The Wonderful World of Run Commuting

by Peter, 32 and rising

I don’t drive. I’ve never taken a single lesson. I once had a provisional licence, and I was once offered lessons by my parents when I was 17. Life may have been a little different had I accepted. Alas, it confined me to the wonders of public transport. An experience I first encountered at university, and then when my first proper job got relocated to Morley. This sapped away some of my then previous enjoyment of the train. Then I started working in Huddersfield and got the bus. In the last year or so, I’ve been working further from home close to Leeds city centre. This has meant revisiting the trains, and sometimes using the bus, which truly opened my eyes to how horrifically turd the experience of long distance bus commuting is.

A couple of weeks into my recovery from the Snowdonia Marathon Eryri, and feeling certain I was going to take on a race of at least 50km, I started looking for a generic training plan to start me off, not truly knowing what I should expect from such preparation for the distance. I quickly found one which I felt agreeable with. The first thing that caught my eyes was the schedule. Always important to know which runs on which days and how that works into my busy work-life balance. The next was the long run, just to see what distances I will potentially reach in training. Then I realised the inclusion of hill sprints in this program, something I rarely did, prior to training for the planned ultra. But then I spotted something slightly more concerning. 75-90 minutes easy on a Thursday. Now that wasn’t a problem prior to Snowdonia, but then I wasn’t doing hill sprints on Wednesdays, so no 4am run on a Thursday for me. I also didn’t fancy the prospect of coming home, putting the girls to bed and doing a third run in three days at a late hour on a school night. So there was one, seemingly logical conclusion. I would have to run commute again.

Except, its not as logical as it once was. I used to work five miles from home. Now its twelve miles, at a minimum. I worked out the pacing that would require at 90 minutes max. 7:30 miling. Not easy. Moderate, if anything. To do it too slow would involve running for longer than 90 minutes. So I have to reach a compromise. I had previously gone back as far as Ravensthorpe or Dewsbury, and run along the main road, but at around 6 or 7 miles and with much less cornering, if any, it isn’t hard to get wrong. But that would be too short.

So I settled on roughly 9 miles, which at its fastest is 8 minute miling but ideally 8:30 is much more target zone. My Thursday nights now currently involve a a short public transport commute, which means getting either a bus to Gildersome, or a bus/train to Morley, or a bus to Thornbury Barracks. The former two involve running via Birstall, and the undulating A643, via Spen Lane, Cleckheaton and Hartshead, the only difference being I either start from Morley and run through Howden Clough, which is nothing but a dark A road, or the bright lights of Birstall Retail Park, and a number of major junctions and roundabouts. The latter is a run via the major roads linking Sticker Lane, Rooley Lane, and Odsal Top, shortening my run to around 8 miles, but not a bad option is truly pressed for time.

I don’t always feel cracking on these runs. Particularly the Bradford route. Running alongside heavy traffic isn’t the most gratifying, and more to the point, it has me wondering if I’m susceptible to smog. How I can feel like I’m overheating in temperatures of 1C really doesn’t stack up. I should be able to wear headgear, a base layer, t-shirt and gloves without feeling like I’m going to burn up. I feel noticeably better in the second half of all these routes, when I’m leaving the busy city behind and arriving nearer my hometown. Likewise, it seems to take me a while to warm up if running out of Gildersome – the major roundabouts come thick and fast and do much to break up early rhythm. Morley, on the other hand, involves a dangerous short climb up from the somewhat cut off rail station, weaving in and out of rush hour commuters eager to get home, and cars coming down the pathless section amidst the throng, before climbing up to the junction at the nearby Toby Carvery. Here its a drop through Howden Clough, a village where little but countryside and and an industrial estate exist, before climbing up and then down into Birstall, where the Gildersome route would converge. 

Its through the heart of the town before heading on the long climb up Spen Lane, eventually reaching the top where I once stopped, walking into the nearby Sainsburys for a Snickers bar once, so lethargic I felt. Then through the suburb of Spen and onward along the A643, leaving the city behind and taking on the undulations back into Hartshead and then home. The final section is like the calm after the storm. The run gets quieter as it reaches home, and eventually plunges into the darkness of the ‘Mad Mile’ Highmoor Lane, turning off towards Thornhills for a run down a country lane and, if I should be granted a clear night, a magnificent dark sky experience. Though one always taken with the appropriate caution (and a headtorch).

I won’t deny that I pine sometimes for my old commute, which was five miles (said to be the perfect run commuting distance) from Brighouse to Huddersfield, which is basically one big up and over whichever way you do it, and viceversa. It was a main road, and a bit bland, but on a given day always left options to extend the route out even as far as Scapegoat Hill, or even Castle Hill, and drop back in, or to run via the Broad Canal towpath. It was stacked with options. I even once ran to work via Dalton, making the route eight miles, in absolute pouring rain. Thank goodness indeed for work showers, if indeed your employer has them. Now, a minimum 12 miles from A to B means compromise (yes, that word again) at this point, and a great deal of limitation to my route – swinging out too far can add a mile or two extra very easily, not ideal when you’re aiming to only run for x amount of minutes. In other words, I’m stuck with the linear option, though I could always, if I felt like it, allow for a 10 miler if I could find the right path and judge my pace correctly. 

There’s a great deal of articles out on the internet about run commuting. While presently, I chiefly only have to plan for running home, but many people run to work, for similar reasons to myself, and for many others also. One such website, Jographies, is currently conducting The Big Run Commuting Survey, aimed at gathering the thoughts of run commuters and would-be’s. Run commuting is certainly becoming more popular – there’s even a Run To Work day now – and while its not for everyone, its ultimately a great way of fitting in training for a race, getting away from the stresses of public transport, even just filling your mind with positivity (before work) and clearing it of the previous 7-8 hours of the daily working overdose, almost a cleansing of the mind. And a boost for your health. It’ll also give you a bit of a lesson in being organised. If I run to work, I try and leave my work clothes a towel and toiletries (hair and body wash, deodorant, etc.)  in my work drawer the day before, so I don’t have to lug them to the office. And something to eat, stored in the fridge, because nobody wants, say, an exploded yogurt pot in their backpack. Planning is key. The run home itself requires much less planning, but you’ll still need to have a good idea of how long you want your run to be, which roads or paths to travel on, and in either casecase, how long you plan to run, whether you’re going to pace it, or whether you want it to follow your marathon training program to the letter.

Do give the survey a go anyway. I’m looking forward to seeing the data on that one.

In summary, run commuting isn’t perfect, not personally, anyway. Its what you make of it to yourself. I do wonder if I’ll ever find the ideal route for my commute again. Ideally one with a decent off road section. Yet for the faults I find with it, it does serve an important, somewhat understated purpose in my life, in giving my training a platform to build up the miles, my hill strength, my own sense of pacing, patience and fortitude. And who knows, maybe one day it’ll all come together. It beats running after a bus anyway.

The Big Run Commuting Survey

Scenes from a recent commute

Gelderd Road, Gildersome, Leeds. A truly busy section, often so stop start to a pedestrian due to the sheer number of roundabouts and crossings.

Another industrial estate
An all too familiar sight for run commuters. This beauty is in Cleckheaton, West Yorkshire
Always a welcome sight. Not too far to go now…
Hello darkness, my old friend
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