• Grace Taylor Rae

The Human Vehicle: Running As Transportation

I stepped off the bus and into the terminal and took the frozen escalator two stairs at a time. On the subway platform for the A C E, I joined a growing crowd of people, all stalled in 90-degree heat below the Port Authority — every train was delayed. I checked my phone — 20% battery and a text from my aunt. We had just left a conference together in Philadelphia that afternoon.

Are you in the blackout?

Oh. Yep.

The easy half-hour public transit commute that I imagined after a long day — a long week — had essentially evaporated. I immediately began to think and act like the survivor and athlete I am recognizing myself to be.

I refused to pay an over-inflated rate for a car home; I knew in an instant what I was about to do. The thought of what came next was equally terrifying and exhilarating, like my first dance performance in New York City (which was actually just two days prior). This time, the street was my stage. I stowed the day’s possessions — an empty Tupperware, bamboo utensils, a denim jacket and a wallet — into the red 10L Solomon backpack I carried often, for such a time as this.

Looking back, it felt like I had something to prove.

In the middle of last month’s Manhattan blackout, on the anniversary of the historic NYC Blackout of 1977, I ran from 42nd Street to downtown Brooklyn in Toms, a dress and a backpack. The next morning, on about four hours of sleep, two pieces of wheat bread and shoes with long-expired soles, I ran a half marathon in Coney Island.

As with other shocking truths I have lived, the more I process this experience, the more I find it difficult to believe that it actually happened. But it did — every moment, every mile.

I am finally going public about running a marathon this October. When I first started training it seemed too far away and impossible, so I didn’t want to jinx it with words! I understand now why I have waited to write on what distance running is teaching me about my body as a reliable, efficient means of transportation. Running my first half marathon — plus an unexpected warmup across the Brooklyn Bridge the night before — was a turning point for learning how to embody my human vehicle with efficiency and care. In many ways, it is just the beginning.

When I ran home from the Port Authority, I trusted my human form more than I believed I could the city’s infrastructure. I clipped my phone to my backpack and threaded my headphones through my sleeve. I took flight, lifting off to Mothwings by Passion Pit.

I dipped into the bike lane when I could, and smiled with my heart at people who looked my way. Consistently I thought about the creeping ephemerality under all this noise and motion and entropy. Gentrification. Blackouts. Debt. Denial. Plastic. It’s been the end of the world for a while now. Time loops and folds us back on ourselves.

I wondered how long my music would last before my phone battery died.

Into the setting sun, I scaled the sidewalk, passing tourists drinking in the skyline with their eyes, and well-dressed diners soaking up outdoor seating along 8th Avenue. Saturday night. I am rarely here. I entered the winding, occasionally-cobbled streets of Lower Manhattan. Once I ran into some folks on the sidewalk. Once I stopped to take a picture of a mural, and another time to memorize the last few turns before my map and music died. Varick to right on Leonard, left on Lafayette to Brooklyn Bridge Promenade.

Before I got “serious” about running, I have considered myself a vehicle for efficient motion, a self-described minimalist prepared to pack lightly. As a small child, I loved to walk long distances with my parents. I discovered my relative speed through playing tag and capture the flag, and then on soccer, track and field hockey teams. I am a fast walker (yes, even for New York City standards). I dress for comfort and range of motion — hence the Toms and Solomon. Running regular 5Ks, 10Ks and upwards of 10 miles has made biking and walking through New York City quite easy. Off the racecourse, I can travel — local and free — stashing clothes and snacks for the day, a book or journal for the park or cafe, and advertising materials to distribute in adjacent neighborhoods — I am an artist, doula, and organizational design coach.

Wherever I run repeatedly, I build into somatic memory maps of my environment. Legs and feet and arms are wheels. Core is my engine. I am learning to localize consciousness in each body part moving in the same direction, by balancing decentralized awareness with a unified focus. I witness my capability and resilience on a scale more human, more graceful and more grounded than the financialized, technologized, concretized landscape I move through.

When I raced 13.1 miles for the first time, I imagined finishing in my goal time would be a miracle; I was so grateful to finish 4th of 53 in my group! I remember accelerating evenly through our first loop on the boardwalk, and then perhaps too enthusiastically pacing several runners outside my range and skipping a few water stops. Sometimes my mind asks, did you really go your fastest? Though I distinctly remember how in unison my brain and limbs were toward the end of that hour and 50 minutes: Hold your form. Keep the connections. Center in the stillness of constant motion. Save something to push across the line. You’re almost there.

I was days sleep-deprived, anxious and in the middle of a sinus infection. For nearly two weeks I had been slogging through everything that stood before me during the most physically and mentally exhausting stretch of my life to date. You’re almost there. I was operating on less than empty, and out of touch with how what I was taking on would impact my health for days and weeks to come.

The night and morning following the race I completely shut down. It took about two weeks to clear up the sinus problems, recover my appetite, research and buy functional shoes and begin training any more than short, easy runs. I rested for almost a full week before working out again to focus on critical weight gain and literally to re-learn how to eat — when to fuel myself with the appropriate food and water as a distance runner. As a vehicle.

Running is luxury, therapy, creation, destruction. Like the city, grit undergirds the glam. When I ran home from the Port Authority, I passed people enjoying expensive food, and people asking for something to eat. I felt like I was burning calories — fuel -practically for show. I could have spent money on a cab, and burned gasoline instead.

Who am I serving?

Where am I investing power?

What labor, energy, and life-force are running me?

When I pass people, I root to the ground and the sky and smile at them with my heart.

In 2019, running is aligning me beyond a narrow dimension of judgment and competition and fear, to an expansive one of movement and meditation, union and fellowship, worship and faith. I give thanks for the calling and the access to invite such joy and growth, through a linear motion that always circles me home.