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Run, Don't Walk

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 27, 2010; 12:20 PM

Early on Sunday morning, the streets of Memphis were desolate as my running group jogged to the Lorraine Motel.

I was too busy catching my breath and tying my shoelaces to notice the place until our guide, John Lintner, pointed it out. On April 4, 1968, in that building across the lawn, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot while standing on the balcony outside Room 306, John informed us. I caught my breath again - this time in awe.

We had the infamous sight all to ourselves, and we lingered for a few minutes to absorb it. The former motel now houses the National Civil Rights Museum. A vintage white Cadillac and Dodge Royal similar to the ones King was to use that evening were parked just where the actual ones had stood. A wreath marked the spot where the great civil rights leader was standing when he was fatally wounded. Amazing.

We resumed running for another 15 minutes as John pointed out landmarks along the way (the Arcade Restaurant, Memphis's oldest eating establishment, for one).

"And here," he said as we arrived at our next stop, "is the mighty Mississippi."

We were on the Mississippi River bluffs. To our right was the Interstate 40 bridge to Arkansas, the "New Bridge," with its spectacular arch. To our left was the I-55 bridge, the "Old Bridge," looking dilapidated enough to live up to its nickname. And right in front of us was the massive river that has inspired many a song and story. Its waters glinting in the morning light, it offered a spectacular view. And to think that I might have missed this moment.

I could easily have spent the morning on a treadmill at my hotel. That's what I used to do for exercise whenever I traveled. But a couple of years ago, I realized what I was missing. Why waste my time in a hotel gym when I could run outdoors and see the city I was in?

Sightseeing on the run - call it sightrunning or sightjogging - has become a popular way for travelers to tour a city while staying in shape. Ask any hotel desk clerk where to run, and chances are, he or she will have a map ready to hand you. (When I stayed at the new Fairmont in Boston, it even supplied joggers with bottled water and towels.) Some hotels, such as the Palomar in Chicago and several Westins, have running concierges who take guests out for a jog around town. And the James Chicago Hotel recently partnered with City Running Tours to offer guests 4 1/4-mile guided runs.

"It's a unique way to see the city," said Michael Gazaleh, founder of City Running Tours, which also operates in Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York, Washington and Charleston, S.C. "There are roads we can get to that bus tours can't, and longer distances we can do that walking tours can't."

Founded in 2005, City Running Tours led 400 people on 200 runs last year. Similar companies have sprung up in such cities as Seattle and in several countries. Most take you past historic landmarks or let you customize a tour. Some also cater to niche markets. Off 'N Running Tours in Los Angeles, for instance, has a "Running From the Paparazzi" tour through Beverly Hills and Hollywood for people who want to spot celebrities. (A recent group was obsessed with "Beverly Hills, 90210." Jason Priestly, where are you?)

My own love of sightrunning was born about three years ago, when I was traveling frequently with an avid runner. Running became a given wherever we went, from the Northeast to the Middle East.

We'd run eight miles through Manhattan's Central Park - from Midtown, around the reservoir, up through Harlem. We'd run six miles along the Corniche in Beirut, passing a spectacular mosque, the statue of slain former prime minister Rafik Hariri and the city's most upscale shopping area. We'd run five miles around Oyster Bay, Long Island, from the fishing piers to Teddy Roosevelt's summer White House.

At first, I cursed him. I thought running was the antithesis of what a vacation should be. All I wanted to do was sleep, eat and relax. But gradually I came to recognize the value in what we were doing. Not only were we making up for all the extra eating we did on vacation, but we were getting to know each city or town in a way we never would if we were walking or in a car. And believe it or not, it was actually relaxing.

***

I'd been to Memphis once before, but only for about six hours, enough time to take in Graceland and stroll down Beale Street. Now I wanted to see more of the city, and I wanted to see it while running. I decided to try both mapping out my own run on a Web site such as MapMyRun.com or WalkJogRun.net and taking a couple of guided running tours.

Rockin' Running Tours is a relatively new company started by John and Crissy Lintner, Memphians by way of Mississippi. John's running prowess puts mine to shame. He runs four to six miles every weekday and nine to 10 miles on Saturdays and Sundays. "Every day is kind of a good day for a run, the way I see it," he said. (I kind of think every other day is a good day for a run, but I admired his enthusiasm.)

John and Crissy started the company in March because they wanted to dispel the myth that Memphians aren't physically fit. "People think of Memphis as one of the unhealthiest cities," John said. "I wanted to bring something active here."

While not begrudging tourists their barbecue, John takes the willing and able on three- to six-mile runs, offering a downtown tour, a midtown tour or a customized tour.

I started with the midtown tour. To beat the heat, I met John at 7 a.m. at the Breakaway Running store, where he works.

The two of us jogged through the Central Gardens National Historic District, built from 1900 to 1930. Most of the houses are four-square or bungalows, more Oak Park, Ill., than Memphis, I thought. We ran very slowly so that John could describe what we were seeing and I could ask questions.

At the Cooper-Young historic district, home to musicians, artists and hippies, we stopped briefly to take a photo of the Trestle Art Gateway over Cooper Street, an abandoned railway overpass turned into a permanent lighted art fixture.

Thanks to John, I learned that Cooper-Young is also home to the former Galloway United Methodist Church, where Johnny Cash gave his first public concert. The building now houses a nondenominational church and a music arts college. I slowed down to take in the fact that one of my favorite singers had started his career in the building I was sweating in front of.

About a mile later, we entered the 343-acre Overton Park, where we saw the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the Memphis Zoo, the Memphis College of Art and the Old Forest Arboretum. We stopped at Levitt Shell, another musical landmark I never would have found on my own. It was the ampitheater where Elvis Presley gave his first paid concert on July 30, 1954. I stood on the white stage, Elvis's "Can't Help Falling in Love" playing in my head.

A few blocks later, John pointed out the H Tone, a venue popular with local musicians. Then we ran past the Bar-B-Q Shop, an off-the-beaten-track joint that John said had the best barbecue in town. I grabbed a menu and stuffed it in my sports bra for later reference.

We ran past the Gothic-style Idlewild Presbyterian Church, which John, a devout Christian ever since he overcame a drug problem, told me runs a much-needed program for homeless people. This was definitely a side of Memphis that few tourists would see.

"Congrats, you made it," John said after 90 minutes and six miles, presenting me with a red Rockin' Running T-shirt and a banana. Surprisingly, I felt as though I could have kept running.

***

Next I tried the downtown tour. Waking up to run six miles at 6:45 a.m. was tough after a night of listening to the blues on Beale Street, but I was eager to see more of Memphis. This time, John and I had company: Patrick McLaughlin of Atlanta and his just-moved-to-Memphis friend, Sarah Stoneking.

We stretched for a few minutes outside my hotel before taking off at a slow, steady pace. We ran past the famous Peabody Hotel and Sun Studio, where Elvis recorded his first record.

John pointed out some more obscure places, such as the Victorian Village, where the James Lee House, home of a wealthy riverboat owner, is located. "From its fourth floor, you can see all the way to the Mississippi River," John said.

We ran through the Cotton Row Historic District, where cotton dealers once had their offices (by the 1940s, Memphis was the country's largest cotton market), then along Beale Street and the detritus of the previous night's revelry. We swooped past the Orpheum Theatre, which had been built in 1890 as the Grand Opera House and then burned down during a striptease by a woman named Blossom Seeley. (It was rebuilt in 1928, John said. His memory was certainly impressive.) About a mile later, we ran past the Hotel Chisca, where Elvis's music was first broadcast from Memphis on July 7, 1954. It was empty and run-down.

"Are you a history buff?" Patrick asked John.

"My running made me one," our guide replied.

***

On my final day in town, I tried one more run, this time on my own. I logged on to MapMyRun.com and found a route along the Mississippi River toward the Old Bridge. I saw some interesting places: the Memphis Queen riverboats, a sign marking James Audubon's arrival by flatboat nearby and Martyrs Park, commemorating those who died in a yellow fever epidemic in 1878.

But I missed John. Without his narration, I couldn't make it past mile three.

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