‘Cura Personalis’ Column: Running down unknown roads

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Oftentimes when I am stressed, I rely on running to cancel out negative thoughts. Without even realizing it, I’ll carry my worries with me for miles. Whether I’m outside or on a treadmill, the endorphins will eventually lift away all the anxieties that weigh me down. By the end of every run, I feel way better than I did at the start.

Karen Konkoly

Karen Konkoly

After those gym sessions, though, the endorphins wear off. My legs and my heart are a stronger, but my mind soon finds its way back to the stressful place it was before. Running outdoors, on the other hand, has led me to some of the most unexpectedly breathtaking moments of my life. It takes me out of my mind altogether, and my anxieties fly away as I embrace the beautiful moment I’m a part of. Long after the runner’s high fades, I derive energy and happiness from having experienced whatever new, little glorious part of the world I discovered on my last run.

I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with treadmills. When there’s snow on the ground or it’s 15 degrees outside, treadmills can facilitate an excellent workout. The problem, as I see it, is when treadmills become the automatic default. Why keep running when you aren’t going anywhere?

Taking your cardiovascular exercise outdoors, whether running, walking, or somewhere in between, creates an excellent opportunity to become one with the city around you. The mindfulness that comes with exercising outdoors improves the health of your mind as well as your body.

I never feel like I know a city until I run it. Even my hometown became a totally new place when I found I could traverse the miles with my feet instead of tires. How many ordinary places have I driven over thousands of times but never set a foot upon? Little ordinary things like mailboxes and trees can become wonderful and meaningful when you’re sharing the ground beside them.

In Bethlehem, one of my favorite places to run is west along the canal, when coming from the direction of Lehigh’s campus. If you are unfamiliar with the canal path, it sits just across the Lehigh River in North Bethlehem and, according to its website delawareandlehigh.org, extends miles from Jim Thorpe to Easton —the farthest I’ve ever gotten is from the boathouse to Freemansburg. To access it from Lehigh, begin by crossing the New Street Bridge or the Minsi Trail Bridge, which is by the Sands Casino. Halfway across both bridges, just after the Lehigh River, you’ll find a staircase. At the bottom is the canal path.

If you cross at the New Street Bridge and follow the trail left for a mile or two, you’ll find yourself wrapped in a stunning tunnel of trees, guided by the still canal on one side and the Lehigh River on the other. Especially in autumn, the changing leaves are mirrored perfectly in the canal. Running there puts you on the edge of reality, skimming the line between the towering trees and their dreamlike imitation in the water.

Before running in a new place, I like to ask advice from local runners or look up a few routes to build the foundation of my cognitive map. Once I have a basic idea of how to find my way back home from several directions, my favorite part of running is branching out and discovering serendipitous parts of the world. With habitual outdoor running, you start to notice all the little paths and neighborhoods and bridges you can explore.

Running into the unknown will create uncertainty about the distance you will cover, but curiosity is great fuel for endurance. The longest runs I’ve ever been on were powered from the wanderlust of being miles into a long trail, yearning to know what’s at the end. Of course, it can also be a great way to get lost. Taking along a good GPS or running buddy can help you find your way home, but consistently running new routes will develop your internal GPS as well.

I don’t find a new place every run, but whenever I have a bit of extra time or extra spontaneity, I’ll run somewhere I’ve never been before. Heading down unknown roads has led me to many of my favorite places in the world. For me, the euphoria of suddenly running into somewhere beautiful and new is one of the most rewarding parts of running.

Running on a treadmill can accomplish some physical goals, but running through the world can lend a perspective on the world that is infinitely more valuable. The bravery of being your own pioneer can empower and motivate a healthy lifestyle and make exercising so much more than a workout for your body.

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