The “Run”

Posted: 14 April 2013 in Everything Else...

I am a runner. And as all runners know, there are a (relatively) few runs over the course of time that stand out as, no hyperbole intended, “epic” runs. The runs that fly by, effortlessly, heart beat kept in check, muscles never tired, like sitting in a library reading a good book. I can count on one hand that kind. And this was one.

I arrived in the city for work without really remembering how I got there, and really wanting to just get back home (just like the way it always was in the last years of my travels). I could not remember the flight there or the ride from the airport to the hotel. I always arrived a few days early so the fact that I had some time to kill was not unusual. Still… this particular trip was… different. I apparently had a whole day to myself and there was time to get settled in. And, not surprisingly, my hosts, aware of my love of running had invited me to run with a few of them on a tour of the city. I was appreciative because some of my best runs ever were during times when I was jet-lagged beyond description (like that run from the canyons to Avila Beach after the 24 flight from India—8 miles that flew by on the sprint from the hills to the sea along the California coast).

Anyway, they encouraged me to tag along and suggested that it would be a great way to get to know the city (Had I been here before? Like I said—the trip was disorienting and I was not totally sure, though everything seemed familiar). There was only one caveat: we were going to a “rough part of town” and they needed to clear it with a seasoned “runner” who knew the terrain. Apparently he was going to “approve” me (or not). Though marginally irked that I might not be able to hack it (I mean, dammit, I had already run in about 30 different countries and was in great shape), I was also cognizant that he may not want to drag someone along who as going to wimp out after a couple of miles in a difficult environment. I counted on my “colleagues” (did I really know these people?) to smooth the way. The fact that they seemed unconcerned about my “fitness” put me at ease.

They picked me up before the sun (I had been up for hours already—again, jet lag) and we headed off to meet the “runner”. We arrived in a part of town (I never really followed the route—why should I, I was with them?), away from where I arrived and they led me into a small room. I knew that the town was poor and “broken down”—I would not have been there if they had NOT needed “development” (right? I mean, that was my job). The “runner” entered soon after (we were about 6 in all) and sidled by. He seemed to pay limited attention to me but, kind of dismissively, acknowledged my presence and indicated I was “good to go.”

But I was caught up short. The “runner” seemed to take me in from “the side.” He never really looked at me but kind of caught me from a peripheral glance. I know it sounds strange but… he did not see me straight on. And I realized right away that he was… He was blind. At least “legally”. He wore no glasses but I knew immediately that he could not “see” (at least in the way I was used to seeing).

But, hell, I was approved and I figured that one of the group was going to guide him on the way. I have seen stranger things. I have known “blind” people who bike (and even a few who drive—during the day), so the fact that he was in that state was not alarming. More a curiosity than a concern.

We headed out soon afterward and, and this this did shock me a bit, he led the way. I mean, no one “guided” him, verbally or otherwise. He was on his own but clearly knew the way. Strange but kind of cool. The minute we left the building where we had all met up I realized that the city was both new and strangely similar to me.

Look, when you have traveled as much as I have EVERY place reminds you of somewhere else, even as it is unique and strange. I can’t explain it beyond that. But this place was similar/unique in a different way. It was clearly a very poor place. Rubble was everywhere but it was also clearly not the rubble of war or conflict. No, this place was in decay. The broken walls, the crumbling houses, the piles of brick—they were not due to bombardment. Rather, the whole place was simply falling apart. Streets were clogged with broken concrete that had simply given way after years lacking in maintenance. It was evident that houses had stood here but their walls had crumbled and their inhabitants lived in the open with little fire pits or stoves to warm their food and sheets (torn and tattered) strung up to separate “rooms” that lacked roofs.

Anyway… our run was with a quick pace and required nimble feet (glad I had brought my “trail runners”). The “runner” led the way without pause. I was, frankly, shocked that he could wend his way among this mess, this mass, without stumbling. I mean, come on, the guy was “blind” for God’s sake. We followed and I was amazed that he seemed to know the path by heart and his foot never faltered though we dodged debris and the piles of what had tumbled. As we ran he blithely noted, here and there, the projects underway to fix this or that, to mend this wall, to rebuild this quadrant. I quickly ascertained that he was a “development” expert who had been here for some time and had a vision for what was needed to turn this thing around. (I can’t really remember much about him—except that the others running with us seemed to treat him as someone who really knew the place and they seemed to be full of respect for him and his knowledge of the place).

He greeted lots of folks along the way and they replied with smiles. We ran single file and all I remember is that we had to run single file because the wasteland of that place was startling. I mean, this was as bad as I had ever seen. What “quartier” were we in anyway? I would have to check into this later.

But my mind was troubled as we ran (Had we gone about 2 miles or more like 6? It was hard to tell, like any “new” run, this one held so much intrigue that I was really not keeping track). Like I said, everything seemed familiar… but different.

It reminded me of Kolkata where I had arisen at 4:00 am to run before the heat and had stumbled over bodies along the sidewalks. That was the time I had added up the cost of my running gear (shoes, shirt and shorts) and realized the value was way beyond the annual wage of the people who slept under the burlap sacks over which I stumbled on the sidewalk outside my hotel. But it was not Kolkata.

It reminded me of Ouagadougou, where I had run past the Presidential palace with guards who eyed me at 6:00 am, nervous, until I waved and we shared a “bon jour” and I breathed in the pre-dawn heat of a Sahel morning. The dust already up and mangoes awaiting me for breakfast. But it was not Ouaga.

It reminded me of Bay, on the main island of the Philippines, where the humidity strangled me after two miles and I gasped my way back to the guest house, sweat pouring from me for hours afterward as I doubted my heart’s ability to keep up. But this was not “Metro Manila.”

But it was one of those good runs. I never tired and my heart never raced (thanks jet lag) and the “runner” kept up his commentary of how this was all going to change and the rubble was going to give way to clinics, and houses, and the end of addiction, and no more violence, and children without sickness (of mind and body) and… And I felt like I had never felt so nimble and free and I started wondering if I might be able to run forever and… I felt SO good. Like I said… One of THOSE runs (you know what I mean).

But the rubble was stacked up and I felt bad about the “brokenness” of the place. Like Haiti? Like Mazar es Sharif? Like Accra?

The “runner” brought us to a halt on a small pile of rubble—a bit higher than the others. I was thoroughly impressed. This “blind” guy had led us across the busted terrain without a stumble. We breathed in the morning air. Feeling good. I was NOT tired and ready to go on.

From somewhere he brought out a kind of telescope—or eyeglass (“Where the hell did that come from?”—was all I could think). He asked me to have a look. I was going to ask those who had invited me (Jeez, I am so jet lagged I can’t even remember their names—but I know we are going to meet later to plan out my days here—doing a training, or seminar or evaluation or something? Damn the jet lag.), whether we were going to be working here or somewhere else… but…

I hold it to my eye and see the expanse of the city through which we have just passed to the south and east and west. Wow, it is worse than I thought. Things really are bad here (I often say that to myself on such trips). I look north (sun just starting to rise to my right) and see empty fields strewn with weeds. My heart aches. The productive capacity of those fields… But they sit fallow.

And then the telescope seems to invert.

And I am looking through the “wrong” end.

And I am rushing away from the fields and town and…

I look at my Garmin… Ten miles… Wow… Got lost again in the run. Where have I been for the last hour and a half? Mind drifting. Yeah.

(You runners know that this happens sometimes (more often than you admit). You get lost in a run and you wake up and realize you have trod familiar paths but you cannot remember any of it.)

I stop my watch. I am standing in front of Unit 8D (my unit), having crossed the ten miles of my town… My reverie…

And now I know why it was all so familiar.

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