Sunday, September 02, 2012

How I learned to just open the darn gate and love the towpath

Last February, when I did my whirlwind tour of Bristol, London and Cambridge, my friend took me on a lovely one-hour run along the canal in Cambridge. In my recollection, it was basically a bike path: maybe five feet wide, paved, flat, along the river where lots of people were rowing and sculling. I eagerly awaited getting to Oxford and running along Oxford's equivalent.

While at home in Providence, I looked at the Google satellite view of Oxford. Look at this awesome path along the river! It even looks like it's dirt; perfect for being soft on the legs! I was especially looking for a place where I could bang out 5-10 mile tempo runs, like the bike paths in Rhode Island.

The dirt path(s) along the canal

My first day in Oxford, I headed south and ran to the very part of the canal that you see in the picture above. As you can see, I had a choice: closer to or farther from the water. First, I chose to run along the water. I was running along basically a trampled path in the grass, and it was full of puddles.

After less than a half mile of practicing my long-jump skills, I gave up, went back to the intersection and chose the path further from the water (the one along the trees and the road). This one had fewer puddles, but it had lots of cattle grates! These cattle grates are like eight feet long, with fences on both sides. I was afraid that if I failed to long-jump it completely, I would jam my foot between the slats and break my ankle, so I had to stop and walk across each one. Fine for a regular run; bad for a tempo run.

The next day, I headed north. Look at how nice this looks from the satellite image:

A lovely, scenic dirt path from the satellite view

Again, I was trying to find a long, homogeneous path where I could let the miles flow. From space, this path seems to fit the bill. However, in real life, it has many bridges to cross (steep little bridges so that boats can pass underneath, despite the canal being 10 feet wide), many gates to open and close (so that the cows don't get out), and many locks to run over (which involves darting left and right through these metal things that prevent people from riding bikes through them). Plus, each gate was different, so I had to stop and see how each one worked before I could pass through it. Not bad for a recovery jog, but who wants to stop every third of a mile in a tempo run? Not I.

Then I happened upon some route maps for a local running club, which went north along a different canal. It turns out that two tributaries feed into Oxford; who knew?

This one is taken at the same zoom view level as the others.
You can barely see the canal (to the right of the road), much less the path beside it.
All you can see are the houseboats.

Here, finally, was an uninterrupted path! You have to go past locks, but never over them. It always stays on the same side of the canal, so no bridges to cross. There are people living in houseboats along much of its length, but apparently none of them are grazing cattle. It is narrow at points, but I can deal with that! Yay, I was so excited that I finally found a completely boring path where I can run a predictable pace for every mile!

Today, I went running with an Oxford student. He took me on a loop that went north along the bridge-gate-lock towpath, and then south along the uninterrupted towpath. When we got to gates, he just opened and closed them. No big deal. We ran past cows, and the ruins of a nunnery. The peaceful river flowed gently by, with birds flying and floating along it. Other people were out walking and running.

Perhaps I should just deal with the gates and appreciate the scenery. I'm not doing that many timed tempo runs, anyway.


Anonymous said...

I believe that's actually the River Cam, not a canal

Anonymous said...

Lovely. Enjoy your time at Oxford! :)

Diana said...

You are correct; the Cambridge river is not a canal, but the River Cam.

When I think of a river, I think of something whose riverbed is earth and stones; when I think of a canal, I think of a waterway that lives a human-controlled existence hemmed in by concrete. The River Cam is, in my recollection, the latter.