Mountain to metropolis: rural versus city running

Rocky Mountain trail Running

I remember my first trail race vividly. It was the inaugural year of Round the Mountain (RtM), in my hometown of Kimberley, BC. Round the Mountain had a series of races of different lengths, much of it over challenging technical trails. I was on a two-person relay team; my mom and I would each cover half of a 20k loop.

Somehow, despite living in a ski town with access to an exceptional trail system, I knew nothing about trail running. I was fit and reasonably speedy, but my first few years of running were almost exclusively on roads. Power hiking? Trail shoes? Who is she? We don’t know her. I was also in that glorious time period where PBs are almost a given at any distance, and I assumed this would be the case in RtM. I was laughably naive.

What I didn’t know about RtM was that the first 5k were up the mountain: we were climbing the ski hill. I remember looking at that first big climb (definitely not runnable) and thinking, ‘Well, shit. Guess I’m not PBing.’

In retrospect, I did well for my first trail race. I played all the hits: I tripped over a root and went off trail, but for someone way out of their depth, it wasn’t a poor effort. I was still racing. But, it was harder than expected, and I was in the “every race will be a PB” mindset. And perhaps because of that, I barely set foot on a gravel path for several years, never mind a proper trail.

Fast forward a decade and one of my favourite things to do when I visit BC is trail running. I’m hardly fast, preferring to enjoy every second. I walk the hills and stop for photos at the viewpoints. I’m a bit of a stumblebum, so I’m cautious on technical terrain. I’ve come to see the trail network that’s 10 minutes from my doorstep as a wonderful blessing. In my time since moving to Toronto, the Kimberley trail running community has expanded- we now have an ultramarathon in town. What changed my mindset?

A lot of it comes down to “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”. But that’s not to say there are no benefits to city running. My most recent trip to Kimberley (population 7,000) had me thinking about urban versus rural running. Spoiler: one isn’t better than the other- as with much in life, they’re just different.

Wild encounters

Animals: we all (or most of us) love ‘em. If you’re running in Toronto, glimpsing a deer, fox or coyote feels novel. If you live somewhere where this happens, it’s a different story (warning: this video can be difficult to watch. The dog did make a full recovery).

One of my most frightening encounters while running came from stumbling upon not a dangerous human, or even a bear or cougar, but a doe protecting a fawn. Deer are very common in Kimberley, and unfortunately, I ran past Bambi. It took off into nearby bushes, but soon I could hear something else crashing through the trees towards me. Suddenly, Mother burst out of the brush, making a noise I didn’t know deer could make (did you know deer can roar? You do now).

For the next few hundred meters, I was chased by this grunting, growling doe. She felt the need to stay about two feet from me this entire time, which was unnecessary; I was in good shape and relatively fast, but not “outrun a deer” fast. Fortunately, she tired of the chase and took off back toward her fawn.

I love seeing wildlife, but prefer animal encounters from the safety of a car or with a decent amount of space between me and any critters. I already carry gels, water, keys, my phone and sunglasses- a can of bear spray is a welcome subtraction.

Wide open spaces

My hometown proclaims proudly that it has a single stoplight (seriously). It’s quiet. There’s no McDonald’s or Starbucks. Many of the residential streets are twice as wide as a Toronto residential street. Rush hour is more rush minute. Several years ago, old railway tracks were torn up and replaced with a paved 20k-ish pathway extending to a nearby city, Cranbrook. It’s a city in the technical sense, with about 20,000 residents, but it’s not Calgary (about 4.5 hours away) or Vancouver (about 11 hours away). Even by city standards, it’s small.

Imagine running your tempo workout without a single traffic light or needing to stop your watch. What would it be like if you never had to make mid-run route changes because of parades, festivals or construction? While sidewalks are not a given in Kimberley, it’s less of an issue with wide roads and you’ll often go long stretches between seeing cars.

Of course, if avoiding all signs of humanity is your goal, it’s simple if you head to the trails. Ontario has its trails, sure, but some are barely removed from the highway or are heavily trafficked. The trail system in my hometown gets remote, fast- if you get lost (as I have done and do not recommend), I hope you have a “back to start” feature on your watch or stumble on a map kiosk. The trails themselves vary from old fire access roads to rock slides. You might see one other person- on a busy day. Need a walk break? You won’t even need to shoulder check to make sure no one will see you. There’s no one there- trust me on this.

Race not, want not

You like road racing? Okay, here’s three races. For the year. And none of them are marathons, if that’s your preferred distance. Hope to see you there!

Now that races have resumed in the GTA, you could race every month of the year. Not so in a small, remote community, where races are limited and may not be chip timed or a certified distance. If you’re craving that big-race feel, you’re travelling. The trail scene in my hometown has expanded, sure- but anyone able to drive to the many trail races in the GTA would still be able to race more often. 

If you’re training for half marathon or marathon, you might get lucky and find some training partners. Small-town running clubs exist, but the option to run every night of the week with a different crew? That’s a city thing- as is the array of niche, special interest running groups.

But, say you’ve decided to race, are okay with travelling and have even convinced a friend to train with you- what else do you need? Running gear. Think you can find those cool, fast-looking shoes adorning the pages of your running magazines? It goes without saying that specialty shops are far more abundant in cities. My first few pairs of proper running shoes were purchased during vacations in the USA. Making a trip to a specialty running store to get my annual pair of running shoes was an event in its own right.

There is a fun, feel-good bonus to doing smaller community races, though. If you’ve been training, you might see a higher-than-usual placement in your results. My first two half marathons were two subsequent years at the Blue Heron Half Marathon, about 90 minutes away from Kimberley in another small town, Creston. I placed in the top five finishers (and also wasn’t running shoulder-to-shoulder with other runners for the first few kilometers). Normally I’d be adding a few zeroes after that five, so yes, I will take the boost to my ego, thanks.   

Good, better, best

So, which do I prefer, running in rural places or the big city? Like so much in life, it’s situational: when I’m visiting BC, I love the trails and the empty streets. What once seemed boring or dull is now a treat. But, I’m aware it’s something I associate with holidays, and if I was to move back to the mountains, I’d miss the opportunities that come with living in Toronto.

One thing about living in a small place is that you could very well become “the runner”, especially if you’re training on your own, as I was. Lacking in-person resources left me free to make plenty of mistakes, as I was essentially winging it on my own. I’ve become a far stronger, more knowledgeable runner since moving to Toronto, and I highly doubt I would have run a single marathon had I not drunk the running community Kool-Aid. And, finally, I’ve met a lot of incredible people. For now, maybe I’ve found the perfect balance: I have two vastly different places I can call home, and I enjoy running in both of them.