The Great Saunter is an annual 32 mile hike around the waterfront perimeter of Manhattan. The event is held by the Shorewalkers, “a non-profit group dedicated to promoting and preserving New York City’s surrounding shores.”
The Saunter is described on the Shorewalkers website in the following quote:
“See New York City like never before in the Shorewalker’s epic urban hike, The Great Saunter! On Saturday May 6th 2017 covering 32-miles of beautiful waterfront and more than 20 parks along Manhattan’s incredible shorelines. Enjoy fabulous skyline views and natural landscapes rarely appreciated from within the city, all the while raising awareness to protect our parks, maintain the Westside promenades, restore the Eastside Greenway, redevelop the Harlem River, and connect the Greenway into a continuous path around the world’s most fascinating island! Join the more than 1400 hikers for this amazing journey you will always remember! “
This was my second year completing the Saunter and what this quote doesn’t point out is the absolute pain one finds themselves in by the time the Williamsburg bridge is overhead or the deep, guttural search for will power it takes to keep going when a subway entrance is a short detour away. But I’ll get to that.
The morning started with a line for a hat and some muffins. I did this year’s Saunter with my brother Jonathan who drove up from North Carolina to participate. He ordered a hat when he filled out his registration and so we waited in the morning pick up line to get it. At first I thought this would throw off our start, but the truth is: this set the pace. It’s easy to get caught up in a marathon mentality right in the beginning when everyone has fresh legs and shiny new numbers, but this is the Saunter. Completing it means actually sauntering, so we had the complimentary muffins and coffee at Fraunces Tavern before setting off into the foggy morning in Battery Park.
We moseyed along from Battery Park into Hudson River Park and kept the competitive thoughts at bay. My brother was partially in tourist mode and this kept us grounded. If nothing else, the Saunter was an opportunity for him to see all of the city. And see it he did, from the Statue of Liberty to an inflatable labor strike Rat we experienced just about everything lower Manhattan had to offer in this first section of the hike.
The first fourth of the hike (Hudson River Park through Riverside Park) went pretty much without incident. Then, as we were reaching the uptown limits of Riverside Park, the sun reached it’s peak and cleared out the overcast sky. We had forgotten to put on or pack sunscreen and knew we’d need to find some soon. Fortunately, we weren’t too far from the Fairway at 125th so we swung in for sunscreen and more coffee.
While we were putting on our sunscreen outside the store, I bumped into a woman I met from the Saunter last year. We shared our sunscreen and a quick story, reminding me of what the Shorewalkers print on the info they mail out: This is a social event, not a race
The sunscreen made a noticeable difference, but the time exposed without it definitely started taking a toll on us. The stretch from Riverbank State Park to Inwood Hill Park is when the first signs of wear and tear really start showing on the group as a whole. For some people Inwood Hill Park is the stopping point so the pain and grind is a sign of getting close to the finish. For others it’s only the halfway point and a cause for evaluation and quick recovery. Both last year and this year, this stretch is where I first saw people sit and take a serious pause. Here, Jonathan and I began to pass some of the quick starters who blew by the free muffins.
While much of the westside, uptown hike is beautiful and parallel to the Hudson River, the climb after the George Washington Bridge leading to the footpath beside the Henry Hudson Parkway gives Saunterers the first real taste of what to expect from Inwood on east as the city’s industrial landscape, thousands of steps on concrete, and midday sun all begin changing the tone of the event.
The Saunter route goes right down the street where I live in Inwood. The Shorewalkers have a nice break spot set up in Inwood Hill Park itself, but rather than stop there my brother and I made a break right for my place. It felt nice to get out of the sun, change our clothes, eat, and rest…but not for too long. We spent about thirty minutes in total then got back up and headed out. I suspect that any longer spent stationary might have proved dangerous in terms of completing the entire Saunter. We had 16 miles done, but still another 16 to go.
Making our way down the Harlem River Greenway we bumped into Mike, an older gentleman and former Marine who has hiked two other Saunters. He told us that the first time he finished he rolled into the tavern at 10pm! His other saunter he made it 26 miles to Charles Schurz Park before he had to stop. He was hoping to finish this year.
My experience this year and last year have led me to believe that regardless of who you begin with, the people you meet at the beginning of the descent (if you will) back to Fraunces Tavern are who you really get to know. So many people have Inwood Hill set as their goal that the Saunter noticeably thins out after that halfway mark. From there on, the East side is tough. It’s more neighborhood walking, less clear directions, and your body has already gone sixteen plus miles for half a day. Not to mention the temptation of subway stops every quarter mile in the neighborhood stretches. It takes a certain stubborn, adrenaline driven individual to keep going.
However, there’s a fellowship in that kind of drive. The difficulty of the eastern Saunter causes bubbles to form. I’ve found that most people are Pockets of people are keen to support one another in this ridiculous undertaking. When Mike walked by two Saunterers sitting down along the Harlem River Greenway he asked, “How’s it going?” and they started mentioning how banged up their feet had gotten. Before they had a chance to take off their shoes though Mike interjected with, “Well, there used to be a new feet store in this part of the city, but I think it went out of business. Guess you better keep going until you find one.” This simple, cheesy, joke 18 miles in was enough to get them back up and moving.
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Jonathan and I had our own solid bubble with Mike and two other Saunterers. One of the hikers in this group worked for Doctors without Borders and shared stories about her travels and trials with that organization through the Washington Heights to Harlem detour (which rumor had it made the event 34.8 miles this year). We had this crew until about Charles Schurz park when our paces all began to differ just slightly enough to cause separation and Jonathan and I started leapfrogging with a couple new hikers.
By the time we made our way into Midtown East and were passing the UN Building we only ran into about three other Saunterers. They all had, what I affectionately term, the Saunter Limp. It’s pretty easy to pick out a Saunterer from any other New Yorker at this point in the walk because they usually have a near empty backpack on and gimp to their step.
We bought our last coffee before walking onto the East River Esplanade. Here we began hiking with a woman who had completed nine previous Saunters! She was an unassuming woman who said that this was the biggest thing she does all year. Unlike myself and my brother she doesn’t consider herself a hiker. She doesn’t do marathons or races either. She just likes to do the Saunter. It gives her the sense that if she can complete this, she can overcome anything else life throws at her. I’m inclined to believe that’s true.
All three of us were so exhausted that we forgot exchange names despite the fact that we completed the last few miles of the event together and she took this photo of my brother and I at the finish.
We rolled in at 9pm (an hour short of Mike’s record) making it around the entire island of Manhattan in 14 hours.
The Saunter is a test of will more than anything else. What possess someone to do this? Or what possess them to do it multiple times? I’m not sure I know or that I’ll ever know, but every year more people partake and finish. All it takes is the right attitude and good pair of walking shoes. So if you’ve got those two things, I hope I meet you out on the Saunter in 2018!