Running and exploring the streets of Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Capitol. It's a stately place, even when the things going on inside frustrate us so much.

If you’ve read this blog much, you know that I’m a big proponent of exploring communities on foot. And if you can do it while getting some exercise, so much the better.

I like running in parks and on trails, but most of my runs take place on city streets. This is how I’ve gotten to know my neighborhood, a place where I’ve lived for less than a year but know pretty well by now.

Recently, I was in Washington, D.C., on business. I’d lived there over one summer back in college – a pretty long time ago. Being there for four days gave me a chance to get reacquainted with the nation’s capital.

I was there for work, but that didn’t mean I didn’t have time to go on foot and do a little exploring. Some thoughts…

Washington, especially downtown, is a very pedestrian-friendly city. Crosswalks are wide, and the traffic lights give you time to cross. I walked more in that city than I have since my last hiking trip. Plenty of people who work and live there also take off on foot rather than fight the traffic.

People in D.C. run a lot. And at all times of the day. Early in the morning, mid-day, even late at night – I saw people outside running the streets. Washington is hillier than you might guess, meaning that you can create some challenging routes. It was encouraging to me, as every time I passed by someone out on a run I wanted to get back to the hotel, change, and then go out and join them.

The city has changed a lot since I was last there. 9/11 changed D.C. significantly. Streets that once carried car traffic near the White House are closed. Traffic police around the Capitol carry assault rifles. And there are TONS of cops. The city has always had a significant police presence, but it’s grown much heavier over the last 11 years.

The Lincoln Memorial. America's shrine to one of its greatest leaders.

And the growth of government following 9/11 – yes, the acceleration of government growth can be pegged on that event – has meant that the city and its surrounding communities have grown along with it. Dozens of tower cranes rise into the sky downtown and all the way out to the suburbs. Old buildings dating back to the city’s early days are far outnumbered by new construction that has occurred over the past decade.

I only got to run once while I was there. Too busy to get out much. But I saw a lot.

On a cool, overcast morning, I took off, leaving behind the shining offices of the K Street lobbying firms to the White House. Tourists, office workers, lawyers and protesters shared space around the presidential mansion. And yes, the Occupy protesters are still here, planting stakes in a small green space just a couple of blocks away from the White House. One anti-nuke protester has his tent and signs across the street from it.

From there, I turned toward D.C.’s tallest structure – the Washington Monument. I couldn’t see evidence of damage from last year’s earthquake there, but I was amazed at the inspectors who rappelled from its crown to examine it.

Back in the day, the lawn around the monument would often be occupied by people playing softball in the summer. I wonder, if in this post-9/11 environment, if that still happens.

The Mall itself is changing, as the reflecting pool has been emptied for reconstruction. So it’s not as scenic as it used to be. I’m sure when it’s done it will be scenic once again.

I then turned and set my sights on the Lincoln Memorial. The building and its statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln has to be the stateliest thing I’ve ever seen, fitting for the man who many see as the country’s greatest leader. But before getting there, I was able to run past and around the World War II Memorial. It’s an awesome, dignified and fitting tribute for what was arguably our nation’s biggest struggle. If you haven’t seen it, put it on your list.

Sometimes this is what the First Amendment looks like in Washington.

My trip back included passing the moving starkness of the Vietnam Memorial (you can’t help trying to be reverent when you’re in its presence), back up Constitution Avenue and eventually to the hotel.

Given more time, I’d like to run much more of this city. There are some amazing sections that house embassies and cool neighborhoods, none of which I got to see for very long.

More than anything, though, this reaffirmed my belief that running is an excellent way to explore a community. I first discovered this in tiny Tecumseh, Okla., and I still find that the thrill of seeing a town or city on foot never gets old.

Do you have a city where you like to run? Tell me about it and what it is about that city that makes it such a great place to run and explore.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

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