I am struggling to locate my favorite place in Ann Arbor. Perhaps this is because the whole city is my favorite place, its ins and outs, late night pizza places and sticky booths in diners and ancient movie theatres and snowy streets. Perhaps this is because it is easier to associate physical places with times of more specific heartbreak, instead of the thousands of times I am lucky to have felt content here. I sometimes think my favorite place in Ann Arbor is the dining hall in East Quad where I met my best friend, the lecture hall where I met my boyfriend, the yoga studio I go to leave my doubts, surreptitious study spots I won’t mention for fear they will become less secret, newsrooms on Maynard, wooden benches in the drama building, restaurants on Detroit Street. But these places are favorites not because of the spaces they occupy specifically, but because of the people, memories and moments I attribute to them.
To think of my true favorite place in Ann Arbor, I head toward a semblance of something solitary. I love to be overwhelmed with socialization, with human contact, with friends old and new, this bubbly and bright outgoing city never runs low on energy, but this is an Ann Arbor that is in reach, it is an Ann Arbor that is easy, it is the Ann Arbor I know and love. But the reason I fell in love with our city was not for the clatter and the whirlwind, but for the places in which I can find fragmented moments of silence. A place to rest my mind, a place where I can be utterly alone in my thoughts. I think of places that are soundless, confidential and exclusive. I think of places I can revel in the beauty and the sentimentality of this town, without distractions, without the hustle and bustle of a busy college campus. These places are rare and in short supply around us, with a campus crawling with students, education professionals and townies. I believe I’ve managed to discover the best of all.
People always ask me how I managed to train for a marathon in Ann Arbor — a city that most people imagine can’t be interesting or thrilling for 10 mile runs, let alone 18 or 20 mile runs. But for me, every run in Ann Arbor is as present and new as morning. My favorite place in Ann Arbor is a place where I can run.
On mile 16 of a twenty-mile workout, I find myself in Nichols Arboretum, a place that takes me out of this pulsing, bright college city and onto a trail. Lush greens grow around me, spilling onto the edges of the earth and twisting up the trunks of trees. My tired feet pad along a dirt path one after another, a constant. This is my favorite noise. Normally, as I venture down the Arb’s first downward hill, I pause my music, giving my ears the gift of nothing but my sneakered feet against dirt and soil. This is my favorite sound of all. Everything about the headspace this running sanctuary creates for me can completely alter my mood, turn a bad day into a spectacular one, push me toward moments of serendipity in the mundane and provide the well-needed break I so often crave in a city that never seems to stop. Ann Arbor is a runner’s city and I know all runners will agree. Despite the fact that many of us don’t leave campus much, I have a lot of pride in knowing I’ve traversed every inch of our Midwestern college town on foot. During my marathon training, I found home in Gallup Park’s shaded concrete sidewalks, and I picked up the pace to the sounds of rushing water to my left. I ran into people I didn’t know, running the opposite direction, and we’d always smile and wave — the runner’s nod, in solidarity with one another, we both get it. I found myself getting lost in suburban pockets on the edge of town, admiring homes and appreciating unexpected downward slopes. As the sun came up, I ran around the Big House once, twice, three times, watching as the sun reflected golden against bright maize columns as autumn came to a close. I flew down E. Liberty as breakfast places opened early on Sunday mornings, the air smelling of crisped bacon, warm maple syrup and mugs of coffee. I jogged down the narrow road of Kerrytown on Saturdays, watching students groggily saunter down the roads. I ran through an empty Diag, and then an hour and a half and twelve miles later, a Diag bursting with life. I wrote poems in my head as I ran down Main Street while businesses came to life, time passing faster than ever. In months that felt like weeks, these special running spaces propelled me to a start line I’d never imagined making it to. And alone in my race, as I ran 26.2 miles through Detroit and Canada, thousands of people cheering me on. I held the memories of my solo adventures in Ann Arbor’s runner’s oasis by my side.
When I made it to the finish line I had so many people to thank, so much support around me. My mother called me crying, my brother jumped up and down, reminding me how much I needed them to make it to the finish line of my first marathon. But the biggest thanks of all I owed to the roads that led me there, the roads I’ve run every day for three years and yet, in their intricacy and beauty, manage to show me something new every day. The roads of Ann Arbor, their stories and their memories, their tradition and their kindness, always there for me — awaiting me to need a break, need solace, need to lace up my sneakers and run.