I was in New York City for my weekly long run last Saturday (at a conference on the future of watchdog journalism -- if you’re dying to know more, go here, here, here and here) and was looking forward to running in Central Park.
The “loop,” as the asphalt pathway that curves along the park’s circumference is called, runs 6.2 miles. Not quite the 10 miles the rest of my pace group would be doing in LA, and I briefly considered running it twice. Until I got out there and discovered the truth about running in Central Park.
I knew instantly this was going to be different. It was cold—somewhere in the mid-40’s— not technically freezing, but cold enough that my fingers and ears felt icy.
Yet all around me people were running and walking in shorts and tank tops. One man was shirtless. I passed a woman in a floral shift who was strolling and talking into her cell phone. “Compared to last week it’s practically tropical,” she reported cheerfully.
And then there was the spit. A huge gob of it smack dab in the middle of the path. Then another and another.
At first I thought it was an anomaly. Some poor, spit-laden soul with no saliva control. A victim of salivary Tourettes.
But then I heard a throat clear behind me, followed by the unmistakable hocking of a loogie. I ducked reflexively and watched as the gob landed just to my right.
I heard it again and again. I was surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands of other runners, all of them, seemingly, spitting with abandon, transforming a day in the park into a massive, communal spit swap.
As if that weren’t enough, I saw two different people cover one nostril and blow out of the other one, letting the unencumbered fluid fly (Coach Scott later informed me that these are called "snot rockets" and are as rare in LA as they are disgusting).
I could not help but think of my seventh grade teacher, Sr. Rose, who lectured us long and hard about the horrors of spitting. She likened spitting to a sin, and I believed her. Who wants to walk around tracking someone else’s mouth goop on the bottom of their foot?
I was spat upon once, at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. I was in high school and had gone to see a production of Hamlet, with Aidan Quinn in the starring role. I had a great seat, right up front and when he spat on me in the midst of tackling some particularly calisthenic line, I took it as a compliment.
But marathoners and joggers are supposed to be running their legs, not their mouths, so what’s their excuse?
That night, while having dinner with a friend and his wife – longtime New Yorkers -- I described my ordeal.
Both looked at me blankly.
“And?” my friend said.
“And what?” I said. “Spitting and snotting all over the place. It’s vile.”
He deemed me a “princess” for my squeamishness. “What are you supposed to do,” he asked. “Carry tissue?”
“That wouldn’t work,” his wife agreed. “It would get all sweaty.”
“So it’s okay to do that?” I asked. “You guys do that?”
I know that indiscriminate spitting while running is not standard practice in California. I ran an 8K with thousands of other people – some of them serious runners -- and I didn’t see a single gob.
I remembered that my friend’s wife had grown up in Santa Barbara. I asked her she had ever spit or blown her nose into the street there.
She paused for a moment and giggled. “No. I wouldn’t do that.”