Loving the Run You’re With
From the Nest, Issue 6
by Scott Fairley
The Wentworth Stairs have to be the hardest workout in Hamilton. They are home to the blood, sweat, and tears of athletes of all kinds; from first generation immigrants ascending and descending in gardening gloves, to varsity athletes, to weekend warriors, to thrifty New Year’s resolutioners.
I have a scar on my right knee from training for a marathon on those stairs. I’m sure I’m not the only one. It shows no mercy. It is over 500 steps with no regard for consistency. Literally carved into the legendary Bruce Trail, the limits of trying to tame nature are in full focus while your lungs, legs, and heart run at full tilt.
It is a working class place to exercise in a working class place to live. Seldom crowded, but never lonely, the Wentworth Stairs feel unique to the city that built them from the steel that could conceivably have been forged at factories a bit further down the road.
I am a runner, but also a Hamiltonian (albeit a transplanted one from Burlington). Those two things often feel at odds, especially as someone who lives in the downtown core with all the telltale signs of a downtown core still recovering from the loss of industry and manufacturing.
Much ink has been spilled about the economic recovery and burgeoning food and art scene, but there’s also scores of abandoned storefronts, a housing crisis severe enough that encampments have become a familiar sight throughout downtown, and visible scars from the opioid crisis on top of COVID striking at the already afflicted. At my most optimistic, ours is a city still in recovery.
And yet, it’s still a city worth running in, even if I’m often alone getting my miles in going east along Cannon Street or Barton Street.
We have some legitimate credentials as a running city. It’s home to the Around the Bay 30k, the oldest footrace in North America, and it’s surrounded by trails in Dundas and Ancaster, no more than 30 minutes away by bike or Hamilton Street Railway (HSR).
From my front door, I can chase a sunset down York Boulevard, drop down to the Waterfront Trail, loop around Bayfront Park, power (or power-walk) up the hill past Hutch’s, and still be home within an hour. Give me half an hour and there’s still sights to be seen going west towards the Royal Botanical Garden grounds. Give me three hours? The Rail Trail is calling.
Between my trusty hatchback and the bike share, there are a number of stretches downtown I hardly ever traverse at human speed. Barton Village at sunset is a thing of unique beauty, and being one of the only runners around makes it a bit more intimate than the well-worn roads in Westdale or trails through Dundas.
Barton going west bounces between harsh parking lots, century homes in warm brick, an unexpected hill with a distant view of the bayfront, and ends with new developments. Strachan’s green stretches are matched with what seems to be one of every style of house from the last century.
We who are connected to the running industrial complex are rightly well informed about the iconic races and trails around North America, from the Pacific Northwest to the Appalachian Trail to New York, Boston, and Chicago. It’s easy, and perhaps natural, to have a sense of wanderlust when you’re a runner; if I enjoy running, why wouldn’t I want to run a marathon in Big Sur, Honolulu, or Reykjavik?
Of course I do, but I have to believe there’s something to be said about finding yourself in the roads and trails closest to home.
This is also what makes the work of running groups like Air Up There Run Crew so important; as a cishet white man, none of this is out of reach to me. Cops aren’t going to stop or harass me (or worse), and surviving an assault is the furthest thing from my mind.
That should be the case for everyone, but it’s going to take hard work to get there.
I started feeling this way before COVID hit, but the pandemic ultimately sealed it. After a difficult 2019, I turned, as I often have for the last decade, to running as a way to process and reset the same way I did after getting married, after becoming a father, and after a season of loss. No reason to look elsewhere if you can’t see outside yourself, right?
After work from home orders came into effect, it became my de-facto commute home, a chance to decompress away from any and all distractions. Sometimes masked, sometimes not, the challenge of seeing how far I could go or how fast I could go was a sweaty respite from yet another day of uncertainty.
The longing of checking destination races off my bucket list has shifted from a need to a want to an “it’d be nice” to nothing more than an afterthought. The chance to find something that feels undiscovered in a busy city (like the stretch from Bay Street to Ray Street along Barton Street), on the other hand, became vitally important.
There’s nothing that really makes downtown Hamilton more runnable than anywhere else, it’s just where I live. I’m sure there are people in all cities who have their favourite spots in unexpected neighbourhoods. During a season when looking forward and looking back seem to be defaults, there’s a lot to be said for staying put.
Comparison is the thief of joy, so love the run you’re with.
Scott Fairley lives in Beasley with his partner, kids, and dog; he runs anywhere and everywhere