Rural running, in the city

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View of Leeds from Rothwell Country Park, on the site of the former Rothwell colliery

Picked up one of my favourite running books the other day – Running Free, by Richard Askwith. First read it a couple of years ago, and no doubt it’s been a big influence on how I’ve gone about my running since. It shuns the conventional, “urban” style of running – based on roads, gyms, times, expensive kit, big events etc – in favour of a “rural” style emphasising the sheer joy and fun of running: inexpensive, off-road and closer to nature.

I spent much of 2019 putting this into practice when living and working in Borrowdale in the Lake District, a fantasy-land for the “rural” runner, as outlined in my most recent blogs. Equally, the author describes similar experiences running through the fields and woods close to his home in rural Northamptonshire.

There seems to me a logical next step from this. Some people live in the countryside permanently, others temporarily, and most of us will visit from time to time. However, fact is that 80-90% of us live in towns and cities, so day-to-day are not able to practice “rural” running in a rural setting. It would seem pretty important, then, to establish whether it’s possible to practice rural running in an urban setting, so that it’s theoretically available to most.

This is only too apparent to me. Having finished my summer job in Borrowdale in October, I moved back to Leeds, where I’d previously lived since 2005. Over these last 3 months, I haven’t gone out and bought a pair of road shoes, or joined many of my running club’s road interval sessions or signed up for the Leeds Half Marathon. Instead, I’ve been trying to find various weird and wonderful ways of keeping my running varied, interesting, low-cost (I’m not currently blessed with a well-paid job) and, perhaps most importantly for me (a creaky 47 year-old with dodgy knees), off-road. It’s been particularly challenging in these cold, dark winter months, but I’ve given it a go!

Here, then, are 10 top tips for “rural” running when living in a big city, based on my experience of running in Leeds:

  1. Don’t run in road-shoes, run in trail shoes. Road shoes are only good for tarmac (and some will question even that), so if you wear them, you won’t go anywhere else. Whereas, trail shoes allow you to run on all surfaces – paths, grass, mud, and the occasional unavoidable stretch of tarmac – giving you the choice to wander at will.
  2. Seek out the green space. Every town or city has some green or wild space. Parks, woods, fields, nature reserves, accessible reclaimed land, cemeteries, estates, canal towpaths etc. Edinburgh even gets its own city-centre mountain (Arthur’s Seat). Get a decent map and start linking it all up. I’ve recently moved to the Woodlesford area of Leeds which is blessed with enormous stretches of accessible open space, mainly reclaimed from old collieries. Exploring it has been a great way of getting to know the local history of my new patch.
  3. Join a club that does trail/fell running. At my count there are 8 running clubs in Leeds affiliated to the Fell Runners Association (FRA). Indeed many FRA-affiliated clubs are urban-based. An obvious way of finding out about suitable training sessions and races and meeting like-minded people.
  4. If it’s dark, you don’t just have to stick to well-lit pavements (or retreat to the gym). Grassy verges and central reservations are not bad options. In Leeds, the outer ring road, Easterly Road and Leeds Road through Rothwell provide some good well-lit grassy runs. And a decent head-torch gives you the option of getting off the roads at night if you wish.
  5. Find a “green wedge” into the city and run out into the countryside. In Leeds, the obvious example is the Meanwood Valley Trail, which links up with the Dales Way. It’s possible to run mainly off-road from Leeds city centre to the Lake District! (I’ve blogged about this in the past). Our other good option here is the River Aire and accompanying canal, in both directions. Sheffield, I know, has even more options.
  6. Urban ultras. In Leeds we are blessed with a 64-mile continuous trail circling the city – the Leeds Country Way. Many other places have something similar. I jogged round the LCW in 2 days over January, and it was a great way of exploring the varied but, to me, largely unfamiliar edge of the city. And of recce-ing the route of Leeds’ equivalent of the Bob Graham Round. And unlike the real BGR, there are plenty of shops, pubs and cafes en route!
  7. Invent challenges and other running “games”. I had some good fun last year inventing the so-called Meanwood Valley 3 Trigs Challenge, based on that icon of the wild places, the trig point, and was flattered that a few people gave it a go. Also, particularly runnable stretches of ground can be made into Strava segments and then be “raced” – I found a fast 2k, all downhill, through Gledhow Valley woods that I enjoyed running flat-out a few times. I’ve heard of night orienteering in city woods too, which sounds like a laugh.
  8. Run the urban fell and trail races. As far as I’m aware, there are 2 races in the FRA calendar within the City of Leeds boundaries – Otley Chevin and Danefield Relay. Local clubs organise a number of trail races, such as Boxing Day’s famous Chevin Chase, the Meanwood Valley Trail race, Guiseley Gallop etc etc. And, increasingly, there are some commercial trail races too – Holly Hustle, St Aidan’s Winter Beast etc – just a google search away. Some of the city’s many parkruns are more interesting than others….
  9. Seek out the mud. There will be stretches of muddy path in every town or city in winter time. So, instead of avoiding it just enjoy the fun of running through it! There is a particularly good 10-minute muddy loop at the top of the Meanwood Valley Trail near Stairfoot Lane car park, incidentally.
  10. Spoil tips. I had a few fun experiences in Borrowdale running down the spoil tips of the old mines at Honister and Seathwaite, so was pleased to find something similar from an old coal mine on the outskirts of Rothwell. A bit like scree-running on a damp sponge, but without any environmental guilt (see below).

Well, there’s probably more on this theme, and I’d be interested to hear anyone else’s ideas. Elsewhere on this site can be found lengthy discourse about my attempts to help save just a small wild space in Leeds from development a few years ago. Returning to the city after almost a year in Borrowdale, which is blessed with wilderness aplenty, has reminded me of the essential need for wild space close to where the majority of people live as well.

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