I run. I have been running everyday since I joined my middle school track team in the seventh grade. For me, running is not just something I do as a “work out,” it is part of my identity. It is transcendental. This is not to say that there are not days, weeks even, that running can be torturous-but the sense of calm and exhilaration I have during, and after a good run, sustains me.
In New York, my daily run through Central Park, along 5th Ave, past the Met and the Guggenheim, to the outskirts of Harlem, was one of the few things that kept me grounded and sane (for the most part). It was during one of those runs that it became obvious to me that I should really do this. I remember coming home, racing up the stairs of my fourth floor walk up, and breathlessly sending an email confirming my decision, all without skipping a beat. I hadn’t even bothered to turn off the Kanye blasting from my ipod. Fittingly, “Who gon’ stop me?” happened to be playing. Ironically most of the time, I don’t really know what it is that I think about when I run, but I do know that it helps me focus, organize and process.
Being a creature of habit, I was somewhat concerned about the logistics of running while in Senegal. One of my favorite parts of traveling, in general, is discovering a new city by running through it. Senegal, I knew, was going to be different. Would it be too hot? Was it safe to go alone? Could I/should I bring an ipod? Would I just say, “screw it,” and run anyway? Definitely.
Still, when I found a fellow runner on my first day, I was pretty relieved. At the same time, I was hesitant. Running has always been a solitary experience for me, and it is a part of the day that I consider invaluable. I don’t have to talk to or interact with anyone, save the occasional smile at another runner, who undoubtedly “understands” the mentality of another like him self. It is like Murakami explains (more eloquently than I could), “I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself. To put a finer point on it, I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone. I find spending an hour or two every day running alone, not speaking to anyone, as well as four or five hours alone at my desk, to be neither difficult nor boring. I’ve had this tendency ever since I was young, when, given a choice, I much preferred reading books on my own or concentrating on listening to music over being with someone else. I could always think of things to do by myself.” (What I Talk About When I Talk About Running). I can relate completely.
Abou is Aminata’s little brother. He also happens to run through and around Dakar everyday. He became my running companion and guide while I was in Dakar. He is also the first person I have ever gone running with regularly. And surprisingly, I found that not only did I need someone to guide me through the crowded, dirty and potentially dangerous streets of Dakar, but I also kind of liked having the company. Maybe it was because I going through a major lifestyle adjustment, and needed to set up some sort of routine. Maybe I needed to establish a sense of normalcy in an environment that was entirely unfamiliar. Maybe it was a bit of both…the reason is not really of primary importance…
Running with Abou, as it turns out, was one of my favorite experiences from the beginning of the trip. First of all, he runs at about twice my normal pace, and given the fact that his legs are much longer than mine, I found my self basically sprinting for the duration of our run. The sheer physical exertion was enough to, at least for an hour, completely block out any thought. There was no room for thoughts of homesickness, I didn’t wonder what my friends in New York were doing, I didn’t worry about whether I was cut out for this kind of commitment. My only thought was this: “keep up.”