Running in the slow lane

Sarah Baxter muses on the joys of taking her time when running beside the canal, letting the course of the water escort her while her mind meanders

Slow running illustration


The rabbits are only around in the mornings, no doubt relishing the pre-people quiet when the towpath is theirs to graze. I envy them as I lope past. Of course, I send them scattering – unintentionally but unavoidably. I’ve ruined their moments of peace.

I am sorry for this. I’d certainly be miffed if some giant fool thumped past in a garish blur of red cheeks and fluorescent polyester while I was trying to enjoy the dayspring in silence. But there it is. Sorry, bunnies, but I like this time too. When it’s just me and you and the canal stretches out beside us like an invitation. When all is calm and sleepy. When the morning mists rise like a ghostly yawn or a mindful exhalation. When I run, slowly and alone, by the waterway’s gentle flow.

Slow running along the canal isn’t running – it’s meditation. It’s mustering the body into its most hypnotic motion – one foot in front of the other; repeat – while allowing the mind to roam free. I don’t care how long, or short, it takes. This is no race. This is a series of moving moments, blessed with bunnies and cooing doves, the smell of the wet earth and woodsmoke, a fleeting thought about that thing I did yesterday, a chance to let it go and muse on today instead.

There are times when I turn up the speed a touch, when a training goal demands some extra effort. The canal is my dearest ally for this, its flatness invaluable amid a surrounding swell of hills. But that is our work relationship: cordial, businesslike, focused on the goal. A spreadsheet of miles logged and paces hit. After hours, when the job is done, there’s a more informal air to our acquaintance; less spreadsheet, more doodle. This is when we can just hang out, the canal and I, free from stopwatches and ambition. These are the slow runs when I amble with no specific purpose. When I don’t measure by distance travelled but by blackberries picked or sparrows spied. When I am running for running’s sake and the canal is the perfect companion.

My brain can time-out when I run along a canal. Well, what is there to worry about? I’m being funnelled through nature, yet will never be lost. My path is decided; I can surrender to its immutable logic, free to let my mind wander over whatever I like. Which might be something world-shaking. Decision-making. Life-changing. Or might be nothing at all.

The dependability of canals is amplified by travel. Living in Bath, the Kennet & Avon is my local. I can’t begin to tally the miles and miles and miles I’ve trodden into its banks. But when you’re far from home and you fancy a run, a canal can be your lodestar. Pick up a towpath and trust it – it won’t lead you astray. Instead, it’ll take you back in time or into nature, past mills and mines, over rivers, through mountains. It won’t lose you or confuse you. It’s a known unknown. Safe, but still an adventure.

I remember one early run along the canals of Birmingham, a city I don’t know well. My ‘guide’ took me past pub fronts and motorways, and delivered me into an unexpected realm of green – an invigorating de-urbanisation. Just as fascinating was about-turning and watching the city regrow before my eyes. I didn’t get stuck in a muddle of streets or wonder if there was a park I could run around and around. I put my faith in the canal to escort me, so my legs could set about their steady work while my mind meandered.

There are details you notice when you drop the pace, too. Little connections you make with your surroundings. I have a mental map, which I amend with the days and seasons. On this map is the bend that reveals my favourite view; the place that, if it puddles, heralds a muddy run ahead; the white swing bridge that signals it’s not too far to home.

I also have time to really see the birds, buds and berries: a lucky flash of kingfisher or the flap of a heron; trumpeting daffodils and pungent ramsons; spring’s eruption, autumn’s blaze and fade. Then there are the boats: Whistlejacket, Rivendale, Zebedee, Snufkin; Dorothy, Tinker, Tsitsikamma, My Newt. A rich roll-call for an eclectic fleet, ranging from the bright and bonnie to the barely afloat. At my lazy pace, I take in their polished brass, drool over their barbecues and, in winter’s chill, feel vicariously warmed by the smell of their smoky stoves.

Some boats stay, some come and go. I like the ebb and flow. One day, I ran by a boat called Relativity. Beneath its name was the postscript: “Travelling at the speed of life”. Yes, Relativity, you and me both.

Enjoy life in the slow lane

With our towpaths fast becoming one of the nation’s favourite places to relax, we are urging people to slow down to ensure they remain the special places millions of people enjoy visiting every year. Read more about our Share the Space, Drop your Pace campaign and watch our short film No Place for Personal Bests on our website.

Fancy a challenge?

Did you know that the Canal & River Trust has a few limited places to run in the 2018 Virgin Money London Marathon? If you’re interested to run for us in this iconic event, helping to raise funds for our work – email and we will be in touch once our entries are open.

Ste Johnson