Running in the woods in the city

Last weekend I traveled to Saint John New Brunswick to run the Rompin’ Rockwood urban trail race. At around 2200 acres, Rockwood Park is a large by urban park standards (one of the largest in Canada), and has over 50 km (that’s 31 miles to us Americans) of trail! And not flat manicured gravel padded “city trail”. This is by and large rooty rocky technical single track, running up and down over ridges and outcrops. When I showed up for the inaugural running of the 25km race last year, the technical nature of the course caught me off guard. This year, I knew what I was in for.

Photos from Sadie Gagner

The course is beautiful, twisting and turning through different ecosystems in this multiuse urban preserve. Ferns and new green leaves, blooming rhodora, clintonia and native cherries abound (they are about a week behind my area in terms of spring flowering). You can forget for a moment that you are in a large city. Then you smell the trains in a nearby train yard, and hear the highway as it passes the park. From the high point I heard a ship’s horn sound in the busy industrial harbor, from another outcrop a view opens up of the entirety of the Saint John waterfront and container port facility and when I saw flames at the top of a distant smoke stack I realized with surprise I was looking at an oil refinery and a natural gas flare. None of this took away from the race or the course, or the park in any way. The juxtaposition of gorgeous single track and Canada’s largest oil refinery only made this running more human. I’m not sure it is healthy to pretend that I didn’t fill up my car at an Irving gas station and drive nearly four hours for the privilege of racing in a well maintained green preserve. Hopefully some day it will be a massive solar array, or more likely low impact tidal turbines I’ll see from that last high outcrop on the course. But regardless, modern humans live in the modern world, a world of our creation. That world includes power use beyond what an individual human can generate on her own, at least for the vast majority of us on this planet (to varying degrees yes, but very few of us use only the power we generate with our bodies). The proximity of the modern and the primal that the Rockwood race facilitates is refreshingly honest. Take your inner wild human for a run in the woods, and be simultaneously humbled by the view of the Saint John industrial infrastructure that makes your comfortable modern life possible.

Just like our first impulse may be to feel offended by the sight of a container port from our trail run, many people pay no attention to (or overtly dislike) the cosmopolitan plants and animals that have adapted to a human impacted world. In Crow Planet and The Urban Bestiary, Lyanda Lynn Haupt makes a strong case for being an urban naturalist, if for no other reason than that is where most of us live now. Little pieces of wild nature coexist with our build environments, crows and rats and dandelions. But they have as much to teach us about the non human world as any other wildlife. Yes, we need Bears Ears and Katahdin Woods and Waters and Grand Staircase Escalante and Rose Atoll, we need big wild places to retreat to, of this I have no question. But we also need to not turn up our noses at wild spaces closer to home, spaces that juxtapose our wild and tame nature, in a way that perhaps makes us uncomfortable.

I ran a good race last Sunday. I beat my time from last year by 7 minutes, and I felt strong and fast (note: I wasn’t fast, but that doesn’t matter—I felt fast, and the sensation of running through the woods with speed was very exciting. It may have just been the caffeine in the sports drink but I felt like Wonder Woman). Buoyed by the relative success of my Riverlands run (and the end of the spring semester) I upped my training regime and cashed in my first dividends at Rockwood. I’m going to keep the momentum going, experimenting with this wild piece of meat I call my body, seeing if I can find the limit of what I can ask it to do. I’ll let you know when I get there.

Thanks to Race Director (and friend) Bryan Gagner and head volunteer wrangler (and friend) Sadie Gagner of Hackmatack Trail Racing for taking action to bring trail running back to maritime Canada!





Sarah O'Malley

About Sarah O'Malley

Sarah is a science educator, naturalist, writer, tide pool fanatic and burgeoning obsessive trail runner. From personal experience she believes strongly in the restorative power of contact with nature, especially experiences that make your heart beat a little faster or get your hands and feet dirty. She lives on the Blue Hill peninsula with her husband and two dogs.