“Вы профессиональный бегун? Are you a professional runner?”
I’m on a city bus in Almaty, Kazakhstan on my way to run in a local city park. I’ve been here for five days and it’s the first time a local has struck up a conversation with me. He’s a young doctor, three kids, likes Donald Trump.
“Hopefully someday!” I reply engagingly.
No, not a professional, but a runner? To be sure. A trail runner.
Becoming a Runner
I’ve lived in the small town of Kaikoura, New Zealand for the past two years. It is a tiny town – comfortable, friendly, stunningly beautiful. Mountains and surf barely three miles apart.
Several weeks ago I finished my job there and got ready to leave for good. It was terribly hard to say goodbye as I’ve built wonderful friendships there, and it is also the place where I first became a runner, running my first marathon on the South Island in 2015 (surviving an unintentionally slightly fermented homemade energy drink– ask me more sometime, it’s seriously hilarious). My first trail race came several months later, and I’ve been hooked on trail running ever since.
A background as an experiential educator and more than half a year’s worth of nights in the backcountry have taught me that to really understand something, I have to find a way to experience it. It’s fine to say “being a little uncomfortable doesn’t bother me” while seated around the dinner table, but it is another matter entirely to consider anything besides your own discomfort while soaked to the bone, bushwhacking through thick pine scrub during a torrential downpour in a trail-less patch of the Adirondack woods.
That belief in the power of experience was partly what first drew me to trail running. As I’ve been drawn deeper into the sport, my motivation has deepened as well. At the moment I run mountain trails because I want to feel the satisfaction that comes with attempting difficult challenges and because I want to learn more: about the world around me, its hills, mountains, and valleys, but also about the sort of person I’m trying to become: disciplined, committed, faithful, emotional, present.
Over the past ten days, I’ve been to New Zealand, North America, Europe, and Central Asia. The compressed time, like the act of running, tends to make moments blur – spaces, people and landscapes flashing by seemingly in an instant. These words are an attempt to draw some cohesion out of that blur. I hope you can find something for yourself here too.
I fly out of New Zealand at 5:00 PM on a Saturday. I fly into Seattle, Washington an hour later… local time anyway. Thank you, International Dateline.
I go for a run along the Seattle waterfront. After ten months in tiny Kaikoura, I try not to feel overwhelmed by the constant stream of others – businesspeople on walking meetings, young couples enjoying pieces of shade, cyclists speeding by. There is a palpable energy here – of purpose and movement. In my Asics singlet and short shorts, I don’t look out of place at all.
Running is the way that I introduce myself, orientate and eventually relax into the spaces I inhabit. It is a connection I share between the familiar places I’ve left and new spaces I find myself exploring. It helps me feel like I belong.
Several days later, I’m running along a wet asphalt sidewalk on a rainy day in Beverly, Massachusetts. I don’t pass anyone and instead concentrate on my surroundings. Small, quiet New England houses and patches of mixed deciduous/evergreen forest are a sharp contrast to the skyscrapers, stadiums and shipping container cranes of downtown Seattle.
Through these transitions I am learning to appreciate varying seasons in life – the comfort of saying hello to the familiar twists and divots of a trail I’ve run fifty times, as well as welcoming the feelings – uncertainty tinged with possibility – of turning down a new street, passing an unfamiliar intersection, or following a new trail.
Matthew Arnold, an English poet in the 19th century, famously called Oxford the city of “dreaming spires“, and I’d certainly agree with him.
Thirty-six hours after my rainy run through Beverly I find myself staring across iconic Christchurch Meadow towards the distant spires of the Oxford colleges: Oriel, Magdalen, Trinity and Christchurch among them.
The next morning, while on a run with my girlfriend, we find ourselves passing through Radcliffe Square, the spire of University Church of St Mary the Virgin rising effortlessly above us. “New” buildings here were built in the 17th century. My mind relaxes into a perpetual state of amazement – acceptance that I am suddenly amidst a story many, many times older and lengthier than anything I’ve experienced before.
I feel small in many ways in this city. The centuries of history, the presence of some of the greatest influences in Western culture – it is humbling.
Yet despite feeling very small, or perhaps because of it, I also feel an unlooked for yet undeniable sense of belonging. It is as though those old cobblestone streets, sandstone walls and elegant spires are saying, “Don’t worry! We’ve welcomed thousands before you. We’ve seen it all. Come! Relax, explore.”
We run through ancient meadows, across stones worn smooth by countless feet and years, hearing bells from half a dozen towers, through manicured gardens, past oak trees older than George Washington. I feel carried along – small, but at home somehow too.
The Grandfather Apple – Why I Do It
“Вы профессиональный бегун?”
“Are you a professional runner?” He asks.
I’m on a city bus in Almaty, Kazakhstan on my way to run in a local city park. I’ve been here for five days, my quads still sore from a long mountain run the day before. In my short shorts and running waist pack, I draw the stares of most every other passenger onboard. But I don’t feel nervous – that’s one feeling I still remember well from six years ago!
“Hopefully someday!” I reply.
Almaty, Alma-Ata, “Grandfather Apple” in Kazakh, is the largest city in Kazakhstan. I went to high school here – six years ago now. The city has changed a lot, like me. New multi-lane thoroughfares, underpasses, electronic bus passes, Subaru Crosstreks on the roads. There are new challenges and beauties here. But the buses still don’t always start up on the first try.
I quickly feel comfortable again, despite the changes. It is fun coming back – I get to introduce the person I’ve become to places I once knew well, and those places get to show me how they’ve changed too.
I’ve been for a few runs here now and I marvel at the beauty of this country – a beauty I’ve experienced before, but had largely forgotten. In leaving and returning I can see spaces here with fresh eyes, a different perspective, deeper appreciation. I hope I’ll one day have the same opportunity with the places I knew so well in New Zealand.
Trail running is a difficult sport – it requires a constant awareness of the terrain, your body, the weather. But in hurtling down a steep, rocky trail, twenty miles into a long training run, there is also the thrill of doing something that I wasn’t capable of before, of experiencing a strength that I didn’t know I possessed. And it is that energizing mixture which attracts me so much. It is in experiencing and leaning into the discomfort, the uncertainty and the difficulty – of running trails or facing big life transitions, which will ultimately help me become the kind of committed, self-aware, resilient, attentive and capable person that I hope to be.