Why I run when I travel

IMG_5996Two weeks ago, I got up early, opened the carved wooden doors and threaded my way through the tiny laneways of the Marrakesh medina, through Jemaa al efna  as the juice-sellers and food vendors were setting up their stalls for the day.  I was stiff, and I was tired, and for modesty, I was dressed too warmly.  The run was slow and awkward, zigging up and down the smallish park around the Koutoubia Mosque to eke out 5 kilometers.  But doing it filled me with absolute joy, and as I dodged motorbikes and cats in the lane going back to our riad, I glowed.

Last Sunday, we had a 24 hour layover in London on the way home.  In the same clothes I wore in Morocco, but a bit chilled this time, I ran from Trafalg ar Square up the wide mall to Buckingham Palace, accidentally encountering a changing of the Queen’s Guard, which caused a police officer to furiously wave me off the street.  I finished 5 km dodging tourists and pigeons, and going back to the over-stuffed hotel, I glowed.

IMG_2507I’ve written before about running when I travel, on the morning road in Uganda where the local people are carrying pangas in their hands and bundles on their heads, and where I’m just emanating the privilege of running for exercise or joy in the midst of people who must walk hours to work.  I’ve written about running in Barbados, where running puts me among the broken sidewalks that people who don’t leave the resorts never see.

I counted up the countries I’ve run in while I was running in London, and I think it’s 22.  The thing about running in other countries is, I remember almost every run. At home, the runs are all a big blur, some good, some not, rarely memorable. Good for me but workaday.  Like not remembering how many bagels with peanut butter I’ve eaten. But I have vivid, body-aware memories of runs in every other country I’ve run in.

The run in Auckland 22 years ago when I meant to let go of the 24 hour journey with a 20 minute gentle jog, but got lost and ended up in an hour long trudge, the sidewalks swooping up at me in my sleep deprivation.  The run through icy drizzle along a little seafront trail in Reykjavic, where I felt for a few minutes what it would feel to live there and have this chilly finger morning routine.  An overheated, glare-hot run along a busy beach road in Spain after a fight with my then-partner, trying to bake my way back to equanimity.  The short, incredibly plodding 15 minute run along a lake in Sri Lanka I added to an 80 km bike day, where my feet would barely move and I got caught in an explosive rain storm.  An attempt to get into a park in Bangkok where I spent 10 minutes trying to navigate the impossible tangle of traffic signals, then found myself the only westerner joining the Thai joggers who all stopped and stood respectfully when the national anthem played over loud speakers at 8 am.

A run in Myanmar, among the temples of Bagan early in the morning before they were sifted through with visitors, where I got trapped by a pack of wild dogs.


The run along a narrow dirt road in the Pantanal in Brazil, in heat that forced my feet to stop involuntarily every 5 minutes or so, weaving my way around the lazy caimans who lay right in the road, surrounded by capybaras, egrets, ibis, kingfishers, parrots, parakeets.


I carry those memories physically, too.  I have a big scar on my knee from tripping down a hill in Kigali, my water bottle and phone shooting into the road, baking from the inside out as I limped back to my hotel, where ice was not a thing.  I got a sunburn from running in Capetown that I’m pretty sure triggered the basal cell carcinoma on my nose — but that solo encounter with the sea was one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve ever had.

I used to say that I run because I “have to,” but I don’t say that anymore.  Mostly, in my real life, I run now because it’s an efficient way to get my body moving, because every few runs I feel really good, and I have enough history and foundation of running over 23 years that I know how to do it without hurting myself.  It helps keep me in balance, mentally, emotionally, physically — but it isn’t the imperative it once was.

Unless I’m traveling. Then, running is a necessity, something I have to do to connect to a place, to feel it by breathing it in differently than I can any other way.  Running, I’m alone with the space, feeling the people around me, the feel of the sidewalk or road or sand.  Running in a new space is pure, trusting exploration — I don’t know where I’m going or what I will find or what the road will feel like beneath my feet, what pollution might be in the air, how my sweating, toiling self will be perceived by the people I’m running among, whether I’ll be able to find my way back to where I’m staying.  When I’m in a hot place, walking makes me languid. Running is a thrust, pushing me into the space more fully, making me breathe hard into it.

I often talk about how even though I like to count things, I really dislike the concept of a “bucket list” — the notion that the world is full of experiences to “check off” before you die.  It feels weirdly transactional to me, more about acquiring experiences than living them.  Running is one of the ways I truly inhabit my experiences, have deeply connected, mindful connections with the places I visit.

Running when I travel is a gratitude practice.  Because my body is being fully, completely engaged, my spirit is fully activated.  It makes me aware that in this world, I have tremendous privilege — my body moves when I want it to, the ways I want it to, mostly; I have incredible economic means and a work and family life where I have the freedom to explore.  I have the privilege of being connected to a community of people I love on the other side of the world in the work I do in Uganda. I have the privilege of making choices of so many kinds.  Running through those privileges evokes absolute gratitude in a way nothing else does.



17 thoughts on “Why I run when I travel

  1. Thank you for your soulful words and great photos, Field Poppy. I’m glad you’re a regular contributor to Fit Is A Feminist Issue!

  2. Love this! Thank you. I just came from the Bahamas and am about to go to India and China. These are all places I feel I “can’t run” in. In the Bahamas it’s that there is no sidewalk and it feels very unsafe. In India and China? I don’t even know but I somehow feel as if running there is (1) not done, so I would stand out as a tourist and (2) it scares me to wander alone so far from my hotel in places that are new and so different (which is weird as shit because I am a seasoned traveler, comfortable all over the place). So your post has liberated me to rethink my assumption and pack the gear! Great pics too. I love reading about your experiences all over the world.

    1. I didn’t run in China but that was because I didn’t have the right gear going from Vietnam to China in the winter. There are parks filled with joggers and dancing ladies, and the street is fine. Just be aware that it will likely feel smoggy.

      1. And I love that this feels liberating – like getting lost is freeing! Just bring a card with the hotel name and money for a cab if you’re worried 🙂

  3. Thanks for this! I am going to Morocco in March and was trying to figure out how to squeeze some workouts in. My go-to is usually a run but I assumed it woulnd’t be safe in Morocco. Do you have any tips?

    1. Hi Julie — I had no issues at all and I was with a local guide/friend who encouraged me to run. If you are in marrakech you are fine running in the medina in the early morning (later in the day it is probably too crowded), and in New Town any time during the day. There are a couple of nice but not huge parks near the Koutoubia Mosque that lots of people run in. I would say a) run in the daylight; b) lots of sunscreen even when it’s cold and c) dress respectfully, especially around the mosque. For me that meant ankle length tights that I would normally wear to hot yoga (thing but full coverage) and a short sleeved, crew necked running shirt. A little warmer than you might dress in other contexts but just respectful. Not one person gave me a sideways glance in the two runs I did, and my friend/guide also encouraged me to run along the road in the Dades gorge in the morning but I was too sick to do so.

      To clarify: I ran alone, but Hamid made it clear that it was a perfectly okay thing to do. And bring water 😉

  4. My favourite work trips are always the ones where I have gone for a run outside or found a place to take a circus class. Doing these activities in a new place helps me feel more like I am participating in real life there rather than being trapped in a work/hotel/restaurant cage.

  5. I only recently did this for the first time, in Philadelphia, while on a work trip. I was initially looking for a guided city tour run, which they do have in Philly, just not during the dates I was there. Instead I found a running shop that has a regular free group run, so I joined. It was great! They were a very friendly bunch and luckily didn’t go too fast (not being able to keep up had been my main worry). One of the reasons I hadn’t done this before is that I’m sort of insecure about venturing out on my own in an unknown city. What if I end up in a dodgy area? What if the route I pick from a map is “unrunnable” terrain (think massive roads with no sidewalks etc.)? Especially outside of Europe where I don’t have mobile data on my phone and can’t find my way back with Google maps. Thanks for this post, it’s encouraging me to be more daring with this.

  6. Super cool post. I have run and been many of the same countries you mentioned. I am currently looking at going to Morocco in December (I know, not an ideal time).
    Burma is one of my all time favorite places in the world.
    I have a similar blog dedicated to running and traveling. I just ran in Dubrovnik, Croatia and am getting ready to run in Romania at Bran’s Castle for my first Ultra. Check it out if you are interested.

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