Running “Away”

One of the great aspects of running is its portability. When packing for a trip or vacation of any kind, it takes very little space to throw in shorts, a shirt, and running shoes.

I am admittedly not great at packing light – so it’s not as if running gear is really to blame for my full-suitcase-for-a-long-weekend. If we’re driving somewhere, the bike can come too – especially if we’re going somewhere hilly – but otherwise, it’s running shoes alone. I might have to sacrifice an extra pair of shoes to do it, but the running shoes have got to go along.

I’ve found that running provides a unique window to experience the city or region you’re visiting. Whether it’s on a path or the streets, running allows us the chance to cover more ground and to see things from a different perspective.

While it is a bit oxymoronic, I also find that running provides both solitude and instant collegiality. Moving through a new – or familiar – city on a run of any distance gives space to think, clear the fog, and yet to also experience the community of like-minded people who are also out on a run. Even if that community is otherwise completely new, there’s a great familiarity between runners. Early morning or bad weather runs often yield the friendliest encounters – a mutual “oh, you’re crazy too” nod in passing, a wave, or an encouraging word.

One of my best running moments while travelling was on a run Avignon, France in 2014. Admittedly, just being there in the warm sunshine and splendour of southern France was awesome. But it was a particularly sunny, warm late morning. I had found my way out of the maze of the walled city, and was crossing the Rhône river along a rather busy roadway, about to descend the stairs on the other side to get to the quiet and picturesque riverside paths. A runner passed me going the other way, back toward Avignon. I did the customary things one does in North America when passing another runner — I sucked in my gut, increased my foot turnover to look like I wasn’t winded, lowered my gasping breath to a quiet level, and gave him a friendly head nod.

This runner, presumably French, skipped all the vanity, and instead gave me a full wave as he passed, saying a friendly “Courage”. It was surprisingly moving. And it underlined the collegiality of running most clearly to me.

Fortunate as I’ve been to travel a fair bit over the last ten or so years, I’ve had my share of good runs away from home. From San Diego, California to Clearwater Beach, Florida, from Halifax, NS to Victoria BC, and yes, beyond North America, I’ve really enjoyed the ability to point my feet out the door and just head out for a run.

The views are usually good, but the quirks and idiosyncrasies of each locale are also interesting. Running on the west coast always feels a bit slippery to me – the sidewalks and paved pathways of downtown Vancouver and Victoria are perpetually a bit slimy with a coating of sea air and moss. And there’s the dry, unceasing heat of southern climes, where humidity isn’t a factor and shade is near impossible to find. Don’t forget the “OMG I hope I can find my way back” moments in cities like Avignon, where streets angle, turn and twist so much that an out-and-back or loop is simply not possible. It all helps to keep my brain as engaged as my body.

It’s not always easy or convenient. Often, the last thing I want to do on a vacation is to actually lace up and go for a run, or to figure out my route when I’ve hardly figured out how to get from my hotel to the corner. But doing the run erases any inconvenience. It will invariably provide new views of the area, usually resulting in my returning to tell my travel partner of something we should go check out that we might not otherwise have seen.

And let’s be honest, running can counteract the excess of food and drink I tend to enjoy on vacation — this, too, is important!

Some memorable travel runs of the past few years, top of mind:

  • San Francisco, CA: At the Embarcadero, along the piers with Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge rising out of the fog.
  • Sonoma, CA: Vines, olive trees, searing heat, and a crazy flat landscape looking out on some of the best grapes in North America.
  • Clearwater Beach, FL: Hot, sunny runs overlooking the ocean in October, while it snowed back at home. Bridges that stretch on, seemingly, forever.
  • Avignon, France: “Courage” on the bridge, laps around the ancient walled city, the Pont d’Avignon,  groves of olive trees and grape vines, river boats, villas and far-away chateaus.
  • Paris, France: Along the Seine and the busy streets of the 5e, 6e, and 7e arrondissements. Cobblestones and bridges dating back over 250 years. And on my 40th birthday, a gorgeous sunny mid-morning run along the Seine towards the Eiffel Tower, with my wife.
  • Montreal, QC: For my 41st birthday, a slightly hungover, plodding 5km run along the water in the Old Port. Not exactly Paris, but a fun way to wake up, shake off the excesses of the night before, and explore the wharf and park spaces before getting on the train back home.
  • Ottawa, ON:  A city built for running, not that I did it much while I lived there. Now, on visits, I enjoy the trails along the river and canal, the Gatineaus… and the company of my unofficial training partner, ultra man Carsten “The Gazelle” Quell.
  • Victoria, BC: Coastline that doesn’t quit. Last year, I turned a corner and literally almost ran into a family of deer. And who doesn’t love seeing sea lions, rock beaches, and far-off mountain ranges? We’re fortunate to have family in Victoria, which means at least one visit per year, always with running gear.
  • Vancouver, BC: The Sea Wall and Stanley Park, cornered in by the downtown. Picturesque, and I’m happy to stare at ships anchored in English Bay, or gawk at greenery unlike anything we have in Ontario.
  • Halifax, NS: Past stately 200 year old homes, and into Point Pleasant Park — offering the sea views and plenty of naval history on paths along the shore.

Sure, there are times when travel running is just functional, and not all that inspiring. Take Collingwood or Stratford, Ontario in late November, both times where I was up early squeezing in an icy run before work meetings started, while my coworkers slept cozy and warm in their hotel rooms. Nice places, nasty running at the time. Or on vacation this summer in Tobermory, slogging in searing heat on cottage roads with no view to the water, just trying to get my training in before the next race. Even Cuba, many years ago, when all I had at my disposal was a straight out and back on a highway outside our resort, pounding away in the heat, with nothing much to see. Not pretty, not glamorous, but hey, you can’t win’em all.

There have, of course, also been a few trips where running was curtailed, mostly for safety — and so a hotel treadmill had to suffice. But thankfully, those trips are few and far between. Even then, one can find a bit of joy. Running on a treadmill in the resort gym in Montego Bay, Jamaica, at least provided views out to the golden sands and azure waters I would be heading to once I was done!

I love to travel. I hope to be doing a lot more of it. There are many places we have yet to visit, and of course that means there’s many a run to enjoy in those, and other locales.

Safe to assume there will always be room in my suitcase for those running shoes.

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