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New York, New York

Running From High Blood Pressure

Death knocks. Your doctor tells you it’s time to start exercising or, well, it’s all over.

The joke I tell is this:

After the doctor tells me I have high blood pressure, he says he needs to ask me a couple of questions.

‘Are you married?’ he asks.

‘Yes.’

He gives a knowing nod, and then asks, ‘To an Indian woman?’

‘Actually, yes,’ I say, surprised.

His nod becomes more vigorous, ‘Well, that explains it.’

 

The joke was funny the first time I told it—my wife even laughed. But by the fifth telling, it had become as funny as having high blood pressure at 30 years old.

What the doctor actually did was tell me to start exercising, perhaps go running a few nights a week. Then he sent my bill to the wrong insurance company and caused a great deal of stress and headaches and angry phone calls before the mess got straightened out. I certainly didn’t think he was helping my particular health situation with his little mistake, but I did take his advice: I started running.

For my first run I figured I’d run through Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, where Leonard Bernstein, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Charles Ebbets, and 600,000 other people are buried. On the surface I was attempting to make my run a little more interesting by choosing such a setting, but perhaps my subconscious was trying to hit me over the head with a life-changing revelation: ‘You could have a heart attack and die. It’s time to start taking care of yourself.’

I learned, however, that you can’t run through the cemetery. So instead of running through the cemetery, I ran around it. Keep in mind: this cemetery is a vast expanse of rolling hills and trees filled with gravestones, monuments, and mausoleums. And while parts of the outer perimeter are pleasing to the eye—mostly views of nice old homes—there’s a very large section that looks out to where the subway garbage trains stop and drop off their haul, as well as to streets that have become havens for car maintenance, with old batteries and beat-up car tires strewn over the cracked and uneven sidewalk. There are also some areas where people must go specifically to break all their glass bottles. (‘Hey, I’m done with this case of beer. Let’s head over to that street that runs along Green-Wood Cemetery so I can smash all the bottles. Yeah, I’ll drive.’)

I never repeated my Green-Wood Cemetery route. But I stayed in Brooklyn and started running in Prospect Park (coincidentally also home to a cemetery—but one that’s privately owned and maintained by the Quakers). It’s a four-mile run if you trek the park’s perimeter, but there are countless paths and trails that allow you to take different routes each time you set out. I’ve run in fields of snow without a soul in sight, and on the hottest day of the summer, the humidity closing in on me and turning my breath so hot I tried to avoid the streams of my own exhales. Running there I’ve seen the sun set. I’ve run in complete darkness, the ground below me a hazy blur of dark gray, the streetlamps in the far-off distance giving me my only direction.

I will just say with no doubt in my mind that Prospect Park kicks Central Park’s ass. I’m not even going to mention how Prospect Park was designed by the same architectural duo that designed Central Park. Some insecure Brooklynite has probably already told you that. And don’t get me wrong—I think Central Park is an amazing place…the lawns, the concerts, the funky rollerbladers, the hidden nooks, the running paths, the view of it from a nearby office skyscraper, that beautiful lush, green space surrounded by towering buildings. But Prospect Park has all of these things, minus the tourists. It’s actually a neighborhood park, with a true neighborhood vibe coursing through every aspect of it. A huge, gorgeous space, filled with both frenetic activity—be it at a soccer match or along the running path—as well as absolutely perfect Sunday-afternoon serenity—a father walking with his young children, couples laying out on blankets, a person reading a book on a park bench.

One day I stumbled upon some information about the Brooklyn Half-Marathon, the last stretch of which would be in Prospect Park—my turf, where I run. It was just a week away, and even though I hadn’t trained enough for a run of this magnitude—13.1 miles—I signed up. I figured I could always just walk part of the race if I couldn’t run the whole way.

The night before the half-marathon, I was too nervous to even study the map. Seeing the complete route laid out was giving me leg cramps. Three Budweiser tall boys helped me hit the sack—not exactly the best fuel for the night before a race.

The next day at the Coney Island boardwalk I quietly stared out at the ocean and waited for the race to start. I was too nervous to even stretch out. Men were dashing out onto the beach, stopping about halfway to the water then quickly maneuvering it so that they could take a piss while looking like they were up to nothing more than taking in the ocean view. Then they’d do some concealment adjustments, and dash back to the boardwalk. Nice.

I was about halfway back in the starting-line crowd when the starting-gun was fired. And for a while after you’re just standing there. Then the crowd starts to lurch forward, and then it starts to stretch out, and then the trampling boom of running shoes begins. Pacing yourself amidst all those runners is difficult. Right away you find yourself running faster than you normally do. After just two miles, I felt a sense of panic: ‘How the hell am I going to finish this race? And what the HELL am I doing out here, anyway?’ It isn’t long before you start seeing people who dashed off a little too hard already taking a breather and walking. Other runners encourage you, saying ‘Come on, you can do it!’ as they pass. The stream of well-wishing keeps the comment continuous, cacophonous. I knew then I would not be stopping to walk.

The race is just about putting one foot in front of the other. I certainly wasn’t out there to win—I just wanted to finish. But I was amazed at the nonchalance of many of the runners, just carrying on conversations about their weekend plans, their recent vacations, job shit, all the while I’m doing everything I can just to keep breathing. Old men pass me right on by, leaving me to eat their dust. Each mile-marker is a reminder that you aren’t as far along as you think you are.

Somewhere along the way I discovered that drinking water while running is an art form. I also discovered that chafed nipples really hurt. Probably about as bad as it sounds like they’d hurt. My sweat-drenched shirt caused the irritation, and that led to some serious stinging as the race wore on.

But it wasn’t difficulty catching my breath, or aches in my knees or sides, or rubbed-red nipples that wore me down over the miles. It was my legs—they simply wanted to give out. It was a sensation of imminent buckling. My legs felt heavy and numb, and yet still sensitive to the slightest bump on the road. It took reserves of willpower I didn’t even know I had just to keep my legs moving. Slower and slower they charged. I felt like if I had started walking I would have been moving faster.

Once I entered the park—at about the ninth mile—I wanted the race to be over. I was in pain. I entered this race so I could enjoy the last leg of it in Prospect Park, but now all I was doing was cursing its very existence. Toward the end of the race was a looping hill that I run all the time. It’s usually no big deal. But in the condition I was in it was like running up a wall.

The finish line in sight, people cheering, I see my wife in the crowd, I try to smile, I’m in a daze, I cross the line, my wife hugs me, I can’t catch my breath, my knees hurt, my legs hurt, my body hurts, I need water, I made it, I made it, I made it, I’m going to pass out.

I don’t know if my blood pressure is any better. I’ll get it checked out when I visit the doctor about my aching knees.