My 20s were littered with Alaskan adventures. Things like 100+ mile off-trail multi-sport wilderness races, obscure marathons and ultras year round, bikepacking on glaciers and climbing frozen waterfalls. Growing up in Alaska’s interior is sort of like growing up ultra-Orthodox in Williamsburg, at some point during adolescence you start to comprehend that choices made by an earlier generation put your most crucial years of development in an all-immersive environment several deviations from the norm. Just like growing up in an insular Hasidic community, an Alaskan upbringing has its pros and cons. The obvious pros include a closeness to raw wilderness, big mountains, and unadulterated exploration. There are other pros too, like a deep sense of individuality and you can play the drums at 2 a.m. without upsetting your neighbors – because you don’t have any. The cons include grocery store produce so devoid of nutrients you’ll probably develop scurvy, being disconnected from everything that’s actually happening in the world, and air that assaults your skin 8 months out of the year.
When I left Alaska to get a PhD in Glaciology in northeast England, it was a rude awakening that: (1) social skills are key to human survival and (2) life outside of Alaska is absurdly mundane, to the point of attempting to eat a Tide Pod just so there’s something to talk about. I’m convinced that relentless political news cycles, televised sports, holiday traditions, and all other time-intensive mainstays of typical life are placeholders – filling time before the next Alaskan adventure. Unfortunately, most people, and now me as well, are likely going to be in this holding pattern for a lifetime. But this article isn’t a paid advertisement for the Alaska Tourism Bureau, it’s about how I’ve made life in the mundane work while keeping the detergent in the washing machine.
Skipping over my European chapter, including a year in Switzerland running trails a few levels above paradisiacal, I now live on the shore in New Jersey. A mountain runner living in exile miles away from any contour line, a 2D world defined by a turnpike. You might be thinking, “Probably a compromise for an amazing job using that doctorate.” Nope! I work in a coffee shop and could probably land my minimum wage + tips gig pouring latte art in any city on the planet. New Jersey is, in short, a chain of unfortunate events including an expired Swiss work visa and near homelessness in peak pandemic New York City. In the process of recomposing myself, before I could ditch the shore for somewhere with even modest topography, I found myself living a block from the beach with a baby grand piano and a newly founded non-profit funding climate research.
Fairly established, but in a land God created before unveiling the third dimension, it was time to see if I could salvage any part of my Alaskan adventuring identity that was deep in remission. Two outlets surfaced. The first is swimming in the open ocean. I’m talking with the little cap and goggles, getting out beyond the breakers and putting your 4th grade swim lessons to the ultimate test. No matter how dense the beach is with tourists and lifeguards, when you’re out in the ocean getting slapped around, trying to determine if you’re making progress against a current, it feels quite wild. While there might be a whole article to write comparing mountain running with open ocean swimming, it’s the second outlet that finally brings this long winded setup to our main topic: my “Front door to ____” urban ultra series.
The key prerequisites are: enthusiasm for dumb ideas, impulsivity, not owning a car, and legs that can kinda just suck it up and run for a really long time. I am not at all claiming this is some clever or new idea. All of us have surely explored the radius from our homes as a function of our long run capabilities; and others, heroes of mine, push the absolute limits, for example Clay Hughes and Cody James who climbed Denali from their front door…in Salt Lake City! I can’t compete with that physical output and mental grit. Or even the ability to stay focused on one objective for longer than a day, but I can see their extensive planning and preparation, and raise them impulsivity and absurdity. My urban ultra series is simply the following steps on repeat:
Wake up on a random day where the very first thought in my head is something like, “New York City is only one state over, I wonder if I can run there?”
Open a running heatmap on my phone and, still half asleep, draw a track.
Say out loud: “Cool, cool, 63 miles of pavement, cool…and a bridge to Staten Island I will probably die on or not be able to cross at all. Cool.”
Check if there’s some form of public transportation back home.
Open a weather app.
Weather looks good, I’m leaving tonight at 2 a.m.
“Front door to ____” urban ultras end with the opposite of finish line pomp. At best, a businessman in a suit will murmur a disparaging joke about how I look to his colleague. And to be fair, the moment I stop running, without context, I’m a grinning disheveled salty misfit wearing a fisherman’s vest in an urban center with double water bottles on my chest and stroopwafel crumbs down my front. I try to disguise this by forgoing a thermal layer for a button down shirt. Pack light but look cute at the finish, right? While I usually have big ambitions to bask in the location my legs just delivered me to, so far, I always just eat a rushed slice of pizza, post some instagram stories in real time that are somehow self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing at the same time, and immediately catch the next train home. And that’s the entire thing. I slip right back into the normal rhythm of life with a stiff limp in my stride and a small twinkle in my eye, knowing I live a secret life of adventure right below the hum and endless anxious cycles of urban living.
If you’re still not convinced to blow a few of your season’s big efforts on entirely uncelebrated and unrecognized pursuits, here’s a key argument for doing more urban ultras by yourself: have you ever sat in perfect blue sky weather the day before or the day after a race, while on race day at mile 50 you were eating your rain jacket hood because 75 mph winds were battering it into your mouth? Or trying to think yourself out of being hypothermic in a downpour on an exposed ridge while running in your cutest pair of short shorts? It’s asinine. I completely understand why and how it happens. I deeply respect race directors for the difficult decisions they regularly have to make, and I get the macabre value in suffering through impressive feats in horrible weather with fellow racers nearby. But…I have to say, my urban ultra series is 10 out of 10 for perfect weather.
You might be thinking this sounds a lot like a set of FKT routes with the common starting point of your front door and absolutely no relevance to anyone else. Which is pretty much it, but personally, I don’t like to pepper my runs with arbitrary rules. I enjoy running truly low-stress, high-stress long runs. Meaning, bring on all of the physical stresses of running long distances, but let your brain ease off and enjoy the ride. I don’t care if my GPS watch acts up, or if the final distance is just shy of an impressive round number, or where any of the snacks or water comes from. I took an Uber across the death bridge, sure it was annoying, it would have been fun to run across it. But I was already running a big effort and I didn’t care if I lost one mile. The sole objective is celebrating what my legs will let me get away with and extracting an Alaska-esque adventure from the tri-state sea of human infrastructure. Maybe you can find your slice of Alaskan wilderness right outside of your front door, too. Maybe tonight at 2 a.m.?
On these runs I’m a single creature, slipping through the fabric of an urban bustle that carries on day and night whether or not someone’s legs are piecemealing backroads into a fleeting grand adventure. Highlights from these juxtaposingly solitary hours in dense humanity are therefore naturally subtle. Here are a few of my favorites:
Front door to Manhattan – 63 miles
NYPD officer, pointing at my ultra vest, “Hey!! What is that?!”
Startled, not wanting to admit out loud my pockets were stuffed with Goldfish and a balled up christmas panettone (laugh now, but the calorie density is off the charts), I reply: “Snacks and a phone and stuff.”
Officer: “It looks like it could be a bomb.”
Me: “I do want to die, this is my second marathon.”
Officer: Scowls at my flippant response but then says, “Second, that’s not too bad, are you training for the [NYC] Marathon?”
Me: “No, no, I mean my second marathon today. Mile 52. I started running on the Jersey Shore at 2 a.m. this morning.”
Officer: “WHAT!?” [Completely stops being a cop at that point and walks over to take in the full junkshow I’m bringing to the streets of Brooklyn.]
Me: “I’m running to the Empire State Building. I’m actually trying to get onto the Manhattan Bridge but the sidewalk seems closed, can you tell me how to get there?”
Officer: “It’s a little confusing, do you see that other runner over there, that’s where you wanna go, but looking at how you’re moving, I don’t think you’re gonna be able to catch up to him!” [Deep belly laugh]
Me: [Laughing too] “I’ll do my best, thank you so much!” and immediately took a wrong turn.
Front door to Princeton – 45 miles
The impulsivity came at work. Between customers at the Asbury Park boardwalk cafe I was working at, I felt a deep pang of separation anxiety from academic pretension and looked if NJ Transit went to Princeton. It does, but in an annoyingly roundabout way. In my next few minutes of down time I had a heatmap open on my phone and hastily drew a track from home to Princeton. 40 miles. Easy. The route wasn’t perfectly linear, but a key road, Asbury Avenue, made the route line up nicely with minimal highway miles. Oddly, my Suunto app wasn’t snapping to the road like it normally does, but I could see it in the satellite image so I manually drew the route and didn’t give it a second thought. The very next morning, my vest was loaded with whatever random snacks I could scrounge up and I was off to Princeton.
I did notice there was no traffic on Asbury Avenue for a mile. But I saw it as more of an early morning gift than a sign for concern. But when the long beautiful expanse of road was abruptly truncated by a built up fence barrier and four stop signs, it fell into perfect clarity. I’m generally a level person, especially on trips, but I think a factory setting for any Alaskan is all out rage at a sign telling you you can’t go somewhere. We’re used to freedom in every direction, limited only by our own imagination and physical prowess. I opened my phone to learn I was in the heart of Naval Weapons Station Earle.
Fort Earle put this intolerant Alaskan in a difficult situation. My first thought is, obviously I hop the fence. Four aggressive stop signs and a reinforced fence is probably just a strong suggestion, right? I like to think most closure signs refer to cars or bikes. Some sort of “It’s not trespassing if you maintain a 7:30 min/mi pace” concept, but: (1) a life full of jumping fences has taught me that the fence at the other end of the trail might be much more imposing and (2) I was in a Naval Weapons Station, getting stopped inside of Earle seemed a little less like a situation of charming a local cop into letting me run through, and a little more like committing a federal crime. I counted my losses and retraced my steps, rerouting the only logical way, on a busy highway. I think it’s a useful life experience to, at least once, be the weirdo on the side of a highway, rather than just seeing them from a speeding car wondering what the backstory might be. 40 + 5 detour miles later I rolled into Princeton, totally disenchanted by the ivory tower town and caught the first roundabout train ride home.
Front door to Barnegat Inlet (the southernmost point of continuous beach from my house without having to detour inland around a bay) – 35 miles
During urban ultras, gas stations become aid stations. Explaining my runs to curious employees and graciously thanking them for making my run possible adds a cool social element to an otherwise solitary day. I like putting a crazy idea, like running across a state, into someone’s head while simultaneously demonstrating that it’s not much more than nibbling on snacks and keeping things in slow continuous motion. The conversation sounds something like, “I don’t know why I’m doing it, I just moved to New Jersey and thought it would be fun to run from the Atlantic Ocean to Pennsylvania, just to see what the state looks like. It sounds crazy, but I think you could do it too if you wanted!”
On this particular day, I had just left an interaction of this variety at a Wawa in Lavalette, a gem of the Jersey Shore. Outside the Wawa, I was walking, organizing my vest and saw an oversized truck stopped on the road. It was hauling an excavator. I stopped to appreciate how well the wheel bearings were oiled and was interested in the 3rd set of trailer tires that weren’t touching the ground and spinning freely. The pickup behind it rolled down their window and the driver said, “It’s for sale, do you want an excavator?”
“The wheels are spinning,” I replied.
“Yeah, he didn’t put them down, it’s not heavy enough.”
I grimaced in the direct sun “How much?”
“How much are they new?”
“I dunno, 300?”
“Sounds like a good deal.”
I stand perfectly still with a straight face.
The driver and passenger look back at me with straight faces.
Then with perfect timing we all burst into laughter.
Without another word, they drove North with the excavator, and I carried on running South.