A friend once told me, “The best way to explore a new place is to go for a run and experience things up close.” You can cover a lot of ground and see what’s inside all those buildings you pass as you drive by. You can see what the view is like across the lake if you just stop for a minute and look. What smells do you smell? What are the people like? How do they dress? What are they talking about? What kind of music do you hear from that apartment building or bar? Do you smell wood fires burning? Or is that the smell of garbage? Sometimes it’s side by side right on the same block.
About a year ago I also stopped running with headphones or music and quickly learned how much I preferred running to nature’s sound. I paid closer attention to my heart rate and breathing and had a much sharper sense of what was around me. “How can you go so long without listening to music? I would go crazy!” I though so too but realized after just one music-less run that the world, our cities and nature, are filled with sound, sights, smells and even tastes that you miss on a typical drive through. Tossing aside the headphones and taking a run through a new place is the best way to learn about where you are.
Not just the big cities but the small towns too. The country. By the water. In the hills.
So here’s my story of the places I ran through, and the things that I found.
Running Through This Place
I first though of capturing runs through new places when I was in Havana, Cuba in 2014. Here’s the Malecón, that famous seawall roadway that surrounds Havana. You’ve seen pictures. That’s Morro Castle behind me, guarding the entrance to Havana Bay since the old times. Historic as fuck. I started there and ran along El Malecón for a few miles and then ran back to the hotel. Best part: the salt water crashing into the wall as I ran along the shore as 50s Buicks zipped by. Biggest surprise: the smell of diesel. It was morning on a weekday I believe, and traffic was busy. On the way back to my hotel I found a small store selling cola, water, snacks and rum. I bought an orange soda and drank it as I walked back to the hotel, the ambient scenes and sounds of Havana bustling all around me. Commuters on their way to work catching crowded buses. A random dog jogging by. Two men arguing in rapid Spanish as they passed. Everyone leaving me alone and go about their business. It felt like tropical Big Manhattan Energy but without the height of those damn skyscrapers.
Same bandana, Mark? Get a life. This is Glasgow, Scotland. It was a 40ish foggy morning. There was a light drizzle but this was a great run for exploring. Our flat was in a residential area south of the city, so I ran north toward the city center and then turned right at the River Clyde and ran along the north/east bank you see to the left of the picture. I happened along a perfect running path that took you through all the riverfront property, which wasn’t much more than a few parks, the outside of some apartments and a restaurant or two. I don’t remember which day of the week this was but it was early in the morning and things weren’t really moving yet. Even the River Clyde was totally still. It was super peaceful and there was a light rain. And graffiti. Tons of graffiti. The type of graffiti you’d expect to see in a movie like Trainspotting. It was everywhere. And the sidewalks had little metal railings at the intersections, kind of like the rope lines at Disney World, that guided you safely across the street. They were great, and people respected them. This made me feel extra safe as I had just two months ago been hit while running by this dumbfuck drunk driver. That’s a whole other story I won’t get into. But for city running, Glasgow was totally a runner-friendly experience. I even happened upon the distillery where they make Chivas Regal. Totally by accident!
Same fucking bandana again? No wait, that’s a different one. Anyway here’s New York. Fuck New York, fuck the Yankees and fuck Derek Jeter. Actually New York is fucking awesome, I just had to get my digs in as a Twins fan. I’m so sick of the Yankees. But New York is a hell of a town! I’m in New Jersey though, running along the park where Ellis Island is. Great view of the bay. The Statue of Liberty is right there greeting all these ships and helicopters out there. And the New York City Marathon was happening as I took this photo, waaaay across the way there. Probably tearing through Brooklyn by this time but I was just out for my own thing and wasn’t running any marathon. It was early November and windy as hell, which I HATE. I hate running in the damn wind. I hate it! But I wanted to run to a certain spot on this seawall to get the perfect photo. There it is. Pretty cool, huh?
The run took me through this boatyard through, with millions of sailboats and yachts. It was awesome because they were suddenly just everywhere. One second I was running through this Jersey neighborhood of brick buildings and churches and next thing I knew I was running along a wooden dock surrounded by the Jersey Shore fucking Armada. Who owned all these boats? When did they ever take them out? HOW did they get them out of this crowded boatyard? And where did they go? Across the river to Manhattan? Along the Hudson like Sully? In circles around Lady Liberty? What the fuck?
Okay so Canada puts me into a much better mood. Who doesn’t love Canada? Red and white maple flags, hockey teams, tons of beer, super nice people, Tim Horton’s everywhere! And you can buy Cuban rum and bring it home. I had been to Canada like five times before I visited Winnipeg but this was my first run though the True North. Damn, it’s so damn peaceful up there compared to here. Anyway. I ran through this residential neighborhood and along this lake and there were runners everywhere. It was great. I just kind of zoned out and followed them. Figured they knew where to go so I focused on the houses and yard. Nice! Reminded me of St. Paul around Summit Avenue but not as fancy. Wide streets, big traditional houses with gates and fancy architecture here and there. A government building, a cemetery, a few busy streets with stoplights. Some dudes cutting grass at the huge lawn of this big generic place that was either a church or a country club. Perfect running weather. Air so fresh, until I got back near the hotel which was in the city. So running in Winnipeg: A+
How could I not throw this one out there? Hometown baby, home town!! Downtown Minneapolis is behind me and if you look closely…LOOK!…other runners. Yep, it may be 10 degrees with a foot of snow on the ground and probably another foot falling before you make it back but damn it, we’re out here. I remember this being the QUIETEST run I had ever taken. I had my headphones in but once I noticed how quiet it was I took them out, stopped and just looked around. Right at this spot, with the Mississippi River below me and a few runners trudging towards me, blurred by the thick falling snow, which muffled all sound and made you feel somehow totally alone. Which for an introvert like me is complete fucking bliss. But my eyelashes were covered with ice and I’m sure my toes ached and my fingers were numb so I kept going until I got my 10 miles in so time for donuts.
Yeah, yeah, yeah shirtless beach shot but look: the beach is a completely different environment than the snow, yet it’s strangely very similar. At both the terrain is soft and you’re forced to push your feet into the ground a bit harder, use a few more muscles than you would on firm pavement. And you have to manage the temperature. Plus when the sun is out, you don’t think it gets bright in the snow? All that white with the sun blazing down and reflecting directly into your eyes? It’s blinding! But when you’re running on the beach chances are the sun might be out there too so…I don’t even know what point I’m trying to make. But on this particular run, I ran by rows and rows and ROWS of condo buildings. Just one after another. All of them empty. I never knew why. It was October and the beach was plenty packed with people so it’s not like it wasn’t the right season. It looked like something was wrong, but I never got the whole story. I was busy listening to the waves and avoiding the bursts of saltwater that would wash towards me and attack my shoes. Lots of friendly beach walkers nodded and said hello. A couple guys were fishing. Some kids out in the water were shouting and causing a ruckus. It was a great day to run. And back at the home base, my parents had camped out with some chairs and an umbrella, and plenty of snacks and beer. A great way to finish a run.
Here’s Belgium. Different bandana! This was a flat run along this river. Lots of other runners and people on bicycles. A perfect little after work jog one afternoon that took me through these narrow city street, very European in that I had no idea if I was headed the right direction or if some car would squeeze around some tight corner and run into me. Never happened. But I saw all these cool little houses along the river and hoards of people doing their thing. It got dark fast though the lighting wasn’t very good on the way back so when you do your Mechelen, Belgium run do it during the day.
One of the all time greats right here. Canada again, but you know where I am. Niagara Falls baby, last leg of Ragnar Niagara with the finish line just ahead! Can you image a run that makes you feel completely small? The size of the falls not only made me realize how little I am in comparison, but how little the FALLS are when compared to the earth. And then how little the damn EARTH is when you stick it next to Sun or Jupiter or pretty much anything else out there. Yeah, that’s the kind of shit going though my mind during this moment. “Those falls are fucking huge and what do I have to do with any of it?”
Stillwater!! That’s Wisconsin on the other side of the river. Pricks. That’s a famous bridge that’s only famous to people who live around here. No one else cares. It’s a cool bridge though, and Stillwater is a fun place to run if you love running hills. This is more of a country run because you don’t see Stillwater until the end of the run but lots of Minnesota landscapes and of course a highway, but it’s still pretty scenic and peaceful. I go back every year!
Dudes, look how patriotic I am! I ran all up in this area, saw all the main buildings and slalomed through all the tourists. It’s a sightseeing extravaganza running all up and down the Mall. Funny thing about this run is I have no idea how I got there or where I went when I was finished. But apparently I was there at some point because I have this picture as proof.
Okay, Wisconsin’s not so bad because here I am running through it with my friend Drew. This was during the Ragnar Great River when the great river flooded and then flooded everything around it. They had to shutdown part of the race course, so runners had to double up to get their legs in. Drew and I dominated this 6-miler and ran out of water with about a mile to go. I remember that being tough because it was getting to be around noon and the heat and humidity were getting up there. This was somewhere near Pepin and we went along some water which may have been the Mississippi (that’s the great river they’re talking about, you knob). This was one of those small towns where the people get all excited for the race and sit outside to watch and cheer. Some have cookouts, some have little lemonade stands. Some have little bake sales where you can buy pies and cookies. That type of town. Little farms. Horses here and there. That quaint Americana type stuff. With some random dude glaring your way every once in awhile because he don’t like you in his town. Fuck him. He’s from Wisconsin.
Staunton, Virginia! Where the hell is that? In Virgina somewhere, wherever Woodrow Wilson was born. I know this because I came across his boyhood home while I was…wait for it bitch…running through the damn town. See? This just proves my point. How else would I have ever known Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia had I not come across his birthplace or whatever it was while out for a run. Do it. Go for a run through some random place. You never know what you’ll find. Like these railroad tracks. According to legend some drunk Civil War soldier got hit by a train here and still haunts the station to this day. I didn’t see any sign of him. And oh yeah Staunton is in the Shanandoah Valley and it’s really freakin humid.
I bet you can’t guess where I am in this one, because it’s a place I had never heard of and never thought I’d see. Oh no, it’s that bandana again. And that same shirt too? Ugh. Where was I? Oh yeah, San Luis Potosi, Mexico. Big big industrial city smack dab in the middle of the country. Pretty good food and I know for sure we didn’t go to any of the best places. Pretty high density for not only population but traffic. Not terrible but more than you’d expect. And not really any signs of any runner-friendly…anything. No paths, no runners, DEFINITELY no running stores. But all I needed was some pavement and a place where I could stay out of the way. So true to my mission I burst out the hotel front entrance and just started running. Left, then left again. Oh no I found a narrow little tropical street with fancy plants and painted concrete walls. The was a nice part of town by this town’s standards. Two-story houses. Small, but painted and clean, with trimmed shubery outside and designated places for garbage. I felt good. I felt safe. A couple kids in school uniforms boarded a mini-van and were whisked away. An old dude out walked nodded and said “Buenos dias.” I gave him a quick salute with a “Beunos…”
Had to watch out for dog shit but hell, I have to do that here too.
The desert! Aw man, I’ve always wanted to do it! Talk about your extreme environments: snowy tundra, sunny hot beach, dry as fuck desert. The cacti were twenty, thirty feet tall with stems or whatever as hard as tree trunks. I always though they’d be these soft, tall aloe plants but no these were tough as hell. I actually never made it into the desert proper, where people get murdered and things like that, but most of the terrain in Phoenix was very desert-like so if you run there as your first ever desert run, it damn right counts.
The front yards in this town! Grass? What’s grass, something you can only smoke here if you have a prescription I know this because I looked it up. So many people had a front yard that was their own personal desert environment. Little wagon wheels arranged like there had just been a battle,with fancy flowers and rock gardens and beds of sand with all kinds of strange spikey plants growing. But once I got farther and farther from my hotel, things started looking a bit sketch. I mean shantytowns with people living in tents and cooking on little grills as their actual kitchen. Realizing that my curiosity had wandered me into their community and that I had better get the fuck out now. Really glad to be a runner at that moment because I turned on high speed and got away.
Words can’t describe a place like Sedona except the word unfuckingbelievableman! Just look at that view! It’s like a road runner cartoon background or the surface of Mars or some Lord of the Rings Indiana Jones final scene type place of wonder and majesty. Can you imagine running through here? The rock formations! The dry creek beds! The winding paths and high altitude draining your lungs. Pausing every ten minutes to take in the view and snap some pics. And you people think I’m crazy to run without music.
That’s all I have for now! Yeah, I know I’m super cool because I went on a few runs and took a few pictures. But hey, this is what I do! Thanks for reading and maybe I’ll uh…run into you somewhere…har har har…