Running on Tilt

When Nature Calls

Trouble on the Williamsburg Bridge

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Each run, no matter how uneventful, leaves a distinct impression. Last night a black dog, unleashed, lunged at me, the way dogs do sometimes just to intimidate, before returning to its owner. In December, as I started a run on Grand Street in Williamsburg, a heckler yelled at me from his SUV, “You can’t run away from your problems!”

The impression is just as often serene as it is menacing. At the McCaren Park track I see a man in his mid-40s, teaching step-dancing to a group of teens. Toward the end of a run, a perfectly black silhouette of a woman is backlit by a bright bus-stop advertisement.

These observations of dogs, dancers, and silhouettes, pedestrian as they may seem, are more poignant when running, because the mere act of running, like any form of moderate or intense exercise, tilts the perceptual and emotional plane. Observations register as impressions. These impressions provide the color to the run. As for the running part of the run, there are better and worse days, but the basics are always the same: a management of breathing, a negotiation with pain, and a feeling of relief when done. Recalling how one feels during a run is like recalling a day at the office. Recalling what one sees during a run is like recollecting a dream.

A recent training run home from work upset this delicate mind/body balance. The whole run was turned on its head and became something else entirely. I was about a third of the way up the Williamsburg Bridge footpath, headed toward Brooklyn. Not only had I been saving time by making my run my commute, but in a further act of efficiency, or so I thought, I had just knocked out a phone conversation, while running, with a friend from Rochester. My evening, once I got home, would be free. But the moment I snapped my cellphone shut, a situation I had no experience with presented itself as horribly and urgently as if I were a bank teller, and a robber stood before me with an a pistol and a note.

When viewing the 2005 New York City marathon with my wife and my sister, a female runner leapt off the course and onto the sidewalk and asked the two of them if either had a tampon. My wife said she had some in our apartment, but that our apartment was on the other side of the street, across the herd of runners. The lady grabbed my wife’s arm and fearlessly led her across. She was not to be denied.

While I of course did not need a tampon there on the bridge, I sensed that in about five seconds I would need some toilet paper, though then again, what good would that do me, stranded as I was on the bridge, with other runners and bicyclists both behind me and in front of me. There was no apartment to dive into.

I knew this had happened to others before, this needing to go to the bathroom NOW, but it had never happened to me. I had seen a picture of a runner in a race whose bowel evacuation was written all over his backside. I did NOT want to be this runner. In 1998 I had seen tiny Tegla Laroupe in the New York City marathon bravely suffer this same type of problem en route to a third place finish. I had visions of the film Trainspotting and a flashback of a visit to Mumbai, India where I had seen at twilight a man defecating on the side of a highway. Numerous episodes of South Park suddenly seemed more reality-based than I had imagined.

It’s amazing the processing power one has when decisions must be made in five seconds or less. My options were limited, and they were options I never in a thousand years would have thought possible even to enter my head.

First off, there was a garbage can within striking distance. I had never noticed garbage cans on the bridge before, but there it was. I could sit atop the garbage can and let fly. No, not possible. There are people watching. Can’t do it. Second option: Simply unclench the stomach and relieve all the pressure. No, not possible. I would not be like that runner in that picture, disgusting not only to myself but to anyone who might see me from behind, or worse yet, smell me. Third, I could try to keep holding it in. This seemed highly unlikely to work, as this brew in my bowels was no passing cramp. It also seemed likely to end in a medical emergency. Spontaneous combustions occurred from situations such as this.

Finally, I could relax my stomach just enough to relief a bit of the pressure, to let some of the wind out of the pipes, which hopefully would tide me over until I could scramble over the bridge and get to the same toilet that the lady marathoner had used as refuge for her own emergency several years ago. I figured a 10% chance of complete success with the last option. It was my best chance. I tried to finesse a pressure release.

As veterans of this type of situation can attest, and since it occurred I can assure you I have learned that most people are veterans of this type of situation, I was fooling myself with the 10% rate of success. It’s probably more like a slender fraction of 1%.

It was not a TOTAL disaster, but it was now a new situation. I knew there was a breach, was unsure of its severity, and did not know whether the evidence of the accident was visible from behind. I still needed to get over that bridge.

The rest of the run was marked not so much by what I did, but by what I considered doing. There is an overpass at the apex of the bridge that joins the north and south footpaths. I would duck into the relatively dark overpass and do my business. But when I reached the overpass, there was a homeless-looking man loitering there. He would understand, I thought, then I scolded myself for that thought. It is not decent to subject a fellow human to that. I squeezed my thighs tight, gingerly yet hastily carrying on.

I considered what caused the event. It could have been the five-dollar foot-long I had for lunch. The large ice-chai latte that I drank upon returning to the office played a role. Perhaps the large Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and the mac & cheese I had the night before had contributed. And that I had gotten only about six hours of sleep combined over the prior two evenings was also a factor. I had been burning the candle at both ends and compensating through ever greater levels of greasy food and caffeine.

The cellphone conversation also was to blame. If I hadn’t been yammering on the phone, I may have been attuned to pre-quake tremors and I would have been better positioned to adjust accordingly. There are some dark, deserted construction areas by the river. I might have made a beeline for the Starbucks or the Burger King on Delancey Street, which aren’t far from the bridge.

The next opportunity came at a kink on the Brooklyn side of the footpath with a partially obstructed view. I looked behind – another biker on the way. Damn. A minute later, I again considered the garbage-can option, wondering if I had lost my mind to be thinking this, but two bikers were making their way up the hill, and I couldn’t wait for them.

As I stepped off the bridge, my body reacted as if I had already made it to the safety of the bathroom, and that it was time. I toppled over, as if punched in the stomach, by a sudden shifting. Then the most bizarre thought of them all: I could enter the foyer of the new apartment complex on South 4th Street and leave a mess on its floor. I don’t know why I considered that.

Those with whom I’ve shared this story have taken great pleasure in it. “You sharded!” exclaimed my sister, several days after the event, as I slowly confessed. She, who also is training for Big Sur, was the first person I told. I don’t know what shard means, but I have a feeling it is close to the truth.

“Dude, did you drop trow?” asked a friend, giggling, when I recounted the scene.

And though I had avoided the worst of it on the bridge, another friend told me, after sharing his own story of disastrous bowel movements, that I should have cut loose.

“It was the perfect opportunity!” he said. “You’re never going to get another opportunity like that!”

I hope not.