Run And Repeat

A look at the phenomenon of repeatedly running the same trails.

By on November 11, 2013 | Comments

Chick's CornerTrail running is surely a sport of discovery: the excitement of new surroundings and views, maps to pour over for new routes, hopping in the car or on a plane to compete in races often many hours from where we live. It seems that our sport draws those who have a sense of adventure and a passion for travel. Yet, when I think about it, I probably do 90% of my running on less than 100 kilometers worth of trails. I have my go-to routes, the trails that without thinking about it, I probably run week in, week out for months if not years on end. Yes, I have moved towns quite a bit in the last 10 years or so, which has added variety to my running, but for each town I have lived in, my running routes have somehow been rather routine. But does routine mean dull?

I know that I am not alone in this habit of routinely sticking to what I know. One just has to dip into Anton Krupicka’s blog to see that he appears to have a fondness for Green Mountain and Longs Peak. Or how about Jorge Maravilla, Brett Rivers, and the San Francisco Running Company crew who never seem to go a week without summiting Mount Tamalpais? I have never even visited these trails and yet I know their names well from regular social-media postings. So what draws those involved in a sport, which seems to embody the essence of discovery and exploration, to repeat the same routes week in, week out, year in, year out?

For myself, some of it is undoubtedly about convenience. I’m done with a day of work; I’m in a rush to get out the door and get my run in, so I go where I know. I go where I know I won’t get lost, where I know how long each section of trail will take me, and I go where I don’t need to do any research–just put on the shoes and run. It’s efficient, it’s somewhat lazy, but it gets the job done, when the job is more about training rather than exploration. We all know that feeling where we have two hours and five minutes and want to get a two-hour run in. That doesn’t leave much time for creative route planning. It might make running seem boring, but if I’m training for a race, sometimes I just need to get a workout done in an efficient manner, and knowing a regular route makes that possible. It’s the same for Stephanie Howe, who told me that she particularly runs the same routes a lot in winter when trail access can be somewhat limited, so convenience and weather definitely play a role.

Amy Sproston said in an email exchange that routine is somewhat about following the crowd–each week she’ll meet her run group and they have some set routes so off they go. I’ve definitely been in that situation with run clubs, too; if there are 10 or so of you who run together, why spend 15 minutes discussing and maybe disagreeing over where to run? If you have a few pre-determined routes, then everyone knows what to expect when they show up (and if you don’t want that you can decide in advance to skip meeting the group). It was interesting that Amy said that she didn’t enjoy always running the same few routes but she seems to sacrifice her natural desire to explore in order to run with a bunch of friends.

One of my reasons to run the same route is to compare times. I have one road route where I have a turnaround point and know my average ‘finishing’ time. So even if I am just 30 seconds faster or slower, I know how my workout is going. Thus, in having a regular route, I can easily gauge my fitness and how my overall training is progressing, or not! On the other hand, it’s inevitable that if I explore new trails, I am more likely to pause to check directions and not know how long different portions of the run will take, so I can’t use new or lesser-known routes to gauge my fitness levels.

Of course, I love those runs where new views pop up around each corner, where the run is just as much about sightseeing as it is about completing a workout. However, exploring new trails requires concentration and focus, looking out for turnoffs and signage, and this isn’t always what the goal of my workout is. If it’s been a busy week at work, I enjoy setting off on a regular route and just zoning out, not having to think or pay attention, but just putting one foot in front of another for a moving meditation. My feet know where to go because they’ve been there many times before. It’s on runs like this where I can get lost in my daydreams or drift off listening to music.

One of the things that I love for sure about running the same routes frequently is being able to see the season changes. One of my favorite powerhikes in North Vancouver is the BCMC Trail, three kilometers long with 850 meters of elevation gain ending atop Grouse Mountain. During the summer months, the BCMC is a dusty, dry trail with trees to shade the masses of hikers from the sun. Right now, it’s likely to be as much of a river as it is a trail, with rain water cascading down the roots and rocks, and dripping from the trees. But by December, the BCMC will be a snowy, winter wilderness with only the more determined hikers left slogging their way to the top. The joy of seeing changes throughout the seasons, of feeling I know each and every part of the trail in detail, gives me a satisfying sense that I know my neighborhood trails just as well as I know the stores on my neighborhood streets. And because of the changes between seasons, I guess the trail does not get boring with repetition because the trail itself is changing all the time.

I was surprised when Brett Rivers mentioned in an email that he and a group of friends had actually set a target to summit Mount Tamalpais 50 or more times this year. I’d never considered setting a target over a run route as, for me, I would then be concerned about becoming bored and running a particular route just to achieve some arbitrary target. But, it’s nearly year’s end and Brett has already surpassed his 50-summits target and it doesn’t appear that he’s gotten bored yet! It did strike me that maybe the repetition of routes that are summits rather than just a regular run route might be more common. After all, we are often limited by the number of accessible peaks yet they provide an efficient workout and usually have the satisfying reward of a view at the top. I definitely have a greater tolerance for going up and down BCMC repeated times (sometimes in one day) than running a flatter trail again and again.

So whether it’s about getting an efficient workout in, being a lazy route planner, or enjoying the changing seasons, running similar trails over and over hasn’t gotten old for me yet.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Are you both exploratory and habitual with regard to our trail running?
  • Do you find yourself repeating the same routes or trails? Why?
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Ellie Greenwood
Ellie Greenwood has IAU World 100k Championship, Western States, and Comrades victories to her credit. A Scot living in Canada, Ellie is supported by Salomon, Clif Bar, Udo's Oil, and Sundog Eyewear. You can read more about Ellie's running on her blog.