Urban runners, like city-dwellers generally, are drawn to the prospect of escape. Books such as Richard Askwith's Running Free and Lizzy Hawker's Runner are part of a publishing trend which capitalises on our desire to swap the crowds and constraints of the city for the green spaces, fresh air and freedom of the countryside. Whether you're moving through the pastures and fields of Northamptonshire or the rugged trails of the Himalayas, wild running, we are told, is not only fun, but liberating, meditative and inspirational. Filled with lyricism and anti-consumerist sentiment, such books are both a source of escapist pleasure and a manifesto for a less conventional, even subversive form of running. The evangelists of wild running situate themselves on the periphery of a long tradition of philosophical pedestrians that stretches from Robert Macfarlane back to Wordsworth and beyond. They are intrepid and intellectual - and we want to join them in the forests and fells. But while this desire to escape the predictability and pollution of the city is easily awakened, it is harder to act upon. The literature of wild running leaves the city-dweller pleasantly dreaming of the wilderness, but in doing so it unwittingly makes us less likely to reach for our trainers - because running in the city is dull, right?
Thankfully, the urban lifestyle and landscape needn't reduce an enriching pastime to a dull and predictable routine. In fact, the city provides as much opportunity for exploration and enjoyment as the wilderness; we need only make the effort to look further than the nearest park and the next big city marathon. Here are four things that should be embraced by every urban runner:
City centre towpaths are vibrant but unnatural places. Here the runner faces an obstacle course of kamikaze cyclists, daytime drinkers and phone-wielding pedestrians. But head out of the city and the people vanish, along with the restaurants and waterside apartments. You'd be forgiven for never having planned an expedition to the edgelands. On the map, these are nameless places dotted with sewage works, industrial parks and train maintenance depots. But the canal that cuts through them has a peculiar, wild beauty. Here you are as likely to see a heron as you are a submerged motorbike. On the fringes of the city, the canal becomes a distinctly urban wilderness, where nature thrives against the odds.
There are clear advantages to commuting on foot. Swapping your travel card for trainers saves you the cost and discomfort of public transport, and it ensures a chock-a-block work diary doesn't mean an empty training log. If motivation becomes a problem, the run-commuter need only consider the alternative: a rush-hour tube filled with armpits and iPhones. (Or worse, a car journey.) You'll breeze through the office doors de-stressed, on time and alert. But more than this, commuting on foot will heighten your awareness of the light changing, the seasons shifting and of the urban landscape's state of permanent transformation. If you vary your route and stay mindful of your surroundings, commuting on foot, unlike running mindless laps of a park, will never feel like a chore.
The Local Race
Major city marathons do little to promote the everyday pleasures of urban running. Whopping entry fees are warranted by the novelty of what's on offer: a traffic-free route lined with iconic sights and cheering spectators. Of course, these high-cost, heavily branded city centre events can be extraordinary and unforgettable. But in truth, you don't need chip timing and a stadium finish to experience the drama of a hard-run race. Small-scale, locally organised events introduce us to new areas of the city, but more importantly, they welcome us into a community of runners who are less interested in Instagrammable finish lines than the satisfaction of that most basic instinct: to run - and, occasionally, to run hard.
The Running Community
Athletics clubs, Park Runs, run2work groups: city-dwellers looking to run in the company of others are spoilt for choice. Group runs offer safety, support and a break from the routine of running solo. More than that, they are a chance to discover new routes, to meet new people and to experience the primitive joy of running with the pack. No matter the surroundings, group running is invigorating and instinctive; it's what our bodies evolved to do. Rather than complain about the crowds, we should embrace the community. Only then can we satisfy the childlike impulse to run stride for stride with other human beings.