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The Long Road to Running in a City

Chris Ritter

October 7th, 2023

9 min read


A few months ago, I found myself in a familiar place: back in my hometown’s running shop, struggling to decide what shoes to buy. I had narrowed it down to two—a newer model of the road shoes I had been running in for years, and a pair trail shoes, built for the trails I wanted to run, the terrain I wanted to be in, and the peaks I wanted to summit. Being so close to the mountains in southwest Virginia, it was a tough call. 

It shouldn’t have been though, because I don’t live there anymore. A year earlier, I moved to New York City. In that time, I unsurprisingly hadn’t found anything like the Blue Ridge within a subway ride from my Brooklyn apartment. I was homesick often and took every opportunity to spend a day or two back home, where the air was clean, the roads were empty, and the mountains were, well, there. It was the place where I loved running.

Running isn’t an easy thing to fall in love with though, no matter where you live. It’s well-covered that even the best relationships people have with the sport are love-hate, and you can only hope that the places where you run help the tip the scale towards love more often than not. When I started running cross-country in high school, I hated it. But because of where I lived, I came to love what it allowed me to do. Trails I hiked in a few days as a kid, I could suddenly run in a few hours. Unexplored back roads that once were too far from town now felt within reach. There was a whole world of unfamiliar terrain in my county. Running opened me up to seemingly all of it.

But then I moved to New York, and things changed. My rural elitism aside, there are plenty of ironclad excuses to avoid running here. It’s no secret that NYC has struggled to keep its streets safe for pedestrians and cyclists, particularly in the last 5 years. In addition, air quality is a legit concern in any city, and it’s been particularly bad in New York this summer with its occasional bouts with apocalyptic smoke

So I stopped. A couple months into living in New York, I quit running. I started rock climbing (the indoor kind) more often, while I used my running shoes not for running, but for more support while I worked 8-hour shifts as a barista. My Strava activity went dark through the summer, fall, and winter, the little graph laying flat and indicating that I had run zero miles for months. I missed it, but New York made running seem like a not an option.

There was an obvious problem with me thinking that running was undoable here, though, namely because thousands of people do it. I don’t love New York, but a beautiful thing about this city is that even if it isn’t a perfect place to do a particular thing, there will almost certainly be people around who want do that thing, despite the circumstances. Name a thing—running, climbing, larping, eating stew—and there will be people in New York not only doing that thing, but forming community around it.

There is, of course, a massive running community in New York. I found it in the spring. While the famed New York City Marathon takes place in November, three of the country’s four biggest half marathons happen in New York, and they’re all within a 2 month span from March to May. In that time, especially in Brooklyn, running feels inescapable—streets close, traffic gets rerouted, and subways fill with sweaty runners wrapped in silver emergency blankets.  

By the first time I stood on the sidelines of one of those mammoth halves, I was already itching to get back. My friend Bea was running the Brooklyn Half and had sent out a group text detailing where she thought she’d be on the course based on her splits. “No pressure to come watch…❤️” she had said. We mobbed the place, cheering her and 16,000 other runners along. For the first time in New York, it felt like running was all around me. 

In reality though, it had been for a while. Bea was among a few people I knew running the Brooklyn Half, while my girlfriend, Sarah had been training for the Women’s Half in Central Park two weeks later. Another friend had been MIA for weeks as he trained for a marathon, skipping our weekly taco nights for 15+ mile runs.

Suddenly, I wanted to run again. In New York, I wasn’t going to find the open space that made me love running in the Blue Ridge, but surely I could find something to make me hate running a little less. My friends certainly had.

So how did they do it? New York’s strong tradition of road races is certainly a big motivator, but finding the space and motivation to train in the city can be difficult, even dangerous. I talked to my friends about their favorite running spots—the East River Greenway, the West Side Highway, parts of Prospect Park where you’re so surrounded by trees that you can’t see any buildings. Avoiding traffic was key to many of these spots—one friend had seen two pedestrians get hit by cars on her running route in the span of a couple months.

For others I talked to, obstacles were part of the fun. Mateo—my marathon-running, taco night-skipping friend—told me that he likened running through the streets of New York to the dopamine rush of scrolling through TikTok, with every block revealing new scenery and new stimulus for his brain to respond to. Sarah had a similar take, describing running around her apartment in midtown as going into “video game mode,” dodging other pedestrians and letting street lights dictate sudden turns to avoid stopping at intersections.

Learning from my friends’ methods, I tried my own. I found my spots—Berry Street in Williamsburg, most of which closes off to vehicles in the summer; and the stairs at Fort Greene Park, which I ran to mimic the sudden vert of a mountain trail, to name a couple. Also, while I wasn’t quite ready to go into video game mode around my apartment, making a game of things helped—in Central Park, pretending the pavement is lava can actually lead to some wonderfully varied trail runs, sticking to the gravel, rock and singletrack that zigzag the park. 

Before I knew it, running became a lot like what it had been for me in Virginia. It looked different, sure, but running’s purpose felt the same—I was finding new places in the city that were unknown to me before running them. I was exploring, and in that, figuring out how to make my new home fun to be around.

By May, I was running close to 20 miles a week, even more than I had been doing in Virginia. Many of my friends started running in New York for a race and the shared experience that comes with running one here. I wasn’t planning on racing anytime soon, but I did feel that shared experience. Even without 16,000 people to run along with me at any given moment, it was easier to get excited about running knowing that there were thousands of others figuring out how to do it here, and that a few of them were my friends.

Back at the running shop in my hometown, I ended up getting the trail shoes. It didn’t really make a sense. I was only in town for the weekend, and on Sunday night I would take the Amtrak from Charlottesville, get out at Penn Station, and take the subway home at 2 AM. My new home was New York, where the trails were few and hard to get to. But I had a far off goal of running a 30-mile trail route in the northeast, and I needed the right shoes for it. I doubt New York is on anyone’s shortlist of best places to train for an ultra, but based on my time there, I’m sure I can find a way. In fact, there’s almost certainly a community of people here who already have.

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