—Special to Slave to the Traffic Light Runner’s Magazine
by Jay Flemma
SLEEPY HOLLOW, NY – History, literature, nature, and distance running all blend seamlessly to create one of the most challenging, beautiful, and character-rich half marathons in America in fabled, venerable Sleepy Hollow, New York. East coast runners, get ready to add a permanent entry to your yearly calendar, because Sleepy Hollow is a perfect way to open the running season as the first spring-weather half after a long, cold winter. Boston runners in particular should be especially interested, as the 13.1 miles boast a stout 1,279 feet of elevation change, (800 uphill, 500 downhill) a great warm-up before taking your place in Hopkinton in April.
“A little valley, or rather lap of land, among high hills, which is one of the quietest places in the whole world. A small brook glides through it, with just murmur enough to lull one to repose; and the occasional whistle of a quail, or tapping of a woodpecker, is almost the only sound that ever breaks in upon the uniform tranquility.”
—Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
The town of Sleepy Hollow, made famous by author Washington Irving, is gorgeous Colonial Americana in all its stately glory. Tucked cozily among the Hudson highlands, on a spacious cove of the river, it began as an isolated farming community, mostly Dutch, two days journey by horse and buggy from Manhattan in the late 1790s.
Now just a half-hour drive from the City, it feels a world away. It’s a glorious location. Dappled sunshine blazes brilliantly off the glassy, motionless Tappan Zee on one side. The dark countenances of the formidable woods of the Rockefeller Forest frown down upon the other, though a sojourn into the woods reveals idyllic pools at unexpected junctions. And when you suddenly emerge into clearings, the shafts of light are as exhilarating as though they were painted by a Renaissance master.
Happily, the race course incorporates both, and well as both the residential and downtown sections of the village. [Author’s Note: Short sections of the forest were rerouted this year due to Winter Storm Stella.]
The echoes of history are all around, both literally and figuratively, most notably in their indisputable place in world literature, the aforementioned Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
On mounting a rising ground, which brought the figure of his fellow-traveller in relief against the sky, gigantic in height, and muffled in a cloak, Ichabod was horror-struck, on perceiving that he was headless!â€”but his horror was still more increased, on observing that the head, which should have rested on his shoulders, was carried before him on the pommel of the saddle; his terror rose to desperation. —L.O.S.H.
The town’s two centuries of history can be written in blood, at least if you believe all the prolific tales of ghouls and goblins. Even before Washington Irving the region was viewed with much wonder and amazement at all the spectral apparitions that supposedly roam, seeking whatever vengeance they crave.
But chief among the cursed souls that in that valley dwellâ€¦a phantasm malevolent, most terrible and fell. Commander of all the powers of Hell and Night, Irving’s Headless Horseman, his head carried away by a cannonball, rampages through the forest, chopping off heads where he finds them.
Rightfully so, the town adopted the Horseman, one of the most iconic figures in American Literature, as it symbol, and whether it was in homage to the story or a happenstance of planning, the race course takes you through the woods and bridges where the hapless Ichabod Crane got whacked.
Just then he saw the goblin rising in his stirrups, and in the very act of hurling his head at him. Ichabod endeavored to dodge the horrible missile, but too late. It encountered his cranium with a tremendous crashâ€”he was tumbled headlong into the dustâ€¦
“It’s a hard course, but it’s beautiful,” explained runner Billy Fraioli, “And the parts in the Forest are the toughest out there.”
Indeed, all the talk pre-race was the hills, a total of 1,279 feet – 800 uphill, 500 downhill. Uphill at the beginning, uphill in the middle, and the supposed big hill at the end, runner’s bug out so far, you’d think they actually saw the Horseman bearing down on them.
Happily, the hills’ bark was worse than its bite. The first hill – the opening 500 yards of the race, is steep, but not unbearable. The course then enters the woods and settles into a long, slow, steady climb. Expert runners will want to attack this part of the course to get a leg up on the field; everyone else can coast comfortably into a rhythm to carry them through the rest of the course.
“The really great runners use that stretch as a springboard because the rest of the course – with the exception of the big hill around mile six and the hill at the end – isn’t all that dramatic a climb,” Fraioli surmised.
Fraioli is right. After four or five miles of verdant switchbacks, twisting their way deep into the woods and ascending the sharp climb at mile six, the course settles down into smaller hills, that are negotiable for everyone. The course then turns into the charming neighborhoods, winding its way past old Colonial houses and stately mansions before finally meandering to and along the river’s edge. As you near the lighthouse, the course tacks back for one final mile before ending back in the town, atop that first hill upon which the race began.
As an aside, the lighthouse is nothing short of hilarious. I was expecting a tall, majestically soaring spire, tapering at its middle like a supermodel, hard by the shores of a rocky promontory graced by lapping waves.
Instead, Sleepy Hollow’s lighthouse is short, squat, and sits in the middle of a parking lot surrounded by traffic cones and barriers. I was expecting Gisele Bunschenâ€¦instead I got Anthony Weiner.
“That’s your lighthouse?” I asked a fellow runner. She cackled mischievously, understanding my meaning.
“Don’t worry,” she responded. “It looks better on the medal draped around your shoulders at the finish line,” and he was right. Not even the great Pharos sent out its radiant beams as broadly as that the lighthouse on that medal, at least metaphorically speaking. You deservedly get a great feeling of accomplishment finishing this course.
Sleepy Hollow is a worthy race course that can proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with the sternest tests in racing without being unfair in the slightest. It’s fitting that the race course would be as formidable as the town symbol. It’s tough, but gorgeous, and best of all, warm. You don’t just want to run this race. It’s the kind of race where you come back to run over and over, circling the date on the calendar as an early milepost for the season.
VITAL STATS (all ratings out of seven)
Length: Half Marathon (13.1 miles)
Size: This year 720 runners participated, but it can fit many more.
Difficulty for that length: 5.5 – 6 out of 7 – Tough but fair, you don’t get much of a break going downhill due to the steep descents, and the jocular tale runners tell of “Uphill, then uphill, then uphill some more, then a BIG uphill and, of course, the big uphill finish” is funny because its somewhat true. But it’s never unmanageable or unfair either, and all the whoop and crash about “that last hill” is just runners trying to make each others’ flesh creep. It’s steep, but it’s no Heartbreak Hill either, and it’s only 250 yards long, and then you’re done. With decent training, even in the snowy northeast, you can be more than ready for this course when late March rolls around.
Natural Setting: 5.5 – 6 out of 7 – Sleepy Hollow is not a PR course, but it is a looky-loo course – as in “Look how beautiful! Look how beautiful.” You can’t help but stop for a picture (or five), nor turning on either Facebook live or Periscope so your friends can tune in as well. That’s why you come to run Sleepy Hollow: that and to immerse yourself in the town’s rich history. It’s a step back in time every time you visit.
Weather: 4.5 – 5 out of 7 – This year March has come in like a lion, and gone out like a dragon, one of Danaerys Targaryen’s dragons, in fact. But barring a freak event like Winter Storm Stella, you’ll like be running 55 degree temperatures, a welcome respite after a northeast winter. By comparison, our local half (and 18 mile run) along I-90 earlier in March was held in 4-degrees temperatures, minus-10 with the wind chill. Upstate runners and New Englanders especially should love Sleepy Hollow for the chance to run in far more Christian temperatures than they have all winter.
Value: 6 out of 7 – At a mere $60 it’s easily the best bargain of all the races run within an hour of New York City. The race shirts are comfortable and stylish, (especially when they feature the Horseman), plus free beer at the end is always a bonus.
After Party: 5 out of 7 – The race ends right in the village, so the bar scene afterwards is high energy. The Rivertown Runners are your quintessential running group – energetic, camaraderous, and welcoming. You’ll come back with a dozen new friends.
Fun: 7 out of 7 – You can tell a truly great race because its whole experience is greater than the sum of its parts. That’s especially true at Sleepy Hollow. Runners should also come back in late October for the 10K, where the Headless Horseman chases you through the race course.