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EXPLORING: Running as a travel tool

When I went travelling around South America for 6 months a couple of years ago, I had a few goals:

1 – Don’t die.

2 – Make friends.

3 – Don’t run out of money.

4 – Go for a run in every single town I stay in.

I ran my first half-marathon 6 months before I left on my trip. I was proud of myself, decided to keep running, then got injured. And then it was winter and I was too cold and working too hard to actually do much running. After Christmas, I started running again, then discovered I had to have my gallbladder removed if I was going to be safe to travel. So, an operation wiped my slate clean again, and when I left for Argentina I was almost back to square one. But I don’t give up that easily!

I bought hiking trainers that doubled as running shoes, and set myself the above goal. I wasn’t sure I’d stick with it, but I’m way too stubborn to let myself back out of a goal like that. Once I had been doing for a month or so and running everywhere, I knew there was no backing out.

Running gave me new ways of looking at a city.

In Buenos Aires, the very first place I stayed, it was just over a mile to jog to the main plaza – 25 de Mayo. I used to wake up, step out of the door in my running shoes before 8am, and jog there in the early morning light. There would be no tourists, no people milling about, just the workers on their ways to offices and shops cranking up their shutters on a new day. I would have the Plaza benches to myself, and I would watch the parade of soldiers guarding the Presidential Palace as they scurried in their lines to keep couriers and delivery men away from the main doors.

In Puerto Varas, a sleepy lake-shore place dominated by a ring of volcanoes, I ran because it was Easter Sunday and the bus I wanted to take to the next town was cancelled. A dusty track from one end of town led its twisting path along the shore of the lake, sometimes inland through other towns, sometimes on roads through seemingly-deserted forests. It ran for 30km to another town, famous for its chocolate. My day was spent half-running, half-hiking, in solitude, so I could buy some Easter chocolate.

In Potosí, a mining town in the heights of the Bolivian Andes, I could barely run for a block without stopping for breath. The air, both full of pollutants from the mines and light on oxygen from the 13,000ft (4000m) altitude burned my chest. It was dirty, I was ill, and I was chased by a pack of dread-locked dogs who refused to leave me alone. But it was my only night in the city, and I wanted to run.

In Sucre, another Bolivian city at an altitude of 9000ft (2500m), I ran my first 10km race. The small city was crowded with runners, yet I was one of 5 non-latino runners. I ran past brass bands marching the route, past crowds of school children who were joining in for sheer joy of the crowd. I ran past the nation’s President, there to wave at the delighted multitude. I ran, and I walked, and I have no idea of my time, because I’m not sure that there ever was an official finish line.

In Cusco, running broke up my working day and gave me a break from the relentless seething mass of tourists. Even after a late shift manning the bar, I would get up at 7am and run out into the cold morning, surprising the well-wrapped townspeople with my t-shirt and shorts. Again, I would be drawn to the main square, at this time empty but later packed with hordes of tours and backpackers and hawkers. I would know it was time to go back to the hostel when the early-bird sunglasses vendors would approach me on the bench, disregarding my dishevelled appearance, my exercise gear, and concentrating only on the blonde hair that marked me out as a gringa.

In Lima, I ran at sea level for the first time in over three months. I ran and ran along the cliffs, only stopping when my map ran out and I was faced with turning back. I’ve never felt it so easy than on that day – it may only have been 10km, but to me it was one of the happiest times I’ve ever had whilst running.

In Cartagena, I ran in the golden hour. I ran around the beautiful old city, up on the fortified harbour walls, and along the Caribbean coast, as the sun was setting in a glorious blaze. I ran around the streets which inspired much of Garcia Marquez’s works, through the little squares tucked away just around the corner, and past the horse and cart rides taking couples on romantic rides around the bay.

Most recently, running has enabled me to settle into living in Santiago. It has taken me away from the city centre, leading me to explore parts of the city I would never have ventured towards in my everyday life. It has taken me into the new (to me) sport of trail running, up steep mountains with the only aim to get a beautiful vista over the cityscape.

And when I was in Los Angeles last week, of course I ran. I ran at 6am as the city was waking up, along streets full of old-time movie theatres now boarded up, and down Sunset Boulevard on a trash-ridden strip far removed from the city of stars. I ran in the afternoon, when I had no time to explore the city by walking – jogging from landmark to museum, from church to market, in a sun-drenched circle which I wished would never end.

I run because I love it, because it destresses me and keeps me happy. But I also love to run because of the places it gets me, the people it allows me to talk to, and the streets it leads me through. It is a way in which I learn a town’s geography, and find new places to go back to later in the day. It leads me on adventures, and it leads me to getting horrendously lost. I track my route, but not through maps, instead imagining myself joining the dots on this landmark, that shop, that park with the pretty fountain.

Why do you like to run? Have you ever used running as a way of exploring? Are holidays an opportunity for more exercise, or do you use them to take a break?

Comment below, or send me a message on Instagram (primallyimperfect). I’d love to hear from you 😊 Hope you are having a great Sunday!

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