"He who has no brain, has legs." This uncharitable Greek proverb was often derisively quoted to me by my ex-husband every time I laced up my running shoes.
Why my hyperextended forays onto the tarmac would provoke such irritation remains a mystery. He himself, a keen shot, thought nothing of trampling the ferns and bracken of Devon, England in pursuit of a hapless pheasant or floundering through the marshes of the Greek-Turkish border awaiting the landing of an ill fated duck.
Yet my bouncing through the countryside elicited a lash criticism not only from him but also from our triplets. When they were small, their admonitions were silent, voiceless. My gnawing sense of maternal guilt recognized them of course and I would slide furtively out of the house, cloaked in remorse, needing a brief escape from the fathomless monotony of baby care times three.
Once my son and two daughters grew up they didn't so much resent my absence as interpret it as an athletic off shoot of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a diagnosis they still scornfully bestow on me.
Finally there was the censure of female friends. They would sprawl on the sofa, drinking coffee, reading or playing cards and when I would return after 15 harrowing kilometers, I would find them in the same place, as if set in stone. They seemed mystified at my glowing face and trance-like joy.
For running is a peculiarly painful pleasure occasioned by an enhanced heart rate, a burning of calories far superior to walking and swimming and a state of muscular engagement. It provides endorphins and an antidote to stress. High impact exercise involving running and jumping is also an inexorable antidote to osteoporosis.
Not that I fly into an ecstatic state of self-congratulation the moment I begin. Starting out, I feel as raw and uncoordinated as a new born. Wind rips at my face promising more wrinkles, sagging flesh bounces in random directions and joints creak. Inertia threatens a corporal invasion and I would rather be anywhere else. Then the inevitable "miracle" kicks in my energy surges and eliminates the density of fatigue.
Instead of the inhospitable monotony of the treadmill, blustery fresh air awaits, an inherent awareness of the seasons and a meteorological familiarity are acquired. You can smell the rain before it comes, taste the salty air whipped up from the sea, gauge the path of the winds.
Running, or the more lumbering version of it, jogging, seems to elicit a clamorous response from people regardless of geographical location. As I set off from the small town of Taroudant, Morocco, I was solitary. During one hour at a respectable pace, I gradually morphed into a Berber version of the Pied Piper and had accumulated a dozen curious and giggly children whose laughter resonated in my heart and in my ears.
In Hong Kong, I braved the steeply inclined highways swollen with traffic, cars almost scraping my elbows as they flashed precariously past me, my lungs bursting with exertion and filling with the thickness of pollution.
My peripatetic inclinations accelerated as I continued running in different countries, whether through the manicured confines of a Dubai hotel compound or scuttling along a baked highway in Sharm el Sheih, Egypt. Here, as in Jordan, I felt an ungainly awkwardness. While some females were swathed in suffocating black robes my shiny and figure- hugging gear seemed indecent and I would add as many layers as I could despite the heat. In Amman, I avoided urban runs in jostling streets and remained closeted in the antiseptic confines of the hotel gym. In the wondrous ancient city of Petra however I ventured out and ran on the crumbling red earth, past amorphous rock formations towards the narrow ravine that showcases that Petra's theatrical stunning monuments.
Syria was less intimating. Before the destruction of 2011, Aleppo was one of the most magical cities I have ever visited. Running through secluded backstreets from our hotel, the crenellated Beit Zaman which had an aura of deliciously shuttered secrecy, I ran all the way around the majestic fortress of Aleppo, now devastated by explosions and then along an engaging row of antique shops which lead to the murky alleys of the Old Souk. Maybe because this particular voyage can never be retraced, the precious visual recollections remain with me, suffused with the entrancing Arabic sense of the East, of myth and fairy tale.
Of course Greece also has its own citadels and I narrowly escaped quasi incarceration in one in Corfu. The Old Fortress was built in the 6th century (the other ludicrously referred to as New, was erected in the 16th century) and sits stolidly above the sea opposite Albania. It encapsulates a music school, a church, a yacht club, canons and artifacts within its stout stone walls. As I whizzed across the narrow entrance bridge at a pace brisk enough to blur my side vision and dull my reactions, I was aware of a commotion involving my argumentative trainer and the surly guard. We had not paid the entrance fee and as we catapulted up punishing steps, gasped at the view from the ramparts and plunged down cobblestone lanes to the glinting waters of the marina below, I expressed my concern at disobeying municipal authority. Pierre, an astonishing ultra marathon runner and a great adventurer, had no such qualms. We would rush out and declaim a defiant refusal to pay. The castle was part of the Corfiot patrimony and as Greek athletes we should be allowed to enter it. The guard was galvanized from his normal truculent stupor by this effrontery. "And you two will be detained in a police cell" he thundered. I left Pierre arguing furiously with him and skimmed along the pavement past Gladstone's statue to the yellow limestone Royal Palace of Saint Michael & Saint George.
There is another palace, Mon Repos, the deserted and melancholy vernal retreat of the deposed Greek monarchy. The running paths here dart through a park of arboreal splendor alternated with collapsed archaeological sites of temples and a theater. You must lift your feet high to avoid mossy tree trucks and sinuous roots and vault over mushrooms nestling in their dank corners and then pass the mournful building with its shuttered windows and deserted verandahs gaping onto an infinite, aquamarine view.
I have run all over this luscious landscape, punctuated with proud, columned cypresses and gnarled flourishing olive trees, with tenacious dark ivy snaking its way over noble stuccoed mansions, inhaling herbal scents that hover in the humid air which makes speed impossible. Added to the heat were two maleficent bulls waiting at a bend in the road and a beige venomous viper rustling from under my feet on a track of the same color.
Corfu was ruled by the British so its drivers treat runners with a modicum of respect. This is not so elsewhere in Greece where sportive pedestrians are greeted by a cacophonous response which could generously be termed boisterous or realistically labelled as offensive. Vehicles seem drawn to my body as if by a magnetic field and accelerate when they see me instead of courteously braking. The exuberant use of the car horn is innate and accompanied by muttered profanities often of a lascivious bent. Squashing myself to the side of the road to avoid impalement, I try to analyze the reason for these automotive outbursts. Is it admiration that I am running uphill in 40 degrees Celsius or bemused incredulity? Or maybe is it sadism as they cruise next to my thigh exhorting me to go faster as my heart threatens to explode and my legs to desert me in the inhospitable Aegean landscape.
In Mykonos, where I run often, I share the road with herds. The sheep variety scatter frantically and then are tapped into line by a bewhiskered local farmer. They are harmless. The human version sits precariously astride a series of quad bikes, some more mechanically sound than others and issues applause and wild yelps of encouragement as it tries and gets as close to me as possible asking for directions to the closest beach.
Syros is not famous for its beaches but instead for its stately capital Hermoupolis named for Hermes. I always finished up my runs with a tour of its exquisite streets flanked by stately mansions. My route of choice for speed and gradient leads to the landfill so I had struck up a lively acquaintance with all the garbage truck drivers who of course would hoot vociferously upon seeing me, leaving me in a cloud of dust.
On the island of Chios, where my father was from, the area of Cambos offers twisting lanes dissecting shady havens of citrus orchards and Genovese mansion houses constructed from thick slabs of local vermillion stone. In the southern part, there are endless stony tracks traced between blue bee hives and stubby, inelegant mastic trees unique to this region which exude milky tears of crystallized gum with medicinal properties. The population has a fondness for coagulated sweets "of the spoon," morsels of rose petal, quince and pistachio trapped in a thick syrup and the ratio of pastry shops to people is high. Exercise is anathema to Chiots so drivers stop me frequently offering a lift, incredulous at a refusal. On lesser known islands Poros, Serifos, Folegandros, Milos and Astipalea my only companions have been goats, relentless sun and thirst which I forgot to provide for.
Urban running offers other delights. One of my favorite runs is along the port of Thessaloniki with a rash of lively bars on one side and the oil smooth sea on the other. Once I saw dolphins slicing through it, sunlight bouncing off their glistening backs. As my running prowess diminishes, ambient distractions matter more. Before the solitude of an empty road was enough, now I see company as encouragement and never more so than at Carnival time in Athens where children are thrust into costumes that seldom match their volition or body type.
Two Sundays ago in the park, I darted between emerald witches, distended bumble bees, apronned chefs and clumsy gladiators all covered in confetti, paper streamers and other tokens of jubilation. The park's pack of homeless dogs remained unmoved by the festivities. Like most urban strays they are plump, superannuated and moth eaten, brashly trotting their territory but mostly soporific in the midday sun.
Occasionally there is a snap or a growl but these are more likely from the Faliron marina dogs who guard the rows of gargantuan yachts better than their lazy, torpid crews.
Just enough aggression to make you sprint or least try to remember what speed felt like for now it is in the past tense. A commitment to fitness has a penalty and it took eighteen years for the account to arrive. After two years of stiffness and limping during which I maintained my fitness level on bikes and elliptical trainers, I had a total hip replacement. As with my mania for exercise, this surgical experience was greeted with unrequested opinions, volumes of advice and I must say a certain gleeful satisfaction from some sedentary people.
My strong bones and muscles granted me a rapid convalescence even if not a perfect recovery. As I become older, slower and heavier the urge to continue, even if I cannot join the pack of gliding, lean and super fit older runners can sometimes seem a frantic illusion and a misdirection of energy. Yoga and swimming could indeed replace impact, stretching be preferred to a drenching sweat. I know I may seem exhausted by some roadside, stumbling the last few steps, nursing an aching hamstring and feeling the dull stab of my titanium implant. "We really wanted to give you a lift" said a woman at a cocktail party with what I thought might be a sneer rather than benevolence. If she had actually stopped to ask, I may well have reacted like one of the marina dogs.
But snapping aside, running is still happiness, mixed with a tinge of triumph and maybe a pinch of defiance. It's my recipe for energy and inspiration. It's what gets me started and keeps me going in the morning and in my life. Whether I step gingerly on the icy New York pavement, or splash through the mud in a sodden London park or push myself up the unforgiving hills of Mykonos, I'll be on that road, waiting to turn the next bend, hoping there will be sunlight there to warm me.