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Last fall, I relocated from the mountain haven of Boulder, Colorado, to the urban jungle of London, England. My friends were quick to point out that this was a dubious move for an avid trail runner. I shrugged them off; I had friends in London, and after a messy breakup, I needed to get out of town. I was sure I’d be fine.
It was raining the day I arrived. I dragged my luggage out of the shiny black cab, unpacked, and sat on the unfamiliar bed. Fat raindrops rolled down the garden window and clattered through the drains. I’d been warned about the cold in England—that it’s a damp, bitter cold, the kind that seeps straight into your bones. No one had warned me about the loneliness of being in a new city. They hadn’t told me that it feels much the same.
Usually, when I feel stuck, I turn to running. But here, hemmed in by concrete, veiled in gray rain, I couldn’t bring myself to lace up my shoes. Every mile seemed to serve as a reminder of the life I’d left behind. I missed Boulder’s vast networks of singletrack and the clean mountain air. I wondered if choosing to live in the city meant I’d given up a life of adventure for good.
Then, one day, I missed my bus.
I had signed up for a dance class in an effort to make new friends, but I hadn’t quite hacked the bus schedule. Shit, I thought, as I watched the red double-decker flash around the corner and vanish. Then I looked up the address on my map. It was only two miles away. I could run two miles!
I took off. Street lights reflected in the rain-slicked pavement like watercolor streaks on dark canvas. I leapt over puddles and curbs. A Deliveroo cyclist veered across my path and cheered me on over his shoulder. I glanced again at the map and spotted a shortcut: a narrow footbridge that hung creaking over the canal. I banked right to take it. The clock was ticking, but I was almost there.
When I finally arrived at my dance class, my heart was hammering and wet tendrils of hair stuck to my cheeks. But I was on time. And I felt more alive than I had in weeks.
That’s when I realized: I didn’t need summits to plan epic linkups. I had a whole city to explore.
When I got home after class, I dug out my 30-liter fastpacking vest, and, over the next few weeks, I started poring over Google Maps, figuring out how to plot the coolest routes between the grocery store and the pharmacy, or between my favorite downtown coffee shop and the ladies’ swimming pond in Hampstead Heath. I’d try to link up canal paths and city parks, swampy wetlands and reservoirs, narrow alleys and big trees. I’d run my groceries across miles of cobblestone, and show up at dinner parties sweaty but beaming.
Running my errands had another benefit. I’ve often struggled with dread and perfectionism around running. “Going for a run,” often feels like an intimidating thing to be doing, a term reserved for intense athletes with serious goals. “Running some errands,” however, is something my mom does, and if you’ve met my mom, you would know that “intense athlete with serious goals” does not apply. I found that shifting the way I talked about running shifted my attitude toward it. Running was no longer loaded with expectation. It was simply a means of transit. It probably helped that I never tracked my runs or mileage. I didn’t need to because I never thought of it as a workout; I was just in it for the adventure.
Running this way seemed to make me more confident, too. When I spend all day in taxis, buses, or trains, I don’t feel like a woman about the world getting things done. I mostly feel like freight. Now, here I was on my two little legs, hopscotching through the city like it was my own personal playground. I was knocking items off the to-do list, saving money, and even feeling a little subversive all at once. Take that, car culture.
Unlike driving, running puts the world at eye level. Weaving around people on the sidewalks and taking footpaths where cars can’t go, you get the sense that you’re strutting your own concrete catwalk. The world is suddenly yours.
From that vantage, I watched the seasons change. I watched the winter’s first snow as it sifted down onto the marsh, frosting the reeds and leaving the canal boats pillowed in white. In spring, I saw the swans building nests and hatching their first cygnets. I saw the wildflowers bloom in London Fields and watched parents trot their kids out to early-season soccer practices. I spotted all kinds of wildlife, including deer, red foxes, feral parakeets, and rogue swimmers. And, finally, I began to feel at home.
As I got to know my new city, I often took wrong turns, earned odd looks for sprinting about with a bundle of asparagus in each chest pocket, nearly dropped my phone into a canal, encountered more stinging nettle than I ever thought possible, and waded through several cumulative miles of ankle-deep English mud. And every minute of it was an adventure.
In the end, I realized that I’d discovered how to throw a magical switch. As long as I’ve got my running shoes on, I’m in adventure mode. And adventure mode isn’t a destination—it’s a mindset I can bring anywhere.