The Fit Life: The Travel Splurge

By Scott Douglas

As I ran around the perimeter of a mall parking lot in Tampa, Florida early one morning, a security guard pulled up alongside, rolled down his window and stopped chewing tobacco long enough to ask, “Whatter ya doin’?”

Let’s see. I have on running shoes, short socks, running shorts and a singlet. I’m dripping sweat. I’m quite thin by American standards. And I’m moving such that one foot is always off the ground.

“I’m not sure. What does it look like I’m doing?”

“You shouldn’t be doin’ that here,” my new friend said and then, mission accomplished, drove off.

In a sense, he was right – I shouldn’t have been doing that there. I should have been on a shaded dirt trail with an ocean view on one side, a mountain vista on the other and, for good measure, an espresso bar at the end. But the hotel my then-employer had me at for the week was in a particularly dreary section of Tampa where, apparently, even the occasional sidewalk would have violated the area’s all-autos/all-the-time take on urban planning. A few death-defying dashes across a highway placed me on the edge of the mall parking lot, where a loop of the largest circumference took eight minutes. For variety, I would move in to the parking lot’s equivalent of lane 1, where a loop took a bit more than five minutes. Inattentive drivers crazed by the thought of a bargain made running there in the evening too dangerous. A few minutes’ suicidal sprint in the other direction took me to a small neighborhood bound on all sides by freeways. It was laid out in a grid pattern. By running the length of one street, turning briefly on to the road perpendicular to it, then turning on the street paralleling it, and so on through the grid, I could accumulate nine minutes of running. What a perfect setting for the annual meeting of the National Recreation and Park Association!

The only thing worse than running where I did in Tampa would have been not running. Sorry, but a temporary lack of decent venues doesn’t cut it as a valid excuse for missed days. If Bill Rodgers can do two-hour runs on airport access roads, or 600-meter loops of a Vietnamese zoo, then we can all suck it up for a few days of parking lot laps.

Fortunately, such horrible options are the exception when traveling. Aided by dedicated analysis of local roads and maps, perhaps a tip or two from a running message board and a little luck, you can almost always find a decent place, especially when you consider that all you really need is a passable 2-mile stretch.

In best-case scenarios, the exploration inherent in all running becomes writ large when away from home. A few runs in a new land teach you more about its character, and give you a better sense of local daily life, than the view from the car or the words of a tour guide. Our means of moving is fast enough to allow us to cover a decently wide area, yet slow enough to allow us to truly observe and absorb. Manhattan? The twilight glow of skyscrapers from the Central Park reservoir. Boston? Running alongside college crew teams, all of us racing the fog over the Charles River. San Francisco? An impromptu detour onto a trail with a jaw-dropping view of the Golden Gate Bridge. I would have experienced none of this without the privilege of being a runner. (More functionally, I would have never found lots of interesting places to refuel post-run.) Even the less-than-idyllic runs, such as through soon-to-be-razed outskirts of Atlanta, are deeply instructive, and help me to feel more traveler than tourist.

So it’s always weird when someone who seems to like running reports not doing so while on vacation. Why do people go on vacation? To relax and rejuvenate, for a change of scenery and new experiences. How does running do anything but add, not detract from all of that? I tend to run more, not less than usual on vacation.

Same on trips of a more obligatory nature, but for different reasons. The more others are laying claim to my time, the more I want time to do something I love. The more I’m required to sit in featureless meeting rooms and cookie-cutter convention centers, the more I want to search for an area’s distinctive traits. Yes, even Tampa’s. Maybe when the mall security guard asked what I was doing, the best answer would have been, “Living.”

A version of this essay will appear in Scott’s forthcoming book On Solid Ground: What It’s Like to be a Runner. More sneak peaks of the book will be available exclusively on this site in the coming months.