“This is my favorite kind of night in the park,” Coach Shelly says wistfully as we do a steady jog through Central Park in between grueling one-mile intervals. It’s a perfectly lovely early summer night. Not too humid. Some sort of nouveau Joni Mitchell type emanating from the band shell. People picnic on the lawn, absorbing the music at no cost. Ticket scalpers rove about, something vaguely romantic – in the New York Sense, at least – about their sketchy enterprise.
Shelly’s look is best described as flower child in running shoes, endorphins in lieu of hallucinogens. She speaks in soothing, gently amazed tones, lending the same sense of majesty to “hill work” as she does “tulips blooming.” She seems in possession of a near mythical knowledge of Central Park, its backwoods and bridal trails, traffic patterns and even what she motherly refers to as the “unsavory element” – those who could jump from the bushes and steal an unassuming runner’s iPod. Long, fluffy curls trail down her back as she runs, never more than partially contained by hat or clip, if even that. It’s easy, natural, Shelly’s hair, as is her run, a swift, smooth gait seemingly unmarred by intense effort or strain. It helps that Shelly looks like she barely summons three digits on the scale.
When I signed up for my first running class last year, I’d grudgingly go each Tuesday, except for the weeks I didn’t go, which were pretty frequent. It quickly became apparent that the classes were populated with a different species – human beings utterly foreign from myself. I heard a woman complain about how horrible she still felt from that one glass of Pinot Grigio six days ago. Her girlfriend tiresomely speculated just which J. Crew sweater might best suit her boyfriend for his birthday. I think he worked in finance. And always, everyone it seemed was talking about their long run, how their long run went over the weekend, how did your long run go, how long was your long run, where did you do your long run, and on and on. These, I was certain, were not my people.
After we’d warmed up for a mile or two, giving whatever-her-name-was a good ten or twenty minutes to reflect on v-neck versus crew, it would be time for the intervals. Miles, half-miles, hills, the distances and terrain varied, but the burning feeling in the back of my throat and the general misery was always the same.
Then, something strange happened in my last session of classes. Maybe it was those two weeks of spring weather, when Central Park was blooming but not yet stifling. Maybe it was the way Shelly talked about the loop around the Harlem Meer in the park’s north end, as if it were some secret she was making known only to us. Maybe it was merely the fact that my throat stopped burning and my legs started moving faster. Maybe I just liked having a vaguely valid excuse to leave work at 6 p.m. on the dot once a week. But somewhere along the way, I’d started enjoying these running classes…or at least not dreading them so much as to hope for rain/forgotten shoes/or a burning UTI as an excuse not to go.
So, I signed up for yet another 10-week session. Unlike previous sessions, neither my boyfriend nor a lady friend was also doing the classes. There’d be no outside motivating factor to show-up, no person to run with, though that really never works anyway – someone’s always more sore/hungover/tired/PMS-y than the other – no person even to ride the subway back to Brooklyn with in stinky solidarity.
I showed up for the first class of the new session tired. It’d been just three days since I’d done a half marathon, and I was just regaining my ability to go up and down stairs without pain, let alone run intervals.
Per usual, I arrived late and in a rush, missing the stretching session and the coaches’ sit-down where each week’s torture session is revealed. I caught up with the class on the sidewalk, improvising a quick series of stretches as everyone gathered. I looked up and around, and I started to recognize faces. The smiley guy from last fall who had never done his long runs and was something of an endearing slacker. The middle-aged woman that I’d passed in the half marathon (and who surely passed me later in the race). That tall guy. That woman with the great pixie cut and the elegant stride. I couldn’t quite recall any of their names, but I knew their faces. And, I knew, I grudgingly admitted, that these were my people after all.