By Elizabeth Riggio

Part I: Down the Unbeaten Path

It was my first run in Lisbon. I would be in Portugal for two weeks at a writers’ workshop and it was about that time I stop making excuses and go out and do it. I didn’t know where I was going, but I started running and I hoped I could eventually find my way back to my apartment. I ended up somewhere along the river. It was a dirty area–with graffiti everywhere, along with the smell of rotting fish and run-down bus stations. Pieces of trash were skipping along the street and settling in the corners of buildings. It didn’t look like the Lisbon I had come to know, one that cleaned its streets daily and wafted tantalizing pastel de nata from pastry shops. But then, what did I know of Lisbon really? I had only been there a few days, and would only be staying for a handful more.

I kept running. There was something enticing about this place. It felt real. It had this character because it was hardened. In fact, it was beautiful.

There were people everywhere, waiting at the bus stop and honking at each other from their cars. One man started to pass me as he biked and, making a game out of it, I tried to overtake him. He looked at me a little funny, seeming to wonder why I was trying to outrun a bike, and decided to take off fast. I smiled. I liked seeing this side of Lisbon.

Part II: Walking Dirt

I am surprised by how dirty my feet get from walking around Lisbon. Even when I’m wearing running shoes, there seems to be a consistent layer of black covering my feet, no matter how hard I scrub in the shower. No other place that I have been to has done this to my feet. Even though the city workers wash the streets daily, it still seems like the street floors find a way to fight back.

And yet, something about this uncleanliness doesn’t bother me at all. I’ve come to love and accept this extra layer I carry; I don’t even try to take it off anymore. It makes me feel tough, like a local. It’s reality, and sometimes reality is dirty.

I think that when we visit a city, we have this very romantic idea of what it will be like– the people, the culture, the buildings. But this isn’t always how it is. It’s beautiful, but a different kind of beauty. A human beauty. This is something I’ve really come to know and understand in my four months abroad in Europe. It’s like meeting someone who just seems so gorgeous and flawless at first sight but then as you get to know the person, you realize that they have struggles too. They have insecurities or imperfections. But even with these imperfections, they are just as beautiful, if not more. You love them for all their good and their bad. And I truly love Lisbon.

“My soccer ball means the world to me”

Part III: Barefoot in the Street

1380172_10153308518170534_156935399_nOne day I ran out into the street after my soccer ball fell out of our fifth floor balcony. I watched it bounce multiple times, gravity pulling it to the ground. I didn’t know what to do except stand glued to the floor and yell at it–as if that would stop it from bouncing into the street below. Finally, I sprinted down the stairs faster than I ever had. If someone had been in my way, they would have been trampled.

My soccer ball means the world to me. Soccer runs through my blood and to watch the one thing that is practically attached to my foot at all times fall to the depths of the city streets is like watching one of my appendages fall off. It is an extension of my body and it is an extension of my life.

I crossed the street, barely looking to see if a car was coming. It wasn’t until my ball was nestled safely next to my side that I realized I didn’t have any shoes on. I took a moment to freak out at how gross that was, but truthfully, I liked the feeling of the ground beneath my feet. The cobblestones on the sidewalk felt cool and smooth and the pavement of the street was rough. It felt freeing to walk around without shoes, as if my feet were happy to be released from their usual laced-up straight jackets. Until I really realized: I. Was. Barefoot. I won’t lie, the possibility of catching one disease or another began crossing my mind and I knew the unavoidable blackness would surely be covering my feet. Oh well. It’s not like they were especially clean before.

Part IV: Hey, I’m Runnin’ Here!

There’s something I’ve experienced during each of my runs in the countries I’ve visited outside the U.S.–people staring at me or standing in my way. Sometimes I want to yell, “What the hell! You can see me coming, why you gotta stand as stationary as possible as I try to get past?” Usually I can maneuver around people but there’s only so much room on these narrow sidewalks and I’ll end up bumping someone. At first, I thought it was cultural—this spacial awareness on the sidewalk thing. People from the United States are known for liking their space whereas some other cultures are less concerned. But it seems as though there could be a different reason entirely.

“I like to think these individuals stare at me not because I’m doing something out of the ordinary, but because I’m flying past them, barely touching the ground, breathing with ease, determined as if in a race.”

I’ve learned that to some Europeans, running, particularly women running in the street, is not a very common thing. I often feel like people are looking at me, wondering what on earth I am doing. I like to think these individuals stare at me not because I’m doing something out of the ordinary, but because I’m flying past them, barely touching the ground, breathing with ease, determined as if in a race. In reality, I probably look incredibly tired, with a severe, basically angry look of concentration on my face (one might call it the Resting Bitch Face, or RBF as it’s affectionately known), sweat dripping off my body, my breath uneven and heavy, but still determined I suppose. Not quite the picture of grace. And perhaps slightly frightening. It’s funny because what I feel inside is the opposite. Usually I’m listening to my music, in my zone. In fact, I often dance while I run. Doing hand motions with the beats of the song, weaving in and out of trees, poles, humans, jumping over things, to make a game out of the adventure. I’m in my own world and nobody can disturb me there. In my world I am a completely free spirit and I am untouchable and I imagine that everyone else is feeling the same. Maybe that’s not everyone else’s reality but running takes me to a place that even I can’t always explain.

Part V: What it Means to Run

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Running clears my mind. It’s why I do it. All I think about is my breath and whether I’ll be able to make it one more mile. Sometimes I simply want to get to know the area I’m in through the pounding of my feet against the ground. I run so I can listen to my music and escape into the beats. I run for some peace and quiet with myself. Something about a run frees me from any attachments to people or things or social media, if only for a short time.

Sometimes I hate running. I curse myself the whole way through thinking, “Why did you do this to yourself Elizabeth?” My muscles are tight, screaming in their stride length as if to say I should stop. My lungs burn and my throat is dry. I pass someone smoking a cigarette and try to hold my breath so as not to choke on the air. Looking at my shadow or a brief glance in a store window tells me that my posture is horrible–hunched over and something like a troll. My hair is falling out of my ponytail, whipping in my face and touching the back of my sweaty neck.

But I’ve never regretted going out and feeling the earth beneath my feet. If I keep going, I feel better. At the end of every run I feel as though I’ve accomplished something great. Not in the corny, “what have you learned” kind of way, but in the, “yes I am capable of accomplishing something difficult all on my own.” It’s empowering.

Sometimes I conquer something within myself through running. Sometimes I just finish, and that’s good enough. And sometimes I simply enjoy a new side to a city I’ve not known before.