Thursday, December 13, 2012

In dark, in light snow, a run in Stockholm

                STOCKHOLM, Sweden – Windows of time are precious on these trips. They happen usually at the ends of days, well after dark or before dawn. Here, in Sweden, in blustery mid-December, running in daylight was unlikely to happen no matter the schedule: It’s dark for more than 18 hours every day; the sun sets about 2:30 p.m.

                So when we checked into our hotel at 5 p.m., with a few free hours ahead, the first thing I did was unpack my running shoes and winter gear and asked the hotel clerk for a route.  He kindly gave me a map and showed me the way to run onto one of the city’s many islands, connected by bridges to the mainland.

                As I prepared to go, a few colleagues in the lobby asked why I would bother. Two days earlier, nearly two feet of snow dropped on Stockholm, and what was left was four to six inches of mushed-up semi-packed snow, the kind where you slide back half a step with every stride. “Wouldn’t you get as much exercise if you just walked a few blocks?” one person asked.

                Actually, no. The hotel was near the sea, and so I ran to it, and then kept the sea on my right (a variation of the Vermonter advice of not getting lost in the woods: Keep the river on your right). It was below freezing, a light snow was falling, and many people were walking along the path under street lights. There were a few runners and even a biker, who kept a certain pace in order not to topple.

                I was thrilled to be in Stockholm, running in snow on snow, and stealing a view of the city in my window of time. I turned right on a bridge that crossed a canal, and then, less than a mile from the city center, found myself running alone on a snowy sidewalk.

                It felt like I was back in a small New England town – the snow lightly falling, street lamps illuminating the snowflakes, emptiness ahead, silence, Christmas lights on houses, candles lighting windows, shadows of figures moving from room to room. I passed a young couple walking home. In their wake, they were tugging a bundled-up one- or two-year-old in a red sled. The bearded man and long-haired woman talked excitedly; the child in a snowsuit in back sat mute, eyes wide looking at me. I blurred past her, waving but getting no reply.  

                I ran on a plowed path in a city park lined with tall trees (the benches had humps of snow, no one had sat on them since the storm); to a ferry landing, where a sign said a ferry arrived every 24 minutes to take people somewhere in Stockholm; and then back toward my hotel.

                One trick in running in a foreign place is not only to find a route, but also to find the route home. So when I left my hotel, I looked around and found my landmark: a billboard advertising “Dirty Dancing.” It was in pink neon. On the return, I could see it from a quarter-mile away, and I shuffled to the hotel, Dirty Dancing a hot-pink beacon.  

I checked my watch: just 35 minutes. But it seemed like I had escaped for hours and had entered a hushed Nordic world during the Christmas month. My cheeks were cold. My hat was white. I stretched next to my hotel door, and I felt the tightness ease from my calves. It felt good to run in the dark, in cold, in Stockholm.  

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Under a full moon, a run to Tiananmen Square

               BEIJING – I didn’t expect to run here. I expected the smog to make running counterproductive. I expected work schedules wouldn’t allow it. And I expected that I wouldn’t be interested – not in an intensely urban, polluted city.

                I was wrong on all accounts. As I set out one morning late last week at 6 a.m., the air was cold and clear. It was so clear that I looked up and saw a full moon.

                The moon would lead me, I thought. Where? How about Tiananmen Square, the third largest city square in the world and infamous as the site where the government violently quashed the pro-democracy movement in 1989, some 23 years ago.

I started down a sidewalk illuminated by street lights and right away I saw a highway sign: Tiananmen Square 4.5 kilometers. Doable, I thought – as long as I didn’t get lost.

The temperature was 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind blew at my back – a worrisome sign because it meant I’d be running into it on my return. But I was so excited about the thought of running in Beijing, running to Tiananmen Square, just running in general, that I blocked it out.

Other obstacles, though, appeared quickly. I immediately came upon major intersections; I learned that cars turn right on red here, along with multiple motorcycles and bicycles outfitted with tiny motors. I stepped out at one intersection and one of the swift soundless bicycles almost ran over my toes, causing me to leap back. One lesson learned in Beijing traffic: don’t depend on your ears. Three kilometers into the run, the wide sidewalk became full of large groups who wore red hats and carried red flags. Was I running into a demonstration of sorts? Why were so many walking in the cold in the dark?

I kept going, dodging the groups, trying not to trip, watching out for the bicycles, all under the full moon, which was sinking lower, still bright. And then I arrived at the Square, the sidewalk opening up to a walking boulevard, with Tiananmen to left.

The Square is treeless, a vast expanse of stone. It sits between two ancient, massive gates: the Tiananmen to the north and the Qianmen to the south, and alongside it are the Great Hall of the People and the National Museum of China. I ran up to a giant portrait of Mao.

Traffic from the highway blocked my way to the Square. I asked two Chinese military guards for directions, using various types of pantomime, but they shyly turned away. I was the only Westerner in sight – the only runner as well – and so I had to find my own way. It wasn’t hard. Just a block away was an underground tunnel and the Chinese wearing red hats were all going that way.

After the tunnel, I crossed a smaller road to get to the Square, where I ran to a large group of people who were standing in front of a line of soldiers. Others were running toward us. I asked several people if they spoke English and found none. What was going on?

A police car with a loudspeaker approached. It said something in Chinese and then followed in English: “Welcome to the national flag-raising ceremony,” it said. “Please stand back. Do not push. Stay calm.”

Alongside more than 1,000 Chinese people, I had arrived in time to watch the country’s official raising of the flag, which I later found out happens every morning at sunrise. I had to get going, though. It was almost 7 a.m., and my first meeting started at 8.

So I retraced my steps, crossing the road, taking the tunnel, and then running back along the sidewalk. The sinking moon was at my back, the sky ahead turned orange, and I felt warm and excited. I had run to Tiananmen Square. I picked up the pace.              


Saturday, October 13, 2012

Surprises in Tokyo: Mad swan, bird punt

TOKYO -- In the last few weeks, I have gone on runs in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire (through a rough slum area); Pretoria, South Africa (around the majestic Union Buildings on a cold morning); New York City (three wonderful at-dawn loops around the reservoir in Central Park); Seoul, South Korea (in such a daze I barely remember); and numerous runs around Chevy Chase, my home.

I’m not running all the time. But I am moving all the time. My new job at the World Bank has me traveling in short intensive bursts (four days to two countries in Africa, one day to Seoul, five now to Tokyo). I was concerned that with this kind of travel, I wouldn’t be able to run much. That hasn’t been the case. But I haven’t found much time to write about running.

I have almost an hour this morning in Tokyo, where I’ve run the past four mornings, and I have a bit of a story to tell.  I’ve found a Starbucks to sit and write and drink black tea, and where a Japanese man with a wispy beard and a heavy pack on his back just walked in and started telling me, in rapid English, about his 10-day bike trip to Tokyo, a narrative interrupted by the kind clerk, but as he left he said over his shoulder, “I look forward to seeing you again.”)
No running by the Palace

Everything here is a little hard to comprehend at first. Maps are impossible. Rules confound me. (About crossing streets --I’ve been chastened by a couple of policemen already for jay walking, and have since stopped; about running near the Imperial Palace -- it’s apparently illegal in certain sections; you have to walk.)

But it’s been wonderful to explore a completely different city and culture, and the runs have been a huge part of that. For three mornings, I ran around a park near the Palace for 35 or 40 minutes, but today I took a chance and ran a longer loop around the royal estate, hoping I wouldn’t get lost.

You don’t actually see the Palace. But in the midst of a landscape of skyscrapers, the Palace grounds are an oasis of green, rimmed by a wide moat. When I grew up in Vermont, I was always told when in the woods to “keep the river on your right.” Here, in order to not get lost, I just kept the moat on my left, which did the trick.
Menacing fish
The moat is full of large coy fish, and I stopped in one section to look at them but quickly backed off. The fish seemed pretty menacing, their huge heads rising well above the surface to open and shut their mouths at me, almost as if they were saying, “Feed me, feed me.” I scooted away but then moved close again to see a majestic swan.

The swan, like the fish, moved to the edge of the canal. After a few seconds, the swan started squawking at me and snapped its beak in a kind of menacing fashion. These moat dwellers apparently are used to being fed upon demand, and upset when not. I bid farewell, and made my way around the loop.
Bird in flight
I had another unusual animal encounter – not what I expected in Tokyo. I came upon a grouping of tiny sparrows and thought nothing of it, but I felt my right foot strike something, and suddenly a little sparrow shot up in the air. I had punted the little thing, not unlike a football kicker. The sparrow seemed to right itself after a momentary wobble, and shot off to the left. I was so stunned that I stopped. I have run for 30 years and it was my first punting of a bird. I kept my eyes out for other birds after that, just in case other Tokyo birds were asleep on my path.

As I finished the loop, I ran down a hill and a vista opened up: the moat wide below me, the Palace forest to my left, the city skyscrapers to my right. It was a moment of natural beauty, only the latest of surprises.

I’m off. Hour’s up. Maybe I’ll run into the man who biked for 10 days to Tokyo.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

In Tanzania, surprises at dawn

IRINGA TOWN, Tanzania – I had an awful night. Mosquitoes kept buzzing in my ear and I kept turning on the light to hunt for them. I awoke for good at 3:30 a.m. to watch the Boston Celtics play miserably against the Miami Heat in a key playoff game; the Celtics lost badly. Still, I managed to pull myself out of a depressed haze to lace up my running shoes and explore this town in southwestern Tanzania at cold dawn.

The dirt road headed straight up and I labored trying to keep stride. Finally, it leveled off and I ran along a ridge road, passing scores of blue-uniformed primary school kids on their way to the classroom. About 10 minutes into the run, I passed by a gigantic boulder about a quarter mile above me. It was bald and majestic and formidable.

I saw a man ahead and stopped to ask how I could get to the boulder.

“You take that path just there,” he said, pointing to a trail behind him.

“Is it hard?”


With such surety, I thought what the hell and ran to the trailhead. I ran-walked and then scrambled over tree roots and rocks for 10 minutes before I reached the base of the boulder. I had no idea how I would climb the sheer walls of the rock, but when I reached the base it became obvious. A crack about 18 inches wide split the boulder in two and hefty rocks formed stepping stones for 20 yards up. I wedged through the crack and pulled myself up and out, and made my way to the summit.

What a view – and what a surprise: Already there were two young guys of Asian descent atop the boulder. They were sitting with their backs to me and I could hear the music coming out of their earbuds. I gave a small shout so as not to spook them and one turned to wave; the other ignored me. (I thought maybe it wasn’t his idea to get up for an early morning hike.) Not wanting to intrude on their space, and giving up any hope of a nirvana-like alone-with-the-world meditative experience, I took in a last view of the valley and hills that stretched for miles – the red sun rising on the east, the white moon full in the west – and made my way back down.

I heard chirping immediately and saw to my right what looked like a pissed-off rock hyrax.

Hyraxes resemble woodchucks or groundhogs, but its closest cousins (I know this obscure fact from a long-ago safari tour) are elephants and sea cows. Anyway, it continued chirping away at me while standing on its hind legs and I could see little hyraxes scoot around the rocks behind it.
Apparently I was intruding on the space of all kinds of living things at dawn in Iringa town, so I ambled off, running up and down hill paths for another half hour.  All around me, blue and green and yellow birds criss-crossed like mini-rockets, skimming the tassels of golden yellow high grass. The sun warmed my back. This felt like being in Africa. I had that moment, I had worked up a sweat, I was ready to face the day, mosquitoes, Celtics, and a hyrax hissy fit overcome.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Running into Giants in Tanzania

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania -- It’s good to be running in a foreign place again. Two things happen almost without fail: I see something shocking, and I shock myself with a new thought about something at home.

This morning, the shocking sight came first. I went running at daybreak (6:30 a.m.) along the Indian Ocean along a rutted path a few miles outside Tanzania’s largest city. I passed a group of men sitting under a large shade tree, perhaps a group of elders gathering on an important topic, and the road narrowed to the width of a bicycle path.

And there, right in front of my footfall was a beautiful conical shell. I narrowly missed stepping on it, and I stopped to reach down to pick it up, when …. OMG, there was a huge ugly snail in that shell, with two twisty and GINORMOUS antennas poking out of its head.

It was the Giant African Snail. I recoiled. I inched backward. I had known about the Giants from my earlier time living in Africa.  But they had never stopped me in my tracks before.

They are so nasty that they have made a list of one of the 100 top invasive species in the world. It is a pest that eats through natural ecosystems and crops, killing commerce, and, when eaten (who would eat them?) possibly causing eosinophilic meningoencephalitis. It is a type of meningitis that causes headache, neck pain, visual disturbances, and in some cases death.

One scientist even has said that the Giant African Snail was a hazard that could cause car crashes. Really. Here’s the quote: “A. fulica are also a general nuisance when found near human habitations and can be hazardous to drivers, causing cars to skid. (Mead 1961).”

The one inches from my finger was pretty huge -- as big as my hand. A fat boy. (Actually they are hermaphrodites, so it’s more accurate to call them fat boy-girls or fat hermies.) As I straightened up and backed away, I had the senses to look around me and there were more! Dozens more! All Giants, their tentacles slowly shifting in the air. I jumped like I was on a bed of hot coals, sidestepping them somehow in my distress, until I was in the clear.

The rest of the run didn’t quite measure that level of yuck. But I did have a revelation about one of my children, a high schooler who provides endless concern in large part due to his sloth-like, or Giant African Snail-like, behavior when it comes to school.

He just won’t study. Or rather, he will only study for an hour on the night before a test, or write a major paper for an hour the night before it’s due. Then it came to me on the run. I’ve been missing the signs all along. He is not a cousin to the Giants, he is a Savant. Must be. How else could still get very good grades? That’s the way I’ll think about him from now, throw that worry to the wayside, and believe blindly he’s on the right path. And for this newfound peace of mind, there’s only one thing to thank: the snails.

Next stop: Rural southwest Tanzania, west of Iringa. Maybe I’ll get dust in my shoes.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

San Francisco: The Pacific and Death & Taxes

           SAN FRANCISCO – I ran to the Pacific Ocean this morning.

I ran under a canopy of stars, from the east end of the Golden Gate Park to the west, along Martin Luther King Drive for four miles, under giant pine trees, under a majestic dead pine with 20 crows in its crown silhouetted against a blue-black sky, past ponds of families of silent ducks and geese, past a fat-ass windmill, over the empty Great Highway, and onto the gray sand of Ocean Beach.

It felt good to stand still and to feel a slight breeze on my forehead. I thought about jumping in. I thought about running back after jumping in. I thought about time. I thought about distance. I stopped thinking and turned back. The Pacific would wait.

Running in the dark is a combination of peace and dread. Peace because of the comfort of being in the dark with no one around, no distractions, miles passing by with no markers. Dread because I could trip over a root or stumble in a pothole, and dread too because one of those running-free dogs that appeared every mile or so might run after me. I ran with my head down until I saw a running dog.

Eight straight days of running is this. I am in full push-back mode, trying to recapture my strength, my endurance, my waist of old. I don’t know how many days I will run consecutively, but it will be more than eight. I’m winded far too easily, I’m slower, I’m too fat.

Three days of San Francisco, a work trip, a getaway in the mornings when I run. Walking is almost as much fun. I stayed in a hotel east of the park, across from the famous Kezar Stadium, next to the Kezar Pub, which has big-screen TVs, basketball on all night, two vegetarian dishes, 12 beers on tap, two local, one dark porter Death & Taxes, which is damn good and damn good it didn’t keep me from running to the Pacific Ocean.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Lima: Running and being still

LIMA, Peru – One early morning in Lima I was running around a part of the San Isidro neighborhood (which has more policemen on bicycles per capita than anywhere I’ve ever been) when I came upon an old man standing on a street corner. As I passed him, he raised his knees up and down and moved his arms back and forth, mimicking my motion as a runner. He wasn’t moving. He was still.

I laughed, he saluted me, and it got me thinking about how being still was really important – even connected to a run.

This may sound odd, but when I think of running I break it down to many components. There is the start with some aches and the immediate adjustment to the weather outside, hot or cold. There’s finding my pace. There’s thinking about the day or people or something that just happened. And then there’s stillness – no thoughts -- in my mind as I run. I don’t know why and it’s not like being in a trance. But there is an absence of thought at times, and I enjoy it.

That’s not all for running and stillness. There are two other ways this happens to me.

One is quite literal: I am still when I stop due to traffic (I always welcome the break) or by choice when I see something so interesting I stop to check it out (this is rare).

But I did stop in a San Isidro park after I passed the old guy running in place. On the edge of the grass, the city has set up several small informational plaques about the birds in the neighborhood. I studied the photos of the Amazonian hummingbird, the Saffron finch, the Blue-black Grassquit, among a few dozen illustrations. And then I listened to the loud calls and the overwhelming number of doves or pigeons cooing to each other.

I saw some Blue-black Grassquits as I made my way around and even was lucky later to even to see a Saffron finch (an all-yellow bird with a slight orange tinge near the head of a male). Unfortunately, the hummingbirds stay out of sight.

I also stopped during my runs around Lima to take in small acts of beauty. People in the capital, from the poor neighborhoods to the more upscale ones, love to plant small gardens in front of their homes. Often they plant roses. The city even puts flower boxes on the exterior walls of some parking garages. Roses and cars: I never imagined the two together. (See the photo at the top of the post).  

The second experience of stillness happens at the end of almost all my runs. I do some stretching exercises that I learned from an acu-therapist in Miami some 20 years ago that I still use for my lower back and muscles around my neck and shoulders, and then I lie down and assume the corpse pose used in yoga.

I focus on my breathing and that cuts out all the noises around me. I am still. I experience a moment of peace; I collect myself. I generally feel ready for the day.

I am so still that passers by sometimes gasp. Some even shout out, “Are you OK?” They think I have passed out, or worse. On these occasions, I raise my head (sometimes startling them even more) and I assure them that I am well. I tell them, I am just being still.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Running in Lima: Loving baby Jesus

            LIMA, Peru – Here, when I run, I cross myself.

It’s not the danger of getting more blood clots in my legs (although that will worry me for quite some time). It’s not the fear of getting hit by a car. It’s not the pollution. Rather, it’s the number of Jesus statues and Nativity scenes everywhere.

Fifteen days after Christmas, Christmas is going strong in Lima.

The Christmas lights are still strung all over this vast city, up and down palm trees, on light poles, on hotel fronts, on city signs, and, of course, around all the manger scenes – the thousands of manger scenes, most of them with flashing colored lights forming an unnatural border.

The truth is, there is no greater love here than the love for baby Jesus, and I saw that firsthand over the weekend at the National Children’s Hospital, where outside the children’s tuberculosis ward over the weekend the staff held their traditional (and sad) ceremony to take down the manger.

They called out for everyone on the ward to witness the scene. Children with TB who could walk came out. The staff and their children filed around. Doctors, nurses, and family members all gathered around. 

Two things happened. One was that everyone was invited to take out one of the 300 figures in the manger scene (from tiny lambs to large cows to the very heavy statues of Mary and Joseph) and then to put a coin in a collection box.

The second was that the baby Jesus could not just be simply packed away.

No, baby Jesus would linger outside the cardboard box that held all the other figures. He was passed from nurse to nurse, child to child, doctor to doctor. The nurses, though, didn’t want to let him go. They cradled him in their arms like he was the baby Jesus, kissing him on the forehead, whispering words of prayer, squeezing him to their bosoms, some shedding tears, and ever so reluctantly and carefully passing the baby to another’s arms, and the whole loving baby Jesus started over again. I stood in awe.

            I know this is a running blog. And I’ll write about the running in Lima in the next post. For now, the reverence for the meaning of the season, the birth of Jesus, is more than enough for me. I don’t think I’ll look at a manger scene the same ever again.