WHEN I first moved to The District, It was after my first deployment to Afghanistan which ended in late February of 2013. I was lucky enough to make a friend on that trip who would eventually help me find my first place within the District borders. You see before that trip to Afghanistan I was DC "local" but my residence was Virginia. During that time, I would drive to DC, park religiously around 19th & Florida in NW and run from there. 5, 7 or 10 miles from that corner. I would start at my truck and end back at my truck. I'd make my way to Georgetown, the National Mall and parts of downtown. Looking back, I learned a lot about the city on those runs. I began to understand the "grid" that made up it's design. However, I wasted a lot of those miles. I ran where it felt safe. I ran wear I knew. I had no idea that barely 2 miles away were pathways and roads that would one day remind me of where I grew up in Washington, DC. It would be another 3 years before I ran those roads and I had no idea those would be some of the hardest roads to be away from.
There were a few times I was able to step off my compound I was staying on while in Afghanistan and when I had those moments, I often times thought of a certain race. It happened in April of 2016. I had just recently come off an injury that put me out for a couple months. My girlfriend (at the time) and I had just completed a 10 mile race for the Cherry Blossom festival. Though, this race specifically took place in the back roads and tree lined streets of Rock Creek Park. This race took place on roads, I had not yet explored in The District. These roads, and that race meant more to me than I felt (and thought) at the time.
The roads of Rock Creek Park reminded me of home that day. The road lined with towering green trees, in full bloom on that day in April felt like I was back home in the state of Washington. It's where I grew up and for the most part, the only place that I was comfortable calling home. I was a military kid and then joined the service myself after graduating high school. I bounced around a lot to say the least. Home for me was always hard to feel and for a while it felt like I'd never find it but in the District, I did. When you have more addresses to your name than you can count and you have to use three hands to name all the places you've lived, things can start to feel less like home and more of an extended stay. Even knowing I was going to be Afghanistan for a year, (and perhaps I had some time to get comfortable) it still felt like my location would change before I was ready for it to. The strongest moments of feeling "home" I had during my time there were the occasional runs down the main road and quiet nights on the treadmill. Those were the moments over the past year that felt more like home than anything else.
The backroads, curved hills and winding streets of Rock Creek Park are much different than a dusty, pothole filled road ways and sidewalks that consumed the main running road where I was in Afghanistan. You're given just a mile and a half of solo road to run on. Any further at either end and a "battle buddy" was not suggested, it's required. Rock Creek Park is green, its quiet and feels like Ginko Hill where I grew up losing myself. Running through the woods with no sense of responsibility in sight. Being 11 again, running without a care in the world. No fear of anything. The world was mine. That's how these roads in NW DC make me feel. My high school colors were green and yellow with the offset of grey. When I ran here back in December, I wanted to feel a part of a place that shaped me. It was that school that helped me become who I am. It was those experiences that shaped a young me. RCP, is not just another place in DC to me anymore. Hell, it's not even a place I make it to often. The same could be said about where I grew up. But the good thing about a memory is it's always with you. It doesn't care how often you visit or if you're coming back anytime soon. It stays with you. You own that memory.
There was one evening while in Afghanistan when a couple colleagues joined me on a run before heading in for the late evening shift. We met at the gate before stepping off compound for the 1.5 mile out and 1.5 back. It was the first time in almost 6 months I had run with others. Every run up until then had been solo. This one was special. After we got back, we dipped to our rooms to get cleaned up and decided to meet up and sit down to eat chow before shift. To give you some context, this was for the compound actually dinner time. Though for us, it was breakfast and post workout. Lucky for us. It was "pasta night" and couldn't have been happier. Every runner knows the feeling of a good post run meal. I know I certainly do. Again though, I found myself somewhere else that night. I was crossing that finish line with Diana and heading to one of our favorite spots to get coffee. I wasn't going back to swap running shoes for shower shoes. I was slipping in a nice comfy pair of sweats and laying back down to catch the morning soccer game. It was unavoidable. Every run felt like I was somewhere else.
Maybe that's part of growing up and never feeling like home was "home" for me. There was always something in the back of my mind telling me I'd be somewhere else soon. Though it's not lost on me that every time I was somewhere else in my head, I was always back in DC. The streets of DC in many ways all have so many different meanings to me. Though without compare the most meaningful roads are the roads I've run. You don't forget a single road. The moment you find yourself back there, there is almost this flashback to running those same streets. On that one road in Afghanistan, it was my only place to fully stretch my legs and feel like I was running the hills of Rock Creek Park with my girlfriend. It was my stretch of road for 30 minutes. It was my chance to feel home on the open road.
"Every time I was somewhere else in my head, I was always back in DC."
I don't know Rock Creek Park like the back of my hand. Hell, I still have to use my GPS when I'm driving through it most times. But I do know those roads I ran with Diana. I know those ones like the back of my hand. I can still feel the rain from that day. I can still her face, shivering in the cold and smiling/laughing at me with that annoyed but in love way a partner does towards you. In 100 degree weather in the middle of summer running a 1.5 mile dirty and dusty stretch of road in Afghanistan, I perhaps looked insane to the military members I ran past. How could they know that in my head, I was covered in rain, purposely looking for puddles because why not, right? Rock Creek Park never meant that much to me before I went to Afghanistan. And even after that 5k alongside Diana in the pouring rain, it still didn't mean as much. It was only on the other side of the world did I learn realize the true value of the towering tree lined roads and curves in every direction. In some regards the almost imperfect perfection of the traffic system and roads in every which way, sum up perfectly what the last year in Afghanistan felt like. One day you're working 7am-9pm, two doors later is 6pm-8am with a day to reverse your schedule. Life most of the time their made no sense but a year later, it was clear and worth it. Rock Creek Park is a big part of my life now. I may not get there every day. But every day, I carry a little bit of it and the feeling of home it gives, with me. It's the perfect place to run as far as you want with nowhere to go and nowhere to be. It's the perfect place to go to feel home in DC, again.