A City in
Interview by Sheridan Wilbur
Photography by Andrew Castro
A love letter to modern cities, the City Runner project documents Yü Wu's journey of exploring through running, offering an intimate look at the cities in photos in words, and detailed route maps. Yü Wu is sharing his photographic running log and maps, on his Instagram @yutherunner and his city guides at thecityrunner.com which is being produced with the assistance of the Tracksmith Fellowship Program.
I’d love to hear the origin story of how you started City Runner.
Yü Wu: I didn't have an epiphany. It started with my passion for traveling and running. In 2015, I wanted to visit all 50 states before I turned 30. I only spent maybe a day or two in some states, but I was able to do that personal project which evolved into the next project, related to running.
In 2017, I ran my first full marathon in Stockholm. Then I started to use running races as motivation to travel the world. I felt like I was really attracted to this idea that you go to a very far away place and you run. And then for maybe just those couple of hours, you feel like a local. You are not there to just take pictures of the most iconic places. You are really experiencing the city or the place.
In 2018, I ran six marathons in six different continents. I did that again for the next two years, although one year, I was injured and decided not to start the race. I think all those parts of me are finally coming into this project. I like to explore a place more in depth than by just walking around or running around – but to observe what's going on in the street and to spend time in a place. Wherever I travel, I try to find the most scenic routes to do my runs.
I used to work at a tech company but quit my job in 2019. I was not passionate about my job. I wanted to explore what else life has to offer. I used my savings to support my exploration.
I lived in Paris for two month and Sydney for two months. That was right before the pandemic. In both cities, I ran a lot. I made new friends with the local running clubs. At the time it wasn't a very concrete project. I was doing my marathon training anyway. So I thought, just run every day, and instead of doing the same route all the time, have a little bit more fun and use running as a way to explore the city.
When the pandemic broke out, I settled down in Portland for a few months. That was when I really started to think of this as a project because our lives were very restricted. Running is one of the very few things that I enjoyed doing and I can still do. I think it's a very big part of what made me stay sane during this very hard time. I didn't have a job. I didn't have many friends in Portland. I didn't really have a social life or go outside of my apartment. But running is my way to stay in touch with this society. Even though I wasn't meeting new people. I still run in the street. I still see life. My daily adversity is loneliness, but I still go outside and I get in touch with the city.
Then, I started to think, “I'm doing so much running, I want to share my experience in a way that can help other runners.”
I'm a big fan of maps. I like to study a city on maps and then go out to see what the city really looks like. I started to spend more time designing my route so I can go to different neighborhoods, famous places, and coffee shops.
I moved from Portland to San Francisco for four months. I had already spent more than 10 years in the Bay Area, but I didn't really know San Francisco. I had never been to my new neighborhood. I've only seen that name on the map, but I had no visualization of the place, no personal connection.
I used running as a way to really get to know the city. I got to know the city better in four months than the entire time that I have lived there. I never had ventured out to this part of the city to enjoy this view or this coffee or this sandwich. That made me think more about how I can share this experience? How can I share my discoveries with more people – both with the running community, but also with the general public who wants to know more about this city?
How do you decide which routes are the most worth sharing to the community?
Yü Wu: I'm most interested in the scenery, viewpoints, places or parks that might have a good view. I'm a morning runner and consider coffee shops and bakeries. But I don't have a job, so I can take the whole morning to explore the city. For people who have to work, and want to run in the morning, it has to be early. I look for things that we can enjoy doing before 8:00 AM.
You have an Instagram and website. Where do you want people to see your routes? What's your long term goal with the City Runner?
Yü Wu: Instagram is like a photographic journal for my running. So in San Francisco, I posted one picture a day. Now, I basically post a lot of pictures a day, including the head pictures of views when I run, and the coffees and the croissants. I'm also working on distilling the best part of each city and writing a series of posts and the website to really recommend the best places to run and to enjoy the morning. I've already made maps for Seattle, San Francisco and Portland. The maps for the cities are both on my website and on the Instagram account. I'm slowly working on the more detailed recommendation. That's my intermediate goal for the project.
I use Adobe Illustrator to make these maps. I have a base map, then I add lines and places. I also make maps for my favorite coffee shops. I made a map for twelve of my favorite coffee shops and bakeries in Seattle. I definitely want to do this too for San Francisco and LA.
At the end of the day, I want to publish a book or have a one stop destination, which I guess is my website. If you go to one of those big cities and you are wondering where you can go running, that will be the place where you can find all the information about where you can run, what views you can expect and where you can get coffee afterwards.
So as you begin to build out these roots over different cities on the West Coast, what do you hope people take away from your project?
Yü Wu: I think my hope is two fold. For runners, I definitely want to inspire and to encourage them to use running as a way to explore their own cities. To add a little bit more fun to your training process is not just to run, but also maybe spend more time thinking about where you can run. Instead of doing the same route day after day, maybe you can do a different route. For the general public, I hope that what I'm doing and all the pictures I've taken and shared can inspire people to just go out of their immediate neighborhood and to explore the city. I would love to see people venture out of their neighborhood and consider the whole city as their neighborhood, rather than just a few streets right by your apartment. I would love to see people, especially the running community, use the whole city as their kind of playground to have more fun.
What are some of the next cities on your radar?
Yü Wu: LA will be my last city on the West Coast. Then, Denver and Chicago. Denver and Chicago have harsh winters, harsher than LA. I might need a place for the winter, so maybe Austin. On the East Coast, I have Boston, DC, and New York. Maybe Miami. I need to keep running and exploring for the winter. I still have about six to seven cities on my list to complete what I consider “The Great American Cities” tour.
Are there people, other apps, communities or prior experiences that inspire your project?
Yü Wu: I use Strava a lot. I was a data scientist in my tech life. I know how big data can really help us to make recommendations. But, I felt with Strava that a lot of recommended segments or routes aren't the most iconic places to run in the city. Maybe there’s a running club in that area, so they do that route quite often and it becomes a heavily run place in the city. Still, Strava has the most inspiration for me. The heat map can help me to decide, especially for the safety reasons, if this street is safe to run. Does it have sidewalks or will I be able to cross that highway through the street? That helped me a lot to decide what street to pick when I'm in places where accessibility can be an issue. Also, I follow a lot of friends and athletes. Every morning, I wake up to posts I always find inspiring.
I'm passionate about running. I'm passionate about the cities. That's what's driving me to run every day. I'm always looking for new places to run. Every morning, I think about a new destination, a new coffee shop or that park I suppose might have a good view of the city. That makes me really happy, discovering routes and then I get ready and go out and run.
Your passion extends to other people too. It's encouraging to hear what you're saying about your own relationship to running and how you've been able to find a way to make a difference in other people's life with your project.
Yü Wu: People who follow me on my Instagram, especially one lady who lives in Seattle, have told me how much my recommendation of the city has reengaged them with their city. She realized, “Oh, wow, my city is so beautiful and so much bigger than what I used to.” I think that's the best. That made me really happy and confirmed what I'm doing can really help people and inspire people to explore their city.
Currently living in LA (without a car), I have lived in Portland, San Francisco and Seattle and have run more than 1200 miles in each of them. I hope that my sharing will inspire people—locals and tourists alike—to appreciate and explore city life in a different way.
I eat a lot for breakfast, but fortunately I run a lot, which is the best part of running a lot of mileage. I really enjoy what I'm doing; running, checking out parks and coffee shops. But at one point, I felt like it's not enough to just make myself happy. I want to make a larger impact on society. I didn’t quit my job to be lazy and just to enjoy life. I quit because it wasn’t the way that I wanted to contribute to society: by running and city exploration. What's the best way to make a larger impact with the project?
I'd be happy to see what people think about what I'm doing – how I can make this more useful and their feedback. I write reviews on Google Maps, I’ve written more than a thousand reviews on there. A lot of people actually found me on Google Maps and they tell me, “I love your reviews for all the coffee shops and parks.” That's part of how I contribute to society. Although it's just reviews, that's how I want to share my authentic and personal experience with more people.