Chasing Pavements



I venture into my gym for a short run. It is February. I have no interest in stepping out into the cold for even half an hour. The gym staff has turned up the heat in accordance with the temperature outside, forgetting that we are still here to exercise. The vents on the ceiling of the gym emit such warm air that I imagine there are people inside them blowing down on us.

I haven’t been to the gym for a few months. My treadmill neighbors are just as they’ve always been: glued to their TV screens. A girl across from me smiles ridiculously at a show. I look at the stats on my treadmill’s panel: 282 calories gone, 2.76 miles gone. I love the overly precise calculations of treadmills; many runners think that every treadmill is different and it’s impossible to know exactly how short or long your run actually was.

Running inside feels like writing on a computer: far less romantic and organic than doing the task freeform. On a treadmill I feel as if my neighbors and I are imprisoned in a power plant where we’re being made to generate electricity like the cyclists in The Triplets of Belleville. It so happens that my gym looks sort of like a factory, with a first floor of machines and very high ceilings, and a weird observation deck of a second level, where people stretch their quadriceps and stare down at the toiling minions below.

This gym is the Starbucks of gyms. It can’t boast that it’s the best in the city, but it can at least boast ubiquity: hundreds of gyms in hundreds of labyrinthine, cramped spaces around the five boroughs. I was impressed to have found that the one closest to my office was not all that cramped, even if it felt like a factory. It is occupied primarily by college students and older people who could pass for them. Trying to figure out whether my gym peers are in college or not is a boring game I play, along with guessing how many times the girl next to me has come to the gym this week. She is always here. But to know she is “always here,” I, too, have to always be here. Is once a day so crazy? But I think she moves from elliptical to elliptical until the custodial staff switch the lights off.

Out in Central Park, where the runner’s path is bordered by snow and trickling ice on one side and the occasional cyclist on the other, there is no sweaty flirtation to witness, no ponytailed co-eds stretching their hamstrings invitingly, no exercise addict in tight pants. There is the young man in expensive racing shoes who insists on testing my pace for two miles, giving up at the East 90th Street entrance where stone steps lead up to the Reservoir. Such a race-within-a-run is almost unavoidable when a decently in-shape man finds himself being passed by a woman. It is a welcome rarity in winter.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays in the park, there is an everlasting stream of grouped runners who originate at the Niketown store in Midtown or from area clubs; a pack of triathletes in matching red wind-proof winter jackets; pairs of cyclists screaming training ideas or workplace anecdotes over the wind flying past their ears.

It seems the majority of the park’s July runners are nowhere to be found on any given night in February. But this is less and less true: running is huge now. Maybe it’s just that they’re all at the gym. Gyms are more packed after New Year’s, and a race is a perfect way to test a resolution. It’s also a perfect way to jump the gun on a resolution, skipping what I think is the most spiritually rewarding part of reaching one: running outside. Suiting up in wind- and waterproof armor is a proud affair, but it’s a drag, and only becomes less of one when the runner does it enough. Then, routine comes to change the chemistry associated with this menial preparation, and the brain starts to think of more important things, or of nothing at all. The body can rise from a cozy episode of reading or sleeping and be running before the brain realizes what’s happened. By then, it’s too late for it to complain.


I am running up a fairly steep hill, past UC Berkeley’s in-construction football stadium to the Berkeley Fire Trail, miles of steep and occasionally flat trails way above Berkeley. The chemicals hanging always in the air here smell vaguely of chocolate. I’ve run 0.72 miles, according to my watch. I don’t want to stop at the crosswalk to make sure the cars don’t run me over, because if I do stop I might never start again. I run past the Strawberry Canyon pool, which is not open yet, though it remains full of water year-round. Looking at the flat turquoise water is comforting. Here I start to feel good. But it doesn’t last long: I’ll be running uphill for the next two miles. I’m dreading the dizzyingly steep, sandy hill that comes near the end of this run, when I’ll climb 300 feet in under two minutes. When I get to the top I will likely stop. If I see people ahead of me running up the hill and not stopping, I may convince myself to not stop.

Today the Cal lacrosse team is doing drills on this mountain-hill. I wonder what it’s like to carry at least 200 pounds of mostly muscle up and down this hill. Maybe it’s easier. I am reminded once again that I don’t go to Cal, that I never have and never will. But I blend in here, to such a degree that while I’m running or, for that matter, walking around certain parts of Berkeley, I start to believe I am a Cal student.

I am hoping I don’t run into the local running club coach today, because I don’t want to join his club. Why? Because I have a fear of commitment. If I join his club, then maybe I will start to really enjoy living in Berkeley, and then I won’t want to leave. I can’t have that happen. I have to be prepared to leave at any time: the result of moving too much as a child. When I recognize his form from behind, I speed up, so I can run past him too quickly for him to recognize me. Anyway, the point of running up here is to be alone, to relish every action my body is taking, to enjoy the sound of feet thudding on bone-dry dirt (there has been little rain in months).

Part of the motivation for moving here was that I would run more. That I wouldn’t have to run circles around Prospect Park every day, that I wouldn’t destroy my knees and feet on its sloped tarmac. That I wouldn’t any longer become enraged by strollers and wayward cyclists and drivers slipping through the park on their way to or from work. What I neglected to realize was that Berkeley would ask more of me: to run hills every day, to spend months trying to get in shape, not weeks: to be tougher.
Running is a lonely sport, but in New York it never was. If no one is around to see me run, and to motivate me to run by way of their own running, will I even do it? The answer, more often than not, is no.


As the glory years of high school and college running recede behind me, words of motivation, like “You’ll get a tan,” give way to poor excuses to not run at all, like “You’ll get skin cancer.” But I still, technically, am a runner. I am in Nova Scotia now, running down a dirt road to the edge of the land, where you can watch the tide of the Minas Basin — the highest tide in the world — come in. I run past a dairy farm and a little church. The farm smells awful. Heat rises from the dusty ground. My only motivation is a shady spot of the road up ahead. I run here mostly because I used to run here. The memories strengthen me.

Years ago, when I was in high school, my friend and I would run here together. She wasn’t on the cross-country team at her school, and I was on the team at mine, and yet she always ran more in the summer than I did. What was I doing while she was running? Probably reading, or eating.

One day we get up early to run down the two-mile-long road that cuts across the Grand Pré dike from the beach, where we stay in the summer, to the town where my grandmother was born. There is something about this road, apart from our own lack of fitness, that makes it seem much longer than it actually is. It is the flatness, the monotony of a telephone pole every twenty yards, of the black tarmac and the yellow dashes down the center of the road, the wildflowers and weeds on either side, the intermittent cars veering cautiously to the left to give us more room than we need.

It is overcast and dark this morning. Our plan is to run all the way to the diner on the way to town and have breakfast, but we only make it to the end of the dike. I hate the cars going by, because they can see how tired I am. But I hate the silence of no cars, too, because then I can hear how tired I am. Of all the runs I’ve gone on in my life — thousands, at this point — this one sticks out, for reasons unknown.

My friend out-kicks me to the end. Then we realize we have to turn around and go back to the beach. I wonder whether this experience will make me want to run the next day, or not. Probably not. My friend probably will run the next day, and that will almost be enough for me, like she is running on my behalf, like I am getting in shape for cross-country season through her.

When we get back, we walk down to the water, even though the tide isn’t even close to coming in. We try to stay as hot as we are, because the temperature of the water is 58.

I will probably try to replicate this routine for the rest of my life: to run down that long paved road, or one of the dirt roads, and run back and jump in the water. But it loses its meaning now. At 17 that was the focal point of our day, our one accomplishment. Now, even back here, in summer, on vacation, the body does the same thing it always did, but the mind is filled with things the teenage mind only thought it knew: worry, guilt, responsibility. Then, we ran for the future. Now we just run to stay sane.


“Pain has no memory,” one half of my favorite coaching team used to say. She was the mother figure on my high school team, and her husband was the disciplinarian. Our home course was Primrose Hill, the top of which provided a view of most of London. Her husband was the architect of some of the hardest things my body has ever done. The worst workout was called “spokes,” which involved running in the shape of a bicycle wheel: out from the center of the wheel and back, out from the center of the wheel to a different point on the edge of the wheel, and so on, the center of the wheel being the very top of Primrose Hill. The goal, of course, was to get better at hills, but also to run different stretches of the park, which was not a perfect hill, so that your body couldn’t adjust to the same terrain.

When I reached puberty (late), I suddenly got good at running, but I refused to let it take over my life. On the weekends I never ran, though I was supposed to. The best guy on the boys’ team did. One Saturday I was sitting on a boyfriend’s lap on a bench at the top of Primrose Hill, smoking a cigarette, and saw this teammate running down below, doing our usual weekday course around the periphery of the park. I told myself I didn’t feel guilty at the time, but my persistent memory of this event lets me know that I did.

One afternoon that season my coach, the disciplinarian, arranged to meet with me in a quiet corner of the library, where we sat in two small plastic chairs, facing each other, while he lectured me about smoking. I folded my arms and acted petulant, as if challenging him: I could smoke a couple of cigarettes a day and still win races, I seemed to be saying. I was aware of my own idiocy, hence the folded arms, but I couldn’t seem to choose: to be a runner and live a relatively chaste high school existence, or be with my friends, who did not do sports, and go to the pub multiple nights a week, and sit at one of the picnic tables outside and smoke, and squeeze in a cigarette in between classes in one of the abandoned rental garages down the street from school. Complicating matters, in the winter, between cross-country and outdoor track seasons, I was on a British club team that ended each practice by going to a pub and knocking back a few beers.

In a short space of time I had gone from wanting to make myself invisible at school to having confidence because of this one thing that I could do well. For the most part I was just relieved: for once I was not being called out for something that made me feel self-conscious (a weird way of doing my hair, the fact that I was always wearing black, being too skinny, playing the violin too quietly, never talking in class). In this little world, Primrose Hill, there was nothing I could be picked on for, or pick on myself for.

But leave that little world, even to go to another little world (college), and the whole picture changes. The confidence diminishes. It will take another whole four-year cycle to feel that confidence again. My college team makes it to Nationals my final year. We hear the results while we’re paired up, off in different parts of the woods cooling down after the qualifying race. We find each other through the sound of our own shrieks, we come together at one spot in the woods and collide into a hug. But now I see that memory only from above. I don’t remember the feeling of greatness or accomplishment, and I don’t remember Nationals itself at all, not the pain or the joy. I remember the everyday things, the mundane things: lots of particular runs, and pieces of many of the same runs conflated into one. The long runs to the apple orchard, where we stopped for water and sometimes cider at the country store. Nearly frostbitten legs, the result of insisting on wearing shorts on a sub-zero day. Getting lost on the edge of my college town, coming across a beautiful lake, and running 17 miles that day just so I could see more of it. I remember the routine, and that there was one.

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