I went for a run on Sao Conrado beach in Rio De Janeiro the other morning. Sao Conrado is down-coast from the more famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, near the edge of the city — and a hell of a long way from my night at the emergency shelter back in the grim old days.
The sun had recently taken its place in the morning sky. The waves rose blue & sky high & pounded mightily into the shore. I’ve never seen waves so tall — a phenomena not lost on the surfers who plied them.
To my left, away from the beach, mountains covered in lush green jungle darted up toward the sky. The mountains are part of the world’s largest urban wildlife preserve. The house where I stayed was nestled in those hillsides, a mile from the beach, up a winding canyon road. At night I would perch on the house’s balcony, the twin peaks of Pedra da Gávea and Pedra Bonita towering above, and marvel at the quiet in the forest that engulfed us; surrounded though we were by one of Earth’s great metropolises.
I’m not much of a runner. I do it whenever I can muster the get up-&-go — but most days, no get up. Not go. And when I do get up, I don’t go far. Oh and I run pretty slow.
Something about my surroundings that morning bid me to pick up the pace. I broke into what amounted at best to a pretty pathetic sprint. It felt good though. I wasn’t giving it my all, maybe, but I gave it more than usual. I ran hard for a few dozen yards, then slowed. But the Voice in my brain would have no part. It screamed. GO!
I ran harder, all the way to the end of the beach, where I paused to take in the scenery. In front of me a majestic cliff crashed into the sea. The waves roared. The sand glistened. The jungle-covered mountains..I was surrounded by an embarrassment of riches, which in that moment felt oddly unsatisfying.
I am a big fan of stunning natural beauty. Yet in the midst of it all, i was overcome by a powerful hankering for some genuine urban grit.
That voice in my head — the one that screamed GO! — wakes me up every morning at daybreak. Sometimes it says something, like “run Mike E, run!” Most days it wakes me silently. I don’t know how it gets my eyes to open. But I know what it wants me to do. Run. Even though I am far more inclined to go to sleep, than wake up, at daybreak. And once awakened more inclined to sit there & not do anything. Wake up and run? You got the wrong guy. I’m the guy who used to stay up all night so I could throw eggs at joggers in the morning!
Yet this voice — despite its relentlessness — it is friendly in tone. Perhaps it wants what’s best for me. One could go so far as to call it a Guide, or an ally. Nevertheless, when it wakes me at daybreak — it feels like my enemy.
It is, for good or ill, an easily disposed of enemy. Most days the voice is readily silenced by a few more hours of sleep. I even smile smugly, sometimes, in a snotty, “can’t make me!” kind of way. But then I feel out of sorts, when I wake up. Like I’m in the wrong place at the right time, already — before I even get out of bed.
I knew I was in the right place at the right time, when I woke up in Rio and saw a streak of dawn’s light in the sky. I don’t wake up in Rio every morning & there are only so many hours in the day. I leaped into my running shoes & bolted a mile downhill to the ocean. Ran to the other end of the beach. And felt out of place in the midst of all that early morning beauty.
Something was missing; something I hankered for wasn’t there.
“Look!” Said the Voice. “Grit.”
My head turned and my eyes rested on the hillside that rose to my left.
I had seen it before, from a distance, at night. The favela, or Brazilian slum, appeared more brightly lit than the affluent Sao Conrado neighborhood it towers above. More vibrant & alive. By day Rocinha was a colorful mis-mash of many thousands of dwellings crammed precariously onto a steep hillside.
My local friends had assured me that the favela was dangerous — somewhere I should not go. I ran toward it as fast as my skinny legs carried me.
It is true that Rocinha is controlled by gangs of machine-gun wielding drug bandits. I saw a different side of the neighborhood, at 7:30 that morning. I ran uphill, against the human current, while thousands of adults & kids walked down on their way to work & school.
Rocinha is bisected by one main road — Estrada Das Gavea — which climbs the hill in a series of steep switchbacks. Most of the favela has no street access; it is reachable by a labyrinth of alleys and stairways. I stuck to the Estrada, on my first visit, running in the street as hundreds of blaring-horn motorcycle taxis — the local’s preferred mode of transport — cranked by.
I didn’t need the voice in my head to make me go — this time I wanted to run. I did slow down, a couple times, figured I deserved a break, but it seemed to take more energy to walk than to run. So I pretty much hauled it the whole way up.
By the time I reached the top, I’d begun to understand what the Voice is all about. It is about what I want ultimately — even when I don’t see it that way. In this case it was about the endorphins — them little doohickies in my brain that reward me for running at dawn. Reward me the old fashioned way — by getting me High. As a loon! With a tremendous view of my new favorite town to boot.
So I did what any self-respecting buzz junkie would do. I grabbed a motorcycle taxi down the hill — like a backwards ski-mountain chairlift — and ran to the top again.