Monday, April 30, 2012

Running wherever

Two weeks ago, in the Sunday Boston Globe published on the eve of the Boston Marathon – a perfect time for writing about running -- Geoff Edgers wrote an engaging essay about all the different cities all over the world in which he’s gone running. And it inspired me to think about all the different places I’ve gone running in the past 25 years.

Running is definitely not my favorite form of sightseeing. Walking is the ideal way to get to know a city; running is not. It’s not only that you’re moving faster (but not a whole lot faster, in my case); it’s that you take in less scenery when you’re preoccupied with oxygen intake, or at least that’s the case with me. Other factors that preoccupy me when I run in new places are finding long roads that don’t dead-end and not getting lost.

But even before starting my running streak, travel almost always included plenty of running, simply because a lot of times there was no other good exercise option. And I can apply all kinds of superlatives to apply to the various worldwide running routes I’ve explored.

Most dangerous: Bermuda, where I found no sidewalks and ran amidst the traffic for five miles.

Most anxiety-provoking: a run in the English countryside near Stratford, which sounds lovely enough in itself, but I became wildly lost in the course of the run, and the only road I could find was a highway where no one could stop to give me directions. Worse still, I was on a group business trip and had slipped out with just enough time to fit in a run before the bus left the hotel to take us on an excursion: the more lost I became, the more I was in danger of either missing the bus or holding up the whole group. I found my way back literally just in time to board the bus, unshowered and frazzled, to the amusement of my colleagues.

My most ill-advised running plan, though I didn’t fully realize it until years later, was in Venezuela. We were staying in a villa in a gated community; I ran past the guardhouse and then found a rural winding trail alongside the beach. I knew nothing about the area or the advisability of being out on my own running. Every now and then, I’d pass a group of fishermen, but no one else was out on this rugged stretch of beach. It turned out fine, but with the wisdom I’ve gained in the past twenty years, I find it a little hair-raising to think about how blithely I set out knowing nothing about the safety of my surroundings.

In Meteetsie, Wyoming, I set off on a state highway with the goal of a five-mile out-and-back. On the horizon I could see a singular tree. In about two and a half miles, I reached that tree and turned around. It’s the only time I’ve ever been able to fix my sights on a single landmark for the entire run.

In Paris, I ran in the early morning of a New Year’s Day and had the surrealistic experience of having the streets of Paris around Place d’Etoile all to myself. The whole city was still sleeping off New Year’s Eve.

In La Jolla, California, I ran “the Stanford Dish.” At Disney World, I ran below a magpie nest and had the top of my head pecked as a punishment. In Boston during a pre-dawn run I once tripped over a rat, though at the time I assured myself it was a squirrel.

But over the course of a quarter-century, I think my most memorable run happened in August in Colorado. It was on the Rio Grande Trail that runs alongside the Roaring Fork River outside of Aspen, in a canyon below mountainside property that for more than fifty years belonged to my grandparents. I’ve run that same route dozens of times, but this one was unforgettable because earlier in the day, we’d held my grandmother’s memorial service. As I ran near my grandparents’ ranch, I was convinced I could feel her spirit and that of my grandfather’s settling over the valley.

“Strange,” I thought to myself as I ran, “I always believe in the imagery of spirits rising skyward, but theirs seem to be setting into the mountain, into the river, into the earth.”

I kept running, looking at the late-afternoon sunlight on the water, at the shimmering aspen trees for which the town is named, at the red packed dirt under my feet, at the sagebrush growing on the nearby hillsides. I didn’t want that run to end; it was the strongest sense of my grandparents’ spirits I’d had before or since, as I passed near their last earthly home and through the landscape that felt very much to me like where their spirits were settling to be at rest.

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