Running Tours: My Turn-Running Point!
by Andréa Sousa Dantas, Founder at RunRun Tours
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Who am I?
In August 2012 I moved to Paris to pursue a four-year PhD in International Relations at Sciences Po. I knew no one in town, absolutely no one. For the first months, I dare to say for the first year there, I felt awkward and unwelcome in my new school. I used to be kind of a popular person in my hometown, and in Paris, I simply couldn’t make sense of the new (and intricate) social codes. I came from a different academic background – most of my academic formation was in tourism – and my schoolmates used to give me side-glances, as they were wondering what the hell I was doing there in that prestigious school without any previous knowledge on International Relations. I was also much older than my colleagues, most of them having barely finished their graduation, which wasn’t of any help. I had completed my Master’s degree ages ago and had been working as a professor since 2004. Only then I had the chance to take four sabbatical years from my job in order to progress further in my academic career and thus increase my salary. I was viewed as an old “Madame” and a foreigner, and that was exactly how I felt then. I hated my life in Paris and felt miserable all the time.
How did I manage to overcome the hardship of moving into a foreign country and foreign culture and feeling good with myself and with my life again? The answer is simple: through running. Again. I know it’s a cliché, but maybe it’s a cliché because it’s so true. Let me tell you why and how.
How I detected my running passion
I thought I was making new friends at the doctoral school, but it just didn’t happen. People thought I was weird. Actually, the weirdness and social inadequacy is something that has accompanied me for very long, since my school and high school years. Despite the fact that I’m a social person (although I’m also shy and quiet) and come from a loving family, I never really fit into a specific group. The only area where I used to stand out was in sports. In high school, I used to play basketball, despite my short height, and I was an okay player. Almost all my friends were made through basketball. I kept playing ball in college until 2004 when I got a severe injury in my knee, and I had to give up basketball forever.
During my basketball times, running, when not related to the game, was the most annoying part of the training. I couldn’t understand track & field athletes or marathoners: They ran for what? To get where? Running had no sense to me then. However, during my Master of Tourism in the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, in the Canary Islands, in Spain, back to 2000, I started running to lose weight (I gained about 10 kg in one year living in Spain) and to complement my scarce basketball training. When I came back to Brazil in 2001, I had already decided to start running “seriously”. By “seriously” I meant three times a week, from 8 to 10 km on the treadmill only. At that time I signed up at a gym for the first time in my life and also started to attend swimming classes in the 15-meters pool they had there about three times a week.
Therefore, when I had a ligament rupture playing basketball in 2004 and could do no longer lateral movements because I decided not to make the surgery, I decided to keep swimming and running. Running, after all, only required me to move forward, not sideward. It was the first decisive moment for me. Running became an important part of my life. Although I kept running mostly on the treadmill, I became a reasonable runner and took part in my first road competitions. In 2005 I participated in my first swim-run competition and was women’s second place. I ran my first half-marathon in 2008 in my hometown, Natal, and started to take part in every 10 to 12K races they organized. At that time, the racing calendar was very limited; we only had about five races a year, and I was dreaming of making my first marathon in Berlin (it wasn’t there, it was in Paris in 2013!). I quickly became addict to running, especially because my job as a professor is so sedentary, and I used to spend so many hours seated in front of my computer, that I really need to burn the cumulated energy in the way that only running can do. I started to run almost every day, everywhere I went. For instance, in 2006 I went to a two-month winter stay in Leipzig for learning German. I used to run one every two days in the woods by my place there. Even when temperatures were minus fifteen degrees. I became famous among my Brazilian colleagues for this deed. For a Brazilian girl coming from one of the warmest regions and having her first experience ever with snow, that’s really outstanding, to say the least!
My very first official running competition was a swim-run on November 28, 2004. At that time, I had way more confidence in my swimming skills
Running prevented me from giving up
What’s the relation with that to my problem of not adjusting to my life in Paris and feeling absolutely defeated there? Everything! Through running I had years ago overcome the frustration of not being able to play basketball ever again in my life and had found a new motivating and anti-depressing activity. So I decided to use this remedy for this other challenging moment in my life. I was seriously regretting having moved to Paris and was feeling so frustrated again because it was a big dream of mine to live in that fairy-tale city. I was bitterly disappointed so far and had to do something to change that. For failure was not an option. I had obtained with much difficulty a four-year leave from my job and a scholarship, a lot of people trusted me back home. I couldn’t just come back telling them I had simply given up. This recognition put a lot of pressure on me. The reason I had decided to go to Paris apart from all the obvious attractions of living in such a beautiful and exciting city, was to prove myself that I could thrive in a more competitive environment than the one of my small town and my brilliant, but also small university. Could I play well in one of the top four worldwide ranked universities in International Relations? The answer seemed a big “NO” so far.
“No choice but to endure”, my mom told me by phone in one of the nights I called my parents, feeling completely devastated. I had just moved from a horrible guest room at a rude lady's in the second district of Paris to a new studio on my own. This studio was located in one of my favorite places in Paris: the Boulevard Saint-Germain, in the sixth district, in the core of Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood. Several schoolmates, when they heard that I was moving to Saint-Germain, told me it was too “bourgeois” (in French terms, snooty and ridiculous). “Not the real Paris at all”, they warned me. I thought it was a sign of luck. During my first visit ever to Paris in 2006 as a tourist, when I fell in love with this city and told myself that one day I would come back to live there, I found Saint-Germain and the boulevard Saint-Germain the most lovely places in town. And now my dream had come true (one little piece of it, at least!). I was living on the sixth floor without lift in a 25 square-meter apartment on top of a Haussmanian and “bourgeois” building, but in downtown, only ten minutes away by foot from my school and with a full view to Paris roofs.
Everything changed with one announcement...
A running group changed my life
I was still lonely, though. Still had no friends, was still feeling miserable and finding my Parisian life extremely harsh in general. I was already running regularly in the streets, but was completely alone, and was dying to find a running group in order to make new friends. The thing is, I found a nice gym just a few blocks away from my studio. I thought I could make new friends there, and I was right. I signed up and, in my first or second week there, a saw an add on the gym wall inviting for a new running group activity. I was thrilled! That was the second turning point in my life related to running. Not only I could make new friends through this running group, whom I consider today part of my family, as I also met my boyfriend and actual partner (both in life and in business). I also started to appreciate Paris for the first time, especially because we started to take part as a group in every race competition they organized in Paris and surroundings. French people are crazy about running, and that’s one of the reasons I love so much this country! I quickly found out that every race in Paris and in France in general gathers a huge audience to cheer up the runners, even if it’s a trail running in the mountains in winter time and all night long (I’m thinking of the Saintélyon race, an ultra-marathon in the mountains from the city of Saint-Etienne to Lyon that I ran three times. So far). Awesome! I started to go to parties and was invited to friends’. Most of all, I got confidence in myself and I did brilliantly in my studies: from my class of ten students of Master 2, I was one of the only two selected to move to the actual PhD level (the doctorate path comprises usually five-year studies, two of them on Master’s degree level, M1 and M2, and three of them on the actual PhD level, if the student achieves to defend successfully a research work at the end of M2, obtaining a minimum grade of 16 out of 20).
I've been running every year Paris Marathon with my friends since 2013 (photo taken in April 2016)
So I was feeling good to myself again. My dream, however, was coming to an end: I was supposed to leave Paris at the end of 2016, just after the completion and defense of my dissertation thesis, in order to take back my professional activities at my home university in Natal. By that time, running wasn’t only an important activity in my lifestyle. It became my whole lifestyle. I had had this idea of taking people on tours while running a couple of years before. It was during a training session in a running group around 2013 or 2014. I used to admire all of the beautiful monuments we passed by—all of them very sought after by tourists. I also noticed that very few of my running mates—most of whom were Parisians—knew very little about them, while I had already visited them several times before moving to Paris and knew their history reasonably well. (Well, better than my running mates, at least.)
I turned my hobby into a career
Considering my academic background in tourism and my passion for running, I said to myself: “How lovely it would be to give guided tours of Paris while running!” I thought I’d had a really original and innovative idea, so I was very surprised when I later found out that other people have already been doing that since the mid-2000s! The first running tour companies were founded in Germany and Italy around 2004, and it was also a very popular way of sightseeing in the United States. Despite that, the concept is still quite recent and remains relatively unknown to the broad public; however, it has been growing quickly in the last few years thanks to the increase of people who practice jogging as well as the participation in international marathons. There is even a worldwide running tour association, RunningTours.Net, that assembles around 200 running tour guides and companies around the world.
I can say that this was the third turn-running point in my life, and this was a big one. By the end of 2016, I gave birth to two babies: my PhD dissertation and my own running tours company, RunRun Tours. On the opposite side of commuting running, a running tour offers to all people who, just like me, cannot do without the pleasure of running even on vacations, to keep their training routine while covering a lot of monuments of the city of region they’re visiting in only one or two hours on average. I mean, how long would you spend on a 6 km route to see as many as twenty famous monuments, at least from the Notre-Dame cathedral as long as to the Eiffel Tower? (If you’re familiar with Paris, this route of our Sunrise Run & Sightsee Paris running tour comprises roughly 6 km long). From three to four hours? In one hour to one hour thirty, depending on your running pace and including all the complimentary pauses we make for pictures and refreshments, you can see and listen to stories about all those monuments without even noticing time passing by.
My partner Hamidou and I guiding our signature running tours "Sunrise Run & Sightsee" (10 km)
What I love about running tours
As odd as it may seem to someone to sightsee a city while running, I can tell that we can cover a wider range of landmarks than a walking tour, while spending much more calories that we shall regain after all the workout tasting the delicious French gastronomy (croissants, cheese, wine, macarons, chocolate, you name it!). We can cover as many monuments as a bus tour, with the advantage that by sight-running we’re being active and we’re not contributing to polluting the already so-polluted atmosphere of big cities, Paris included. We do not have to ride among the heavy vehicles traffic, as we have to do while on a bike tour. We also have the same amount of in-depth stories and fun facts as in other tours, for what do we runners do the most when we’re outdoors running in a group? We chat, we exchange information all the time while we’re jogging. It’s that kind of atmosphere we find most of the times on our running tours that I simply love! It’s amazing how our guests interact with us and with each other even without previous knowledge. We use to share everything: from historical facts and impressions about Paris to our favorite competitions, training tips and last races scores. There’s no most memorable souvenir for a runner who’s visiting a new city to jog its streets and monuments with other running mates, sharing a common passion that literally moves the world! It’s an absolutely fascinating job, so rewarding even on those days when it’s raining and you don’t want to get out of bed. Then you do because you have clients waiting for you; and after the tour, you feel that you made your day!
Everyone can join a running tour
At first, I thought that only keen runners, who maybe wouldn’t’ want to pull up their (half-) marathon training perhaps, would have any interest to run with us. For we organize everything for our guests, from the best runnable route full of interesting sights to see, to the still water they drink on route; all that he or she has to do is to show up with appropriate running gear and get ready to jog at a relaxed pace, while listening to all sorts of stories about Paris. We couldn’t be more wrong. We started to receive more and more questions about the running pace of our tours, for several of our potential guests were afraid of running in a group because they considered themselves just beginners. The very first client I had told me he was more of a swimmer than a jogger, and that he barely ran at all. Nevertheless, he decided to give it a go and had to train some running home before joining the tour, for he was afraid of not making it until the end. Other guests had told me the exact same thing, like one guy we had from India, who signed up very in advance and trained home with the goal of finishing our 6 K route. Some others request a bespoke running tour for they’re afraid of getting tired trying to follow our pace, or worst, to slow down the group.
The only rule to follow on a running tour is to have fun! Either in a group run...or in a customized, tailor-made running tour
Interestingly, those same people are often in better shape after the running tour than some marathoners boasting their personal records! I love when I surprise my guests by telling them that they just finished 10 or 12 kilometers if it’s a distance they’ve never run before. They’re so happy when they hear that, and that’s maybe the thing I love the most on my job as a running guide. We running guides try our very best to entertain our customers all along the route, so they aren’t as conscious of the fact that they are actually running, just having fun and discovering new places. When we do our job well, people may be able to run miles and miles without even noticing it. Whenever that happens, it a big win for us! I also tell my guests that we take some pauses for pictures and refreshments and that it’s important to catch their breath, especially if they’re not regular joggers. People are usually much more relaxed when they hear that.
We're well known for providing fun and unusual pictures on our tours. This signature picture of ours is the most requested one. You can't say you have visited Paris if you don't take this photo ;)
Obviously, sometimes weather conditions do not cooperate, or our guests haven't slept well the night before, or they walked too much the previous day. These circumstances sometimes force people to quit the running tour in the middle of the route. I always come prepared for this kind of situation with a metro ticket and instructions so that they can get back home safely. I also use the strategy of taking a long pause, roughly in the middle of the route where the important landmarks have already been seen. This is so that those feeling too tired can go home with the feeling that they have accomplished the essentials, even in a shorter distance.
Another fun fact that moves me a lot, is the solidarity between the more advanced runners towards the beginners. On our way back we started to use the strategy of splitting the groups, for so the faster runners would do their workout and waited for us at a meeting point or came back to search for the slower joggers. It always works great and fosters solidarity among our running guests. In several occasions the fast ones slow down their pace to keep up with the slower joggers to chat; sometimes, the former even help me cheering up the group, encouraging everyone to make it to the finish line.
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My future prospects
What’s next to RunRun Tours and to this whole new market of fun and non-competitive kind or “tourist run”? I’m still taking my time to figure out my next steps, looking for what it works and what it doesn’t. It’s a niche with a high potential of growth, so I think (and hope), for running moves more and more people around the world into a non-competitive and more socializing basis than before. Most of us take part in running races for the pleasure of it, for the mental and body cleaning this sport – perhaps the easiest, the most natural, the most affordable one – brings to us and to our lives, and not for winning anything! I hope that more and more runners around the world become aware of this new and exciting way of visiting and rediscovering a city (and Paris!). Right now I’m writing those words back in Brazil. I’m teaching again – had to retake the job that pays me the bigger check – but RunRun Tours is still fully working in this magical place called Paris, with the most amazing guides and friends who believe in me and in my idea. About twice or three times a year you can also meet me there, hosting running tours with a joy I can’t find in any other kind of job. It’s important for me to follow my dreams, and I’m perseverant; like only a girl who loves running long distances can be.