Friday, May 18, 2012

The Great Saunter: Changing my Life in New York City

Do you ever concoct a crazy dream for yourself?

There I was - on vacation, having a nice dinner on the pier in New York City when people with racing bibs started showing up, flopping over in pure exhaustion.   We asked, "What's going on?"  A participant responded, "The Great Saunter!  It's a one-day, 32-mile walk all around Manhattan's shoreline perimeter."  She answered several more questions and walked away, never knowing the mark she left on us.

That Saturday evening in 2006, a dream was born...a dream of one day completing The Great Saunter.

Silly, isn't it?  We are at a random place in a random city talking to a random stranger and all of a sudden I know there is something more I must do with my life.

But why walking 32-miles?  Why did I want to do this so much that for years the thought festered in the back of my mind?

Because of the fear that I couldn't.  Because of the fear that maybe some little part of me hadn't conquered the challenges I'd had with fitness.  Because of the fear that, in spite of all my efforts, these fit and fabulous feet could not carry me 32-miles in one day. 

What did I think this event would accomplish?

I would accomplish quashing my fears once and for all.  I truly felt that if I could do this walk, I could do anything.  I knew that, as my feet returned to the South Street Seaport, my life would be changed forever.

In October, I wrote my father an e-mail and told him I planned on going to New York the first weekend in May for The Great Saunter and I wanted him to accompany me.  He was thrilled, agreed immediately, and the next thing I knew the entire family wanted to participate.  I can honestly say I never saw that one coming.

I'm pretty sure my non-stop rambling about my fears, concerns, and physical training schedule had most of my friends ready to slap me across the face.  It seems as if I was the only one concerned about my ability to finish this event.  Isn't that true with most things in life, though?  Seems as if those who love us have so much more faith in us than we have in ourselves.

After months of flight scheduling, hotel booking, and general stressing-out, May 5, 2012 arrived.  As I shut the door to my room in the Doubletree Financial District, I thought to myself, "The next time I enter this door, I will be a different person.  I will either be a success or a failure."  Although, truth be told, I knew I was going to do whatever it took to finish, failure was not an option and not really in my vocabulary as applies to my goals.  Even if I had to crawl I was going to finish those 32 miles.

We arrived at the South Street Seaport and Heartland Brewery just in time for the 7:30 am start, although we didn't leave right away because we didn't realize there was no offical "start," just a "take off whenever you feel like sauntering."  A Yankees store was also near, and I took this as a good omen, as many of my friends are huge had to be a good omen, right?

7:44am: We followed the troupe of about 1,000 walkers southwards towards Battery Park.  My thoughts?  "Here goes nothing..."   

8:37am: A few miles in, we were all smiles and laughs.  Although the weather was overcast, our spirits were not and we were enjoying this once-in-a-lifetime family adventure together.

9:36am: Somewhere between the last photo and this one, my mother, who is very ill, decided to head back to the hotel.  She made the first five miles of the journey with us.  No one expected her to make it even that far.  We were all so very impressed and proud of her.
This photo was potty break time for me.  My lil sis, Brit, thought it time to start stretching.  Her choice of stretch humored me so, I made her hold the pose.  Would you believe that squirt n-e-v-e-r exercises?  So. Not. Fair. 

Right after the stretching, we encountered The Intrepid - a military aircraft carrier of epically huge proportion. 

10:30am: We were 1/4 of the way through the walk and not a bit winded, fatigued, or ready to stop in any way.  We found ourselves along the island's west side near Riverside Park.  You may remember it from films such as You've Got Mail.  If you ever have the chance, I'd highly recommend taking the few hours to make this portion of the walk - I like to saunter this path every time I visit NYC. 

10:55am: My older sister Shanda turned around to laugh with me about my dad's super-skinny spandex-clad legs.  You rock it, Dad!  Seriously, he turned 62 two days after this trip.

11:20 am: Speaking of my dad, he got really excited and said, "Riss!  Stop!  Do you have your camera?"  Next thing I knew, he was climbing up this tube right outside this amazing little grocery store, Fairway,  on the waterfront.  That's my dad!  We stopped in the store for some small treats to hold us over until the half-way point where there was allegedly a farmer's market where we could by lunch.  We wish we knew what other walkers clearly knew as we saw them walking out of Fairway with bags full of food - the farmer's market was a joke with only pastries, fresh-cut raw meats, and bug infested fruits.  If any future Saunterers are reading, do yourself a favor and buy your lunch at Fairway.

11:55am: George Washington Bridge, Ahoy!

12:20pm: The Little Red Lighthouse is Manhattan's only remaining lighthouse and has a very cute history.  

12:40pm: As hungry as our bellies were, we couldn't resist but take a few minutes to marvel at the view along the Hudson River Trail. 

1:56pm:  We paused a lot longer than we should have for lunch - mainly nursing our wounds (sore feet and disappointed bellies).  I ended up with a hot dog.  From a woman who couldn't speak English.  And thought "onions" meant "Sauerkraut."  Then thought "No, no - onions," meant "creepy-looking red sauce."  I don't know what it was, but I ate it.  And it was disgusting.  Who wants a mystery-smothered hot dog after walking 16 miles?  Pick me, pick me!

We changed our socks, applied the miraculous trislide (some of us *cough*Dad*cough* where I would rather not know), and trudged forward.  The north end of the island, otherwise known as Inwood, is the hilliest part, so the get-up-and-go wasn't as fast to come as it had been at the beginning. Notice my sister is wearing a Bob Marley shirt?  Yeaaaaahhhh...she obviously didn't think about the fact that we'd soon be walking through Harlem, yo. 

Now, here is where the walk got a little frustrating.  The upper-most east-side of the island is not conducive to shoreline walking, which meant trudging through parts of Harlem I would never want to walk through alone.  All of us Saunterers stuck pretty close together whilst feverishly looking for a place that looked safe to stop for a drink or use the restroom.  No luck.  And no one wanted to stop anyway, for the fear of losing the rest of the group.  You know how you have an afternoon slump in the middle of the work day?  I'd say the hours of 2pm-5pm were the worst.  I have no desire to walk that stretch again.  Ever.  But out of all that walking, a mere 3-hour stretch to avoid is peanuts.  The three hour stretch with no place to use the restroom?  VERY frustrating.  Was there a restroom at the lunch break park?  Oh yeah, with ZERO toilet paper and a line about 30 minutes long.  Gross.  Some nice car dealers finally hooked us up as we were almost out of Harlem and almost out of our minds. 

3:15pm: I'm not sure what this building is, but I wanted to document our journey, so I kept taking photos.  Somewhere around this point, Shanda and Andy decided to take off.  Their goal had been to complete half of the 32 miles and they'd completed 22 before they regained their sanity.  I was sad to see them go, but couldn't have been more happy to have had them as long as I did.

3:43pm: Our fellow Saunterers were taking photos and methinks, "What is going on that is so exciting on this street corner?"  Bam.  Yankees Stadium.  Excitement duly noted.

4:25pm:  Still in Harlem.  Isn't this exciting?  Beautiful graffiti artwork though, I must say.  We knew we were soon to emerge from the dregs, so our spirits began to perk up.  That, and the fact that right before this photo was when the car dealership let us "refresh" ourselves with the facilities and cold, filtered water in my camelbak (shout out to Shayla for letting me borrow her camelback!).  And the fact that we had a chance encounter with Mister Softee and his soft serve deliciousity.  Yum. 

5:38pm: Brit was about to fall over, but knew she could make it to the "marathon mark" as we kept referring to it - 26.2 miles (which was really 27.2 because we'd walked a mile to get to the starting point).  Brit never had intended to finish all 32 miles of this walk, but when you make it 26.2 miles and realize you only have 5.8 miles to go, you can't shake the thought, "I'm an idiot if I stop now!"  To celebrate our 26.2 feat and throbbing feet, we took some fun photos and snacked on beef jerky.

6:51pm: Isn't the United Nations building iconic?  Not so much without the flags flying.  Around this point, my body started to rebel.  My hips were aching in weird places, my calves felt as if fingers were poking them, and the bottoms of my feet felt bruised.  I couldn't believe how different I felt from miles 26 to miles 28.   I also had this sinking, suspicious feeling as I walked this part of town that I'd walked so many times before, "We are way more than four miles away from finishing.  The walk is supposed to be 32 miles.  Maybe I'm off.  That's it.  I have to be off somehow."  Brit found herself almost in tears with some mammoth blisters, some of them popping, so we took a break to moleskin her up and do our best to mentally prepare her for the last four or five miles. 

7:21pm: Brit and Matt (her fiancee) had begun to slow down so substantially that Dad and I could not bear to walk so slow and would have to stop for a few minutes every now and again for them to catch up.  Hence the photo, I like to call, "Sealed with a kiss."   Alas, only two miles left, right?  Wrrrrroooonnnngggg!

7:54pm: My father is a fitness buff.  And he has the world's most accurate pedometer.  Maybe not, but pretty darned close.  I'd been regularly checking up on our progress.  Mile 32!  Finished!  But wait, what was this?  A baseball field?  This is not the South Street Seaport!  What's going on?
Can I tell you how emotionally defeating it is to know you have accomplished your goal of finishing  32-miles, yet knowing you have not finished the event?  We had no idea how far from the finish we truly were.  We knew it couldn't be more than three miles, but after you've walked 32, three seems like thirty.  This photo was me after saying, "Hey, Dad, take a picture of me where we were supposed to be finished."

8:12pm:  Ah ha!  A light at the end of the tunnel!  That there highway sign tells us it is one mile to the Brooklyn Bridge - our starting/finishing point.

8:25pm:  There she is!  In the distance, that bridge is she of the Brooklyn.

8:27pm:  Even closer!  You know that feeling when it is all you can do to move your feet one step at a time.  My thoughts pretty much went that way - "One more step, one more step, one more step."

8:42pm: FINISHED!!!!   Our total mileage for the official Great Saunter portion of the day was 34 miles exactly.  Shanda and Andy were at the Seaport waiting for us.  The sound of their cheers and congratulations when we finished was one of the sweetest memories I could ever ask for.

10:10pm: Back at the hotel, checking out whatever damage occurred - my only war wound was that one lil blister under my second and third toes.  Not bad!  37 miles in one day!
But check out just one of about ten blisters on my lil sis's feet.  Gross. I cannot say how shocked I am that she finished...but moreso than shocked I am busting with celebration for her.  She did something so few ever could.  Especially those who never exercise, that little booger. 

Lastly, our journey would not be complete without a proper celebration at the end.  What did I choose?  Banana pudding from Magnolia Bakery, of course! 

Now: How was the recovery? 
The next morning, I was a bit achy on my feet bottoms because of the type of Chinese water torture I'd put them through, but not sore at all muscularly.  In fact, we walked somewhere between 10-15 miles throughout the day of me playing tour-guide with the fam.  By Monday morning (aside from Brit's blisters), we all felt fully recovered. 

Now: How do I feel about the accomplishment?
Not like I thought I would.  Before the walk, I would practically tear up thinking about how proud of myself I would be for finishing - how much I would conquer and overcome.  Then I did it.  I DID IT!  The truth is it really wasn't that difficult.  This monster of an obstacle I'd built up in my mind?  Non-existent.  Sure the last six miles of the 34 were rough, but I've felt worse.  The whole experience seems surreal.  Did I really do it?  No way has that thing that's been festering in the back of my mind for six years been successfully overcome - that was too easy.

Then I really make myself sit back and think about this.  I walked 37 miles in one day and I felt great.  If that's not conquering those fears I had, I don't know what is.  Not only did I complete The Great Saunter, but I passed with flying colors.

I ripped out my fear, threw it on the ground, then stomped on it for 37 miles

You should too.


sarah h. said...

Wow. This sounds exactly like something I need to do sometime. Good job.

scott said...

Hi Larissa! Fellow saunterer :) Thanks for leaving the comment on my blog. Congratulations on your accomplishment! It sounds like all of you had a great day and enjoyed it very much. I really enjoyed The Great Saunter and hope to do it again someday. I was quite lucky on the Upper East Side as I walked with folks who had done it before and knew their way around (I think I would have gotten lost in Spanish Harlem...). said...

I knew you could do it!

Shayla said...

Loved hearing the story in person so much that I had to read it all again to my sister. :) you're amazing!

Shayla said...

Loved hearing the story in person so much that I had to read it all again to my sister. :) you're amazing!

Reader said...

Do you really think wearing a Bob Marley shirt in Harlem is going to put a white person in danger? Far more troubling would be the obnoxious, ignorant attitude you have displayed. I've done The Great Saunter several times. Although Spanish Harlem, the section with the garages and live poultry shops, is rather ugly, it's not dangerous during the day in a group. Nor is Harlem. One year, I met a group of foreign visitors on The Great Saunter who were staying at a B&B in central Harlem and they raved about it.

Try to remember that you are walking through other people's neighborhoods, not just a backdrop for tourists.

Larissa said...

To clarify for the last comment -

Not everyone has the same life experiences, education, and sense of humor as me or as you or as anyone else in the world...or even as their younger selves. I certainly would not write these exact words today, 3.5 years later. I am sorry that something in my experiences that lead me to make a joke or have a certain insecurity struck a wrong chord with you. I was joking about the Bob Marley thing...we enjoyed teasing my sister whilst on the walk and continued that joke in the post.

What you didn't see in this post was how I lived alone in Harlem as a single young woman. As a local. I have returned nearly two dozen times for lengthy stays and still consider NYC my second home. Yes, even Harlem, Inwood, Washington Heights,etc. Where I exited the subway at night when I lived there, there were armed guards, as well as armed guards on every block until I reached home. I am very certain where we were walking on the Saunter was quite safe, but that didn't mean there were readily accessible bathrooms or places the general public would care to return for casual purposes. The way my younger self described that part of town was over-the-top, I see that, although I haven't read this post in over three years. Because I think part of what I wrote then reflects my experiences at the time, I am not going to edit the writing because those edits would then reflect the words I would use now, the way I see the world now, and I would lose that history of a more naive, dramatic version of myself.

As far as our homes - I wouldn't expect everyone to want to live in my home now, no matter how humble or fancy it may be, and wouldn't be terribly upset if someone said my home just wasn't for them.

I'm sorry that you didn't take away from this post how this event changed my life, the lives of my family members, and the lives of every person we met along the way. We met many, many people - locals and former locals and tourists and everything in between. I know this walk changes thousands of lives every year and I hope to experience this event again soon!