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The sun shone between golden-pink clouds just above the water. The runners around me inched closer and forward. We began at a slow jog, but in seconds my stride matched my music. In Batumi, the Black Sea resort in the country of Georgia, Sherif Khimshiashvili Street was lined with amused spectators. Runners – 141 of us – thinned out fast as the half marathon began.
I’ve been running the cities I visit for as long as I’ve travelled alone. There is nothing like discovery by moving fast across a distance that is unplanned or irregular. Otherwise, you miss things simply by taking a faster route to dinner. Running lets you plunge into place. You sweat and the city sticks, in memory, too.
I can revisit in my mind, for example, the seawall bordering the Marmara outside Istanbul’s Sultanahmet as if I’d recorded the mist moving over the rocks, past cats and men fishing who turned to smile.
Batumi is weird and wonderful – casinos and Roman ruins cupped in the Caucasus Mountains. You should run it, if you can. When you write it all down later, you’ll have kebab dust on your fingers and a man somewhere nearby yelling alongside your thoughts. (He is likely mid-toast, full of emotion and improv.)
When I’m in a new city I wonder each time: Am I outwardly fit for the weather? What can I, a woman, wear for my run that won’t offend? Where will I eat afterward, immediately and ravenously? Will some trick of airports and airlines block my adrenaline? Will I skip over these roots, these puddles, these roadside antiques?
In Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, I ran by the riverside and past impossible lanes of traffic to a hill called Vera Park. I was on my way to a church I won’t be able to find – I glimpsed the dumpling domes from below, but they disappeared as walls in the narrow streets grew tall around me.
In nighttime Buenos Aires, I ran downhill past a group of fighting kids and flung out my arms, shouting in English for them to stop. I was joined by a local in Spanish. They backed apart. We shook our heads.
After you know your way, running reminds you that you don’t. In Bangkok, in visible heat, I left the hotel at noon. I knew it was bad. Noon is not for running. Two kilometres in, I shouldn’t be tired, but I was inhaling chunks of humid air and almost tripped to a stop in the park, an inner-city oasis. I saw my first monitor lizard sitting on the bank where it felt the sun, motionless. In my second lap, alert and enraptured, I saw more monitor lizards. Dozens and dozens. Later, I learned their name and how they kill their prey using venom. I circled the Lumpini Park gates later for any warning signs that I had, in fact, not missed.
Without running I might not have these moments moving, as tourists do, from hotel to restaurant to metro to monument.
Running gives you alone time, too. To be separate from your partner. To be unplanned. To be silent.
But best is the beauty, as if a tap had poured it out for you. In the watercolour streets of Cordoba, Spain, my run took me over a sprawling pedestrian space with a raised platform that reflected back the sky from splash pads and fountains. Next, I ran through a network of greenery, where teenagers sit on each other’s laps and the paths are framed with overripe oranges – like they washed up at the edges. And then you meet the river bridge. I could sprint, but I stood still. I watched a low moon and a woman’s red dress.
In Batumi, I had joined my first official race while on vacation. An organized run gives you the street. You meet buildings you didn’t care to see, like a protruding crystal McDonald’s and gas station; and ones you did, but didn’t know how to find. The planned route would soon turn onto treacherous cobblestones. But you forget them if the setting sun leaves a vertical rainbow in your path. In the twilight, all of it glows. You can almost forgive the organizers for offering us full water bottles and full bananas along the route.
But I skipped ahead. The race changed at the halfway mark, 10½ kilometres. For one, night fell. We passed electric towers in red, blue and neon green. And the thinning of runners from the start was now close to extinction. We formed packs. I ran with two women and we hopped onto sidewalks to survive the cobblestones, with one leading and two angling, watching the pedestrians who crossed our path without thinking – the barriers long gone. Along the Black Sea, I see palms lit from below and silhouettes on the stone beach.
This organized run also gave me connection, because after the finish line everyone lingered to talk about their times, their histories, their impressions of the city, with the runners and those who’d come to watch.
I may still be happiest alone in Batumi, after the run. With a beer, my time, my sweat and my own tempo home by the seaside’s crashing waves.
Dana Wagner lives in Toronto.