Friday, November 15, 2013


[I wrote this several years ago now at which time I was already several years past my most serious training period of my life. It is an account of trying to train as a marathon runner while being a reluctant frequent flyer for work - based very loosely on a hybrid of a past life of mine and George Clooney's character from the movie "Up in the Air"  i.e. most of what is in here is either highly exaggerated or quite simply not true. I'm posting it now bc I just went on my first business trip (Memphis, TN!) in several months which reminded me of this piece and I sprang for in-air internet ($3 for 30 minutes) and I can't resist the temptation of publishing a post from 30,000 feet!]

Numbers are the essence of running. I run approximately 6,000 kilometers in any given year. This is 15% of the way around the earth’s equator. It is the distance from New York City to Paris as the seagull flies. It is more than most people though less than many people I personally know; what matters to me is that it is the amount I need to run to fulfill my goals as a marathon runner.  If I were to run every day of the year, I would have to cover 16 kilometers a day in order to cover this distance. However I generously allow my body two days off every month which means that on the remaining days I must average just over 18 kilometers.

244,000: the number of kilometers I covered for work last year, criss-crossing the United States and Canada, at 38,000 feet. 125: the number of days I spent as  a road warrior, one of thousands who travel for work. Pack, unpack, re-pack. 125 times. Off with the shoes, out with the laptop, remove liquids and gels, 250 times. 250 frantic, last minute searches for the boarding pass - you'd think I’d have a foolproof place for it. 250 bags of stale peanuts consumed per year. 1000 cab or rental car rides to and from the airport. Hours waiting for delayed flights. Dozens of nights in generic motel rooms due to cancelled flights.

24 hours. That is all anyone is given to complete the daily grind. In a runner’s world, every 24 hours the counter resets itself to zero and the task of completing the daily allotment of mileage begins anew. The only way to get it done as a road warrior is to create time where apparently there is none. It cannot be during the precious hours of sleep as they are already too scarce. It obviously cannot be during the 7 hours spent on the client site. It cannot be done while sitting comfortably in one`s seat with the seatbelt tightly fastened. What remain are some 6 hours spent travelling to and waiting at the airport.

Consequently the journey to the airport became my time to run. When I am done with my clients for the day, done thanking them and saying good-bye, politely refusing a ride to the airport or a quick drink at a local bar, I change Superman-style in the closest public toilet. Off come my skirt-always a skirt never pants to save weight, -  my nylons, black flats, cardigan and blouse. I lovingly wrap them around the unavoidable laptop to protect it and cram them into my backpack. Never a briefcase because what kind of superhero runs with a briefcase? On goes the superhero uniform: shorts  and tank in the spring, summer and fall, tights and fleece in the winter. My packing and planning is a science of efficiency and weight saving. I wear a sports bra under my business clothes to save weight and embarrassment if I must change in an alley. Everything I bring on these trips has a purpose if not two or three; nothing goes unused.
Transformation complete, I move out. I glide past snarls of rush hour traffic, sometimes on dirty gritty streets, sometimes through the oasis of an urban park. I head out along my pre-mapquested route to the airport or as close as I can reasonably get. Travelling to Boston is always a treat as it gives me a chance to re-acquaint myself with its emerald necklace and although running all the way to the airport is not quite possible, a short subway ride gets me there. Philadelphia is a challenge as the airport is 20 kilometers from the city center but one can, with careful manoeuvring, run right to its front door. It is perhaps not the most aesthetic run however there is a profound sense of accomplishment in self-locomoting the entire distance to the airport. Baton Rouge is another favourite for its scenery and aromas so distinctly different from my hometown. 

Smaller centers pose unique challenges as their airports can be many kilometres distant, often shared with other towns. Iowa City, a frequent destination for me, is serviced by the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids, 40 kilometres away. This is typically longer than I have time to run in the precious window of time between leaving my client and catching my flight. In situations like this, I will take a taxi to the airport and then create for myself a running route around the perimeter of the airport. This can be an unexpected treat, as in Iowa,  when I run past corn fields and along forested trails. Alternatively it can be downright soul destroying, the route composed of inevitable parking lots, gas stations, and fast food joints. One challenge of running on airport property, particularly with a backpack, is that it makes airport security nervous.  I get the sense that they are certain I am up to no good although they cannot quite put their finger on what I am doing wrong. My flimsy “story” of getting my run in before my flight is clearly a sham. I have heard the words: “Ill have to ask you to stop now, Maam” a discouraging number of times.

Opting for a rental car over a taxi affords much more freedom. A plethora of running routes reveal themselves to me during the drive to the airport. I have parked in a suburban neighbourhood in Virginia and run 15 muddy kilometres  in woods underneath the approach path to Dulles airport. As airbuses roared overhead, I hurdled logs, splashed through streams and startled deer. As my flight took off later that evening, I was able to identify the patch of woods that had afforded me so much pleasure and I felt the glow of my secret knowledge of the intimacies of that solitary patch of woods.

Delayed flights are an inevitable part of the business travel experience. During one year I kept track of the total number of hours I spent in various airports during delays - a staggering 80 hours. These times can afford running opportunities but the cost of admission is that one must truly not care what other people think. Fortunately I do not. At least not about this. I have run countless kilometres on the underground concourse at O`Hare Airport. Any traveller worth their salt is familiar with the approximately half mile stretch of underground walkway with its psychedelic, forever-in-the-seventies light display that connects concourse B and C at Chicago`s famously sluggish airport. I run back and forth keeping time to the infinite, automated message “the moving walkway is now ending, please look down!”. Occasionally I’m stopped by the very human message “Ma’am, we’ll have to ask you to refrain from running here.”

It is an oddity of our society that a runner can be such a source of suspicion and confusion. One of my first experiences of running on the road taught me well the need for discretion. It was winter in Boston, the temperature hovering around -5 deg C. I decided I would have to forgo a winter coat for the trip as it would not fit into my backpack during the run to the airport. This is not as problematic as it might seem as realistically the amount of time I spend outside on these trips, not including running time of course, is less than 10 minutes. I figured I could endure those brief snippets of time outside. My one concern was being stranded outside due to my cab breaking down or similar and so I tucked a space emergency blanket I had received at the end of a marathon into my pack as insurance against that possibility. I remember discussing my plans with my training partner, whose nonchalant comment was that I should wear small flats rather than my clunky heels in order to further reduce weight in my backpack.  Just another day of trying to get the miles in, was her blasé reaction. Her non-reaction lulled me into a sense of normalcy.

I arrived onsite and my client was at the door to meet me. I could see him taking in my skirt, blouse, cardigan, ballet slippers and back-pack. "Where is your coat?" he asked, clearly perplexed. "Oh, I didn't bring one to save weight and space because I'll be running back to the airport later today." I replied. An uncomfortably long and profound silence ensued. From the look on his face I wondered if I had accidentally announced that I needed to be done by 6 o’clock in order to catch my spaceship back to my home planet.  Oh, to be that green and oblivious again. Sprinkled throughout the rest of the day, at random, inappropriate moments, were comments and questions as he clearly struggled to understand. As we talked about research methodology, he interjected with: "but... how are you going to shower?". As we did trouble shooting on his datasets, he queried: "Surely you can't run with your laptop?". As we talked about alternate data analysis strategies, he proclaimed: "But, it's over ten miles to the airport, you can't possibly run that far!" As we were joined by various colleagues throughout the day, he began every introduction with: "She's going to RUN back to the airport. With her laptop in her backpack. To the AIRPORT! With a LAPTOP!" I doubt anyone even found out my name or the actual purpose of my visit.

I’ll admit that I enjoy being perceived as eccentric, extreme, and hard core. I will even admit, with some embarrassment, that it feeds my ever-starving ego to earn the admiration of people through my running. However, I realized that day that this habit of mine was simply too far from the average person’s boundaries of normal to fit into the strict, mould of the business professional. In our society where the car reigns supreme and self-locomoting is simply not viewed as a means of transport, it is far more socially acceptable get drunk and obnoxious at the airport bar than it is to spend that same time running to the airport. Regardless, being perceived as eccentric was clearly stripping me of my professionalism and was creating unacceptable distraction. I realized that day that I would have to go under cover.

Since that time I have developed strategies to avoid detection. I get directions to the conference room rather than being met at the front door so that I can ferret away my backpack and my lack of coat is not questioned. I politely but firmly decline offers of rides to the airports or calling of taxis with vague, murmured excuses. I have shamelessly made up conference calls, office emergencies, headaches, toothaches and heartaches in order to duck out of invitations for “a quick drink nearby before heading to the airport.”

 I often feel not so much like an athlete trying to get in a run as an addict trying to get in a fix. I know that there is a fine line between passion and addiction. The lengths I go to appear to fit the definition of normal sometimes do make me question on which side of that line I tread. However it comes down to the numbers. The marathon is a dictator whose demands are absolute and unbending. The marathon does not care about normal or eccentric. It does not care whether its subjects trained on a track, treadmill, forested paths, along the side of the highway, backpack on back headed to the airport or on the underground concourse at O’Hare airport. The marathon imperviously deals out its 42.195 kilometres and a fool is the runner who toes the line unprepared.


  1. I've never run to the airport, but I do remember bicycling once to the Nantucket airport. I locked my bike to the chainlink fence at the airport perimeter, walked in with my backpack, and got on a plane. The sense of freedom and disconnect from ordinary airport rituals (driving and parking, or a cab, or a shuttle) still stays with me. And you're right, you do acquire a special kinship -- a sense of ownership and affection -- for places that you've run. Especially if they're unexpected, or unexpectedly wonderful.

    This was fun to read and think about. Thank you.

  2. I seem to abandon running when I travel, I might manage a half an hour in the hotel gym but have never ventured outside the hotel. Mind you, my frequent complaint when I get home is that I only saw the airport and the hotel, it would seem I have myself to blame! Some good ideas there, thanks. still amused at the thoughts of getting in the miles at the chicago o hare concourse, I was only there once, as an exchange student and the light display is still flashing away in my brain when I think of that journey.