I head toward Gaza City's seaport. The sun hasn't crested. The air is crisp and cool. I run south alongside the waves, relieved that their rhythmic pulse drowns out the Israeli drones overhead. Their incessant buzzing always puts me on edge.
One dawn in 2004, armed drones killed two militants outside the building where I was staying. Children scooped up scraps of the men's scalps on small sticks, presenting them for me to film.
I jog past youths maneuvering gracefully on paddleboards and young men pushing old wooden skiffs out to sea. An elderly woman is collecting something from the sand, whether shells or bait I can't tell. Four miles into the run, I spot a pipe embedded in the side of a high sandy bluff discharging a stream of water too wide for me to cross. I scan the cliff, eager to reach the coastal road above it and notice a dilapidated cement staircase. I can't imagine where it leads, but it goes up. I jog up the stairs and find myself in the ruined remnants of a building, most likely shelled by Israeli gunships during the 2014 war.
I run through those ruins to a surrounding wall and locked gate, climb the wall, leap to the sidewalk, and continue jogging. Only then do I wonder: Did anyone see me? A foreign woman appearing out of nowhere, dropping from a wall surrounding a destroyed building, and running away is anything but inconspicuous. I half expect armed men to pull up on a motorcycle and begin questioning me, but the road, to my relief, remains deserted.
I return to the beach and jog on it until I reach Wadi Gaza, a wetland rich in biological diversity that was declared a nature reserve in 2000. When I first visited this valley in 2012, however, the fresh water that once flowed into the sea here had already been replaced by human waste from nearby refugee camps. I returned in 2015 to find that a small sewage treatment plant had been built but was not yet operational.
For 18 months, Israel had delayed the arrival of the aerators that mix oxygen into the waste water. They were finally allowed into blockaded Gaza later that year. The plant then operated until 2017 when, thanks to the Strip's ongoing electricity shortages, it stopped. The river of untreated sewage I now confront is only a small part of the nearly four million cubic feet of excrement that are estimated to spew daily into the sea from the Strip.
I run to the coastal road bridge, jogging past the plant's large pool now brimming with waste. I can't help but retch. I soon leave the stench behind me, aware that Wadi Gaza's residents deal with that odor — and the resulting health risks and mosquitoes — every day.
There are no sidewalks now. Curious boys on donkey-carts stare at me. At the halfway point of my training run, I return to the beach and turn around. Teenage boys drinking tea at a small campfire pause their animated conversation to cheer me on.
As Gaza's seaport reappears, hazy in the distance, two thundering explosions suddenly reverberate. I look around, but there's no one in sight to tell me what caused them. Shortly thereafter, I pass families enjoying the Gaza City promenade, toddlers riding tricycles, children playing soccer. Two women walk in my direction, fully covered (aside from their eyes) in black niqab. How will they regard a jogging, bare-headed foreign woman? I manage a "good morning" in Arabic as our paths cross. One of them claps, the other gives me a thumbs-up, and both call out, "Brava aleiki!" (Bravo to you!)
The explosions, I'm later told, were rockets that Hamas fighters had shot into the sea "for testing."