What I’ve learned from running around the world

--Amy M. Gardner

Studies show there are long-term effects from decreasing your exercise for even two weeks but that’s actually not why I try to run in every city and country we visit.  It's not even because I don't want to disappoint my Nike Run Club app.  (Though I don't!)  I try to run because by running, I learn something about the people and culture that I can’t from a walking tour, a museum, or even a restaurant.  

 Watch where you run...

Watch where you run...

My runs aren’t always long (especially when I can find excuses like heat, altitude, not feeling well, or stopping to take photos), but even when I find myself making excuses to walk, running gives me a glimpse into local culture.  Here are a few examples:

In Seoul, South Korea, it was over 90 degrees by 6:00 a.m., but our hotel lacked a gym.  I went out on the streets, planning to run to the Zaha Hadid-designed Dongdaemun Design Plaza.  I took one look at the road I would need to take to get there and realized my plan hadn’t considered the lack of shade on either side of the road.  Instead, I decided to focus on shade and avoiding sidewalk impediments when I noticed that the alleys were both shady and paved, making them less treacherous and more pleasant than the main streets.  Thinking I was turning into an alley, I found myself jogging through a market that was just getting set up for the day.  While I certainly had more quizzical looks than I had received on the sidewalk, the break from the sun made me think I was on to something.  Leaving the market, I saw a similar entrance across a major boulevard.  I jogged in that direction and entered the market before discovering it was a dried seafood market.  Perhaps not the most pleasing in terms of smells, but definitely more interesting than a treadmill, and certainly not something I would have seen otherwise.  In fact, after I returned to the hotel and we headed out for the morning, we returned to the market and had time to take some photos.  

 Seoul, South Korea

Seoul, South Korea

In Kyoto, Japan, it was pushing 90 degrees and humid by the time I was out at 6:00 a.m. huffing and puffing my way around the Nijō Castle, but I encountered a local running club where every member – both women and men – had virtually all their exposed skin covered, with full running tights, long sleeves, hats, and even face masks.  I had noticed several times during our time in Japan that women often were wearing removeable sleeves with short sleeved dresses, hats, gloves, etc. to protect them from the sun, but it was interesting to see men taking the same precautions, and that they were wearing so many extra clothes even while exercising.    

Running many times in Cuba has reminded me of the importance of not judging an entire country by your experience in one city.  In Havana, for example, you’re likely to encounter other early morning joggers, people going to work, and the bread men out pushing carts and yelling “panderia” to alert the residents that they are out and about with bread for sale.  Some locals may shake their heads, but you are unlikely to be the only runner out if you are on the main roads.    

In Baracoa, in far eastern Cuba, the side streets were desolate at 5:30 a.m., but as the sun rose, the main streets became full of people waiting for buses or walking to school or work.  The only other runners I saw there during my runs, though, were one humid morning when I saw two male runners in head to toe shiny track suits (one in red, one in blue). They both waved excitedly from an uncomfortably long distance, which necessitated their continuing to wave and yell greetings until we (mercifully) passed.    

In Holguin, Cuba, I had a man clearly still feeling the effects of the prior evening attempt to run alongside me (fortunately it was early enough that I could just leave him behind), before I encountered another man a few blocks later who, in the pre-dawn morning, found me taking a photo of the sun rise.  He waved to get my attention, unzipped his jacket to reveal his (large) bare stomach, and gestured for me to take his photo.  The combination of a lack of street lights and my amusement at the situation yielded only grainy photos, but that man and his rotund tummy and pride were such a contrast to the encounters you normally have as a traveler that it reaffirmed for me why, a random drunk or two to the contrary, it’s worth it to run outside as you travel around the world.

 Quintessential Cuba

Quintessential Cuba

A note on safety: Obviously you want to be careful, especially when you’re running in an area you don’t know.  I download the Google map for the city where I’m running (because I discovered that even in places where you have internet service, you can’t always count on it), take a photo of the outside of the hotel and a card with the hotel’s address in the local language, take water with me, make sure my phone is fully charged before I go, and let someone know where (I think) I’m going.  And in places where the temperature has been truly crazy, like Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, I’ve used the hotel gyms, gone to the pool, or just slept in instead. 

Do you run when you’re traveling?  And has it shown you a side of a culture you wouldn’t have experienced otherwise?