An Ode to Zoo Hill (aka Battle Pass Hill)


battlepass hill

Battle Pass Hill Marker (Photo Credit: NYC Parks)

Yesterday was the 7th annual Brooklyn Marathon, which takes place entirely within Prospect Park. That’s 26.2 miles within a park, whose largest loop is 3.35 miles long. This means runners do the large loop six times and do the lower loop three times total. Aside from thinking that the route might be a little monotonous, runners face the arduous task of running up Zoo Hill six times.


Zoo Hill gets its name from the fact that it’s right next to the Prospect Park Zoo. The official name of the hill is Battle Pass Hill. In fact, if you call it Zoo Hill, certain Brooklynites are rather touchy about it and will snarkily correct you. There’s a plaque stating the name of the hill on the west side of the pedestrian path on the northeast side of the park. The boulder with the plaque is right off the path, so it’s easy to find it if you know that you’re looking for it. Otherwise, hundreds of people pass it without ever realizing that it’s even there. Even I ran in the park for more than a year before I realized its existence.

Battle Pass Hill has a fascinating history. It is the site of Battle of Long Island (or the Battle of Brooklyn) fought on Aug 27, 1776. It was the first major battle and the largest battle of the American Revolutionary War after the Declaration of Independence. The American troops hoped to use the hills of what is now Prospect Park to defend themselves against the Hessian and British troops. They chopped down a tree onto a road that is now Flatbush Ave in order to force the enemy troops to go through bushes and up the hill. While the American troops were able to fend off the Hessians, when the British arrive from the south (they landed on Staten Island), the Americans were forced to retreat back to Manhattan. This British victory gave the British control of the city of New York, which extended the life of the war. It’s hard to believe that this now peaceful site of recreation was once a place of much bloodshed and fighting.

Now the only battle that goes on Battle Pass Hill/Zoo Hill is the mental and physical exertion of running or cycling up and over the hill. It is the biggest hill in the park when going counterclockwise. From the lowest point of the loop on the southeast side of the park to the top of Zoo Hill, there’s an elevation gain of over a hundred feet over 1.2 miles. The first part of the hill is actually fairly gentle and most people don’t even notice. It’s not until you’re halfway up the hill that the real elevation gain begins and that’s usually where people put the “start” of the hill. The steepest part of Zoo Hill is about 75% of the way up (from the very bottom and where the boulder with the plaque is located). If your heart wasn’t working all that hard before, the heart rate will spike at this point.

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with that hill. Naturally I hate running up that dang hill because it’s hard, BUT, begrudgingly I have to admit Battle Pass Hill has made me a better, stronger runner. For one thing, it’s the perfect distance and steepness for quality hillwork. Short inclines are over before you know it. Long inclines can be mentally intimidating. The steepness of the hill is such that it’s steep enough that you need to work hard to run up the hill, but not so steep that you can’t run up the hill. Because I run in the park at least four times a week, I go up that hill at least four times, usually far more than that because I run several laps of the park.

Even though I don’t do formal hillwork, I found that even casual slow runs up Zoo Hill provide much cardiovascular and muscular benefit. Most hills in road races are much easier for me now. For example, at the latest race I did in Syracuse, the half was full of rolling hills, but I barely noticed because I could race through them so easily. When I lived in Hoboken, my usual running routes were flat, flat, flat, so hills were a lot harder for me to power through. Now I cruise through hills.

I may curse Battle Pass/Zoo Hill as I gasp on my way up, but like many difficult things in life, I come out of it a better, stronger person for having done so.

Where do you like to do hillwork? Or do you not do hillwork at all?

14 thoughts on “An Ode to Zoo Hill (aka Battle Pass Hill)

  1. I used to dread that hill on every morning PP run, but I’d still run it every time! I could never understand how some people would always go out of their way to avoid it, especially if they intend to run the Brooklyn Half. I also used to be totally lazy about doing actual hill intervals, but figured covering it on a daily basis was at least helpful. I’m a total weakling on hills now; the only one near me is all grass, so I always tell myself I’m going to practice it, but if it’s recently snowed or rained, forget it.

    • It’s amazing how much benefit you can get from casual hillwork. When I lived in the Bay Area, it’s impossible to get away from hills, so I was always running on them. In comparison, any hills in NYC seemed like flat ground.

  2. I so understand a love/hate relationship with a hill! I live at the bottom of one that I do weekly and while I hate it, I know it’s doing great things for me!

  3. I used to despise hills and would either avoid them or walk them and not really even try to run up them. In the last few years I’ve learned to appreciate hills and all of the benefits I get from running them so I incorporate them into my weekly workouts. I love the history behind Battle Pass Hill!

    • When I lived in Hoboken, it was really easy to avoid hill training because I had to go somewhere to find the hills. All my usual routes were soooo flat. I really paid for it when I did the races in Central Park because I noticed the hills then. Now when I go back to Central Park, I barely notice.

      I thought you would like the history. Growing up in CA, so much of American history seemed so remote because those events took place on the other side. Now I walk through places where all these things happened right where I’m standing! It makes it much easier to understand what was going on back then.

      • It seems like so many people don’t even know the history behind the area where they live. Some places are more rich in history than others too, though. It’s nice to see you appreciate the history where you live.

  4. That race sounds horrible! I have the same love/hate relationship with 2 hills in Central Park. I dread them but gosh they make me such a better runner. I seriously need those right now!

    • Hahahaha, I don’t know how the runners manage to complete a marathon in the park, but somehow close to 400 people do! Amazing, isn’t it? For two years now, I paced a friend for a few loops, which helps pass the time and the laps.

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