Running Free

Golden Gate Bridge

One day not long after 9/11, I fell victim to the fear infecting the country and stayed away from the Golden Gate Bridge after the government warned of a possible attack against the span.

I felt cowardly and ashamed afterward. To erase those feelings, I did a run over the bridge — a small act of personal atonement for giving in to fear. In return, the magnificence of the bridge gave me inspiration and belief in the possibility of mankind when I needed it most.

Here’s a piece I wrote about the experience. It’s long (and over-written), but seems apt today in the wake of the horror on Boston.

***

Nov. 10, 2001 — On a bright, brisk morning, suspended on a hanging roadway 22 stories above high tide, even the winter’s glare cannot mask the glorious view — San Francisco Bay, its deep blue surface eddied by current and interrupted by islands Angel and Alcatraz; the rim of hills near and far, golden in the last days before the rainy season; the urban uprising of San Francisco itself, rolling unbroken from the Financial District westward to the beach; and, out beyond the Gate, the absolute beginning of the Pacific Ocean, stretching into an unfathomable distance.

I am running on the Golden Gate Bridge, running for the beauty of steel, running for the audacious imagination of architects and engineers, running to honor the American belief in the possible. When the California governor said terrorists might bomb the Golden Gate, I betrayed the bridge and abandoned it to whatever destructive fate might come its way. I canceled a dinner with friends in San Francisco. I had had enough of heightened alerts, of armed men in airports, of the barrage of bad news. For at least that one night I wanted no more. Now I am ashamed, and my atonement is to run the bridge.

The Golden Gate Bridge is, by definition, an out-and-back course. But even a simple round-trip run can be started at either end, a change that alters the view and decides when the wind will be in your face or at your back. You can also adjust the degree of difficulty by extending the route – tacking on a flat mile of Crissy Field to the south, adding a knee-grinding climb to the Headlands in the north, or, for a full-day’s effort, starting downtown and a finishing in Sausalito, then treating yourself to a ferry ride across the Bay to return to San Francisco.

For me, running is hard work. My knees repay me for a lifetime of abuse and injury by resisting and at times refusing to run altogether. For the first few hundred yards, they protest with ominous-sounding pops and warning shots of pain, but slowly they warm and eventually become youthfully intoxicated by the rush of freshly pumped blood.

I hate being so blatantly reminded of my own aging so I motivate myself to suffer the pain-pleasure-pills ritual by running in interesting places – the beach, a redwood trail, Central Park, the Golden Gate Bridge. This day, I begin at Crissy Field, whose reclaimed wetlands abut the Bay and offer an unobstructed view of the Gate. I envision myself mid-span on the bridge, one tower behind me, another ahead. It is enough to get me moving.

That was 45 minutes ago. Now I am in the center of the bridge for the second time, heading back, sweating through my vest and laboring a bit from the half-mile climb up from the north parking lot. Soon I will enter a big downhill that will take me off the bridge and onto a dirt trail that will quickly drop 200 feet to the flats where I began. From there it’s only a half-mile to the end. The thought of the downhill, and the welcoming change it will bring to my legs, relaxes me and I focus on the view.

Like me, the surrounding scene is in motion. Watercraft of all variety criss-cross the Bay: Dozens of sailboats, an equal number of windsurfers, a pair of brightly painted tour boats, several large tugs — their protuberous prows pushing barges festooned with valves and pipes — and, directly beneath the bridge, a huge, inbound Dutch container ship. I am tempted to stop so I can watch the vessel fully emerge from the bridge’s shadow but the downhill beckons, and I continue.

Here, at the apex of the bridge’s arch, halfway between its soaring twin towers, I have few fellow travelers. Most visitors only venture out a few hundred feet from the parking lots, and even fewer advance beyond the towers, where the walkway bulges outward to accommodate the column of steel that rises from the water 200 feet below and tapers elegantly upward for another 500-feet above the deck. Beyond the bulges, the 4,200 feet of suspension span hung from the towers belongs mostly to runners, bikers and bridge workers. The downward curve of concrete in front of me is empty except for a maintenance crew in the distance near the South tower. When I passed them heading north they were eating a mid-morning lunch.

To my right  a continuous stream of traffic fills the roadway. Six lanes of freeway have been crammed into the 90-foot-wide bridge, so only a few feet and a thin, shin-level girder separate the sidewalk from the road. Tour buses and large trucks pass close enough to touch. In their wakes they leave a rush of warm air and diesel fume. The traffic emits a cacophonous jam of engine noise, tire hum and downshifting big-rigs. Headphones are required running gear.

During rush hour an enjoyable role reversal occurs: I pass the motorists instead of them passing me. I watch them watching me through their windshields and imagine them wishing to be in my place, running free, striding long, wind at my back. I allow the smugness a moment then smother it with memories of sitting traffic-bound in my own car, staring at an unobtainable outside world. We all become each other’s distractions at some point.

I am now near the South Tower and my speed is up. A few steps take me past the bridge crew. A cluster of white-legged tourists clogs up the bulge around the tower, but I clear a path with a couple of head fakes and cut through them without collision. This is my favorite part of run, the last straight stretch down the bridge’s approach. I always tell myself to slow down at this point, but I never do. My legs move faster, anticipating the end of the concrete and the curving drop to the subsequent dirt path. I am breathing quickly, in short bursts, and can feel the outgoing air inflate my cheeks as I push it out in exchange for a fresh supply.

Suddenly off the bridge, I am dropping steeply. If I had to stop, I would fall. Directly ahead is a group of Japanese tourists, maybe a dozen. They are walking slowly, almost laboriously up the slope and the somberness of their black and gray business clothes creates a funereal impression. I startle them and, like wildlife surprised on the highway, they freeze. I leap an orange traffic cone to avoid crashing into them and speed off, smiling as I imagine the animated conversation that will follow.

I am on the soft soil of the dirt path and each footfall produces a satisfying puff of dust. The trail enters a short, dark tunnel, a remnant of this land’s long military past. All the rugged headlands, pine forests, mud flats and beaches surrounding the Golden Gate once belonged to the Army. Dwindling federal budgets and rising public clamor converted it all into parkland. The tunnel is cool and damp and littered with the debris from the types of things people prefer to do in the dark rather than in the daylight.

Out of the tunnel, the trail drops rapidly. The dirt gives way to an uneven set of wooden stairs. I skip rapidly from step to step, landing briefly, and then adjusting for the next one. Soon I am back on Crissy Field, determined to sprint to the far end and offer a final salute to the bridge. Halfway there, though, I drop the pace, my heavy legs happy to lope the last quarter mile.

While walking toward my car, I can’t take my eyes off the bridge. From here, 220 feet below its deck and a half-mile from its base, the Golden Gate looms enormous, an immense, magnificent presence that dwarfs all around it.

I see tiny specks of people walking on the span and marvel at the seemingly boundless contradictions of human nature that make us capable of such wondrous constructions as this bridge and such horrific destructions as the atrocities of Sept. 11. One photograph published after the attacks on the World Trade Center showed these words traced into a dust-coated window in Lower Manhattan: The strong build, the weak destroy.

Now more than ever, I think, we must be strong. From Sept. 11 onward, we must measure ourselves by what we build. Today, I found strength in my rickety knees and with it built a new appreciation for the accomplishments of mankind. And that feels good.

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