by Michael Liss
I live on an island. It happens to be a rather densely populated island, with a surface that seems largely covered by steel, masonry, glass, and architectural curtain wall, with nary a coconut or palm tree in sight. Still, it’s an island.
We island dwellers engage in R&R differently than our suburbanite friends and family. There are no golf courses, no country clubs, no massive “Friday Night Lights” facilities. Still, we don’t lack for sports. The newest craze is “Dodge the Electric Bike,” which improves agility and hand-to-eye coordination, particularly when the deliveryman is going the wrong way on a one-way street.
For myself, I like to run. If one wants to call it that. I’m certainly not particularly good at it, but I’ve been running/jogging/plodding since shortly after the end of the Peloponnesian Wars. I’ve torn through countless pairs of running shoes, each with an idiosyncratic wear pattern that is a not-so-subtle reminder that a major factor in my lack of speed is also a pronounced lack of grace. To demonstrate that I have no self-consciousness about this, I’ve run in a fair number of New York Road Runners races. Yesterday’s Fifth Avenue Mile was my 49th, and, I’m happy to report, I’m slower than ever.
I don’t care. I like doing it anyway. Running gets me outside; running (temporarily) satisfies my sitzfleish deficiency; and it has probably kept me off statins. During the darkest part of the pandemic, it helped with sanity, like a lightning rod grounds electrical charges. Get into your shorts (or tights, depending on the season); fill your pockets with whatever is needed out there; take two masks (believe me, you will want the second after you finish); and go.
Running offers the gift of both solitude and community. Run by yourself; find a rhythm; and the hills seem easier, the miles shorter. Run with friends; and enjoy the communal vibe, the gasps and groans, and the mutual suffering. Running transforms us into patrons at a senior-community diner, engaging in what could be called an ambulatory organ recital. Knee, hip, calf, thigh, back, foot, nose (allergies), all can be complained about in an overall atmosphere of physical vigor, giving you the best of both worlds. You get a nice workout with permission to feel miserable about it.
You can’t run every day down Fifth Avenue, and one mile is barely a warmup, so, where else on my island do you go? That might involve some fudging, like over the Queensboro into Long Island City, or up the East Side promenade to the Randall’s Island pedestrian bridge. Westsiders have Riverside Park and a path along the mighty Hudson that goes from the Battery up towards the George Washington Bridge. And we all have “Summer Streets,” which twice or three times each August closes off Park Avenue to cars from 72nd down to the Brooklyn Bridge, where the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island can’t help but stir some ancestral memories.
Still, the heart always leads back to Central Park. The air is cleaner. No cars, except for a handful of service vehicles (and the occasional ambulance). No stoplights. Lakes and fountains, statues, a castle, a blockhouse designed for defense against the British in 1812. Thirty-six bridges, some cut out of living rock. Rowboats and skating. Fauna as well: the occasional raccoon, the misplaced (and therefore thrilling) bird of prey, ducks and geese, horses, five billion squirrels, and (naturally) the odd rat.
But I do not come to praise the flora or fauna. Instead, I want to behold the simple rock. Central Park has a runner’s joy: hills and more hills, and each rise and dip comes with its own set of rocks.
So, I’m going to speak of rocks, and rely on your tolerance, because I’m a complete layman and have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about. The great John McPhee summed it up beautifully when he wrote in Annals of the Former World, “The structure of Manhattan is one of those paradoxes in spatial relations which give geologists especial delight and are about as intelligible to everyone else as punchlines delivered in Latin.”
Amen to that. I was foolish enough to think that doing some research, reading a few papers, would at least give me some passing fluency in describing what had occurred tens or hundreds of millions of years ago and had come to be under my feet. That was wrong. After many hours of reading, I came away with the same sense I have when contemplating a six minute Fifth Avenue Mile…a “not in my wildest dreams.”
To give you an idea of the mountain I was trying to climb, I found this reference in a scholarly work by Charles and Mickey Mergurian: “This unit is composed of brown-to-rusty-weathering, fine- to medium-textured, typically massive, biotite-muscovite-quartzplagioclase-kyanite-sillimanite-garnet-graphite-pyrite schist and migmatitic schist containing interlayers centimeters to meters thick of mica granofels and layers of calcite±diopside±tremolite marble and calc-silicate rock.”
Looks like it should be some German compound word, right? When I saw it, I thought about reaching out to Tom Lehrer (who apparently lives in Manhattan) to put the whole thing to music, but Wikipedia says he’s retired. Instead, I’m going to try to make a tiny bit of sense out of things by doing a Google Earth and pulling back (or away) a few thousand feet.
South of 125th Street, Manhattan is a contradiction in plain sight. At the bottom of the island, we have the massive, lumbering edifices of the Wall Street area. Then the verticality of the island takes a rest, and for three miles, gently wends its way uptown through a variety of low-slung neighborhoods like the Lower East Side, Greenwich Village, and Little Italy, all the way through the Twenties. In the Thirties, height and bulk return spectacularly, with the Empire State Building, continuing on up north to the Chrysler Building, from there to gleaming office towers, and then to the insane Billionaire’s Row, whose temples to excess shoot up more than 1400 feet from 57th and 58th Streets, just a few hundred yards from the bottom of Central Park.
Why would 60 blocks-worth of prime space be dedicated to tenements, small commercial buildings and the like? This isn’t merely because of some desire to keep those three miles quaint, it’s a function of an uneven topography under the streets. The island elevates gently from sea level, south to north, a total of about 280 feet over a length of 13.4 miles. The famed Manhattan bedrock (mostly Manhattan schist) doesn’t just sit there like a flat paved road. Rather, it undulates. If you try slightly cupping your hand, tilting it downwards, and curling up your fingertips at the bottom, it gives you a rough idea of what is going on. The last joints of the fingertips are lower Manhattan, where the bedrock rises up from the seabed to give builders solid ground to plant redwoods. Come off that, just North, and for those 60-odd blocks, the bedrock drops away and the open space (the cup of your fingers) is filled with geological debris, looser rocks and dirt brought by a glacier (or, arguably, two glaciers). It’s just not sturdy enough for monumental structures. Move north of 30th, and you are back in the meaty portion of your hand, where the bedrock is closer to the surface, and ambition soars. Of course, two centuries of development leave what’s underneath the blacktop to our imaginations. That is, until you travel a couple of football fields from the rich and powerful and hit Central Park. There, wherever Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s design called for leaving well enough alone, you see huge rocks and outcroppings, eroded but still mighty, often glittering with bits of mica, up to 500 million years old.
Put on your running shoes and come with me for a light jog. The Park stretches from 59th Street to 110th, and from Fifth Avenue to what would be Eighth. If you stay on the interior paved road, the distance is 6.02 miles, just about perfect for our purposes. Start on the West Side just south of Tavern on the Green, go counterclockwise, and you will pass the massive Umpire Rock (formerly known as “Rat Rock” for its formerly plentiful colony of rats). Umpire Rock is really old, and as good an indicator as any of what lies beneath the surface. Not only is the primary rock among the oldest in the Park, but the rock itself was scored and shaped by a glacier that covered much of Manhattan about 30,000 years ago.
Move to the East Drive into the 60s and then uptown through the 80s, and this mostly uphill area (may) be the beginning of something called Cameron’s Line, an actual fault from the Ordovician Period which was formed as part of the continental collision known as the Taconic orogeny. As one might imagine, this smashing, wrenching, folding and crushing event and the later Alleghenian one were extraordinarily violent, and the thought that somewhere (and perhaps several places) along your run you might be stepping on a stupendous fault line that helped create a continent (and certainly our island paradise) is quite striking.
Let’s keep going north past the Reservoir until we hit 106th Street and we get to the area of some irony to runners. Here is where the original plan of Olmstead and Vaux stopped, and I think if you asked many of us (and the casual tourist biker looking to circumnavigate the Park), we’d have been just fine if their ambitions ended right there. Alas, they didn’t, and, in 1859, they asked that the area between 106th Street and 110th be added. In the beginning, you can be beguiled by this, as the road bends somewhat downhill towards the lowest elevation in the entire park, the man-made Harlem Meer. But soon you realize you are dealing with a monster, first a prolonged upgrade as you head south along the top of the West Drive, followed by a final piece of wending mercilessness as you near the top of The Great Hill. About 20 years ago I was running up the East Drive and found myself abreast of a group of middle-aged Frenchmen who were in for the Marathon. For about a mile, they talked easily to me about their training, what they were doing in New York, and the places they had gone. The chatter ground to a halt, punctuated by occasional curses (in more languages than French) as we tackled the Hill of Death.
We’ve made it to the West Side, scrambled over a pair of West Side hills, run past the Reservoir, and between 84th and 81st Streets come to two interesting formations, one natural, the second man-made. Immediately to our right between the road and Central Park West is the highest elevation in the park (about 140 feet), Summit Rock. In this area was Seneca Village, home to an African-American community that existed there from about 1820 to its annexation and ruthless clearing in 1857. To our left is Belvedere Castle and the Great Lawn, which, prior to 1929, had been a second reservoir for the city. Both locations contain traces of rock that apparently originated in the New Jersey Palisades, across the Hudson River.
We have about a mile to go, and I’m going to take a detour, off the road and onto the bridle path. This is my single favorite stretch of the Park. I like the irregular surface, the switch from gravel to sand to soil and back. I like the way it cuts through and around the man-made structures; and I particularly like the trip along the Park’s west wall running parallel to Central Park West. Here, the street is well above the path, and you run through rock-cuts, under man-made bridges, and past berms, sometimes seen, sometimes not. It’s here where I plan to be every Thanksgiving morning, as the parade assembles and starts its march down to 33rd Street, and above you are the tops of the balloons struggling in the wind and sounds of marching bands.
Then, you go over a last uphill, where the surface changes to sand and gravel, and you end at Tavern on the Green, just where you started, and just where the New York Marathon comes to an end.
We’ve made the loop, and that brings me back to where I began this piece, and a little personal news. Two weeks ago, while running to the Park to train for the Fifth Avenue, I took a header on a street that had been freshly milled for resurfacing. Hands, elbows, face, and particularly knee and ribs took the jolt, and I broke my glasses. I limped home, bloodied and battered. By that evening, I realized there would be no more running for a while—even if I could cover my knee, my ribs hurt too much to move out of a slow walk. All joking aside, this particular excuse for expected poor performance was a little too real. I was morose, until a week later, at 11:23 p.m., when I got this wonderful text from my daughter: “Guess what I just did? I signed up for the Fifth Avenue Mile. And I’m so excited.”
So, on Sunday, September 12th, I gingerly made my way over to Fifth Avenue, with a final reminder from McPhee that Manhattan is nothing more than a compressed and folded loaf of rock between two rivers, worn by erosion. And Fifth Avenue, on the high middle of that loaf, is running up the center of the trough of a syncline. Loaves and synclines, when you put it that way, eh, I can do this.
In the event, we ended up with five—me, two of my running buddies, my daughter, and one of her friends, who was also running in her first race.
By some cosmic kismet, three of us, running in three separate heats, ran exactly the same time. And my daughter…she blew us all away.
Now, that is a runner’s high.