It's Tuesday morning around 8am and I'm just arriving to East River Park Track on the east side of downtown New York City. Our weekly Resident Runners "We On That Track" speed workout was scheduled to kick-off shortly so I sit and start lacing up.
Joined by two friends, Fabian and Marnie, we sit talking about the strange weather, go over the workout ahead of us, and look on as the Baruch men's soccer team knock the ball around during a short-sided scrimmage. At this time of day the track is pretty busy with the Tuesday regulars and a mixture of serious and not-so-serious runners, walkers, and onlookers. One onlooker sits, nodding to the music leaking from his white earbuds, softly muttering something.
"Did you say something?" asks Fabian.
"Nah, just singing to myself," replies the guy. Cool.
Time to get to work so we move our bags, a Nike backpack and a black drawstring pack, to the midfield line of the soccer field just about 10 feet inside the track. We'd done this the past three weeks as we all agreed it felt safer and less likely for them to be taken than if left on the pedestal that is those shiny silver bleachers. Just like every other time we place our valuables inside the bags and start off on a 1 mile warmup.
As we finish the warmup and go into some activation drills, all is normal. The soccer team is beginning to wrap-up practice and our bags are sitting just as we left them. The upcoming 12x400s feel a bit daunting, so we decide to get started right away.
One down… 200m recovery - a light jog halfway around the track. Two down… a bit fast on that one, so a slower 200m recovery. On 400 number three I notice something as I zoom down the final 100m stretch. About three of the soccer players and what I think is the coach are somewhat hovered around our bags. I catch their eye as I motion to make way and give them a convincing glance that says, "Don't touch our shit, please."
Their eyes soften and one nods with some degree of comprehension, so I thought. Finishing the third 400 interval we begin our recovery for another 200m to the other side of the track. Time for number four, GO!
That's when the story really begins. As I round the bend and glance down the straightaway I immediately notice the void - our bags are gone. And so is the soccer team. A fast pace became a sprint as I dash through the metal turnstile and out onto the asphalt path that runs up and down the Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt highway. Just as I exit I spot the soccer team crossing the highway via the pedestrian path up above.
Sensing my urgency they connect the dots and shout, "Were those your bags?! He ran that way," pointing South on the path, "wearing a white shirt!"
Off I go, with one thing continually running through my head: "I'm gonna catch this guy." After sprinting for about 300m I hear screams from the pedestrian bridge again and as I turn around I see I'm being waved back. Returning I'm told he ran along the water, so Fabian and Marnie are a bit ahead of me already making their way to the parallel cement path that runs along the East River. Separated from the FDR highway by various baseball fields, parks, and courts, I essentially backtracked only to eventually makeup the original 300m on the opposite side of the park area.
No matter, I was still gonna catch this fucking guy.
Pushing ahead I pass Fabian who assures me he saw someone up ahead running. He points and motions for me to go so I continue pushing, faster, faster, until in the distance I see our bags ditched alongside the path. "Great," but I don't care about the bags at this point. Onward, I keep running.
Unable to see who I'm chasing yet, I look back to Fabian and he points ahead through the park area separating the water-side path from the highway-side path. I'll let he and Marnie check the backs, I've got to keep going. I make a quick decision to switch directions and cut through the park to the highway-side path. As I do so I notice a white movement up ahead in the park, just visible through brush and trees. It's HIM.
As he merges onto the asphalt runner- and biker-path I kick it into full gear, hauling ass and still hearing myself reaffirm the fact that I would soon catch this guy. 50 meters, 40 meters, I'm gaining… and then, WHOA!
He stops, turns to the barricaded fence separating the path from the infamous FDR highway, and in an instant is up and over. Immediately cars screech and the ever-too-familiar sound of car horns begin to ring out. Without thought I immediately leap up and scale the iron fence as well, quickly landing on the opposite side in the first lane of traffic. A head-to-head game of Frogger begins as I dash from lane to lane pleading with drivers to slow down as I simultaneously eye his movements toward the opposite side.
After making it through the three lanes I hop up and balance myself on the cement median dividing the two sides of traffic. Only now it becomes apparent that southbound traffic is playing no games, traveling at much higher speeds and with far fewer gaps. With each contemplative move my brain reminds me that the gap is too small and the cars too fast. After about 10 seconds of anxious anticipation I get my break, quickly jumping and sprinting between two cars before I make my way up and over the outer cement barrier and onto the FDR service road.
My feet hit, I glance up, and NO WAY - a NYPD police cruiser is coasting down from Houston Street directly toward me. Checking south I see the guy begin to make his move running toward Baruch Houses, a series of public housing units at the corner of Delancey and FDR. My immediate urge is to sprint after him, sure that I can now make up the only 50 meters remaining between me and my long-running subconscious hopes of catching an intended thief.
But instead, I flag down the officer. It's not often (actually never) that police arrive at the very moment a crime takes place, so I feel obligated to at least alert him. His window rolls down and I try to explain the scenario assuming he just saw me hop off the highway on foot.
"Sir, I'm chasing a guy who just stole our bags and has my phone and wallet."
"Uh, where was it stolen from?" he asked.
In my head: "Who the fuck cares!?" Out loud: "The track, but he's right around the corner, I'm chasing him now and need to catch him."
He looks unalarmed and follows up with, "What was stolen?"
"My phone and wallet!" I yell. It's at this point I realize my mistake. I should have kept running, I should have ignored the cop, I should have caught the guy by now.
"I'm going to go catch him."
The officer nods and says he'll head up and around to try and find him as I take off.
I continue pursuit, sprinting through the courtyard and around one of the housing units. No one in sight other than a few bystanders, whom I question. No one saw anything, so I move back around to the highway via Delancey. Nothing.
Now, with no phone, and with friends no where in sight, I make my way back toward the track - about 3/4 of a mile. Coming over the highway (this time using a designated walking bridge) I see Fabian and Marnie walking along the water-side path. Finishing my run I approach the two co-chasers who are happy to present our bags with all other belongings still nicely packed inside.
The three of us walk along the path and begin to trade perspectives. It's then Fabian explains that as I ran along the opposite side of the highway, he stood and observed the guy run into the housing unit courtyard and quickly walk into one of the buildings. "That one," he pointed as we approach Baruch Houses.
We knew the building he went in, what he was wearing, and exactly what he looked like. Maybe we'll still get him… maybe. 20 minutes after calling the police, a unit shows up - but not for us. 40 minutes pass and after finishing their business the unit pulls up and we explain everything.
"You ran across the highway?" they question in disbelief. "Yep."
After a quick scan of the building and additional units arriving, we're told there's not much else to be done. I cancel all my financial accounts and start tracking the iPhone in case he turns it on. In the meantime, nothing left to do but file a police report.
To the station we go, somewhat hesitantly as we know he'll surely leave the building as soon as we're out of sight. At the precinct we file our reports, and everyone is really understanding and helpful. As we provide details it becomes apparent that Fabian got a really good look at the guy, even better than I despite giving chase for so long.
As a matter of fact, Fabian actually talked to the guy. Right on the bleachers. Right before we started our workout. The thief was the music-listening guy sitting beside us on the bleachers… he'd removed his striped shirt and red hat sometime during the chase, but that was him.
When the detectives learn of our encounter they ask us if we would recognize the guy if seen again. "Of course," replies Fabian. And he was right. After sorting through a hundred or more photos of previously convicted persons matching the descriptions, we identify him along with his long list of prior theft charges.
What's next? Not sure. Probably nothing. I doubt we'll get our stuff back and I doubt they can prove he stole it. There are no cameras in the housing courtyard or at the building entrance and no highway cams to capture the chase across the FDR. We gave it a good effort.
I did learn one lesson though.