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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. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

What happens after a fall during a run

             WASHINGTON, D.C. – This blog usually is about runs while traveling. This time, I’m writing about traveling while running.

                On a recent autumn morning, I went running with my friend Ellen on the trails in Rock Creek Park in DC. It was cool, crisp, and dry. A thick blanket of leaves covered the path, and both of us talked about it as we set off.
               We didn’t talk about its beauty, even though our path was a carpet of natural colors. Instead, we saw danger: The leaves obscured rocks and tree roots. And that, we knew from experience, meant it would be easy to trip and fall.

The Rock Creek trail cuts through miles of wood and follows a stream that roars by after hard rains and is tame the rest of the time. On this day, the water was low.
              Halfway through the run, I tripped and caught myself. Then I tripped a second time, again barely avoiding a crash. We slowed the pace a little. But I tripped again and this time I flew through the air and landed hard on the ground, falling on my right knee and thigh and stopping my momentum with both hands.

                I immediately felt pain on my right knee and left hand. My knee was bloodied. When I looked at my hand, I gulped: the base of my pinkie was nearly double in size. I thought I must have dislocated the finger. And so I yanked it. The finger popped back into place, and the bulge disappeared.
              I carefully wiggled my fingers and felt some pain. I started walking and both knees ached. But there were miles to go still, and we continued onward.

A few minutes later, I was on the ground again – a second fall. Again, I landed on my right side, sliding in the gravelly surface.
            Now the embarrassment hurt more than the wounds. How could I trip four times and fall twice in one run? Ellen tried ordering me to walk, fearing (perhaps knowing) I was about to do real damage to myself. But after a minute, we were running again.

We made it back without further falls, but I felt the after-effects for some time. I had to deal with some pain – it was hard to type for a few days, my knees ached, and my toes had turned nearly purple and were complaining. But the mental impact of the falls was far greater. For a couple of weeks afterward, I felt off-balance, as if I could fall in certain situations. I bike to work every day and I started to travel at a slower pace. For my runs, I kept to pavement. All the while, I wondered what had happened back on that run.  
            Perhaps the leaf cover was inherently dangerous – but I had tripped four times, Ellen none. Perhaps I wasn’t lifting my legs high enough (obviously true!), because I was exhausted. I buy that last explanation. I had just returned from a flight to Asia.

What’s the moral of the story?

   Not sure about that.

   Don't run in the woods after a flight from Asia? Stay off leaf-covered trails when tired? More like it. I’ll be more careful. But I bet I run again when tired. I’m too set in my ways. Falls are in my future. It’s an awful thought as I replay the crash scenes. At least I’ll know how to deal with a dislocated finger.

Monday, November 11, 2013

A run in Paris, a flood of memories

              PARIS – Paris in mid-November: rain, a chill in the air, clouds low and gray.
In other words, perfect for a run. A hotel doorman told my work colleague and friend, Ed, and I that we should try running in Tuileries Garden, just steps from our hotel.
We started at 6 a.m. in a light rain along the walls of the garden and turned a corner onto Les Champs Plaza. Amid the deep puddles, we spied an opening into the park.
In the gray light, we entered. Ed wondered if it would be dangerous. I said the only danger was the puddles – our feet were about to get soaked from splashing into one. We ran ahead, passing statues and tree-lined walkways. We kept zig-zagging, saw a large archway ahead, and started talking about various trip details. Suddenly, someone started yelling in our direction: Arret! Arret! Stop! Stop!

I looked to my left and a high-powered flashlight was trained on us, moving up and down. The man was running at us.
He started yelling in French. I thought he was saying something about the park being closed, and probably that we should get out of there. Still, I wasn’t 100 percent certain he was police or security (after all, it was dark and he was yelling in a language I didn’t understand), so I told Ed we shouldn’t wait for him and we quickly retraced our steps, splashing into puddles as we went. I looked back and the man had stopped behind us.
We exited the park. Drama over, I remembered that the hotel doorman also had said we could run along the Seine River. That thought made me happy. It brought back memories of reading the Madeline books to our daughter Paige when she was a little girl, and a trip that we took to Paris when Paige was four and Gavin only one. (Wyatt would be born 18 months later in Jerusalem.) In one of the books, Madeline’s Rescue, Madeline falls into the Seine River and is saved by a dog. The orphanage director Miss Clavel allows Madeline and the girls in the orphanage to keep the dog, until they find her real owner.

         All during our trip to Paris, Paige kept asking, “Will we see Madeline?”  We said we weren’t sure, but we should go to the Seine to look. And so we did, several times, Paige looking for a French girl who looked the part.

Ed and I headed toward the Seine. We crossed a bridge and followed the river on the other side. Soon we came to a narrow wooden bridge, and I looked into the distance. Ahead was a sidewalk along the river, where I remembered we had bought prints of flowers, ducks, and fish. The bridge was the same one on which I had pushed Gavin in a collapsible stroller. 

Ed and I stopped to walk. He noticed that both sides of the bridge were now covered by thousands of locks of all sizes, many with messages on them. Others had sprayed-painted in black their love for another over the locks.
I knew just where we were. We ran to the end of the bridge and descended a narrow flight of stairs to the banks of the Seine. We tip-toed along the cobblestone path, a somewhat treacherous decision because the water was high, the cobblestones slanted toward the water, and it was dark.
        “Let’s go slowly,” I said. We did, dodging puddles. Ahead, the Seine spilled over onto the sidewalk, leaving just a narrow passage. We slowed even more, lest we meet Madeline’s fate, and decided to go up to street level. We found stairs. I heard a rustle near our feet.

“A rat!” Ed said.
I looked around, but saw nothing. “It was big,” Ed said. “The size of a chipmunk, but with a longer tail – the tail of a rat.”
I believed him. We raced upward, keeping an eye out for other rats, and soon we were along the streets.
Within minutes, we had come to Louvre Museum, first built in the late 12th century and now housing nearly 35,000 objects. It attracts 8 million visitors a year – the world’s most popular museum. But standing near the museum’s glass pyramids (designed by I.M. Pei and built less than 30 years ago), we were nearly alone.
The sky had lightened slightly, the day was beginning, and I was transported back to a moment when the children were so young and tender.
Back to Cairo.


Back to Jerusalem.

  Back to Petra.

 Back to violin lessons and face painting in Ireland.

         I could have stayed in that moment for a long time.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Running in the world’s best-named capital: Ouagadougou


OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso -- I have always dreamt of running here. Just to say I had.

What a name! Ouagadougou (pronounced Wa-ga-do-gu), and often shortened to Ouaga, was named by the Yonyonse tribe. It means the place "where people get honor and respect."

The mystery and remoteness about this place interested me. It’s the central African version of the Central African Republic, or the south Asian version of Bhutan, or the South American version of Paraguay.

All are landlocked. All are places with relatively few tourists, or even Western business people. But Burkina Faso’s capital had it on the competition in one respect: Its name. No other capital can beat Ouagadougou.

The trouble was I had just 18 hours here. Work took nearly all of it. We arrived at the airport at 7:30 p.m., and on the ride in, I looked out the bus window, seeing little. With a police escort and roads largely cleared, it seemed a deserted city.

First stop was a state dinner. At the presidential palace, we walked past guards dressed in red uniforms. They stood erect, not moving, not even allowing their eyes to take a sideways glance, holding swords so that the tip nearly touched their nose. I wondered what they were thinking.

We walked into a seating area with sofas and coffee tables, and there guarding the entrance was two stuffed cheetahs.

They looked ferocious. I walked slowly around them.

Others, like me, kept turning back for a glimpse. A few brave people walked over to them. I followed. Some took pictures. I thought, why not, without a picture I might later think I was making this up.

Two hours later, after a dinner that featured quail from the president’s farm, I was back in my hotel room, a few hours of work ahead of me. I went to bed at 2 a.m. Less than 12 hours left. I put my alarm on for 5:10 a.m. How could I not run in Ouagadougou?

At 5:30 a.m., I left the hotel and started heading up the highway. Our 12-story soulless hotel, built by Libyan construction companies during Muammar Ghadafi’s heyday (West Africa is dotted with Libyan hotels), sat in what must be one of Ouagadougou’s wealthier areas. In a country where 40 percent of the people live on less than $1.25 a day, all the houses nearby were nearly mansion sized.

Street lights provided pools of connecting light. The road was empty. Every so often a car would pass, or bicyclers, or the stray runner. I turned down a side dirt road and ran in front of houses with the flags of various countries – all personal resemblances of ambassadors, I was sure.

I turned back, crossed the highway, and started noticing small birds fly just in front of me, some darting close to my feet. I stopped and looked and several of the male birds had bright red heads and gray bodies. The birds were sparrow-sized, no bigger than my thumb. I marveled at their bright color. 


On the way home, I turned off the road again and could see an animal pulling a cart, dust in its wake. As it came closer, I could see it was a donkey, and the driver was a young woman wearing sunglasses. The sun was just coming up, a pink ribbon stretching along a half-moon of the horizon. She was prepared for the day, the sun, and the heat.

It was temperate now, though, the air dry. I had run for 40 minutes and barely had sweat. I showered and dressed, and at 7:40 a.m., my work began. We sped off in a motorcade, moving from one official event to the other. At 1:30 p.m., we were on a plane, headed for Paris.

I barely saw Ouaga. I could say I ran there. Along the way, I saw two stuffed cheetahs, scores of tiny red birds, and a donkey driven by a woman in sunglasses. Ouagadougou remained mysterious, more runs needed.

Next running blog: Paris.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A run in St. Petersburg: Breaking from routine

             ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – I wonder sometimes about routines, about how they develop and how it’s possible to have several. At home, my routines include just about everything from how I pack my backpack to preparing meals to cleaning up at night. I even brush my teeth in the same pattern, twice a day.

When I travel, I adhere to another set of routines: the packing of my carry-on suitcase; the mix of work (writing or editing) and fun (reading or watching a film) on a plane; and writing emails on my Blackberry during the short breaks in between meetings.

When it comes to running, I feel like I have a split personality. At home, I run early, sometimes at 5 a.m. I set out almost exactly 30 minutes after I get up. I have certain set routes. (When I go on a different route, it seems to take much more effort.) On the road, though, I run whenever possible. It could be soon after arriving at the hotel. Or I could go when there’s an opening in the middle of the day. And almost every run is a new route; finding my way doesn’t seem to bother me a bit.

At home, I am rigid; on the road, flexible. Maybe my routines on the road are simply a matter of taking advantage of time. But why can’t I do the same at home? At home, my routines both give me comfort (peace of mind in establishing a known rhythm of a day) and restriction (there’s almost no way I’ll run at the spur of a moment.) On the road, I’m free.

I was just in St. Petersburg, and after a meeting, I found out that I had exactly one hour before  our group were going to dinner. I wasted no time. I ran up the stairs in our boutique hotel, changed in my room (called the Bangkok Room for its Thai motif), and was out the door. I turned north along one of St. Petersburg’s many canals.

We had the luck of being here in fall, and the temperature was about 60 degrees. It was 6 p.m. with still another three hours of light, and the sun felt soft and warm as I headed toward the old part of the city.

Guidebooks call the city the Venice of Russia for its canals, and it was easy to trace a run along them. They criss-cross every four blocks or so, and I found myself going up and down foot bridges like an old goat might. If sun fell on the canal path, I followed it, turning every few blocks or so.

I had wanted to come to St. Petersburg since I was in high school in the town of Springfield, Vermont, a place also dominated by water: The Black River ran through the town, and machine-tool shops were built along its very edge. In high school, I wrote a paper about Leningrad, then the city’s name, relying heavily on a National Geographic article as my source. I still remember the beautiful pictures of the city; it was described as a gem behind the Iron Curtain and I wondered whether I would ever have the chance to see such veiled beauty. And so it was especially thrilling to me to have a stolen hour in this city, turning corners and seeing architectural wonders that were just pictures in a magazine to me before.  

I ran past cathedrals, the statue of Alexander the Great, the Hermitage Museum. I stood by the main waterway that ran through the city, the Neva River, and marveled at what was all around me.

 The park along the Neva stretched for blocks. Couples posed for cameras in front of the statues. Two kids wrestled in the grass. Four women wearing head scarves and black abayas averted their eyes from me, perhaps because of my bare legs. It was a splendid late afternoon in St. Petersburg, and I couldn’t quite believe my good fortune to be in the middle of it.

I looked at my watch. I had been out 25 minutes. With 25 minutes to get back, that gave me just 10 minutes to shower and change. I reluctantly left the river and the majestic buildings from another era, and started running back along the canals, scooting in and out of traffic at crosswalks, a little extra spring in my well-traveled legs, so happy to have had a break from routine in a city I had dreamed of.