Brent didn’t want to go on his scheduled twelve-mile run, this particular Saturday morning in April; but he was smack in the middle of his meticulous training plan for the Brooklyn Marathon, and he had so far logged 60 straight days of successful runs.
He sure as hell wasn’t about to drop the ball in the middle of training.
After drinking a glass of water mixed with neon-red energy powder, he jogged down his third-floor walkup on the corner of 25th and Lexington and set-out for the Williamsburg Bridge.
Some people liked to run with earpods, listening to music or, even worse, a podcast. Brent was convinced that podcasts were like anathema to good running. A podcast encouraged introversion, insight, warm fuzzy feelings - all stuff that was supposed to come after a run.
Any run worth the miles had to incur pain.
He crossed Houston Street, and was officially in the Lower East Side, headed south. Various men with dirty feet wandered the streets; restaurant workers emerged out of metal doors in the sidewalk, carrying racks of plates and other accoutrements of service.
The sun creeped over the crest of the Lower East Side’s red-brick tenement buildings. He emerged onto the freeway of Delancey Street, which was already backed up with commuters from Williamsburg to Manhattan, and vice-versa. Patiently, he jogged in place at a light, cars whizzing past.
From his vantage point he could spot a bearded man wearing a singlet, making his way up the steep incline of the Williamsburg Bridge.
Boom. I’m going to catch him. The light turned; he crossed the street and headed up the bridge, picking up his pace to a slightly uncomfortable tempo. The bearded man, who had about a hundred meter head start on him, was within grabbing distance; Brent picked up his knees and powered past the man, feeling hungry eyes watch his neck.
He crested the top of the bridge and considered the water beneath him; sometimes, on particularly hot days, when he didn’t have a water bottle and could feel himself overheating, he would envision himself jumping off the bridge into the cool East River below.
A relieving kind of suicide.
He was on his way downhill to Williamsburg now, and turned his head just in time to catch a glimpse of a petite brunette with glasses, walking her way uphill. She was wearing black yoga pants and a long-sleeve, pink spandex top; white air pods dangled from her ears.
Brent held his gaze on her as he passed; she stared straight ahead and continued walking, seemingly absorbed in her podcast or music or whatever was transmitting through the pods.
Within ten seconds Brent had forgotten about her, and was consumed with racing his way downhill to the end of the bridge.
He passed the brunette again on his way back up, and tried not to stare at her as he came closer.
He tucked his head in and sped up as he passed, hoping she would notice his speed.
He reached his starting point on the bridge and took a big gulp of air; he had two more laps to go. He began to doubt whether he could finish the run; maybe he’d have to walk up the other end of the bridge.
The temptation of quitting in the middle tormented Brent as he worked his way uphill, as it always did. But he was again drawing closer to the petite brunette, and could get a good glimpse of her face now - refined features, small hazelnut eyes, an earnest, thoughtful demeanor.
Her gaze met his; she was looking at him curiously.
‘What are you going to do about it?’ Her eyes read.
He felt a pain in his chest as he ran past her, not from fatigue, but rather from the unnatural act of running away from something he desired.
After about twenty more meters, he took a gasp of air and turned around, hastily bounding back towards the woman.
“Excuse me - hi, how are you?” Brent shifted his way in front of the woman and grinned.
The girl considered him, looking not too surprised, and popped an earbud out.
“Hey. I’m good,” she said steadily.
“Cool. Sorry, I don’t want to be weird, I just saw you running - I mean, I was running the bridge and I saw you - and um,” He scratched the back of his neck, looked to the sky as if very nervous, then looked back at her with a wry smile.
“May I have your number?”
The woman laughed, a little wearily, and ran a finger through her hair. She looked off the bridge into the Lower East Side for a moment, then shrugged and said, “Sure.”
Brent had his fingers hovering over his phone, at the ready; she gently took the phone from his hands and began to type.
“I’m Brent, by the way,” he said.
“Melanie,” said the girl, tapping into his phone. She had a reservedly cool demeanor, relaxed and methodical.
“You walk this bridge often?” He asked.
“Um, yeah, pretty much every morning.” She handed him his phone back and looked him in the eyes.
“Cool. Yeah, I’m on here a lot. Just, you know, running….” He waved his hand back and forth swiftly along the length of the bridge. “Great hill workout, right?”
“Sure,” she said.
He chuckled, and, not wanting to appear too desperate for conversation, looked up the bridge like he had something waiting for him.
“Well great, I’ll text you - Have a nice day, Melanie,” he said, giving his best sweet-natured grin.
“Okay, you too,” she said, turning around and putting an air pod back in her ear in the same motion.
His heart giddy, he began to make his way back up the bridge, going faster and faster; he crested the top again and, going downhill now, ran as fast as he could, buoyed by confidence and burgeoning emotions.
He began to hit a wall on the way back across and slowed down considerably. But whatever extra few hundred meters he had added to his run to get her number, he thought, had been worth it.
The woman - what was her name again? Melanie.
He wondered if she liked running.
Melanie and Brent met at a gastropub in the East Village for their first date.
Melanie looked chic and attractive in her glasses and knee-high dress. Brent, wearing a white polo and raw denim jeans, had just finished a five-mile evening run, and was ready to eat.
After making some small talk, Brent picked up the menu and grinned, “So, you good with wings for appetizer?”
“Go for it, you look hungry,” Melanie said, and smiled sweetly.
Brent wasn’t sure what she meant by ‘You look hungry,’ but he found her encouragement to eat enduring.
They talked about work - she worked as a fashion assistant, he as a financial planning manager; they talked about their experience during the pandemic, about not being able to go to the gym while the city shut-down for six months.
The subject turned to the stock market, and Brent made his case for investing in Google.
“They own my entire life journey, I mean you could learn everything about me from reading my running training log in Google Sheets. Every workout I’ve ever done, right there….”
He tapped around in his phone and considered showing her, but she asked him something unexpected first.
“Would you say you’re anal retentive?”
He blinked, holding his phone dumbly in his hand, then laughed.
“Well, hah, I’d actually say I’m kind of a slob. I’m sort of afraid to let you see my apartment...I mean, you know, if we get to that point - “
“I don’t mean clean, I mean obsessive about, like, cataloguing your shit,” she said. “Like, you’ve recorded every workout you’ve done? Ever?”
Brent looked at his phone uncertainly, considering the kilobytes of workout data he was prepared to show her.
“I mean - just for the past two years -”
She laughed, took a sip of her cocktail, then said, “That’s kind of creepy.”
He frowned, “Creepy? I mean, I run, that’s how I get better is tracking my workouts…”
“Running’s cute. The obsessive-compulsive workout logging is weird.” She smiled a sweet smile, somewhat infuriating in its attractiveness.
He dropped his phone on the table; it landed with a louder plunk than he had intended.
“All the best runners log their training,” he said sheepishly.
“Just run, then,” she said. ‘How often do you go back and actually review your workouts?”
Brent thought for a moment, opened his mouth, then closed it, and finished mopping the seltzer before he responded.
“I’ll look back occasionally - I mean, generally, I just like having it on hand.”
“You’re a hoarder. A data hoarder,” she said teasingly. “Are you logging your calories, too? Trying to slim some pounds?”
She poked from across the table at his slim, fatless torso.
Brent shook his head, “No, ma’am. You know what the best ultra trail runners eat? Cake, steak and beer.”
He plucked out a plump, neon-red buffalo sauce covered drumstick from the wing basket in the center of the table.
She grabbed one, too, and took a bite.
“So are you training for anything?”
“The Brooklyn Marathon. I’ve got eight weeks,”
She looked at him, a little bit of sauce on her cheek, and raised her eyebrows.
“Eight weeks? And you’re training now?”
Brent laughed, incredulously, “Um, it’s a marathon. Not really a distance you can just wake up and just decide to run…”
“But you’ve got eight weeks! Just take it easy, layer in some sprints, heavy up your training like three weeks out and then do one blow-out workout the week before. That’s how I always got ready for my college meets.”
Brent blinked, “You ran in college?”
“For my first two years, yeah. I was recruited out of high school,” she said, rolling her eyes and laughing. “I was good, too. Probably one of the best middle-distance runners on the team. But running as a sport, man, it’s just….”
She trailed off, chuckled softly, and took another bite of the wing.
“Why’d you stop?” Brent asked. He was feeling an uncomfortable sort of identity crisis by the revelation that he might not be the most athletic person in the relationship.
“Exhaustion. I mean, literally, a stress fracture in my tibia. But even before the bone broke, I was broken.” She shook her head. “Training competitively took the joy out of it. Running’s supposed to be fun, you know?”
“Well, you’re literally racing to see who reaches an end point first, competition’s the whole purpose….”
“Think of it as a race against yourself. Seriously. Trying to outsprint another person is just, like, the lowest possible level of competition.” Melanie said, waving the bone of the chicken wing around.
“Well, I’m not trying to outsprint anyone. You can’t sprint a marathon.”
“Says you,” Melanie said. She winked and wiped the sauce from her mouth. Brent found her heedless lack of self-consciousness very attractive.
All around them, the city was running.
One morning, about four week after Brent had started dating Melanie, he opened up his training spreadsheet and was alarmed by the gaping holes; entire weeks had gone by without him recording a single mile.
He had been running, though spending much more time with Melanie at various brunches, art shows and general Netflix hang-out sessions, and had neglected to keep up his logging.
You were only as good as the plan you followed, Brent thought, when it came to training for marathons. The plan was a map; woe to the person who became unmoored from the map.
. Now he was in a nominally crucial period of race training, the critical phase - four weeks out - and completely veered off-course.
He broached the topic with Melanie as they ate English muffin bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwiches at her kitchen island.
“You know, the marathon’s in four weeks,” he said.
“Oh yeah, that’s cool. You ready for it?”
“Not at all,” said Brent. “I haven’t even kept track of how many miles I’ve done since - since -”
“Since what? Since you asked me out on the bridge?”
Brent shook his head, “No, no. It’s not that. I’ve just had a hard time prioritizing recently.”
“I know you have,” she said, putting down her sandwich and licking her fingers. “It’s my fault you’ve been training less.”
“No, that’s not what I’m saying…”
“Be honest. That’s kind of what you’re saying,” said Melanie. A pregnant silence swelled for a moment.
“I just don’t want to waste all the other work I’ve put in,” he said.
“Hm, I get it. I wouldn’t want you to either,” she sighed. “Look, if you need to spend more time running or something…”
“I don’t need to, I just - you know, hey, maybe you can hold me accountable? Like, be my training buddy?”
She frowned, “In college we did that. Like, texted each other during winter break making sure we were all still training,” she grimaced as she recalled the memory. “But running’s personal, you know? You can’t have someone else tell you to do something you love.”
Brent didn’t like the direction the conversation was headed.
He cleared his throat, “Look, I’ve just got to be better at time management. I’ll figure it out; you’re gonna be there to cheer me on?”
Melanie said nothing, and rapped her fingers on the table.
“You stopped running when you met me. I don’t want to be the reason you’re still stopped.”
Brent grasped for words. Melanie added, “You said you were having trouble with priorities. Go get those straight, okay?”
Brent left her apartment feeling a cold, hard weight in his chest; he wasn’t sure how he’d be able to ever run again, carrying that weight.
Moonlight reflected off Manhattan like off a giant, steel-rimmed diamond as Brent crested the hump of the Williamsburg Bridge. He had no time to enjoy the view; feet thundered behind him.
He estimated he was pacing at around five-forty a mile, going into mile 7. He was at his pain threshold, lungs burning and thighs churning.
The Broome Street Track Club was nominally a ‘casual’ weekly gathering of runners in downtown Manhattan, but more than a few competitive sharks lurked in the waters at Broome. If you had the gonads to take the lead at the front of the pack, it was hard not to feel like you were being chased.
Brent was speeding downhill now, the brick-laden, graffitied buildings of Chinatown whizzing by him as he descended the bridge onto Delancey. The official ‘end’ of the run was about a mile more, into Soho, but anyone who actually tried to sprint their way after the bridge was doing it wrong.
If you were going to win, it had to be on the bridge.
He chanced a glance over his shoulder; to his giddy surprise, he could see no one in his immediate field of vision. But he still heard the swift pounding of footsteps, to his left - someone or something was definitely on his tail.
In the last 200 meters before the end of the bridge, as the ‘Welcome to Manhattan’ sign came into view and, simultaneously, a J train powered its way past, punishingly loud, a sinewy runner popped out in front of Brent.
Brent pumped his legs, like he was doing high-knees, but the runner was going maddeningly fast; Brent cursed loudly as the runner extended his lead and gracefully, bounded through to the end of the bridge, finishing a good ten meters in front of Brent.
The runner turned around to reveal a bearded grin, taking his pace down to an easy tempo.
“That finishing kick, bud, you gotta work on that,”
Brent jogged silently side-by-side with the man for a few moments, before saying, “Yeah, nice finish.”
“When’s your next race?”
“The Central Park Marathon,” said Brent.
The runner whistled, “Central Park hills hit different, bro. What’d you get in Brooklyn though? Third place? You’ll be alright.”
Brent didn’t actually know the runner’s name, and for all purposes, he didn’t have to. There was no inherent advantage to being a good teammate in running.
A pack of three other runners caught up to Brent and the bearded runner, and they finished together on Broome Street. After some perfunctory stretching, Brent stepped away from the group and opened up Google Spreadsheets on his phone, navigating to a sheet titled, ‘Marathon Training 2022.”
He recorded the miles they had run - 8 - and his estimated pace, as well as some notes on how he was feeling.
He realized he needed about 7 more miles this week to hit his goal of 90 miles, and decided to take the long way home through the Lower East Side.
Peeling onto Rivington Street, Brent slowed to a jog and admired the grungy urban-chic of the apartment buildings. He remembered six months prior, that girl he dated, however briefly - Melanie - the period was forever timestamped in his training logs, four weeks of nearly blank cells.
He recalled the loneliness of the last time he walked past these buildings, feeling like he’d never run again.
A shock of black hair caught the corner of his eye; he turned to see a beautiful girl sitting on a bench outside a cafe, wearing a vintage t-shirt, mid-waist Levi’s and Doc Martin’s. A tall, virile-looking bald man was talking to her with the confidence of a lover. The streetlight illuminated Melanie’s face clearly.
Her eyes seemed to flicker to Brent, over the bald crown of her new amour. Brent jogged and watched her, reminded of why he had stopped on that bridge in the first place.
A server came out and presented Melanie and the man with food; Brent used the occasion to shift his eyes to the street ahead, and quickened his pace; he had three more miles to home. And even those, he still had to log.