Once when I was interviewing Olympic gold medalist Constantina Dita, she and her husband were driving me across Boulder to show me the new house she bought after her Chicago Marathon victory. Constantina and I were talking about her training when she looked out the window and exclaimed, “This is one of our wheel-measured 5K routes!” Her eyes glowed as she told me about it, this route where she had put in tempo runs and time trials.
I tried to see the magic, but it was only a mundane residential street with a bit too much traffic. I asked if it circled a park and she said no, it was just streets. Constantina lit up again, pointing out, “The 3K mark is there, about at that corner!”
I began to understand, remembering those routes in my life made special not by the scenery or surface, but by the effort expended on them, the growing strength and fitness they revealed. These suburban residential streets meant as much to her as anywhere on earth; these routes were the furnace where the skills revealed on the boulevards of Chicago, Helsinki, Beijing were forged.
I recalled a time when I was the one pointing something out that couldn’t easily be seen. Relatives from the west were visiting my wife and I in New York City, and I was showing them around Central Park. After seeing the Carousel, the Boathouse and the Bow Bridge, I led them north and excitedly revealed, “And this is the Great Lawn!” They murmured something polite as we walked the half-mile oval around it, clearly unimpressed, and I saw it through their eyes: an overused patch of grass surrounded by a cracked-asphalt path.
To me, however, it glowed with memories of flying in a pack of young men at dusk on Tuesday evenings: running to the edge of my ability, beyond what I had done before, beyond what I had imagined I could do. I can still conjure every inch of that precious, scarred oval underfoot and the metallic taste of effort in my throat as my legs powered down the backstretch.
While the locations where we stretch ourselves and suffer are particularly seared on our minds, running creates meaning and memories on our daily routes as well. Running maps and claims our neighborhoods, making each path part of our home and our identity: The loop where we first ran 10 miles; the hill we face on the way home every day, both a constant nemesis and a giver of confidence; the path along the river where we recover from the previous night’s speedwork and watch seasons come and go; the streets around our house where we push a jogging stroller hundreds of cherished miles; even the basement treadmill where, as consistent miles do their work, we change our size and self-image.
We claim ground for our own when we travel, too — it takes but one run along a lakefront, around an fabled park, over a bridge to an iconic monument, or through a neighborhood waking to its day for us to feel like we know it and we belong. And no ground is more sacred to runners than race courses. Some course carry their own aura, acquired from years of legendary exploits and shared experience. No less revered, however, are small local courses, unstoried and undistinguished, but where, between gun and finish line, we redefined our limits.
This year, in the same way as our work, social and personal lives have all occurred at home, our running routes have become restricted to local outings. But that hasn’t stopped us from creating defining moments. In their annual report, Strava revealed that 55% of their users ran a PR between the 5K and marathon this year, and three times as many ran a marathon alone in 2020 than in 2019. Whether or not we ran a marathon or set PRs, we found ways to get faster and stronger, to set and achieve goals. While we no doubt miss communal racing and diversity of scenery and terrain, this year has given us the chance to elevate pieces of roadway on our home turf, to create memories on them that will light up our eyes when we pass this way again.
In years to come, if you were to go for a ride with me around my high-plains home, I’d likely interrupt our conversation to point out, “Look, here’s where my tempo run segment started! And look, this is the turn-around point for my 5K time-trial route!” You’ll see only dusty, flat dirt roads between fields, but I’ll see spring mornings when I lowered my times week over week as I put in speed workouts and long runs, and winter evenings when I discovered that, even if slower and less efficient after a knee injury, I was still a runner and I could get better. And every road and path for miles in any direction will always remind me of the year where every run was a celebration of being alive and healthy and able to breath.