Written by: Abby Poeske
In the affluent suburban enclave of New England where I grew up, running is the norm. Every morning, often before the sun rises, people are out pounding the pavement of quiet streets in colorful shoes, spandex and sweat-wicking tanks.
Old railways and waterfronts have been converted into smooth jogging paths. Expensive shoes are routinely replaced every 400 miles. Runners begin their careers as babies when fit mothers push their strollers through neighborhoods. There are fun runs for children, cross-country teams for high schoolers, 5Ks funding every cause imaginable for college students, running clubs for adults and races with 65+ age brackets for senior citizens. It is a life cycle of running.
I assumed this running culture was a universal norm until I moved to Chernivtsi, Ukraine, last year for a teaching fellowship. Even though it’s the familiar motion of running that makes me feel most at home, nothing else I do in this city makes me feel further away. Chernivtsi, a city of 240,000 people, is tucked into an obscure corner of Eastern Europe and has belonged to Moldavia, Austria-Hungary, Romania and the Soviet Union before Ukraine. Although the city is bursting with culture, running culture is not included.
I quickly learned that being a runner here — especially a female runner — is hard. To run through these streets, one must face crumbling infrastructure and deeply-embedded cultural norms. Additionally, in a country where young men are being sent to the eastern border to battle separatists and Russian forces every day and where the national GDP is expected to drop another 10% in 2015, who has the luxury of a morning jog? When I asked my Ukrainian friend why there aren’t more runners in the city, her answer was simple: “Ukrainian people have to think about what they need. And running is not a necessity.”
Lately, however, I’ve seen small but noticeable movement here — development of the running culture parallels the development of the country as a whole. Overall, Ukrainians are frustrated by the lack of tangible improvement since the Revolution of Dignity began brewing in November 2013. With its current financial problems and military conflict, quick fixes and dramatic progress are impossible for Ukraine. However, the drive and desire to become a less corrupt, more developed nation is present. The country is still a long way from EU acceptance and inclusion — and a long way from being a runner-friendly place. Changes are happening at an infuriatingly slow pace, but what I have seen makes me hopeful. Ukraine is a country beginning to move itself forward.
For now, the city is fairly inhospitable to runners. Traffic is always heavy. Exhaust spews out of the old Lada cars, buses and marshrutkas (shared passenger vans), making me sputter, burning my lungs and shortening my breaths. The sidewalks are perpetually crowded, and I sidestep baby carriages, couples linked arm in arm and teenagers meandering four abreast. We play “chicken” until I surrender and drop into the street. I still don’t understand sidewalk etiquette here, other than that the highest heels get right of way. Uneven Austro-Hungarian cobblestones transition to loose Romanian bricks, which turn into cracked Soviet pavement. The changes are abrupt and jarring to a pedestrian, just as the historical hand-off of authority must have been to citizens of Chernivtsi. The irregular sidewalks, gaping potholes and uncovered manholes force me to keep both eyes on the ground to avoid ankle injuries. I hear too many frightening stories about the hospitals, which have plenty of corruption but do not always have running water.
I was told to carry an umbrella to fend off the stray dogs. On average, I see four per kilometer. But the strays don’t bother me. They’re too busy cracking chicken bones left for them by benevolent grannies or scratching the fleas out of their nappy fur. It’s the “tame” dogs whom I warily give a wide berth. More than once, unleashed dogs have chased me down, causing me to tumble on the patchy pavement. Their owners have coolly watched with a raised eyebrow as if to say, “Your fault for jogging near my dog.” So despite the risk of rabies, which is rampant in these parts, I choose to pass the strays.
The actual running part, through oppressive air pollution, on hazardous sidewalks and past threatening dogs, is not what exhausts me. It’s the people — spectators, rather — and their reactions that wear me out. Some days I have to muster more emotional than physical energy to get myself on the pavement to face them. People yell and point me in the direction of the park, as if one is not allowed to run anywhere else. Women stop me in my shorts to tell me I’m cold while I sweat profusely (as I’m certain they do as well, excessively bundled in their thick coats and scarves). Gangs of adolescent boys snicker as they loiter and smoke cigarettes near the park entrance. I bitterly calculate the longevity of my lungs versus theirs.
But not everyone is like that. On one long run, I sprinted up a steep bonus hill. At the top was a stooped old man pumping his fist, grinning sincerely with a gold-toothed smile and shouting, “Molodets! Molodets!” which translates to something like, “Well done!”
After several months of training here, I finally have the courage to look up as I jog. With my eyes not constantly on the ground, I can appreciate the Old World architecture. It is beautiful in the shabby-chic, rusted and faded way of Chernivtsi. I see the shimmery gold-domed Orthodox churches, the mansions in the old Jewish neighborhood, the bold and imposing Soviet structures. I notice my fellow exercisers, trotting in tracksuits or walking with ski poles.
Few of them are women. It’s so rare to spot a female runner that for my first couple of months here, I thought I was the only one. Already frustrated by the gender inequality and blatant objectification of women I had been observing, I went crazy during one run. I had had enough of the jeers, stares, scowls, fingers pointing, cameras clicking and drivers hollering. This particular morning, after witnessing a string of women tottering to work in stilettos, I passed a male jogger in the park. He didn’t seem to like this and sped up to race ahead of me. Crazed in a fury of feminism, I refused to let him win. I thought, “He needs to know what it’s like to be beaten by a girl.” As Martina McBride belted “This One’s For the Girls” in my earbuds, I maniacally sprinted the last lap, satisfied to put him in his place.
I may have been overreacting then, the result of adjusting to very different societal norms from which I’d come. Now I know I’m not the only female athlete out there. There is an elderly woman dressed in a terrycloth tracksuit and cap who practices badminton by herself every day. She tosses up the birdie and hits it twice or maybe three times in a row before losing it. She’s not very good, but she’s out there trying. Within a few weeks, she began to smile as I waved to her, warming up to me as I lapped her each day. After several months of our understood amity, she broke the silence by flexing a bicep and cheering, “How you run!”
Even with cheerleaders like the Molodets Man and Badminton Lady, I sometimes feel defeated after my runs, no matter how many kilometers I have conquered. I return to my apartment complex, a set of concrete-block chicken coops where laundry airs outside each balcony, where children play in the green patches between the imposing buildings, and where the bathrobed old women and shirtless old men gossip on porch stoops. After a jog, neighbors take in my abnormal athletic gear, shake their heads at my shorts and mutter, “sportswoman” as I cool down. After one particularly demoralizing run, the gaggle of kids who have taken an interest in me (either because I am “The Americanka” or for the Jolly Ranchers I share with them) saw me and trotted over. One of the older girls, the ringleader of this lot, was bursting to tell me that she too is a runner. She proudly informed me that she jogs in the park each Saturday. I beamed at her, hope restored. You go, girl.
Unlike my little neighbor, because of where I come from, I always have (before Ukraine) had it easy as a runner. I’m lucky to have grown up where running does not seem like a luxury. I’m lucky because I have a dad who never told me I shouldn’t run. I’m lucky because I have a mom who never skips a morning run before work. A friend once told me, “Abs, running is a f******g privilege.” I run in my clean New Balance shoes past folks in worn boots, digging through dumpsters. I run by countless smokers because I know that endorphins are better, cheaper stress relievers than nicotine. I run freely by the bus station where newly drafted soldiers heading east hug their brave-faced mothers. I run with strong legs as the crippled beggar sits outside the church. I run to train for a half marathon with fees that are twice the monthly pension in Ukraine. I run privileged.
At the park and on the stadium track, there are more runners than there are on the streets. In the mornings, the coaches and their athletes control the ring. The track-suited, potbellied trainers are old-timers — the oligarchs of the sport. They watch their athletes and click their stopwatches. Their athletes are serious runners, carefully selected and well-groomed. I smile earnestly and try to make eye contact with them, hoping the camaraderie shared by us pavement pounders will override the unwritten Ukrainian rule that one does not smile at strangers. No luck. They sprint by, stone-faced, eyes locked on their trainers.
It’s different in the evenings. As the sun sets and the work day winds down, the less serious joggers emerge. Some wear jeans, while others are in sandals. Some only make it once or twice around at a slow shuffle. Some won’t break a sweat. But they’re there, and the track is buzzing with energy.
Most of them are young. Other than the Badminton Lady and occasional Ski-Pole Walker, I hadn’t witnessed any older athletes. I didn’t expect there to be many — the life expectancy in Ukraine is 71 years (66 for men). So when I saw a group of 30 pensioners lined up military-style, all sporting matching bright orange T-shirts, my jaw dropped. They looked like softer, rounder versions of my dad’s blue-haired gym buddies or the aqua aerobics class retirees at the YMCA. These exercisers listened attentively as their coach, who threateningly smacked a large whip against his hand, paced in front of their line-up and explained proper technique. His troops were complete opposites of most elderly Ukrainians, the fellow scarfed babushkas who scowl at me as they sell produce on the sidewalks.
While this Brigade in Orange may be the exception in the elderly crowd, many young adults have shown an openness or eagerness to run. Some students once caught me mid-run and initially seemed mortified (understandably, because who wants to see their teacher exercising?), but later in class they voiced their approval. One of my Ukrainian friends asked me to teach her how to run. She’ll take my expired pair of running shoes, and we’ll start a couch-to-5K plan this week. I have one student who decided to run the Kyiv Half Marathon last year. She rode the 12-hour overnight train the evening before, arrived the morning of the race, cranked out 13.1 and took the same train back that very night. She showed up for class the next day after a “modified wipe-down shower.” Talk about grit. This generation is different than their parents and grandparents. They are willing to learn something new and foreign. They are open-minded. They are determined.
There is a half marathon and 5K event scheduled for Chernivtsi in two weeks. I was shocked when I heard about it — I have no idea who is organizing it, where it will be run or if anybody will participate. The description of the event is “spreading healthy lifestyle among Ukrainians.” The desire to be healthy and active is here. Currently, there’s little infrastructure to support this desire because Ukraine does not have the time or money to invest in running right now. But anybody who is already a runner knows it’s not about new shoes or smooth sidewalks or sweat-wicking tanks. It’s about willpower and the ability to believe that you can and you will move yourself forward. And that is something that this country does have. Ukraine is a nation that is about to be on the run.