Fuzzy concepts offer an endless source of fascination. Take the relatively new concept of running trails. Let’s not start in prehistory, but just go back half a century. when running – as a sport – could reasonably be classified into three kinds, by way of the ‘surfaces’ it is done on: track, road and cross-country.
That wouldn’t have been the only possible categorization; distance provided, as it does now, another major framework. I don’t think trails was part of the jargon yet, but it was the running surfaces frame that provided the context for the dominant understanding of trails once they became part of the running vocabulary. Trail running emerged as a version of cross-country, and thus an off-disciplne.
As always, nothing better than the arts to illustrate that rules and categories should never confine, but rather invite us to combine, mix and fuse to produce fresh interpretations of whatever they are being applied to:
So if urban trails want to fit the profile they need to be off-road isn’t it? Well, that certainly is an interpretation that I myself used for quite some time, and its stickiness partly explains my vague unease with the urban trail idea. However, as soon as I started city running I quickly realized that little or no traffic is actually more important. There is a reason why the concept of trail includes paved urban footpaths. So: no, it doesn’t need to be unpaved.
Having said that, a city like Eindhoven has way more unpaved than we realize:
- The obvious ones that you all know about, like the Genneper parken, the Stratumse Heide, the Grote Beek , the Karpendonkse plas and the Eckart, the unpaved footpaths along the Dommel.
- The more local ones that you might have heard about, like the Wasven, the Aanschotse beemden, The Tongelreep meandering through the Genneper sportparken, the Klotputten, the Herdgang beyond the PSV training complex, Esp.
- The unpaved trails and off-road possibilities largely overlooked by anyone not out on a walk or jog in their own neighborhood: Eindhoven’s many parks, waterway-lining green areas (like, the Oude Gracht, the Ekkersrijt in Acht, the Gender).
- And those mostly not even recognized as possibilities, the lawns and fields lining roads, the grassy borders and bits of shrubbery traversed by an elephant trail only known to the locals.
It all adds up to a considerable amount of unpaved kilometers up for grabs. Even we, whose feet want more direct contact with mother earth, seem blind to many of these possibilities. Conditioned as we are to follow the paths set out for us. And yes, I know, the unpaved can be soggy after rains, and sometimes very tricky, uneven, hard work, requiring full attention. Mmmm, why is that not a problem when navigating a technical trail in ‘proper’ trail environments but a bummer when cruising urban environments? I promise one or more future posts with concrete examples of longer urban outings with the majority of the route unpaved.
The other factor in the unease is the urban part of the concept. Wasn’t trail running all about being out in nature? Isn’t this just another example of commercial capture? Gear producers exploiting every possible angle for marketing ‘tailored’ shoes and other fashion items? I’m sure they do, but it’s silly to rant about that. I enjoyed urban trails long before the Salomons of this world started exploring them as a new market.
Ultimately, what my unease illustrates, is a hang up with pigeonholing. Sure, urban trails differ in many ways from non-urban trails, but ‘nature’ is tricky label to distinguish between the two. We are animals and our anthills are thus as much nature as the next forest, which is more often than not a man-made landscape too. I, you, might prefer one kind of nature over the other, all fine, but an exclusive focus obscures many other aspects of what goes into walking and running trails. Each landscape has its own offer of enjoyable, breath-taking, unexpected surprises.
Nothing better than parkour to realize what a cityscape has to offer for those interested to really look at their environment, with their doors of perception wide open. I use that Huxley reference with reason, because the 1960s flower power discourse that his essay was a predecessor to, offers an interesting analogue to the above, at least to my twisted mind. The US psychedelics scene had an East coast hub, Timothy Leary’s Millbrook scene, and a West coast hub, Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. The East coast was all into dropping out into the otherness of Eastern philosophies, the West coast was all about tuning into the American essence of superman and perfect road tripping. Leary’s orientalism has trumped the public image of the times but the Pranksters had an obvious point. They explored their own environment, through its home-grown mythology.
Like most, I have a gut preference: give me a mountain trail any time, but I cannot make up my conceptual mind about what is actually the purer form of trail running. The urbanists have an obvious point. Don’t look for the grail elsewhere, but right here, where (most of) you live, just look with different eyes, and all you’re after is to be found.
Don’t ask me why, but a bit of quawwali feels like a proper conclusion to this fuzzy category reflection. It’s fence-sitting sufi music, fusing local Hindu and Muslim traditions, and if you’ve ever seen it performed for a South Asian audience, you’ll know it touches all, whatever side of the fence they’re on, like a good trail will give all runners plenty of mast, whatever their specific preferences.