The reasons I love traveling back East are, in no order: eating delicious meals out, experiencing vibrant city life and seeing friends and family.
Note that nowhere on this list have I included “running.”
Every time I head back to where I grew up I have this clash in identity. On the one hand, it is affirming to spend time with people I love and to do activities I miss that I wouldn’t normally get to do in Alaska. On the other hand, those things that have come to define me are left up north.
Over time, running has come to serve as a baseline activity for me. It keeps me happy and some, like my husband, might say sane. Up here, I can go running from my home into mountains if I want to, or run any number of road loops. The view is always beautiful because, Alaska. There are few roads I have to avoid for safety concerns, and most of those are highways. The air is almost always clean, unless the state or another pile of cars at Jim Creek is on fire.
When I’m back in Massachusetts, on any given day I have the trippy experience of waking up in my childhood home. I’m always out of it, because the time change going west to east throws me every time. The air is always thicker there, with the exception of their five perfect low-humidity, 60 degree days in the fall. And the options for running routes right outside the door are baffling.
The roads wind and twist. There are no mountains for a frame of reference. Zippy, tiny cars screech down the narrow side streets, somehow dodging cars parked along the side of the road and, well, me. I forget what roads feed into larger ones or which routes I think will loop back ultimately just dead end. It’s daunting. I don’t want to think about it. I just want to run!
This is why I typically find myself sticking to the same, dull 3-mile loop when I’m back home. Yes, this means I get a lot less mileage in while I’m back East. But at least I’m also not squished by a car because the sidewalk suddenly stopped and I chanced running a shoulder. I don’t get hopelessly lost. And at least I get something in.
When I don’t get that something — my maintenance, sanity run — in, I get crabby and sick. No one likes me then, including me. That undermines the entire reason for the visit. There are no fun family and friend visits, delicious restaurant meals, or city wanderings when I’m down for the count.
So I run, even if it’s a pale imitation of what I’m spoiled with in Alaska.
This last visit, though, I did something strange. It wasn’t my idea. My husband and I did this unusual thing we do very occasionally: we went on a run together. Usually we just start at the same place with an agreement about roughly how long we’re going for, then he takes off. I run my much slower pace. But this time, we agreed to go together.
He opened his laptop to research routes. My immediate inclination was to double my normal 3-mile route, but I didn’t bring that idea up. Too boring, I knew. All of the user-generated routes we found on Strava were sections of the Boston Marathon, and none of them were nearby. So we had to create our own. We set a loop on Google Maps that I felt dubious about (what would the sidewalk do? Would that road suddenly turn into a highway?) but grudgingly I said I’d try it.
After all, why not bring a little of my adventurous Alaska spirit to Framingham, Mass.? Maybe there was something there.
Still. My attitude going in was not wonderful. I shuffled as we began the run, which my husband teased me for.
Of course, because this little run had to serve as a reminder to me to knock off being pessimistic about anything cool happening in Framingham, 3 miles in we noticed a trail veering off under an overpass we were getting ready to cross. I saw other runners (unicorns in this part of the world) trotting in the opposite direction from where we were planning to go. We crossed the street to check it out, and discovered that a former rail line had been converted into a trail.
This is in my hometown, and I had no idea!
Running on that trail, I felt relief. One, it was very exciting to have a new route for when I come home. This route was longer, prettier and felt more adventurous than the suburban, sidewalk-lined route I was terribly bored with. Two, it felt nice to be surrounded by something approximating the place that I’ve chosen to make home; Alaska. I felt relief at having trees all around me, including the smell of woods.
It’s not just running that keeps me grounded and sane, but the real feeling of connection and experience within the outdoors. I’m happy I found a small piece of that back east, so I can have it when I visit. I know the real deal is up here, but when I’m far from Alaska even a small experience of fresh air and beautiful surroundings feels like a touchstone for who I am.
I just need to do better at being open to that experience and pursuing it, like I do with great restaurants, days in Boston, and time spent with family and friends.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.