Monday, January 20, 2014

Run and Tell: Life and Death and Bridges

Moving as I do through this city and it's many busy streets, greener patches, and connecting passageways, (sometimes during the later of the late night hours), you might imagine that I'd be privy to some fairly interesting sights/sounds/smells.  You're correct.  There are, essentially, an infinite number of stories playing out here, and I find myself getting tiny glimpses in to many of them.  But I am more than just a set of observant eyes.  My presence near, or injection in to many of these happenings can effect change through choice and action.

Two and a half years ago, while running home over the Manhattan Bridge at nearly three in the morning I witnessed something rather shocking and painful.  I first noticed a figure when it was roughly a quarter mile away from me.  As I got closer to this person it was clearer that he/she was homeless and pushing a cart filled with possessions and necessities.  Very quickly and without an ounce of hesitation I saw this person position that cart, and climb up on top of it.  My pace quickened as my chest tightened as they dropped from the bridge to the water far below.  It was surreal and sent odd shockwaves of pins and needles through my body.  It felt like something I wasn't supposed to have seen; some intensely intimate final moment between this person and an indifferent world that no longer had anything to provide to them.  When I reached the cart I paused there.  Part of me wanted to investigate the collection of objects to try and get a better picture of the person I had just watched die.  Part of me wanted to pay respects by simply breaking my stride and being silent.  I saw a hall pass made out of blue foam from an unknown school that had my first name on it and I took that with me.  I made my way over to the Manhattan side of the bridge, hoping that this man or woman found peace in their final moments of free fall and informed two cops parked near the bridge of what had happened.  They seemed more annoyed than anything.

Since that night I've often thought about why I was witness to that.  My mind goes through the tough-to-answers and the hypotheticals: Is there a 'why' to speak of?  If my pace had been just slightly faster upon leaving Union Pool would I have been able to prevent something?  Would it have been my place to intervene?  The incident became the example I would use when I was asked about crazy stuff I'd seen running wherever and whenever, and I would think about how often things that happen in this town.  Those are all nice questions but this was essentially just a thing that happened to me, until my memory of that night was vividly recalled and another chapter was written.

Come with me to the very recent past, during a different season and on a different bridge.  It is again nearly three in the morning and the clock rang in the new year a few hours prior.  Leaving the party I had attended with a bit of a buzz going, I get on to the 59th street bridge from Queens heading back in to Manhattan.  The air temperature is in the upper twenties and feels colder while traversing the bridge due to wind.  It isn't long before I notice a shadowy mass about a quarter mile away.  This one is not moving, however.  My mind does go back to that night on the Manhattan Bridge, but this could easily be a mound/bag of trash (I see plenty of those).  It isn't trash.  This is a man and he's not moving.  Because of the particularly cold temperatures and the celebratory evening there isn't another soul on this pedestrian path (and there wouldn't be for the rest of the time I spent on the structure).  I run right up to him and as I pause there, keeping stride to keep my own warmth managed, I notice that he has urinated on himself, is breathing, but is also unconscious.  His winter jacket and hat are decent but will not sustain him as he lies motionless, soaked in himself.  He's not homeless, the clothes are a bit too nice/new.  In a short amount of time this man will freeze to death, and the best case scenario is that he suffers some serious injury and loses some extremities.

My attempts to help him regain consciousness are futile.  Realizing this I immediately take a few extra layers out of my bag to cover certain parts of him after I dial 911 for the first time in my life.  An ambulance arrives near the Queens entrance to the bridge rather quickly but they have to bring the equipment to him so I run in circles to keep warm and periodically try to knock some life and sense back in to this man.  After one too many drinks he clearly thought it wise to walk back home over the bridge in the freezing cold: a fine idea unless you lose your ability to walk.  He will never know my name, nor I his, but there was a night on another bridge where someone died and now there's a night and a man and a bridge and no death.

I'm glad I was running that night and I hope he was as well. It's always possible that this man wanted to die, but he wasn't around to let me know.  I find it interesting on some level to have experienced these things and been able to shift from observer to aide.  There are plenty of metaphors one might conjure, but whatever.  Please remember to do the right thing out there.  Keep conscious of the mutual relationship we share and don't disassociate yourself from the world around you no matter how easy it might feel.

Quira Ba

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Elements pt II: The Unforgiving Concrete Tundra

Never stop.  My life as a runner can be pretty well summed-up by that phrase.  When I find myself in the depths of this city's most severe winter weather, it is a phrase that should be taken literally.  In most all cases, I do not see severe weather as a reason to avoid running, but rather an opportunity to experience something that I normally can't.  Running in extremely low temperatures, or during snow storms, can be a thrilling challenge filled with new motivating factors.  This is a beautiful city during the colder season with lots of festive lights and a quieter calm in the air than one might sense in the Summer, but it is even more important to take extra precaution than it is when the thermometer is getting way up there (meaning this post will be quite a bit longer than the summer running post).

The heat that is within your body is the most valuable and beautiful resource you have when city running in winter.  It is precious and harnessing it efficiently without negatively impacting your mobility is the key.  All is concrete and absorbing the cold.  Wind will already be a factor, but the faster you choose to carry yourself the more defeating the wind can appear.  You will feel the need to fight against it, but as long as you know and feel your own body's warmth through and through, there is no competition.

That isn't to say that you're safe running around in the nude screaming 'MY BODY IS A GOLDEN SUN EMANATING THE LIGHT AND THE HEAT TO WARM THE COLDEST OF SOULS.'  You will get stopped, and you will put yourself in danger.  There are many sorts of light weight insulating layers that work with your body's heat to effectively provide a second layer of skin while helping manage the danger of your perspiration pooling and making you colder.  I personally use Uniqlo's line of Heattech apparel, which is a unique composite of rayon, acrylic, polyurethane, and polyester.  While the classic and most traditionally effective winter warmers are made of wool, or a wool/cotton blend, Heattech is my go-to because of the light weight, low cost, effective insulation, moisture management, general softness, and lack of nipple irritation.  I cover my upper body in that while my lower body looks nearly identical to how it would during warm weather running.

The extremities and the head are the areas that one must be most concerned about when it comes to loosing body heat, or experiencing extreme pain due to lack of ample blood flow and tons of nerve endings.  I take what most might consider a 'rugged' approach to managing my fingers and toes, and it won't work for everyone but take note if you'd like.  Forgoing gloves, I stretch the Heattech fabric over my hands and keep them in a clenched fist through most of my running.  This keeps the fabric in place and my fingers huddled together, working as a team to retain as much heat as they can.  If they are feeling particularly cold, exposing and pressing them against the cheeks of my rear-end is a lovely quick blast of warmth, from me to me.  My toes are still in Vibram barefoot wear (haven't quite talked much about that yet), and they will certainly be far colder than they would be during the summer.  The kinetic energy and blood-flow of my constant motion is enough for them to find a comfortable enough equilibrium, which may speak to my personal pain threshold.  On my head I will either have a beanie hat or a simple set of ear-warmers depending on how cold it is. 

The genitals are an extremity.  Though this already occurs during general running, in the coldest of temperatures the bag full of future humans will retreat very far in to the body, as will the distribution tube.  If temperatures drop well below freezing, one must provide that area with extra insulation.  Thawing out and regaining feeling in the mushroom tip is FAR more painful than the same sort of thing applied to fingers or toes.  When necessary, I wear a pair of compression shorts under my regular running shorts and toss a balled up sock down there to block the wind and keep the little guy a bit warmer.  It has nothing to do with me feeling inadequate...

Let's talk about snow.  In this city it is only briefly 'pretty' and will very rapidly get packed down in to uneven masses, turned in to cold slush, or eventually freeze over entirely.  Combine all of that with the fact that the colder temperatures will naturally decrease your reaction time and you now must respect the situation and run differently.  You are not going to be able to stop as quickly or turn as sharply and the same applies to all cars on the road.  Everybody's traction is depleted and this must be taken in to account.  On top of that the air will likely be quite dry and exposed skin/lips will easily clam up or get irritated.  Keep the chap stick handy and maintain a habit of moisturizing your skin regularly as you might already during the season.

So with all the heightened danger and discomfort, why would I (or anyone) want to run out there in it?  The short answer is that I love it too much to let weather stop me, but there's a longer answer.  In winter, running takes on a beautiful urgency.  The body recognizes the conditions and the act of keeping it in constant motion, raising the core temperature slightly, becomes about survival.  Dealing with snow/slush/sleet/ice forces engagement of the muscles responsible for balance and stabilization just as much as the muscles responsible for propulsion; every step taken with care, focus, and calculation.  IT'S AWESOME.  You'll continually marvel at what your beautiful mass of bio matter is capable of through powers of adaptation.  It's about basking in the thrill of being alive.  It's about not allowing the state of your environment to purely dictate how you move through it.  It's about deep appreciation of the contrast present when you find your point B and get all cosy, well beyond the simple thinking of 'thank heavens I'm finally out of that dreadful cold.'  Be safe, have fun out there, and remember the most important phrase in winter running: never stop.

Quira Ba