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.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

In London, a find unlike any other

LONDON – I went out for a run in East London’s Canary Wharf fairly recently, and I wasn’t in a great mood. I had hoped to run with a friend (hello, Megan!) but she was injured and couldn’t make it. And the area seemed to be surrounded by industrial parks and highways along the River Thames.

Indeed, I started out along the Thames for five minutes before hitting a highway and then reversed course. I hit a few more dead-ends after that, and finally smartened up: I spied another runner and followed him away from the river; local runners always know the best routes. He led me through a warren of narrow streets, until finally I was running along the river again, in an area with a great name:

The Isle of Dogs.

The name alone put me in a better mood. I knew there must be great convoluted history behind it, likely going back centuries (and there is), and kept running alongside working-class-looking apartments that I was sure likely went for a half-million pounds each.

I passed a little park (with a few dogs) and then came upon a mini-brick domed structure, which rose about  three stories high.


It looked like the top of a buried building. As I stopped, a couple of bicyclists emerged from one side of the building. Then a few more came out, and a few more, totaling eight or nine in all.

Where had they come from?

The round building had an elevator with a wide door, as well as an internal spiral staircase. I descended down the stairway.


I went down, down, down, for two minutes, until I reached a landing and then turned a corner.

There, in front of me, was a tunnel!


I realized I was underneath the Thames. So I ran.

I felt like I was entering a time from an earlier century. The tunnel was not high – maybe eight feet at most – and it was dank and poorly lit. It was wide enough – maybe nine or 10 feet – for two lanes. That was a good thing as a string of bikers was headed my way. 

The tunnel descended and then ascended – it must have been a quarter mile long, long enough so that I couldn’t see the end – and I raced through it with the joy of a boy who had just discovered something magical. (And perhaps the fear of a man who can feel slightly claustrophobic.) I reached the end and ran up the spiral staircase and exited on the other side of the Thames. I had to see the view. The brownish river was in front of me, a park behind me, and more bikers headed my way. I reversed course, and ran through the old tunnel again.

Two weeks later, I was telling the story to our neighbors, Gerry and Deb, both Brits. Deb knew about the tunnel immediately, and Gerry pulled out his iPad and confirmed where I had been: the Greenwich foot tunnel.

We learned that tunnel construction started in 1899 and was finished in 1902; its purpose was to replace an “expensive and and sometimes unreliable ferry service” for workers on the south side of the Thames to get to London docks and shipyards around the Isle of Dogs. The person who pushed it through was a politician with the memorable name of Will Crooks.


Thank you, Mr. Crooks. Your long-ago political maneuverings have benefitted many on a daily basis for more than a century, including giving me an unexpected find on a summer morning.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The difference of 25 years: Backpacking then, presidential palace today

SANTIAGO, Chile – The temperature in early morning was no more than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, as I put on a long-sleeve shirt. It felt like an indulgence after weeks of hot weather in Washington. But it was cold enough that I pulled the sleeves over my hands to keep them warm.

I crossed a highway and a bridge over the Maponcho River, which ran fast and was hemmed in by concrete walls, a protection against flooding. I ran along the left bank, heading in the same direction as the river, toward the city center.

At 6 a.m., it was dark, and I was on guard, for my footing and for people in the shadows. The path was uneven close to the river and I could make out shapes of men along the way. I couldn’t tell what they were doing so I maneuvered to a path to my left, which was close to the road. Near one intersection, three rangy, old German shepherds crawled out of makeshift tents and barked at me. One hobbled after my heels, his barks as menacing as a 90-year-old man, woof woof woof. Still, he made me scoot.

I eventually found a straight path with picturesque little lanterns on poles every 10 yards lighting my way. I could almost imagine myself running in a Parisian park. More than that, though, the light freed me to think about something other than falling or falling in the hands of others.

As my mind wandered, I remembered my first trip to Chile – some 25 years ago with my wife, Laura, on our honeymoon. We backpacked for about six months along the spine of the Andes, starting in Quito, Ecuador, and eventually ending in Torres del Paine in southern Chile.

The two of us stopped in Santiago for a few days, arriving on a long-haul, air-conditioned bus that we boarded near the desert region along the Peru-Chile border. At the border, we were reminded that we were entering the Pinochet dictatorship; the guards pawed through all our belongings, pulling out our books and leafing through them. They took one – Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America. Maybe they thought Brautigan, shown in the cover photo, looked subversive.  
         In Santiago, we checked out a couple of hotels. At the first one, we asked about the rate, and the person behind the counter said: How many hours? I thought I heard him wrong, replying, “Well, 24?” He looked at me oddly. “We rent by the hour,” he said. We looked more closely at our surroundings, at the bustle in the lobby, and burst out laughing. We went looking for a place that rented by the day.

Santiago was gray and dirty then, but it had newsstands that sold some American newspapers, and a colorful movie marquee advertising recent blockbluster action films. We loved the countryside outside of the city, where we had picnics of cheese, fresh bread, and wine in a cardboard box, something we had never seen before. While the city was fast-paced and full of army and suspicion, the countryside was leisurely and lovely.

On my run, I returned to the present moment and replayed arriving in Santiago from Lima the day before. A police escort took us straight to our hotel and then to an official meeting in La Moneda, the presidential palace.
There was a press conference in the palace and later we were guests at a dinner hosted by the finance minister and the captains of industry. (Almost all were men; there were just three women among the group of 75.) In a grand room, with a ceiling 20 foot high and walls painted red and adorned with over-sized life portraits of Chile’s leaders in the 19th century, white-gloved waiters served us fine Pinot Noir wine (in glass bottles).

I thought: boxed wine in the park when we were young, and Pinot Noir in the presidential palace in middle age. I thought again: arriving unawares into a house of ill repute, and being escorted into the house of power. The contrasts made me smile. The experiences were both memorable. As I finished my run, with the first light appearing to the east above the Andes, I thought that I likely will still remember the visit during the days of Pinochet, the visit with the shared wine poured from a cardboard spout, more vividly. That wine, among other things, was a revelation.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Running with surfers on my left

LIMA, Peru – It is winter here, which means a series of cloudy days and temperatures in the 50s and 60s. But this morning, as I wiped the condensation from my hotel window overlooking the Pacific Ocean (see the view above), I saw a startling sight: the sun.

I quickly got out the door and headed north, knowing it was so because the ocean was on my left.

We are staying in Miraflores, a wealthy part of a city in a country that seems to get wealthier by the year. As a taxi driver told me: “The middle class in Peru is exploding.”

It certainly felt that way on the running trail high above the Pacific, built by the city to include parks, exercise stations and even fenced-in places for dogs to run. Scores of runners, bikers, walkers, and groups doing Tai Chi were everywhere (I always want to stop and look at groups doing Tai Chi – there’s something spellbinding about the concentration and deliberate movements.)

Wearing shorts and a T-short, I could see a few miles ahead of the Pacific Ocean, dotted by surfers in wet suits paddling out to catch winter waves. The path zig-zagged from the road into small parks that had sculptures and exercise benches as their centerpieces. One sculpture, called “The Embrace,” showed a larger-than-life couple intertwined. (Still, it was nowhere near as compelling to me as those doing Tai Chi.)

These fast city runs, to be honest, are usually fairly grim. Sometimes, like on a day in London recently (more on that soon), I run along a mixture of industrial parks and busy highways and wonder what am I doing here. Sometimes I take a third or fourth turn on a run and wonder if I ever will find my way back. Sometimes I stumble on curbs. Sometimes dogs bark and I jump.

Almost never is the ocean on my left, the temperature just right, and the early morning sun casting a long shadow of my silhouette, making me seem much taller (and thinner) than I am. So no wonder this is my third morning in a row running in Miraflores, cooled by seaside breezes, pretending I’m on vacation, and dreaming of the old days when I could run for hours.

Next: Chile.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Montreal: A run that could kill me

         MONTREAL – On rare mornings, I wake up and think: A run would kill me. I either had a little too much beer, or pulled an all-nighter, or felt horribly sick. Sometimes when I made the decision to go anyway, I not only survived, but ended up feeling somewhat cleansed.

                And sometimes I felt worse. Sometimes, the run was deadly. I can remember on a few times I ran, showered, and crawled back in bed.

                On a recent morning in Montreal I woke at 5:30 a.m., eyes blinking, thinking maybe I should just pass on the run. I simply had too much to eat the night before.

                At a Chinese restaurant, one friend ordered for a group of us. Jellyfish and duck tongue. Shark fin soup. Filet mignon with pea pods. Peking duck. Vegetables with shrimp and octopus.

                The food was delicious. It was one of the best meals of my life. And it was so much more than I ever eat. I felt so full.

                At 5:30 a.m., I still felt full. It was as if I had just finished the dinner.  

                Still, I rolled out of bed. I hadn’t run in Montreal for five or six years, and so I got myself to the hotel lobby. I asked a clerk for a route, and he gave me a small map and recommended that I run past the old city and go along the St. Lawrence River, along the city’s Vieux Port, or old port, which was first used by French fur traders in the early 17th century. “It’s a great way to see the sun rise,” he said.

                When I stepped outside, his optimism washed away: Rain was coming down in sheets. It felt like 50 degrees. I would have shivered if I wasn’t so full.

                I stepped out and put one foot in front of the other. Luckily, the first few blocks were downhill, and I tried to bend at the waist and lean forward. I thought if anyone saw me (and it seemed I had Montreal to myself), they would think, “That guy looks full.” Or, perhaps, rough.

                I kept moving. I passed steak house after steak house, restaurants with pig drawings on signs (what is it about this city that makes it so in love with meat?), and cafes with breads and pastries. Ugh.  But the shops ended by the St. Lawrence. In the rain, the boardwalk almost shone. The river opened wide and I ran along by myself, the only sound the rain and my footfalls. I turned back at the Jacques-Cartier Bridge.

                I felt full no more. I felt like myself. The pleasures of running in an empty city, by a broad river, and then along the narrow Rue de Notre Dame and its magnificent square with the glowing Notre Dame Basilica, took over. I forgot about everything for some moments. Montreal had given me a great meal and then a morning that allowed me to run it off.  

Monday, May 27, 2013

Running along the mighty Congo


               KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo – We flew into the other Congo, capital Brazzaville, at dawn, and then took a slow boat across the Congo River to Kinshasa. It had been five or six years since I had been to Kinshasa. I remember the trip well. On the way in, I walked into a mob scene at the airport (like everyone else) and paid a $50 fee to a service that got me out of there in one piece; on the way out, I walked into the airport with a leg pouch containing $1400, and by the time I was on my flight the leg pouch was no longer on my leg, the money gone.

                So I liked arriving by boat.

                There was no crowd to greet us -- just dignitaries and their security details -- and we slipped into waiting cars and raced through the city with a police escort to the Hotel du Fleure. The building rose 22 stories on a high point above the Congo. My room was on the 19th floor, and I looked down on the city from the vantage point of a hawk.

                I eyed a running route under the canopy that hugged the river, laced up my shoes, and I was off. I felt almost wobbly – I had slept the last two nights on planes (Washington-Geneva and then Geneva-Paris-Brazzaville). But I figured I should follow my own advice about running in the morning after a long flight to fight jet lag, or pay the price (of jet lag or scorn from my friends).

After a few minutes on a main road, I took a left, then a right, and I settled on an easy pace down a near-empty road of privilege. Cut grass lined the road. High walls obscured properties. Every 50 yards a man or a woman, wearing blue uniforms, swept the road with a palm frond. Tiny leaves went skittering under my feet. I was running on clean asphalt in a city with few functioning sewers.

I passed the British Embassy, then the German, and soon came upon a roadblock. I waved to a soldier, who stood up and greeted me with a rifle. “Go back,” he said. “No passing.”

                I hung a left and as I crested a hill, the Congo spread out before me. It was muddy brown, seemingly a mile wide. Parts of the river are 700 feet deep, and there are more than 700 species of fishes in it, and scientists say there surely are many, many more.

Even from the road, the river, which passes through the Congo rainforest, seemed extraordinarily powerful and dangerous. It is Africa’s second longest river (the Nile is first) and is the  largest by volume (which has helped spur dreams and plans to build a hydroelectric dame called Inga III that could power most of sub-Saharan Africa.) I am not a good swimmer and I started imagining preposterous scenarios like falling off a boat in the middle of the Congo and trying to swim to one side. I was sure the current would sweep me away and I would be gone forever.

I kept to the middle of the road. Ahead, I heard a commotion and saw dozens and dozens of schoolchildren dressed in identical blue and white uniforms. They were crossing the road, and as I came closer, several shouted out at me. I ran into their midst, skirting them slowly, and some giggled and took a few steps as if to follow me. But the gaze of a stern headmaster spoiled those plans, and soon I had the road to myself again.

I ran for a few miles more and was about to turn toward the hotel when a tiny blue bird darted in front of me. I stopped and looked into the grass. There it was – an indigo bird. I watched it hop and flit around the grass, and then it settled next to three others. I stood and watched them, transfixed at their beauty.

The indigo birds flew off, and I started off again. I didn’t know when I would see such birds or the Congo River again, but I was feeling more euphoric than sad. I had stolen some wonderful moments by the river, some balm perhaps to temper the memories of my last trip here.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

In Romania, a boy on the streets at 5 a.m.


 BUCHAREST, Romania –The sight of the boy shocked me. Maybe it was because of the focus of our trip. Maybe it was the hour, just 5 a.m. Or maybe it was how he smiled at me. All I knew was that just five steps into my run here, I stopped when I saw him.

He was of Roma descent; his clothes were a dull color, dulled by dust. His eyes almost shone. He couldn’t have been older than five. Nearby, a woman and a young girl were sitting on a large piece of cardboard, their bed, against a building. All were fully alert. I stood just a few feet from the boy, expecting him to beg for money. He didn’t. We just looked at each other, and he smiled. In a few seconds, I started again, and he gave me a shy wave. I waved back.

We had traveled to Bucharest partly to learn more about the Roma people, also known as gypsies. The night before we had met about 10 Roma college graduates who had received scholarships and who spoke of their great aspirations to succeed in a variety of fields – diplomacy, architecture, development, law. We left feeling very hopeful of their futures.

But the boy was another story. I turned a corner and I saw another family of Roma, and then a third, all awake, and several children moving around with great ease as if the streets of Bucharest were their livingroom, even at 5 a.m.

I turned off the narrow streets and descended down a darkened path into a park. Birds called out from the trees, frogs from the ponds. Birds always seem the noisiest just before dawn; Bucharest’s birds were deafening.

And yet, on park benches along the way, many homeless slept right through the calls of the urban wild, blankets pulled to their ears to ward off the chill, and perhaps the sound. There was other movement here, too. Every few minutes, men emerged from the shadows as I ran by, and it felt like I was in a medieval European city with the darkness hiding secrets.

In my back pocket was a map of the city, which had large areas of green, delineating the city’s numerous parks. I stopped under a light to find my location. I had gone from one park to a second, making several zig-zags, and yet I felt strangely at home. I felt confident of my way even though I had never been here before.

I ran around the Palace of the Parliament, a grand structure in neoclassical architectural style (and built with thousands of tons of marble from Transylvania) that sits atop a hill, surrounded by a park and wide boulevards. Weeds grew on the lower lawns. There wasn’t a guard in sight.

Then, I headed back to my hotel, taking solace in the parks. The birds had mostly gone quiet. The sky had started to light up. I looked up and saw a long bright pink contrail from a plane. It was a startling vision, like a dash of lipstick on the sky, and I ran on, looking up every few seconds. I was getting used to unusual sights in Bucharest.

Near my hotel, I passed the spots where I had seen the Roma families. They had left, removing all evidence of their presence, including their cardboard. I wondered about that boy. I wished I had seen him again. I’m not sure what I would have done, or why seeing him would be better than not. But it felt like a loss. Perhaps because the shock of seeing him had worn off, and I knew his future, like that of so many street kids around the world’s cities, was bleak. I returned to my room with my thoughts stilled and my mood saddened.     

Monday, February 18, 2013

‘Stop! Stop! That’s the Kremlin!’

                MOSCOW – We arrived at the hotel at midnight, and I went straight to bed. I wanted to start out for a run around 6 a.m. On this trip to Russia, I had just one destination in mind: Red Square.

                Our hotel was about two miles from the Square; a colleague gave me directions. It was basically one turn and then head straight, passing through two underground tunnels.

                The air was cold, not cold enough to freeze eyelashes, but cold enough to make me run hard for the first mile. The boulevard was lined with high-rise buildings that flashed purple and red neon. On one building, white neon lights gave the illusion of snowflakes falling. Almost no one was on the streets.

                After the second tunnel, I emerged near one of the entrances to the Square, and ran under an archway. Ahead, two groups of people wearing fur coats and fur hats took pictures; one woman held an iPad. In front of her was the eternal flame of Red Square, commemorating those who died from World War II.

                The two groups faded away and I made a turn up a hill on an uneven brick path. At the top, another section of the Square opened up: a giant white dome, which covers Lenin’s Mausoleum, now closed to the public for repairs (though the body of Lenin remains inside) because of a roof leak; and the Saint Basil’s Cathedral, which literally stopped me in mid-stride.

                The structure is a fantastical collection of almost whimsical spires, or domes, painted in vivid blue and white, red and green, yellow and green, and red and white, to name just four. Near the tall red walls of the Kremlin, back lit by flood lights, and with the only others in the Square a few soldiers in the corners, I walked toward it spell-bound. I’d never seen anything like it.

Nearly alone in the Red Square, I stopped, just taking it in. A few minutes later, a chill ran through my body. Cold crept in. I gave Saint Basil’s one last look and then returned back.

I ran past the eternal flame, past the archway, and past tall red walls until I came to a major highway. This didn’t look right. I didn’t remember a highway. I stopped and looked around. I ran to a couple of walkers and asked if they spoke English. None did. So I retraced my steps to look for the tunnel, my way home.

I ran back to the eternal flame, and then slowly followed the line of tall walls. I ran for 10 minutes, maybe 15. I started to worry. Our meetings back at the hotel were starting soon. I was lost. I saw a Russian soldier and ran to him.

He spoke a little English. I showed him my room key card. He didn’t know the hotel. He said something over his walkie-talkie. He waited. No reply. To my right, I saw a gate open – it looked like a tunnel entrance. I thanked the soldier, and started running to the tunnel. He yelled at me.

“Stop! Stop! That’s the Kremlin!”

I stopped and walked back to him. I started to pantomime running in a tunnel. The soldier said, Metro. I said maybe. He said, “Look for M.” He drew the letter in the air, and then he pointed the way, toward the eternal flame. I followed his directions, found an M, and ducked into the tunnel. It was the way back. I almost crossed myself.

The tunnel was a maze, and it was busy now with commuters and bread sellers, but I danced among them and emerged on a street that looked familar. Soon, I was running along the neon-lit high-rises, making a turn, stopping to stretch at my hotel. I looked at my watch. Ninety minutes – double what it should have taken. I didn’t care. I was no longer lost in Russia, I had run to the Red Square, and a Russian soldier had set me right.