Running Free: An opinionated guide to urban running

When I started my ‘Running Free’ series of posts I thought they would be, well, a series. Like The Friday Walks, only running. This has proved to be not so, and I’ve been wondering why?

Most obviously it’s because running is a hard one to capture, especially if you like to run an illustrated blog, as I do. It wouldn’t be practical to carry the camera I use around with me. And even if it were, I like to enjoy myself and focus on running and thinking, not photography.

On foot, not in the car.

On foot, not in the car.

So the Running Free posts I’ve done have been from when I’ve repeated the route as a walk and had the time (and the bag) to bring my camera with me. So why haven’t I just done that then? Walked around my half dozen or so regular running routes and written blog posts about them?

Yesterday, when writing about the importance of ritual to our Friday Walks I realised why. It’s because ritual is important to running too. For running to really work in your life it needs to be regular. Not long planned and long thought about. It needs to be something you just do. Sure you can have the occasional special runs, in places you might travel to. But for running to really work in your life, most runs needs to start at your own front door. Not even somewhere nearby that you drive to. Because you might use that as an excuse to yourself (‘I couldn’t go running because I didn’t have the car today’) and because it’s just wrong. Were talking about running here, not driving.

Running from your front door, you see. Not mine. Because unless you’re Sarah Horton reading this, your front door isn’t the same one as mine. So it would be no use at all for you to have any number of guided runs from here. And that must be why I haven’t bothered to write them?

So, I thought the most useful thing I could do would be some sort of general guide to how to work out your own runs, for people who live in the sort of places I live, but not actually in the same house!

So, kit on, stop watch ready? Yes, I think it’s good to time your runs. For encouragement and also for interest. Let’s go!

In a typical urban street. Start from your own front door. Go either way.

In a typical urban street. Start from your own front door. Go either way.

And yes, of course, to illustrate my thoughts I’m going to have to use a ‘real’ run. But I’ll try and keep things as general as possible.

Sometimes you might be able to run straight across your local dual carriageway. Mostly you won't.

Sometimes you might be able to run straight across your local dual carriageway. Mostly you won’t.

When I stop at main roads I stop the watch. So I don’t get all competitive with myself and be tempted to run between cars!

Safely on the other side. A word about music.

Safely on the other side, of the cars, the buses and bikes. Watch re-started. And now, a word about music.

I don’t. When I started running around 18 months ago I immediately bought an iPod mini. Because I’d noticed most people used them, I like an excuse to buy a gadget, and I thought music might ‘help and encourage me.’ But I’ve hardly ever used it. I noticed immediately with myself and other runners a tendency to ‘lock in’ to an inside world and ignore everything else that’s going on. And the only way that can work in an urban place is to find a big safe place like a path round the outside of a park and run round and round it (more on this in a bit) in bliss and oblivion.

Otherwise you’re best to use all the senses you’ve got. For safety, but also for pleasure. We’re talking about running being a ritual. And rituals require noticing. How different days sound and smell different. It’s not just interesting. It’s elemental.

Also, now we’ve crossed the main road, let’s not continue along it to the small park we know is coming up.

In a city you'll usually find a quieter, fume less and more pleasant route...

In a city you’ll usually find a quieter, fumeless and more pleasant route…

To the same place.

To the same place.

Now, even though this little park's got a path all around it, don't follow it.

Now, even though this little park’s got a path all around it, don’t follow it.

If you think running round a place this small is a ‘run’ forget it. (Unless you’re recovering from major illness or surgery, in which case, well done!). Instead, find a path through and out.

Along a quiet road.

Along a quiet road.

Which is also our first steady incline.

Which is also our first steady incline.

Walking, you’d barely notice this. But running, especially when finding your routes, you definitely will. And you might groan and think of looking for some other route. So, time for a bit of science – The ‘First Rule of Circular Running Routes’ says that:

‘All circular routes will involve precisely the same amount of uphill as downhill running, and it could not possibly be otherwise.’

Arriving at a junction in your nearest big park.

Arriving at a junction in your nearest big park.

Traffic might be coming from al directions.

Traffic might be coming from all directions.

So while it might not look as obvious a time to take care as your local main road it is. So stop watch off,and cross carefully.

There's another danger here too. Time for another word.

There’s another danger here too. Time for another word.

At all times of the week, in major parks with a path round the outside, you’ll find other runners. And you may be tempted to follow. Like:

‘If this is what everyone else is doing maybe I should?’

Don’t.

Or, perhaps, do it once or twice. In my own development as a runner it was psychologically good for me to break the ‘barrier’ of being physically able to get once, and soon after, twice round this particular ‘big park.’ But before long it just bored me. And besides, as you’ll find when you see most runners ‘stretching off’ next to their cars, nearly all of these people drove here. And as I hope we’ve agreed, that’s just wrong.

So find yourself a route inside the park.

So find yourself a route inside the park. Quieter and more interesting.

Experiment.

Experiment.

If it looks lovely on a grey afternoon in December, then it will always look lovely.

If it looks lovely on a grey afternoon in December, then it will always look lovely.

Oops, steps ahead!

Oops, steps ahead!

Remember, FIRC, Sometimes you have to run uphill...

Remember that First Rule of Circular Running Routes, sometimes you have to run uphill…

And besides, sometimes a steep but short incline can actually be easier than a long, steady one.

And besides, sometimes a steep but short incline can actually be easier than a long, steady one.

And also, isn’t it good to use a variety of muscles while running? Not just all of those in your legs. But all the rest of the way up through to your shoulders and even your arms as you push yourself uphill? Of course it is!

Soon back on a main route. And here's a rare other 'inside the park' runner.

Soon back on a main route. And here’s a rare other ‘inside the park’ runner.

And notice the trees? A joy of finding your ritual routes will be to notice how much they change. There will be times when these same bare winter trees will be a vital source of shade.

Crossing the perimeter road again. Beware 'learner driver and impatient Audi situation.'

Crossing the perimeter road again. Always beware ‘learner driver and impatient Audi situations.’

Soon across and a quiet road found.

Soon across and try and find a quiet road like this one.

And a public footpath too.

And look out for useful public footpaths too.

As long as you focus on what's ahead of you, you'll be fine with tree roots and mud. They're what happen along footpaths.

As long as you focus on what’s ahead of you, you’ll be fine with tree roots and mud. They’re what happen along footpaths.

And, you’ll know yourself and your own place best. If you don’t feel safe going down a place like that one above then don’t. This is meant to be a ritual route remember which you’ll be happy to repeat.

There'll

There’ll always be a road route that gets to the same place.

Major steady incline ahead.

And do try and find a serious steady incline to be part of your route.

That one.

Like this one.

And I can almost hear you FIRC deniers who actually know this area saying...

And I can almost hear you First Rule deniers who actually know this area saying…

'Come on, there's a much flatter way back to your house than us struggling up here!'

‘Come on, there’s a much flatter way back to your house than us struggling up here!’

And that’s true, and some days you might just feel like taking it. And the gloriously equitable First Rule of Circular Running Routes would still apply. But most days I think you’ll find:

A steady uphill run is good for you.

A steady uphill run is good for you.

And a long downhill run is exhilarating.

And a long downhill run is exhilarating.

And nearly home, you'll often find an extra bit of energy.

And nearly home, you’ll often find an extra bit of energy.

In fact, when I got going as a runner, the personal trainer who helped me – and I needed help – would at this point say:

'OK Ronnie, it's Spritzer to the finish!'

‘OK Ronnie, it’s a Spritzer to the finish!’

Round the final corner, in a street like this...

So I’d sprint round the final corner, in a street like this…

To a typical Liverpool terraced hose like this one.

To finish at a typical Liverpool terraced house, like this one.

Route found. Run done.

And how long should your ritual routes be? It depends. Early on I had one that would take me about 25 minutes. But I soon had that down to about 17 and it just didn’t feel worth the bother of going out. So now my routes vary from a few everyday maintenance routes (like the one illustrated and a bit longer) that take me between 25 and 35 minutes, then steadily longer routes, gradually working up to an hour.

And in any week I like to run a mixture. But its the maintenance runs, from home, that have made running a ritual part of my life. And looking at my records (because I keep them, routes done, times too) in each of the last 6 months I’ve averaged 15 runs each month. So I can see that it’s a happy part of my life.

There then. I hope this ‘Running Free’ has been more use to you, if you’re a runner or would like to be, than just a general guide to ‘How to run from a place you don’t even live in!’ Let me know.

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