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I'm thinking about a new book of New York stories, things I left out of my other books. Running Through Snow In Central Park is one of the ideas. Please comment to let me know what you think. Thank you.
Running Through Snow In Central Park
Saturday morning wasn’t promising, and not just because I was huddled in a freezing church vestibule with a couple of dozen other refugees from the cold. Weak, I succumbed a couple of time, picking myself up and wandering inside to soak up some warmth in a pew.
If there’s a God, how come it’s so fucking cold?
A gray winter morning in late winter was about to be resurrected as something else, a new dimension edging through the slender membranes of reality to give us something beautiful.
I was a not very competitive runner. For example, I’d heard rumors that winners broke the tape when crossing the finish line, but only rumors, vague ones. There were times when you might question my sanity. One January day, the temperature in single digits, I went out for a run, fed up with being stuck indoors, and came back after a few miles, icicles dangling from the ends of my hair, composed of fresh-frozen sweat.
And there was the Saturday when my commitment to running three laps around Roosevelt Island refused to be melted by torrential rain, thunder and lightning.
Today was a contender, too. I’d already collected my souvenir T-shirt for a 10K run in Central Park, the starting line just across Fifth Avenue from the Church of the Heavenly Rest. I’d done my training, and I wasn’t going to waste it, although it was now cold, upper 20s. The crowd of runners congesting the vestibule looked like something out of Charles Dickens.
I am certain I wasn’t the only athlete to fake a religious conviction long enough to sneak indoors to warm up with God, the pews and a choir at practice.
Five minutes before the start time, we filed out en masse and took our places between predicted time posts hoisted by volunteers. You were supposed to mingle with other runners expecting to finish at the same average speed as you, but in the days before New York Road Runners began giving out tags to attach to your shoes that guaranteed accurate start and finish times, a lot of runners moved ahead to cheat with a better jump.
This encouraged others, disgusted with the idea of getting trapped behind inconsiderate slowpokes, to juice the cheating spirit. It was hard to remain principled when you saw chubby runners so new to the sport they ran in colored socks, lining up, chomping at the bit, with elites in the front row.
Once, I remember getting jammed during the first mile, trying to angle around a chatty couple who, for some reason, believed socializing was best done while pretending to be six minute milers. I still don’t think they figured out why I shouted, “Assholes!” as I angled by, trying not to trip over someone else or sprain an ankle in the crowd.
I should explain that races in Central Park typically drew a thousand or more runners. On a two-lane road, congestion was inevitable, especially early on before the pack stretched out, and courtesy to other runners trying to make a time mattered. The other thing I should explain is that I take competitive sports too seriously, which accounts for my calling the dating couple assholes. They may have been the nicest people in the world, which counted for not much when I had a personal best I wanted to top.
As we lined up, waiting for the horn to blow and appreciating the humor of the race manager who had the happy illusion that anyone beyond the first hundred runners could decipher a word he was shouting, something wonderful happened.
Big, soft snowflakes began falling. Before global warming took full stride in its cataclysmic march toward planetary destruction, big snow storms in New York were pretty rare. We used to wish for their beautiful, softening showers over the city, nostalgic for what we left behind in Buffalo.
The starter’s horn shattered the silence. We all began jogging, in place at first and with increasing strides as the pack stretched out. By the time we angled left through Harlem at the top of the park, the snow was so intense, it covered everything that was still. Trees and bushes were outlined in white. People stuck waiting to cross as we filled the lanes were dusted.
Grinding up Harlem hill, an incline so intense it barely escapes requiring stairs, I enjoyed the tickle of flakes across my face as my body temperature rose with the effort. Then, coming down the other side, I had to carefully brake more than usual because snow packing onto the road’s surface raised an unusual hazard.
The first time I ran in snow, it wasn’t a race. Several inches had covered my trail along the East River, and up early, I broke its surface as my New Balance shoes sunk into its soothing cushion. It was one of my favorite runs, still is, but this morning was different.
For one thing, it was still snowing, hard, and the softening impact had been obliterated by the several hundred runners racing through ahead of me. So, instead of paying attention to how my body felt as I absorbed each step, I let my attention float into the astonishing make-believe of Manhattan in heavy snow.
Down past the Dakota we all ran. The building, a remote mournful palace to me since John Lennon was killed, rose like a shadow, its dramatic curves rubbed off. Through skeletal trees rapidly gaining bulk, the surrounding city began to disappear.
All the way down to Columbus Circle, the A&E Network’s time and temperature billboard pierced the snow screen, its clarity increasing in proportion with my pace. It was less information than decoration, red lights among indistinct towers at the edge of midtown.
We turned east, running parallel with 59th Street. The sounds of the city, the incessant background hum, was being suffocated. Heavy snow was like a revolution, rebels crushing the resolute, deafening terror of sensory overload.
Horse carriages were just beginning to escort tourists into the wonderland of a snow-filled park, the drivers telling their marginally accurate stories to credulous listeners. (Once, I heard one of them inform his passengers that our 10K was the New York City Marathon.) Along 5th Avenue in the Sixties, I let my attention wander to the zoo enclosures on my right, looking for the red pandas, miracles of nature who had a habit of escaping. Maybe the snow would inspire one.
Race volunteers, who had to be even crazier than we were, kept shouting splits as we ran past, accenting the unreality. But I’d stopped caring about my time. This race was singular. All that mattered was crossing the finish line as the white built up all around us.
Cat Hill is so nicknamed because, halfway up, the statue of a big feline predator waits as if ready to pounce on struggling runners. The incline isn’t as steep as Harlem Hill, but by the time you hit it, you’re already beyond five miles, making it feel more cruel and challenging.
Today, the big cat was tamed by snow. I made a mental note to tell my friend Steve, who first told me about it, and then, wrestled with a writer’s dilemma. I wondered how I could describe the wonder of something that, outside the event, the snow and the surging chemistry, was as unexceptional as taking a whiz in the woods. You couldn’t share it, I thought, even though descriptive phrases and illusions were racing across that screen where I edited before writing anything down.
So, the last quarter mile, as the race course leads you up along the rim of the reservoir, is slightly downhill, a straightaway where the finish line comes into view and you try hard to catch up with the flood of faster finishers entering the chutes. Today, I picked it all out through the falling veils of snow, like running into a dream, sleep descending.
For the one and only time, I finished reluctantly, the pleasure of catching my breath again no match for exiting the fantasy world of running in snow, heavily falling snow that added constantly to its illusion.
Walking around, feeling the cold flakes meet the sweat on my face, I knew it was a once in my lifetime feeling. And I was alone. The elements, God’s works, were with me in a way they never would be again. That magic stayed with me as I walked out again, passing the church where I found pagan shelter, and I really didn’t give it up until I was swallowed up while climbing down the subway steps, my harsh reentry into life in New York.
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