I was not born to run. This is different from being unathletic or poorly coordinated. My short legs simply aren’t built for track, and the thought of being alone with my own thoughts on an open stretch of road terrifies me. What I’m saying is that I’m lazy and have a short attention span, and that for me running is both boring and hard to get good at. Still, after learning that the formerly chubby and perpetually morose lead singer of Death Cab is crushing ultramarathons these days, I figured that I could overcome both of those deficits with some combination of self-determination and willful disregard to the limits of my body.
I’ve spent months trying to achieve the very modest goal of running a 5K, and I’m still nowhere close. The problem isn’t physical. If I stare at whatever is playing on the flat-screen TVs I can never figure out how to change, I’m bored within minutes. If I listen to music, I get way too into it and risk falling off the machine. But when the Straphangers Campaign — a public interest group that exists to call out the MTA — released a report last week on the slowest bus in New York, I saw an opportunity to change my relationship to running. The M42 crosstown, the route of which runs exactly two miles across Manhattan, apparently goes an average of 3.2 miles per hour. This inspired me to propose a new, even more modest, challenge to myself: Beat the bus.
I conceived of it as a happy medium between boredom and overstimulation. Not only would I have something chasing me and keeping me motivated, I wouldn’t be able to completely check out without getting hit by a car, or running into a pedestrian. In my mind, it would be a slow version of the one good scene in The French Connection, though most importantly, I assumed it would be easy and keep me going longer than my usual mile-and-a-quarter. Plus, if the easiest way to tell a New Yorker from a tourist is by their walking speed, then I figured that completing a challenge that required me to bulldoze over people trying to enter and exit Grand Central Terminal would make me the biggest, baddest New Yorker of all. That’s how I found myself taking the East River Ferry — the one form of public transit in this town that no one hates to ride — from Williamsburg to midtown Manhattan on Sunday.
Before attempting the challenge, I wanted to get a sense of the route both on foot and aboard the vehicle I’d be competing against. I started out by heading west from First Avenue. The first M42 stop I walked by was full of people carrying giant suitcases, which was reassuring, because if everyone on the route took forever to get on the bus, it would only help my chances of avoiding humiliation. Feeling a bit overconfident, I stopped at the Shake Shack near 40th and Third, and ordered a burger wrapped in lettuce — something I never knew existed, but was offered to me by a helpful cashier, presumably because that’s what the corporate manual says to suggest to anyone who walks in wearing full workout gear. Feeling uncomfortably full despite having chosen the lightest possible option, I soon boarded the bus.
This also provided useful intel. Basically, it became obvious that beyond the general congestion of midtown, the M42 was being held back by the median age of its ridership being 80. There was a guy with a flip phone plugged into something hidden in a fanny pack, an older couple poring over the Sunday New York Times, and a woman death-gripping printed-out directions to a Broadway theater. These were my people — or at least the people who would help me feel like a bona fide runner by being impossibly slow-moving.
Despite what I had learned, I felt merely okay about my chances when I eventually debarked to the corner of 42nd and Twelfth and waited for the bus to turn around. That Shake Shack burger was sloshing around in my stomach, and I knew this was going to be the farthest I’d run since high school. Somehow I hadn’t previously considered that I’d never exercised outdoors in New York before, though I reassured myself that even if I were gasping for breath, I would still be the least embarrassing person in midtown Manhattan on a random Sunday.
As a precaution, I gave myself a head start: I got going when the M42 stopped to pick up its first passengers, rather than when it hit the gas after the fact. In Mario Kart — my only point of reference when it comes to racing — players are sometimes penalized for trying to accelerate before the race begins. That’s basically what happened to me. After breaking into a full-blown sprint, I was exhausted by the time I got to Eleventh Avenue. I had to re-calibrate my strategy: This wasn’t a race at all, I coached myself, it was one-thirteenth of a marathon.
But as I slowed down even a little bit, I found myself exactly on pace with the bus. Perhaps matters might have been different on a weekday, but this thing was blowing past stops. Although I thought I would find some reprieve upon hitting Times Square, I hadn’t expected that the sidewalks would be as gridlocked as the street. I was basically kettled by a five-person family that insisted on holding hands, and with nowhere to go, I thought about giving up right outside of Madame Tussaud’s. It’s still unclear to me why, but an employee standing outside the wax museum encouraged me: “Run!” After a quick risk-assessment, I Red-Rovered a couple of kids who looked like the weakest members of the brood, and weaved my way between people who were going to Sbarro, or wherever the fuck.
I quickly grew confident in my ability to juke out midwesterners. But my mind wasn’t in sync with my body, which primarily consists of Shake Shack and whatever chemicals are in Juul pods. Running in short bursts hurt my lungs and the sunlight reflected off the Times Square lights blurred my vision. Most frustratingly of all, the bus was clearly going much faster than three miles an hour, much faster than I’d bargained for.
Just as I started to consider throwing in the towel again, a Luigi with a terrifyingly narrow face appeared, like a fever dream. My mind drifted to the saga of “Evil Elmo,” and I knew this person was likely malevolent. Still, the thought of starting the race all over again was enough to make me dash toward him, just clearing the oncoming traffic and leaving the bus stuck at a red light. This was the lead I needed, and I probably ran the fastest I ever have afterward to make sure this copyright-violating risk to my personal safety was not in vain. I passed Bryant Park, and for the first time ever, did not even think about stopping for Chick-fil-A. As traffic cleared out around Third Avenue, I felt certain that the bus was nipping at my heels. But when I reached the goalpost, and turned around, it was a full block behind. I dry-heaved as the M42 dropped off its sole remaining passenger, a man with a hunchback who clearly had no idea that my entire self-worth was now built around getting to First Avenue 58 seconds before he did.
The average New Yorker can comfortably walk two miles in approximately 35 minutes, and I ended up covering that distance in a cool 20. It didn’t matter to me that I would have taken longer had I not essentially cheated at the beginning, or that the last person to get off the bus was a guy with a hunchback — it was still my greatest athletic accomplishment in at least a decade. I may never be able to finish a 5K, but I do recommend trying to outrun the M42 to all New Yorkers who need a confidence boost in the form of a fitness challenge they will attempt exactly once. That guy from Death Cab may be able to run 100 miles, but now I know I can run two, and that’s good enough for me.