A Big (Apple) Goodbye

A final running diary from New York City, dedicated to the people who made this year great.

Manhattan, New York

The couple stands in worship, faces and hands turned upward. They look like curated church mannequins, their Sunday church style seemingly drawn on. A glistening silver broach sprouts from her violet padded-shoulder suit coat. His pressed navy suit sings backup to a bright yellow necktie.

From my spot two pews away, their faith is as apparent as their sense of fashion. Their adoration is beautiful, though it underscores my spiritual silence.

Sure, I file in each week, but Jesus doesn’t talk to me in church. I don’t feel a connection wearing khakis, with a razor-smoothed face. I wouldn’t hear Him wearing polished leather loafers, either.

I experience God as my body hurts. I feel Him as sweat gathers across my eyebrows and trickles down my nose. My “Sunday best” is a watch and pair of shorts.

My adoration is carried through the dampened sounds of New York mornings before the neon signs flicker on, before screeching car horns echo across the avenues. Thoughts of grace keep pace as I push up Harlem Hill in Central Park or peak the Williamsburg Bridge. They are there on the trails, as the padding of my footsteps on dirt paths is the only sound below the tree canopy stretching 100 feet above.

I pray in running shoes.

Photo by Nick Genovese

The miles run carried me around New York. From parks in the Bronx to Roosevelt Island to the Coney Island boardwalk, my shoes pushed me to explore. I mean, they literally took me around Manhattan.

As I move away from this city, a place that loved me even when I couldn’t love myself, some of the most powerful running moments and prayers come rushing back.

Here are a few …

Trials on the Trails

The trails in New Jersey were a refuge from the clamor of the city. During high water, pockets of Hudson River water filled the spaces between the rocks, rippling as I lunged over them.

The mornings spent scaling the hundreds of steps or hopping over fallen branches on these trails were a chance to think. Quiet forces reflection. On the trails, there were no distractions. No changing street lights or tourists to weave between. For hours, all I had were my thoughts.

Some days, those thoughts were light. My mind was peaceful. My feet glided across the dirt paths, past the oaks extended toward the heavens.

Other times, my body felt rusty—legs heavy, joints aching. My mind made lists of lists of excuses to go home. You’re not good enough for this, not today, one would say. Or, on the worst days, you’re not good enough as a runner, as a friend, as a person.

Those runs, the tough ones with the annoying voices, were critical.

Running is a kind of a therapy for me. The miles bring things to the surface. The forced solitude of a long run helps me put thoughts to rest.

One of my favorite songs to listen to on those routes, on the days I popped in headphones, was needtobreathe’s “TESTIFY.”

The lyrics call me to step into myself and let go of the burdens and just be. For example:

There is a peace, there is a love
You can get lost inside
Come to the fountain and
Let me hear you testify

Smiles & Miles

Back on my Feet New York City

The adage goes you are the sum of the five people you surround yourself with, so make a point of finding a few badass friends.

I found an entire team … because blessings.

Back on my Feet, a nationwide non-profit empowering people who are homeless through the power of running, welcomed me to Team Times Square. Three mornings a week, our team gathers in a parking lot to run, hug and, most importantly, share a slice of life.

Describing Back on my Feet to others is often a reminder of the amazing work the organization does, including providing education, financial assistance and pathways to employment alongside a focus on fitness. I often lost sight of these results because the guys on the team—the men who have experienced homelessness—were always friends first. The mornings and the miles were never about volunteering. They were about showing up for friends.

And, let me tell you, my friends are badass.

Alexander celebrating his 1000th mile run.
Back on my Feet’s Team Times Square

There is Alexander, who crushed the New York City Marathon with a smile. There is Kenley, whose compassion, and pull-up abilities, never ceased to impress. There is Chris, who I swear could make a squinty-eyed, marauding cowboy Clint Eastwood laugh.

There is … there is … there is … the list could go on forever, underlining our fellow humans’ abilities to impress.

In his book “Tribe,” war journalist Sebastian Junger details how lacking a strong community and a sense of purpose contributes to pervasive social problems. For example, war veterans suffer increased mental health issues because returning home means losing the sense of meaning they felt with their battalion during deployment, no matter how difficult those experiences are. This is why Londoners look back on the Blitz or Bosnians on the Siege of Sarajevo with almost rose-tinted glasses. Despite damning conditions, the sense of community and purpose was strong. Everyone mattered. Everyone had a mission. People cared for one another.

For 11 months in New York City, Team Times Square was my tribe. They kept the depression at bay. They were there to run on mornings after sleepless nights. They gave hugs when I’d prefer to stay in the shadows. But the greatest gift the team provided was inspiration. They pushed me to be more.

Together, we showed up. We ran. We shared a slice of life. Often, that’s the simplest recipe for happiness.

Faith in Failure

Moments before the Kettle100 start with Ben (left) and Jordan (right).

This whole running blog, the newsletter and the social accounts began because I wanted to run a 100-mile ultramarathon.

Spoiler: I didn’t finish. I failed.

The several weeks of distance from the “did not finish” underline the people who made the journey possible (For scrolling readers, please refer to entire section above on Back on my Feet team).

The time since the race also provided a sense of what it means to smile at failure.

While my body healed, I wrestled with how giving into hopelessness meant letting my worst side win. Doing so would let one moment define a lifetime. It would also erase the sacrifices my friends made. They were the people who ran New York’s bridges with me on weekends. At the office, they encouraged me. And, when I journeyed to Wisconsin for the race, they supported me every mile.

Ben and Jordan witnessed the insanity of an ultramarathon. They waited hours for a two-minute conversation with me at an aid station, while I changed socks and complained about course conditions. Seriously, Ben spent 14 hours hopping from aid station to aid station, often idling for hours at a time, waiting for me to show up. If I discounted the entire race experienced because I “failed,” I’d be undermining his commitment to me as a friend.

When I returned to New York days after the race, still in a state of disappointment, I was met with open arms by friends. The race didn’t go as planned, but that’s sometimes how things go.

Fr. James Martin, S.J., knowing my Christian faith and sensing I was flailing in the sea of what-the-hell-do-I-do-now, passed along a powerful reflection from Walter Burghardt, S.J.:

Just because I am trying to do God’s work with every ounce of my being, is no guarantee that my plans will prosper. There is no guarantee that an effective Christian disciple will not be cut down in his prime. There is no guarantee that because you have given yourself to a Christian marriage, your oneness will be lasting. That because you love God deeply, you will not lose your job, your home, your family, your health. There is no guarantee that because you believe, you will not doubt; because you hope, you will not despond; because you love, your love will not grow cold. . . . In this sense there is a Christian frustration, a Christian failure.
You do your Christian task as God gives you; the rest, the increase, is in His hands. God still uses what the world calls foolish to shame the wise, still uses what the world calls weak to shame its strength, still uses what the world calls low and insignificant and unreal to nullify its realities . . . In this sense, there is no Christian frustration and no Christian failure.

The message that I am of use—that I can be of use—no matter how I perceive the circumstances, spoke to me. That is why I keep writing, I suppose: to be of use in whatever way I can.

I’ve since returned to running, able to build my mileage while recovering from an IT band problem. My running will continue, though the land beneath my feet will cease to be New York. That’s what hurts the most.

Way back, I had a friend who called our workouts a “fight.” He would pump his fist each morning, under the artificial sunlight of streetlights, and say, “That was a good fight.”

He’s no longer here—off having a good fight somewhere else.

I think of him from time to time, though, when the pain of the moment calls to question the journey, when I need to remember the pain of a workout is worth it.

Well, New York City, that was a good fight. That was a good fight.

Back on my Feet Team Times Square

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