A friend once asked me: "When you run, what are you trying to escape from?"
I confessed to her that running helps me exorcise my demons or at least hold them at bay. But it's more than that.
Running helps me to see.
I'm in San Francisco, running north from Union Square along Powell Street. The climb up Nob Hill burns my lungs. I stagger to the top at California Street, losing the race with a cable car. A church looms to my left, and in my head I can hear an old song by the Red House Painters: "A rare and blistering sun shines down on Grace Cathedral Park. There with you, I fear the time when air gets dark." The bay lies before me in the distance. Dusk approaches.
Gasping for air, I run downhill into Chinatown, passing an old man as he raises a paper lantern outside his storefront. The streets hum with languages I can't understand. I'm a child again, holding my father's hand, wandering through another Chinatown, wondering whether his homeland smelled this way. I turn east on Filbert, cutting through the Italian-American neighborhood of North Beach, once home to Kerouac, Ginsberg and their fellow beat poets.
Steps carved into the sidewalk make it easier for me to take Telegraph Hill, but only just so. Near Coit Tower, through a grove of trees, I stumble upon a man reclined on a park bench. He jerks awake, and I smell marijuana. At the tower, I take a break, mesmerized by the view of the Bay Bridge. Tourists avoid me, the solitary figure in dark cap and sweats.
Picking up the pace, I swing north through Fisherman's Wharf. But the sidewalks are packed with visitors; the streets are full of traffic. So I head back south, traversing the Financial District, whose denizens emerge from their offices at workday's end, eyes fixed on their smart phones. By the time I return to my hotel near Union Square, an hour has passed, and I feel more connected to the city, and to myself.
Whenever I travel, an odd tension builds. My senses come alive as I absorb the sights, sounds and smells of a new place. My feelings grow more intense, veering from fear to excitement, from loneliness to serenity. But while all of these feelings are real, I've also come to know there's something illusory about travel: It offers the false promise that you can escape your worries back home.
Running presents that same tension. On a routine run through my Dallas neighborhood, I see something new every day: a freshly planted sapling, a child's bike in a yard, a cat hiding under a parked car. The details draw me closer to my neighborhood, and I am re-engaged. I drift into a meditative state, calmed by my breathing, by the cadence of my feet on pavement. But it's a temporary state, and soon enough, I must return home to face everything I've left unfinished.
During my travels, running has an even more powerful effect, as it immerses me in the unfamiliar. Running slows time for me, and in that slow-time, I catch the city's play in progress.
I've seen the sun rise along the waterfront in St. Petersburg, Fla. I've studied Frank Gehry's curvaceous Walt Disney Concert Hall one Thanksgiving morning in Los Angeles. I've watched the Willamette River open up beneath me as I crossed the Burnside Bridge into Portland's Eastside. I've run with my brother along the harbor at Tsim Sha Tsui in Hong Kong, saying farewell to the old Star Ferries crossing to the financial district. I've gotten lost in Saigon's District 1. I've overcome many a hangover running down one of my favorite streets in the whole world, Rue Royale in New Orleans' French Quarter.
When I'm on the road, running helps me clear my head and adjust to the time difference. It allows me to go on reconnaissance, watching for museums, churches and restaurants I might want to visit later. (I always ask my hotel whether it's safe to run a certain route before I head out.)
I'm in Santa Fe, running past the art galleries of Canyon Road. It's early morning; the sun casts deep shadows against adobe walls.
Santa Fe was a city that my ex-girlfriend and I loved to visit time and again. I feared what I might feel coming back here, but I see there's no reason to. Now that I'm on my own, I run past the familiar buildings, and my mind revisits the special places: the tapas bar, El Farol, where on a New Year's Day we ran into an old friend of mine whom I hadn't seen in years; the restaurant, Geronimo, where, during another wintertime visit, we walked back to the hotel in fast-falling snow.
On my way back to the Plaza, I visit the St. Francis Cathedral Basilica and place my hand on its doors, as well. I say a quiet prayer before I move on. Running, I breathe in the pinon-scented air, and I hear my heart beating.
>If you go:
San Francisco: This is a challenging run. Starting from Union Square, run north on Powell Street, up Nob Hill and through Chinatown. Pass Washington Square in the North Beach neighborhood and turn east on Filbert Street. Climb Telegraph Hill with a short stop at Coit Tower and a scenic view of the Bay. Head back west on Filbert and then turn north on Stockton or Powell streets to visit Fisherman's Wharf. You can head back south to Union Square via Stockton or Powell. For a quieter run with less traffic, try a north-south run up and down Mason Street.
Santa Fe: This is a beautiful run. Starting from the Plaza, run east on East San Francisco Street, then southeast on Cathedral Place, past St. Francis Cathedral. Head east (briefly) on East Alameda Street and turn south (briefly) on Paseo de Peralta until you get to Canyon Road. You can run east on Canyon Road, passing the art galleries and restaurants, all the way to Monsignor Patrick Smith Park. Retrace your route west on Canyon Road. For alternative route back to the Plaza, try running north on Paseo de Peralta, following it as it curves west, then south on State Route 590.
Resource: Santa Fe Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.santafe.org.
Portland: This is an urban-oriented run. Starting from Powell's City of Books (1005 W. Burnside St.), run east on West Burnside, crossing the Burnside Bridge spanning the Willamette River. Stay on East Burnside, venturing into the city's Eastside neighborhood, passing shops and restaurants. You can run all the way to Doug Fir Lounge (830 E. Burnside); unfortunately, I didn't take my credit card in order to try a beer and burger. Turn back and retrace your route, heading west back over the bridge, then turn south on S.W. Second or Third avenues. You can complete a downtown circuit by running south and turning west on West Market Street, then back north on S.W. Ninth or S.W. 10th avenues to West Burnside.
Resource: Greater Portland Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.visitportland.com.
Tips for city runners
*Check out www.run.com for running routes across the U.S. and all over the world.
*Talk to your hotel concierge or desk clerk about your planned route ahead of time to get a sense of how challenging the run is and whether there are any safety issues.
*To avoid getting lost, keep your route simple and remember where the main avenues are. Study a map ahead of time and, with your guidebook, read about and look at photos of the landmarks you'll be passing along your route.
*Stay hydrated and, if your destination is at an altitude higher than you're used to, wait a day or so to adjust to the elevation before running.