Adventure Runs

So you’re stuck at home during travel restrictions but still need something exciting to do close to home. I don’t know where you live, but adventure lurks nearby if you know how to plan for it.

snakes, ditches, mud, and ticks

June 23, 2022

Each summer for the last few I’ve hosted a small adventure club for a group of my running friends. We call them Adventure Runs, though running occasionally turns out to be only a minor component of the adventure.

So…. once again it is summer, and once again yesterday morning I posted our secret meetup location in our chat server, anticipated all day long, then finally after work ended for the day drove to the secluded parking spot and waited to see who else showed up.

adventure journal

It had rained all afternoon.

Not just rained. It had poured, complete with thunder and lightning, clacks of huge rain droplets batting against the windows and sending coworkers on our video meetings running off camera to close windows and comfort pets.

At 5pm we were texting back and forth about whether to delay our running plans.

But by 6pm the sunshine was back and I was lacing up my trail shoes and trying to remember exactly how to navigate the city streets to where I’d agreed to meet up for a local adventure.

The thing about trying to find interesting and unique places to run in the suburbs of a big city is that we really have just two choices for trails that are not of the well-maintained asphalt or crushed shale-surfaced accessible recreational locales: we either need to drop into the river valley or we need to find a bit of wilderness trapped between the cultivated corridors of roads, housing and shopping malls.

A dozen years ago a major infrastructure project resulted in the city building a ring road encircling a major part of the established city-proper. The road itself is almost eighty kilometers long with access points into and out of town every three to five klicks, and while in most places it snakes by the clusters of houses with naught but a bit of grassy ditch to separate the two, there are huge swaths of road anchored inside what’s called a transportation utility corridor (TUC) where clearance has been maintained to build roads, power transmission lines, and oil pipelines.

I was also acutely aware of a spot not too far (but not easily accessible) where a particularly interesting swath of TUC had been combined with some natural preserve, an old, blocked off access road, and an interesting destination at the end of the connected trail.

into the woods

On any given summer day, the trail that led from the quasi-parking lot to the east access of the locally famous “graffiti tunnel” would have been a moderately challenging bit of dirt-based single track weaving through and around eclectic landscapes crushed between a busy highway to the south and a winding high-watered creek to the north.

An hour after our quadrant of the city had been doused in an afternoon summer storm, those same trails were glistening and muddy, the tall grasses were hung heavy with rainwater, and the protruding heaps of clay silts that marked the marshy landscape near to the creek were more slippery than had we been running on our familiar winter ice slicks.

As we descended into this twisting, wet, and perilous collection of intersecting trails, each of the seven of us often veering off course to find a bit of path we were individually more comfortable with, a mix of caution and excitement bubbled through the group.

At one point I stopped abruptly with two of my companions close on my heels, slamming on my brakes in the wet mud and barely avoiding stepping on a medium-sized garter snake soaking up the sun on the middle of the path. I shooed it away and “stood guard” as one of my ophidiophobic running mates inched by and squealed in fear.

familiar destinations

More tall grass (hiding nasty ticks!)

A scramble hand-over-hand up a small, nearly impassible hill.

A leap of faith over an ant hill the size of a small car.

And wet feet all around, even though we never did get very close to the creek at all.

While the west side of the graffiti tunnel is accessible from a gentle gravel path connected to some of our local neighbourhood running routes, the east side (separated by a muddy creek) is only found on foot by following the two-and-a-half klick route through the trees and grass and wilderness-laden ditch through which we had just run.

We ogled the years of overlapping graffiti that covered the old pedestrian underpass (yet to be connected to the trail system-proper even eighteen years after it’s installation), took a bunch of photos and selfies, and then contemplated our alternate routes back to the cars… ultimately deciding to face the known perils of retracing our steps back rather than trying to find a simpler (but far longer) route home.

It is almost a rite of passage for a guy who plans crazy running routes to listen to the grumbles and complaints, cursing and swearing of those silly enough to follow him into the wilderness.

And it is certainly rewarding to lead all of those people full circle to their cars and to realize that every single one of them just experienced something they’ll remember for long after we’ve all gone home and washed the mud from our ankles.

how to plan a local adventure

choose your activity

I needed a good excuse to keep running…

…but, last year as the pandemic restrictions ramped up, the running store (where we’d been meeting and running from) shut it’s doors. It was geographically convenient and had ample parking. Plus everyone knew to meet there on certain days and times so that we could run together.

The simple approach might have been to just keep running as we were, meeting from a parking lot, and for many runs over the past year we did. Yet, I wanted something more, and I suspected a lot of the crew might start to get bored and go off on their own plans if nothing more exciting happened.

invent a concept

Instead of panicking or just running solo, I decided it might be interesting to find somewhere new and interesting to run as we no longer had any good reason to keep running from a closed-up retail store. I also decided I’d like to see more of the city trails that I had never bothered to check out because they were not particularly reachable on a short run distance from that store.

I called it adventure runs.

plan a goal

A running adventure sounds like a self-evident concept, but in fact it encompasses so much potential… and potential for disappointment.

I was working full time (I still am) and didn’t have time nor motivation to sit down and plot out full miniature courses each week through locations I’d never spent much time traversing.

Instead I set the goal as something simple: if we ran somewhere new, down a new path, in a new neighbourhood, and saw something or somewhere we’d never seen (or hadn’t seen in a long time) then the adventure run was a success.

pick a starting point

The second part of that concept was picking a good starting point.

It had to have access to trails. There needed to be enough parking (since we could not carpool during the restrictions and transit was still not running at full capacity.) Later in the summer a nearby ice cream shop or coffee stop was requested for afterwards. And of course, it had to be somewhere that felt remote-ish or like we were about to embark on some crazy adventure.

invite willing participants
The gimmick then became about the mystery and the invite.

We have a group chat that has been around for years with a tight knit group of runners who have often been up for exactly this kind of adventure.

I would keep the suspense up. Eventually, as the summer progressed, folks would ask in the lead up week “where is the adventure run this week?” or “what are you planning for Wednesday night?”

The rule quickly followed: “The plan would be announced the morning of the adventure run. Keep your calendar open and check your messages.”

show up

On our best days we had as many as a dozen or more people show up.

I always did.

Rain or shine.

If I felt like leading a run or not, I was there.

And this morning, the first good spring Wednesday post-restrictions, I just sent out that notice once again.

Season two of the adventure runs, by enthusiastic request, start tonight.

Tumbling Trails

For the last two summers I have been leading a small cohort group of my running friends on a pandemic-busting weekly series of what I called "Adventure Runs."

The ultimate goals were (a) to keep the group active and alive through uncertain running days and (b) to have a little summer fun by pathfinding on some new routes, trails, and locations.

We've gone exploring in remote neighbourhoods.

We've followed local paths we haven't dared follow on our regular training runs.

We've run asphalt, gravel, streets, single track, and bushwhacked through the wilderness.

Last night was the sixth of the Summer 2021 series, and in the wake of a hotter-than-hell day, we pushed our meetup time to an hour later than usual, and stuck to somewhere more familiar. Also, at least four of the crew had just -- JUST -- returned a couple days ago from a mountain-based ultramarathon and were feeling a bit recovery-oriented.

We started at a nearby dog park, ran across the bridge over the river, and took up some trail locals call the "intestine" which was a twisting, winding, root-covered three kilometers of single track spanning a little more than one kilometer of actual distance.

It burns you out, running in the heat and stumbling around corners and minding the never-ending tangle of tree roots, so it was really no surprise that a hundred meters from the trail exit I caught a toe on a small protrusion and rolled head over feets, landing on my side against the trunk of a tree.

I limped out of the woods, covered in sweaty muddy debris, helped by a group of too-concerned friends who were ready to call an ambulance.

Today I am a little more sore than I should have expected when I planned yesterday's run a mere twenty-four hours ago. But then what does one expect when one goes looking for an adventure.