The Zip episode 18
In 2012 I moved to Los Angeles. And toward the end of that year, I started running again. At first, I could barely make it a mile from my house to the LACMA – los angeles county museum of art, known for its installation of 100 lamp posts out front. I probably got past the lamp posts, just barely, but I was definitely huffing and puffing by the time I reached the back side of the La Brea Tar Pits. But by my 2nd year in LA, I had this 6-mile loop running around mid-city/West Hollywood. I’d run at night, or saturday afternoons, and I’d go past the orthodox jewish neighborhood on Beverly, past boutiques on Melrose, up to Santa Monica boulevard, weaving through people going to snazzy bars, and back down by one or two huge malls and a whole foods before circling back home. Running gave me a different perspective on my neighborhood. I noticed restaurants and coffee shops I’d never seen from the car. I felt more like part of the city, even if I was passing by post people at six or so miles an hour. Sometimes flipping off people who turned right on red before looking to see if I was coming. So what if I wore a dark shirt and no reflective gear? THEY SHOULD BE LOOKING FOR ME!
I tried to increase my loop beyond 6 miles, but I could never quite pull it off. 6 seemed to be my limit until I joined a running group, back here in Durham.
Now I’ve run 2 half marathons – 13 miles each. And I own reflective gear and bright-colored running jackets for dark nights.
And that’s what’s so weird about running.
Unless you’re in marathon-winning shape, recreational running is a sport in which, for the most part, you’re competing against yourself. And yet. Running, especially modern, city-dweller running, is very much a group sport.
Whether you’re like me and need people to encourage you to run those extra miles, a little faster, or if you’re someone like my boyfriend, who tends to run TOO fast and needs help with pacing, or even if just need a reason to get out of bed at 6am on a Saturday morning. Running groups can be a huge support.
The Dashing Whippets, of NYC, came on my radar after I received an email newsletter from Michael Alcamo, the group organizer, on their efforts to increase running path safety for NYC parks.
And today I’m speaking with Tessa Benau. Tessa joined the Dashing Whippets in 2010. She had just run her first half marathon after taking several years off from running and was looking for some company for long runs. Since joining the Whippets, she improved her half marathon time by 22 minutes, ran her first marathon, qualified for the Boston Marathon, and won a few local 5k’s. That’s a pretty good success story. Tessa and I speak about the sense of community created by The Dashing Whippets, and why safety is such a huge issue for NYC runners.
For the record, I really did try to run a few miles around NYC a couple weeks before doing this podcast, and I was very bad at it. I somehow ended up in central manhattan at rush hour. If only I’d spoken with Tessa beforehand, I would have thought to use a bridge! But enough teasers, let’s get to the interview.
Welcome to The Zip.
Megan: So you’re a teacher in New York?
Tessa: Yes, I teach high school math in Manhattan.
Megan: Oh wow, awesome. Like algebra or calculus or?
Tessa: We move around every few years. Right now I teach Algebra 2 to 11th and 12th graders.
Megan: Got it. I remember really liking algebra.
Megan: It’s kind of theoretical, and, I don’t know, it’s fun. All those variables.
Tessa: Yeah, I like it.
M: Yeah, that’s so cool! Well, Tessa, thank you for being on The Zip today—
Tessa: Of course.
Megan: I’m just going to ask you some questions about the Dashing Whippets, and what you guys have been up to, and what it’s like to be a part of that community.
Tessa: Okay, great.
Megan: So the Dashing Whippets is a non-profit that we’ve partnered with through Zipsprout, but you came back on my radar when your team member, Michael, sent out a newsletter on the streetlight issue in Prospect Park and Central Park, and what your team has done to increase security for runners.
Megan: So I’ll get to that story in a minute, but first can you tell me a bit about your personal history with running and how you came to join the Whippets?
Tessa: Yeah. So I ran in high school, and it was always sort of challenging for me—I wasn’t the best runner and it was just difficult. And then I really took a number of years off. I would run every once in a while, a mile or two, but I definitely wouldn’t have considered myself a runner. And then, about six and a half years ago, a friend of mine asked if I wanted to train for a 10K, and I said sure, and so I did that, and I sort of just caught the running bug. And then I decided that I would train for a half-marathon, and I did that, and I was really, really hooked at that point. And up until then, I had just been running on my own, but, you know, I realized it would be really nice to have some company for those longer runs. So I just did some research online and tried to find a local running group, and the Whippets at that time were primarily based out of Manhattan. They would do their workouts in Central Park and on the East River track, but they were just starting to do some workouts in Prospect Park. So I met up with a few people—I remember my first practice was in the winter, and it was snowing, and we were doing hill sprints up this slippery hill [laughs]. It was very dramatic, and I was feeling really winded because I had never done hill sprints before, and I was trying to keep up with some guy. But it was really fun, and the people that I met were just so welcoming—because I think it’s really easy to feel really intimidated by people on a running team, but I just felt so welcomed from the beginning, so I just kept coming back.
Megan: Yeah, I definitely—I’m part of a running group here in North Carolina, and we had ice, like, one time and it was, like, this huge deal, so I think you guys have a lot more on the weather front. But I totally agree I think there’s something—like, running with other people just, somehow you just run farther and faster because you’re like, “I can’t let them down. I can’t be the one that’s stopping right now.”
Tessa: Oh yeah, absolutely. There’s been so many workouts where I’ll go—and, you know, beforehand I’m just so tired, and I don’t feel like running—and I hate the winter, so especially running in the winter and the dark is really hard for me—and then I go, and by the time you’ve warmed up with your friends you’re ready. And at the end of the workout you couldn’t have even imagined that you were going to do that an hour or two ago.
Megan: Yeah, and you feel so much better, too. So, running in New York, I’ve learned in my limited experience doing it, New York City is unlike running anywhere else. I tried a few weeks ago when I was visiting, actually. I was running in a park and then I was like, “oh, this is kind of boring, I’m going to try running on the street.” And it didn’t work out so well, just from a ‘maneuvering around people’ perspective. I quickly learned that you can’t really just run down the streets of New York unless you’re really strategic about the timing and the streets that you choose. So what’s your experience of running through New York City like as a local there?
Tessa: Well, most days I run in Prospect Park. So when I go to practice at night with my team, with the Whippets, we run in Prospect Park. So the loop is pretty clear, and it’s a really great place to run. And then if I do some morning runs with some friends, we’ll meet pretty early and just do some miles in the park. But on the weekends for those longer runs, you know, you don’t want to do loops and loops of the park. But we sort of have certain routes that we know are kind of clear and you won’t have to stop too many times because, like you said, it’s hard to stop and go, stop and go. So a lot of the running that we do on the weekends is along the waterfront because I live in Brooklyn. So you can sort of run along the waterfront and then cross some bridges into Manhattan, or into Queens. And that is usually a clear route. But, you know, like the Brooklyn Bridge: if you go really early, you’re fine, but if you go after, maybe, 9 or 10:00 on a nice day, it’s so crowded. So you might want to avoid that bridge and maybe take another bridge instead.
Megan: Yeah, that’s a good point, running on the bridge—I guess because they’re long, so you’re getting a lot of miles there, but depending on the time of day it could be really clear or not clear. So for those of us who occasionally visit, or other people running in big cities— maybe people who are just starting to run— what tips do you have for running in a city that may be different from someone who’s running in the suburbs or somewhere that’s not so packed.
Tessa: Well, I don’t always follow this rule myself, but I would really suggest not wearing headphones all the time, especially if you’re running in the streets because it can be a little dangerous. So I guess that’s one tip. And the bridges are great, like you said, because they’re so long, but also they’re a great hill workout because they’re suspension bridges, so you’re going up a hill and down a hill every single bridge. So that is really good training for some hilly marathons that I’ve done, just constantly run the bridges. And then the parks are really, really great: Central Park in Manhattan or Prospect Park in Brooklyn. And then even running along the Hudson River on the West Side there’s a really great pedestrian running path, and then running along the East River on the East Side of Manhattan. There’s just some nice paths, and you’ll run into a lot of people who you know if you’re a local. And you kind of have miles and miles of pretty scenery, and you won’t have to stop too often.
Megan: Yeah, I love that tip about the bridges, that’s a really good point. A good hill, but not a killer hill, either. In a way, kind of, like, one of those long grueling hills that you might not even realize it’s a hill until you’re like, “gosh, I’m so tired, what’s happening?”
Tessa: Exactly, yeah.
Megan: And about the headphones as well, that’s hard because it’s so fun to listen to things, but I can imagine that if you’ve got a lot of people around you that’s definitely sort of dangerous as well.
Megan: So, you’ve been with the Dashing Whippets for 6 years, you said? How did running with a group change the experience for you, and maybe running with the Dashing Whippets in particular?
Tessa: I mean, I’m just so grateful to be a part of this team. I mean, I really enjoyed running for the six months, or so, that I was doing it on my own, but when I started running with the Whippets I just really felt a larger part of this community. The team in itself is a community, but also the running community in New York City is really strong and powerful. So you get to know other teams by being a part of the Whippets, and that’s been really nice. But I just—I mean the support that I’ve gotten from my teammates, and the encouragement—you know, it’s like when you’re training for something—and at least for me, you know, if I’m training for a half-marathon or something—and I think I can run this certain time, and then you’re just running with people, chitchatting, warming up or something, and they will tell you what they think you can run. And sometimes, the times, I just feel that they’re so ambitious. And I’m always like, “no, I just don’t really think that’s true. I don’t think that’s going to happen.” But then, come race day, you do what they predicted because sometimes they can see what you’re capable of, or that you’re in really good shape, or you’ve been working really hard. And it’s been a confidence booster for me, and I’ve made so many friends on the team. And that’s not why I joined. I joined just to, you know, make the workouts a little less lonely and grueling, but I have so many friends that I see outside of running now, and I’m just really really grateful for the whole experience.
Megan: Yeah. I know exactly what you mean about people basically telling you that you’re in better shape than you think you are, which is really funny because you’re like—I had someone before my last half-marathon and they said, “oh, I think you’ll go under two hours,” and I was like, “no way, I don’t think so. If I get two hours that’d be great,” but I did! And I went under, and I was like, “wow he was right. That was awesome!”
Tessa: That’s great, yeah. [laughs]
Megan: So what is a Dashing Whippets story that you think encapsulates the spirit of the team? Like, what have, maybe, you and some of the other team members gone through together that kind of encapsulates what you guys are all about?
Tessa: Well, this isn’t that dramatic, but—
Megan: [laughs] That’s okay.
Tessa: Some of my most favorite times are— once or twice a year we get this huge snowstorm. The city may shut down the subways, and the mayor encourages everyone to stay inside, and most of your friends buy cookies and red wine and they’re just going to stay in for 24 hours. And every single time, inevitably, my running friends on the Whippets will start texting or emailing and say, “okay! So when are we going to run?” because, you know, we’re kind of crazy, and it wouldn’t kill us to skip a day, but I think there’s also something really exciting about going and running through a crazy snowstorm when everyone else staying inside because, you know, you just feel really powerful and strong. And it’s a really nice bonding experience. So I really like that. I’ve run through some really crazy snowstorms with my friends. Or sometimes the next day after it’s snowed you go out and you do this really, really slow run, but you’re all together because you’re kind of slipping and sliding on the fresh powdery snow, but it’s fun. You just, are with each other and you’re experiencing the snow or the weather in a different way.
Megan: Yeah, I love that. And I think especially running in that kind of weather, if you’re outside at all really in that kind of weather, you feel like you kind of have the place to yourself a little bit. Because everyone else is wrapped up and inside, so running through that outside, it’s probably a weird sensation, too, because the city is a lot quieter at those points.
Tessa: Mhmm. Yeah.
Megan: So the Whippets also give back, locally and nationally. I saw on your site that you guys do some fundraisers and you give some time to local non-profits. Could you tell me about some of the work that you guys do to fundraise, or how you’ve worked with that?
Tessa: I may not be the authority on this, and Michael may have—I’m sure has—some more information. I know right now they’re doing a fundraiser for the team—just asking team members to contribute. A number of running clubs ask for dues every year, and our team does ask for dues but it’s a really, really small amount—it’s like 20 or 30 dollars for the whole year whereas some of the other clubs might ask for 200 dollars for the whole year. We are a non-profit, and so the Whippets don’t ask a lot of their members, but they are doing a fundraising initiative right now. And some of the volunteer events: we volunteer at races, so we volunteer, for example, at this race called the Corporate Challenge through JPMorgan Chase. We—well, this is sort of a particular example— but after Hurricane Sandy the New York City marathon was cancelled. And that Sunday, when a number of us were supposed to have run it—I was ready to run it on that Sunday—we went and volunteered in Red Hook, which is a neighborhood in Brooklyn along the water that was affected very strongly by superstorm Sandy. And we volunteered through this organization called the Red Hook Initiative, and we split up, and cleaned out people’s basements and homes, and it felt really good to do that on the day that we were supposed to be running.
Megan: Yeah, that’s just a completely different day than, obviously, what you were training for, but probably also a good bonding experience in a totally different way as well.
Megan: So back to something I mentioned at the beginning: another way you’re active in the local community is by urging city leaders to make local pathways safe for runners. And I know the Dashing Whippets have already made local headlines recently for your activism in getting streetlights replaced in Prospect Park and in Central Park. First of all, what surprised me about this story was that the city didn’t already have measures in place to replace these broken lights, that some of them had been broken for, like, two months. They must, obviously, replace them at some point or else they’d all be out, so did someone just drop the ball? Or what happened? Did a lot just start going out at once?
Tessa: I don’t think—I haven’t recognized that many started going out at once. I’m not sure. In my experience, I think, there’s always, sort of, one or two out in Prospect Park, and I’m not sure what the system is in terms of how often they assess which ones are working. But yeah, it can be really frustrating because safety’s always an issue, particularly as a woman, with running. And in the last few months, especially with a number of these higher profile cases where women were attacked while running, it’s just—it’s scary. And now that the sun is setting earlier and rising later, it’s hard to get runs in when the sun is out, and so you’re running in the dark a lot, and it’s just something that’s always on the back of your mind.
Megan: Yeah, and is that something that you’ve seen—like, in the few years that you’ve been running—is that something that you’ve seen has grown? The issue? Or do you think that it’s always been there but it’s just making headlines at the moment in particular.
Tessa: I mean, there’s always—even before last summer when the woman in Queens was murdered, and then the woman in Massachusetts was attacked, even prior to that—every few months or something, someone was attacked in Prospect Park or in Brooklyn Bridge Park. And sometimes the person, the woman, gets away, but it scares you because, you know, those are the parks that I run in. And sometimes actually it’s not even—I think there was an incident recently—it wasn’t even really early in the morning, it was, like, nine o’clock or something in the morning when tons of people are out. So I think it’s just, yeah, it’s always kind of in the back of your mind.
Megan: And do you have—or do the Dashing Whippets, or do you, or some of the other women that are in your running community—protective measures? Like, do you have whistles or, I don’t know, mace, or things that you carry on you when you run?
Tessa: Yeah. So, the Whippets actually, a few months ago—or, I guess, in August—made whistles and distributed them at some practices for anyone who felt that they could use one. So we do have that. The biggest protective measure is just to run with someone else. So even outside of the, you know, more serious workouts that we have in the evenings, we have morning runs in Central Park that a number of people go to. And then in Prospect Park, there’s not an organized morning run, but I’ll meet up with some of my friends to run if it’s six in the morning or something. So we’re generally not running alone, because that’s just the best way to stay safe.
Megan: Yeah, that makes sense. And so you guys, in particular, have been working with the city to, kind of, help the issue of the lights. Have you seen success in that in the last couple of months—that things are getting a bit safer?
Tessa: Yeah, I believe that some were replaced in Prospect Park since contacting the city. But I’m not sure, statistically, what number were replaced in all the parks.
Megan: Well, it’s awesome, I think, that you guys are taking that extra measure and taking it into your own hands because that is definitely something, like you said, that when you’re running you don’t want to have to be thinking about your safety as well because you want to think about running.
Megan: So, in general, you know, you talked a lot about your experience with the Dashing Whippets and that there are some other running groups in New York. How would you say the culture of the Whippets is different from some of the other running groups. Like, if someone was moving to New York, you know, fresh, and they were looking for a running group—are there personalities in the different groups that might attract some people more than others?
Tessa: Yeah. There’s so many running clubs in New York City, and there are some that are—I mean, we’re very competitive—but there are some that, I think, historically have been very competitive. You may have to run a certain time to qualify to be on the team. And, you know, I can’t speak specifically to them because I’ve never gone to practices, but I have heard that some of the workouts on maybe some of those other teams are a little more serious. And I do think that we take our workouts really seriously, but it’s just a really friendly group of people, really welcoming. I think it’s a nice mixture of—you know, it’s not that super serious, competitive vibe, but on the other end of the spectrum I think there are some clubs that, you know, they might just run a few miles and then go get beers [laughs],
Megan: [laughs] So you’re sort of in between that.
Tessa: We’re sort of in between those two things, yeah. We set goals, absolutely, and we train really, really hard, and our team does really well in the city and beyond. But also, we have really fun ways to socialize. So, you know, you can go to an easy Monday evening run where you’re just running for fun, and then they do go out for beers and wings afterwards. Or you can go to a Tuesday night workout where you’re going to do a really challenging tempo run and really push each other. So we kind of offer lots of different runs depending on what you’re looking for.
Megan: Yeah, and it’s so cool that you have all of them. I feel like a runner needs both, you know, you need the kind of “oh, let’s run a little bit and then drink some beers to reward ourselves” and then if you really want to push yourself you do need to do those harder runs which can be a lot harder to, kind of, make yourself do on your own.
Tessa: Yeah, oh yeah.
Megan: So, Tessa, what are you—are you currently training for a particular race? Or, what’s your next race?
Tessa: So I am just coming back from an injury. I took the longest I have ever taken off from running—I had to take two months off from running. And it was mentally really, really tough. But I’ve been back a few weeks now, and my body’s still kind of getting adjusted, but so far I think the initial injury pain is not there. So I’m feeling hopeful.
Megan: That’s awesome.
Tessa: Thanks. [laughs] Yeah, it’s been—actually it’s been tough. So I’m just going to take the next couple of months to try to eliminate any of the lingering pain that I’m feeling, and get back to just feeling healthy. And then I’d like to train for a spring half-marathon. I was registered for a half-marathon that happened a couple of weeks ago, but I wasn’t able to do it. And right before I got injured, I felt like I was in really good shape. I had run a PR in the 5K, and I was feeling pretty good about my training, so I’d like to get back to, you know, some good times and run a really good half-marathon in the spring.
Megan: Yeah, that sounds awesome. Did you make up for—did you do other exercises while you were injured or did you kind of just take that chance to relax?
Tessa: Yeah. I mean I was really fortunate that I was allowed to do other exercises. My orthopedist said, basically, “you can do anything else as long as you’re not feeling that pain, and if you do then stop.” But I did a lot of yoga and spinning, which I think were really good for maintaining general fitness. Like, spinning, I realized, just in the last few weeks, helped me a lot because I thought I would come back and be huffing and puffing the whole time that I’m running, but I’m running fine— you know, other than my hip pain, but my cardio sort of maintained itself. And yoga was really good for the flexibility and stretching that I had avoided basically for a year, and that’s why I got injured. But I missed running. Mentally, it’s just the best exercise for me. It just makes me really, really happy to do it every day, and so it was tough not being able to do that.
Megan: Well it’s really good to hear that you’re able to get back to it. Congratulations!
Tessa: Thank you, thanks.
Megan: Tessa, thank you so much for taking the time today to be on this podcast, and to tell me about the Dashing Whippets, and some of the stuff you’re doing. It sounds like a really great team, and I wish you the best of luck in training for your spring half-marathon.
Tessa: Thank you, you too! You have a half coming up, right?
Megan: I do, yeah! In about two weeks. So I’m doing my trial half tomorrow, and then do the half in the middle of November.
Tessa: Good luck, I hope it goes really well.
Megan: Thank you! Me too. Well thank you again, and have a great Halloween weekend.
Tessa: Thank you, you too.