I’ve been a runner now for over ten years. That’s a lot of dirt pounded — and way too much pavement, exclaim my knees! I’ve never been very serious about it, but I have been fairly consistent, especially in the past five years or so. Running has been my one constant companion, the lowest common denominator during all my moving, traveling, schooling, and working. No matter where I am, what I’m doing, or how I feel about myself, I can always strap on my shoes and hit the road, and I’m right back where I was the last time I did so.

I’ve learned that this is a great way to get to know a place. As a runner, you see things you might otherwise miss, largely because other people see you more as a moving object than an actual observing person. In London, I would leave my apartment building and set out through the small, winding side roads down to the river, which was the nearest approximation to the ocean that my homesick heart could find. I saw all sorts of people on those side roads, but mainly the kind who are rich, young, and in love, as a lot of diamond dealers had their home near mine. (I’m pretty sure this had more to do with zoning laws than with the affluence of my neighborhood.)

I also quickly learned to judge the difference between a running city and a non-running city. London was a relatively easy place in which to run around in spandex, because it didn’t stand out amongst the hordes of other (much faster and trendier) runners around me. Croatia, on the other hand, was not really a running kind of place. In fact, I felt like nothing screamed “American tourist!” louder than my white running shoes and spandex shorts. But since it was the most reliable form of exercise available — and not exercising is for me the quickest way to ensure insanity — I set out nonetheless.

At first I would see mostly tourists and the people who cater to them, even early in the morning. As I got further into the side streets though, I would begin to see more of the city’s true nature: the laundry lines and broken-down cars, the graffiti on the walls, the concrete remnants of Soviet architecture. I did get some strange looks, yes, and occasionally ran slightly faster as a result, but I’d like to think that as a runner, I saw a side of these towns that I would’ve otherwise missed.

Even though I’ve lived here all my life, Santa Cruz itself is no exception. At least once a week, I run the same street that I’ve been running on since college, hugging the ocean cliffs, breathing the spray kicked up by the waves. Even though I’ve run that course more times than I can count, I still never fail to see something new, or at least weird. There are dogs, there are kids, there are hippie drummers, and there are always tourists, hoping to find respite from the furnace-like heat sitting just over the mountains. Recently, there’s even been a crew of hula-hoopers who congregate near the lighthouse at sunset to conduct their circular aerobics, which I always pause to admire.

Yesterday, I saw all this from a brand new perspective: a bike. That’s right, I decided it was time to give my poor knees a rest, so I took a 4- or 5-mile bike ride up the coast. Every time I bike somewhere, the first thing that occurs to me is how much easier it is than running — look, I can go so much farther and faster! Then I reach a hill, and I realize, oh wait, it’s actually way, way harder than running. Gasp, pant, heave!

Once I’ve readjusted to the different physical sensations involved in biking, I find that I can be much more in touch with my surroundings than when I’m running. Running involves choosing between watching your feet and the road ahead of you, so that any observation is conducted in surreptitious side glances. My bike also has much smoother suspension than my legs, meaning I can actually see the world without having it jolt up and down every few seconds. You can’t really smell that much while you’re running, either, since your nose is far more preoccupied with simply getting air in and out. Savoring the ocean breeze isn’t usually a luxury you can afford.

While biking, I got to do all of these things, plus I was able to go much farther up the coast than I ever do on a run. I was rewarded with things that I never see while running, including a young redtail hawk swooping down onto some (ultimately elusive) prey in a field not fifty feet to my left. I looked around myself and marveled at this place I live in, as though seeing it through new eyes.

So perhaps next time I travel in a non-running country, I will try renting a bike instead. The world won’t jump up and down as much, and I can make a much quicker getaway when I reach the point of getting funny looks. Best of all — spandex will be entirely optional.

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