I live in New York and last month I walked 275 miles. I should be in Maine by now! But I'm not. I've barely left my little town on the south shore of Long Island. So why did I log so many miles? I'm in a FitBit challenge with a bunch of folks from my gym. The first person to hit one million steps for the year is the winner. Since everyone else in the challenge is younger than me, I headed into it with a lot of determination and a real chip on my shoulder. I may not be able to keep up with them at lifting and cardio, but walking? I got this.
I usually walk three times a day. I'm an early riser so I head out before dawn to knock off three or four miles before my boys wake up. Then while they're at school I'll usually take another long walk. At night, while wifey is enjoying quality time with them, I'll head out for my last saunter of the day. I average 12-13 miles a day during the week, less on weekends.
I've found walking to be better than meditation at getting me to clear my head. Plus, as a writer, it's a great way to get out of any ruts. If I get stuck on something I'm working on, a walk is the best way to mix things up and reset my brain. Usually, while I'm walking the solution to what I'm working on will hit me and I'll stand in the cold furiously texting myself a reminder so I can get right back to work when I get home.
In addition to the physical and mental benefits of daily walking, it's also opened my eyes to a few things I hadn't noticed before. Here's just a few:
My Appearance Is Frightening - We have a dog so I have been walking around the neighborhoods and parks around here for years. We also have two small children, whom I also shepherd around our town (sans leashes and pooper scooper.) As a six-foot-three man who weighs over two bills, I know I am a bit of a giant, but when I'm with my dog or my kids, people always smile at me, nod and offer up kind-hearted greetings. The presence of pooch and offspring renders me harmless. Take them out of the equation, however, and people see something else entirely - a giant, lurching freak who is obviously going to follow them into their house and steal their life savings. Women inherently clutch their purses tighter, parents gather their children afraid that, like a giant eagle, I might just swoop in and lift one off to parts unknown. I'm sure my attire, bundled up against the elements as I am, doesn't help the situation. Boots, a heavy pullover, gloves and winter hat pulled over my headphones make me look like a cross between Herman Munster and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. To make matters worse, I'm usually completely entranced by an audiobook or podcast while I walk, so it's always at the funniest moment of what I'm listening to is when I'll pass a family getting out of their mini-van in their driveway. The kids will see a lumbering Michael Myers coming down the sidewalk. laughing maniacally at a joke they can't hear as their parents scream at them to get inside the house.
My Gait Is All Wrong - I never realized how much I walk with my hands in my pockets. My natural stride looks like poor Andy Dufresne shuffling across the yard of the Shawshank State Penitentiary. My walk sends out the entirely wrong vibe. A man who walks with a purposeful stride, swinging his arms to and fro looks like he's off on an important mission. A guy walking with his hands in his pockets looks like his girlfriend dumped him and lost his job on the same day....all he needs is a can to kick to complete the tableau. More importantly, that demonic FitBit device doesn't register your steps correctly when your hands are jammed in your pockets. So if nothing else, I've learned to walk with proper form - head held high, arms swaying hither and yon, while still laughing maniacally to headphone voices only I can hear.
Long Island Drivers Are The Worst - I don't like Long Island drivers when I'm driving, which means I really don't like them when I am an unprotected pedestrian. People here treat STOP signs like a mild suggestion, sort of like when the conductor says, "Please keep your feet off the seats," or their doctor says, "Stop eating sausage and peppers everyday or you'll die." From the relative safety of my car, I've seen folks rolling through STOP signs from side streets on to main avenues for years, but seeing it up close is even more troubling. It happens at least a few times every time I go for a walk, whether it's at five in the morning or eight at night or anywhere in between. A car will speed down a side street towards the main drag. I can tell right away they aren't worried about other cars and know a pedestrian is the last thing on their mind, so I don't even pretend like I have the right of way (which, ahem, I do.) They slow down a bit, not necessarily for the stop sign, but so they don't take the turn on two wheels. More often than not they will cut someone off who has to jam on the brakes and usually lays heavy on the horn while flipping the bird (after all, the other person is also a Long Island Driver.) From my vantage point I can then perfectly see, as if in a slow motion action sequence form a Michael Bay movie, the first driver is now offended that the second is angry for being cutoff, and also lays on the horn and flips the bird. Which can't be easy because that driver is also trying to juggle his 24 oz. Dunkin Donuts coffee and a crueller while finishing an angry chat on his flip phone from 1997.
Sidewalks Are Full Of Sad People - On the whole, in a car-centric place like Long Island, people walking on the street are not in the best of moods. They don't own a car and are walking to and from a bus stop to get around, they are walking two extra blocks because they couldn't get a better parking spot in front of the pizza place or they're marching in place to stay warm in front of a bar where they just ducked out to grab a quick smoke. But the saddest people I see everyday are always in the same spot. On the main street of our town is one of those little tobacco/convenience/candy stores that's in every town in America. A small overcrowded store that has more items than you could ever imagine being crammed into such a small space. People pop in and out for cigarettes, newspapers, Lotto tickets, etc. Almost every time I pass it, again day or night it doesn't matter, I see someone sitting in a car parked on the street in front scratching off lottery tickets. I noticed it early on because during the short days of early January it was pretty much always dark out when I walked and, like a moth to a flame, my eye was always drawn to the dome light on in a darkened car where I could see someone furiously scratching off a ticket. The first time was amusing. The second time seemed like quite a coincidence. Now it just makes me sad. I'm sure I've seen a few repeat scratchers, but it always seems like someone different. I'm not saying that Lotto or scratch-off tickets are bad. I'm always happy to get them as a gift and enjoy the thrill of scratching off what could be a long-shot winner. But somehow the idea of buying them to scratch off in your car, in the dark, in the dead of winter, by yourself, seems inherently depressing.
I have lived in this town for close to twenty years now and I've seen more of it in the past month than I have in all those years combined. It's been a good reminder to not take things for granted and to really get a different perspective on things.
For the record, my 275 miles means I walked 622,000 steps in January, which has me almost two-thirds of the way to my goal of a million. I have a comfortable lead on my fellow competitors, but I don't plan on easing off the throttle any time soon. I'm going to keep on truckin' and if I see or learn anything new along the way I'll let you know.