"Jogging is an extreme sport. Gotta watch out for those big dogs and drunk drivers around here!"
Moscow Times - July 15, 1998
Searching in vain for jogger's paradise in Moscow
Russian women have a reputation for mothering. To young Americans who move here, this is a double-edged sword. With every helping of fried meat and cucumbers swamped with heavy cream, we are fed gruesome details of shocking crimes in the suffering cities of New Russia. Fortunately, a stint on a high-school cross-country team taught me how best to cope with "light" breakfasts of smoked fish rolled in fried bilini and garnished with egg-ham-cucumber-mayonnaise salads: running.
In addition to keeping the foreign food off my love handles, I long ago learned that running - along with apartment-hunting - is also a fantastic way to learn about a foreign city. Herein lies the problem.
When I first stepped out onto the streets of Moscow in my running shoes, green soccer shorts, and a T-shirt, I immediately saw myself as the obvious prey of every gangster, desperate drunk, and bored, delinquent teenager in the Russian Federation.
Suffice to say, during my first several athletic outings, I felt the need to adopt an intense don't-mess-with-me glare while grunting and sweating past children and old ladies relaxing on sunny park benches. But so far, only dogs - whether they are the enormous rottweilers walking unleashed beside their masters or the packs of starving strays limping around the city - have merited this intimidating posture.
Once I conquered my fear of everything that moved, however, I began discovering Moscow's life and culture through the sweaty eyes of a gasping runner. Since the former Soviet Union's vaunted culture of athleticism provided a perennial rival to the Americans in the Olympic Games, and since athletic complexes and stadiums dominate portions of every Russian city, one would think runners might be common on city streets. Only once did I pass another runner, a Scandinavian-looking woman who looked positively spooked at my sudden appearance. The rest of the time, my exertions consistently turn surprised and curious heads and occasionally inspire the comment "sportsman." Sometimes, when not pointing at me, children playing in parks venture to "race" me for a few meters.
In spring and summer, the abundant, often-untended greenery in this Russian capital rivals cities such as New York, Boston, and Paris. Behind banks of aging, concrete apartment buildings lie countless pockets of lush parks and trees. A pedestrian, tree-lined boulevard also makes up one of the three concentric rings that divide the city, and runs conveniently close to Orthodox onion-domed churches and the cream of Moscow's architecture. Perfect for walking dogs, pushing the kids in a stroller, or sipping a Baltika beer in the early evening, the Boulevard Ring is unfortunately not made for runners: busy traffic intersections interrupt the leafy parks every 400 yards.
Intersections: I was initially impressed at how respectful Russian pedestrians were of traffic signals. The reason? Russian drivers have no respect for anything at all. Drivers accelerate when a pedestrian dares to cross the street. This is true no matter how quiet or traffic-free the street may be. My impatient decision to jaywalk and run across busy intersections thus becomes an adrenaline-rushed turkey shoot with me as the target.
Anyone who chooses to do more than run around the same half-acre park for 45 minutes will inevitably have to cross a street. The distance across many of Moscow's streets, however, is easily the length of a Manhattan block. To preserve the lives of their pedestrian citizenry from vehicles and the rigors of winter, Moscow's 20th-century rulers built long underpasses. Today, many of these caverns are lined with shops. If runners are an unexpected sight above ground, they less welcome sprinting through these dark tunnels, past shoppers browsing in front of compact disk and flower stands.
There is so much to be said about contemporary Moscow, a city that has completely transformed at least twice in the past decade. My first and most selfish priority, though, is to find that hidden Shangri-La where runners are welcomed, where they can stretch, run their timed miles, and maintain a maximum heart rate without risk. Until the day I find that jogging ghetto (or until I find that pretty Scandinavian jogger) I will continue exploring Moscow and Russia the best way I know how - on sneakered foot.
Jogging in Moscow, an historical perspective
Jogging in Moscow was first introduced in 1962 and, like many things Russian, it was an import from the West. The first Moscow jogger was Peter Bridges, a young Foreign Service Officer at the American embassy who wrote about pounding the Russian pavements in an article in the Foreign Service Journal some time ago. And I was the second jogger, in 1967 when I was posted to Moscow as Counselor for Cultural Affairs but I did not pound the pavements at first. Just behind the embassy in those years, on the site now occupied by embassy staff housing, there was a small stadium used by a Moscow sports club, and with a quarter-mile cinder track. And that is where I jogged every day, weather permitting, much to the amusement of the Russian young men who were practicing rugby or football there.
During the winter months, when the track was snowed in, I took to the streets and made several circuits around the embassy, even in the coldest weather with my eyeglasses frosted over, much to the amazement of street goers who would shout "C uma soshli?" (Are you out of your mind?).
Children did not run after me but drunks sometimes did. Once, coming up Devyatinskii Bolshoi pereulok, a rather inebriated Russian detached himself from a group of serious drinkers congregated around the open air vodka stand there, and began to jog alongside me. As we rounded the corner onto ulitsa Chaikovskogo we approached the two Russian militsia men standing guard in front of the embassy. They recognized me but not the surprised Russian at my side whom they promptly apprehended. I wonder what the charge was.
The strangest jogging episode, however, involved the embassy marines. To keep in shape, they would work out in the "community room" in the basement of the embassy north wing. One morning, with the temperature well below freezing and with snow on the ground, the marines decided to emerge from their improvised gymnasium and take a few laps out the embassy gateway, along the sidewalk and back in the other gateway, clad only in shorts, T-shirts, and barefoot! The militsia men were aghast, and I always wondered what their KGB chiefs made of that episode and those "crazy Americans."
Running in Moscow
David, glad to learn you are a fellow runner. Having regularly run in various neighborhoods in Moscow, I think that Ian Watson has over dramatized the risks of running in Moscow. He is right about the potential problem of dogs, although I have never been chased or bitten, probably because I give large off-leash dogs a wide berth or slow to a walk. (The RF Law on Weapons allows unlicensed possession of mace-type hand-held gas canisters, including by foreigners, if one is seriously worried about dogs).
The greater hazard is ice - slipping on it in the winter and breaking something (and then having to get it treated). In Moscow, as elsewhere, the best place to run is along the Moscow river, if you are fortunate to be living or staying near it. The bridges carry traffic over your head, so street crossings are far apart. And the sidewalks are pretty well maintained, even in winter. If you get out early in the morning, the air isn't bad, either.
It is not Rock Creek Park, but running past the Kremlin and the like isn't bad! Someone has published a runner's guide to Moscow, in a series covering most world cities, but I haven't seen it, and prefer to pick my own route anyway.
Run The Planet thanks the Belly Button Window website (www.bellybuttonwindow.com) for the permission to reprint the articles "Searching in vain for jogger's paradise in Moscow" by Ivan Watson, "Jogging in Moscow, an historical perspective" by Yale Richmond, and "Running in Moscow" by Anthony Sager.