Last summer I started going on destination runs while training for the Chicago Marathon. I’d run anywhere that was accessible in New York City—Jacob Riis Beach, The Cloisters, the Astoria Beer Garden, and even to yoga classes. There was something invigorating about exploring the city powered by my own two feet. Running was no longer just about training—it was a means of travel.
Since then I’ve felt inspired to travel to destinations outside of New York City. My first instinct was to think big. Philadelphia! Boston! The Baseball Hall of Fame! But these runs meant traveling upwards of a hundred miles, which would require careful planning, resources and time. I needed a more attainable destination. I decided on “traveling” to the Palisades State Line Lookout. My motives for the trip were fairly sentimental. I grew up in New Jersey and as a boy my parents used to take me into New York City to visit museums or Central Park. On our way home, we’d drive over the George Washington Bridge and I’d press my face to the window, gaze up the Hudson River and admire the sheer rock faces of the Palisades stretching as far as the eye could see. I’ve since come to think of the Palisades Cliffs as the geological counterpoint to New York City’s skyline. They’ve stood tall for millions of years, formed when the supercontinent Pangaea split at the end of the Triassic Period. Their looming angles bring to mind the brick and mortar façades of Washington Heights, and with the State Line Lookout eclipsing a height of 500 feet, the cliffs rival the skyscrapers of midtown.
I started my run at the intersection of 181st Street and Fort Washington Avenue, equipped with Clif Bars, a water bottle and a disposable camera. I ran to the south side entrance of the George Washington Bridge on 177th Street and up the onramp. Despite the damp February weather, other runners and cyclists traversed the bridge. Most offered quiet nods of recognition. A fog obscured the latticed bridge towers looming overhead and slabs of ice drifted down the Hudson below. On the New Jersey side of the bridge I took a brief moment to acknowledge my nostalgia—I’d never run to my native state before. Then I climbed a set of metal steps that led up to the start of the Palisades Long Trail and the city was gone. Oak and Maple trees curled overhead. Pinecones dotted the packed earth, streams trickled toward the cliffs’ edge, and my hot breath turned visible in the cool air. These early moments were the most pleasant parts of the run, for afterwards the path quickly turned wild and unkempt. Mud slicks and ice patches forced me to the side of the trail where I could keep traction on fallen leaves. At times I found myself having to climb over rocky outcrops, kick off the thick muddy layers gathering on my shoes, come to an all out stop to assess the terrain ahead.
When the trail skirted the cliffs, I’d slow down, fearful of taking a spill. At other times the trails ran alongside the Palisades Interstate Parkway, and through the trees I could see cars speeding by, tail lights streaking into the gray. Aside from the parkway, there were few signs of the urban sprawl. Eight miles into the run I was more exhausted than I should be—I had spent so much extra energy jumping over rocks and mud that my thighs throbbed. Feeling a sense of urgency, I veered off the trail where a pathway led under the Palisades Interstate Parkway to Route 9. Once I was on the road my pace jumped. I ran forth, the smooth asphalt meandering into the thickening fog, until I came to a bridge that took me back over the parkway and into the woods for the last leg of the trip.
The trail turned upward, marking the final ascent to the Palisades State Line Lookout. I emerged from the wooded trail onto a road that led along the cliff tops. In the middle of the road stood my girlfriend who had driven out to meet me. I slowed when I saw her, shook my head in disdain, and said: “never again.” I was tired, but not so tired that I couldn’t enjoy a coffee from the Lookout Inn and ponder the view before an icy rain began to fall. My girlfriend and I spent no more than 45 minutes at the destination before heading back. We’d borrowed a car for the return trip and sitting in its warm interior, I recapped my experience. I admitted that I had underestimated the environmental factors and the distance (I’d run over 12 miles). I was frustrated to note that while my run had taken the better part of the day, it was only a 20-minute drive back to the George Washington Bridge.
Yet I suppose these frustrations provide reason to go on destination runs. Getting somewhere on foot relativizes distance. What appears a stone’s throw away becomes a test of will power and because of this, destination runs often stay with me as a dream. I have flashes of feeling, smells and sounds. I remember low points, high points, and a narrative emerges. Of course, there are some parts of these runs that I struggle to remember accurately—the texture of the ground beneath my shoes, the slight pressure of the cool air on my forehead. These sensations are better understood than remembered, as they’re about being in the present moment, putting away the frustrations of the day, focusing only on the road ahead. In this way, running teaches me how to observe the world with clarity. There are no screens, no work emails, no texts. Running is an escape from the anxieties of daily life. And isn’t this one of the reasons that we travel—to feel free. Granted, not all runs are fun or easy. My run through the Palisades falls decidedly into the “when will this be over” category. But no matter the difficulty of the terrain or how awful my body feels, each run provides the chance to temporarily put the other parts of my life behind me. Each run provides the chance to get away. And that’s enough to keep me lacing up my running flats and heading out the door.