I left my heart in New York City.

I’ve always loved visiting good ol’ NYC. My family is from Long Island, and I have happy memories of driving to see my grandparents and aunts and uncles at least twice a year – usually once in the summer, almost always at either Thanksgiving or Christmas or both – and passing the same sights every time: over the Verrazano Bridge, onto the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to sit in traffic, straining to get a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty in between the buildings, winking back at the lights of the skyline as the Twin Towers and the Empire State Building receded into the distance. Sometimes we’d go over the Kosciuzko Bridge, where my mom and I would always announce it as the “Koss-kee-OSS-koh” bridge, and I wouldn’t learn until years later in Polish class that our pronunciation was just a leeetle bit off. I loved and hated the stink of New Jersey near Exit 13 on the Turnpike, because reaching it meant we were either almost there (yay!) or about to leave (booo). I loved the way the words “Carteret/Rahway” looked on the signs for Exit 12, and I loved the sweeping span of the Delaware Memorial Bridge – coming, it portended a much grander vista at the Verrazano, and leaving, it served as a reminder of the time I’d just spent up north. (My mom once told me – or maybe it was five times, or twenty – that when my grandfather was young, he worked on the Verrazano Bridge, helping to build it. I have no idea if that’s still true, but every apocryphal story told about my grandfather automatically becomes true, because he was a great man, and I believe every single thing ever said about him.) My grandfather did – and I know this is true, because I’ve seen pictures, and badges, and after he died and my cousin joined, he received Grandpa’s badge – serve in the NYPD for a long time, so I feel a special affinity for them, and the city in general, quite unlike any place I’ve ever actually lived. I grew up in the D.C. area, but I never quite get the same chill in my blood (in a good way) whenever I set foot on its streets. New York is a different story; I bask in the accent, churlish to some but mellifluous to me. I revel in the smells, rancid to some but indicative of a constant movement to me. I giggle at the honks and the whistles; obnoxious to some, harmonious to me. I rub the grit in deeper; sooty to some, it feels like the very earth of my forebears to me. I’ve always said I love to visit New York City, but could never, ever live there; I’ve said the same thing about D.C., and I’ve lived there, so I know it’s true – I’ll never go back permanently. But, I’ve never lived in New York, and for the first time in my life, this past weekend I got that little hatchling of an idea in my brain that said you should try this, just once.

I should begin with two disclaimers about this hatchling: 1) the entire reason I was in New York in the first place was for a wedding; 2) you could not have scripted a more picture-perfect weekend in terms of weather and color and temperature if you were actually a person who is in fact paid to create such instances. I mention 1) because I know that I – the deep-seated romantic-at-heart – am very vulnerable to the feelings of goodwill produced by watching two people profess their love for one another in public, and am thus also susceptible to believe that everything is right with the world in that place, in that moment. I mention 2) because I am also vulnerable to the heartbreaking effects of an azure-blue sky framed by chlorophyll-exploding trees, bathed in certain kinds of sunlight that only autumn can offer, buffeted by the gusty winds that swirl leaves around and make your hair do stupid things and make you pull your coat closed just a little bit tighter. One of my former professors calls this feeling (or at least I call it this; hers might be entirely different) an “autumnal yawp” – it’s the urge I get to shout in sad exuberance, which makes no sense, but it’s the closest I can come to describing what my brain does at this time of year. I’ve had one yawp already this fall, and I was not entirely prepared to be gobsmacked with the One Yawp To Rule Them All this past weekend. I should also mention that I was by the time of the wedding running on about 2 hours of sleep for reasons I won’t elucidate here, but I know as well as anyone that the brain makes very interesting decisions when it hasn’t been well-rested enough. AND, last but not least, I was also on my period, which is enough to make me cry at the drop of a hat, especially if I haven’t gotten enough sleep.

Anyway, that’s all a very florid way of saying that circumstances set me up to decide on the basis of 32 hours spent someplace that I want to live in that place, even though I’ve previously vociferously rejected it as a potential home. Ahem. Florid, indeed.

The wedding was beautiful; there isn’t any other word to describe it, really, and ‘joyous’ gets close, but ‘beautiful’ is it. I enjoy weddings because I like seeing people happy and in love and flush with the promise of their entire lives in front of them together, and not a small part of me hopes that some day that will be me, too, giving back some of that radiant exultation that others have given me whether they know it or not. It took place in Central Park  on a balmy-for-October Saturday afternoon, and the party continued well into the night. Saint was with me, and we went out for one drink after the clean-up was done (the wedding was mostly DYI, which I really enjoyed), and when I felt myself starting to nod off at the table – which was in a very crowded and loud small space – I told him it was time for my exhausted self to turn in. Back to our host’s apartment we shuffled, and I set the alarm for 3:30 Sunday morning, to start running in time to get to Central Park (we were staying about a mile away) when it opened at 6am.

I should clarify first that this was to be no ordinary jaunt around Central Park. One, I’ve never run there before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect – and here, I must tip my cap to the friendly and helpful folks on Reddit who assuaged my fears about running alone in a place I’ve never run before – and two, this was The Twenty-Miler of my marathon training. People who have trained for marathons know what I’m referring to: when you start a training plan, you look far ahead into week 15 or 16 or whatever and see the number 20 under that week’s long run. Maybe you’ve only run as far as 4 miles, or 6 miles, or 10 miles, or even 13.1 miles, at that point in your life. Regardless, you see that 20 and you think there is no way in HELL or anywhere in between that I will be ready to run 20 miles when that piece of paper says I am supposed to. 20 is where you’ve heard everyone hits the wall. 20 is where the wheels come off. 20 is where you find out what you’re made of. If you can do 20, you can do 26.2. (But isn’t that 6.2 just so much more?!) But 20? Really? Noooooo.

I’ve been one of those people, even after running 18 and 19 miles, which really, are so close to 20 that they may as well be 20. But it’s 200% psychological at 18 or 19 miles; it’s only 1 more mile to 20, but your brain starts to wonder before you’ve even started if your body can actually carry you the full distance. Your brain also knows that getting over that hurdle of 20 means that it will also not be daunted by the prospect of 26.2, even if your legs say they will be quite daunted, thank you very much. Such has been my brain; I knew I was perfectly capable of doing 20, and I confess that I was not pleased at the prospect of doing it in a place that was not home, with no easy way to bail out and get home in case something went wrong. But, that’s what marathon training is: finding that uncomfortable spot in your brain and your legs, and quite literally running right past it and over it. Put up or shut up. I find myself awake at 5am on a Sunday with the hours stretching in front of me, a deadline for brunch looming, and the thought of nothing else but putting up. Feet on the ground, air in the lungs, this seemed so impossible three months ago but here I go, out the door and into the dawn.

I left a little late, closer to 6am, so it wasn’t as dark as it could have been, and there were also more people out than there might have been at 5am. It’s a city, so who knows if that’s true. Almost instantly I felt my worries about safety dissipate, though I didn’t put away my handheld safety device (um, a housekey wedged between two fingers) until sunrise just to be sure. After walking for a bit, I broke into my long-run pace, and scaled the slightly downhill mile to Central Park, where I was to run three full loops of what everyone in New York City calls “the outer loop”, and then run the mile back to where I was staying. (I ended up running about a quarter-mile extra, but no harm, no foul there.)

I entered, and immediately fell in with three other people. I was amazed: who else is out here right at 6am? It quickly became apparent that I was not going to be alone again for the next four hours, as there were even more people waiting around every new curve and hill. (One major reason for this was that, unbeknownst to me until the onslaught of pink, Sunday was the day of the Avon breast cancer awareness walk in New York, which was being held in – two guesses! – Central Park.) That cheered me, and I forgot any fear I’d had of being in an unsafe situation, and settled into my rhythm.

The first loop was a lot of me measuring myself, trying to establish an even cadence, and also trying not to run into anything or anyone because I was reveling in the pre-sunrise backdrop of the city around me. The skyline was in silhouette, dotted with lights in windows; the reservoir inside the park was glassy but smooth, reflecting those lights back at the sky. I squinted hard at Orion to see if I could make out any meteors – Saturday night was the peak of the Orionid meteor shower – but I’m not even sure I found more than one, given where I was and its inherently poor visibility. I was also looking around for water fountains, since I was running without my own hydration (something I normally do in my hometown where I know the locations of water fountains, or can place a water bottle somewhere where I know it won’t be swiped) and knew that after an hour and a half I’d have to start eating gels and drinking water. Beyond that, though, it was just me (and, okay, the other several tens of people), my feet, the path, and the park. Down the hills, up the hills, merging with the side paths, saying hi to a few people, sidestepping the dog owners, listening to my own breathing, watching the sky get lighter and the lights in the windows get dimmer. Recognize a few landmarks – hey, that’s Rockefeller Center, there’s the skating pond, the electronic display on the CNN building tells me it’s 6:49 am and 45 degrees. My hands do feel cold, but the rest of me – in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt – doesn’t. The park is so quiet, even though it’s filling up with people: not just runners and bikers and walkers of dogs, but vendors wheeling their carts of “Hot Nuts” (it’s okay, I laughed too) into place and volunteer groups setting up their water stations for the breast cancer walk. Mostly I don’t notice any smell, until I get to the part of the loop near the stables where the cart horses are kept, and then it smells like home, a far-off home where I’m 8 and brushing my favorite lesson horse and he dumps a fresh one in the straw right behind me but I don’t care because I’m just happy to be close to and alone with him for a few minutes. I pass that point, and notice the marker of the spot where the wedding took place the day before. I know I’m at least halfway done with the first loop, and the sky is getting lighter. Finally, I wend my way down another hill and around a curve and then up another hill, and I’m done with the first loop.

…Wow, already? The sky is even lighter; I’ve not even noticed that it’s been an hour and a half since I started running. Time for gels and water. I get the gels, and soon after the water, and since it is 7:30, I make sure my brain tells the rest of me that we are to take water and gels every 30 minutes until we are finished running, because I have in the past let my legs dictate my feeding and watering schedule and it has gone very, very poorly. My mantra down the first hill of the loop, over and over, is: Every 30 minutes. Every 30 minutes. I’ve barely even noticed that the sun has come up for real now, and is poking through the leaves of the trees whose brilliant colors I learned yesterday. I’ve also barely noticed how many more people there are, and they all smell surprisingly good for being out and moving – oh crap, I forgot to put on deodorant before I left, didn’t I. Ooops. No matter, though; it’s so cool, and so not the least bit humid, that any sweat I’m sweating is evaporating almost immediately. The CNN building still says 45, 46 degrees? It feels so much warmer, in a good way. Hands are still cold. I hear more jingles of dog tags and whirrs of bike wheels, and more horns of traffic outside the park. Oh, there’s the Met –  I knew that was there last time, but it didn’t register. Oh, the saxophone player under the bridge near the wedding spot is here – already? Wow, it’s 8:00 already. Time for a gel and some water. Squirrels everywhere. Women wearing pink showing up in larger and larger numbers. Two people on Rollerblades; one carries a hockey stick, the other moves with ski poles as if to simulate the motion of carving. Is he cross-training for something? The horse smell, again; will I see any? Where am I in my mileage, anyway? 11 miles? This loop seems like it’s taking so much longer, except it also sort of doesn’t. This feels great. The sun is climbing higher.

And then, THEN, around the corner, under a splendid yellow tree floating its leaves across the loop pavement, it happens.

While I know my grandfather served in the NYPD, one thing I’m never sure of is where exactly in the city his beat was. I have no idea if he ever walked through Central Park with his cap tilted over his blue eyes – the ones my mom passed on to me –  just so, baton at his side, maybe whistling, maybe just taking it all in. I have to think he might have, that at some point while he was here on this earth he strolled around the park, contemplating a landscape probably far removed from the park’s contours today; but still feeling a small measure of peace and quiet in a parcel of green plunked square in the middle of such a hectic place. Out of nowhere, this tree, with its stupid yellow leaves and the morning sun hitting it just so, told me a story about Grandpa watching me run and being so proud of me, putting my feet where his had trod so many years prior. The closing in my throat I’m feeling right now writing this is the same closing I felt Sunday morning; it took a long, hard swallow of the lump there and a fake “it’s chilly so I need to snuffle to stop my nose from running” for me to not start bawling in the middle of my run. The wind shifted and I was already moving away from the tree, but I felt this incredible sense of calm and inner peace and, dare I say, joy, that I was out spending my Sunday morning with a few thousand of my closest stranger-friends and this city and these colors and these smells (dear God, the Hot Nuts trucks smell so good when you’ve not eaten anything in four hours), and somewhere in all of this, amid the cacophony of everything going on around me, there was a completely silent space in my head, being filled at that moment with a single thought:

You’ve got this.

Sometimes I wonder why I run. On the days when I feel pain in every joint, when I’m so soaked with sweat that I feel like no amount of soap can clean me, when my head hurts because I’m dehydrated or when my knees just can’t take one more step, when I fall into bed having canceled plans yet again when I’m just too tired, when I get angry at my alarm clock for interrupting me at 3am so I can get up and go outside to freeze half to death, I wonder why I run. When I’m in the middle of a hill and my hamstrings are screaming at me to stop, when my blisters are rubbed raw and threaten to crack and bleed, when it becomes a labor of love to walk up three flights of stairs, when I have to decline the invitation to close down the bar because I have to get up for ten miles the next day, when I go so fast I feel like there’s no way I’m not going to puke when I stop, I wonder why I run. When a polite stranger asks me why I’m training for a marathon, I wonder why I run. When my friends shake their heads at me in either amazement or pity, I wonder why I run. Whenever that doubt creeps in – can you really do what you set out to do? Can you not get hurt? Can you juggle this with everything else that’s going on in your life? – I wonder why I run.

That moment under that tree with that single thought in my head is why I run. That’s where I find my peace, my refuge, the culmination of everything I am and everything that came before me – the place where my particles form me, and my thoughts are purely my own, and everything is clicking together in the singular way that means I am moving through this space and this time. I don’t run so I can beat people or brag about how great I am; I’m too slow for all of that anyway. I run because it is the closest I can get to being one with the world around me, and because it is where I can be surrounded by so much and still feel completely left alone, and safe, and comforted, and absolutely invincible. In a sense, it’s not surprising that I found Grandpa there; he was always bemusedly supportive of my crazy endeavors, and I know that if he were alive today, he’d be there with me at the finish line next month, hugging me and slapping my back with his grizzled hand, laughing himself into a coughing fit that he was proud of me, and probably finding a way to fix me his special pancakes, which years of trying have failed to exactly replicate.

Anyway, after that – yes, this was The Yawp of which I wrote earlier – the second loop flew on by and I realized that I was in what I usually call “five-mile-euphoria”. I take at least 3 miles to warm up during any run, ever, which makes short runs really suck, and long runs suck at first but then even out. Five miles seems to be the perfect distance to illustrate this; at the start of mile four, I start waking up and settling into my stride, and at the start of mile five, I feel comfortable enough to significantly pick up my pace. Over longer distances this gets stretched out; in a half-marathon, for example, the settling happens around mile 8, and the pace pick-up happens around mile 11. Lately, the 13.1-mile mark has been my settling point, and mile 17 has been my pick-up point. During the second half of this Central Park second loop, I felt completely recharged and refreshed, and had to actively remind myself that I was in “second-loop euphoria”, and to not start speeding up just yet (and also, to get some water). It didn’t help that the sun was climbing ever higher and the crowds were getting bigger and the beauty of the day was just multiplying, which fairly made me want to leap into the air mid-stride and yell. I finished the second loop in the same amount of time as the first loop, and set off for the third loop. Loop the third. Wow, have I really done two loops already? My watch tells me it’s 8:40, so, yes, I have. But that means I’m one loop and one mile away from finishing this thing…

…and I didn’t want to be done. Throngs of women wearing pink and green and any and all colors, now walking in organized masses, cheering for each other at top volume (and cheering for me by proxy, or so I told myself). Smoke wafting from the Hot Nuts trucks. Snippets of conversation about coffee and brunch. Rehashing a date gone wrong from the night before. “On your left!”from a biker who – hey, that’s the same type of bike I have, cool! Dogs wrestling in the grass. Clop-clop-clop of the cart horses as their drivers spin stories about the park. Rockefeller Center, looming large. Soccer fields giving way to elementary-school-age games. Skateboarders and rollerbladers, more. The occasional golf cart or truck full of water bottles for the walkers. The same groups of people I’ve been passed by and passing for the last loop or two. Old people, young people, black people, white people, men, women, short people, tall people, fast people, slow people, everyone in between. Headphones, no headphones, shouting at friends running the other way. The water fountains, again, what mile am I at? Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, down the west side of the park. One last nod to the reservoir to the left. The road markers change from being prefixed with W to being prefixed with C to being prefixed with E – already, on the east side? The horses again. The breeze. The sun is starting to blind me! Last gel, but can’t get water since my path is blocked by the walking women. No worries. Cheers and chants. My feet hurt. My knees hurt. My hips hurt. There’s the wedding site again; saxophone man is still going strong. The boathouse, which has smelled like bacon for two hours. Two very small and hairy dachsunds growling at a German shepherd. My ankles hurt. My tendons hurt. My abs hurt. My breathing is fine. My hands aren’t cold any more. The CNN building says it’s 49 degrees. I feel like I’ve hardly sweated! Wasn’t there a store somewhere on the way down to the park? I need to stop and get a banana on the way home. I want the Hot Nuts, but a banana is what is good for me. Eighteen miles. My legs are telling my brain that this is some serious malarkey. My brain telling my legs to shut up unless they can offer a better way to get home. (My legs not knowing I have an emergency $5 in my pocket for bus fare in case of injury.) My legs shrugging, saying okay then!, and carrying on. So much red and green and gold. I will drink so much water and take such a large and satisfying poop when I get back. I’m going down the last descent which means it’s almost time – yes, there’s the Berkeley Castle sign – to round the corner for the last time and leave the park. I move over to the right of the loop, as if I’m a car preparing to exit; I say my silent good-byes, and my silent thank-yous, to these acres of solitude and every living thing therein for getting me to mile 19. And just like that, like clockwork, at the exact same pace at which I completed the first two loops, my third loop is done and I’m out.

Back up the way I came. Literally; it’s an incline, and it’s not bad at all but at mile 19.1, 19.2, 19.3 it feels like utter hell. My brain knows nothing other than to tell my toes to dig into the pavement and go. I get to an intersection; the walk-sign has turned and is counting down from 10 to a don’t-walk sign. I know that if I stop, I won’t want to start again. I speed up to make it across; where the hell did THAT come from?! It’s mile 19.5; I have no business going any faster, do I? Up, up, up. Crest the hill. More women in pink lining the streets to the right. Pass the street I was supposed to stop at. We go downhill; I keep going. There’s the store I saw on the way in; just get to there. Two more blocks. I am going on pure adrenaline at this point; my body stopped moving itself a while ago, and it is pure spirit and chemicals that are pushing me to one block, one half of a block, red light…

Done. 20 miles. Done.

Later in the day, on our way back south, Saint and I are sitting on a bus and through the windshield I can see the low purples and reds and blues over the horizon as the sun starts to set and the stars and moon start to rise behind the Delaware Memorial Bridge. The effect throws the giant trusses of the bridge, cables and all, into silhouette, and the color is so lovely and dark and deep – a la Robert Frost, whom I’ve already quoted once that day – that something catches in my throat. I realize I’ve left something in New York even after having checked and re-checked that I’ve packed everything; it’s under that yellow tree, waiting for me to come back and get it, or maybe find it somewhere else, possibly in less than three weeks when 20 turns into 26.2.

Now, I finally get it: the wall they say happens at Mile 20 has been knocked down, dragged away, done with. 26.2 is the magic number now, and where I was standing at the bottom of Mount Everest looking up at it in Week One of training, I am now over three-fourths of the way to the summit, peering over a precipice to see it. It’s winking at me, the top, saying it can’t wait for me to get there. I know I have a few little crags to scale before then, but all in good time… all in good time.

Back at the end of mile 20, which is really mile 20.25, I bluster into the store I’d seen earlier and buy a banana. I walk out, peel it, and eat it in three bites; I’m famished. I need water. My legs are holding up as well as they can for the moment, but please don’t ask them to run up any stairs just yet. It’s an impossibly gorgeous morning. I finished five minutes sooner than I’d estimated. The world is so alive, and so am I. Deep lunges to stretch; double-decker buses full of tourists. Revival songs coming from the basement of a church. Noises of a festival across the street. I turn the corner back to the place I’m staying, and the movement is natural, as if I’d known where I was going all along.

As if I were home.

Home.

Oh.

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2 Responses to I left my heart in New York City.

  1. Alex says:

    “I’ve said the same thing about D.C., and I’ve lived there, so I know it’s true – I’ll never go back permanently.”

    Blasphemy! D: lol

    I can’t wait to get back to MD. Permanently. It’s the only place I could consider home.

    I did enjoy going to NY when we went up there for the Belmont, it’s certainly fun to ‘explore’. But dear dog, I could never live there, lol. City living… not for me. Ever. Hahaha

    • kmt4n says:

      Not blasphemy! There are some things I miss about it, but I never get that feeling of “home” when I return.

      I always, always, always preferred the parts of NY like the ones we went to – the suburbs on Long Island – because that’s what I was most familiar with and that’s what held the best memories for me. With the perspective of a few days I’ve been thinking that I must have been somewhat talking out of my ass, because living in a large Russian city was exhausting. (but, a good deal of that could be attributed to the fact that it was, you know, in Russia. LOL) I’m not sure NYC would be any different, but… but. The seed has been planted. Hey, worse comes to worse, if you decide you want to brave the Belmont again, you might have a free place to stay. 🙂

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