The best city for running? The answer is subjective, of course. Who am I (or anyone else, for that matter) to suggest Nottingham is better than Norwich, or Dundee is better than Derby. We all have favourite places, whether we’ve lived there for 50 years or once passed through on a sunny afternoon and thought: this seems like a nice place.
Moreover, much depends on what the runner likes beneath his or her trainers/spikes/fell shoes (and so on): road, trail, cross-country, fell, hill, mountain, tow path, river bank, park. If you like running on coast paths, Birmingham is not much use. If you like the fells, Cambridge is best avoided. If you are incline-phobic, Sheffield is a bad place for you. I’ve lived in enough cities to have a view, yet my favourite city to run in remains one I haven’t lived in. One day, perhaps.
First up, Exeter: the scene of my university days. I remember runs down the Exe, all the way to Dawlish Warren, and up and down the formidable hill that winds up to the university campus. It was also in Exeter where I learned that just the right level of intoxication made me feel like I was flying, not running, as I made my late-night way back to halls.
Then there was Preston. A river beckoned again, the Ribble. I lived here for a year, spending that time training seriously for the Paris Marathon and a BUSA indoor championship 1500m race (in which I was comfortably last). I remember once running from the city centre to the M56 junction at Broughton with a super-fit soldier who hurdled traffic barriers and had a suicidal approach to crossing roads. I liked Preston, and I liked running in Preston, probably because I didn’t live there long enough for the place to get boring.
Work took me to Cheltenham (a town, not a city, I realise). One of the best things about Cheltenham is its 1930s lido, hence I made a short-term transition to triathlon. The sport didn’t possess me like the singularity of running would. Nor could the meagre salary of a cub reporter support the lifestyle of a triathlete. Living in Cheltenham was, however, a launch pad to the hills – Cleeve, Leckhampton and Nottingham, notably, and for the first time I experienced that now regular sensation of lactic drowning my calf muscles.
As is often the case, you don’t appreciate a place until you have left. I swapped Cheltenham for Peterborough, a low and flat land. I’m tempted to add ‘uninspiring’ but that would be unnecessarily cruel. Trotting around Ferry Meadows and along the River Nene was generally a pleasure, after all. There were less good times, though. When the wind blew, there was rarely a hiding place, while the glaring absence of an even modest inclines meant my ‘hill’ reps started from below sea level, in the bowels of a quarry.
And so to Inverness. I felt safe in Inverness. In London, you never know what might be lurking in a bush. I hate that feeling – not so much living in fear, but the sense that you can’t let your guard slip. Craig Dunain is to Inverness what Arthur’s Seat is to Edinburgh. Only a lot less famous. A protrusion at the end of a wide ridge that drops to the Beauly Forth, Craig Dunain is an innocuous tump, a domain of the Forestry Commission. Even the Great Glen Way ignores the summit. But ask me now, or on many, many other occasions, where I’d like to be running, the answer is Craig Dunain. Preferably with a torch strapped to my head, in the dark, in mist, and with a cover of snow on the ground.
I think about Craig Dunain when I run in London. Chalk and cheese. London – inevitably busy, smelly, smoky – isn’t too bad really. I can run an 8-mile loop from home through the commons of Tooting Bec, Wandsworth and Clapham. I can gain one of the most astonishing views in the world when I run across Waterloo Bridge. I can (almost) get lost in the tracks that criss-cross the Addington Hills above Croydon.
Exeter, Preston, Cheltenham, Peterborough, Inverness, London – put them together and you’ve got an ultimate running destination. But that’s impossible, which means, for me, Edinburgh, a city I have never lived in, wins. Maybe I’m overly impressionable? I’ve just spent three days there – although it did rain incessantly. But each time I go there I’m giddy at the prospect of running in this city. I was on Arthur’s Seat on Friday (as were dozens of others) and looking down on Edinburgh the possibilities seemed immense, incalculable. I picked out three hills I had ran over in previous days – Blackford, Braid and Craiglockhart. I must do the Seven Hills of Edinburgh race, I told myself.
My mind was working. I could run into the Pentland Hills. I could cross the Forth bridge to Fife. I could run down to the sea and the docks. I could be running over Munros in less than two hours. I could be up here – on the breezy, rocky summit of Arthur’s Seat – every day. So that’s why I choose Edinburgh – because nowhere else do the possibilities of running and living seem so powerful.