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.
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.