Running Into New Friends

I made a pact with myself when school started. I was going to run every day during September. I’ve always been good at daily exercising, but I’ve never had to do it on my own before. It’s a lot easier when you have a team or a gym waiting for you. Hitting up the local soccer stadium where more people are smoking cigarettes than burning up the track is less than inviting. But people are surprisingly friendly there.

I get more than my usual dose of stares from moms pushing newborns in strollers and kids playing cards on the bleachers, but I also have—without fail—been flagged down on the track every single day since I started this little ritual. I’m talking hands-waving-blocking-my-path-flagged-down. Usually, it’s an older man telling me that I’m a woman and shouldn’t be sweating so much. I am not kidding. They are very concerned. However, I have had a couple of more interesting callers. There was the man on a bicycle who questioned my form, (I like to run with my thumb tucked under my pointer finger. I don’t know why, it just feels good to tuck), and another older gentleman who stopped fishing to tell me that it’s better for my health to run in the morning, specifically 6 a.m. I’ll take my chances with evening runs. A sweaty, nervous young man named Oleg ran up from the bleachers one day and stated in English “Stop, please, You are an American, yes?” He wanted information on the English Club. And, finally, there was Oksana, my favorite flag-down to date.

In belabored English she told me to come to the school gym. “Now?” I asked. “Now,” she answered as she took my arm and led me off the track. I was halfway through my workout and stopping mid-stride left me breathing heavily and dripping sweat all over her. She released my arm. “This way,” she said. “Gym. Monday, Wednesday, Friday. 25 hryvnia. All month.” With my interest growing, I asked her what we would be doing. “I lived in New York. Two years,” she said beaming. “I lived in USA.” I congratulated her, and repeated my question. “One hour,” she said. “People come,” then stopping for emphasis, she said “Women. Women come.”

We made it upstairs to a small room with wooden floors and mirrors on one side. She removed a workout mat and 4 lb weights from her bag. “Next time,” she said. “You bring.” She looked at her watch. “6 o’clock,” she said shaking her head. “Ukraine.” For the next ten minutes I couldn’t really understand her. She angrily made calls on her cell phone and often hung up mid-sentence. Finally, two women came in the door. “Aha” she said judgmentally, and we started.

With music blasting over a crackling radio, four women embarked on an aerobics class of sorts. To be fair, I’ve never been to an aerobics class in the states. So perhaps my presence there would feel as foreign as mine did here. But I respectfully doubt that. We started with a simple warm-up of stepping and arm-circles, this quickly escalated into something resembling kick-boxing, and the next thing I know I’m being handed a large wooden stick. This is where the workout gets a little more, well let’s say provocative. After doing untold things to the stick, we picked up makeshift weights in the form of Sprite bottles filled with sand. Enter Tae-Bo. Right hook, left hook, kick! Repeat. We continued this pattern with few variations for about five minutes. Then she pulled out her mat. The other women had towels. I had my Ipod. I run light. Oksana frowned and laid her jacket on the floor beside me. I really think I would have been better off just straight-up on the floor. The jacket was quite slippery. And the zipper hurt. But Ukrainians have this thing about not ever, ever, sitting on the bare ground.

The same goes for not having open windows. Fear of the draft and cold surfaces is stronger than a fear of fire or heights here. So I slipped and slid all over the place as I attempted to honor the culture and keep pace with the class. It was a constant struggle. While holding poses and pulsing our abs, Oksana would ask questions in English. “What does my shirt say?” she asked. “I love making waves,” I read with amusement in between reps. After an hour, this combination workout-English lesson came to an end, and I was exhausted.

I wonder who will flag me down tomorrow.

About Claire St. Amant

Claire St. Amant, one of Editor & Publisher's Top 25 Under 35 in the newspaper industry, is a graduate of Baylor University. Claire was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine and has also lived in South America. She has written for a variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the Houston Chronicle, and D Magazine.