manhattan to Brooklyn, I was in constant communication with the condo’s host, who instructed us to meet him at the Airbnb, located in Park Slope. The owner was friendly and allowed us to check-in whenever we wanted. The only question I pondered at this point was; where were we going to park my brother’s truck? I knew that there was a garage directly across the street from our Airbnb, so I assumed that was our best bet. I didn’t care about the cost, as long as it was easy and I didn’t get anxious. When we arrived at the garage, its front was small, like small in that I questioned if my brother’s truck would fit. Feeling pessimistic, I talked to the man working the front desk and asked if my brother’s truck would be ok. He immediately said, “nope!” He told us where to find an oversized garage, which was about a mile away. At that point, my worries about the truck had proved justified but short-lived, thankfully. As we drove off, turning down a side street, we noticed a few parking spots on the road. So, my brother parked it, and I asked a young woman, who lived in the area if we could park there, and she said, “of course.” Free for the weekend, no issues with the automobile’s size, and no need to touch the car for two days, we lucked out.
With the car parked, Jeff and I walked to meet the Airbnb owner, who met us promptly, provided us the keys, and told us to contact him if we needed anything. We went inside and were impressed by the space. It was utterly Brooklyn. Plenty of space for us, a good bathroom/shower, a perfect kitchen, and a cute living room with exposed brick. We didn’t need anything more and required nothing less. The time, by this point, was around 1 pm. We were hungry, thirsty, and ready to explore the Park Slope area for a little while. It would be an early night, with our half marathon in the morning, but we had a few things to check off our “to do” list.
After getting some groceries at the local market, we cleaned up and got dressed for our pre-race meal. Our eatery of choice was La Villa Pizzeria. This eatery is excellent. If you read my post a few weeks ago on food nostalgia, “Good Food, Good Times”, you know my pizza/Italian cuisine originated in Massachusetts understandings. But when you have good Brooklyn pizza, as I did at Paulie Gee’s, or delicious pasta, as I did at La Villa, then you know what you have eaten in the past is not as good as you might have thought it was. Does that matter? Of course not, but when you have the good stuff, it goes down amazingly. My brother and I ate well, but my brother can eat a ton of food. I don’t get it, but damn can he eat. He ordered a Margherita pizza and Chicken Parmigiana, and while he didn’t finish, he put a dent in it. As we finished our meal, the establishment offered to hold onto my brother’s partial leftovers as we walked around Park Slope, but more importantly, visited a nearby brewery. Don’t worry, we didn’t forget the leftovers, and they didn’t make it to the morning.
As I stated in other posts, never drink too much the night before a race, and if possible, always try to have one-day in-between arrival and race. But such a strategy was impossible in Brooklyn. We visited a nearby brewery with the understanding that we would sample only a couple of beers. Threes Brewing, which turned out to be a wise decision, was that nearby brewery. It had an excellent urban design, with a friendly and hip atmosphere and a tranquil outdoor drinking area. Jeff and I ordered personal favorites, with him getting an IPA and me selecting a beer with a lighter punch, like a Pilsner. We took our drinks outside and sat at a two-person table, along a stone wall, under a pergola with wonderfully dimmed lights. The brewery ended up getting busy with lots of young professionals blowing off steam, on a Friday night, after a New York City workweek. Overall, we had a fantastic time. We each had two beers, both of which went down well. We relaxed our legs from the long drive, our bodies from the stressful expo experience, and our minds in preparation for our 13.1-mile run.
After finishing our beer and picking up my brother’s leftover food from La Villa, we darted back to the Airbnb. It was an early night, not how we usually travel, or how we did it up in Denver a year later, but this was the night before the race, so nothing else mattered. At the condo, we ate some of my brother’s leftover pizza and put on a movie since both of us love watching cinema and talking about it. Just read any of my movie-oriented posts! We got to bed early that night, and it was helpful we did. As I have said previously, I don’t usually sleep well the night before a race. Not sure why. I often toss and turn, I guess, in anticipation of the task ahead. But that Saturday night in Brooklyn was comfortable, and I slept well. It must have been the Brooklyn pizza!
Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon
Our second day began with breakfast in the condo, stretching, and of course included some brotherly hijinks involving YouTube, Joey Esposito, a TED talk, and, well, it doesn’t take much to make us laugh and act like idiots. Once ready, we departed on a brief walk to the half marathon start line. The weather was cool, the sun not yet risen, as it was roughly 6:00 am, but we felt good and were appropriately clothed. My brother had his iPod and sunglasses for once the sun appeared, and I had mine as well, but no iPod, as I don’t enjoy running with music. I like to take in the scenery, the sounds of the environment and focus on my breathing and pace. It doesn’t mean I do any of that, but I like forgoing headphones as I run. As we approached the corrals and starting line, the energy was electric. It is a real shame that our running of the Brooklyn Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon was the second to last. While my brother and I ran it in 2016, 2017 was its final year.
At the starting line, while my brother is a faster finisher than me, except for one incredible race a year prior (more about that in a future blog), we normally start together in the same corral. It makes the start fun. As we get closer to the line, once the buzzer blasts, we bump fists, and off we go. I love that part! As the race began, the weather was terrific. It was a perfect October day. Not too hot, not too cold, I mean, it’s fall in the Northeastern portion of the U.S., so it’s pretty fantastic. A perfect time to run. From the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch, which acts as the gateway to 586-acre Prospect Park and Grand Army Plaza, we ran onto Eastern Parkway. We continued through Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, which is stunning.
For the next few miles, as HalfMarathon.net writes, “runners make the first turn and follow Eastern Parkway west back toward the park.” Then we turned left “at Flatbush Avenue and head south through the park, starting a stretch that heads downhill at first and then flattens out.” I would say that Brooklyn was pretty hilly, but not consistently so, and since my knees are not “fantastic,” the flat stretches to hilly climbs and quick descents made for some exhausting periods, but the scenery was beautiful. Still, as we ran onto Parkside Ave and Ocean Parkway, which took us past “the Prospect Park Parade Ground,” this forced a very long stretch where we ran for a few miles in one direction on Ocean and then turned around and went back the other direction. I competed in a few races that force you to do a “turnaround.” I don’t usually like it, and I wouldn’t say I liked it here. The long stretch took my head out of the game, and I found myself going faster with my pace. My legs grew a little tired for those few miles on Ocean, although I stayed hydrated, and my upper body felt great. As the race route brought us back to Prospect Park, I passed by Prospect Park Lake and the Zoo and did this with a slight downhill progression.
But that came to a screeching halt, or a brick wall, as I quickly had to gain 100 feet of elevation in the last mile and a half. That was brutal, and my legs pretty much gave up on me. Stamina was satisfactory, and legs were not. For the first time, in all of my half marathon runs, excluding my very first, I had to stop and walk a little to give my legs a moment to reboot. Is that good? Does that help? No clue, but that last push was hard and ruined the pace I had set the entire race. But, as I said before, and say again, that’s not the point. To be honest, when I gained extra energy, or steam, and crossed the Brooklyn finish line with my head high and running, I felt good. I had a smile on my face as I received my finisher’s medal, which was badass, and water, some post-race snacks, and somehow found my brother while I sat under a tree, resting my legs. I would need them later! With the race completed, my brother and I departed Prospect Park towards the Airbnb. We needed to shower, lunch, and rest – all in preparation for a night of brews, BBQ, and brother time.
Badassery in Brooklyn
We had laid back lunch of delicious ramen at Sushi Yashin. Ramen, for some reason, has become a traditional food staple on all of my running vacations. Then, full of ramen, we went back to the Airbnb for post-race rest. But soon, it was time for an evening of beer and food. With our metro card in hand, we departed Park Slope and ventured towards a new neighborhood, Williamsburg, northeast of Prospect Park and adjacent to the East River. Here, as the rain started to fall, we visited our first craft beer location, a cozy place called Keg & Lantern Brewing Company. When we entered the brewery, the place was packed, wall to wall, with people. It seemed that this place was a popular hangout for those watching soccer, or football for my non-American readers and fans of Ted Lasso on Apple TV, matches on the television. There happened to be a few matches on, so the energy was high. We ended up finding a place to sit in a room separate from the main beer hall. Jeff ordered a stout first, then an IPA, while I tried a wheat beer, and then a blonde. Overall, the beers were good and dulled any of the post-race leg pains. After about an hour there, we left and walked to Brooklyn Brewery, which we were excited to try.
I am a fan of Brooklyn Brewery beer, but this was the first time I had the opportunity to drink it straight from the tap. Well, that is somewhat of a lie. You see, my wife grew up near the Culinary Institute of America in New York. We have often gone there for fabulous lunches, inspired dinners, and fantastic desserts. Well, recently, the CIA opened a brewery for Brooklyn beer. Therefore, the first time I drank Brooklyn Brewery beer was from a growler purchase at the CIA a year before my brother’s trip. Even so, this would be my first time at the brewery. When we arrived, there was a significant line of people waiting to get in, which stretched out the door and onto the sidewalk, and it was not getting any shorter. Rather than stay in the rain, we decided to pop into Brooklyn Bowl, which was in an attached building. There we could have a beer, or two, stay dry, and allow the line to shorten at the brewery.
No, we didn’t do any bowling, but we did have incredible local craft beers. Soon after, with the line wholly gone outside the brewery, we went over and in. Let me say this; Brooklyn Brewery is freaking amazing. A little more expensive than other breweries in the area, but no worse than breweries in Massachusetts. It was well worth it based on the experience, atmosphere, and beer itself. At Brooklyn Brewery, we sampled a ton of beers. It’s fun because you buy drink tokens and then use them to get individual samples, similar to how Cape Cod Beer in Hyannis, MA, operates. It was a fun way to try different flavors, even ones I might not have considered. We spent a reasonable amount of time at the brewery and had our fair share of beer, especially my brother, who got his money’s worth! We did not limit ourselves like we did when we visited Troegs Brewing in Hershey, PA, which I discussed here, Hersheypark October Excitement. Brooklyn certainly set a pace, one that only a year later in Denver we sought to match and did.
With enough beer consumed, we headed to dinner. My brother selected the eatery, Fette Su. Jeff had been to Brooklyn a year or two earlier, that trip to see an old friend I mentioned earlier, so he had some background knowledge to assist him in selecting a place to eat. Fette Su is a great barbecue joint. As the website says, it is very popular with its “dry-rub BBQ, beer & bourbon” and has a beautiful industrial, “cafeteria-style decor” with a vibrant mural and outside/inside eating concept. It’s hip, it’s chic, it’s incredible, and it’s Brooklyn, in the best way. We tried several options; ribs, pulled pork, steak, brisket, and some delicious sides, as well as craft beer options since we had not, somehow, had enough. We spent a while at Fette Su and enjoyed every minute, and of course, the food was delicious.
Time to Sleep Brooklyn
On our walk back to the metro, my brother, who had a full dinner and several beers, was now in need of dessert. So, we headed to Milk Bar Williamsburg. Let me say, as a lactose intolerant person, I envy those who can enjoy dairy/milk-based treats. I am also envious of how much food my brother can eat! With the night getting later, we jumped on the closest metro and headed back to the Airbnb to call it a night. We checked out the next morning and headed back to Massachusetts with only our experiences and memories.
In the end, this was a great “brothers” weekend of running, food, and beer. While my brother and I had run a couple of races before and have run multiple since our time in Brooklyn took our yearly running tradition to an entirely new level. Since then, we have run in Denver, Nashville, Newburyport, and Hersheypark. I look forward to more of those weekends in the future. Until then, we will continue to run, prepare, and, once the pandemic is over, and it’s safe to travel and run these big races, we will be there. So, keep the beer cold and the ramen hot because traditions, if I have learned anything these last few months, matter exponentially more once you see what life is like with them paused and shelved. Until then, be safe, and get ready!