I’ve worked in Newark for nearly seven years, but nothing has brought me closer to the city than running through it. Working there, I’ve seen much of the city through lunches, happy hours, and even volunteer events. I’ve been there many times for hockey games. While each of these connected me a bit more to the city, it’s only through running that I’ve really started to form a bond.
Ive long felt that running is the best way to experience a city, especially a new one. For work, I’ve run through Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle numerous times and discovered places and sights I never would otherwise. In Seattle, my favorite loop around Lake Union brought me to sea-plane docks, hidden houseboats, under bridges, to the industrial but scenic Gas Works Park, and through little neighborhoods I would never have gone to. On vacation, I’ve found hidden parts of the fjords of North Western Norway, bays and marshes in South Carolina and Rhode Island, and even back trails of Nevada and Utah’s parks. Getting out of the hotel early helps with jet lag and makes one feel more like a local than traversing and touring on foot.
It took years for me to realize this same approach would work well for my local spots too. It was only after a few years of running on treadmills and streets that I realized I could run the trails of the state forest behind my house and discover nature there and experience the solitude and serenity of the scenery. Running also brought me to find new parks and trails nearby when looking for new and interesting places to get out. I even discovered paths that connected areas I’d never dreamed of like a 20 mile run from NJ to Brooklyn via the George Washington Bridge, through Central Park, and over the Brooklyn Bridge. I also found I could get dropped off in northern Brooklyn and run down to the boardwalk near my wife’s parents’ apartment for a long run.
But it was only recently that I realized running would introduce me to the city I’ve worked for the better part of a decade now. For years, I ran in my office building’s gym or at home, never venturing out into the streets of Newark. My only running experience in Newark was the annual corporate 5K I ran a few times that looped a short distance from my office. That was, until one day when a co-worker casually mentioned that he sometimes ran from the office to a nearby park in the mornings. The next week, I braved up enough to join him and discovered the beautiful Branch Brook Park less than a half mile from my office. Known for having one of the largest collections of Cherry Blossoms in the US, it’s a great park for running with lots of shade and a long loop around a big pond.
From that day, I began running the majority of my mid-week morning runs through the same park. I varied the loop a little bit with some Strava route help, but largely stuck to the same path. Many mornings I’d encounter the Newark Fire Department out running too and would get motivated to kick it up to go faster than them. Other times I’d run into the NJIT cross country team in the park and could never keep up with them.
As the year changed from spring to summer to fall, I marked the days with the change in the cherry blossoms from pink to purple to green back to red before the park got devoid of leaves. By the early winter, the park began to feel empty with only the geese still hanging around as companions. The deer, turtles, rabbits, and once, foxes I’d seen disappeared. I ventured back inside when the snow came and spent the remainder of the winter on the treadmill with Netflix.
When the spring came again, I immediately went back to the park to find it much the same. After a week, I decided it was time to find some new spots to keep runs exciting, so I again consulted Strava and found a path along the river I’d glimpsed from my office window for years. I discovered a waterfront path resplendent with verdant landscapes and brand new boardwalk and paths with stunning views of the skyline of Newark and across the river, the majestic soccer arena in Harrison. Perfectly, the loop out and back with the waterfront was exactly five miles and I even got to duck under the bus station and historic train station at Penn Station, dodging between commuters just making their way into the city.
Running a city like Newark is an odd mix. It’s not the safest city, but with the rapid changes it’s undergoing, there is a similar mobile class of professionals who either call it home or look for running opportunities like me. While stretches of my runs are devoid of others and quite peaceful and solitary, others found me in the company of several other runners or dog walkers out for a similar early morning breath of fresh air. Office groups got in some soccer on the fields I passed before the day’s weather got oppressive. Some power walkers even stopped at the exercise equipment that lined a modern park to get in some reps before heading back out.
I even recently started a running group at work to try to get others out to enjoy and discover the city the way I had. We started on the hottest day of the year, a 90+ degree day with sweltering humidity that was probably a bad idea in retrospect. However, everyone who joined noted how surprised and impressed they were with a part of Newark that was so close but they’d never seen. Afterward we even celebrated in one of Newark’s new bars, drinking a selection of NJ’s craft beer and wishing Newark had a brewery of it’s own.
For years, I drove into Newark, worked in Newark, and occasionally got out to get food in Newark, but I never really saw Newark. In the last year, prompted by running, I have seen Newark way closer up. I started taking quick walks to the nearby Whole Foods and coffee shops on Friday summer mornings. Recently I even began making an effort to conduct some one on ones with my team members outside on especially nice days. I even took my laptop outside to a bench to take a call and do some work. I’ve seen neighborhoods renovated and reconstructed as part of volunteer events in the city’s districts and the city’s future by helping out in schools. It all started with getting outside for a little run one day.
As I ran back along the water front path, an elderly local passing by stopped to give me a wave and told me “Welcome to Newark.” I nearly corrected him that I’d been there for years, but realized my run might be the first time I actually felt Newark.