You can't beat the beauty of running on mountain trails, but I still sometimes long for the freedom and shared chaos of urban runs
Earlier this year, when I moved from Washington, D.C., to Santa Fe, New Mexico, I prepared for most aspects of my life to change dramatically. As a lifelong East Coaster, I’d spent years living mostly in bustling cities, passing hours of my day on public transit while surrounded by the fast-moving, career-driven types of the Northeast—the antithesis of the small, quirky Southwestern community that I now call home.
I feel this change most acutely in my new running routines. In Santa Fe, I can run the trails near town at sunrise or drive up into the national forest after work. On those early morning runs, the desert air is crisp and the trails are quiet and empty, save for the occasional jackrabbit darting between shrubs. I still gawk like a tourist every time the sun edges up over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east. After work, I’m spoiled with options—a dizzying network of trails spider through the national forest. In Santa Fe, there’s no reason to complain about repetitive road routes or runs spent weaving around groups of tourists or stopping my watch while waiting to cross a busy street.
But here’s the thing: occasionally, and unexpectedly, I’m hit with a bout of nostalgia for a run through the city.
Most of the time, I specifically long for nighttime city runs. In D.C., where I lived for a year and a half, if I got home late, I could always lace up my shoes and log a few miles before going to bed. In the part of the city where I lived, the streets were well lit and people were around at all hours, unlike in Santa Fe. I hardly ever felt unsafe, regardless of the time. Those nighttime routes were far from my favorites, but the opportunity to loosen up my muscles and work through the day’s stress more than made up for it. (I also admit to feeling a kind of smugness running at an hour when almost everyone else was asleep.)
It’s not just the night runs that I miss. Before I moved to D.C., I lived in Boston—a city overflowing with running culture and history. Along the Charles River, there’s a palpable sense of camaraderie between runners, even when the path is covered in snow and the wind off the water stings your face. Boston is truly a runner’s city: a place where the marathon feels like its own national holiday. And on those inevitable rough days when the miles inched by and I forgot what it meant to be fast (or that this sport could ever be enjoyable), it felt like I was out running with the rest of the city. All of us feeling tired and hurting and wanting to quit, but still moving along together.
Because of the crowds and inherent busy nature of the city, living in one also often means returning to a small roster of reliable running routes. I spent one summer during college living and working in New York City, and my hectic schedule and unfamiliarity with the area forced me to run varying distances along the same stretch of the Hudson River nearly every day for three months. At first, this was excruciatingly boring. But as the summer rolled on, I came to appreciate the opportunity for introspection. Every morning, as I passed the same piers, tennis courts, and grassy parks, I was confronted by the same thoughts I’d had while running the identical route the day before—and I could watch as my thoughts slowly evolved for the better. The halfhearted relationship I’d left behind at school felt more distant; the stress I was feeling at work slowly became more manageable. The banality of running the same route over and over turned my attention back toward myself; my surroundings acted as bookmarks for what I’d been thinking at that spot on the previous day’s run. This is something my less-repetitive runs in Santa Fe—where I often focus my energy on enjoying the scenery or ensuring I don’t get lost—rarely allow for.
The nature of city running also makes any opportunity for a trail run—where you can find it—feel even more precious. The trails I ran in Boston and D.C. are underwhelming compared to those I run now, but I no longer experience that exhilarating feeling of finding refuge in the Fells or Rock Creek Park after running a mile or two on asphalt just to get there. To discover a place within a city where I could hear many layers of old leaves crunch under my shoes was invigorating. I was only a few miles away from a world of metro delays and endless Whole Foods lines, but in that moment, as I was running over a lone bridge across a rushing stream in the middle of the woods, those nuisances were far from my mind. A good trail in a city feels like a well-kept secret—a temporary hideaway from the crowded chaos.
I had earned it.