What makes a great running loop?

A great running loop ideally has a mix of scenery no matter how long or short it is.

Nearly all runners have them. The trusty running loop.

Depending on your level of commitment in the sport of running, the trusty (or great) running loop can vary from 1 mile to 20. Much of running success depends on consistency. Therefore having a running loop by which to motivate you to get out and run, and also measure your success along the way, is a critical aspect of your training.

Baselines

The needs of people vary greatly. In our neighborhood there is a runner who apparently only does his training on a .7 mile oversized block that I also happen to use for criterium training in cycling. The block circles Memorial Park, an area that used to hold the high school track and football facilities from the 1930s through the 1950. Now it is occupied by three state-of-the-art softball fields and a newly installed asphalt “trail” that circles the park. Frankly that new asphalt trail ruined my grass training loop! But dog walkers and some joggers seem to like it better now.

Our “neighborhood” runner dresses quite eclectically, as running garb goes. On hot days he wears no shirt, but he does wear a reflective orange and bright green vest in all seasons. His running is a shifting jog that hardly qualifies as running, but for many years he has been religious about his training, and I mean that literally. As a Jehovah’s Witness he showed up at our home one day to talk about God. To his surprise he found out I think about those things a little bit in my spare time, but we had a spirited discussion nevertheless. We wave hello now, friends in running and faith. Well, sort of.

Every day he’d circle his trusty running loop in white sneakers that were not quite running shoes. His training has curtailed of late, perhaps due to injury or age. But he was the model of consistency for a long time, appearing so frequently that our dog did not even lift his head in curiosity at the strange looking man “running” by our house.

The next level

Another neighborhood fixture was the gal who ran with her golden retriever. Our street was on her trusty route and the two would come running past early in the day. Her stride was a little long for her frame and I often wished to tell her she could shorten up her cadence and possibly save her body a little stress.  Yet her running was consistent and it was not my business to intrude. Instead I’d wave when we crossed paths at a number of points around town. She must have put in 4-5 miles a day. Every day.

Trusty routes everywhere you go

A trusty running loop in a strange town can help you keep the world in perspective.

Even when you’re out of town running from some hotel it is interesting to discover people out on their runs who clearly run there every day. If you’re staying at a hotel for 3-4 days and take off for a run into some nearby residential area, you’ll often find other runners out at the same time. The runner on their trusty loop often has a far-away look in their eyes, for they are processing yesterday’s events and thinking about today and tomorrow.

That is part of what makes a great running loop. You can run it without thinking, so that you can do the thinking you need to solve your problems, be they practical or creative. It’s always interesting to realize that while you’re in foreign territory, the ground you cover while running may be another runner’s trusty route. It gives you a little comfort to know you’re not alone in the world. You might make your own trusty loop for a few days, so that you don’t get lost and miss an important meeting back at the conference you are attending, or whatever. Trusty loops can be permanent or temporary. But we still need them.

All the makings of a great running loop

The ideal “great running loop” offers a mix of predictability and variety. My own trusty loop is a simple 3 mile course that can be easily expanded to 4 or 5 miles depending on time available and type of training desired. The route can be run in either direction of course–depending on the wind and weather–and that can be important in Illinois.

Its only drawback as a year-round loop is that is covers part of the Fox River Trail, a system of paths along the Fox River. Last winter proved so warm and snowless that it was passable all year, although the occasional ice patch made things interesting.

When snow and ice preclude the trusty running loop there is another 3-miler out and around the high school that is always clear.

The great thing about the river loop is the variety. As a birder I’m always on the lookout for interesting birds and there are many to be found along that loop, which cuts along a forest preserve and a slow stretch of the Fox where birds really like to congregate. Eastern bluebird, Great-crested flycatcher, Baltimore Oriole, Cedar Waxwing, Blue-gray gnatcatcher, multiple species of warblers in spring and a Great horned owl are just some of the bird species found on the loop.

This 3-miler also offers variety in terrain, sloping down into the river valley and back up the other side at either end of the loop. You can’t escape running hills that way.

It is also populated with plenty of people. Because while I’m a loner sometimes, at other times it is nice to greet other runners and walkers on the path, stop to pet a friendly dog or share the sighting of a bluebird on a bare branch.

Forgiveness

A great running loop should test you sometimes, and at other times be forgiving enough to help you get back in shape. My trusty loop has seen me through rehab of a torn ACL, for example. For weeks I’d walk the loop, which took an hour or more. Then it was possible to add in some slow jogging, then sustained running and finally a complete trip of 3 miles when the knee would allow it.

Recently while coming back from the bike accident that process was repeated. So the trusty running loop has seen both glory, when I raced up part of its stretch on the path to victory in a 10k, and humility when injury or illness or stress required simpler method and goals. Recently I found a new friend on the route who was completing a personal marathon when her plans for NYC were cancelled by Hurricane Sandy. So you never know  who’ll you’ll meet on a great running loop either.

History

A great running loop builds its own history. It sees you through the miles and years. You might share it with a visiting runner friend, for example, which I have done with old college running teammates and visitors from out of town. Most marvel at the scenery and what a great little loop it is. I smile proudly because it is like having a child of which you are most proud.

Big time

When you are training for a marathon or other big race, you need a trusty running loop that can be built upon as you increase your mileage week to week, month to month. That loop should also have water access if you don’t train with a group that provides it, or else carry your own. That of course is an increasing dynamic as modern running technology has made water more portable. Formerly it was crucial to know where the publicly available water stops were, so that you didn’t run dry at 15 miles.

Training groups have also turned former deserts into an oasis of convenience for runnings. All summer long at the start of the Great Western Trail in St. Charles, Illinois, groups of runners meet and depart on training runs ranging from 5 to 20 miles. The group sets out giant water jugs with cups. Literally dozens of runners, equal numbers male and female turn out through the summer months, putting in miles in preparation for races around the country and around the world.

That flat section of trail used to be a railroad bed, so it’s only hills are at the start and over the bridges that cross highways. The actual roads it crosses are few, so one can run while talking and not worry about being mowed down by cars.

There is also shade over about 50% of the length of that trail, a vital savior on hot summer mornings. Its only drawback is that you run out and back, not exactly a thrilling notion when you know the mile marker you’ve just passed has to be passed again on the way home. That is existentialism defined. The irreversibility of time. We all run with Jean Paul Sarte and Albert Camus in some form or another.

All lengths and all times

Great running loops are therefore as diverse as the people who run them. Some become the stuff of local legend such as Pre’s Trail in Oregon, where you are likely to encounter world class distance runners padding the same paths.

In Chicago, the Lincoln Park trail offers a mix of hard surface and gritty cinders, affording a rather classic feel to the varied lengths of running loops available on the north side of the city. That’s where I did most of my training while living at 1764 N. Clark Street, right on Lincoln Park. There were many cold winter afternoons spent traipsing up to Montrose Harbor and back, an 8 mile loop and a staple of daily training. The lake breezes were welcome in summertime, but in winter they could blow waves up and over the breakwall, dashing you with freezing cold lake water. Despite those challenges, it was one of the greatest running loops you could hope for.

If you have a great running loop you’d like to describe, send in a 500 word or less email to cudworthfix@gmail.com. It would be fun to share your great running loops with the rest of the world.

About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @genesisfix07 and blogs at werunandride.com, therightkindofpride.com and genesisfix.wordpress.com Online portfolio: http://www.behance.net/christophercudworth
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