Learning A City By Running Around In It

This morning I had a gritty, sweating, damp, dirty run down Bowery through Chinatown and back. It was a short run – only 30 minutes and my coach’s note for me was simple and clear: “One of those “throw away” runs that mean a lot to long term fitness improvement.” So I did it.

I’ve never run down Bowery. I’ve done the East River many times and ended up under the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridge, but I don’t recall ever seeing them from the top. The Manhattan Bridge totally surprised me – as I approached it I had a sudden flashback to running in Paris around the Arc de Triomphe.

As I was running, I realized that I’ve learned many cities by running them. I used to be terrified of Paris – now I love it – and I attribute that to running all over the city. Rome fascinates me and I can run through it forever, always discovering new things. I’ve figured out how Manhattan works through all of my runs over the years. San Francisco is less of a mystery to me now that I’ve run all around the city. And I’ll never get lost in Boston or Cambridge because I’ve ran the damn thing so many times.

After my run I had breakfast and then walked from the East Village to Times Square in the rain for a meeting. Muggy, damp, soggy, dirty, grimy, splashy, gritty New York. Lots of construction, lots of noise, lots of people. But something magical about it. The perspective on foot is always powerful, at least to me.

  • I had the exact same experience with Paris and London.  One of my favorite things about traveling is the morning runs in new places.  I never understand how my esteemed coworkers insist on the treadmills in the hotel.

    • Martin Thomas

      Ha.. I agree!  It’s a beautiful day in Chicago and I run past people on treadmills indoors.  What sense does that make?

  • I would say that the method of discovery depends on the scale/density of the city. NYC is great because it is so densely packed and geographically limited to the island landmass, but not all explore-able by foot in one go. Depending on how much volume you are doing, there is also a lot that you can miss. I prefer cycling through Manhattan because you can cover a lot more land and even make your way all the way up to the GWB. Since you see more, you also get an idea of how much the terrain in Manhattan varies, as opposed to just being a hyper-packed concrete slab. The north side of Manhattan along the Hudson River is actually quite green! I would say that many parts of the island are not exactly bike friendly, so running is awesome to check things out neighborhood-by-neighborhood or section-by-section. Other cities definitely lend themselves to running while cycling (or some other means) may be better. What about scooter-able cities?

  • freds4hb

    This is a great idea Brad. As I’m about to move to Scenic Ada Oklahoma, I think I’ll do this (I sure hope no one tries to shoot at me!)

  • Love it.  I pick marathons by the City for this very reason.  Paris, Greece, Rome, such a great way to see and feel the city!

  • CliffElam

    “throw away?”  Au contraire, what is it, 10K hours of doing anything to become an expert?  A mindful 30 minute run is a great thing.

    Having said that, i hate running on sidewalks, but I live in suburbia….


    • I generally hate running on sidewalks but sometimes it’s a fun change of pace.

      • CliffElam

         True – change is good.  I dislike running in my neighborhood.  I walk the dog every day, I drop crap off at the neighbors houses, I drive through multiple times a day.  Etc.

        But I recently found out that there is a group of dads who run out at 6am (winter) and 5am (summer) for five easy miles every wed.  So I’m doing that and liking it a lot.


  • If you ever get a chance to run in Brooklyn take a detour through the Vinegar Hill neighborhood just east of DUMBO.  It’s a tiny, almost forgotten neighborhood with housing dating back to the early 1800s, hard up against the Navy Yard (it’s landmarked so it’s not going to get plowed under any time soon).  

    Another run: through Brooklyn Bridge Park from Fulton to Atlantic, then back to Fulton via the Promenade.

    • Great suggestions – I’ll do this next trip.

  • Soho to Bowery to Chinatown is my favorite morning run and my favorite part of the city.   This sounds like a cliche of course, but it feels so much more ‘real’ and ‘authentic’, with its mix of growing, intense Chinatown and the gentrifying, but not not 100% there, Nolita, Little Italy and Lower East Side.    Great little markets & superb little inexpensive restaurants (particularly in a triangle below the Manhattan Bridge) and just the feel of a major city.

  • love doing this…

    note: doesn’t hurt to go slow on the exploratory runsi’ve gotten lost in many a foreign city while going for a run and sprinting past street signs 😉

  • Johndconley

    I am heading to Boston tomorrow and have a run planned our from Back Bay to Harvard along the Charles River. I am really looking forward to it and I agree that running through cities is a great way to embrace and learn the area.

    • Enjoy! That’s a great run.

  • Since I started getting into running, I’ve had this exact same thought / experience. Especially after moving to a new city or neighborhood, exploring via a run is intimately revealing… Also interesting to see the differences depending on the weather or time of day, and the different feelings that come from that.

    PS, perhaps I’ll see you near the East River one of these mornings…

    • Looking forward to it.

  • I feel it extends to biking.

    I’d just blogged about this 2 weeks ago when I spent time biking in Paris with a friend.. Running or biking is a great way to see a new city. 
    Why were you scared of Paris, though?

    • I don’t speak French and I was just overwhelmed by the scale, complexity, and maze of how it was laid out. Once I started running it, I figured it out pretty quickly.

  • I prefer walking around a city, same concept but it takes more time.

  • I’d agree with the concept with one caveat: it’s all good fun until you get lost in a foreign city. I just traveled to Germany and had to get in an hour training run in Cologne.  I did make it back to the hotel but wound up doing 11+ miles instead of the scheduled 8!
    A map and/or basic language skills are probably good running accessories.

    • I’ve started running with my iPhone wherever I go. I’ve been saved by the map a few times. I also carry a credit card and some cash in case I need to grab a cab.

    • I ended up walking several extra miles after dark in Prague one time due to a wrong turn somewhere. Also found that there is a bad part of Vienna, glad it was noon that time!

  • Brad Bernthal

    Like the observation about how we map geography naturally and instinctively by foot.  Gets me thinking about other ways we become intimate with new places.  Back in the day, when playing tennis, I used to regularly mooch living spaces with kind families that would open up their homes for players from out of town.  Can’t put a price on how much those people gave to me in terms of cultural understanding of their place, foods, and insights about how to live.  Hotels — like driving — are the easier route.  But not nearly as rich.  

  • I love doing this! You pick up on so many details and the energy of the new paths add so much to the run. The suggestion for doing marathons in foreign cities is great– going to try that for my next race.

  • I completely agree with your sentiment. Over the last year, I’ve personally experienced the magical virtuous cycle between running to explore a city and using exploration to motivate my running.

    A year ago, I could barely run two miles. Last month, I ran from Brooklyn to the Bronx. The desire to see more of the city of New York has made it so much easier to keep running long enough to build the muscles necessary to run even farther. And the prize has been not only better fitness but also a vastly improved appreciation for the incredible cultural and ethnic diversity that’s spread throughout Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and even the outer edges of Manhattan.

    My project for the summer is “the Subway Challenge,” which is to take the subway to the end of each line and run home. I’ve already completed the L, R, G, and 7, which has so far exposed me to everything from the old Norwegian enclave in Bay Ridge, to a half-abandoned cathedral in Bed-Stuy, to the nostalgic Mad Men-era plaque at the base of the World’s Fair “Unisphere” in Queens.

    If you (or anyone else) find yourself in New York and would like to join one of these subway runs over the next few months, please email me at george.j.london at gmail or find me on Twitter [email protected]:disqus

  • I had occasion to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge in a cold wind and driving rain a couple of weeks ago. Refreshing and still a great view.

  • That is a good way to make running more leisurely – coupling it with sight-seeing and you’re also making it educational too. Fun, healthy, and educational.

  • Vinyl Hero

    Great post. If you’re a reasonably good runner, you can cover quite a bit of ground in a relatively short amount of time. Makes large cities–like New York (or as I more recently discovered, Toronto)–seem much more intimate than they would otherwise through another mode of transport.

  • Ezra Nanes

    You gave me that old New York feeling Brad. I grew up in NYC and I’ve run a lot of miles there. In my younger years I used to love running the big avenues and feeling like superman as I blazed past traffic and sidewalk cafes. Later on it was all about laps on the reservoir, all year round. I also got to know Paris on foot. I ran there a lot back when I was trying to be famous and I lived on cans of lentils and coffee and Jean Paul Sartre. 

    Thanks for the post!

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