BY MICHELE HERMAN | When I first started running, my route was a length of old riverfront asphalt marked off by splintered piers, and the World Trade Center — that bland beacon — was always up ahead. My kids were 6 and 3 and I was a full-time mom, and it felt delicious to be out by the Hudson all by myself for a half hour, no one begging for another game of Candyland.
This was 1998, which in retrospect seems like a very good year. Monica Lewinsky notwithstanding, it was a time so quiescent I don’t remember feeling I was living in a particular era at all. Technology hadn’t yet insinuated itself into everyone’s every waking moment. I remember watching parents and their teenagers and feeling convinced that the generation gap was an outdated notion from the ’60s. The U.S. had its first budget surplus in 30 years, Exxon and Mobil merged, Viagra was approved, the euro created, an obscure Islamic radical named Osama bin Laden published something called a fatwa, and a little company with a funny name (Google) was founded.
Little did we know; little do we ever know. Soon I ran into a new century — one that should be filed under the great Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times” — and I often wish I could run back out again, even though there’s no denying that in this century the city has grown far more hospitable for recreation. Now I run through a tree-lined park up a gently sloped wooden boardwalk planted on either side with grasses that rustle in the breeze and make me feel, for just a minute, that I’m at the beach.
But then I look up and see the so-called Freedom Tower grow crazily tall and shiny and know that life in 2012 is no day at the beach. Drivers beside me on West Street are texting though they know they shouldn’t be. At high tide the Hudson rises alarmingly close to the level of the esplanade. Upheavals tumble into the news at such a rapid rate it’s hard to keep all the natural disasters, deposed or killed dictators, disgraced U.S. politicians, teetering world economies and changing paradigms in my head at once.
Me — I have more freedom these days, at least on the micro level. I would happily play a game or two or 20 of Boggle if only there were a kid around who would deign to join me. Alas, there’s only one left at home, and, being a consummate teenager, he makes himself quite scarce. So, in this newish decade of the newish century, I go out for an occasional run to breathe the air and watch the world go by and muse on everything from my BMI to the meaning of life.
Running is one of the most rudimentary and linear activities a human can do, but it’s subject to change like everything else. In the early years I ran in sneakers but then, trying to be a more responsible steward of my feet, I switched to hideously overdesigned running shoes. Now I wonder if I should invest in those funny new rubber foot gloves, because according to The New York Times we humans were built to run pain free on bare feet provided we rethink our stride. (Although according to a different article in a different section of the same paper the following week, none of this is true.)
I ran in leggings until my leggings fell apart and no one seemed to have leggings anymore, and I’ve kept running long enough that people are wearing leggings again. At some point I bought myself some running pants on sale. This is the closest I’ve come to an athletic uniform since my junior high gym suit, and I feel very jockish with my wicking material, zipper key pocket and toggles at the bottom so I can tighten the legs around my lower calves, though I haven’t yet felt the urge.
So far my Polish peasant legs are serving me well athletically if not aesthetically, but I sometimes feel clicking and loose connections behind my kneecaps and tell myself I should quit now while I’m ahead, jointwise. Sometimes I do sit out a few weeks to let an injury heal or to hold out for better weather or, in the fall of 2001, to wait for the fumes from Ground Zero to subside. Sometimes when a formal run feels like too much bother, I’ll turn the midday dog walk into a mini-sprint in my street clothes, the only trouble being that the dog likes to run toward home but not away from it.
Running is conducive to taking in the scenery and asking myself lots of idle questions. Do the mockingbirds fly south for the winter or are they just resting their vocal cords, like Liza Minnelli? How did horse chestnuts get their name? What is that lovely dark green ground cover that produces fruit like a row of miniature radishes? And those fantastic trees out on the Charles Street pier that grow their own miniature paper lanterns? If the dog fell into the river, would I have the guts to jump in to save him?
I also do a lot of private architectural criticism. I look at Stuyvesant High School’s boxy yellow building and wonder if anyone who wasn’t around in the 1980s will even know that there was once a style called postmodernism, with its fussy squares and circles and its ironic use of classical motifs. Speaking of which, isn’t it time for irony to go out of fashion? I puzzle over the chalkboard gray, non-trufflelike building called Truffles with its equally inscrutable sales banner — Repent. Rent. Repeat. I nod to my favorite new building, the one on the corner of Laight and West with the pagoda-like top, which manages the neat trick of looking clean and modern without disrespecting its 19th-century neighbors.
I have kept up the running so much longer than I expected to that I feel like a whole different sort of person from the one I thought I was going to be. For one, I never expected to have such an active exercise life or so many muscles. If I do have to stop running I will still have my bike, weights, yoga and, in the summer, the city pools. But none are as simultaneously tingly and calming as a good run. I like the whole idea of it. I like waking up on a weekend and casually telling my husband, “I’m going out for a run” and coming home all sweaty, red-cheeked and ravenous, with an accomplishment already under my belt for the day.
I used to run with a Walkman, listening to music to rev me up or a class to pass the time. Now I run with nothing in my pocket but my house key and nothing in my ears but the ambient sounds of Manhattan. I am trying to like the experience of running as much as the idea and the aftermath. Sometimes I simply focus on my breath, advice that irked me no end during childbirth but which now feels like a portal to peace, a portal I can find entry to once in a while.
I am pleased to say that I breathe better than I used to. I no longer get winded, and I can run with my mouth closed and avoid winter throat burn. I have also grown strong enough to come down lightly and rock the bottoms of my feet. Other runners still gain on me, but the good news is that this bothers me less than it used to. Sometimes I can even run my way out of a funk, provided the roots of the funk were shallow.
I aim myself toward peace and enlightenment, but to date my shadow remains firmly attached, waxing and waning. And the world casts a bigger shadow on my runs than it used to. I worry less about how many calories I’m burning and more about whether we humans are running straight into a science fiction novel, and whether it will be of the anti-utopian variety. I worry about European economies and the American democracy, and about whether I am living in the midst of a great empire in decline. I cross my fingers for the wisdom and perseverance of peaceful protesters everywhere, and for a new era to grow from the unpromising seeds of this one. Each time I lace up my Asics and run, I like to think I grow infinitesimally stronger. And I wish that civilization at large operated, like running, under the principle of slow progress through steady effort.