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The 2014 Fittest City in America: Portland

In our nation’s Fittest City, 86% of the population gets regular exercise—but physical activity is just part of what makes Portland No. 1.

NO. 1: FITNESS NEEDS TO BE FUN

My first stop is Portland International Raceway (PIR), where the city’s famously fun and filthy Cross Crusade cyclocross series is hosting its seventh Sunday race of the season. The best kind of spectator sport, cyclocross pits cyclists against a short technical circuit that traverses grass, dirt, pavement, mud, and sadistic, Tough Mudder–inspired obstacles—sandpits, stairs, ditches, and barriers—at full speed. Mistakes are commonplace, and crashes de rigueur. Though it was born in the cold, muddy winters of early 1900s Europe, cyclocross is now the fastest-growing bike-racing competition in the U.S. 

That’s because, despite the inherent challenge, it’s fun as hell. “Cyclocross is a hard sport, but it’s relatively safe,” says race director Brad Ross. “If you fall over, chances are you’ll just get muddy. Then you’ll stand up and laugh about it.” Sure enough, I see dozens of racers hit the turf, but most are smiling so broadly there’s mud in their teeth.

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The Cross Crusade is the most popular cyclocross series in the country, attracting 1,100 or more participants every fall weekend with its welcoming, family-friendly atmosphere and Portland-style lack of pretense. “It’s a competitive scene,” says Ross, “but we make it as easy and fun as possible for anybody and everybody. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or woman, or how old you are, or what fitness level you’re at—you can come and race your bike.” The atmosphere at PIR is more music festival than exclusive, hardcore sporting event. Early on, the smoke of bonfires drifts across the course while food trucks and breweries set up shop for the day. Around midday, a drum corps performs while toddlers practice cornering and overcoming pint-size barriers in noncompetitive Kid’s Cross races.

All of it works to drive participation, something that’s important in a fit city. Alongside the typical racing set—grim, Lycra-clad men with sculpted, sinewy legs—are senior citizens, awkward adolescents, big-boned amateurs, hipsters in jean shorts riding anything on two wheels, and, improbably, those crazed unicyclists. They all compete hard and, at the end of the day, wear the same uniform—mud. Post-race, riders eat pork sandwiches and sip craft beer while socializing around bonfires or taunting their friends. It’s a rollicking good time and, after finishing 37th in my race, I join in the party.

Two days later, Just a 15-minute bike ride from the glass-and-concrete high-rises of downtown, I get my first taste of Portland’s urban wilderness in Forest Park. That’s where I join Dave and Paula Harkin for an afternoon run on the 30-mile-long Wildwood Trail, a classic route that hairpins and switchbacks across the ridges and ravines of the 5,000-acre park. The Harkins—co-owners of Portland Running Company—have general manager Zach Mione in tow; together, the three have the trim physiques and well-muscled legs of competitive runners. My legs, on the other hand, are feeling a tad wooden from Sunday’s off-road race.

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Soon, we’re running alongside Balch Creek, a burbling trout stream that winds beneath centuries-old Douglas firs. The forest is an absolute riot of green—moss drips from the trees and ferns sprout from every square inch—and I can’t believe we’re still in the city. This is one of the nation’s greatest urban forests (other top woodlands are in Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, Austin, Charlotte, Milwaukee, New York, Sacramento, and Washington, D.C.), a place where elk graze on sword ferns and black bears are occasionally spotted. Portlanders hold the park dear, and flock to it for hiking, biking, and, of course, running.

But it’s more than just nature that energizes the local running scene. “Most of the longer-distance professional runners for Nike live and train in Portland,” Mione says, “so you’ll run along the waterfront and see [Olympians] Galen Rupp or Alan Webb or Kara Goucher.” Beyond the pro culture that Nike infuses, amateurs like the Harkins—both accomplished runners who organize races and have coached thousands of marathoners—get people involved through friendly track and cross-country races and regular group runs.

“I grew up in Seattle,” Dave says. “It’s a bigger city, but there’s so much less activity universally. Down here, it feels like everybody I meet has done a marathon or some kind of serious endurance event.” (In fact, Portland is the nation’s most active city, with 86% of the population getting regular exercise.) Over the next 2.5 miles, our run starts to feel like a serious endurance event—Paula, not feeling well, turns back—as the trail climbs 900 feet to Pittock Mansion, a city-owned landmark that looks out over downtown to the snow-covered Mount Hood.

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As he takes in the city, Dave tells me that Paula’s on a five-year streak of running every single day, and averaging something absurd like six miles per run. She’s a hard-charging competitor, in other words, but she doesn’t need to prove anything to us on this outing. Like her, Portland’s runners don’t take themselves too seriously, as evidenced by the sheer number of beer and pub social runs.

It may be a small thing, but having such an easygoing, anyone-can-do-it attitude may be one of the things that makes Portlanders so active and fit. It’s empowering, after all, to be able to say you’re an athlete and feel competitive yet not feel like crap because you’re not elite. Mione, an able runner who races casually, sums it up best: “I could run the best race of my life or the worst, and the result is I’m going to go have a meal and a beer, and feel pretty good about having run it.” As we head back down the trail, echoes of the cyclocross reverberating in my legs make the thought of a post-run burger and beer all the more appealing.

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