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An Ode To City Running

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BOSTON - APRIL 19:  Participants walk down Boylston Street after finishing during the 114th Boston Marathon on April 19, 2010 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
BOSTON - APRIL 19: Participants walk down Boylston Street after finishing during the 114th Boston Marathon on April 19, 2010 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
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This is a guest column from WEEI's Paul Flannery. -- TZ

In my young and callow days, I would take my runs through the streets of Philadelphia blasting a soundtrack consisting mainly of SST and Dischord favorites. It was the perfect accompaniment as I zigzagged through the city blocks, rushing through intersections to Black Flag's "Rise Above" and dodging dullard tourists along Walnut St. with Fugazi's "Merchandise" ringing through my headphones.

A punk rock running stance was required in Philly where people are just another obstacle in what is essentially a driving city. As a disaffected late 20-something, it fit me just fine.

City running is at once a fantasy adventure and an exercise in unexpected annoyances. One minute you're Barry Sanders, cutting on a dime around a pack of Samanthas sipping lattes through a straw, and using a parking meter as a lead blocker. The next, you're tripping over loose cobblestone and trying to avoid an open basement grate and the guy delivering kegs at the Khyber.

I'm older now. My knees hurt and my taste for excitement has been replaced with a simple mantra of "form and focus," that gets decidedly more difficult to follow when confronted with moving scenery. I've ditched the headphones too, preferring the hour or so of total quiet.

Part of that is a change in address. In Cambridge where I now live, pedestrians have the right of way. This sometimes manifests itself in a mistaken belief that they possess an invisible force shield to ward off drivers, bikers and the unforgiving 1 bus, but is generally a good thing. The one rule everyone must follow is to move quickly. If, by some chance, you happen to walk into me while playing Angry Birds on your phone, I reserve the right to knock you on your ass and even in this city of peace, love and understanding, no jury would deprive me of that privilege.

For the most part, however, my city running is confined to a mile and a half loop from my apartment to the Charles River. Everyone runs, bikes or blades along the Charles for a very good reason. It's perfect. The Charles splits Cambridge and Boston and has both a paved two-lane sidewalk, as well as a well-trod dirt path that expands in places and narrows in others providing a much-needed respite for my battered knees.

I recognize a handful of regulars on my runs and on a warmish winter weekday, the path will be filled with people training for the Marathon in April, taking advantage of the unseasonal temperatures to get in a workout before the snow, slush and ice return. On the weekend it's crowded, but still has ample room to maneuver.

The views along the Charles are also sensational. A personal favorite is the midway point on the Harvard Bridge that connects Cambridge and Boston via Massachusetts Ave.

The city of Boston gleams from the golden dome of the State House to the Citgo sign marking Fenway Park's home in Kenmore Square with the Hancock and Pru standing sentry. (It is also possible to hear a roar from Fenway on a summer evening.) Red Line trains emerge from underground to rumble slowly over the salt and pepper bridge, while the Zakim hangs majestically in the background of the Science Museum marking the city's horizon. On clear days, sailboats will dot the blue waters.

The length of the bridge is measured into something called "Smoots," which are equivalent to the height one Oliver Smoot, who was measured for an MIT fraternity prank in 1958. The length of the bridge is 364.4 Smoots, plus one ear. (It's MIT, you accept equal parts weird with brilliant.)

The bridges are what make running the Charles such an easy and varied experience. Want to do a short, 5-mile loop from door to door? Simple. That's three bridges from Harvard Square and cross on River St. For longer runs, there's Mass Ave., the Longfellow or the museum walkway. Marathon Sports, the fantastic Boston-based running store, has free river maps outlining the distances from bridge to bridge at their stores and are also available as a pdf online.

There are other runs throughout Boston, but I've frankly never had much interest in them. The Charles provides everything I could ever need in a city running experience. The only hard part is steeling myself for the inevitable return through Harvard Square where I must dodge a collection of self-absorbed students, oblivious shoppers, social activists and a phalanx of panhandlers, buskers and performance artists.

Sometimes I pull out my old moves but ultimately, they remind me why I chose to stay in the city long after most of my friends left for houses in the suburbs. The Charles provides an emotional escape route from the daily hustle, and for me, that's really the whole point of the run. I'd like to think Rollins would approve.

Paul Flannery covers the Celtics for and teaches sports journalism at Boston University. He tweets @pflanns.