"People have said that Central Park is like the lungs of the city," Abigail Smith, a Barnard junior, explains between gasps for air. We are running up a steep path that takes us into the northern tip of Central Park, her favorite running route in the city. It's a foggy day, and an ominous grey cloud settles over the bare tree branches. But as we make our way to the top, we are met with a vast array of neon color that speckles the hazy mist like paint splotches.
It is the runners, and the bikers, and the speed walkers, and the dog walkers of Central Park. They are there all day, in their skintight, sweat-flicking leggings, their bright pink or green tops, their running shoes of choice. The air passing through the lungs.
Smith is a serious runner—so serious, in fact, that she had already run six miles before we met up. Much like the other runners I slow-jogged alongside, Smith has reading to do, papers to write, and sometimes even sleep to catch up on.
But she still runs.
Columbia is brimming with recreational runners who flock to the parks surrounding campus, despite the constant pressure on students to devote free time to study and extracurriculars.
Running isn't about going to any one destination, or about doing something that will have a tangible impact on future success. But, nevertheless, Columbia students still run. What is less clear is whether the lack of community and stress culture on campus translates to a running culture that is less than cohesive.
At Columbia, there are several kinds of runners. Some are are experienced runners, like Mica Naibryf, a second-year in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and president of the Columbia University Road Runners. CURR is Columbia's running club team, which offers group runs and access to intercollegiate races and New York Road Races for its members. Some are fast runners, like Jeremy Grill, a junior at Columbia College who humbly denies this label. And, finally, some are runners who reply to an interview request with an email that reads, "I don't know who told you I'm a runner, but that was generous. I am a jogger. A very, very slow jogger."
The author of that email, Shoshana Williams, a Barnard first-year, ran through Riverside Park with me. Williams is tall, sporting a brown ponytail and Nike shoes. She takes me on her favorite route along the Hudson River, where the wind comes alive and still water reflects the New Jersey skyline.
"I think it's ridiculous that you want to interview me," she says as we descend steep stairs that take us into the park. "I'm literally the slowest runner on Columbia's campus."
"I'm the slowest runner on Columbia's campus!" I quip back as I struggle to keep up.
I am a member of William's category of runners on campus: a very, very slow jogger. The gets-lost-on-a-CURR-group-run-because-she's-too-slow-to-keep-up type slow jogger. But I also try, if I can, to run three times a week, and see running as a large part of my life—even my identity.
For me, running is an intensely personal affair. That might actually be the result of my slow runner's predicament: It's hard to find groups to run with that match my pace. In my Jackson Pollock painting of a college student's mind, running is where I can find a blank canvas. It's where I can rid myself of the stress that accompanies the rigors of school, social pressure, and my innate tendency to overthink every possible situation.
Running provides a time in which I am forced to be so in touch with my mind that I can't help but deal with what it's telling me. It's a time in which I'm allowed to think about anything I want to, and even though thinking sometimes makes me more stressed, here it helps me find calm—that, coupled with the endorphins. So, I guess, running for me is about ridding myself of stress.
Ana Lam, Barnard first-year, started running in the beginning of the fall semester. She feels running is a welcome break from school work. "Usually when I'm writing papers and I get stuck," she tells me while we run on a muddy Riverside Park trail, "that's when I start going on my runs, and it really helps to let me think and not sit in front of the computer and stare at a blank document the whole time."
"Being on campus all the time, being in the library all the time," Smith explains, "you really start to feel the stress culture at our school."
Smith, who ran a marathon a few days before our run, scheduled her longer training runs for the weekend, trying to manage the burden that workload can place on runners training for races during the week.
Like me, Smith sees running as an opportunity to clear her mind. "I get to step away from it all, and be in my own space, and be completely in my own mind," she explains. Reinserting herself into the stress culture of Columbia is much easier after running: "You can just let it roll off your back, because you stepped away from it and have gotten a greater perspective."
For many runners, group running can actually be an opportunity for social interactions and added motivation. But even runners who spend much of their time running in groups, like Naibryf—who leads the biggest group of recreational runners at Columbia—appreciate their alone time. Naibryf broke into a spontaneous rendition of Miley Cyrus' "The Climb" to describe her running philosophy—her optimistic nature makes it clear why she leads one of the biggest club sports at Columbia.
Naibryf feels that running allows her to sink into herself and reflect on her thoughts and how she's feeling—something she says is especially important in the "Columbia environment."
To some, this "Columbia environment" is an invisible bubble above which stress culture hovers like a misty cloud. For others, like CURR member Grill, the Columbia bubble is a physical one.
"People talk about, 'Do you ever get out of the Columbia Bubble?' and for me, I feel like the main way I do that is running," he explains as we descend Cathedral Avenue, preparing to enter the park, where he will show me the skyline across the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir at night.
Similarly to Smith, Grill uses running to gain a broader perspective away from the physical confines of campus. He describes that when he's overwhelmed with homework, or anything else, he runs to the skyline we are heading to. "It kind of makes your realize that your problems aren't as big as you are."
At times, the Columbia bubble is on the verge of bursting: The competition between students over who has the most work to do, the disapproving look your unopened Lit Hum book gives you, and maybe even the stress provided by the highly concentrated campus itself, where you'll inevitably run into someone you know.
But running can, undeniably, add stressors of its own. Making running a routine part of my already-rigid schedule has certainly brought its challenges, for one, as has the obvious physical stress that accompanies exertion.
"It hurts. Especially in the cold," Lam laughs, echoing my struggles.
One more undeniable factor that makes outdoor running more stressful is the safety component. This is especially true for young women who run in New York City. With rampant stories about assaults and murders of female joggers, a runner needs to be constantly alert and aware. Most women runners I know have also been catcalled more than once. For Smith, who runs on trails at home back in Arizona, this experience has been jarring."I've definitely been catcalled," she recounts. "Also, a few times guys have rode behind on their bikes and grabbed my ass."
The only night-run I go on is with Grill, who is quick to acknowledge this privilege. "I know I'm definitely very privileged, because I feel comfortable as a relatively large male being in Central Park [at] night," he says.
Despite these challenges, it seems that the benefits outweigh the costs for runners at Columbia. "It's really nice to get fresh air," Williams reflects. "You get to watch all the dogs playing, and it's a nice way to wake yourself up, get your blood moving."
Smith also maintains a relentlessly positive outlook: "I think with running it's just like fighting through the bad days to get to the good days, and also just to always keep improving and always seeking that best day."
Parks and fresh air are rarely what one associates with Manhattan. Manhattan is car exhaust, littered pavement, shiny skyscrapers. Running in this Manhattan is more stress than most runners want to burden themselves with, on top of the stress of campus life.
As a result, all of the runners I spoke to spend most of their running time in parks, as do I. It's a welcome escape from both the dirty metropolis and campus stress culture. In nature, we watch the seasons change; they see grey, and we see green become yellow, become brown, become nothing. The cracks of our shoes are filled with dried up mud, the windy river air crashes imposingly against our chapped faces.
Grill takes me to the reservoir. The sun has just set, and the red sky is fading into a mélange of purples and blacks that settles behind dark clouds. We stand at the northern tip of the reservoir, facing the heart of Manhattan. The skyline emits a brilliant spectrum of color into the starless sky; the Empire State building is lit red for the Lunar New Year, the jarring office building lights still on in a city that never sleeps. The reflection etches itself imperfectly onto the water, waves distortingrigid lines, breaking the callous power they wield.
When running in the parks and not on the polluted streets, the concept of "clearing one's head" becomes quite literal, a quest for air that's not tainted with fumes or expectations.
Though Lam says Columbia's running culture is fairly invisible on campus, it's at the parks—where she often comes across other students—where it lights up.
Williams and Grill agree: People in Columbia gear dotting the parks is the strongest evidence of a student running community, even if not every runner is part of the same, constantly visible, campus community.
Grill explains that there is a unity in the way we—Columbia park runners—behave and live our lives. "And I think I would call that running culture—that there are certain things that are pretty well understood."
While there is no collective practice space, no court runners can call our own, no pool we spend all of our time in together, Columbia's outdoor running community is still tied together in some ways. We pump the lungs of Manhattan, countering the fume and horn-honking-filled arteries. We have muddy shoes and sweaty backs and sometimes feel like our insides are going to collapse inward but also sometimes feel invincible. We know that stress culture is temporary. We know that carbs are God's sweet nectar. And we know that anyone can access this distinctive rush.
"You don't have to be a runner to run," Williams adds before we reach the turnaround point. "A lot of people have the impression that runners are all superheroes, but honestly it's just a matter of not stopping."
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