I love running and I love geography. I cannot tell you how much satisfaction it brings me to run in a new place and the farther from home, the better. When I finish a run, I imagine that I am in some sort of game show or something. Like last fall when I ran in Portland: Let’s put Oregon on the map! Ding ding ding! It’s very exciting to someone who is a massive nerd like myself.
Yet I have never run in a foreign country. EA encouraged me to make that happen on this trip. The idea was exciting. I was taking my imaginary running map (which truthfully will probably be a real thing one day) international. Initially, I intended to run in Rome, but I was too jet-lagged, the city was too busy, and it was as hot as Satan’s barbecue pit (he’s a mustard-based kind of guy). So Plan B for my inaugural international run was Monterosso al Mare, the quaint coastal village by the sea.
Monterosso is part of five villages that make up the Cinque Terre. In the region, the mountains come right up to the sea and this quintet of towns are tucked away in valleys and on cliffs right along the water. It has incredible scenery: mountains, rocky cliffs, and crashing waves. This would be perfect for my first run out of the US.
My excitement grew after we arrived. There are trails that connect all of the towns. Looking at the map, I realized that I could probably run to neighboring Vernazza and back. That would be awesome! I’ve never run to another town and back before.
Yes, this run was not just going to be epic. It was going to be transcendental. I’m not saying that I was expecting Jesus to run by and give me a high five, but I wasn’t ruling out my boy Thomas the disciple passing by and giving me the runner’s nod.
I had definitely hyped this up too much in my head.
After returning from a ferry tour of the Cinque Terre and lunch, EA laid down to rest and I threw on my running clothes. I had pulled out of retirement an old pair of blue Nike Pegasus for this particular distinction. The plan was to leave them here in Italy at the end of the trip. Ol’ Blue’s running days would be done but it would have accomplished something of which its shoe brethren could only dream.
I told EA that I’d be gone for a hour and a half and then headed for the coastal trail to Vernazza (there is another trail that goes through the mountains). It was hot and there was an initial hill but my spirit was buoyant. Then there were stairs. Lots of stairs. Stairs are stupid. But I told myself that it would all be worth it. This run would be like the opening of Chariots of Fire except I’d be running along a majestic cliff by the sea. It would be awesome. It would be epic. It would cost €12.
You had to have a license to hike the trail. I had failed to look into that. Crap. I didn’t have any money. I looked down at my phone. I had been running all of three minutes. Undeterred, I reversed course. Back down the stairs. Down the steep hill. Back into town. There was a trail in the opposite direction through the new, more touristy part of Monterosso that went toward Punta Mesco and on to Levanto. I couldn’t make it to Levanto but I could run along the coast until I had to turn around.
With renewed enthusiasm, I ran up through the tunnel that connected the two parts of town. I weaved in and out of beachgoers and bikes, taxis and tourists. I hurdled park benches. I got strange looks. Hotels and restaurants eventually gave way to rocky crags and a steep hill. Then there was a beach. Then a rocky trail. Then a barricade.
A rock slide occurred on further down the way and the trail was not safe to traverse. This run was not going the way I had envisioned it.
I paused for a moment to figure out what to do (and to take a picture of the beautiful coastline). Complicating matters is the fact that I was breaking out. This happens occasionally when I run, but it hadn’t happened in months. Imagine hundreds of itchy bug bites appearing on your scalp, chest, and arms. I have no idea what causes this but it was happening at that moment.
A sensible person would have cut his or her losses. I had run nearly two miles in a foreign country. Mission accomplished. Get out of the heat, get some water, and go rest in your room. That was the smart thing to do. The wise thing to do. The best thing to…
“But what about Santuario di Soviore?” What about Santuario di Soviore? The other way to Varnazza—the stupid hilly one—passes Santuario di Soviore. Each of the five villages has a sanctuary along the trail. That would be cool to see. Sure, it would probably be hilly, but also worth it. Right?
So I headed back through the beachgoers, bikes, taxis, and tourists. Back through the tunnel and back up the road that leads to our hotel, a road that seemed exponentially more steep than it had any of the previous times EA and I had walked up it.
I trudged past the sign for our hotel and went up, up, up to the end of the street. There was a sign with an arrow pointing forward that read Santuario di Soviore. And behind that sign? An even steeper road than I had just finished. A road that seemed to go to the skies with no end in sight.
Nope. Nope. Nope. I turned around and pinballed through town again. I was now too stubborn to stop. I was going to run out the clock until I go to what I thought was the respectable distance of four miles. I ran up and down streets that I had previously been on two or three times. People probably thought I was lost or crazy. I was probably a little bit of both.
As I sat at the bottom of the stairs leading to our hotel, I was admittedly disappointed. There were no high fives from Jesus. No runner’s nods from Thomas. Not even a snot rocket from the kid who fell out of window when he dozed off during one of Paul’s sermons. In fact, there were no runners to give nods at all. It was just me out there hitting dead ends all over town.
It wasn’t an epic adventure or a spiritually enlightening experience. Yet as I started to feel sorry for myself, I realized I still got to experience something that I had never done before. I got to run in a foreign country. Even though I didn't get to the places that I wanted, I still saw beautiful aspects of nature that I've never seen before. There were still crashing waves and scenic views. What was wrong with me? How lucky was I? Then in my head I heard the Ding! Ding! Ding! Italy was on the board.