Finding a stride along the Palisades

A narrow road winds through the Palisades. T.J. Quinn does not know its name, but he knows it well. T.J. Quinn/ESPN

This essay is excerpted from
"Night Running: A Book of Essays About Breaking Through"
published by Wellstone Books


y midafternoon in January, Manhattan buildings are glimmering from the sun, but the New Jersey edge of the Hudson River is already in shadow. New Jersey itself still feels daylight, but the towering stone Palisades that run north from the George Washington Bridge block the sun near the water, and reinforce the idea that New Jersey is always a little darker than other places.

In that narrow stretch of wooded land between those sheer cliffs and the river, there is a paved road that would be just wide enough for two lanes, if it had lanes. It has a name, but I have never known it and don't want to know it. I love running there because of the anonymity and the isolation I can feel less than a mile from Manhattan. Because of the seclusion and the hills the road is well known to cyclists and what seems to be the same handful of runners I see there every Sunday morning. But the longest run of my life, 16 miles, was made on that road in the premature Jersey dusk in late January.

I ran it with the thought that I was training for a marathon, a distance I was coming to believe I just might conquer despite everything. My doubt wasn't based on a lack of athleticism or mental strength. It was really a matter of my knees, and the realities of training when you're over 40, with three kids, with a demanding job that requires significant travel, and with coaching and teaching responsibilities that are self-inflicted but very real. The marathon was not to be -- at least not this one, anyway. A combination of all those factors -- time to train, the strain on my family, sudden and serious tendinitis in my ankle that I'd never had before -- killed that plan, so the 16 miles I did that January 31 stand for now as my personal limit.

The great bane of my running is my knees. They were reasonably healthy until February 6, 1996 (I have a strange head for dates), when I worked as a reporter for the Daily Southtown on the very southwestern tip of Chicago. As I crossed Harlem Avenue that night to get my car, headed to pick up Chinese food, a woman turning into the intersection hit me with her 1988 Oldsmobile, tearing my left MCL, ACL and meniscus, and leaving an impact fracture on the lateral tibial plateau. I was a week away from beginning my assignment of covering the Chicago White Sox and had to delay my trip for 10 days while the swelling subsided. I didn't have surgery to repair the knee until months later, and when I walked into the Sox clubhouse with a massive brace on my leg, most players had no reaction. But aging, silent designated hitter Harold Baines, whom I had never seen initiate a conversation with a reporter, was intrigued. He asked what the surgery had been for. After I said "cartilage," he shook his head. "It'll never be the same," he said.

It hasn't been. I have torn the meniscus in my left knee several times and have had four surgeries to repair or remove it. I'm down to about 10 percent of what I started with. I didn't start running until after three of those surgeries. In high school I played football, soccer and ran track as a sprinter. In college, I was an amateur boxer, fighting as a light middleweight at 156 pounds. I hated running anything more than a quarter of a mile. I couldn't stand that much time alone with my brain. In my post-collegiate world, I was a smoker and a foodie and swelled to 220 pounds, although I carried it fairly well.

Seven years on a baseball beat, eating meals at 1 a.m. -- In-N-Out Burger if I was on the West Coast -- did me no favors, either. But a combination of factors got me moving. I had a cousin who lived with stage 4 rectal cancer for years until he died at the age of 44. He convinced me that the smoking had to stop, that I had to do anything I could to prolong my life. I also had a spectacular accident on the New Jersey Turnpike when I was 37, sideswiped by an 18-wheeler while we were going 70 miles per hour. My little Honda was destroyed, the truck's gas tank ignited and kept the turnpike shut down for eight hours as a tractor trailer full of bread became a pyre of toast. I was uninjured, but lost any spirituality I had and entered a genuine existential crisis that left me, for the first time, with a crystalline understanding that I was mortal and vulnerable and running out of time. Then I turned 40. So I ran.

I don't know why I chose that sport to work out my creeping middle-aged angst. I think it was because of the pain. It would start from the first step, but I learned that after a mile or two I could run through it. Every run was a victory. The weight came off rapidly and people noticed. I ran four miles for the first time. I ran five (and the next day was diagnosed with swine flu). I ran six. I began to enter races and found that my knees and I finished regularly in the top 10 percent.

As I trained for a half-marathon in Central Park in 2010, I knew I had torn something again in my left knee, and I finally did something to the right one. My orthopedic surgeon, Joe Bosco, opted not to operate on the right knee because the tear was in "a good place," just under the kneecap. It may hurt, he said, but you will not injure yourself. That I could handle. You can manage pain. But the torn meniscus in the left knee had to come out. I had surgery No. 4 a week after the race.

In my view of the world as a place where something has to hurt for it to be meaningful, I took great pride as he gave me an arthroscopic tour of the joint. "See this? All that crab meat?" he said. "That's what we call 'TBS.'" Even his surgical staff seemed confused by the term. "It means 'totally beat to s---.'"

After grinding away at the frayed tissue and showing me the large patches of bare, damaged bone, Bosco announced to his team, "Ladies and gentleman, Mr. Quinn just ran 13 miles on this knee." He gave me a sheet with several photos from the surgery. I have shown it to unsuspecting house guests as though they were looking at slides of the Great Pyramids. And then I repeat what Bosco said and wait for them to look at me admiringly. They always give me a look, but the look doesn't say, "My god, what manly fortitude you must have." It says, "What is the matter with you?"

The legacy is that when I do run, that nobly tattered left knee hurts and it swells, and the more I run, the more it hurts and swells. The right knee simply hurts. At greater distances, it can become a problem, throwing my entire body out of whack as I compensate for both the pain and the fact that my left leg, lacking most of the meniscus I was intended to have, is now slightly shorter than the other. I get a cortisone shot in my left knee maybe twice a year, but Dr. Bosco was clear: "Your running days are numbered," he said. Eventually the bone-on-bone pounding will take a toll and that knee will be replaced. In the meantime, as long as I can handle the pain, I can, and do, run.

I found the road accidentally, looking for new trails to run near home. I sought new trees to leap and rocks to navigate along the Hudson and went searching for them from the Englewood boat basin, which is cut from the shore just a mile north of the GW Bridge. My first attempt at a trail run there ran me into nearly impassable rocks, so I followed a stone staircase to a road that ran north from the boat basin, and continued on the pavement. My road. It was a discovery only in a personal sense; any semi-serious cyclist I have ever mentioned it to knows the road, and a handful of other runners do, too. But it became mine.

I learned my road in increments. First, that the first four-tenths of a mile are a hill of run-on-your-toes steepness, where you forget about pace and you climb. At the top, the road mercifully drops and then winds and rises and falls gently, the Hudson on the right, a steep patch of brush to the left until it hits the towering stone. Bicycles whiz by like wasps, but when the occasional car crawls by, it feels like a bear lumbering through a picnic. My time is early on a Sunday morning, preferably in the rain. When it rains there are no bicycles, there is no sun, there are only occasional runners, often older, always serious.

Across the Hudson, I passed the northern tip of Manhattan, the Henry Hudson Bridge, then the Bronx. On my route I figured out that a stone bridge was three miles. Just another half-mile, just over another hill, was the turning point for a seven-mile run. A longer hill would bring me to eight. Beyond eight, everything was a personal record. The day I set out to do 12, I had run about five miles when I came to a fork. To the left, I could see there was a steep hill that disappeared to the left as it wound. To the right, the road ran down toward the Hudson. I decided I'd rather save the downhill for later, so I took off to my left and climbed.

What I found around a bend after 100 gentle yards was a sharper incline that went farther than I expected. With every turn it became sharper and I began to wonder if I could finish it. There was no healthy slap to my steps, just a shuffling scratch. I thought of the crazy things that I imagine anybody conjures under duress. What if this was the last mile of the Olympic marathon? What if I had to save one of my kids from a snake bite? What if my father was watching? What if there were Nazis?

I thought of the hill the future paratroopers of Easy Company had to run in "Band of Brothers." If they can do it, I thought ... . In another 100 yards, with no end to the hill in sight, I revised my thought. They were 18 years old and they were training for war. I'm 43 and I'm training for a 10K. But after just more than a mile of what I later determined was a 10- to 15-degree pitch, it opened to the New Jersey State Police station in Alpine, an area that I knew having come from the other side. Something familiar. I reached six miles, punched a lap marker on my watch, and turned to run back, certain I could have jumped into France on D-Day, snakes and Nazis be damned.

As my runs became longer, they became a greater imposition at home. My wife asked me if there was any reason I couldn't do my long runs on Mondays, instead of Sunday. My brain reacted the way almost any long-distance runner's would: Impossible. You do long runs on Sundays. But after thinking for a few seconds, I gave the only honest answer: No, there was no reason. There might even be a benefit: It would be the same road I had come to know by heart, but even more solitary.

On the Monday of my 16-miler, I got my kids out the door and headed to Englewood, but I was behind schedule. As I got out of the car, I did the math: I didn't have time for more than 12 before I had to get to an appointment. I would feel rushed and pissed off and I wouldn't get the mileage I needed. So I got back in the car and decided I would do what seemed ridiculously unappealing: I'd come back in the afternoon.

I returned to Englewood at about 3:30. I had timed my meals as best I could during the day to make sure I had sufficient energy, but no stomach or bowel issues, eating a bowl of oatmeal about an hour before the run. I had a few packets of Gu, a hand-held bottle filled with Gatorade, nip-guards, my iPod shuffle (mostly personal musical comfort food: Sam Cooke, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, the Beatles), gloves, a knit cap, my GPS watch, and I put Vaseline on my face to protect against the cold.

It was about 38 degrees when I started, but the temperature would quickly drop. Sixteen miles should take me a little less than two and a half hours, I figured, which meant I would be returning to the boat basin around 6. The sun would set just after 5. I started running at 3:37. To add the miles I needed, I went the opposite of my usual direction, two miles south toward the GW Bridge, passing beneath it until I ran out of road. About half of that path is trail, the rest road, but it is a place for casual walkers, sometimes with dogs, sometimes with spouses. I nodded to older Korean women who did not nod back. Dog people were the friendliest. Most seemed startled to see someone running. I reached two miles, turned around, and returned to my starting point at exactly the pace I had hoped for, a gentle 8:30 a mile. From there I began the climb toward my road, up the first hill that acts like a bouncer for the uncommitted.

At the start of my run I realized I had never been here this late in the day. Usually, especially during the summer months, I would begin my Sunday runs around 8 a.m. when the parking lot was empty, and return around 9:30 or 10 when it had filled and there were people sitting at the snack bar near the water. On a Monday afternoon in January the snack bar was closed for the winter, and there were only a few cyclists bundled in bright, expensive togs. The road I have run on maybe dozens of times was now slightly unfamiliar because of the fading light. I went over the first hill, into the gentle downhill that lets my heart and my legs recover.

What I hate about running in the afternoon is the nausea I usually feel and the weight of my legs. But I knew enough to know that the point of a long run, if you're training, is the length, not the speed. The value comes from teaching your body the right way to eat itself as you run, so that it learns to burn fat, not protein. It was a lesson I had learned years before when I did a Google search to see why I smelled like ammonia after some runs. It means your body is eating its own protein -- you need to eat more carbs. (You may have known that.)

For the first half of my run, it was about process. Gentle pace, good steady stride, only sips of the Gatorade, and not until I had been running for at least an hour. A packet of Gu every 45 minutes, don't litter, store the empty packet. For the first few miles, there were a few runners heading back to the boat basin. Nods or small waves to each other. There were a couple of cyclists heading out, but they soon passed me again heading back. About four miles down my road, eight since I started running, there was no one left. After another mile, I came to the Alpine hill and could see the New York shore was now in shadow. My legs were heavy and I knew this run would be slower than my 15-miler two weeks earlier, but I went up with relative ease. At the top, all I could think about was getting my breath, about how close I was to finishing the hardest thing I would do the entire week. I reached the top, passed the police station -- my breathing heavy, but in control -- and ran to where the road met highway 9W. That marked 10 miles for me, with six to go to get back to my car. Wait -- I had run 10 miles and had six to go. The aches that started in my left knee, my hip, my back would all increase. So be it. I reached the traffic light and turned around, getting a smile from woman in an SUV who must have known I had just come up the hill. It was a smile of sympathy and admiration and I needed it.

As any runner knows, going uphill is tough on the muscles, downhill is tough on the joints. Now I was headed downhill, 10 miles behind me (and 10,000 more to go), aware of a throb in my knee, like a scream muffled by a pillow. I was far more aware of the growing dark. The road, the river and the sky were melting into the same granite gray, and I could see lights from the top of Manhattan.

At the bottom of the hill, I saw that the gate to the road was now closed. Not a problem, as I could just run around it, and it meant I would see no cars on this dark stretch, which was good. But it also meant that the gate on the other end was probably closed and there was a chance my car would be locked in. Now I felt urgency. I wasn't worried at any point about not being able to finish, but I was worried that somehow I would be stuck once it was complete. Suddenly I very much wanted the run to be over, but I fought the only instinct I had, which was to run faster. I had to keep my pace steady to make sure I got the most out of my run, but also to make sure I didn't hurt myself. Besides, I tried to reassure myself, there's always a way out. Even if I have to wait for some cop to release and lecture me, I'll get home tonight. Probably. I have food and drink in the car. I'll be just fine. But just the thought of being trapped was enough to take me out of the inner sanctuary of the run. I wasn't as aware of my surroundings anymore. I wasn't able to really hear the music. It's the same feeling I've had when I found myself lost on a new trail and lose my internal compass.

About 12 miles in, with more than a half hour left, the experience had become completely alien. There was no light left from the sky. Everything to my right, where the Palisades rose, was black. A half-moon provided minimal light through the trees above me, but it wasn't enough to see more than a few feet ahead. To the left, tiny New York lights appeared and disappeared behind the dark of the trees. They were as inspiring and as irrelevant as stars; heat and light for someone else.

I have run this road dozens of times. I know how far I have gone and how far I have to go from landmarks along the road. But I couldn't see them now. Every once in a while I pressed the light on my watch to see how far I had gone, but I was like a pilot relying on instruments. I started to climb hills I have climbed over and over, but could not see more than a few feet before the rising pavement disappeared into space. I couldn't look for the horizon and tell myself I just had to make it to that point. Each step was a prayer that I wouldn't hit a crack or a pothole or a rock that tumbled from the cliffs, and that at some point each of these hills had to end.

And I was thrilled. I was sharpened by the pain in my knee, the stiffness I was starting to feel in my back, the mild danger of a dark road. I turned the music low, the way you do when you're driving and need to concentrate. I could hear my breathing and my feet on the pavement. At some point I could hear a rustling ahead on my right, and a bolt of adrenaline went through me. The sound grew louder, and it wasn't until I was next to it that I realized the sound was a waterfall I normally pass without paying much attention. There were maybe three miles left.

Two hills mark the end of the route. One is manageable, but it plateaus only briefly before the last hill, the one that takes me back to the first peak. With one tower of the GW Bridge visible to the left, I began what I knew was the first hill. My legs were heavy, and the pain of my knee passed into numbness while the bridge faded from view. The road flattened. Now the last hill. Less than a third of a mile up, then a sharp downhill to coast back to the parking lot, where I could stop, drink, eat, recover. On my toes again, unable to see anything but lights across the river. No end to the hill. The road was turning slightly to the left -- I still couldn't see but I knew there were only 100 yards or so to go. Then a glowing line ahead, the lights from Manhattan coming behind the hill, mindless churning with my mouth wide open, and then it was flat. There were four-tenths of a mile left, but the run was essentially finished. I wanted to sprint but could not, so I rumbled down the hill to the parking lot. There was another car, but I could see no one. I came to my dirty gray Prius, and stopped.

The Vaseline was gone from my face, replaced with a thin crust of salt. I stretched half-heartedly, drank with gusto. I checked my watch -- much slower than my last run. I checked my BlackBerry, ate a banana, paced in the parking lot. My left leg was stiff and would barely bend, but I pictured the Aleve and the ice bath that awaited me at home. The film of fear was gone, too.

For some reason, standing alone in a dark parking lot, I was trying to look cool. I checked the watch, thought clinically about how I would manage the 18 miles required for my next run (which would never happen), but I also knew that in just a few years I had gone from struggling for three miles to cruising for 16. I had run the Palisades at night. I was more than my knee, more than the dark, more than anything that rustled in the woods. I slid into the car, turned on the radio, and slowly drove up the switchback. At the top there was no gate, nothing to stop me, and I merged into traffic to make the short drive home in the dark, one set of headlights among many.

T.J. Quinn is an award-winning investigative reporter who has reported widely on performance-enhancing drugs. He also appears as a regular guest anchor on ESPN's "Outside the Lines," is an adjunct professor of journalism at Columbia, and coaches too many youth soccer teams.