A fun thing for me to do — a mental game, perhaps — is to compare and contrast.
I’ve been known to make fun of people’s bad gym habits (good vs. bad), or to wax poetic on the cool things I see running around the city or on the trails (urban vs. in the woods).
What can I say. Variety, the cliché goes, is the spice of life.
I’m not much for most parks. They’re fine, I suppose, and would be even better if all of the running paths were unpaved, but that is not often the case. So when I’m running on pavement, it’s normally in urban areas. Parks are pretty. But the cityscape is just dang interesting.
If I’m not on the streets, I’m in the woods. A completely different but equally interesting environment.
There’s the obvious. The surface is different. So is the greenery, or lack thereof.
But it’s often the subtle things that stick out. Like the signs. They tell you where you area, or where you should be going.
You’d think that would be more prevalent in the city than in the woods, but you can get lost and turned around in either place.
Then there are the people.
Case in point: The other day I was out on the trails, wrapping up a pretty tough run the day after a tougher, longer and more punishing workout. I stopped to pause and have a look around. About 30 feet away was a family of four out for a hike. The father had one of those backpack baby carriers (starting ‘em out when they’re young). They were enjoying a view overlooking the city from an open spot on the ridge.
That same day I met a group training for the Tough Mudder being held in Austin. Their trainers had them doing loops on a 1.4-mile route that has pretty good elevation loss and gain through some rough singletrack.
Lots of other people were there to hike, bike and run the hills, either training for something or just getting out to stretch their legs and move a little while getting some fresh air in the woods.
On another run, I was with three other people. All of them were marathon and ultramarathon runners, way more accomplished than me. The leader of this particular pack was training for a 50-miler, with her ultimate goal set on a 100-mile race down the road. Our run that day was one of three workouts she planned en route to logging 28 miles that day.
She’s a driven gal. At one point, we stopped to decide which spur of the trail we should take. As the guys discussed, she got impatient.
“I don’t care where we go. I just want to run.” She then pointed herself down a trail and took off. Girl on a mission. Discussion over. We followed her lead.
A few days before that, I was doing my typical city route. Running down a busy, restaurant-lined street in a trendy entertainment district, there was a dude on the opposite street corner belting out a song while playing a mean air guitar. He was one of many homeless folks I see in this part of town.
The reality is this: There’s a Greyhound bus station three blocks up the street from where he was holding his impromptu performance, and a lot of communities give their homeless bus tickets out of town. Some of them end up here.
And we get free concerts.
Other guys regularly show up with real instruments, playing Pink Floyd or Blake Shelton tunes, depending on their tastes and talents.
There’s one part of my route that takes me down a one-mile stretch I refer to as the Bum Super Highway of Tulsa. I know that’s not very PC of me. I get that way sometimes. But here’s how the BSH works:
- On the north end of said highway (it’s actually Denver Avenue), this whole mess starts north of the Interstate 244 bridge. Under that bridge are convenient places for some people to hole up for the night. Some of those campsites are well stocked.
- On the other side of the bridge is the John 3:16 Mission. As you might guess, it’s a place where the homeless can get a meal, a cot and maybe some clothes.
- Traveling south, I pass the county jail and the downtown Salvation Army. Further down the street is the city’s downtown bus station (different from the Greyhound terminal I mentioned earlier). In between is a small collection of bail bond offices.
I get to see all sorts of down-and-outs on this stretch. Most keep to themselves. Some ask me questions.
“How far you going today?” one dude asked. I guess he’d seen me before.
“Not far. Just a few miles.”
Another guy offered me advice:
“Wherever you’re going, you need to run to Jesus!”
“Amen, brother!” I answered.
One large and rather imbalanced fella was busy yelling cuss words at an imaginary foe (he was quite agitated) while shadowboxing. I watched him closely as I ran by. A fight with him would have been a tough struggle.
But my most unusual encounter happened about a week ago.
While on the back half of my run down the BSH, I saw the form of a man lying on the sidewalk under a railroad bridge overpass. This particular path has a concrete wall on the embankment and a shorter wall separating pedestrian traffic from the street. I see people walking up and down this sidewalk all the time, but seeing a motionless shape just sitting there was something new. I slowed down to investigate (I’d have to step over him to pass anyway).
The man was bundled up, a little grubby and fully bearded.
“Hey, man, you all right?” I asked. I figured the possibility that something was wrong was pretty real.
“Nope, just takin’ a nap,” he answered.
A nap. On a sidewalk. Under a bridge. Bizarre yet typical.
It’s not like the only people I see on the streets are homeless. I see plenty of urban professionals busily making their way from one office to the next. In the entertainment and arts districts, hipsters abound, the women in their eclectic outfits and the men sporting strangely popular ironic beards. But they generally don’t talk to me or offer spontaneous air guitar concerts.
One bundled-up woman told me it was too cold for shorts, but other than that, most folks don’t engage.
What I don’t see on the streets are other runners, or at least not very often. That’s a far cry from what is seen in the parks or on the trails.
But that doesn’t mean the city isn’t a good place to run. I’ve got hills that try to stomp on my will to continue. There’s a cool cityscape to look at. And every now and then, memorable encounters with people whose fate has not been kind, yet still they live their lives in the best way they can.
The one thing I have learned through these contrasts is that people are just as interesting as places. Everyone has goals, challenges and problems. How those are expressed is where the differences lie.
And as far as those places go, navigating them is often an exercise in exploration. You have to want to be curious. To be willing to go places you’d never given thought to seeing before, to be OK with taking a side trail not knowing exactly how far it will take you or how hard it will be.
The reward goes beyond the fitness realm, although that’s a valuable one. Ultimately you learn things about where you are. About the people you see. You might even learn something about yourself.
On Twitter @RMHigh7088