I’m not sure how I first heard about Gary Atlas. Maybe it was on TV — he’s been featured in local news several times. Or maybe it was his photo on the cover of the New York Post in December of 2010. The headline was “Blizzard Slams City” and there was Gary — running along the beach — bare chested and wearing just shorts. Whatever it was, I do remember thinking I had to meet this guy.
Meet him I did — on the coldest day of the year (so far). The high was 17 degrees but with the wind chill it felt like 8. Gary had agreed to let me accompany him on his daily routine, a 6 mile run up and down the boardwalk of Coney Island followed by a swim in the Atlantic Ocean. He started this exercise regime as a way to deal with his depression while he was caring for his dying mother. His initial goal was to do 180 days in a row. I met him on day 1,591.
I am a runner. But in the winter, I am a runner on the treadmill. I had no idea how to dress for this type of weather. So I layered on as much as I could: 2 long sleeve shirts, a fleece, windbreaker, 2 pairs of socks and three pairs of gloves (which incidentally on my 5 feet two inch frame made my hands look like they belonged to a 7 foot man).
Gary popped out of his building in nothing but his signature black shorts, sunglasses and shoes. Since today’s forecast promised strong and frigid winds, he also had a pair of socks for his hands, something he only uses on “rare” occasions. I immediately started doubting this whole thing. Why had I agreed to do this? Maybe this guy was bonkers and I was about to spend the next two hours in extreme agony for no good reason.
I confessed to Gary that I was nervous. He replied, “I have days when I’m not so sure I can make it but I just go out there and I’ve come through every day.”
I was shocked! But why the outfit — or lack of an outfit? He said being “as raw as possible” was part of the challenge and that’s what made each day fun.
Fun was the last thing I expected for today. But with those words of wisdom we headed out. I couldn’t help feeling like a stuffed marshmallow running next to a fitness pro. The cold broke through all my layers right away. My hands turned numb and my feet felt like blocks of ice.
But after a few minutes I discovered I was having fun. The air was salty, fresh and invigorating. My face – the only part of my body not covered — was actually enjoying the rays of sunlight. Plus, Gary kept on cracking me up with jokes and odd stories. The run flew by and was over before I knew it.
As for the swim, I never mentally committed to it so I think that’s one of the reasons why I didn’t end up joining Gary for his “dip” in the ocean. I also knew I had to do more interviews and get more b-roll for the story. Being wet, cold and outside for another hour wasn’t a real possibility. I did promise Gary I’d return to do the entire routine (though I probably wouldn’t pick the coldest day again).
What inspires me the most about Gary is what he said when I asked him what motivated him to keep the routine going — now that his mother passed away and he surpassed his original goal. He said “every day is a beautiful day once I’m finished — no matter what the conditions are outside.” Gary may not be a zen master but I felt enlightened after meeting him. When my alarm goes off at 6am and all I want to do is press “snooze” instead of workout, I now ask “what would Gary do?”