Sunday, December 7, 2014

In Ghana, a run that veered off-limits

                ACCRA, Ghana – I’m just back from a 60-hour trip to five African countries – pretty hard to imagine – that included a stop here and in Senegal, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. We went to assess the Ebola response in the three most-affected countries (Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone), and one of the biggest complicating factors (beyond the health risk) was the travel: two nights on a plane, one night here at a hotel.

Getting in a run was critical for my stamina, even if it meant a few hours of sleep. I made it to the hotel lobby by 5:30 a.m. and asked the clerk for a nearby route. He told me to stay inside the hotel perimeter because it was dark out. I said I wanted to go outside and he told to run the perimeter outside the hotel. I gave up. At the front entrance, I saw a security guard and he pointed me toward Independence Square.

I crossed a highway after waiting 15 seconds for traffic to clear and ran down a broken sidewalk, passing vendors already setting up stalls that sold warmed-up breakfast foods and coffee. I ran for seven or eight minutes until I came to a major highway – Independence Square was likely to my left. But in front of me was a narrow road opening to an infinite horizon – it could be the Atlantic.

I took the narrow road. It was semi-abandoned, dark except for pools of light from street lamps. I passed a few men, picked up my pace, and reached a guardhouse in front of a small hotel. I could hear waves.

The guard was asleep. I gently called to him and he lifted his head. I asked about getting to the ocean, and he kindly said, yes, follow me, and he led me through the hotel lobby, a back patio, and to a locked gate, which opened up to the Atlantic Ocean -- the eastern shore, less than a week after I had been to the western, in Maine.

I felt a bit dizzy as I navigated crude wooden steps to the beach. It felt like I was walking into a completely new world. I stopped and steadied myself. The dark was starting to lift, the scene unfolding. The beach was wide and soft, except the packed sand near the tide line. The ocean stretched as far as I could see. I saw a few runners and walkers on the beach, far in the distance. That gave me confidence to go on.

I reached water’s edge and thought for a moment about taking off my shoes, shirt, glasses, and watch, and jumping into the ocean – it was 80 degrees and humid. I thought better of it. I couldn’t read the scene. Enough people watching me. Not enough to stop a thief.

I picked up some beautiful shells and then ran along the packed sand, passing people who said nothing. I saw a young boy just a few feet into the surf, his head facing the beach as gentle waves curled over his shoulders. I saw three middle-aged bountiful women, who were walking into the ocean, holding hands, backs bare, singing about Jesus.

Then I saw in the distance a fishing boat and a dozen men pulling in a substantial fishing net from the shore. I decided to run to the boat and turn back. But as I neared it, a man started running toward me. He waved his arms and held his hand out as a policeman would: Stop. I stopped and help up my hands as if I didn’t understand. He vigorously jabbed his hand toward the beach behind me. I understood. I turned around instantly and headed back. I didn’t look back. I had run into something off-limits and I was getting out.

I kept a good pace. I passed the three women again who were on the beach now, holding hands in a circle, heads turned skyward, singing and shouting. I passed silent men sitting in the sand. I averted my eyes. I went to the gate by the seaside hotel, but it was locked, and so I quickly picked my way through abandoned lots that were strewn with garbage, chunks of concrete, and a small pack of dogs, until I reached a road. I kept my pace.

     In 10 minutes, I reached my hotel. It was 6:15 a.m. I made my way to my room, closed the door, and exhaled.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A run to the sea


                BRUNSWICK, Maine – For the last few months, my running has slowed down, thanks to an injury to my left calf. So I’ve pieced together 20- or 30-minute runs, knowing sharp pain would come at some point. I ran around the Washington Monument and the Mall with my friend Patrick. Or on the Capitol Crescent trail with Ellen and Chuck. Mostly, though, I have gone alone.

                My travel, though, has increased. I’ve been to the Horn of Africa, Korea, and Mexico – all in the past month. I ran sporadically, lamenting in particular that I couldn’t run in Mogadishu.

                In the last few weeks, my calf has begun to heal and I’ve started to test it, including running on dirt trails for an hour. I need to pick it up again.

                I went out the morning after Thanksgiving from my parent’s snugly built pink house in Brunswick. My father showed me a route on his iPad on Google Earth. I studied it closely. My brother asked from his living room chair, ‘Don’t you ever just decide where to go as you run?’

                I wish I were more impulsive. I fear getting lost when I travel because my runs almost always happen in narrow envelopes of time. Being late has consequences – like being left behind. But I also like to know where I am going. I like to think of myself as Robert Frost at a fork in the road, and maybe that will one day come true, but not now. I etched the path on Google Earth into my mind.

                My father showed how I could take the road to the sea. He said that he and my mother sometimes drove to a boat launch there at the end of warm days, where they sat and drank a beer as the sun went down. “It’s a nice spot,” he said.

I stepped out into the cold air. All was white: the snow, the clouds, the sky. I tugged my hat over my ears and turned right, onto a plowed sidewalk.

                Plowed in Maine is relative. A dusting of snow covered what was underneath. In the first block, I stepped unknowingly on a sheet of ice, my left leg went up in the air but I caught myself, barely. I crossed the road and I ran in the road against traffic. Maine’s road sanders are top notch.

                I passed a mobile home park and thought about a life of low ceilings, small windows, and limited possibilities. I passed homes with large pick-up trucks and thought what it would be like to sit so high. And I ran alongside stands of pine trees with bowed branches cloaked with snow, a sight of beauty as well as stress.

                I came to a rise and could see water ahead. I found the sign for the boat launch; the short road to it was not plowed so I hopscotched to water’s edge.

                It was low tide and the water had receded to a half-mile out. The sea bed was brown. My first step onto it was firm. My second was squishy. The bed started to swallow my shoe. I pulled back and the bed made a loud sucking sound; it almost had me, it was saying. I looked around my feet and found scatterlings of the sea, broken clam shells, shiny rocks, bright green algae. I picked up a few purple-bellied shells and an orange rock and spread them on my black gloves.

                I stood still, facing the sea. It was silent. Then I heard wind rushing at my back, a bird singing softly, and crows puncturing the air with calls. I closed my eyes and thought of nothing, not what had come before, not what would come soon, just the moment standing alone. Time passed and I suddenly felt chilled.               

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Mind over matter: Full of energy, but why?

My posts are almost always far from home. But on my return home from a month in Asia, it felt new again, and a recent run was particularly thought provoking. So here goes:
At home, I generally run three or four times a week and on weekends I try to join my running partners, Chuck and Ellen. I was set to go out with Chuck early this Sunday but he told me the night before that he had some early morning work and couldn’t make it.
That got me thinking. Where did I want to go? What would be exciting? I decided on a run on the Capital Crescent trail north through Bethesda, toward Silver Spring, ending near an area landmark, the Mormon Temple.  
For me, this would be a run of consequence, perhaps 90 minutes. When I trained for marathons, I ran past the temple a couple of times a month, but I hadn’t run there for well over a year.
So I went to bed excited about the prospect of a long run first thing in the morning. I woke up excited, too. And I started out about 6:30 a.m. with a bounce in my step. 
I had run the day before and my legs felt sluggish – likely the byproduct of getting back in the routine of biking to work during the past week. But I felt energized now. I wondered why was there such a difference from one day to the next?
Then I thought to the night before, about my preparation and excitement about this run. It reminded me of other times, especially back in my 20s and 30s, when I used to plot long runs a day or more ahead. I would mentally prepare myself, visualizing parts of the runs, thinking about pace, about water stops, about possible new legs to the run. I pored over maps. I put out my running clothes before crawling into bed so that I could leave as quickly as possible.
It was fun – just as this recent run was. The mental aspect of the run seemed to overshadow the physicality of it, becoming more dominant, adding a sheen of happiness that somehow dimmed or dulled any pain. It also made me think about how such mental preparation and planning or studied concentration before any event could add joy to the actual experience. It didn’t matter if it was a run or a bike ride or a backyard barbecue, enjoying preparation could equal a more enjoyable experience.
The second noteworthy aspect of this run happened during it, near its midpoint. It was an out-and-back run along Beach Drive (which is far from any beach) and near my turnaround point several large groups of runners led by a pace-person were headed the other way. The groups ranged from 10 to 20 persons.
When I turned back toward home, I soon came up on the first group. They were running about 10 minutes per mile pace. As I approached them and prepared to pass the group, someone in the back yelled, “RUNNER LEFT!” A path opened immediately for me as the pack narrowed.
I found myself speeding up, suddenly turning into the Young Racer for a few seconds, competitive gene asserting itself, striding and pushing and passing with ease. I laughed at myself after (and slowed down as I had to recover my breath). But minutes later, I came upon another group, and I pulled the same Young Racer self out for the 15-second dash, only to feel my age later.
I thought, what am I doing? What am I proving? Maybe it was just a short moment of satisfaction, I still have it in me. I picked up the pace home (as my mental powers were still strong) and when I reached our house I told my daughter Paige about passing the groups with a burst of speed.
“That’s the best,” she said.
Competitive genes, indeed. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Photo blog: Running in Hong Kong


HONG KONG – This is an incredible place to run and to discover the island's vast network of trails. But my best running tip here came over a beer. This beer:

My friend and colleague Nicolas and I had discovered an outside Beer Fest one weekend afternoon on a side street in this densely urban place.
To give you an idea:

We zeroed in on two booths that served craft beers, one from England, the other from Scotland. It was early in the afternoon, and we ended up staying for a couple of hours, talking with several 20-somethings who had gone to college in the US or Canada and decided to settle here to do business. They were full of ideas on how to make money – as they worked a couple of jobs at the same time.
Hours later, after dinner, we stopped by again, found the same two booths and had a beer – a black IPA called Libertine Black Ale, brewed by BrewDog from Scotland. It was delicious.

We started talking with two guys; one asked if I were a runner and that led to a discussion of all the runs we had been doing in Hong Kong, where we've been staying on weekends during a three-week tour of Asia.
One fantastic run was high above the city. It was on a paved trail that had several panoramic views at eye level of the top floors of skyscrapers. Like this:
Or this:

One of guys, whose name was Gary, an investor who splits his time between New York and Hong Kong, said there was an even better run.  He scribbled down some path names, warned that part of it was straight up, but encouraged me to do it.
The next morning, I went.

I went up and up and up – so steep that it hurt my calves. So I walked, up and up. At the top, I found a trail through a forest of small trees and ran up some more. At the peak, I could see the other side of the island, and then the strangest thing happened: a cooling headwind. Hong Kong is hot and humid during summer, and it was the first – and only – bit of natural coolness.  I ran down the other side of the mountain and found my way back to the hotel – nearly a 90 minute run in the heat. I felt energized, though, after finding a glimpse of a rural oasis in a packed city, all thanks to a kind stranger over a black IPA. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

In China: What is behind the curtains?

CHANGSHA, China – This may be hard to believe, but I travel in such a fast-moving, security-protected bubble – often a different city every day – with so much work to do that sometimes I arrive in a city that I know in name only. At such times, I learn where I’ll be sleeping after our entourage pulls up to the hotel; I’ll receive a room key without breaking stride, like a running back receiving a football from a quarterback, as we whisk into the elevator to our floor; and sometimes late at night or early in the morning, after a few dozen emails or a few hours sleep, I’ll take the time to draw the curtains of my room and peer into the darkness with one question in mind:
Where am I?

This happened here. I opened the curtains at 5:30 a.m. at the Wanda Vista Hotel (I looked for the name on the hotel writing pad), room 2212, and I looked out at this south-central Chinese city in the Hunan Province with no idea of what I would see. I saw gray light, smog, the hints of a sunrise, and then a wide river right below -- the Xiang River, I would later learn, a branch of the Yangtze River. Most importantly, I could see a path that hugged the river: my running route.

I stepped outside to the heat. It was humid, over 85 degrees, but, within a couple of minutes, after reaching the tiled path, I knew this would be one of my best runs in months.

Everywhere: life. I saw old men in worn white tank-top undershirts on their brisk dawn walk. I saw fishermen with pails filed with water in anticipation of catches. I heard a man play a flute, beautifully. I ran past two middle-aged women, a boombox at their feet, as they hip-hopped to their daily aerobic routine.

The path was far from pristine, though not overly dirty or overly crowded, at least not by Chinese urban standards. It was full of Chinese people (no foreigners) who took no notice of me and who were immersed in their early morning workouts or work.

I found myself fascinated by them. One old man performed his tai chi movements, elegantly, soundlessly, on the grass. A cluster of people, at the bottom of a stairway next to the river, ran an informal fish market from their buckets full of foot-long silver-bellied fish that were alive, barely. An old man and a young girl ran slowly together, both smiling.

And then I heard a sharp sound – almost like gunshots. I picked up my pace toward an amphitheater-like structure with a large white roof and the sound grew louder and louder.


Crack! Crack! Crack!

I came to a wide pavilion and saw a group of six men dressed in loose fitting pants and T-shirts standing in a large circle. In their right arms, they held long whips. Ten feet in front of them were fat wooden tops. The men reached back and whipped the tops, spinning them round and round. The sounds echoed off the roof and off barges in the river. Crack! Crack! Crack!

I stood entranced. Sweat dripped from their faces. They watched their tops spin upright, calculating the timing of the next stroke that would hit the top precisely at the point that kept it spinning in place, not careening across the tiles or tipping on its side. They paced slowly in between their whippings, like indifferent cats in front of wounded prey. They were in no hurry. They just were.

 I started heading back, wishing I could talk to them about this game or exercise that I had never seen. (I learned later on – China blocks google – that whipping stone tops is ancient Chinese activity, still practiced in some cities). I ran past people playing ping-pong, women in pajamas stretching, a man playing a Chinese string instrument called an echo.

When I got back to my room on the 22nd floor, I looked out again at the river and tiny figures below. I had started the morning just an hour before, with the mystery of opening the curtains, and now I knew so much more.


Friday, July 11, 2014

Along the Great Wall: Have a Tsingtao!

ON THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA – It’s been a long dream of mine to see the Great Wall of China, the 5,500-mile long structure that runs from east to west of the country. With the luck of good airport connections and a travel companion, my friend Ed, who speaks Mandarin and had agreed to be a tour guide, it finally happened -- late on a Sunday to a section of the wall in Mutianyu, about 70 kilometers northeast of Beijing.
A friend, Liz, had just run the Great Wall Marathon and she had described the race as incredibly hard because of the Wall’s steep slopes. I had looked at her puzzled – my image was of a mostly flat Wall.

But when we arrived at the Wall earlier this week, taking a two-person chairlift from Mutianyu village to the Wall, I saw she was not only correct, but had underplayed the steep pitch. I had put on my running clothes and shoes in an airport bathroom stall (a first) and was ready to run the Wall (thinking it would be great to put in a few miles), but after the first 200 yards I was huffing and puffing.
In this section, the mostly granite structure, which was built in the 6th century and rebuilt in the 16th, consisted of a series of up and down sections so steep that it would be dangerous to run the downhills and exhausting to run the uphills.

Still, I gave it a go – a run-walk (mostly a walk) for 15 minutes or so.
We had arrived around 5 p.m. and most of the tourists were gone, and there was even a hint of a cool breeze. At first, it seemed just as I had seen in photographs in a National Geographic magazine. The Wall snaked over hilltops, zigged and zagged, going on and on, as far as you could see. It seemed an incomprehensible feat from the Middle Ages.

Up close, the experience, though, the 21st century had crept in.

I ran past a group of French tourists in their early 20s, their faces red from exertion, all lighting up cigarettes.
I ran past young Chinese couples dressed in latest fashions giggling as they took selfies.

And on the top of one long uphill, I ran past a Chinese vendor who saw the sweat dipping off my brow and shouted out, “Have a Tsingtao! Ice cold! It gives you energy!”
I smiled. Enticing, I thought. I kept going, second-guessing my decision – drinking a cold beer might have given me a lift – but I kept moving until my lungs could power me no more. I turned around and through the haze (likely smog from greater Beijing) looked out at the Wall’s crown on the hills to the north. An opaque sun was barely visible. It was a privilege to stand there and see, as millions of people had before me, a wonder of the world. Not even the haze diminished it. 


Wednesday, June 4, 2014

In Jeddah, a discomforting run


       JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – I’ve always wanted to run in Saudi Arabia. It had nothing to do with the beauty of the place. It had everything to do with the challenge -- particularly the discomfort.
                Not only do summer temperatures rise to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, but runners have to wear sweatpants and long-sleeve shirts. Running in shorts and a T-shirt for men would draw the ire of the morality police (or so I thought). For women, it’s much worse. Women wear an abayah and hijab in public – a head to toe covering – and running in an abayah and hijab would be dangerous. (A few hotels in the cities do have gyms catering just to women.)

                I dressed in black nylon long pants and a long-sleeve shirt, setting out at 5:30 a.m. for a boardwalk that hugged the Red Sea. It was 85 degrees and humid. I was sweating before I left the hotel grounds.
                Once I crossed over to the boardwalk, I saw something wonderful: other men were wearing T-shirts. Guiltily (thinking of women having no such choice) I removed my long-sleeve shirt as I had a short-sleeve underneath. The degree of difficulty just lowered.

                Because it gets so hot here, families use the parks when the sun isn’t up or it’s down. Even at this early hour, on the grass along the sea, couples or families with young children were eating breakfast, going down slides in playgrounds, or smoking from hubbly-bubbly pipes. Others walked along the shore. A few fishermen cast their long poles into the sea. And every so often a woman walked by, dressed in black, the only skin showing were her hands and her eyes and eyebrows.
                The night before, we had met a group of young Saudi entrepreneurs – a group of about 15 men and women. Woman after woman (see the photo above) told stories of their work. They had so much to say that the men could barely get in a word. One woman banker had overseen a project that helped 10,000 women start businesses with small loans. Another helped train women to market their work. And a third said her theory on why professional Saudi women have a harder time than men in business was because as girls they could not join sports teams and lost the chance to both understand teamwork as well as develop a competitive spirit.  Perhaps.

                She did acknowledge that society’s norms made it more difficult for women. She told the story of mentoring a woman entrepreneur, but her contact dropped off because the woman had to accompany her husband whenever he traveled; eventually she gave up on the woman. Still, she said, more and more men in Saudi’s elite circles encouraged their wives and their daughters to work.
                On the same evening, before the meeting with the entrepreneurs, two women journalists at a press conference asked a couple of great questions -- much tougher than their male counterparts. On my run, I thought about how encouraging it was to hear women’s confident voices – this couldn’t have happened when I was last in Saudi Arabia some 15 years ago. Even though these women were from privilege, the episodes gave the impression that women were on the verge of receiving more freedoms.

                Then I thought again. A half hour into my run, feeling like I had been in a sauna, I ran past another woman in an abayah and hijab. How did she feel in this heat? What were her circumstances? What rights did she possess? What was her future?
                They were all unanswerable questions, of course. I ran another 10 minutes, watched long-legged white shore birds dive for fish, passed a series of large concrete sculptures, and ran up a short hill to the hotel.  I stretched, did a series of sit-ups, and meditated for a few minutes. As I quieted my mind, the disquieting thoughts of the differences between the rights of men and women kept intruding. The run, it turned out, was far more discomforting than I had thought.