Globe Trotting: Using Running to Explore Places

I was packing for a family getaway and feeling just a bit smug about the humble clothing pile I’d set on the bed: a couple of t-shirts and long sleeves, one swimsuit, limited toiletries, a single pair of jeans, shorts, Chacos, and two hoodies. For a chronic over-packer it was downright minimalistic, an especially good trait when you’re sharing a bag with someone else (as I was) and trying not to encroach on his half (as I usually do). 

Unfortunately—cue the record scratch sound effect, if that’s not overkill for an essay about running—I had yet to gather my running supplies. The “running stuff” pile quickly towered over the “everything else” pile. Shoes! Socks! Shirts! Shorts! Bras! Sunglasses! Most of them in multiple. Bye, extra space. Sorry, spouse.

I can’t imagine a trip without a run. I’d feel a little lost if running disappeared from my near-daily routine, but it’s more than that—running makes every trip I’ve taken better. Much of what I recall of places from Whidbey Island to Nashville to Paris comes from running-related sense memories. In Florence, Italy, I followed the route advice of our hotel owner and enthusiastic fellow runner and chugged up a hill, passing the Piazzale Michelangelo with its panoramic views of the Ponte Vecchio and the charming skyline, more peaceful than later in the day when it would be overtaken by flocks of tourists. In early morning Rome, I ran past shop owners and delivery people on otherwise empty streets near the Spanish Steps, immediately self-conscious about the contrast between their effortlessly stylish clothing and my sweaty athletic gear. In New York in my early 20s I felt a burst of independence as I took the subway from Times Square to Central Park where I ran around the reservoir alongside dozens of true New Yorkers doing the same thing I was.

If you name a place I’ve been, that’s where my mind goes first: where I ran, what I saw, how it felt. This is what happens, I think, when we use what we already love to help us navigate the world. For some that could mean kayaking or antiquing or rock climbing. For my husband, it’s checking out craft breweries and major league ballparks. For me it means running through new sections of familiar cities like Seattle; jogging along Lake Union with my way lit by the headlights of morning commuters; ascending the woodsy hillside to the top of Mt. Tabor while visiting my brother in Portland; or coming home with stinky, salty shoes from jogs along beaches in Westport, Wash., and Kihei, Hawaii. 

Looking over the cliffs from the trail in Hawaii // Photo by Lisa Laughlin

Thinking back on trips to Florida, I can almost feel the sweat that dripped down my back as I huffed along baked white sidewalks in the palm tree-studded neighborhood near my in-laws’ place. I remember being windblown as I ran along the shoulder of the highway through the rolling plains outside Havre, Mont., when we were in town for my husband’s grandma’s funeral. And I remember the tentativeness of a jog around the little town of Waterbury, Vt., just days after finding out I was pregnant with my first baby, head spinning with what-ifs and excitement and nerves. 

The trip I was packing for was a vacation with extended family to a house on the bank of the Pend Oreille River where bald eagles sailed overhead, hummingbirds zipped silently across the backyard, and milfoil lined the river bed. Outside, we fished and waded and sat on the beach. Inside, it was books and Nintendo Classic and card games. Usually I run alone, but a couple of times I was joined by my two daughters and my niece. Some of us enjoyed these short runs more than others (I won’t name names to protect the reluctant) but I found it so satisfying to get out of the wonderful but confining bubble of our river home to see what a quick out-and-back stretch had to offer—surprisingly, a lot. We saw a mama deer and two babies! We were rained on, and then the sun came out!  We made it all the way to the turning point at the end of the road! We passed the time with games like “List every pizza topping you can think of that starts with the letter P” and “How many Harry Potter characters can you name?” We ran and walked and ran again, and we celebrated excessively at the turnaround point, taking a few pictures for posterity. Even without the pictures, though, I know I’d remember. Those runs weren’t long, but my memory of them feels indelible.

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