On the Run Again: The Underground World of Ukrainian Trail Life

ukraine forest

My feet hit the ground, my shoe soles pushing off the damp dirt. I navigate over and around the dark patches — a mix of uneven surfaces and shadows from the trees. My eyes scan the ground in advance to avoid tripping hazards and twisted ankles.

Finally, I am running in the woods again, and it is long overdue.

We willingly moved to Kyiv knowing we’d be reentering the world of four seasons. Despite my general distaste for winter, I was eager to live somewhere with snow again. But winter should be a season, not a lifestyle. Regardless of where in the world you might live, I think we can all agree that winter overstayed her welcome this year.

When I run, I let my mind wander, picking up on random threads of observation and thought. In Kyiv, these runs offer slivers of insight into why Ukraine is, in many ways, still considered a developing nation.

Kyiv’s winters are particularly troublesome as the city’s infrastructure seems fairly inadequate for dealing with the weather conditions. Sidewalks that are already in disrepair with sunken spots and bumpy areas are downright treacherous covered in snow and ice that remain uncleared throughout the course of the season. Instead of shoveling sidewalks, Ukrainians stomp through snow, packing it down into ice. As winter goes on and more snow falls, people move from the sidewalks to the medians and grassy areas surrounding the sidewalks until thick layers of ice cover them too.

Clearing sidewalks takes effort, but if the businesses lining the sidewalks each cleared their part, it would help mitigate this problem. Both winters we’ve lived here, I have seen people take very hard falls just walking around town. I worry about the day I, too, hit the ground.

This is all to say that running in the winter is basically out of the question. It also means I become incredibly stir crazy.

So when I signed up to run a half-marathon relay about six weeks ago, I was also willing winter to move on. It was beyond time that I got moving again.

I’m no stranger to running in wintry conditions. In fact, when I trained for my one and only marathon, I began training deep in a Wisconsin winter, pounding out long runs in blizzards. But something about the conditions made things a bit easier back then.

Over my first weeks of training here, I dodged speeding cars, ran through snow banks, slid down slick hills, and tip-toed my way across black ice. My calves and hips took a beating trying to keep me upright. Everyone here mitigates these conditions, and I marvel at the fact that this is just the way it is.

But finally, I think — I hope! — spring has arrived, and running has resumed in full force.

I default to trail running if and when possible. It’s much easier on my body and more interesting for my mind. Instead of leap-frogging around mothers pushing prams at a snail’s pace, I can dodge shadows and fallen trees. And instead of feeling crowded out by the gas fumes and sand kicked up on the roads, I can breathe easy.

Taking to the trails early in the season has also opened my eyes to another reality I know is prevalent in Kyiv: the size and pervasiveness of the city’s homeless population.

During the warmer months, it’s probably easier to disperse across the city to sleep on park benches and in doorways. But in the winter, the cold hits hard, and communal living makes more sense. I’ve always known a large population of homeless men “live” in the park in which I run, but the evidence of their presence is exceedingly obvious right now.

As my feet hit the ground, my breath deep and steady within my chest, I can’t help but notice the rolling hills, tall trees, and leaf-covered ground are also living quarters. I spot sleeping bags rolled out on fallen logs and rudimentary lean-to shelters perched against tree trunks. At night, we smell smoke coming from the woods — not that pleasant log-fire-on-a-cold-night smell but that burn-what-you-have-to-stay-warm smell. As I run, I pass the fire rings, some still smoldering from the night before and others just ashy evidence from fires burned throughout the winter. Piles of garbage litter the entire forest: plastic bottles, discarded paper, old pieces of cloth. But what looks like garbage to me is fuel for these fires, which keep the homeless warm at night.

And, yes, I often see the homeless folks as well. Usually it’s a person or two, sitting on a log (occasionally with a street dog as a companion) or walking through the woods with a backpack or pull cart loaded down with their few earthly possessions. I rarely encounter them on the trails; they’re normally tucked back in the woods. They offer a passing glance as I run by, and I pretend not to notice them, though of course I do.

Beyond serving as a home, however, springtime in the woods is also a kitchen of sorts. A variety of plants begin to poke through the surface, and as soon as they do, older folks pluck them up, collecting them in plastic bags to take home. I’m not sure what plants they’re collecting to eat or use in other ways, but it looks like back-breaking work. Babushkas are bent over, legs straight with rounded backs, their heads wrapped in kerchiefs and their hands dirty from rummaging through the underbrush.

Even as I keep my eyes on the ground and listen to music or an audiobook, I am always aware of my surroundings, attuned to what’s going on around me. Someone always knows my running route — where I’m going and for how long. And I know when to make a detour if my internal radar tells me to turn around.

But if there’s one thing I have to say about Kyiv, though, it is that I feel exceedingly safe here — more so than in probably in any other large city I’ve ever been in. I get the side eye from older women concerned that I’m not wearing warm enough clothes far more often than I get the obvious drifting stare from men as I walk down the street. Though Ukrainians aren’t known for their friendliness or customer service, they’re relatively polite. And even though public drunkenness is fairly common among the men, public aggression isn’t a thing here. This is all to say, I’m not all that concerned by anyone else who heads for the woods.

With the warming sun and melting snow, the forest comes to life and all of us meet at this intersection of Kyiv for different reasons.

For locals who have nowhere else to go, the woods are a home, somewhere to sleep, stay, and socialize.

For those living on meager pensions or who hold tightly to family traditions, the woods serve as a place to gather greens, berries, and nuts.

And for me, the woods are a place of escape, an alternative to the pock-marked roads where I’d otherwise be forced to run. They’re quiet, natural, fresh, free of distractions and urban life. But this is also a place where I go to observe and learn about the city that I call home.

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