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A different place. But the routes remain the same. 

By Simon Freeman

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The heavy clouds casting a mid-afternoon gloom - that makes it feel hours later than it actually is - tell me that I need to get to bed early tonight. That I shouldn’t indulge in too many episodes of the Netflix series I’m currently working my way through. Staying up late means I won’t get enough sleep to make the most of the day tomorrow. The gathering clouds tell me that snow is on the way.

Of course, I don’t need to make a detailed observation of the streaks of Altostratus clouds and combine that with a sound knowledge of the typical weather conditions - at this time of year, at this altitude, in this corner of Switzerland - to know that snow is coming. Like all the occupants of a country that is almost 60% mountains, I check the official Swiss weather app several times most days. The boffins at the weather centre are rarely wrong. Snow is definitely imminent and I know that means sleep will be in short supply tonight. 

 

  

Of course it is not the impending snow itself that will disturb my sleep. That would be ludicrous. No, it is what the snow brings with it into town. The farmers who will wake me.

The farmers are hired by the town to clear the roads of snow, using heavy snowploughs attached to the front of their massive tractors. The noise these diesel-powered monsters make as they scrape their curved sheets of steel over the road surface, cuts through the apartment’s thick stone walls and triple glazed windows with sufficient volume to wake even the deepest sleeper (of which I am not one). And the snow clearing starts at 3am.
  

Tomorrow I’ll be awake shortly after 3am.
 
Of course, there are upsides to the snow arriving. As a recent arrival in Switzerland, after a lifetime spent in London, the snow is exciting and exotic. I love running in the snow. And mornings are my favourite time to run. So the farmers’ wake-up call is not actually such a bad thing. At least it means I’m up and ready to run hours before I would be usually. There’s a good chance of bounding through fresh powder, undisturbed by another person. I just need to pick a route for the day. Which is easy because, like a craftsman with a toolbox, I have a number of familiar loops to choose from.

My wife and I moved to Switzerland in 2020 during a lull in the pandemic. We’d been debating relocating from central London to somewhere with easy access to nature for a while. After more than a decade of living together in a big city, we were ready for a change. And with my wife being Swiss, moving here felt like a great option. The town we decided to make our new home has around 30,000 inhabitants and is the centre of the Swiss watchmaking industry. It is stretched along a wide valley, tucked in the shadow of the Jura mountain range. Not as impressive as the Alps, certainly, but perfect for daily trail runs as well as mountain biking, hiking or cross-country skiing when we are looking for variety.

So I’m in the perfect situation to become an explorer. A new place, with hundreds of kilometres of trails on the doorstep. Plus I have more time, because we know few people here and there’s a pandemic raging, which limits the options for socialising.

And yet, just over a year after we arrived, I’ve ended up with half a dozen routes that I run over and over and over again. The exploration phase is almost already over. Sometimes I wonder: is there something wrong with me?

When I was obsessively focused on trying to beat my marathon PR, mapping a handful of regular routes made sense. The canal towpath was flat, traffic free and required pretty much no navigation – perfect for a long run. A disused railway line near my apartment offered a dead straight couple of miles, again with no traffic save for a few cyclists and dogwalkers – ideal for intervals. My coach was a fan of hill reps and described the required length and gradient of the climb – so I found that in a local park. And of course most days I had an easy hour or a 45 minute recovery run to do – so I calibrated routes starting and finishing at my front door for each of those.    

 

 

I know I’m not alone in being a creature of habit. In Marathon Man, Bill Rodgers’ biography, much is made of Bill’s meticulous training and his love of a route around a park called Jamaica Ponds, south-west of Boston city centre. According to Bill’s training logs, in just one month - January 1973 - he ran 543 miles, with over 80% of it on the exact same loop around Jamaica Ponds. It didn’t seem to do him much harm. That year he won the Bay State Marathon in 2:28:12 setting a course record.

But now I’m not training specifically for anything. I just love running. I am signed up for a couple of local trail ultra-marathons this summer, where I’m hoping for an enjoyable day (and perhaps night) out along with the camaraderie that comes from a shared challenge. But the excuse of precise training is no longer there.

Still I find myself pulled towards running the same routes time after time. There is my everyday town centre 5km route. There’s the ‘Lizard Lane’ loop, so called because the first time I ran it, in mid-summer, I almost trod on a lizard basking in the sun (that never happened in London, I can tell you). There’s the 30’ish kilometre ‘Vue des Alps Ridge’ – with an incredible panorama of the entire Alps range, visible on a clear day. Or the 10-mile ‘Lovely Valley’ run that is the flattest local route I have. There are a handful of others.

Moving to a new place is an event that really cries out for exploration. So I have started looking for a justification for my habit of sticking with the tried and tested routes. Here is what I have come up with.

I’m too in love with the act of running to risk ruining it. For example by getting lost, finding myself on a trail that’s not runnable or finishing a loop that turns out to be too short. I want to fully immerse myself in the run and not think about where I’m going. When I pick from my tool-kit of known routes, I can relax. I can choose if there are hills (there usually are around here). I know whether I need trail or road shoes or if there is somewhere to get water on the route. I know how to cut the route short or extend it, depending on how I feel.

 

 

How does that sound? Plausible?

Truthfully I am not sure what the habit of running the same routes says about me. Perhaps one day I’ll figure it out. For now, what I do know - as I sit here writing these words - is that the snow is falling hard outside. Somewhere up above the town, the farmers are seeing the same dense white flakes drifting down. And they are getting ready for an early night, so they can be up hours before the sun, clearing the roads. Which means I too should be getting ready for bed. Right now I’m like a kid the night before Christmas, already looking forward to stepping out into the cold, crisp air tomorrow morning and feeling the crunch of fresh snow under my feet. It’ll come as no surprise that I already know which route I’ll be running. And honestly, I’m OK with that.

 

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Simon Freeman was once obsessed with running a faster marathon. Now he’s equally excited about trail running. Simon co-founded Like the Wind magazine (www.likethewindmagazine.com) with his wife, Julie combining their love of running with a passion for storytelling.