I venture into my gym for a short run. It is February. I have no interest in stepping out into the cold for even half an hour. The gym staff has turned up the heat in accordance with the temperature outside, forgetting that we are still here to exercise. The vents on the ceiling of the gym emit such warm air that I imagine there are people inside them blowing down on us.
I haven’t been to the gym for a few months. My treadmill neighbors are just as they’ve always been: glued to their TV screens. A girl across from me smiles ridiculously at a show. I look at the stats on my treadmill’s panel: 282 calories gone, 2.76 miles gone. I love the overly precise calculations of treadmills; many runners think that every treadmill is different and it’s impossible to know exactly how short or long your run actually was.
Running inside feels like writing on a computer: far less romantic and organic than doing the task freeform. On a treadmill I feel as if my neighbors and I are imprisoned in a power plant where we’re being made to generate electricity like the cyclists in The Triplets of Belleville. It so happens that my gym looks sort of like a factory, with a first floor of machines and very high ceilings, and a weird observation deck of a second level, where people stretch their quadriceps and stare down at the toiling minions below.
This gym is the Starbucks of gyms. It can’t boast that it’s the best in the city, but it can at least boast ubiquity: hundreds of gyms in hundreds of labyrinthine, cramped spaces around the five boroughs. I was impressed to have found that the one closest to my office was not all that cramped, even if it felt like a factory. It is occupied primarily by college students and older people who could pass for them. Trying to figure out whether my gym peers are in college or not is a boring game I play, along with guessing how many times the girl next to me has come to the gym this week. She is always here. But to know she is “always here,” I, too, have to always be here. Is once a day so crazy? But I think she moves from elliptical to elliptical until the custodial staff switch the lights off.
Out in Central Park, where the runner’s path is bordered by snow and trickling ice on one side and the occasional cyclist on the other, there is no sweaty flirtation to witness, no ponytailed co-eds stretching their hamstrings invitingly, no exercise addict in tight pants. There is the young man in expensive racing shoes who insists on testing my pace for two miles, giving up at the East 90th Street entrance where stone steps lead up to the Reservoir. Such a race-within-a-run is almost unavoidable when a decently in-shape man finds himself being passed by a woman. It is a welcome rarity in winter.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays in the park, there is an everlasting stream of grouped runners who originate at the Niketown store in Midtown or from area clubs; a pack of triathletes in matching red wind-proof winter jackets; pairs of cyclists screaming training ideas or workplace anecdotes over the wind flying past their ears.
It seems the majority of the park’s July runners are nowhere to be found on any given night in February. But this is less and less true: running is huge now. Maybe it’s just that they’re all at the gym. Gyms are more packed after New Year’s, and a race is a perfect way to test a resolution. It’s also a perfect way to jump the gun on a resolution, skipping what I think is the most spiritually rewarding part of reaching one: running outside. Suiting up in wind- and waterproof armor is a proud affair, but it’s a drag, and only becomes less of one when the runner does it enough. Then, routine comes to change the chemistry associated with this menial preparation, and the brain starts to think of more important things, or of nothing at all. The body can rise from a cozy episode of reading or sleeping and be running before the brain realizes what’s happened. By then, it’s too late for it to complain.