Urban Trail Running (7.3 miles)

Anton Krupicka recently published a beautiful essay, “On Being Real,” on the Running Times site, explaining why he runs trails.  I love what he says about running, but came away feeling sort of annoyed as well, since the implication is that the hours he spends alone in nature are somehow more “real” and more intense because he is on a trail in the countryside.  The hills of Colorado Springs are certainly real, but so is Brooklyn, so are the hundreds of faces I pass each day, the aging towers of public housing projects, the rusted warehouses of the waterfront and the graffiti scrawled on the Williamsburg Bridge.  I take no umbrage at Krupicka’s desire to ground himself amongst ponderosa pines and alpine lakes if that is where he finds inner-peace, but I do object to the suggestion that this is the only true face of reality, that his trail runs are “more authentic” than my urban adventures.

The last few years seems have brought a huge rise in interest about trail running.  I’m all for it, and in fact constantly wish I had easy access to unpaved, rural routes, as I’d love to make trail running a regular part of my running life.  I am annoyed, however, that along with this new adulation for trail running comes quite a lot of smug superiority from trail runners themselves.  I’ve ready countless articles, essays, and blog-posts about the deeply spiritual nature of trail-running, the individual communing with nature through contemplative outings, the constant challenge and variety offered by rugged terrain that keeps you more physically and mentally fit, blah blah blah.  Again, it all sounds fantastic, but it is usually strongly implied (if not outright stated), that trail running is real running, that trail runners are real runners.

Well, Mr. Holier-Than-Though trail-runner, I do 99.99% of my running in as urban of a setting as you can get — Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn — and I think I get everything you get out of running right here in the ‘hood.  Not all urban running is loops of the Central Park reservoir; not all urban runners are out there just to fit into a smaller pair of jeans or have ear-buds crammed in our ears at all times.  My trails may not include a majestic panorama of the rockies, but the sunrise glinting off the skyline of Manhattan as you cross the Queensborough Bridge is breathtaking.  I know the ins and outs of countless neighborhoods and how they connect, learning through my feet the multiplicities of race and language, religion and architecture that this city has to offer.  Even in a metropolis of 8 million people, running is an intensely individual act, and carving that solitary space out of such a teeming mass of humanity is still revelatory after all these years, and this is not despite the people around me, but because of them.

I often think of what I do as “urban trail running,” because so often my route is not merely a loop of a park or a simple stretch of sidewalk, but an act of connecting various cement and asphalt paths together, of winnowing countless branching options into one coherent run.  If you think urban running is physically boring, its simply because you haven’t run in the poorer parts of New York City.  My runs involve hoping to and from crumbling curbs, over large broken shards of slate sidewalk, and stretches of dirt and rubble that take up half a city block.  I run up the steps of a stoop then drop back to the pavement; I leap up onto park-benches and run along them for a few strides; I hurdle toppled garbage-cans, vault short fences, and cut through grassy lots and parks.  The physical variety is so astounding, it is only a lack of imagination that keeps one from finding new and exciting ways to explore a city of this size on foot.

My urban running keeps me grounded, the contrary blend of repetition and variety allowing my mind to be both stimulated and contemplative, completely turned inward and outward at the same time.  Today I ran seven miles, a simple route to downtown Brooklyn and back, but it was different than any of the countless other times I’ve made the same trip.  Today was fast and fun, and I sought out any surface I could leap up onto, any short obstacle I could hurdle.  I leapt over the flapping remnants of an umbrella and a pile of garbage bags, vaulted a series of park fences, and ran down the steps in Ft. Greene Park.  I jumped over fire-hydrants, danced in and around abandoned tires, and cut through a grove of trees simply because it was there.  I sprinted, then slowed, raced up unnecessary hills and laughed and felt alive the entire way there and back.  I enjoyed myself, I worked hard, and I made the familiar into the unknown.  “We shall not cease from exploration /And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”  Running does that to me and for me, and if that’s not real and authentic, I don’t know what is.

Perhaps I’m being overly defensive and Krupicka wasn’t implying what I read into it.  I love the idea of running trails, and one of my goals for the next year is to get out and explore the system of trails that surround the metro area.  But I also think runners — both trail runners and urban runners — need to stop selling the city short.  If you aren’t having an authentic experience when you run, you need to look at yourself, not the location; authenticity is about what we bring to the experience, not the other way around.    If you aren’t having fun running in the city, maybe you just need to try hurdling a garbage can.  Trust me — its a blast.

Distance: 7.29 miles          Time: 1:00:46

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About Chris Van Dyke

I am a 33 year-old high school English teacher and long-distance runner. I live in Brooklyn with my partner, our 3 year-old son and 1 year-old daughter and a growing collection of muppets and trains. Besides running and teaching I like to draw, read, write, cook, and play the harmonica. While I didn't get to run my first ultra-marathon on my birthday, I've got a few more I've set my sights on. You can follow my (seldom updated) twitter feed @aboutrunning. I also blog as part of the Run Smiley Collective.
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2 Responses to Urban Trail Running (7.3 miles)

  1. vanessaruns says:

    I’m not sure I pick up on the same holier-than-thou sentiment in Krupicka’s essay, but my criticism of him would be his declaration of NEEDING trails to be himself/be happy. In my aspirations to become a “real” runner – if there is such a thing – I would hope that I could be myself regardless of my surroundings. And love running purely for the act that it is, wherever I happen to be.

    • Chris Van Dyke says:

      The more I have thought I about it, the more I think my defensive reaction to Krupicka’s essay is more a) about me, and b) just about the general sense that floats through the non-main-stream running community that trails are the best way to really run. Which I can understand, especially when most of my fellow urban runners DO spend most of their time running in little circles around pre-defined paved paths. You’re comment actually gets to the heart of what I’m looking at in my essay, however — the “necessity” of trails. I spend a lot of time on my blog intertwining my buddhist philosophy with running, and having one’s happiness/being/running reliant on location seems limiting to me. Everyone has a preference, of course, but I’m trying to enjoy being whenever and whatever the circumstance, and doubly so for running. Smiling on every run. Still a journey, but I’m getting there . . .

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