Samantha Cartagena insists she wasn’t born an athlete.
And for most of her life, she says, she didn’t want to be one, either. She didn’t even know how to ride a bike until a few years back, and on her first ever attempt, she crashed into an innocent automobile.
Her genetic makeup, she says, never hinted at athletic greatness.
“My family is not built,” Cartagena explains “None of us are built for exercise, period.”
Which is odd, considering there probably aren’t more than a handful of Penn employees who get more exercise than Cartagena: She has played in two organized football leagues and one dodge ball league, is a registered spinning instructor, and, for the past several months, has taken to commuting to work, seven miles each way, by bike—or on foot.
Cartagena, clinical director at the Penn Sleep Center, runs or bikes to and from her East Falls home up to four days a week. She’s not only saving big on gas, she says, but also living happier. “You notice things,” Cartagena says of her more relaxed commute. “You notice the change of seasons. You know when the regatta is coming up, so you know when it’s not a good time to drive through the park. You’re more aware of traffic patterns here. I can call my friend and say, ‘I just ran that route, and the roads are closed.’”
Q. So have you been doing the bike/run commute thing for long?
A. I had been doing it, but not as regularly as I do it now. About eight months ago I moved to East Falls, and that’s made things better. I used to live in Fairmount, near the Art Museum, and that was only a 15-minute bike ride. Now, my trip is close to 7 miles. I had to build myself up to that, for the running part, at least.
Q. Getting so much exercise—and avoiding rush hour—must be a great feeling.
A. I do notice a big difference. I do drive occasionally, but it’s like the traffic has gotten even worse, I think, even with the gas prices being so high. There’s a lot of traffic jams I notice on my way in—on West River Drive [Martin Luther King Drive] and on Kelly Drive. I do drive sometimes, but it’s actually faster getting here if I bike—but not running. I won’t lie about that.
Q. Do you have a set schedule? Any preferred route?
A. Sometimes, what I’ll do is run in and then bike home. Or I’ll bike in, bring my running stuff with me, and just leave my bike at work. The next day, I might drive in. I alternate.
To come in, I usually go down Kelly Drive, then I either take that new path [that runs through Schuylkill River Park] up to Chestnut Street and come down [to Penn] via Chestnut, or sometimes I like going over the Spring Garden Bridge. That’s faster, but it’s more dangerous. If I do that, I’ll go up behind the Art Museum, merge over onto the Spring Garden Bridge, and then come down 34th Street.
Q. I imagine you have a few interesting stories to tell.
A. Yeah, I’ve had a few strange encounters. It happens more when I’m running than when I’m biking. I had somebody flash me one time on Kelly Drive. You have to be very careful out there. I have to admit, I don’t go out there when it’s getting dark. I don’t wear headphones, usually. I haven’t had anything too major.
Q. I’ve heard there’s some tension between the bikers and runners in Fairmount Park.
A. There’s this competing thing going on over on Kelly Drive. There’s the rollerbladers, and the faster bikers, and the people who are running. You have to be very careful. I have seen people get pretty aggressive out there with other runners, and bikers attacking runners. I have to intervene sometimes.
Q. You’re kidding, right?
A. No, one time there was this old woman jogging. She was out there running, and she had these big huge earphones on. She had to be around 80. It was great for her to be out there. It was the morning, and I was coming in to work, and this guy on a bike—well, she must have kind of stepped out into his way while he was riding his bike—he just went at her. I turned around and was like, “How can you mess with an old woman like that?” Then he started messing with me. I was like, “Come on!” I was kind of egging him on. I probably shouldn’t have done that.
Q. I have to ask: What do you do about taking a shower?
A. Fortunately for me, I work here at the Penn Sleep Center, and we have showers. I can do that here. Plus I’m not a very high maintenance person. If I bike in, I don’t have to shower, to be honest. I do have extra deodorant in my desk.
Originally published on June 8, 2006