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Is Edinburgh the best city in the UK for running?

July 19, 2013

The view from the top of Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh

Short, unqualified answer: yes. 

Brevity is good in blog-writing, yeah? But we all know that the posts here tend to willfully flout the concision convention, so let’s start with answering another self-posed question: what makes a city/town/shed in the midst of the wilderness a good place for running?

To appropriate an idiom, variety is the spice of a runner’s life. Personally, I like to be able to pick and choose from a range of different types of runs to suit my mood – from urban runs that pass local landmarks and remarkable architecture and quiet tucked-away paths for decent tempo runs, to hilly trail routes and well-run byways for a bit of random-runner-greeting. 

And while the quality of coaching and formal training facilities don’t matter greatly to me at the moment, great running locations have a wide range of different races. From local track tear-ups and club canters, to high-quality mass participation events, runners should be able to experience the breadth of running events without having to travel too far from home.

So, back to Edinburgh. Spending a week in the city and taking advantage of the heat wave that has settled over the UK, I had a chance to see the city as a regular runner, rather than a tapering/recovering marathoner or time-pressed tourist. Although the main thoroughfares through the city are as clogged with tourists as in any other major city, the network Georgian streets afforded relatively quiet pavements without sacrificing scenery.

Had we been in the city for longer, I would have run along the seafront at Portobello, and taken in the riverside paths of the Water of Leith. But as it was I was completely taken by Holyrood Park.

Holyrood Park sits just to the east of the centre of Edinburgh; it’s just off the Royal Mile and right next to the Scottish Parliament. In the centre of Holyrood Park is the looming figure of Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcanic outcrop that’s visible from virtually every part of the city (occasionally hidden by tall grey-brick terraces, but often peeking out through gaps). The park itself is a bit smaller than Richmond Park in London (which I guess means it’s around 5km round, all told). If you talk to a Welsh person when they’re feeling particularly patriotic, they’ll tell you that Wales would be bigger than England if you ironed it flat. While this may be stretching the truth, it would definitely be true to say that flattening Holyrood Park would make it bigger than Richmond Park – there are a lot of hills!

Paths in Holyrood Park

Some of the paths meshed over Holyrood Park

Offering the best views in the city, there are popular and well-populated walking routes up to Arthur’s Seat and the lower (but still steep) ridge path. I took both these routes in on runs, and never found them so crowded as to impede the run. But, even if it had been extra-busy, there’s a network of grass and trail paths threaded all over the park, meaning that any number of the summits can be run, and that there’s a choice of how punishing a gradient you want to tackle. As an added bonus, virtually every angle of the park provides a stunning angle on the city and surrounding landscape.

Over the summer months, Scotland gets to enjoy later evenings than those of us based down south. So while London was sweltering in the airless night come 9:30, the sun was setting on Edinburgh at just shy of 10 (with the heat kept at manageable bay by a coastal breeze). The climate’s much more amenable to runners, although the winters are fiercer with colder weather and longer nights over the winter.

Edinburgh (unsurprisingly) has a big running scene. As well as plenty of solo runners, or doubles, I saw at least one trail running group being coached on tricky descents and ascents. A quick google (lower-case verb, as I’m constantly reminded by the Neal Stephenson book I’m reading at the moment) shows that there are quite a few groups offering running tours of the city. 

And as for races, Edinburgh is a hub for high-profile Scottish races. While we were staying there, the Bupa Edinburgh 10k and 5k took place, attracting an elite field as well as mass participation. (I’d have gone to watch had it not fallen the morning after a particularly vigorous wedding-reception ceilidh.)

Then in May there’s the IAAF Bronze-graded Edinburgh Marathon (for all it lacks London’s crowds of supporters, it more than makes up with scenery), which is all part of a wider festival of running, with races over the weekend from 5k to 26.2 miles.

So, for me, that makes Edinburgh a pretty awesome city for running. Sadly, London’s predominantly flat routes that traipse past over-filled parks (what’s with the balance ropes between trees, by the way?), jammed streets and pavements, and through beat-up industrial estates look poor in comparison. 

We all have places we love to run, so which is your favourite? Is there a better city for running? What about abroad?



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