Run Your City

If it weren’t for running and a love of croissants, photographer Tekla Szőcs would never have crossed paths with Samantha Dong. Tekla tells the story of how they connected, the New York City running scene, and the importance of community and friendship

By Tekla Szőcs

Photography by Tekla Szőcs

There is that meme that says: “Let’s wake up super early and go run really far” – Psychopaths. Hilarious as it is, it’s the reality of most runners. And I chose to do exactly that with Samantha Dong. Being alone in New York City is almost unimaginable. It’s the craziest city in the world. No honking, no sirens, no exhaust fumes, no crowds? It only happens at the crack of dawn and that’s when New York is the most stunningly beautiful, as the warm sunlight of a new day slowly floods the streets, sparkles on windows, on shattered glass on the roads, gently takes the piles of trash in its embrace on the sidewalks, and shushes the cockroaches back into the cracks of buildings. The only people you meet out there are other runners. It’s the best time to enjoy peace, and run those miles watching the city coming around.

That look when you finish your morning run before others have even woken up.

Those mornings running with Sam, 5am at Times Square and 6am at Brooklyn Bridge, were gorgeous, but neither of us had always done that. Sam used to hate running and explains, “I dreaded running 5k races a year and a half ago, and I never understood why runners would pay to suffer.” Now Sam has just qualified for Boston to run her second marathon ever. “My mom still asks me what I get after each race and tells me not to run too much every time I call her,” she says. Isn’t it glorious how life changes because of an activity you choose to do? “Running has brought so much joy and so many good people into my life who like it as much as I do,” says Sam, who is now a member of what I estimate to be all of the running clubs of New York, a brand ambassador, and a glowing and happy person. She’s a loved member of a buzzing community living an active lifestyle.

This is how we met too. Following and posting about the same content in the same geographical area, we met on social media and instantly bonded over running and photos. And over croissants and cakes. I didn’t know anyone local in New York and during the winter months I had no desire to try to make new friends – all that snow, ice, wind, and freezing temperatures didn’t make me want to be social at all. I did my runs alone along the Hudson River, exploring Manhattan by myself, training for the Brooklyn Half Marathon, and making plans of the things I wanted to do during my stay in the city.

Times Square at 5am.

When I finally approached Sam in the spring of this year and told her that I wanted to photograph her, she opened up a secret door in front of me to the running world of New York City. Suddenly I started receiving invitations, event notifications, and most importantly, met new people and started to feel connected. The change I noticed made me realise what we all know already, that humans are social beings. We need to stay active and share some time with people for our mental health. Sam agrees. “When the pandemic happened, all the gyms and workout studios closed in NYC. I had to stay active for my mental health. I purchased a refurbished spin bike to use at home, but I soon became bored of looking at a screen whilst working out.

“I wanted to get out and feel the world around me again. I started to run consistently in November 2020 with a new and small group called Positive Mental Energy in Brooklyn, although we had to wear masks when running together outside.” Right? Running makes us feel alive. It’s an explosion of feelings and sensations that are unlike anything else. That burning in our muscles, gasping for air, powering through, the wind in our face, the sweat on our back, the sound of our steps, the exhaustion at the end, and that sweet feeling of exhaustion and happiness. Feeling alive is sometimes a mixture of pain and ecstasy.

Wind in hair, road beneath feet.

release

Red sunrise over Times Square.

It helped me through the pandemic too. And helped me through the long withdrawal stage after finally quitting smoking, through loss and grief, and through the complete shutdown in 2020. Starting running wasn’t really a conscious decision. It just happened, as if my body had gotten up one morning and demanded movement. I would have lost my sanity otherwise. You don’t need to be in good shape to start running. I certainly wasn’t and nor was Sam. “I was slow and I found 5k challenging let alone 10k when I started with the Positive Mental Energy group. It took a lot of practice and mental strength to run longer distances gradually,” says Sam.

Sprinting to catch the first batch of freshly baked croissants in the café.

In March 2021 Sam began to run with Manhattan-based Old Man Run Club. “This group pushed me to run longer and faster on Saturday mornings,” she says. Sam also runs with On Running and earlier this year she was super proud to become an ambassador for the performance shoe brand. Sam adds, “I have met amazing friends because of running and I am forever grateful for all the friendship, support and love from the running community.”

Sam has now set up her own running club, which is sponsored by some fantastic brands and small businesses including athletic clothing company Outdoor Voices and Orwashers, New York’s original artisan bakery. “I recently started Asian Trail Mix (ATM), a trail run group, and I plan to organise a trail run once a month. The goal is to increase inclusion, participation, and representation of POC, especially AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islanders) in trail running. So far, we have had two runs (Central Park in May and Van Cortlandt Park in June), with a third run coming up soon in July. I am forever grateful for Tekla’s support when I asked her to take pictures at the inaugural trail run of ATM.”

It’s clear that what started as just a random activity for Sam, soon became a lifestyle. “I just enjoy running and I prefer it to be long and slow. Sometimes I like to run alone which helps clear my mind, but most of the time I like to run with my friends, as it’s more fun and it gives me no excuse to be lazy. I love food and my marathon training diet is basically my normal diet. In terms of gels and nutrition when training for races, I use Maurten, as I love how clean the ingredients are and their texture and taste.” It appears both of us like to think that vast amounts of cakes and noodles are a wholesome athlete diet… Sam took me to some of the best cafés and breakfast places in Manhattan and I returned to London almost a stone heavier. Clearly, I hadn’t been doing as much running as she had!

When you have Brooklyn Bridge all to yourself and a break for water and fuel to enjoy the scenery.

Of course, we both like to look good when we are running and great outfits are definitely a motivation. The more I run, the more clothes I need, right? And the more shoes. One can never own too many running shoes. Often, I’d exercise only to justify a new purchase! Sam’s favourite running outfit is an exercise dress from Outdoor Voices and she also loves wearing her SunGod sunglasses.

I’m so glad my photoshoot offer was enticing enough for Sam to get up that mentally early. Although the races in NY all seem to start hours earlier than in London. For my Brooklyn Half Marathon, I had to get up at 4.30am. And I had thought that the 6am alarm for the Hampton Court Palace Half Marathon was early…

When the sugar kicks in.

What this story proves is that running will not only do the things you already know it does: teaching you about your own body, endurance, control, mindset, determination, etc. It gives you friends too. You run, and you will have friends anywhere you go in the world. You will meet wonderful and welcoming people like Sam.

Don’t think about it too much.

Just go.

Lace up.

Run your city.

The run path by the East River is one of the most spectacular in Manhattan.

Words & Photography by Tekla Szőcs, Editorial Design by Root

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