A piece about running in New York City can certainly seem a touch lost among hundreds of tales of wild mountain adventures, wondrous trail runs and challenging traverses – but I’ll do my best to make sure it fits in (at least a little). While my idea of running will forever take place among tall trees, winding trails and tall mountaintops, I practiced another form for years and years – that is, city running. When destiny brought me and my suitcase from woods and mountain-covered Sweden all the way to the big apple (and love made me stay there), I had no idea how big of a part running would play in my assimilation. In my desire to become a New Yorker. In my attempt to make a brand new place something I could call home. But boy, it did.
Now, you simply can’t talk about running in New York City without touching upon what it’s like living in New York City. It’s fast. It’s loud. It’s hectic beyond belief. It makes your head spin and your wallet scream for help. And yet, an introverted and nature loving Swede (that would be me) felt as if it was all just right. I came in search for a new beginning, a clean start if you will, and that’s exactly what I got (although not clean, clean – if you’ve ever been, you know what I mean). New York City managed to kick me way out of my comfort zone and I saw personal development I never would have dared dreaming of. To top it all off, I met my now husband there, and ended up making Manhattan my dear, dear home for a good five years. But let’s not skip ahead – where did running go in this story? Forgive me.
So. Immediately upon my arrival, I scored one heck of a round of flu. Bedridden my first week, I didn’t really have to ponder where to go for a workout. But as I was finally restored to normal condition, putting my running shoes on was the one thing I was really longing for. I can still remember this evening as if it was yesterday – I geared up, prepared for the frigid January weather, and took off towards the west side, where I’d seen on the map there should be some sort of walking path. I lived downtown, in the East Village, so I crisscrossed my way over – through Washington Sq Park and past the Christmas tree, and along the tree lined (and oh so picturesque) streets of the West Village, until I was all of a sudden facing the busy West Side Highway. After what felt like a suicide attempt, I was safely on the walk/bike path on the other side of the highway, which runs along the Hudson River, from the tip of Manhattan all the way past Upper West Side. And I looked south. South towards the lit up skyscrapers of the Financial District. South towards the Statue of Liberty. South towards the New York Harbor. In an instant, it all just swooped in and stole my heart. Right there and then.
Now, there’s a whole lot more to this story than what there’s time and space for here. But know this – I was at a low point in my life. Sad and lost and let down, I desperately needed life to come back to me. I was chasing the desire to want to live, to seek adventure, to grow, to become myself. And as strange as it may sound for someone who had up until that point mostly found purpose and joy in the outdoors, the buzzing city scene injected in me an overwhelming wish to… turn things around. To change the direction of where my life was heading. To live, ultimately.
I ran and ran and ran that night. Surrounded by fellow runners, (completely) crazy bikers, the odd rollerblader and a handful of confused tourists, I didn’t want to stop. When I eventually got home to my quintessentially New York-y apartment (it came complete with a leaking ceiling and an outrageous rent), I felt so alive. And thus, the next morning I was back at it. It didn’t take long before I had covered the full lengths of both riversides – entirely uninterrupted by traffic, you can essentially run from around 20th St on the east side (there are paths north of there too, but it requires some detours to connect them), south towards and past the tip of Manhattan in Battery Park, all the way north along the water until you’ve zoomed way past Columbia University, located on 116th St. No, you won’t be touching a single blade of grass when you run here. No, you won’t log any elevation gain (like, literally zero). And no, your technical skills won’t improve. But there’s people watching extraordinaire. Ice cream shops begging for your attention (and hard earned dollars). Excellent opportunities to work on your flat speed. And above all – you’ll feel like one of them.
Needless to say, during my five years in New York, I went through many pairs of road shoes. Miraculously, I never once injured myself – neither from pounding an endless number of pavement miles, nor from colliding with anyone/anything (except that one time when a pigeon flew right into my left shoulder, I guess). I did trip on my face, though. Many times. You know when you’re expecting something to be flat and then you’ll trip on, let’s say, a piece of gravel? Yeah, I did that. Many times. With company, without company. Once being on the phone with mom at the same time (Jesus, I was such a New Yorker! I multitasked running and talking to my mother back in Sweden… lord). I have permanent scars on both of my knees from all the scraping. But throw at me a technical trail and I’ll dance right through it – funny, isn’t it? Running is glorious in so many fashions, and the way it allows you to sometimes zone out completely and travel elsewhere in your mind is one of my favorite things. It seems I took that to a whole new level during those years of city life.
Running in New York seriously toughened me up on the inside, too (it wasn’t just the kneecaps that hardened). I came out a braver and a more assertive person, to put it simply. Towards the end, I didn’t even shy away from going to the outdoor gym to practice my (even shyer) pull ups, even days when it was full of gangster-looking dudes in hoodies and baggy sweatpants. To me, that was one big victory. But the biggest victory of them all was that running allowed me to make New York my own. I claimed every foot of pavement that I ran and made it mine. Mine to call home. Mine to know. Mine to find my way back to. Getting to know a city from a runner’s perspective is unique – you end up down side streets you never would have gone looking for otherwise, you become a part of a community whether you like it or not, you learn how to find your way around in the absence of a map and clear directions. To me, it’s like the highway to the secrets of your chosen city.
I’m confident I wouldn’t have found my place in New York if it hadn’t been for my running. At least not as fast and complete as I did. And when you’re feeling lonely and everything around you is new, getting to know the street system and realizing that you can find your way home is an incredible confident booster. As a bonus, you also get amazing insight into the lives of the locals. How shopkeepers hose down their little patches of pavement every day (a very interesting phenomenon to a Swede). How people walk, talk and commute – and what they eat and drink for breakfast on the go. How road crossings work and how to throw yourself across the street – despite a red light – without getting killed. How laundromats are everywhere. How people drive. And, of course, how wonderfully intoxicating pizza smells.
It’s a different kind of running that awaits you in a major city. Possibly different in New York than anywhere else, but I wouldn’t know. And while I’m now happily living surrounded by nature again and have access to trails out the back door, I’ll always love “my” run in the big apple. It was a transformative time in so many different ways for me, and all those hours running up and down Manhattan will forever hold my heart, despite lack of snow capped peaks, steep ascents and deep forests. It all (quite forcefully) nudged me in the right direction in my life, and for that, I’m forever grateful. My love for the outdoors has always been very strong, but I realized in New York I need boatloads of it to be truly happy. So from where I’m sitting now – in our humble little house, far away from city lights, with a vegetable garden and a shoe rack full of dirty trail shoes – I love you, New York. In all your glory and your perfect imperfection, I love you and all that you did for me. Thank you for letting me roam your streets and make them mine, and for limiting the number of times birds pooped on me to six. That’s all. Running is magical – wherever in the world and across whatever terrain it takes you.