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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.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Squeezing in a run in Toronto; transported to another place

     TORONTO – Sometimes my trips are so quick that the biggest challenge for a run is finding the time. Toronto proved especially tight. We arrived at our downtown hotel here at 9:45 p.m. We were leaving the next day at 11:30 a.m. – less than 14 hours in all.

     When we arrived, I still had several hours of writing to do, so I wasn’t going out. The next morning, meetings started at 7 a.m. and continued until departure. I went to bed at 1:30 a.m., and set the alarm for 5 a.m.

     If I wanted to run in Toronto, that was my slot. The only reason I did it: What’s the difference of sleeping an hour longer? I still would be tired. And I wouldn’t see a slice of Toronto.

     I was out of the hotel at 5:15 a.m. and adopted my usual strategy when I don’t know a city: Out and back, run on one road and then retrace my steps. I couldn’t get lost.

     I headed east on Front Street. Construction crews were on almost every block in the first few minutes; they wore hard hats and orange safety vests and some drove little fork lifts. The streets, though, were mostly empty, and I remembered why I liked running in cities before dawn – the quiet and the absence of cars.

     These early morning hours of peace in a city are a rare treat, experienced mostly, I guess, by people who work overnight shifts, or those who stay for last call, or runners or walkers with insomnia or an exercise addiction.

     At this hour, Toronto was a small town with skyscrapers. I felt calm (if groggy) as I passed a shoe shop, restaurants, a pet shop, and the Hockey Hall of Fame (a Beaux-Arts styled building). Even a local coffee shop hadn’t opened. Nearly all cities are runnable at 5 a.m., but an hour later some aren’t, and by 7 a.m., most are difficult because of traffic.

     About a mile into my run, I saw a sign for the waterfront, and changed my plan, turning right off Front. The road went under the Gardiner Expressway and then dead-ended at Lake Ontario.

     But right in front of me was an odd-looking area: an expanse of white sand, umbrellas and Adirondack-like chairs – a beach, but one that didn’t seem to have access to the water.

     I saw a sign: Sugar Beach was its name, established in 2010 as a waterfront urban public space for relaxation (and not for swimming). I ran on the white sand and sat down on one of the chairs. I had Sugar Beach to myself. I resisted the opportunity to take off my running shoes and wiggle my toes in the sand, but did close my eyes. I thought of myself on some distant white-sand beach in the Caribbean. It was a very pleasing thought, and I could feel sleep coming. So I wrested myself out of the chair, bid farewell to Sugar Beach,  ran a bit more on the waterfront, took some turns, found Front Street, evaded an attack black squirrel that seemed for a second would bite my leg, and arrived at my hotel. Six o’clock sharp. Blood flowing. Better to have run than slept.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Davos: Mary J. Bilge, Bono, and dark woods

                DAVOS, Switzerland – Davos’ brand is truly global. Come here and see 40 heads of states, 350 senior public officials, and 1000 industry titans, or Eric Schmidt, Bono, and Bill Gates. Or walk into a small bar off a hotel lobby (if you're wearing the exclusive wrist band, which grants entry) and listen  to Mary J. Blige belt out “Just Fine.”
                The reality of Davos is that, plus this: Deals in the side rooms, grumpy stars on stage, parties atop mountains, broadcasters on a rooftop in white tents, pure white snow-capped peaks against blue sky, and, for me, a few moments away from all of it.
                This was my first trip to the World Economic Forum and all I really knew ahead of time was that it brought together entrepreneurs, rock stars, development leaders in an atmosphere of sheer excess. That excess (some took a $10,000 helicopter ride from Zurich to Davos to get here; not me) was tempered by what organizers said was a record of results – new ideas were cooked at Davos that ended up doing great good.
                This year’s Davos focused on battling income inequality. There was a great deal of talk around inequality, and there was a great deal of head-turning in the hallways: In a span of 10 minutes, I saw Iran President Hassan Rouhani , a phalanx of Israeli Shin Bet security, Mary Robinson, and Bono. The truth: It was hard to stay focused.
                Walking through the hallways had the feel of speed dating your exs, or attending your high school reunion, with a maximum of 20 seconds per person, no time to get beyond what you were doing or where you were. The smart Davos-goer had back-to-back-to-back, all day long, 15 minute meetings (max), with five minutes in between to get to each meeting. Bartenders served non-stop double cappuccinos and espresos; other patrons seemed high on something else.
                At the end of the work day, 8 p.m., all I felt like doing was lying down in bed. But I knew at night, the World Economic Forum week at Davos picks up. Parties sprinkle the town. You could crash a dozen, drink until dawn.
                I didn’t have the tickets to the hottest parties – the ones thrown by Google that featured Mary J. Blige in a small bar off my hotel lobby, or Bono’s and Bill Gates’ mountainside shindig. I had other prospects, but I also had an anti-Davos idea: a night run through the valley.
                At 9 p.m., I laced up my shoes, put on my windbreaker, winter-weight running pants, hat, and gloves, and made my way off our little hilltop onto a hard-packed trail that I had run in the morning a day earlier. Hours ago, cross-country skiers swooshed  past on perfectly groomed tracks, while walkers (many with dogs) walked on a parallel packed trail that skirted Davos’ small downtown.
                At night, though, with patchy clouds overhead revealing a bowl of mountains around me, I was  alone. I ran across an open field, the only sounds being the crunch of my shoes and my light breath. The trail hugged a fast-running stream and then I veered off onto a trail that went straight up into the forest.
                It was dark. Icicles hung like sinewy beards from pine trees. The trees formed a crown over the path. The only light was the snow underfoot and that was dim. I felt almost blind. I came to a downhill and quickened my stride, a gamble, but it felt good, and I ran even harder, taking long strides.. I trusted the snow and my balance, and I stayed upright into the valley.
                Even in the wide expanse, the clouds cast shadows, and I felt invisible. To my right, I sensed something near, some motion, and I turned my head. Suddenly, large black objects swooped near, 30 feet away, closer still. I stumbled. In a moment, I knew could see their outlines – deer. Huge deer. Four of them. They charged right past me.

                One hundred feet ahead, they stopped. One turned to me. I ran toward them and, spooked, they headed to higher ground, night monsters fading into dark shapes, then gone.
                Ten minutes later, I was back outside my hotel. Swiss soldiers checked my ID. (5000 came to guard Davos this past week, including snipers on roofs). I asked one about the deer and he said to his friends: Where’s my gun! They laughed as I headed inside. A hotel porter told me that he had seen deer from time to time.
                “It was good you exercised,” he said. “Otherwise, you would not have seen them.”
                It’s true. I failed to have the true Davos experience. No Mary J. Blige for me. My highlight was a moment of running with four deer in the dark.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Running in Beirut: Weighing the risks

BEIRUT, Lebanon – I thought the bombings here in recent weeks would put me on a treadmill.
But when I asked security experts here about going out for a run, they immediately said, No problem. Go to the Corniche.
The Corniche, a seaside promenade built during the French Mandate period of present-day Syria and Lebanon following World War I, hugs the coastline for about five kilometers. It is lined with palm trees that are pock-marked by bullet holes from the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 to 1990.
Today, Beirut is experiencing no shootouts (Tripoli, in the north, is another matter), but there are bombings, including one that went off in south Beirut about three hours before landing here. I learned of it when I switched on my Blackberry as I walked toward Immigration. As my driver would say, “Welcome to Lebanon.”
The Syrian conflict is spilling into Lebanon in multiple ways, including more than 1 million refugees fleeing across the border (a quarter of the population now here is Syrian); air strikes along the border line; rebel fighters going back and forth; and bombings and assassinations carried out in Beirut – tied, of course, to actions taken in the war next door.
People are resilient in Beirut. People famously go out to bars and nightclubs soon after an attack. But the feeling in Beirut today is tinged with fear. After only a few days here, it is clear that many are shaken by the frequency of the bombings, and the unpredictability of them. My driver, for instance, whose apartment is near the most recent bombings, has two girls – a fifth and first grader – and the first thing he tells me in the mornings is an update about talks with a relative in Dubai. He is making plans to send his girls there. “You are here one day, five days, 10 days,” he said to me one morning. “But my daughters are here every day. I can’t risk it.”
So why run here?
Each morning, over the span over a few hours, hundreds of people walk, run, and bike along the Corniche. Teams play aggressive badminton with wooden paddles, the sharp sounds echoing above the traffic. Old men share small cups of espresso. Middle-aged moms speed walk, their white little dogs struggling to keep up.  Fishermen lean over the railings with 20-foot-long poles and long for a bite. Polar-bear swimmers take brave strokes in the frigid ocean; some yelled in Arabic to the heavens after their plunge.
Alhamdulillah! Praise to God.
It’s a place of life and exhilaration. And it’s a place where many others weighed the risks of running or walking and decided to go.
I’m traveling with my daughter, Paige, who came to work on a project involving Syrian artists in exile. She is a much faster runner than I am – she’s in the midst of training for her college track team – and we decided to venture out together. The safety factor evened the scales in my favor. She would slow down so that we could run together.
We just finished our fifth and last day of runs along the Corniche, sticking to the same route each day. The air was not the best; the cars passed close. The pace was good, mine. At dawn, the view was memorable – pink streaks over the Mediterranean to the west, and snow-capped Mount Lebanon to the east. We dodged groups of walkers, who are bundled up in the 50-degree mornings, wearing hats, gloves, sweatpants, and sweatshirts, chatting so much they don’t notice us. They were often five and six across, linked arm in arm, comrades perhaps.
After each run, we returned feeling physically great, blood circulating, muscles stretched out. Yet we also returned with some wariness. On the Corniche, I was not only looking for beauty or a moment that said something about the place. My eyes also searched for anything amiss that signaled danger; I stiffened once when a group of young men walked toward us from the street. I knew there was a risk, even if miniscule.
It was great to be out in Beirut, not a place like most to explore by running, but rather a run that explored a sliver of a place. Still, I gladly accept my blessings. We were given a few here.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The joy of running in storms

                BRUNSWICK, Maine – I am a preacher when it comes to running in bad weather. For years I have cajoled friends to get outside during pouring rain, sleet storms, blizzards, or even run-of-the-mill high winds. (I draw the line when it comes to extreme heat waves, hurricanes, lightning storms, and seriously icy roads.) Too many of us look outside at sheets of rain and say to ourselves, ‘Not today.’
                I recently ran in two storms back to back – one here in Maine during a snow storm and the other in Chevy Chase in a 43-degree rain. I’ll acknowledge that I hesitated a minute before running in cold rain. But years of preaching had its rewards: You say something too many times and you start believing it.

I always tell my friends they should run in rains and snowstorms because they always will feel better afterward. During these recent runs, though, I started examining why that is so. Five reasons came to me.
          No. 1: You are almost always alone.

Think about it. During many runs, especially in populated areas, trails are full of other people exercising; the constant line of people becomes part of your focus. But in a downpour, you can go miles without seeing anyone. And when you do see someone, there’s almost a kinship, as in, another crazy is out here. You may even wave.
This difference in a routine can spur creativity. Patterns of thinking change. The focus at first may be inward, thinking about how your body is responding to the rain or sleet or high winds. Gradually, though, in my experience, the thoughts while running in storms turns to mounting other obstacles in your life, and this is an opportunity to explore why you haven’t had success – and what you can do to find a solution.
No. 2: You have to know yourself well.
To run in extreme weather, you have to prepare both physically and psychologically.
In the 43-degree rain, I opted to wear thin nylon wind pants, for instance (along with a T-shirt underneath a semi-rain-proof running jacket, light leather gloves, and a running cap with a head band to keep my ears warm). If it were 47 degrees, I would have run in shorts. If it were 37 degrees, I would have put on my insulated running pants. Know what you’ll need, even to the level of five degrees difference in temperature.
In the snow in Brunswick, I prepared myself psychologically as well, knowing that while it was beautiful to run through snow, my footing would be unsure; I would slip backward slightly with every stride. I ran slowly. I was careful not to give myself a hard time for running at such a pace, knowing that the experience of being in the snow was more important than the pace of my run.
No. 3: You are on an obstacles course.
 Bad weather can close off paths. In the rain recently, my run took me past three brooks, which are leap-able in normal weather. But the brooks had risen high, and I was forced to stop and look for new passages.
In one case, there was no way to clear the brook without getting wet. So I looked for a way  least likely to injure me – a deliberate jump in the brook with one foot while maneuvering with my second foot for mud on the other side. That brings me to ….
No. 4: You’ll get wet, get over it.
One of the best things about running in a hard rain is that you are drenched in two minutes. In 20 minutes, you’ll still be drenched. So why not enjoy it? In a hard rain, with nylon pants clinging to your legs, it’s one of the few times you’ll be aware of the strong muscles in your thighs and calves. Let that be a moment of inspiration.
No. 5: You will laugh.
How many times in life can you feel like a five year old? Running in bad weather brings out the inner abandon, and the pure joy, of a child playing in the rain. So when you splash in a big puddle, and your foot feels the piercing cold wetness almost immediately, instead of saying, aaaarrrgghhh, why not laugh about the ridiculousness of being outside in a hard rain in the first place?
On runs in bad weather, I will laugh out loud a dozen times. Fair-weather runs are boring in comparison. So the next time it is truly awful outside, and there’s not a threat to life or limb, dress for it and get out in it. You’ll feel better for it.