Nirvana on Barefoot Beach

started mapping out various running routes during exploratory walks through Lisbon, intent on checking Portugal off my “ran there” country list and composing a delightful piece for public consumption. Upon returning to the guesthouse though, I dug into my bag looking for my trusty Nike Frees and quickly discovered I had left them in Columbus. At that moment, I remember feeling like Kevin McCallister’s mom in Home Alone when she figured out she left Kevin at home… alone. Nikes!

I know what you’re thinking: Mike, don’t you get paid to remember your running shoes? What can I say; I’m a scatter-brained suitcase packer.

On the fourth day of vacation, moving from Lisbon to the perfect hilly terrain in the fairytale land of castle-strewn Sintra, I really started feeling major vacation sludge — which is sort of like when your car needs an oil change and, similar to viscosity breakdown, a physiological failure occurs when you eat too many meats and cheeses, awash in a sea of port wine.

The next day the Portuguese adventure led to Comporta, a beach village at the base of the Tróia Peninsula two hours south of Sintra. By this time, I had conceded the fact that there’d be no running on the trip. I ate my guilty feelings, gorging on more custard pastries while thinking, “What will the editors of Fit Columbus say?” and “Maybe I can tell them a Portuguese gang robbed me of my shoes.”

Just when I thought the hope of a running story had completely dissipated, Portugal revealed an opportunity. No, a Portuguese gang didn’t chase me down the street, but just southeast of Comporta village, in the low swamps over a swath of rice fields, through a bamboo grove hiding endless rolling sand dunes, there exists an unadulterated tract (or track) of stunning empty beach.

Nikes be damned, I could barely remove the boat shoes fast enough as I immediately started running barefoot down the beach. It was awkward footing at first, like if a toddler signed up for a 5k after its first few wobbly steps; inland, the sand was too fine, and it was much too mucky down by the water. But in a half-mile, my gait adapted and I started trucking along.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve run on a beach in a very Top Gun, slow-mo, volleyball-montage sort of way, but REALLY running on the beach is one hell of a workout.

Well, I say my gait adapted, but I’m sure I looked pretty ridiculous plodding along on a beach for the first time in my life. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve run on a beach in a very Top Gun, slow-mo, volleyball-montage sort of way, but REALLY running on the beach is one hell of a workout.

While my leg muscles whined against a new realm of running, I had an eerie realization: there was no one else around except for my partner in crime, whom I had left behind to guard our beach towels.  Aside from a few seabirds flying overhead and an inaudible fishing boat way off the coast, there was nothing.

Most runners I know have a favorite route, a place of Zen where being active in a familiar space or a new illuminating environment can be transcendent (though this sort of reaction is most likely due to runner’s high, or eating the wrong type of mushroom). My favorite places to run—Japan, or along the Olentangy Trail in October with the autumnal color change—were quickly overtaken by the serenity of coastal Portugal.

There were no houses, hotels or buildings of any sort, nor cell phone towers, nor brake lights flashing, no bumper-to-bumper, eye-twitchingly inexplicable 315 traffic, no work emails, no stress – just relaxing solitude next to the crystalline blue infinity.

For a few miles it was just my breathing, the intoxicating sounds of the waves crashing at my sandy feet, the ground loosening then hardening—ebb and flow—with the thin charge and retreat of the water reflecting bright blue Mediterranean sky.

And this is why I run, the nirvana moments, the ultimate sense of place and freedom, barefoot, in Comporta.