Beach Bound from Brooklyn

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Jeanne Mack escapes the suffocating heat of NYC

New York City is not built to cool down. The concrete sidewalks and buildings, the asphalt roads and parking lots, the dark roofs of apartment buildings and offices—they spend the summer drinking up sunlight and spreading that sunshine back into the surrounding air as heat, even well after the sun has set. Then you factor in the humidity, and the annual heat wave or two in mid-July, and the city becomes a veritable long run hell, no matter what time you get out the door.

Add to that how you’ve been feeling a little hemmed in by all the running in-and-through traffic you’ve been doing as you boost your mileage in preparation for some longer races. You try to concoct a new route from one bridge to the other, and down along the Hudson or the East River, but no matter which way you go, the grind of city running with its constant stopping and starting and dodging cyclists, cars, and other runners and the honking of cabs in traffic and the smell of garbage baking in the sun is all starting to wear on you.

You’re looking for an escape. And when you close your eyes and imagine an escape, what you see is the beach. Sand under the arches of your feet, water lapping at the tips of your toes. You need that.

Add to that how you’ve been feeling a little hemmed in by all the running in-and-through traffic you’ve been doing as you boost your mileage in preparation for some longer races.

You try to concoct a new route from one bridge to the other, and down along the Hudson or the East River, but no matter which way you go, the grind of city running with its constant stopping and starting and dodging cyclists, cars, and other runners is starting to wear on you.

So you float the idea out to a few friends that it could be fun to run somewhere new — to use the 15 miles slated for Sunday in your training plan as a vehicle to get away from the heat island around you. And not just get away to anywhere, but get away to the beach. Not that you’d take a train or car there and then run, but instead you’d use the run itself to get you there. You’re shocked and excited to find that this plan is feasible from your apartment in Brooklyn. There is a beach within 15 miles. And the friends you reach out to share this sense of excitement. You set the date and check the map a few times to scout the best route and then promptly forget about it as you continue to slog through weekday runs and work and e-mail and delayed subway rides and lines out the door at the grocery store. You collapse, exhausted, onto the mattress each night, but somehow still can’t get to sleep, with your mind humming along to the buzz of the city well into the night. You can’t switch off the restlessness of your days; the shine of street lights and whooshes of car noise from outside filter through the windows.

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Then Sunday arrives, with your alarm announcing the day’s arrival early that morning. You’ve got the slightly nervous energy of a long run hanging over your head so you pop out of bed to ready yourself for the run and the day. You go through your routine of PT exercises to activate your glutes and adductors and calves and inner thigh. You drink a lot of water and use one of the gulps to wash down a couple Aleve to help with a headache that’s sprouted from a few too many cheap glasses of wine the night before. You grab an apple, plop some peanut butter onto it, and are finishing off the last bite when your phone dings and the two friends who you’d expected to come with you have bailed out on the plan due to unforeseeable-yet-deadly hangovers.

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You sigh and reset. Is it worth going on your own? Should you scrap the route entirely? There’s still another friend, Alex, who was thinking of joining. You send him a message to see if he’s game and when he says that he’s waiting to see if he can reschedule a forgotten obligation in order to come along, you realize that either way, you’re going to go. You have to run the 15 no matter what. Might as well stick to yours guns and follow the path you’d already planned out even though it’s a way you’ve never gone before.

You tinker around the apartment some more. A few push-ups here, a few calf stretches there. You gather the important things (keys, metro card, $20, credit card, headphones, gels) and head outside to do even more stretching and lingering. You sip a cold brew and look over the map again, trying to memorize street names so you won’t have to stop and check them while running. When your phone buzzes and you see that Alex can come after all, you realize you’d been counting on and hoping for that. You set up a place to meet him (under the awning of Union Pool, a bar housed in the storefront of a former pool supply shop) and then run from there together to the shaded sidewalk beneath the elevated train tracks on Broadway. You hit the start button on the side of your watch and ease into the first few steps of the long run ahead as lightly as possible.

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You talk about the Tour de France, the small kitchen fire at a bar you were at the night before, the PT exercises you’ve started doing, what ultra runners eat, and the importance of sleep. On the brick walls of the buildings you pass, sea creatures and/or aliens bloom from the bases of painted candy Ring Pops™ in bizarre murals. The miles go by and before you know it, you’re over halfway to being away from the city.

Halfway to away.

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The pace drops as you get to stretches without stop signs and the slight hangover headache wears off. You stop for a bit of much-needed water and Alex explains (pseudo scientifically) how plastic can sometimes leech out of water bottles if you wash them too much or too hard. There’s only one point where it gets dicey with the sidewalk fading away and cars whipping by right alongside you, much closer than is comfortable. The two of you slide into single file, and place your footsteps as close to the shoulder of the multi-lane almost-highway you’ve been suddenly dropped onto. You start checking your watch every few feet to see how many more minutes you have left.

"On the brick walls of the buildings you pass, sea creatures and/or aliens bloom from the bases of painted candy Ring Pops™ in bizarre murals. The miles go by and before you know it, you’re over halfway to being away from the city.

Halfway to away"

The fastest mile you run comes after you’ve gone up, over, and down a bridge and are only two miles from the end. You flip the switch into “get there” mode while you’re running along a sidewalk in a residential area. And just as you’ve picked up your speed, a car comes out of nowhere on a street intersecting with the sidewalk and almost sideswipes you and Alex.

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You and Alex both stop on a dime—your collective reflexes working much better than you’d have ever hoped after 13 slightly hungover miles. It’s the closest you’ve ever come to getting hit except for the time you actually did, in fact, get hit. With your hands on your knees and your life still flashing before your eyes, you pause to acknowledge between gulps that the driver a) almost killed you both and b) definitely had the right of way. Alex nods his agreement with his eyes wider than you’ve ever seen them. You stumble slowly back into action and continue on.

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After having to stop so abruptly, your legs feel heavy immediately and that one toe on your left foot that always acts up is starting to scream its existence into your consciousness. You’re ready for the run to be over. You’re hot, and sweat has been dripping down the sides of your face for the last five miles. Your lips are chapped and you keep thinking about the water fountain that you know is waiting for you with its promise of cool water on the boardwalk at the beach. You either want to stop or sprint so that it’s over faster. But you keep going, at the same pace, following the route toward saltier air.

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You can smell it and feel it as you get close. The ocean. A breeze rolls off the water’s surface and pushes cooler air toward you, licking the sweat off your shoulders. You stand on the boardwalk across from Rippers at Rockaway Beach and scan the shore. It’s surreal that you are here and all it took to get here from your stuffy apartment, where the window-unit A/C is straining on its last limb, was your own breath and sweat and time.

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"You either want to stop or sprint so that it’s over faster. But you keep going, at the same pace, following the route toward saltier air"

You watch the waves tuck into themselves in foamy bursts. The beach is crowded, but there’s enough space on the sand to carve out a place to sit and spread your legs in front of you. You walk toward the empty space and drop your sneakers there. The sand pushes up between your toes and it’s warm, but not too hot. You step indulgently slowly into the water and it is somehow the perfect temperature. Sharp and cool and salty as it bounces on and off your aching shins. You go in deeper than you anticipated because the water is addicting.

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If you turn your head and squint hard into the distance to the right of the water you can see some buildings there. But they’re not the skyscrapers of Manhattan. They might not be in New York at all, for all you know and, with the clear water bobbing at your kneecaps, you could believe that they are not even on the East Coast. You don’t feel like you’re in New York anymore. You could be anywhere.

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Eventually, you’ll head from the beach to a taco shop a few blocks away, sit in the sun because all the colorful umbrellas are taken, and devour two fish tacos before walking to one of the ferries.

Your re-entry to the city is jarring, the ferry unceremoniously dropping you off among the towering structures of Wall St.

But for now, you exist only in the moment of being somewhere else. Of hearing a seagull cry above you and seeing the wind whip a kite out toward the middle of the deep, dark blue sea that’s lying between you and where you started from.

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