One sultry afternoon in New York — the type of day when weathermen chatter excitedly about Ozone Alerts and even the air seems to sweat — I bid goodbye to the reassuring cool of my “garden level” apartment (a nice name for a renovated basement) and hit the asphalt. It was a perfect day to be on an island — any island, that is, except the Island of Manhattan, where I happened to be. It was also time for a 20 mile run.
There are several unfortunate things about the training dictums of the New York Marathon. The one that struck me on that particular day is the contrast between Marathon Sunday in November and the initial days of training, months before. It comes down to the ordinarily boring topic of weather, which explodes into boundlessly exciting variables when referenced in the context of running.
The marathon itself occurs on what is usually a frost-laced morning in a makeshift Staten Island “Runner’s Village” under the Verrazano Bridge. Runners spend the morning in an existential delirium, where you dread the lung-annihilating fate that awaits you on the one hand, and anticipate it just so you regain sensation in your toes on the other. The first weeks of preparatory running, meanwhile, often are staged in temperatures that would encourage the less intrepid — or the less insane — to trade their Nikes for flip flops and retreat to the shade.
On this particular day, temperatures were hanging around 105 degrees. I told myself it didn’t matter; at some point, 90 feels the same as 100 and anything after is just extra credit.
A more prudent runner, the type that plans ahead and follows through, would have awoken earlier and knocked this obligation — no, this achievement — off the list first thing and moved on with their day, to anywhere cool. I was not that runner.
The streets were oddly deserted for a Saturday afternoon. Usually they are packed with bodies: towering women in towering heels walking foot-long dogs, carefully disheveled hipsters wielding cigarettes like sabers, tourists looking up at the buildings above rather than the path ahead — so high!
I never look up at the buildings anymore. I’ve lived in New York for five years, and for me the sidewalk, ordinarily a straightforward path between points A and B, is an obstacle course to be carefully navigated. I refuse to take public transportation to run—and the price I pay is generally metered out in knocked shoulders and too – near misses with cars, bikes, pedi-cabs and other wheeled vehicles at almost every crosswalk I encounter. Even if my heart rate falls during the eternal wait to cross the street, the stress that awaits after the light turns green raises it again.
I learned this when I first moved to New York, to an ill-fated duplex apartment adjacent to a homely erotica shop known as “Kinematics,” on the oddly forlorn outskirts of Times Square that Mayor Giuliani never bothered to sanitize. In the middle of everywhere, but also nowhere.
I lived in an overflowing apartment of rowers and runners, all thrown together by the debatable common denominator of having just graduated from the same college. That September, I thought I would never run again; high-tailing it up Sixth Avenue amid the hordes simply seemed a task too daunting.
But I persevered. Soon I came to appreciate the towering ladies for their thinness — easily dodgeable — and I found that their dogs, with legs so short, could be hurdled with similar facility. The cigarettes — beacons, or flares. And I hadn’t been doing tourists any favors by giving them wide berths; they were in New York, and they deserved an authentic experience. Now I careered through their pictures — it’s the digital age, after all, and they could take another. If I jostled a shoulder, no matter: I called out a quick “I’m sorry!” and carried on.
In the process, I maneuvered myself into a curious position within the ubiquitous New York hierarchy of self-transport, as it plays out on the sidewalks: for an hour a day, I was enemy to car, cyclist, and pedestrian alike.
But none of these lessons were needed today, as the streets were totally vacant. Once the streets started to radiate steam, everyone took off for other islands. I decided to leave mine too. I headed for Brooklyn.
As I descended through China Town, odors from dim sum and dumplings permeated the streets. I ascended the Brooklyn Bridge, catching a faint breeze and chasing it down. I arrived in Brooklyn. Winding my way through the streets — infinitely shadier, infinitely more adorable — I found my way to Red Hook, where no subway cars go. Under an overpass and into uncharted territory, adorable no longer. In the 1990s, LIFE deemed this the crack capital of America. But I have as much faith in gentrification as the next person. It does have a waterfront, and sweeping views of the Statue of Liberty. I decided to try my luck.
The sweeping views were spectacular, the urban scenery an abundance of shadowy bars hiding behind peeling aluminum siding and neglected neon signs. But as one hour blended to three, my endurance began to slip. My head was a cauldron, and The hem of my clothes started to cut into my skin.
From time to time, as I embark on new regimens to get faster or fitter, I do things like try yoga. For some runners, this is successful, and for others, enjoyable, but for me it is agony. The worst has been the type of yoga where approximately 20 individuals who’d likely place themselves on the more abusive side of the masochism spectrum seal themselves into a room and turn up the heat. Then they start breathing hard and alternate one-footed balancing exercises with rolling around on a sweat-soaked mat. The heat is overwhelming; you sweat from places that you didn’t know could sweat. They call this Bikram Yoga.
I was trapped in the bowels of Brooklyn, with no idea where I was anymore, no longer wearing a shirt, and soaked. But during the yoga, I would invariably emerge with a shocked look on my face, sweat dripping down, and poring over two questions in my mind (I just did that? I just paid for that?). This time, I knew that I had gotten what I wanted to get out of my run. My heart was pounding, I was leeching the last of the liquid in my body and probably cultivating blood the consistency of porridge, but I felt amazing. I was Bikram Running.
I found a bridge, cleared it and stayed coherent until I made it home. This was marathon training at its finest. And there was plenty of time til November. For now I would focus on outlasting the city summer’s heat; awaiting a race’s start for want of sensation in the extremities could wait for months to come.
Photo by John McNally