When I was younger, I didn’t pay much attention to where I ran or biked. In university, I’d run about 5 km at a stretch along the same route, mainly as a form of stress relief (and to shed a little Molson muscle). On weekends, I’d often head to the outskirts of town with friends to bomb down trails on mountain bikes, with barely a glance at our broader natural surroundings.
Later, living in Toronto in my 30’s, my self-touted ‘naturally fast metabolism’ waned, coinciding with the birth of my two kids in relatively quick succession. I barely got out the door for any kind of exercise and my exhausted wife granted me zero sympathy points. Stir crazy, I settled on sporadic 30-minute runs out of convenience, checking my watch every few minutes to see how much more I had to endure. Compared to the team sports I played as a kid, running felt about as fun as a stick in the eye. Where’s the net?
As I got into shape and reaped the benefits of running as a sort of therapeutic meditation-on-the-go, I began to enjoy it. Eventually, I joined a local running group and started training for my first 10k, then longer distances and eventually on to the Boston Marathon.
Safety in Numbers
Throughout my growth as a runner, I never took much notice of my surroundings. I tend to get mentally locked into the metrics of running like a lot of distance runners: ‘what’s my target pace?’, ‘how many kilometres do I have left’, ‘how far is my long run this Sunday?’ Tacking hard numbers on to an activity you spend an awful lot of time engaging in (as non-running friends are quick to point out) feels like progression in an unpredictable world.
My wife’s a runner, too, and one who’s recently fallen for trail running. About six months ago, she convinced me to sign up for an ultra-trail race this summer, The Quebec Mega Trail in the Laurentians (now postponed due to the pandemic). The race features some of the most challenging vertical this side of the Rockies that would take about seven-to-nine hours to complete, if you completed it. I asked myself what I was getting into, looking at the heavy-mileage training plan over 30 weeks.
Initially, I felt hoodwinked as I began training for the race late last year. Gradually, though, I began to enjoy the freedom one feels when running on wooded trails with only my training plan’s loose instructions to guide me: “Wednesday, 10k, easy pace”. Over time, I focused less and less on the numbers.
Trail running’s more about ‘feel’ and experiencing nature up close, which may explain why so many trail runners look like modern-day hippies. However, consciously feeling your way along your route becomes a necessity on more technical, vertically challenging trails that require fast feet and strong quads. Your pace fluctuates more when navigating the undulating contours and hazards along your route, leaving less time to glance at your watch and risk tripping on a tree root. You need to stay focused on the path ahead as the landscape shifts.
Toronto’s Wooded Playground
I usually run on the trails in Toronto’s vast, connected ravine system that weave their way up and down the steeply carved walls of this subterranean, wooded oasis. You’d be surprised by how inspired you can become by mother nature here, even as a subway rumbles over a bridge overhead; I think it makes you a more curious runner, if not a faster one.
Years ago, I enrolled in a post-graduate diploma in journalism at a local college. 90 per cent of the curriculum focused on educating aspiring journalists in the art of the written word, or at least how to layout those words in print and on nascent websites. The remaining 10 per cent consisted of one course in photography. I came into the course with ambitious plans for a career in the former but quickly found myself drawn to the latter. Truth is, for most writers (both good and bad ones), their craft is usually a plodding struggle with fleeting moments of flow. So was learning photography at the start, but at least you gained freedom from a stuffy classroom regularly when heading outside to shoot for class assignments. I enjoyed that freedom, and soon my photo assignments as well, especially along the Danforth: a popular, historically Greek strip on the east side of town, already ceding to creeping gentrification.
I still enjoy photography to this day and have come around to the benefits trail running. A 90-minute trail run in the ravines can now turn into a two-hour adventure. I don’t worry about my heart rate dropping to a ‘sub-optimal’ rate. When I pull out my iPhone to photograph some intriguing landscape feature, I take my time. There’s history in these woods, and hidden finds. I take my time now, obscured from above under a canopy of trees.
My pace may have dropped off but I don’t really care. I look around more these days. I like what I see.