ON EXPLORATION, IMMERSION, CAMARADERIE & INSIGHT:
RUNNING AS AN INTEGRATING TOOL
Original article created for issue #10 of consciously-collated quarterly, Like The Wind: A unique Running magazine published in the UK
Published with the title, "Tales From Topographic Oceans"
Illustrations by Jack Bedford.
Running is a way of placing yourself. Not only with regard to geography, but with regard to your personal topography at any given point in time. As we discover our surroundings with each footstep, so we uncover ourselves in the process.
At this moment, I work as part of a crew for a private superyacht. Days are predominantly lived on water, and I have been surprised by how aesthetically similar many towns and cities appear when approached laterally from the ocean. Having travelled mainly by bus, plane or train in the past, I was accustomed to absorbing the defining intricacies of a landscape during arrival; gathering impressions of where humanity clustered, where the forests became dense, who had pools and who was living beside the railroad.
For the past year, our itinerary has taken us along the eastern shoreline of Central America, the United States, and Canada: A plethora of varied cultures and lifestyles that, with the exception of smaller Caribbean islands, strangely offer a vaguely indistinguishable first impression. With the flatter lands like Florida and South Carolina, this is difficult to avoid, as there is only so much one can perceive from sea level. Anything beyond the first ‘layer’ of infrastructure is seemingly non-existent until explored by foot.
True to stereotype, crew members often prioritize a visit to the nearest watering hole whenever we dock in a new port. A habit which usually serves to halt further investigation of the locale, recurring visits instead providing some semblance of the familiar in an otherwise rootless existence.
I understand the desire to feel like a regular, but I also have an innate desire to experience the way a place moves and breathes; to witness the subtleties and minutia that give a location its character. I have a friend who says he is “the sort of person who finds eavesdropping in supermarkets more inspiring than books” and although his statements are frequently laced with humour, there is validity to this idea within the paradigm of earnest exploration. When I travel, I like to experience a sense of immersion in any place that is unfamiliar, surrounded by the hum of everyday, local life. If we choose to travel as participants rather than tourists, we become receptive to authentic exchanges and lasting cultural appreciation.
When the yacht arrives into a new city, I have found that one of the simplest and most pleasurable ways to insert myself into a foreign environment is to lace up my trainers and go for a run. Without studying a map or guidebook, I rarely know what exists beyond the facade of any given marina. But before I give myself an impression based solely on the perspectives of others, I head out in whatever direction feels good to my feet, to scope out my vicinity. Initially, this practice formed from a necessity to alleviate the excess energy that tends to stockpile during extended days at sea. But from the third town we stopped in, I realized that it was a crucial aspect in my efforts to become better acquainted with each place I was fortunate enough to visit.
First, you meet the scent of the place; the infusion of flora, terrain, exhaust fumes and coffee shop ventilation balanced uniquely to create a perfume specific to that city. This perfume varies according to the weather, although these variations are nuanced and better appreciated over time and many runs. Second, you discover the structure; how the streets are laid out, and where the cultural hotspots melt into residential avenues. Third, you take in the population; the individuals you will share the next hours, weeks or months with.
It’s with this third element that I find my own semblance of familiarity. A rigid working schedule confines running only to certain hours of the day, and this paves the way for intangible yet routine exchanges with local runners. After passing the same face near the same corner a few times, recognition in the form of a smile or a nod is offered. Akin to bar custom, regulars on the circuit diversify your concept of the cultural backdrop, while simultaneously helping you to feel like a part of it. A loose camaraderie is instantaneous, for the simple, playground-epoch reason that you and the other, at least in this moment, enjoy the same “game.” On particularly golden mornings, when the sunlight might be streaming with purpose through the trees, or the breeze perfectly balanced to keep your body both warm and refreshed, I enjoy the proverbial wink shared with other runners, as you both acknowledge that this spectacular start to the day is sure to carry you beautifully all the way to bedtime.
That feeling - that quiet contentment - provides a helpful anchor for my mental and physical movements throughout the day. And it’s the reason I tend to run in the mornings. Running sometimes takes on a meditative rhythm for me. After a while, my breath seems to take care of itself; smooth and reliable, and I lose myself in what Kerouac called “the meditation of the trail, [… falling] into a trance as the ground zips by.” Although I might note here that running within the walls of a gym has never induced this state of mind for me. Being outside - whether in a fecund, green valley or a more suburban scene - is key.
The perennial accessibility of running gives it further appeal. We can run through meadows, over bridges, up hillsides or along sidewalks, and need not depend on any other to make this happen. In comparison, I’ve enjoyed - for example - surfing, skating and boxing at various intervals, but these pleasures require specific conditions, equipment or external involvement, whereas running is truly non-exclusive. Any place, any time, any weather, any clothing; there is always an open ended invitation to lace up and step out.
And perhaps this aspect of running is the crux; no matter where we are on our journey, physically or philosophically, there exists always in life the invitation to delve a little deeper. Who are we doing our life with? How will we choose to interpret the scene that surrounds us? Where is our place amongst the picture?
Running encourages us to consider these integral questions on a regular basis, no matter where we are. A place that is familiar holds no less potential to unveil fresh ideas and realizations. Running can be used simply as a tool to help navigate our psychological and physical undulations, as individuals and as a greater whole.
As I run and ponder through these landscapes, watching the ground “zip by,” I am reminded ultimately that transience is at the core of every experience, traveller or not. Adaptability is an asset. Do we want to stagnate, or put one foot in front of the other?