Eco-Traveler meets Fitness: The Girl Who Runs the World 🏃🏽♀️
The first time I saw Kendall Johnson, she was running across the finish line at an Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT). She jogged to the side of the track and put her hands on her hips, then wiped the sweat off her forehead as the first few boys sprinted across the finish. The males crossing the two-mile mark were dying, some, finding a plot of grass to puke up last weekend’s bar crawl. I was in shock, not because of the vomiting college boys -- that was normal. However, that girl just beat our fastest male runners. I had never seen anything like it. Not only was she fast “for a girl”, Kendall was just . . . fast.
Fast forward a year, Kendall Johnson (we call her “KJ”) and I find ourselves covered in sweat and soot from running up university garages and doing pushups at the top. It’s just her and I, well, and 6 dudes. We were part of an Army competition team that trained Monday through Friday at ungodly hours. While students were stumbling back to their dorms, KJ and I were running 5+ miles with a bunch of “Bros”. Quite literally, however, this group of fine men are truly our brothers.
Kendall was insane, she tackled every workout and usually finished first. She would put a 45-pound ruck on her back and still run faster than the men who were 2x taller and larger than her.
If that wasn’t enough to convince you of this girl’s badassery, let me to get to the real point of why I wanted to write about my inspirational friend, KJ.
Kendall has been living in Amman, Jordan for almost a year now after being awarded the Boren Scholarship. This amazing opportunity has granted her the freedom to explore surrounding countries while studying, volunteering, and of course, running. After traveling to Jordan myself, I was extremely curious (and concerned) as to how she found the means to run outside, as it is culturally frowned upon. After talking to her in more detail, I realized how her lifestyle truly encompasses everything Trek Nectar is to be; exploration, exercise and ethical travel.
With perseverance and pertinacity, Kendall has embarked on a foreign fitness journey that has not only come with physical challenges, but cultural, socio-economic and emotional challenges, as well. Her insights are truly amazing.
What challenges did you face when you first arrived in Jordan?
The first struggle came from the difficulty in finding a decent gym within range. When I did find one, it was female-only -- which wouldn’t be the worst thing, because you think there will be no more men asking how many reps you have left or stealing your weights -- but the culture was incredibly inhospitable. The staff hid the weight clips a week in after the American girls joined the gym. We got scolded for going “too fast” on the treadmills, which everyone else apparently just used to walk on.
After a few weeks of this, my best friend and I decided to ask the male-only gym across the street if we could work out there before or after the regular gym hours The owners were surprisingly more welcoming than the ladies-only gym and not only let us use the gym whenever we wanted, but we experienced no harassment (which was also maybe due to the fact that all the men there were definitely on steroids and were way more into themselves than a couple of raggedy-looking American chicks).
I would also wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning to run outside when the city began to make me really claustrophobic and I felt like I needed to pound some pavement. I’m a very outdoorsy person who needs sunshine and open spaces to retain my sanity. Running at 5 am, before anyone else was up, alleviated some of this stress. I say some, because there was still the occasional taxi that would honk, or the odd man wandering the streets that made you want to cross the road, and, of course, the trash that exists EVERYWHERE. You get used to it after a while but I would often come home after a run feeling like I inhaled a gallon of petrol fumes and was covered in trash dust.
The second challenge I faced came from nutrition. During Ramadan, most restaurants and shops are closed during the day in accordance the national laws. Eating and drinking in public is illegal. We packed lunches for school, but the real struggle was Iftar, or the breaking of the fast at night. Iftar is basically a huge feast and celebration that you made it another day, starving and dehydrating yourself.
We were taken to a lot of nice Iftars and stuffed our faces with every delicacy known to Jordan. There’s also a cultural tendency to show guests respect by feeding them. That translates into every Middle Eastern mom, even after extreme protestation, forcing you to eat “just one more bite”.
I think the biggest struggle I face is feeling trapped. Amman is just a big city plopped in the middle of the desert. If you want some space… you’ll find yourself in the middle of the desert or in a village that has never seen an American before. I definitely haven’t maintained a normal routine, or one even close to what I had in the US, but I try. You can do anything here, but it just takes a lot more work, time, and money.
Health and fitness aren’t part of the mainstream culture of the Middle East (at least not yet). The culture is definitely growing though. Since being here for just 8 months, I’ve seen a few brands of protein bars added to the gym shelves, a few healthier restaurants pop up. I’ve also noticed, recently, a few Arab women in my gym working out in just a sports bra and leggings. Though I have yet to see anyone wear shorts in this country, inside or outside the gym, I feel like this is a HUGE step in the right direction. I love seeing women appreciate their bodies in a gym-space and wanting to show that off.
I took for granted the simple option of stepping outside of my home in shorts and a t-shirt to go for a run. I remember when driving to a spot to run felt excessive. In Jordan, I have to take a taxi to get to the gym and then take another one to get back. Or, sometimes, I take a taxi to the track, then to the gym, then to my other gym to catch my MMA class, then back to first gym to shower, and then to my apartment. Half my motivation goes to just finding avenues to exercise and putting in the work to get there, the other half to my actual workout. It’s harder. I’m definitely not as fit as I used to be. But it’s worth it. At the end of the day, you truly have to seek out opportunities to move. They don’t just naturally exist.
How did you overcome such challenges?
I would watch hours of “what I eat in a day” style videos on YouTube just to get through the summer, reminding myself that the health community still existed and I, too, could return to it one day. I brought supplements, probiotics, a yoga mat, and workout bands in order to do home workouts if I couldn’t find a suitable gym. However, since I’m living on my own and I design my own schedule, I was able to find an incredibly modern, sizable gym close to where I’m living, for much cheaper that that first ladies-only gym. Joining a gym has given me so much more mental peace. It’s absolutely worth every penny.
I also found a park with a 2K loop that I’ll do every once in a while to switch up my workouts. I’ve actually made a lot of friends running there. After living here for a few months, you realize just how small the community is. Though Amman is a city of millions, there’s a very niche group that works out, runs, or goes out to bars and there’s a lot of overlap in those categories, so you see familiar faces everywhere you go (or, in classic Arab tradition, the person you just met is the cousin of the wife of your friend’s husband).
Lastly, I joined an MMA gym. I used to fight in high-school, but ever since I started college, I simply haven’t had the time to continue fighting. Given all my new-found free-time away from the Army, I figured I would take it up again. Going to Jiu Jitsu 3-4x a week has also given me another outlet for staying fit here. I’ve absolutely fallen in love with the sport all over again and the gym community existing there.
Did you have to make an entire lifestyle change from your life in America?
I know people say all the time “fitness is a lifestyle”. I believe in this, but at the same time, this phrase is usually used in the context of Western life, where making fitness a lifestyle is trendy, fun, and relatively easy. I wouldn’t say I made an entire lifestyle change, but I did make an almost-complete one. Fitness is no longer my life, but part of it.
I often forget how I used to eat and train before coming here. I used to eat a non-dairy, refined-sugar-free, paleo-based diet, full of kombuchas and maca powders and vegan-protein smoothies. I realize, now, how much of a privilege it is to choose to eat a specific diet; to have the option to exempt specific foods. That’s such an absurd idea to most foreign or third-world countries!
You eat food because it fuels you. We have this idea, perpetuated by social media and a myriad of new-found intolerances, that certain types of foods are harmful. Ask anyone here to stop consuming dairy products or bread, the backbone of Jordanian dishes, and they would laugh your posh ass out of the country.
In Jordan, I shop at a small store maybe 1/13th the size of a traditional grocery in the US. The only fruits and vegetables available are the ones in season. What a wild concept. I think I’ve learned more about growing seasons here just by seeing what’s available month-to-month (the worst was when the avocados left the shelves). I’ve seen imported items a few times, like blueberries or grapes, but they cost an irate amount for a very small portion (one time I asked the price for a small bundle of asparagus, and it was 7 JD, or ~$10). Jordan is also the most (one of?) water-scare country in the Middle East. Water-intensive crops just aren’t a thing.
So I eat seasonally, which I guess is kinda cool. The eggs and meat taste better, probably because they have less preservatives, though the cleanliness of the produce and poultry is far from what the FDA would deem saleable to the public in the states (hence all the food poisoning). Overall, it’s quite expensive and your options are limited if you want to eat a specific diet type. I’m definitely not paleo, dairy free, or sugar free now. I eat what I can get and I try to make it healthy.
I don’t have an oven, toaster, blender, food processor, good kitchen utensils, etc., which I would argue all make a difference. At first it felt limiting, but I’m used to it now. I pretty much subsist on Arabic yoghurt, tomatoes, eggs, and oatmeal (a food I despised a year ago, but I find very cheap and filling abroad). I had made myself lactose-intolerant from choosing to exempt dairy from my diet in the past. It took me a while to get used to it, but now I consume so much dairy – I forget that trendy milks, like almond/oat/rice/coconut milk, exist. This is not to say I won’t go back to this dietary choice when I return stateside as plant-based milks are much more environmentally sustainable.
Do you run in every city you visit? Where have you run?
I do run in every city I visit. I think it’s the best way to explore a new place and get your bearings. It’s also a good change of scenery. I guess it started when I did a summer in Istanbul. The city confused me, so I started doing out-and-back runs to learn the roads. From then on, it’s always been a thing.
I’ve run in Istanbul, Amman, Prague, Krakow, London, around Cyprus and Thailand, and obviously a number of places in the US, among others. Usually I go out with the intention of doing a short run, 3-5 miles, but I either get lost, or I want to explore so much that I end up doing anywhere from 5 to 13 miles. I find it’s always easier to run in a foreign city because you get distracted by the sites around you.
Also, the places I was visiting offered a lot more miles. It was so much easier to get longer runs in in developed cities with actual sidewalks. Ha.
Tell me about an amazing experience you’ve had while running in a foreign country?
All of them honestly. My favorite memory was in Prague, I think. I was working so I didn’t have a ton of free time to explore the city. My only real opportunity to see it was during my morning run. I basically just ran around until I found all the major tourist attractions… running that early was amazing too, because you avoid all the tourist traffic. I’m pretty sure the St. Charles bridge is only devoid of tourists at 6 am in the dead of winter. I watched the sun rise over the bridge, then spotted a confusing architectural thing on the hill opposite the river, so I decided to run to it and find out what it was. The route took me to this park, then up this hill, and eventually to an overlook where you could see the Prague castle, the river, all the bridges, and Old Town. I did that all before the sun fully rose and the sky was completely clear, so the city was swathed in pink and orange morning light. It was amazing. But also 30 degrees out so I partly froze to death, too.
Tell me about a terrible experience you’ve had while running abroad?
I was casually jogging through my neighborhood early in the morning, the only relatively empty time in Jordan… when I feel a presence behind me. I try to push past the feeling but can’t help to throw a quick glance over my shoulder, only to see that a service taxi is trailing roughly 10-15 meters behind me, clearly following me. I stop running, turn my backside to a wall, and wait for him to pass. As he slowwwwly passes, he gives me the classic “look” that Arab men feel obligated to give every foreign woman they see in the streets — one hand on the chin, eyebrows wagging, suggestive eyes. Not a single girl in this city doesn’t know THE LOOK.
By this point in my time in Jordan, I’ve dealt with street harassment almost daily. I’ve seen it all. Yet somehow, a fire still burns in my chest and I feel like screaming instead of doing what we’ve been told to as women, which is to “ignore them, they just want a response”. This time, instead of politely averting my eyes and allowing myself to be looked over by some street man, I put a middle finger up on each hand and take off at a dead sprint after the taxi, yelling a phrase in Arabic that involves a family member and an unsavory body part. My noise-cancelling headphones were in so I’m almost positive he heard my screeches, if not saw my body hurdling down the street towards him. He flashed his lights and sped away.
I’m finally realizing that street harassment isn’t partial to me. It's doesn’t discriminate against women — Muslim, Christian, Jordanian, foreign, hijab or no. Sometimes you can feel singled out, or feel like you’re doing something wrong to deserve it. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been on my walk to school and received a bit more harassment than usual and thought “wellp, there goes wearing this outfit ever again”. I’m realizing more and more that nothing I do, or change, is going to immediately stop the way women are treated here. However, my presence is enough to contribute to a snowball effect of change and progression that’s happening (and I promise it IS happening) in the Middle East.
Maybe putting my middle fingers up and yelling a few expletives early in the morning at rude men isn’t lady-like, but hey, I’m here to shatter expectations any way I can, right?
What challenges do you still face running and exercising during your travels?
I spoke a bit about how I used to wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning to go on runs. I pretty much had to run that early because functional sidewalks are non-existent in Jordan, so you have to take the roads. Everywhere in Amman becomes clogged with traffic from 7 am onwards. I also did this to avoid getting harassed in the streets. Even normal, Jordanian woman get harassed. So imagine a clearly foreign, sport-clothes wearing, girl running through the back-roads of Amman? It’s decidedly a terrible experience.
My first time in Jordan, I made the mistake of getting comfortable in my neighborhood. My best friend had come over to have dinner with my host family, and we decided to take a little walk after to get some exercise in and enjoy the sunset. We figured being in each other’s company, we could mentally deal with the harassment and feel safer. About 15 minutes into our walk, some young boys, maybe 10-15, started verbally harassing us from the side of the road. Being used to it at this point, we completely ignored it as we were told, and continued chatting. Out of the corner of my eye, I see something fly by my head. I turn around to see these young boys throwing rocks at us and shouting profanities. We were both absolutely dumb-struck. Like we actually froze and didn’t know what to do. We just caught each other’s eye and tried, best as we could, to calmly walk away. That was the last time I worked out outdoors after 6 AM the rest of the summer.
Do you have any advice for those who want to stay fit while they travel?
Fitness used to be my lifestyle, but now it’s just part of my life. When I went to Poland, I had the perogies. When I went to Prague, I drank mulled wine and ate chimney cakes. In Jordan, I eat mansaf, falafel, and shawarma every now and then. I used to demonize certain items like bread or dairy. But at the end of the day, people have subsisted on those basic items for thousands of years. They make up the base of a lot of traditional diets.
I’m not at my fittest point by far, but I am at a balanced point. The human body is so amazing in the way it can bounce back. At the end of the day, yeah, you can always fit “fitness” into your lifestyle. But to maintain that lifestyle takes work. It is worth acknowledging that there are factors that make it difficult at times, for certain genders or cultures or socio-economic backgrounds… you get the point. Sometimes, those factors that can turn fitness into such a chore that it’s more of a mental stressor than a mental release. There are points when I’ve gone months here without running outside because of the anxiety that came with verbal harassment from men in the streets. All in all, it really is about what finding makes you happiest in your current setting.