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There’s no better way to connect with a new place than to lace up a pair of shoes and move your body across trails, roads or sidewalks with your eyes open and your mind relaxed. This deeply personal experience is made even richer when coupled with new friends.
I have been lucky enough to run in a number of beautiful places in the world—but I’ve never felt as embraced by the running community as I did while competing in the Lycian Way Ultra Marathon along Turkey’s southern coast. The multiday race twists along a 540K-long ancient footpath, stretching up into craggy mountain hamlets and back down to the Mediterranean Sea. Days are spent running through fields of grazing goats, beside tombs intricately sculpted into cliffs and across sandbars surrounded by turquoise water. In the evenings, competitors gather for dinner before retiring to beachside tents made of yak-hair blankets.
Aside from with the race coordinator and my fellow American journalist, Jorge Rufat-Lapre (who took these lovely photos), conversation was a challenge. However, when groups of runners sensed someone was excluded from the socializing, they took pains to extend a welcome. “Join us” was one of the English phrases almost everyone knew. If others spotted me eating alone or were ready to leave camp for a late-afternoon walk, I’d hear: “Jessie! Join us!” What a warm and wonderful feeling.
Thanks to their generosity of spirit, I was able to see stunning ruins dating back to 192 B.C., including man-made streams where locals once bathed and water still flows. After a difficult day when one of our buses crashed (everyone was safe), they took me to Mount Chimera, a rock face that has been burning for thousands of years—locals roast sausages over flames, fueled by natural methane leaks, that lick out from under boulders. On my last night, we danced and shared a bag of pomegranates one runner had packed from his tree at home.
I also heard from a number of runners who spoke a little English that they were nervous about the future of their country and that if they could afford to send their children elsewhere for school they would, even if that meant halfway around the world. As I was planning on writing a feature on this race, just a week after returning home, 125 people were injured and 37 killed in a bombing in the capital of Ankara, and the government imposed restrictions on media.
In the year since, violence has continued, including suicide bombings, shootings and vehicle-borne bombings. The decision was made to hold our story until travel warnings lifted—which makes good sense, of course. But honestly, I would happily return. I’m sure some of the friends I made will be running in the 2017 Lycian Way Ultra Marathon this September. A stunning event in an incredibly generous place—that’s what legs and hearts are for.