When I think back to the places and cities I’ve lived since becoming a distance runner, my memory is usually centered around where I ran there. In Florida, half of my run was on a quiet, flat road next to the Sarasota Bay, which was fabulous…..except during red tide. And then there was Chicago. Oh how I loved running in Chicago. We lived a block off Oak Street beach and a path that runs along Lake Michigan for miles in both directions.
Our next stop was South Carolina. Here I could be on a quiet country road within minutes of walking out my front door. There were no water fountains or throngs of people like in Chicago; there were dogs.
I have had dogs for years, sometimes as many as 5 at a time. But running up on an unsuspecting dog, protective of his territory, is an entirely different matter. Little dogs have the loudest bark and they like to threaten you right at the ankles. Big dogs run circles around you and try to trip you up while nipping at your elbows. Packs of dogs – they are the worst.
When you first realize there’s more than one dog up ahead, your heart drops to your stomach – I usually mutter, “oh sh**t” just under my breath. For the next few seconds, I frantically try to decide if there is an alternative route. Its usually too late. So, I muster my best bad-ass impersonation, avoid eye contact and run right through them….holding my breath the whole way.
Then we relocated to Cuenca, Ecuador where the weather is touted as being spring like all year long. I remember reading one blogger say, “Spring can be cold and rainy you know.” And, that’s exactly what it was at my house. My runs always began from home at the top of the mountain (roughly 10,000 ft), where it would be a cold, damp 40 degrees in the morning. By the time I reached the city barely an hour later it might be 70.
The highway going up the Cajas was a popular route among bikers and the occasional runner. I’m not sure why. For me it was the closest paved road to my house but there were no shoulders on the road and the taxis and buses would nearly hit you as they flew past. And, running back up the mountain was sheer torture.
Once in awhile, I would take a different route through a commercial area. There weren’t sidewalks but at least there was a dirt path where you could jump in the case of an unyielding taxi driver. This dusty old road, full of pot holes and speed bumps, was barely the width of a two lane road here in the States. I always run facing traffic, keeping a close eye on every approaching vehicle. I nearly had a heart attack on this road when a taxi traveling on the wrong side of the road almost took me out from behind! I’ve had some close calls in life but that one beats them all.
Unlike the U.S, if a dog was loose and roaming free in Ecuador, he was no threat at all. Sometimes they would stand right in my path forcing me to run around them. Other times they would nearly run me over chasing another dog or going after some newly placed garbage can full of scraps. And there wasn’t the random dog passing here and there – they were everywhere!
This commercial route would take me past a fenced in football (soccer) field with a track around it. The gate was always locked unless the boys were practicing. So, whenever I saw the boys on the field I would run on the track. It was impossible to escape the altitude but it was blissful to run on a flat surface occasionally. One day the gate was locked even though the boys were there practicing. I don’t speak Spanish and couldn’t understand the reason they told me for locking the gate. They couldn’t understand my English either, I assume, but I told them what I thought about it anyway.
My favorite running track now is in western North Carolina, nestled into the valley close to town. What once was monotonous and boring is now a familiar and comfortable spot to run. I run on the track for recovery and rehabilitation runs, for those painful interval sessions, and when I can’t take the hills anymore, or the dogs.
The mountains sit off in the distance with houses hanging onto their sides. A creek runs alongside the track, where the local boys often fish for trout, and the railroad tracks are just beyond the creek. I can hear the train’s whistle as it emerges from the thick forest, it’s big Norfolk Southern logo on the side. There’s a bear carved out of a tree stump watching as people come and go. Along with the visitors, there’s a handful of us regulars. Even though we don’t know each other’s names, we always nod and say hello – we’re track buddies.
On Sundays, I run down the mountain from my house into another little neighboring city where my husband meets me for breakfast. Although mostly downhill, there are rolling hills and the last half is fairly flat. This is the same route I take on my bike, its fast, hairpin turns running alongside a stream that sometimes gives way to a small waterfall.
There are dogs here too. I’ll turn offf my iPod for fear the music spooks them. Sometimes I turn up the volume so I can’t hear the bite that seems so inevitable. I can feel their breath on my calves. Eventually they give up realizing I am no threat. The leaves rustle with some other animal not quite as brave. Not often, but once in awhile I make a mad leap over a snake I thought was only a fallen branch.
It’s about 14 miles to the restaurant. If my calendar shows a shorter run, my husband simply picks me up along the way. For longer runs, I run circles around town to add a few miles to the route. At the end of the run, when I’ve gotten weary from hunger and dehydration, the thought of pancakes pull me through. No make-up and icky from running, they recognize me here and bring a whole pitcher of water and put in my order for one backpacker’s pancake and steamed veggies, no butter. An odd combination, I know, but somehow it works for me.
I give my husband a blow by blow of the dogs along the route and the cyclists going back up the mountain peddling ever so slowly to the top. I’ve looked into their eyes as they pass me, understanding the toll that mountain is taking on their legs.
Its great to find a new route – a change of pace, new scenery, new dogs… but I suspect we all have favorite running spots. They cradle us on tough days and help us flourish on good days. This is my favorite running spot of all – right now – and I can’t wait to start a new week all over again tomorrow.