A few days ago on a Sunday afternoon, I ventured out my apartment for my first long run since I beat myself into a stress fracture about six months ago. I figured I would head north along the Hudson, under that great gap of bridge, then climb up into Riverdale, wind through that strange Bronx pasture of too-big homes and New England roads, before turning back. About ten miles in, I found myself amidst Broadway bustle, looking at the back hills entrance of Van Cortlandt Park. Many who remember Van Cortlandt think of that open-gulfed field, green and flat, where the wind gathers into fits of motion and cricket players come from all over the city to toss and turn and hurl. I ran competitively at Fordham, and know this other side of the park, hilly and cinder-trailed, known as the back hills. Here, in fall, cross country runners leave the open impossibly-visible section of the flats and cross a bridge and do battle more with nature than anyone beside them. The trail turns unpredictably. Even after four years of racing and training there, I still found myself surprised. This hill still climbs? In the back hills, there’s no place to find a rhythm, or recover. Descents are steep. Turns are sharp. I fell many times. It was a lesson in constant alteration, a stride shortened before its lengthening, a head turned down before ascending. Now, due to a few too many beers, I am a few too many pounds over race weight. I am more writer than runner. Or just normal, no longer counting my days in miles. I stood there, at the back entrance to the park, waiting for the light to change, part of me not wanting to confront this unseen self for the first time in years, unsure of how it would make me feel, to be slower, more unwieldy. To be reminded of something I could never conquer, and to struggle more with it than I did when I trained myself to have the tools. Then the light changed, and I entered.
Those who know and love Van Cortlandt know it as the mecca of cross-country running. Also, perhaps, as the site of the gang-meeting-opening to that classic film The Warriors. The finish line sits in plain site on the flats, adjacent to a statue of a hare hopping over a tortoise. The cross-country course is marked by white poles featuring both animals, as if to say, your choice, either way, you will suffer. The collegiate 8-kilometer course begins in the open, with hundreds of gangly runners, calves ashed with cinder dust, circling the flats. From a distance, this sight is beautiful – a long trail of movement slowly churning, all one machine, the kind of thing that makes you believe in the infinite. But then they find the cowpath that takes them toward one hill – freshman hill – and one bridge that spans the Henry Hudson Parkway before they belong to the back hills, where no real spectator goes. No coaches. No binocular-eyed family members too lazy to move. As a racer, this moment is both lonely and liberating. There is a settling feeling, that, for the 1800-meter twist of loop and hill, you are with yourself among others who are with themselves. Sound, save for grunt of breath and clang of metal spike on cinder, disappears. I had a friend who once told me that, for this stretch of hills, he always tried to fall asleep. I had no idea how. There was too much to wake you up, no moment comfortable enough to let your heart find a rhythm patient but quick. Now, I think a lot of the word comfortable, and how, broken down, the word literally means able to be strong with. There was nothing about that nature that inspired comfort, nothing that pointed toward your own strength. Everything hung in relief of the surrounding world, reminded you that, no matter how fast you managed to run, those hills would still be there, had been there, for the longest time.
There were characters, though. Every autumn morning in college, we shuffled into vans and bumped top-40 hits to try to wake us up. Among the flats, and whatever kind of morning broke over the distant hills, sun shining between the Tracy Towers that hovered above, we awaited the day’s endeavor. And every morning, like some truck-stop diner pinched between highways, there were regulars. The woman we named Lance Armstrong who rode a beach cruiser at such high speeds around the same long loop of the flats, smiling the whole time. The Latino man who donned an entire United States Olympic Team tracksuit, his beer gut hanging steady and strong over his waist. The alien-looking sort-of-Martian whose slender and tall frame shuffled slowly, his face perpetually covered in sunglasses, hands stuffed into mittens. The octogenarian man whose stunningly rippled thighs shone under the low cut of his self-made jean shorts, always holding a bag of what we assumed was the day’s lunch as he ran in slow loping strides. They were there always, day after day. And sometimes I imagine them there forever, as if that park existed as a kind of purgatory for the escapees from reality, some kind of pleasurable Sisyphean endeavor where, even if the goal sat infinitely out of reach, well, at least they were moving. We were too busy measuring, labeling progress in week-by-week increments, to understand that, in the end, time was unconquerable, that we would gather there daily for years and then leave, journey into other ventures and other moments. That the top-40 hits would change and we would, years later, huddle in apartments around beer and say remember when?
I followed a step behind my brother always. Chubbier and less suited for racing than his lean, wired frame, I tried to keep up. As one of two sons of an addict, he kept silent and ran away. I looked around, tried to understand what I could not control, and in the time it took me to gather my feet into what resembled a stride, he was gone, far off, and I learned to love the moments I would stand by creeks and valleys on the courses of our youth to watch him twist out of the wilderness, knees high and pale, and run toward little victories. When I joined him on the same college team, after years of distance, we learned a language that had no voice. On long runs, I slipped comfortably next to him, lagging a half step behind, and tuned in. We didn’t talk. There was no reason to. We had not talked years before, when we both sat in the backseat as our father drove our mom to AA, or when we sat in the middle of a desert somewhere in Arizona to visit her in rehab. I used to believe that voice gives truth to everything. The way a high school kid shakes uncontrollably the first time he utters I love you, or hears it, too. But love seems simpler, and kinder. The way my brother slowed down in the slightest way to let me take the lead, or the way he moved with graceful surety across my vision to block the wind. Certain things are beyond repair. An addict in the middle of a binge, bottles stuffed in basement drawers no one will ever open. We take comfort in the securities we create that allow ourselves to fail, but not completely. Fear dawns at the moment of lost control, a place of no comfort, where a foot falling toward earth finds none, and descends deeper, into a kind of unknown. Now, when I hear the sound of footfall on cinder, I think of my brother, letting me usher myself into the soft open pocket of his protection, each one of his steps a different syllable. I. And love. And you. Over and over again, throughout the miles.
Cross-country runners are a weird bunch. Often near-sickly thin and awkward at everything but running, they inhabit this strange group of castaways and cutoffs, misfits who were never good at anything but running away from their problems. In the training room at school, we waited for treatment behind footballers and basketball players. We wore short shorts, crotches on display for all to see. Once, my brother flung himself on his back after a race, legs spread, and one of his testicles fell out, and he didn’t care at all who saw. But, in the moment of racing, cross-country runners are tenacious beyond compare, full of that sort of sheltered-kid rage, these moments of fitful anger. Once, just before the apex of one of the many hills in the back section of Van Cortlandt, a group of racers from another school gathered themselves around me and then broke apart at the moment the hill crested. I didn’t know the downhill was coming, and I found myself toppling over, end over end, down the hill’s other side. Once, in high school, the moment after a bottlenecked portion of trail opened up, I was pushed out of the way into a rock, and woke up after blacking out with other runners stampeding over me. Now, when I write, I think often of those moments, of what can break up the rhythm of a piece, a line, a sentence. How there are expectations for language in the same way there are expectations of the people we come to meet. How settled language is not giving due diligence to the multiple striations of nature, the irregular rhythms of humans bumping into you, or leading you on, only to fuck up your life. When I think of what running taught me, I think of this. That there are things you can control and things you can’t. And that paying attention to only the things you can control leads to living in a kind of half-waking state, where you remain unaware of the beauty or sorrow that can bump itself next to you, knock you out. A hill is held up by the other side you must run down. An addict can live violent at night and grace-filled in the morning. Under a bed of fallen leaves, there might sit a rock that could twist your ankle. Around some bend of trail might sleep, in a tint of magic light, a clearing so soft you can see the sun loving its shine. These things exist without our permission. That’s what running taught me.
There were moments of failure, though. Toward the tail end of the cross-country course is a hill, cemetery hill, aptly named not only for the cemetery that sits atop it, but also for the thoughts of mortality it duly brings out in those attempting to climb it. My first collegiate race, I felt strong and confident heading into the ascent, and then made the mistake of looking up and seeing what stood ahead, this steep jagged climb of cinder and dirt. My pace slowed. Next to me, as if in a dream, an old woman walked faster than me. In a dream, she was laughing. She might have been. I learned to love my teammates. How, in the moments after finishing, we stood catching our breath, not talking. We drank heavily one day a week, those nights after racing, and it felt right, despite whatever immaturity presented itself, because there were things we knew each had done, all of us, that others had not. Forget how fast. Or how far. But remember the time Nick lost his shoe and ran one foot bare for miles, how bloody and raw it looked when propped on the breakfast table the next morning. Remember when Andrew collapsed meters from the finish, a body self-destructing, and how he gripped the links of the fence to keep himself up, and tried. Empathy is rarely achieved. It sits at the end of all knowing. It lives in the infinite, the hope that, in the end, we are all connected, and visible as our rarest, most vulnerable selves, to one another. Empathy exists in failure, the thing we are most accustomed to. It is the rain falling, and the earth stretching round, and you, huddled under a tent with too many half-naked others, knowing that it’s not just you who has to go out there, and run.
My father never missed a race. When I moved from DC to New York for college, he still never missed a race. Nearly every Saturday, he toiled the car up I-95, that blank and bleary and stupid stretch of highway that offers nothing of value other than the smell of New Jersey, where the smell of a boiled hot dog is a kind of comfort. What I haven’t said is that I was never that good at running. He came, in essence, to witness my mediocrity, and to cheer me on as I made small progress toward a better mediocrity. I never really thanked him. I never thanked him for much at all. Not for that long drive that he would have to return to the moment the race ended. Not for the way, after mother left, he worked late and came home with dinner from KFC, and sat beside my brother and I as we watched whatever game flickered on into the night. Not for how he never asked for anything, or for how he gave more than he spoke. The first pair of shoes I ever ran in. And the next. And the next. Not for the way he ran faster than any other spectator from mile marker to mile marker to yell out my splits, my pace. To say hey buddy, breathe. Breathe, he always said. Drop the arms. I don’t know what he gained from that, from watching his own son bump and run and jostle between all these other sons, neither in first or last. Sometimes I felt embarrassed. I wondered if I made him proud. But then I thought of him, one night, when my brother was off at some friend’s, and how we ate TV dinner in front of a baseball game until we heard a knock on the door. My father answered, and I sat and watched from another room as a stranger gave him my mother. And he took her into his arms. He was wearing sweatpants, and his hair and beard greyed into an almost-white. The night stenciled itself between the stars through the windows. We were in a house in a place with a lot of houses. There were cars outside, and there were people sleeping. There were mothers dead or alive. And there was my father, knowing I could see him, holding my mother like a baby. And no one remembers but us. On the mantle, there was a picture of him smiling on the day I was born.
So yes, I ran in. I had to. The back hills were the same as I remembered, as unpredictable and steep, as twisted and fucked. I was slower, yes, so I took my time. I ambled by people walking their dogs, past other runners. I tried, as I often do, to think myself back into a moment from sometime else. I imagined myself faster, stronger. My father somewhere close. But it was unseasonably cold, and not many people were out, and it was mostly silent. And I remembered that’s how it often was back there, in the back hills. The kind of space that exists only for you to populate, a dream-haze. So I put my brother there, and I heard his feet falling. And I put my father there, and I heard him telling me to breathe. And I lived with them for a little while, my heart beating uncontrollably and my limbs stupid with angst. And it was alright. I’m older now, and just realizing there’s so much good to remember. There was a bend back there, at the bottom of a descent, where the trail twisted left and your momentum, left unchecked, could carry you off a cliff. I remembered this, and I tried not to fall.