The Walk of Life
by Neil Offen
Early on a chilly Saturday morning that would turn blisteringly hot, we set forth, we brave few, on a trek that would challenge us like nothing before, that would test our mettle like our mettle had never been tested and help us find out what mettle actually was and why it was spelled that way.
It would also show exactly how dumb but stubborn we really were.
At 7:30 precisely, we began The Great Saunter, the 32-mile circumnavigation of the island of Manhattan. Why did we do it? Well, of course — because it was there.
For nearly a year, my daughter and I had been training for this. Or more precisely, had been talking about training for this. Now this was at hand. Or more precisely, at foot.
We had convinced my friend Mitch to do this with us, since we felt we needed someone responsible to call for the ambulance. Also, we needed someone who had done even less training than we had.
We headed off to New York’s Battery, the southernmost part of the island. The Statue of Liberty was there, off in the harbor, waving supportively at us, instinctively knowing that we already were her tired and huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. Wait till she sees us at the end.
As we moved up the Hudson River waterfront, tourists, joggers and strollers noticed the large group of folks wearing white Great Saunter caps with race numbers on their backs and pain on their faces.
“Hey, what are you all doing?” one guy called out.
“We’re walking around the entire island of Manhattan,” I called back.
“No, really, what are you doing?” he said.
Two or so hours in, around six miles down, 26 or so more to go, volunteers handed out little bottles of Gatorade. We took them, although we had so over-prepared we were already carrying four bottles of Gatorade, 14 energy bars, seven bags of dried fruits and a couple of grilled cheese sandwiches.
Then there was the other stuff we had brought: enough electrolytes to power the city of Newark, along with blister pads, tubes of sun block, maps, bandages, Band-aids, creams, hand sanitizers, music we could listen to when we weren’t busy complaining about our aches and pains and extra clothing — jackets, rain jackets, three extra pairs of socks.It all made our backpacks so heavy they felt exactly like we were carrying backpacks filled with all that stuff we were carrying.
At about mile 9 or 10, we met a woman who seemed to be walking faster and jauntier. “I’m only doing half of it,” she said, “16 or 17 miles. I’m having surgery in three days.”That seemed like a good plan. Maybe I could schedule surgery for around 2 p.m.
At Riverbank State Park, 12 miles in, we met Cy Adler, the man who founded The Great Saunter, the nation’s longest urban hike, 30 years ago. We told him he would never be forgiven.
Near mile 15 or so, perfectly flat Manhattan became hilly, uphill Manhattan, which gave us the opportunity to damage new and previously unknown parts of the body.
After five and a half hours of walking and about 17 miles, we stopped for a lunch break. Mitch took off his walking shoes and counted his toes. There seemed to be a few missing. My feet were hot, my calves were sore, my ankles were cranky and my hips were unhinged. Those were the good parts. But we only had about 18 more miles to go. How hard could that be? We headed south.
At around mile 20, Mitch decided he had to go find those toes and ended his Saunter. Nora and I hobbled on.
As we were zigging and zagging through a northern part of Manhattan where we couldn’t access the waterfront, we were joined by a veteran of the Saunter. Samantha said she had done it last year, and had finished around 8 p.m. It was only around 3 p.m.; I quickly calculated that meant we had five or so more hours to go and would probably miss the 7 o’clock news and the reports of our demise.
We had said earlier that if we could get to 25 miles or so, we’d be so determined to finish we would crawl the last few mlles if we had to. It turns out, Manhattan has an alternate side-of-the-street crawling ordinance and on this Saturday crawling was prohibited.
Around mile 27 or 28, my feet mutinied. They had had enough and I think went home to take a couple of Advils. Nora and I plodded on.
The Brooklyn Bridge was in sight — that must mean we were almost there, at the end. Nora checked her calculations on her iPad — and found out that, technically speaking, we were not finished until we got to the finish.
Aching all over, with several sore mettles, after 12 hours and 15 minutes, after what turned out to be more than 34 miles of walking, we arrived at the finish line.
Now we can’t wait to do it again next year. We may be recovered by then.