Saturday, February 14, 2015

Running, Travel, and the Art of Exploration

I slipped out the front doors of the Park Central Hotel before the sun rose, and in the semi-darkness I could see that San Francisco was already wide awake. Turning left onto Mission Street, I dodged business suits and skateboards, a dog walker juggling a trio of tiny pooches, and pungent, dingy bundles of sleeping homelessness. I moderated my pace in time to the flow of traffic, taking advantage of red lights to whip out my camera phone and play the tourist.

By the time I got to the Embarcadero, San Francisco's wide pedestrian boulevard running alongside the wharf, the sun was just rising over the Bay Bridge, and I was running headlong into a perfect February day.

I've made it a habit to bring my running gear along whenever I travel, even if I'm only in town a day or two on business. Running has become my way of connecting -  instantaneously and quite intimately - with my host city.

I came to where Mission ends at the Embarcadero and slowed my pace a bit. My run isn't so much about sticking to a workout (or steering clear of a dismal hotel gym) as it is a way to get a sense of what it would be like to live in this strange new world. As I passed an inlet full of moored sailboats bobbing gently in the early breeze, sea lions bayed on a pier somewhere where I couldn't see them. I thought how it was so much like/unlike hearing the bark of some neighbor's dog in my world back home. I wondered:  if I lived in San Francisco, would the sound of sea lions ever become commonplace?

Hitting the pavement for an hour or so lets me experience my surroundings with all my senses.  Walking accomplishes the same thing, but with my typical time limitations it's simply too slow a mode for proper exploration. I like to be able to take in as much as I can and cover as much ground as possible, even if that means getting up extra early and starting out before the sun rises.

Of course, wandering around an unfamiliar city has its risks. There are always opportunities to get lost, twist an ankle, wander blindly into a less-than-ideal neighborhood. But by employing a basic level of smarts, as well as a healthy dose of situational awareness, the rewards win out.

I never, for example, use any device that prevents me from hearing the world around me (and, besides, I prefer to hear the rhythm of my surroundings any old time). I'll start my run with a general idea of where I'm going (subject to change), and if I find myself in a place that gives me an odd sense of unease, I don't hesitate to turn around and hightail it out of there.  It often helps to ask a hotel concierge for suggestions on where to go, or stop someone in running gear for a route recommendation. I keep my eyes open and my brain focused on where I am and how long I'm out, etc. - which is a lot different from running in familiar places, where I can let my mind go wander about on its own. Travel running requires keeping your head in the game - and I often do that by stopping for photo ops along the way.

Sometimes I'll carry a SPI (Small Personal Item) belt to hold my hotel key, a credit card or cash, and my cell phone - the phone mainly for its camera function rather than to feel safe. I have never felt unsafe in any of the cities I've run through in recent travels: New Orleans, Charlotte (NC), Las Vegas, San Jose.

On my way back up Mission, I had my eye open for a good place to grab a quick breakfast before I had to start a long day of work. I found a great little place with a line out the door and rustic tables set up along the street for al fresco dining. I put in my order, grabbed my steaming bowl of coffee, and found a spot on the rail to watch San Francisco go about its morning.  I felt like I belonged here.

The Grove restaurant

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