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Originally published Sunday, March 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Touring San Diego — on the run

It's a chilly winter morning, and I'm in a downtown hotel room preparing for a guided tour of the city. I lean against a wall, extending...

Los Angeles Times

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City Running Tours, www.zerve.com/cityrun or 800-979-3370.

SAN DIEGO — It's a chilly winter morning, and I'm in a downtown hotel room preparing for a guided tour of the city.

I lean against a wall, extending one leg behind me to stretch out my calf muscles. Then I do a couple of deep knee bends and swing my arms around like a windmill to get the blood flowing. I strap my running shoes tight and head to the lobby of the San Diego Marriott to meet my guide.

There waiting for me is Jennifer Hughes, San Diego manager of City Running Tours. Do I need to stretch or drink some water, she asks. No? Let's run.

Sure, I could have jumped on a stuffy tour bus and watched the historic homes and towering office buildings of one of America's finest cities zip past my window. But I wanted to absorb San Diego, to take in the smells, sounds and rhythm of the city. So I signed up for a running tour.

The concept for City Running Tours was born in the summer of 2005, when New York chiropractor and fervent runner Michael Gazaleh offered an out-of-town friend a jogging tour of the Big Apple. From that run, Gazaleh got the idea to offer running tours in other places as well. He began with New York, followed by Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Gazaleh's idea seems like an appropriate pitch for health-conscious travelers: Tour your favorite city while burning calories.

The San Diego tours, led by Hughes, began in September, followed by Charleston, S.C., in January. A running-tour business is slated to open in April in London.

My guide, Hughes, is 29, tall and athletic. Think actress Katherine Heigl in running shoes. She has been an avid runner since starring on her high-school track team. Today, running tours are a side job. She also runs a marketing consultant business.

But her job on this soggy morning is to put me through a seven-mile workout while showing me the best of downtown San Diego. (The $60 fee includes a T-shirt, water bottle and digital photos taken of me by my tour guide.)

Our run begins just after 7 a.m. We jog through the Gaslamp Quarter, toward the harbor along nearly empty streets still wet from an overnight shower.

Hughes lets her clients set the pace. In my case, that means a leisurely jog. I want a workout, not a stroke. Hughes, a marathon runner, is prepared to take clients on runs as long as 20 miles, but most of her tours are no more than six or seven miles.

She customized my tour based on information I typed into an online reservation form. It asked for my hotel location, the landmarks I wanted to see and the running pace I wanted to keep.

Along the harbor, we jog past the Midway, a legendary aircraft carrier, and the Star of India, an 1863 windjammer that used to haul cargo and people around the world. Next to the Star of India, Hughes points out a tall, majestic frigate used in the movie "Master and Commander," starring Russell Crowe. I pose briefly for photos in front of the Midway, with helicopters and jet airplanes poised on the flight deck.

We dance over rain puddles and jump obstinate gulls, the bracing smell of the sea filling our lungs. Circling back to the Gaslamp Quarter, we jog past the ornate Victorian-era Horton Grand Hotel and the William Heath Davis House, one of the oldest wooden structures in San Diego. Both buildings, Hughes says, are rumored to be haunted. By now it's the pace — not the talk of ghosts — that has my heart racing. I have hit the wall, as runners say, and the wall hit back.

As we trot along Fifth Avenue, the city comes to life. Cars jam the streets, and pedestrians crowd the sidewalks. We plow through the urban bustle, making our way into the old theater district, and then sprint past a saloon once owned by western lawman Wyatt Earp.

In Chinatown, we sidestep vagabonds and street sweepers.

All the time, Hughes continues her casual history lesson, barely interrupting her long, perfect strides. To keep up the momentum, we don't linger on any particular site, and Hughes keeps her running monologue brief.

When we reach my hotel, my legs feel tight and heavy, and I'm thinking about a big breakfast and a steaming cup of coffee.

That's when Hughes says she almost forgot to show me Petco Park, the $449-million baseball stadium opened in 2004 a few blocks from my hotel.

Breakfast can wait a few minutes, I think, and we dash along a path that cuts past the stadium, giving us a view of the pitcher's mound and outfield.

When all was said and done, I had covered 6.7 miles in just over an hour. I had soaked up the brisk ocean air, jogged in the shadow of haunted dwellings, admired the graceful lines of several historic ships and heard my footsteps echo past one of the nation's newest ballparks.

In the process, I had burned close to 900 calories. But then again, I probably soaked up twice that many during my waffle feast.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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