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A Guided Tour of Toronto's Best Runs

Local running guru Ben Kaplan curates seven (or actually eight) runs in, around and through Hogtown.

Ben Kaplan is the Toronto-based editor of iRun magazine and author of Feet, Don’t Fail Me Now, a memoir of self-improvement through running (with playlist suggestions!). Below, he maps out some of his favourite running trails in the city. As ever, the price of admission is free.

Despite certain obvious limitations – topography, climate, traffic – Toronto is actually a terrific running town. It has more run crews than any place I’ve been to, two annual marathons and dozens of races (some of which shut down portions of Yonge Street, the longest street in the world). These bring out spectators as well as world-class athletes. Between our independent running shops (hello, Black Toe!) and local clinics put on by Adidas, Lululemon and Nike, Toronto is quickly becoming a running mecca, known not only across Canada, but around the world. So where to run in Hogtown and how best to join the T.O. running scene? Here are some of my favourite runs in the city. 

The Martin Goodman Trail along Lake Ontario (Run 1)

After winning their respective gender categories at the Yonge Street 10K, Lanni Marchant and Eric Gillis, Canada’s fastest marathoners, ran together on a path down by the lake. And why shouldn’t they? Free of traffic lights and uncluttered by pedestrians, the lakefront is flat running bliss with water beside you from Bathurst Street all the way through to Etobicoke. Head west at dusk and you can watch the sun set into Lake Ontario; head east, you’ll see the skyline of Toronto in a warm, shimmering light. It’s where I run just about every day. The regulars wave hello to each other.

The Beach, Featuring Balsam Avenue (Run 2)

The Beach is fantastic for running, the east side’s answer to the Lakeshore path in the west. Here, there’s an actual wooden boardwalk and the lake seems to expand out into eternity. I’ve run Venice Beach and I’ve run Vancouver’s Seawall, but I think our Beach can hang with those more famous locations. Also, there’s this: the streets in the Beach neighbourhood above Queen Street, especially Balsam, are long and high with crazy San Francisco-style hills. If you’re really looking for a workout, you can run the expanse of the city along the waterfront, from Scarborough to Etobicoke along one straight path. Now, since Queen’s Quay has been gussied up for the Pan Am Games, Toronto’s east-west corridor has become a runner’s dream.

The Don Valley Trail (Run 3)

Running the Don Valley Trail, a mostly shaded path that extends roughly from Lake Ontario to the Oak Ridges Moraine along a meditative and slow-moving creek, comes with an added benefit: you’re likely to see wildlife. Here, there are deer, plenty of bunnies, the occasional snake, and red-winged black birds, which you need to watch out for because they’ve been known to swoop in and peck people – for example, on their bald spots. This path makes you forget that you’re in the city. When you’re feeling frisky and craving adventure, there are plenty of side paths and alternative routes and even uphill cliffs that the courageous runner might climb. I did nothing when I qualified for Boston except run these paths three times a week. However, a word of caution: since this run is essentially in a forest, you’re likely to encounter off-leash dogs that might break your perfect stride.

High Park (Run 4)
More hills! In Toronto! Yes, they can be found and, what’s more, there are some great ones in High Park, the city’s forested treasure trove that even has one great hill right in front of a zoo (it doesn’t cost anything to run past and say hello to the yaks). Visiting the city, High Park is a must anyway; it’s only about three kilometres from trendy Queen West but it’s an entire universe away. Running on the dirt instead of the concrete saves your hips and knees, and hitting the well-maintained pathways (they’re even pretty well groomed in wintertime) transforms your workout into half nature trot, half outdoor adventure. Locals, I implore you: Next time your friend comes to town from Tofino or Banff, show them that Toronto has nature, too (and sushi, and cocktails, and other things Toronto supposedly doesn’t have … ).

Hills of Centennial Park (Run 5)
This is where the big boys train, including Matt Loiselle, who’s attempting to qualify for the Olympics and break Jerome Drayton’s Canadian men’s marathon record finishing time of 2:10:08, which he set in 1975. When Loiselle trains, he alternates his workouts: he storms up the alpine ski hill, then does kilometre repeats through the park on the grass. I love running here because I always associate it with business. Matt and his training partner Sami Jibril practise a particularly aggressive brand of running that no one could confuse with a jog. The entire Brooks running crew uses this as their playground and it’s a good place to get your runs in while also scouting the next wave of Canadian stars.

Beating the Casa Loma stairs (Run 6)
Casa Loma is a cool T-Dot landmark and attraction – a fanciful early 20th-century mansion made to look like a castle – and the area around it is a favourite raceway for local runners for several reasons. First, there’s a beautiful one-kilometre circle just north of Davenport Road that’s perfect for running timed speed work. Cut the circle in half, you’re doing 800s. In fourths, and the 400 is easy to mark. Second, the stairs to the big house are a good organic way to work cross-training into your workout. And they’re famous: Casa Loma and its steep staircase appeared as themselves for an action scene in the set-in-Toronto flick Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Third, the place is gorgeous. Running around the perimeter I once saw Flare magazine shooting a cover with Lana Del Rey. Lana Del Rey! The area around here also offers plenty of great places for brunch.

Mansion spotting along The Kingsway (Run 7a) and Hoggs Hollow (7b)
The Kingsway is on the far west side while Hogg’s Hollow is uptown. Both places are easily accessible from downtown by subway, and feature quiet, tree-lined streets packed with homes featuring great curb appeal. The Kingsway is elegant, and its wide sidewalks and huge houses make for a peaceful, blissful running path. I start down by the water, at Lakeshore, and go all the way up to Bloor Street and immerse myself in the soft grassy pathway between the sidewalk and the road. 

Similarly, you might run along Hogg’s Hollow to Post Road and The Bridle Path and try to guess which mansions have belonged (or still belong) to Prince and Gordon Lightfoot and Conrad Black. On a Sunday in the summer, pack a quarter. I always pass at least one lemonade stand – without fail.

Published Monday, September 28th 2015

Header image credit: Courtesy Ben Kaplan

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