Fuzzy categories offer an endless source of fascination. Take the relatively new concept of running trails. Let’s not start in prehistory, but just go back half a century. when running – as a sport – could reasonably be classified into three kinds, by way of the ‘surfaces’ it is done on: track, road and cross-country. That wouldn’t have been the only possible categorization; distance provided, as it does now, another major framework. I don’t think trails was part of the jargon yet, but I believe it was the running surfaces frame that provided the context for the dominant understanding of trails once they became part of the running vocabulary. Trailrunning emerged as a version of cross-country.
As always, nothing better than the arts to illustrate that rules and categories should never confine, but rather invite to mingle and contribute to the continuous sprouting of fresh interpretations of whatever they are being applied to:
So if urban trails want to fit the profile they need to be off-road isn’t it? Well, that certainly is an interpretation that I implicitly used for quite some time, and it partly explains my vague unease with the urban trail idea. I started city running when I moved to Phnom Penh in 2002, and I certainly did my best to find as many unpaved stretches as possible. But city realities are such that looking to include max unpaved is as good as it gets. No traffic is actually more important, as evidenced by the official definition of trails which includes urban footpaths (normally paved, but also often traffic free). My 2010 Kathmandu/Patan city run, connecting four World Heritage sites, and weaving through a cityscape that includes Saddhus and Monks, Sewers and Slums, Palaces and Bazaars (the description is outdated though, because of street surfacing and inner city slum clearing) certainly felt like a trail route to me, although only half was unpaved.
The other factor in the unease is the urban part of the concept. Wasn’t trail running all about being out in nature? Isn’t this just another example of commercial capture?
Gear producers exploiting every possible angle for marketing ‘tailored’ shoes and other fashion items? I’m sure they do, but it’s silly to rant about that. I enjoyed urban trails long before the Salomons of this world started exploring them as a new market.
Ultimately, what my unease illustrates, is a hang up with pigeonholing. Sure, urban trails differ in many ways from non-urban trails, but ‘nature’ is tricky label to distinguish between the two. We are animals and our anthills are thus as much nature as the next forest, which is more often than not a man-made landscape too. I, you, might prefer one kinda nature over the other, all fine, but an exclusive focus obscures many other aspects of what goes into trailrunning. Each landscape has its own offer of enjoyable, breath-taking, unexpected surprises.
Nothing better than parkour to realize what a cityscape has to offer for those interested to really look at their environment, with their doors of perception wide open. I use that Huxley reference with reason, because the 1960s flower power discourse that his essay was a predecessor to, offers an interesting analogue to the above, at least to my twisted mind. The US psychedelics scene had an East coast hub, Timothy Leary’s Millbrook scene, and a West coast hub, Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. The East coast was all into dropping out into the otherness of Eastern philosophies, the West coast was all about tuning into the American essence of superman and perfect road tripping. Leary’s orientalism has trumped the public image of the times but the Pranksters had an obvious point. They explored their own environment, through its home-grown mythology.
Like most, I have a gut preference: give me a mountain trail any time (which doesn’t mean in any way that I cannot enjoy a city trail), but I cannot make up my conceptual mind about what is actually the purer form of trailrunning. The urbanists have an obvious point. Don’t look for the grail elsewhere, but right here, where (most of) you live, just look with different eyes, and all you’re after is to be found.
Don’t ask me why, but a bit of quawwali feels like a proper conclusion to this fuzzy category reflection. It’s fence-sitting sufi music, fusing local Hindu and Muslim traditions, and if you’ve ever seen it performed for a South Asian audience, you’ll know it touches all, whatever side of the fence they’re on, like a good trail will give all runners plenty of mast, whatever their specific preferences.