Every year, I send out a note to NYC friends, inviting them to join me on the Great Saunter--a 32-mile walk around the perimeter of Manhattan on the first Saturday in May. Every year, dozens of people reply enthusiastically, declaring that this year, they are definitely--definitely!--in. Every year, about three of those people actually show up, and all year long, everyone else says that next year they are truly--truly!--going to make it.
This post contains all the info you need to make this the year you really--really!--do the Saunter.
The event is organized by Shorewalkers, and I first tried it about twenty years ago--inexplicably inspired by this New York Times story--when you really needed a guide, because there was no path around the island as there mostly is today. It was a crappy experience. Held on a rainy day, the walk drew about 75 people. Only 13 of us finished, and I was the very last one. I hadn't trained for the walk, so I developed serious aches and blisters halfway through. I didn't have any friends participating, so I was lonely. Plus, not only was I thoroughly soaked a quarter of the way into the day, but all the water caused the lining of my hiking boots to disintegrate into tiny, painful shards. I limped across the finish line in the dark, thirteen and a half hours after I'd started, miserable, soggy and alone.
Disliking adversity, I avoided the Saunter for the next decade. But then my friend Marci got excited about it. I do like walking, I do like New York adventures and I do like Marci, so I gave it another shot. Turns out that walking it with friends on a nice day and with some thoughtful preparation can make the Great Saunter a terrific experience. We've done it most years since, and, more important for you, we've taken notes about what works. Last year, the notes were so effective, Tony and I finished easily with no pain and felt fine the next day--a first for us and the Saunter. In contrast, I cannot run a mile.
Herewith is a decade of wisdom on how to prep for and enjoy the Great Saunter.
Before the Saunter
* Save the date. Right this minute, click over to your calendar and block off the first Saturday in May from 7a to 8p. (Do not make evening plans, or you'll be tempted to drop out early in order to go home to rest and shower.) Congratulations: You've just done 70% of the work required to Make this Your Year.
* Do some training. I'm sure you can find elaborate training plans online. If that's your jam, go for it. Or do what we do: from January through April, schedule training walks of one to four hours approximately once a week. On some weeks, do two training walks; on some weeks, do none.
Start with hour-long walks and work up to four-hour walks. Do three or four of those long walks by the end of April. Boom, when the first weekend in May rolls around, you're good to go. As a friend says, if you can walk twelve miles, you can do it two more times in the same day.
Incidentally, if you live in NYC, you can do some of your training along the Saunter route: It starts near South Street Seaport and heads clockwise around the island. These days, I tend to do a lot of walks around the outer perimeter of Prospect Park and stretches of the Brooklyn waterfront (much of which is similar to Manhattan's edge 20 years ago--i.e., not really accessible). If you're traveling during the spring, training walks are a good way to get acquainted with other cities.
* Train at a pace slightly faster than the Saunter. What with the crowds and the chatting and the bathroom breaks and the eating (see below), the Saunter tends to roll at a 20-minute mile. You can easily train at a 16- to 19-minute mile, which makes the Saunter feel like, well, a saunter. Last year, I used MapMyWalk's phone app to gauge our pace during walks. In previous years, I used Gmaps or a pedometer to gauge distance, kept an eye on my watch, and then did the math to determine the rate we were walking.
MapMyWalk is easier, and friends and family can see where you are along the route. That's especially fun on the day of the walk, when it's good boost to get a friendly text cheering you on ten hours into the day: "Looks like you're near Gracie Mansion. Wave to the mayor as you walk by!" (Your family might suggest flipping off the mayor, which can be energizing, too.) As an added bonus, if you have compatriots joining you after the start of the walk, they can find you on the app map, eliminating the distracting and often frustrating attempts to text your way to a meeting point.
* Test the gear you're going to use. I understand from real atheletes that everyone knows you're supposed to train with the equipment you plan to use on game day. Same goes here. Because you start training when the weather is quite different from a May morning, it can be hard to try out the proper lightweight clothes. But do make sure you test your sneakers and a bag that's comfortable when it's loaded up. Tony carries a Camelbak pack. I use a lumbar pack (which is a fancy name for big fanny pack). Marci uses a small messenger bag. (See below for detailed notes on clothing and shoes.)
* Sign up online. Shorewalkers is a lovely group--with perhaps the worst online signup process on the entire Internet. Still, if you sign up ahead, they'll snail mail you your number and the route map. The walk now draws about a thousand people each year, so better to spend an annoying 30 minutes on their website at a convenient time than at 6:30a standing in the cold with 950 other people who are trying to register on the morning of the walk. (Technically, you don't need to register at all, but I do like supporting this small organization. Also, having a number makes it easier for other walkers to spot you and chat; it's a diverse, friendly crowd, and this can be a real benefit. Plus, you can get a certificate when you finish, though I usually blow that off to go get a milkshake instead.)
Registration for the 2014 walk is not yet live, but set yourself a calendar reminder to check their website in a month or two.
On the Day of the Saunter (and Some Training Days)
* Meet up with friends, preferably chatty friends. The Saunter takes twelve or thirteen hours. They go by much, much faster if you have good company. Marci, Tony and I now have a semi-regular crew of about a dozen friendly people who make some part of the walk most years (you can, of course, walk segments without doing the whole thing--it's legal but not as satisfying). We tend to start the day together but then walk in pairs or triads and reconfigure ourselves as we loosely regroup at bathrooms, bandaid breaks and lunch. Over the course of the day, you get in a lot of interesting conversations, and you get to try everyone's snacks.
It's not possible to walk as a pack in Manhattan, and it's a ton of work to keep track of everyone at each minor stop, so we don't do those things.
* Wear sneakers. Hiking boots are not only overkill for a mostly flat, paved walk, they're also too heavy for a 32-mile day.
* Wear a white t-shirt. The temperature in early May varies a lot, and if it's sunny and warm, you're in for a harder day. Plan accordingly. Most of my t-shirts are black, but if it's hot out, the dark fabric makes a big (bad) difference. If you run warm, wear a light-colored top.
* Bring a long-sleeve top layer. It can be cold in the morning and especially in the last hour or two.
* Running tights that hit just above or below your knee are generally right for early May temperatures. If you don't do running tights, wear a layer of bicycle shorts or long boxer briefs or something similar. Without a body skimming lower layer, chafing is an issue. A really unpleasant one.
* Wear a hat. You're an adult. You understand this principle.
* Carry your water bottle in your hand. Dehydration is one of the things that will tire you out most quickly and thoroughly. To help you keep drinking, hold onto your water bottle--don't stow it where you can't reach it.
* Take advil every four hours. It can only help.
* Things to bring on the day of (and on your longer training walks):
- Sunscreen and chapstick with SPF. Apply early and often.
- Tissues. Like Douglas Adams's towel, these are useful for everything. One key use case: There are a lot of bathrooms on the Saunter, but only some have toilet paper.
- A small bottle of hand sanitizer. There are a lot of bathrooms on the Saunter, but only a few have soap.
- Snacks, snacks, snacks. I'm pretty sure we gain weight during the Saunter every year. But it is helpful to feel your pack get lighter as the day goes on. Our crew tends to share food, and we generally bring goodies that can be passed around: a veggie frittata, cut into squares; a mix of salty soy nuts and dried cranberries; carrot sticks; power bars; fruit leather; cookies; hard candies; gum; and a gooey PB&J for lunch. (The Saunter lunch stop is at Inwood Park, and there's a farmers' market right outside the park. Lots of people buy stuff there, but it does involve a little extra walking, and that cuts into the break, so I usually try to bring lunch.)
- One refillable water bottle. On the Saunter route, there are lots of fountains, so you don't need two bottles.
- A first-aid kit (i.e., Ziploc baggie) with: moleskin; small scissors; bandaids of several sizes; blister bandaids; athletic tape; that slithery anti-chafing stuff; nail clippers; nail file; gel foot pads; Advil. Except for the Advil, I hardly ever use any of these things, but people with me almost always use all of them in the second half of the walk.
- An extra pair of socks. Actually, I've never needed these, but they provide psychological comfort.
- Sunglasses. Obvs.
- An extra battery for your phone. If you use the GPS on your phone all day (say, if you're tracking the walk on MapMyWalk), you'll run down the battery by the Harlem River Drive, which will suck.
- A little cash. In case you want to buy something at the farmers' market or from an ice cream truck.
Things to leave at home on the day of:
- Your dog. Tony and I like to debate whether Eggs, our super-atheletic Aussie shepherd mix, would make it the whole way. (Consensus: On an overcast day, he could cover 32 miles no problem. But he's anxious in crowds, and he would nip other walkers and eat all of their snacks.) One year--a cloudy year--we saw a Cocker Spaniel do the whole walk. That was an anomaly. We cannot recommend bringing pets to this event.
- Your young children. I'm not great at judging kids' ages, but I'm going to say that I've seen teenagers and kids as young as twelve walk the Saunter. I have not once seen anyone attempt it with a stroller.
- Your rings. Saunter regular Katherine Klein has pointed out quite accurately that your fingers swell a bit on very long walks, and rings do you no favors.
A final tip: If it rains, we stay home and catch up on TV. The Saunter will always--always!--happen again next year.
PS. I do want to emphasize that fitness-wise, if I can do this, anyone can. I'm intimidated by gyms. I hate running, and I'm not a fan of biking, either. Swimming involves getting wet, which, no. I get completely exhausted and out of breath standing still, watching the marathon stream by my apartment every year. But I can do enough mild training to walk 32 miles comfortably. You can, too.
All photos taken by Marci Alboher on the 2013 Saunter. We don't know what the hell that last picture is of, which is part of the joy of this event.