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How an American Expat Maps Route Art to Explore New Countries

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How an American Expat Maps Route Art to Explore New Countries

Every year, Jason Coleman watched the runners go by during Grandma’s Marathon, a popular race in his hometown of Duluth, Minnesota. When he was in seventh grade, he even went out for the cross-country team, thinking he’d start running, too.

“I ran from school to a stump at the corner,” he recalls, “sat down on the stump, waited for them to come back and then never went back.” He wasn’t exactly a runner … yet.

Things are very different now. Coleman now lives 7,200 miles from home in New Delhi, where he is a teacher at an international school. In his spare time, he leads a weekly running group around the city and surrounding countryside. The goal: Explore, see new things and create crazy routes along the way — like his 4-mile giraffe run or his 5-mile squirrel.

Why go the extra mile to be creative? Running is the best way, he explains, to explore all the new places he’s been since he was a kid. And, he adds, “There’s nothing worse to me than an out-and-back.” But Coleman has another motivation for creating one-of-a-kind runs. When he races, he raises money for a YMCA campership endowment back in Minnesota. For every person who donates to his cause, he promises he’ll write a blog post especially for them. But, he admits, it’s hard to come up with something new to write every time. So one way to keep it interesting is instead to run (and post) some weird routes. For instance, “The Kessel Run,” named after a line from “Star Wars,” was shaped like the Millennium Falcon.

“The fact that the roads in Delhi are perfect for drawing this route should be enough,” Coleman wrote in in his blog. “But when you consider that the roads on this route are paired to ‘Star Wars’ connections, it becomes somewhat riddled by the force.” The roads along the route are named Akbar Road and Ashoka, which might sound familiar to die-hard fans. “I’ve built a reputation for crazy runs,” he says.


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A LONG ROUTE TO HERE

Coleman’s transformation from cross-country team dropout to international adventure runner didn’t happen overnight. It started when he saw an opportunity to see the world: Leave New York (where he taught at a high school) for the wide network of international schools across the globe where he could teach the kids of expats, diplomats and traveling businesspeople. The running followed soon after.

When he first moved to South Korea in 2003 to work at such a school, he ran a little, just to get to know his new neighborhood. “I would definitely still have hesitated to call myself a runner,” he admits.

It wasn’t until he next briefly moved to Bangladesh in 2008 to work at another international school that he first got involved with Hash House Harriers, a loose coalition of international social running groups that do “hashes” or “hash runs.” The groups go on wacky runs, following trails created by a leader that include dead ends, false starts, shortcuts and usually a finish at a bar or restaurant. Coleman had found the perfect way to explore all the new places he traveled and lived.

Soon, he was using MapMyRun to find fun routes so he could explore each new city. And there have been dozens. The way he sees it, every run is a chance for an adventure and a memory he can look back on — including going home again. In 2011, he signed up for the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon, part of the Grandma’s Marathon event, back in Minnesota. “I didn’t know if I could even do it,” he recalls. But he did do it, and found another calling.

In that first half-marathon, he committed to raising money for the American Heart Association as part of his entry. But, as he began running other races, he felt a desire to raise money for organizations more personal to him. In 2012, Coleman and his wife lost one of their twin sons shortly after he was born to a congenital heart defect. Before he died, Coleman contacted Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, an organization that connects professional photographers with families who are in hospice care with a sick infant. The photos from that shoot are something Coleman and his wife still treasure. “We were blessed with 15 days and we were blessed with amazing photos to remember,” he wrote in his blog. A year later, he channeled his sadness into raising funds for the organization.

The money he raises can’t bring his son back — nor can it bring back his friend Ty Taylor, who died from routine surgery complications in 2010 and for whom the aforementioned YMCA campership endowment is named. “He inspired my love of adventure,” Coleman wrote in a blog post. But Coleman can raise money to give other people the gifts he has had, and other kids the chance at that camp experience. And he can use his running to keep on adventuring and exploring.

WHERE THE ROAD LEADS

For the eight years Coleman has been in India (regularly returning to Minnesota each summer), running has been a challenging adventure. “Everything’s against you,” he says. “The busy traffic, the inconsistent roads and sidewalks, animals wandering around, sub-par air quality. But it’s just so interesting.”

Fortunately, Coleman has found a group of runners ready to join him on these escapades. The group, mostly teachers at the school, some parents and co-workers, meets on Saturdays. They’ve seen elephants and temples, religious ascetics out walking naked and the historic area of Old Delhi. “We’re always surprised but we’re never surprised,” he says.

He’s also seen the popularity of running explode in India while he’s been there. Now, there are races most weekends and more running groups. When his group of 1012 runs through Old Delhi, it only creates a mild ruckus for bystanders.

Because his goal is to see as much of his adopted town as possible on runs, Coleman likes to plan routes to hit important or historic markers. One of his most popular runs is his annual informal British History Half-Marathon, which stops wherever he wants it to stop (or wherever he happens to get mildly lost), but hits key points like Coronation Memorial Park, Delhi University, Flagstaff Tower, the Mutiny Memorial, the Red Fort, the Kashmiri Gate and the Turkman Gate.

This year, the event included 25 runners, custom-made T-shirts and some historical explanations from Coleman — who is, after all, a teacher.

After nearly a decade in India, Coleman will soon move on to the international school in Ghana with his wife and two kids. He can’t wait to find out what running there is like and to see what he can experience on his adventures.

Written by Kelly O’Mara, a professional triathlete and reporter outside San Francisco, where she is an on-call producer for the local NPR station. Her works appears regularly in espnW, Competitor, Triathlete and California Magazine.

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