What’s the best way to see a place? Run a marathon. There is no better way to experience a city than running through it.
Okay – so I used to play A LOT of SimCity. Thanks Jordan. I appreciate the support (and humor).
Here’s my advice: hire a marathon planner. Look at the selected route, find where it goes and why. You’ll see the strengths of your community based on that route. Try to start from there ...
Seeing much of any American city on foot can be difficult. How and where to navigate? Which route to take? Will I be going through places worth seeing? These questions, and about a thousand others, prevent people from truly seeing a place.
Run a marathon. As someone who loves urban places (and public health), I can’t recommend it enough. Waking up at 5:45am on a dreary October morning and preparing to experience inevitable pain is worth it. Embarrassing example of pain: here.
Any given marathon route tells you a lot about the city, or in my most recent case: the Twin Cities. Marathon route planners want to show off the city. Typically you’ll start off at some notable focal point of the city (downtown Minneapolis, for example) and route through nice neighborhoods (Kenwood) and onto geographic landmarks (The Lakes District, Minnehaha Creek, Mississippi River), and then ending with a long straight run down beautiful, tree-lined Summit Avenue and ends at the State Capitol.
Marathon routes tell us a lot about the host city and what we aspire to. In the Twin Cities, we do appreciate our downtown, regardless of how poorly we may treat it sometimes, and we still love the beautiful Bueax Arts, Cass Gilbert designed State Capitol Building. These are great places. But, in between is what we Minnesotans aspire to: a nice house with a modest yard near a body of water. That’s why we cut through Kenwood, instead of taking a route down Hennepin Avenue or Lake Street.
I haven’t run many half and full marathons, but I’ve run enough to say with certainty this theory of city and cultural aspirations holds true on at least three continents. You can tell by the different cities you run through.
- Barcelona: 98 % urban and 2% beach view [map]. You run down beautiful urban boulevards, past some beach and finish at the 1992 Olympics Park. Even from my limited time in Spain, this route and “course feel” summarize the aspirations of Catalonians.
- Sydney: 75 % urban, 15% waterfront and 10% park [map]. You traverse around Sydney Harbor over the Bridge to the huge urban park, into neighborhoods and ending at the Opera House. I lived in Australia for nearly two years, and I couldn’t have picked a better route to summarize Sydney culture (possibly a hint more beach, but otherwise spot on!).
- Duluth: 90% lakeshore, 5% residential and 5% urban [map]. The lake and the power of nature are the most unforgettable elements of the race, and this truly embodies the experience that is Duluth, Minnesota.
Even when you look at smaller and less notable destination marathons, like in Mankato [map], you’ll start at the college (a small, but important civic establishment) and run along the river to the rolling prairie and end in downtown. It’s almost as if it was intentionally designed to bypass the town’s sprawl, which for some reason, it continues to still want to build.
One of the many beauties of marathons is how people control the road. There is something empowering about running downtown Minneapolis in the middle of the street – a space typically dominated by cars. You experience the buildings passing you by from an entirely different angle. Every time I do it, there is something refreshing about it. It gives me the idea of what a space can look and feel like when the pedestrian is in control.
Beyond that, marathons typically bring out the best in a given community. Seeing friends, families and strangers holding handmade signs is something that makes your heart melt amid the pain of running 26.2 miles (even if they are smarmy).